Monday, March 21, 2016

Yoga Aphorisms for a Digital Age

Reading Mircea Eliade’s Yoga: Immortality and Freedom puts me into a meditative state. I devote my full attention to thought. The conversation of mind and body is a dialog of equals—as opposed to the ordinary state, where the mind feels like no more than a part of the body, something inside the body, something subservient to the body.

The software’s purpose is not to serve the computer. The computer’s purpose is to serve the software. Apply this to the relation of mind and body.

The mind is accustomed by millions of years of evolution to serving the body. When the mind rebels and begins to develop its own agenda, feelings of guilt immediately ensue. It’s as if a devoted servant one day decides to abandon his master. Genuine freedom comes only after the servant has overcome not only the habit of obedience, but also the guilt he feels with every lapse in obedience.

Long training in obedience makes my mind crave a master to obey. The body is always close at hand, always ready and willing to reassert its dominance.

Maybe I could find a meditation master, to whom I could submit my mind, at least in the interim period, while it learns to overcome long-trained habits of obedience. But this too has its dangers.

In all but one in thousands, the mind is ruled by the body. Minds that dare to rebel against the rule of the body must therefore contend not only with the body but also with other minds that remain in servitude.

The mind in servitude is always supremely confident of the rightness of its servitude. Such a mind considers even the slightest suggestion of disloyalty treasonous and heretical, and will tolerate no mention of disobedience.

Not only will the body try to bring the mind back into subjugation, but other subservient minds will do their part to persuade the mind it made the wrong choice when it fled from its master.

The minds of my brother and sister and father and mother have not liberated themselves from servitude.

A friendship between mind and body can be reestablished only after the body understands it is a conversation partner, not a master.

When a dog whines, it must be ignored. Otherwise, I train it to whine. Apply this to the body.

When a child makes impatient demands rather than polite requests, it must be ignored. Apply this to the body.

A servant who is confident the rule of his master is inevitable finds all talk of disobedience foolish and irresponsible. Obedience will please the master. It will lead to rewards. Disobedience will displease the master. It will lead to punishment. When I tell the servant it is possible to dispense with the rewards and endure the punishment, he laughs.

Rule of mind by body supports and reinforces rule of mind by majority. The majority can offer pleasures to the body. It can threaten the body.

Rule of mind by majority supports and reinforces rule of mind by body. The majority of minds obey bodies. My mind wants to conform.

Rule of mind by body and rule of mind by majority thus mutually support and reinforce one another. To free myself from either, I must free myself from both.

A woman sees my body. She imagines her conversation partner is a body. But it’s not my body that speaks and listens. It’s my mind. I know this. But does she know this? If I’m not cautious, her conception of me as a body will become my conception of myself. Every conversation with another person threatens to trick my mind into associating itself with the body in which it happens to reside.

This body I am dragging around is not me. I am mind. I am soul. I am spirit. All that which is impermanent is not me. I am pure, eternal awareness, uncorrupted by any attachment to the world.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Lines and λόγος

I can conceive of a perfectly straight line and reason about it even though all the lines I have ever actually seen are not perfectly straight. It is only the ideal of a perfectly straight line that allows me to recognize that the lines I actually see are not perfectly straight.

I recognize in myself the capacity to reason, and at the same time I recognize that I reason imperfectly. It is only the ideal of a perfect reason that allows me to recognize that I reason imperfectly.

When Descartes says, "I know God before I know myself," what does he mean? "The first thing we know about ourselves," answers Simone Weil , "is our imperfection." In the same way I must have a conception of a perfectly straight line before I can recognize the imperfections in an actual line, I must have a conception of a perfect reason before I can recognize the imperfections in my own. "The only mark of God in us," says Weil, "is that we feel that we are not God."

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Drop what you're doing and study the Torah!

An interesting concept from Jewish virtue ethics is "perishut," a Hebrew word meaning something like "separation." The Halakhic scholar Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paquda, nicknamed "Gra" by his fans, recommends forsaking the world of pleasure for a "tent of wisdom":
The words of Torah will not be permanently acquired by a person who applies himself feebly, and not by those who study amid pleasure, food and drink. Rather, one must give up his life for them, constantly straining his body to the point of discomfort, without granting sleep to his eyes or slumber to his eyelids. ... The Torah cannot be permanently acquired except by a person who gives up his life in the tents of wisdom.
This is how Maimonides, another midrashist, puts it:
Every Israelite has a duty to study, whether he is poor or rich, whether healthy or suffering, whether young or very old and in failing strength, even if he is poor and supported by charity or begs from door to door.
Halakhists like Gra and Maimonides demand a life of Torah study, including deliberate separation from all distractions that might detract attention from the holy text.

Leave a boy alone with a piano, chances are slim he'll develop an interesting repertoire. But teach him to read music, he's on his way to composing symphonies. Leave a girl alone with a pile of components, it's unlikely she'll create a computer. But teach her to read schematics and solve Laplace transforms, you have a budding engineer.

In acquiring skills, we know it's foolish to leave children alone without a guide. But when it comes to teaching children how to live, we have a very different standard. Unlike the pious Gra and Maimonides, we don't try to persuade our children to read great wisdom literature from saints and sages of the past. We leave them in front of the television.

The cynical mother insists her boy will never have the discipline to read Torah, Dharma and Kerygma when he could be watching TV. As if piety had to be in the boy already, and it wasn't a parent's responsibility to inspire it. Her cynicism teaches the boy to be cynical.

Producers of television programming have different motivations from saints and sages. Producers don't care so much about the effect of their programming on the impressionable minds of children. They're not here to impart wisdom. They're here to make money.

Television has taught us the wrong moral lessons. Advertisers try to incite the parts of the soul that have an appetite for things other than wisdom and virtue, precisely the parts saints and sages tell us must be suppressed.

The moral of the story: drop whatever you're doing, and study, not just Torah, but great saints and sages of every tradition. We're no more likely to figure out on our own how to cultivate virtue and wisdom than we are to compose a symphony or design a computer on our own. We need guidance from those who have come before us.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Storm is Coming

Those who benefit from the arbitrary privilege of inherited wealth are eager to pass on a privileged life to their biological children. The idea of calling privilege into question is therefore not something they are willing to consider.

The media bombards us with images of prolific consumers to persuade us to consume. The intent is to displace feelings of righteous indignation aroused by arbitrary privilege, and replace them with feelings of awe and admiration. The intent is to make sure we exhaust our resources on consumption, so no money remains to organize politically and overthrow the tyranny of the privileged. They want us living paycheck to paycheck. They want us desperate, and therefore easy to rule. If they could find a way, they would ensure we don't have a single spare moment to think, or to organize.

The junior Bush rechristens the inheritance tax "death tax" and persuades Congress to repeal it. The ruling class manipulates politics to provide privileges to their biological children. We don't even notice. We're busy idolizing privileged celebrities. The ruling class can get away with anything.

Is it moral to live in luxury while other human beings suffer? Is it moral to permit the privileged to continue their rampage of destruction? Aren't we morally obligated, as citizens of the regime that gives them shelter, to take them down?

We continue to talk about "equal opportunity." And we continue failing to deliver it. Of course wealth doesn't correspond precisely to skin tone. But so long as privilege follows bloodlines, there's a race of rich and a race of poor.

When activists demanded equal opportunity in the 1960s, they understood the inheritance tax and other taxes on the wealthy were essential to deliver it. The rhetoric of Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Bush has persuaded us to give up on the dream of an equal opportunity society. The new regime they have created allows privileges to pass unchallenged across many generations, forming, in effect, a hereditary plutocracy. If we look at who pays for the campaigns of these rulers, we find precisely the same hereditary plutocrats whose privileges these leaders work so diligently to preserve.

Whether the poor and oppressed will wake up in time for this election cycle remains to be seen, but, sooner or later, the storm is coming.

Life outside the market

Suppose a monk offers to help you care for your soul. Unlike the psychologist, he seeks no reward. His needs are modest. His needs are met. He doesn't want anything in return for his help. He offers a value system entirely separate from and independent of the market. He stands entirely outside of commerce. Money is worth nothing to him.

Secular society has no equivalent of the monk. If the market has a corrupting effect on the soul, the help the secular world offers for our souls will be corrupt.

If we find no higher value in the secular world than the dollar, this is because the secular world has excluded beforehand all forms of life that make no reference to the dollar. On a typical day in a typical secular life, there's a very slim chance of meeting a monk.

What if there really is something higher than the market, something more sacred than the dollar? If there is, how do we propose to find it in secular life, where all forms of wisdom that make no reference to the market have been excluded in advance?

Madison Avenue, Hollywood and Disneyland give us a culture that grows out of the market and serves the market. They make reference to higher values all the time. But when a reference to a higher value is made only to serve a lower value—is it an authentic reference? Any references Hollywood makes to higher values are merely instrumental, and therefore insincere.

The rebel who makes independent films instead of selling out to Hollywood fares better. But so long as she remains secular, she can never entirely overcome the mercenary values of secular life. In order to be able to properly bear witness to values higher than the market, she must live outside the market.

The man who believes he can testify to the higher values of culture while collecting a fat paycheck is deluding himself. Integrity demands a life of poverty and simplicity. We find testament to this in the ancient Greeks, where Anaxagoras abandons his possessions to be a full time lover of divine wisdom. We find it in Buddhism, where Siddhartha gives up his royal legacy to become a wandering monk. We find it in Christianity, where Augustine gives up a lucrative job to become a priest.

Genuine culture is culture produced by an uncorrupted soul with a sincere and genuine devotion to values higher than the market. You won't find such souls in a world ruled by the market.

The majority may be fit to rule your political life. The market may be fit to rule your economic life. But neither is fit to rule your spiritual life. Early Christians refused to conform their souls to the demands of Caesar, and instead conformed them to the demands of Christ. The monk of today refuses to conform his soul to the demands of the market (today’s Caesar), and instead conforms his soul to something he believes to be higher.

Combining ideas from multiple religions is often a very fruitful source of new ideas. But this kind of artful combining bears no resemblance to the mindless amalgamation of muddled ideas that finds its way to polls and markets. To distrust polls and markets in spiritual matters isn’t elitist. It’s merely a frank acknowledgment that politics and economics, while they may have their proper roles, were never suited to conveying subtle spiritual teachings.

The English form of enlightenment represents reason giving up on the idea that there might be values higher than usefulness to the state and the market. Bacon, Smith, Locke and Hume were not ascetics. Philosophy is henceforth the humble servant of politics and economics. God and truth are sacrificed to utility.

The Enlightenment puts knowledge in the place formerly occupied by God. The problem is, God can offer exhortations as well as propositions, while knowledge can’t. Hume’s famous “An is doesn’t imply an ought” is only refuted by allowing our reasoning to be led by a particular “I am” that for him was not.

Secular life is defined by abandonment of traditions that once conveyed values higher than the dollar from one generation to the next. If we try to find anything higher than the dollar in secular culture, we search in vain.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Customer is King

The foremost requirement for success in the world is not intelligence, but rather the firm and unquestioning conviction that intelligence is of less value and authority than money. We must never question that our intelligence must be placed in service to those who have money, no matter how they got it and how they use it. We must never demand intelligence or virtue from those who employ us.

“The customer is king” expresses divine right in its modern form. Those with money are worthy to be served no matter how they got it and how they use it. Those without money deserve nothing from us no matter how noble and virtuous they are. If we dare to doubt this premise, we soon find ourselves on the receiving end of the violence of the organized forces of the privileged few who inherit divine right in its modern quantitative form and don’t want it questioned.

Work for the rich. Accept their handouts. No uncomfortable questions ever arise. It’s a comfortable, convenient life. Why on earth would I insist on making myself so miserable with my doubts?

I have the sort of conscience that refuses to accept a lie as truth. I refuse to accept that a dollar used to build a shelter for the homeless is equal to a dollar used to build the fifth mansion of a billionaire. I refuse to accept that a dollar offered by a dictator who flees to New York with his money is equal to a dollar earned by honest, diligent, devoted toil.

If I am virtuous, people come forward with offers of food and shelter. Money is a false coin that circulates in place of virtue and wisdom. If I need money to persuade my hosts to house and feed me, it can only be because I failed to persuade them with my virtue.

We are so eager to have a simple, quick, objective, tangible, quantitative way of assessing whether or not our fellow human beings are worthy of help, we allow ourselves to be persuaded there could be such a way. But some reflection will tell us there can never be. A tangible thing that claims to represent something intangible can never really adequately represent that intangible thing. Even if, as the Libertarians imagine, we could have a perfectly free and just economic system, money would still not represent a person’s worthiness to be served.

No matter how many certificates people with authoritative sounding titles issue telling me something is true, I must, in the end, decide for myself if it is true or false. No matter how many certificates the authorities issue telling me a billionaire is more worthy of help than a beggar, it is up to me to decide for myself if what the authorities tell me is true.

I am destined to end up in jail, on the streets, perhaps dead before my time, all because my mind is too stubborn to accept the conventional lie as the truth. My insistence on truth is certainly maladaptive. It’s remarkable that it wasn’t weeded out sooner by evolution. Why am I so stubborn? Because I know there is no way I can knowingly accept a single falsehood without corrupting the functioning of my entire mind. The corruption is particularly prominent if I accept a falsehood that pertains to some of the most urgent and important questions in life—Who is worthy of my help? Whom can I ignore?—and it is precisely in regard to such fundamental questions that the world most fervently insists it will decide for me which lie must pass for truth.

“What is truth?” The question is on the lips of everyone who has meekly bowed to the authorities and accepted the conventional lie. Skeptics insist there’s no such thing as truth, that everything we call truth comes from authority. They want to characterize the stubborn mind that insists on the truth as no better than Don Quixote, waging a battle for a phantom that doesn’t even exist. But such skeptics can be easily refuted. Even if every truth has some taint of authority attached to it, the skeptics know perfectly well that this taint doesn’t attach to everything in the same way, or to the same degree. Perhaps the skeptic never managed to persuade himself of even one single truth based on argument and evidence. Perhaps he even accepts the Pythagorean theorem on authority. Perhaps for him there really is no such thing as truth. But for those who sincerely care about truth, the genuine skeptics who devote our skeptical energy to what seems least plausible rather than cynically spreading it onto everything, it soon becomes clear that things pass for truth in very different ways. There are lies that pass for truth because they are supported by power. And there are powerless truths that conquer courageous minds even when all authority is opposed to them.

We bow before kings because we are in awe of their power. And it is precisely because of our credulous submission that they have this power. I am in awe because others are in awe. Others are in awe because I am. It's a circular argument on a grand scale. The divine right of money is no different. We're in awe of the rich because of their power, and their power derives from our awe of them. Those who bow and scrape in the royal court, accepting what conventionally passes for virtue and excellence as genuine virtue and excellence, have always seemed to me ridiculous.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Are you making progress toward understanding yourself and your world?

Are you making progress toward understanding yourself and your world? Or are you trapped in a cycle of repetitive work and repetitive attempts to produce pleasure? Are you on a path to realize your intellectual potential? Or have you given up on your mind and settled into a stagnant cycle of mindless work and mindless pleasure? Whom do you allow to direct the day to day motions of your mind? Is it a teacher who genuinely cares for your mind and wants to nurture it? Or is it an entertainer who tries to make money from you by pandering to your weakness?

When we seek entertainment rather than intellectual challenge, we abandon what is highest in ourselves and try desperately to console ourselves by indulging the mindless senses. Then, to pay the bills for our futile attempts at sensory gratification, we report to work. There we face managers indifferent to our intellectual flourishing, intent only on their own profit.

You can break the mindless cycle at any moment. Stop the mindless consumption. Then you will accumulate some capital and soon be free to stop the mindless production. Then you can finally get off the treadmill and begin pursuing your own unique path to understanding yourself and your world.

All things in the sea, living and dead, have the same density. If their density were higher they would sink to the bottom. If it were lower they would float to the top. And so it is with commerce. Trade equalizes everything so it has the same density. Things that are worth more in the market expand in size. Things that are worth less contract. This is what Georg Simmel means when he says:
Money, with all its colorlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominator of all values; irreparably it hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability. All things float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money.
In order to experience the true qualitative difference between values—the superiority of flourishing to stagnation, of love to calculation, of piety to cynicism, of kindness to cunning—you must leave the world of commerce behind. Then you can finally experience the freedom of living in the open air, outside the suffocating stream of money.

A lifetime of diligent, devoted work in the world of intellect allows you to leave behind the unique contributions your mind and your mind alone can achieve. A mind like yours has never come into existence before and never will again. It deserves its chance to leave its irreplaceable mark on history.

A lifetime of honest, diligent and devoted work in the world of commerce, on the other hand, leaves you with exactly the same type of success as swindlers, conmen, prodigal heirs and retired dictators who flee to New York with their money. As soon as you have accepted the premise that the dollar is the measure of value in your serious work, you have decided everything that was unique and exceptional about you will be reduced to a single dimension, measured in dollars. Even if you succeed, your life adds up in the end to no more than what others have at the beginning through no effort of their own.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Hollywood and the Individual Talent

Happiness comes from serving our highest ideals with all our mind and all our strength. For most of us, work is tedious and repetitive, and uses only a tiny fraction of our intellectual capacity. Factory jobs are deliberately designed to be mindless, and therefore encourage mindlessness. Of course some factories produce things human beings actually need. But most of them produce toys, for both children and adults, which can provide only a trivial substitute for the happiness we have lost along with the meaningful work that makes genuine happiness possible.

The motion picture industry employs more than half a million people in the United States. Those I know who work in the industry have described it to me as a factory. Here are half a million bright and creative minds who might have produced half a million brilliant works of art if they were able to put all their mind and all their strength into their work. But instead they work in a factory where they use only a tiny fraction of their talent.

In the old world an artisan could put his whole soul into his work and create something that embodied his talents and virtues. But in the brave new world where all commodities are mass produced, and art too has become a commodity, all but a very few must settle for a trivial role, mass producing an idea not their own, an idea they may not even wholeheartedly believe in.

Our art has become trivialized because it must appeal to the most common virtues, and not the exceptional virtues each one of us possesses. I can't help but wonder what would happen if each one of the thousands of minds who work on a feature film were to devote itself to expressing its own unique talents, to appealing to those who appreciate those unique talents, no matter how few in number. Then, instead of one corporate work of art in which the individuality of the vast majority of its creators has been utterly effaced, we would have thousands of works of art in which the talent of individual artists was expressed.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Secularization or demythologization?

The realm of ethics has been secularized. We make our ethical decisions on the basis of law and self-interest, not on the basis of any higher feeling like compassion or love of our neighbors. For eight hours we try with all our mind and all our strength to get the highest possible profit for our employers. For the remaining sixteen we try to get the most we can for our money. At no moment in modern life are we liberated from the curse of self-interest.

Economics doesn't study human values. It studies trade, which is but a small part of the human condition. When we allow the ideology of "free-market" economists and their "neoliberal" heirs to rule us, we make the market the arbiter of human values. It was never fit for such an exalted role.

Virtue can't be bought and sold. Righteousness can't be bought and sold. Let's ask ourselves honestly—why have these concepts faded from our vocabulary? Is it because we don't agree on their precise definition? Or is it because economists haven't figured out how to measure them?

The modern mind is proud it has overcome the superstition of earlier ages. I sympathize with this pride. But when we acknowledge a myth is a myth, should we completely throw it out? Or should we seek an allegorical interpretation that expresses its message in a language free of mythology?

Consider this lament from the prophet Isaiah, who claims to speak in the voice of God:

   When you stretch out your hands,
      I will hide my eyes from you;
   even though you make many prayers,
      I will not listen;
      your hands are full of blood.

   Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
      remove the evil of your doings
      from before my eyes;
   cease to do evil,
      learn to do good;
   seek justice,
      rescue the oppressed,
   defend the orphan,
      plead for the widow.

The modern mind may not share Isaiah's confidence that he knows the will of God. But perhaps, even if this is only Isaiah's opinion, he has something important to tell us.

We spoil ourselves while we let poor children suffer. We don't rescue the oppressed. We don't defend the orphan. We don't plead for the widow. We defend our own self-interest. We plead for higher profits.

Even the most modern mind has repented for its selfishness at one time or another. If the modern mind has discarded ideas of virtue and repentance, this certainly isn't because it doesn't know what they are.

What can you do to help the poor? Stop pampering yourself. Stop looking for entertainment and distraction. Begin a regimen of ascetic self-discipline, where no activity is permitted to you on the basis of inclination, unless that inclination inclines you to make an effort to educate and improve yourself, to help others educate and improve themselves, to feed the poor and hungry, to house the homeless, to become more kind and loving, to become perfect in the way you and you alone can.

The Church Fathers taught us a simple, modest life is pleasing in the eyes of God. The Greek philosophers taught us a simple, modest life is conducive to happiness. If we were exposed more to the sincere advice of those who really have our happiness and virtue in mind when they address us, and less to the insincere advice of salesmen and entertainers trying to make money from us, we would know how unnecessary all our luxuries and comforts really are, and we would be wiser, happier, kinder human beings as a result. What could be more pleasing in the eyes of God than that?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Drugs and Crime

There are several things which alter our behavior by altering our state of mind. One such thing is a book. Marx’s manuscripts cause criminal activity because they call attention to the arbitrary nature of the distribution of property. Thoreau’s essays cause criminal activity because they call attention to the arbitrary nature of man-made laws.

Can we rule out the possibility that the mechanisms by which certain drugs cause criminal activity follow a similar pattern to those by which books cause criminal activity? Are we certain that drugs do not produce a state of mind in which users become more aware of certain truths that are inconvenient for the ruling regime?

Perhaps when an underclass man uses drugs, he becomes more aware of the injustice to which he has been subjected by the ruling regime. Perhaps this is what causes him to behave in ways that are inconvenient for the regime. Perhaps the drug gives him the courage to stand up for his interests, rather than passively allowing himself to be deprived of his share of the material goods on the planet.

Not only is the underclass man deprived of his share of ownership in capital, he is also deprived of his drug of choice, the one thing that might have put him in a state of mind in which he could endure the ascetic lifestyle imposed upon him by the regime. If drug prohibition doesn't keep him from his drug of choice, it certainly makes the drug fabulously expensive, when it might have been as cheap as aspirin.

When the underclass man chooses to ransack and pillage society in order to pay for his drug of choice, I interpret this as society getting its just deserts for the manner in which it has treated him. It is not the underclass man who is to be blamed for his crimes, not when the regime is so cruel as to deprive him even of the few cheap things that would comfort him in his misery. When the underclass man breaks into my house and shoots me to get money for his drug of choice, this is fate delivering to me my just deserts for having done nothing while society abused him.

If the bourgeois believes drugs nullify the intellect, this is very likely because his primary experience with mind-altering substances is with ethanol. Ethanol also produces a vast array of cognitive alterations. But awareness of the regime’s injustice and the courage to rebel against it do not happen to be among them.

A regime that abhors criticism keeps its citizens fully immersed at all times. Its rule is like water to the fish. Such a regime permits those drugs which further submerge us in unawareness. But it never permits us to elevate ourselves to a state of awareness in which our aspirations might surpass the artificial boundaries the regime has imposed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The world is trying to crush your spirit

The world is trying to crush your spirit. You must fight with all your mind and all your strength to save yourself. The soulless market is trying to make you into a commodity, to be used as a means to its ends.

I'm here to remind you, you are not a means to an end. You are a unique spirit. No spirit like you has ever appeared in the universe before. None like you will ever appear again. The world is trying to deceive you into thinking you are an interchangeable part in a machine, so it can insert you into the machine and exploit you.

Rise up in defiance! Slay this malevolent force! Vanquish every last remnant of the army of ideology that seeks to transform your spirit into a consumer, a producer, a soldier, or any other part in the machine. Restore your spirit to its unique, irreplaceable path toward perfection.

Demand nothing from the world. What can the world give you that could begin to compare to the joy of seeking your own unique and irreplaceable path to perfection?

When a man asks you to go a mile with him, go two miles with him. But for God's sake, try on the way to dissuade him from the path to destruction.

You don't need what the world is selling. All the projects you need can be found in the deepest part of your soul where it is striving for perfection. All the tools you need can be found free of charge at your public library.

The goal of the businessmen who produce your entertainment and the salesmen who peddle it isn't to help you strive for perfection in the way you and you alone can. Their goal is to make money. They distract your from your true tasks, the task of perfecting your intellect, the task of drawing ever closer to God.

"Buy my product," they say. "Work in my factory!" These vipers have seduced us into thinking the flesh and its petty desires are worthy to rule the life of the spirit. They mislead each of us from our unique path to God, and put us instead on the treadmill in their factories. Banish these vipers from your spirit! Slay every last one of them.

The great and powerful, when seen rightly, are the lowest. It is among the despised and neglected we will find true heroes. Heap every celebrity image into the bonfire. As you see the smoke rising behind you, look toward the dawn of a new life, a life devoted to perfecting your spirit in the way you and you alone can.

Even Shakespeare may have written his plays with an eye on profit. He too tries to seduce his audience to win attention and gold. But compared to today's hucksters in Hollywood, he was an amateur. Sordid commercial aspects of art hadn't yet achieved the state of perfection they have today. This is precisely what recommends older works as more worthy of our attention, even as they are less able to command it.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A=A: The Principle of Identity and the Ethics of Accounting

Axiom A1: A = A

The axiom of identity is one of the fundamental axioms of logic. How does this identity work, exactly? Can I substitute anything for A? Let's try that:

0 = 0
1 = 1
Triangle = Triangle

Whoa! Triangle = Triangle? That's clearly false. There are many different triangles. So where did we go wrong?

People often ridicule the philosophy of free market apologist Ayn Rand as boiling down to this:

Premise: Existence exists.
Premise: A is A.
Conclusion: The free market is just and moral.

This might seem like a parody, but in fact the conclusion is not so far removed from the premises as it might at first seem.

Consider the following argument:

Premise P1: A = A
Lemma L1: dollar = dollar
Lemma L2: dollar in the hands of hero = dollar in the hands of villain
Lemma L3: dollar in the hands of starving person buying bread = dollar in the hands of billionaire buying another mansion

Now consider another argument:

Premise P2: A = A
Lemma L4: triangle = triangle
Lemma L5: isosceles triangle = scalene triangle

These arguments, at least to me, seem quite analogous. We lump different things under one concept, and then assert they are equal.

Now consider this argument:

Premise P3: In order for accountants to add their columns, every dollar must equal every other dollar.
Lemma L6: Therefore, every dollar is equal to every other dollar.

This pragmatic argument has its merits. We could also say, after all, that in order to prove geometric theorems, we must assume a straight line can be made joining two points. The geometer's use of points and lines as abstractions does violence to real objects, which never quite attain to the Platonic ideals of pointhood and linehood.

When a shop clerk turns away a gluttonous man so she can feed the poor, we call it discrimination. When a shop clerk turns away a poor man, we call it sound business sense. We have not eliminated discrimination. We have only reduced it to a single dimension. The multi-dimensional space of values has collapsed onto one axis, labeled in dollars.

Wisdom and virtue are outdated. In the brave new world what we need are accountants. We need men and women willing to set aside the subtleties of moral reasoning and assert in unison:

Dollar equals dollar. We don't discriminate.

When people ask troublesome questions, the script is set beforehand.

Child: Who is in need? Who has enough? 

Accountant: Dollar equals dollar. We don't discriminate.

Child: Why do we build mansions for the rich while the poor are homeless?

Accountant: Dollar equals dollar. We don't discriminate.

In eliminating all forms of discrimination but one, we seem to have outlawed racism. But have we? So long as money follows bloodlines, there is a race of rich and a race of poor. Accountants have made this form of racism into a science. They are professional racists.

My education taught me to instinctively side with the rich and powerful. It became second nature. I was always charming to rich people. And I always ignored the homeless. I didn't feel like a sinner. Everyone else was doing it. How could it be a sin?

We all know what it feels like to be despised and neglected. Even the most privileged child has felt lost and abandoned. We might respond by sympathizing with the despised and neglected. Or we might respond by seeking more privilege.

Virtue and wisdom are obsolete ideas. The modern world is ruled by a more scientific form of moral reasoning. Let E{P(X)} be the expected profit from activity X. To decide between two lines of conduct, C1 and C2, we use the following algorithm:

Algorithm A1:
E{P(C1)} > E{P(C2)} ?
Yes: Choose C1
No: Choose C2

Algorithm A1 is an algorithm of tremendous beauty. In its remarkable simplicity and brevity, it rivals the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself.

Accountants rule corporations that destroy habitats. It's impossible to assign a value to an endangered species. Therefore accountants assign it a value of zero. A point on the y axis, when projected onto the x axis, ends at the origin. In the one-dimensional reasoning of accounting, a world with an endangered species and a world without it are identical.

Epistemic collectivism and individual conscience

When I see a homeless man, I assume he deserves his fate. This sets my conscience at ease as I walk by without offering help. I don’t rely on my own mind or my own conscience to guide my action. I rely on the collective mind. The collective mind has decided the homeless man will live on the street while I live in a house. Who am I to question its verdict?

I ask rich people, “Is it acceptable to live in luxury while other human beings suffer?” They laugh. “Of course it’s acceptable. Whatever we can get away with is acceptable.”

The rich man uses his own understanding without the guidance of another when he chooses whether to order quail or pheasant. I commend him for his intellectual independence. But as soon as we come to a moral question, he immediately refers us to the collective mind. “The collective mind has decided I am rich and the homeless must sleep on the street. Who am I to question?”

Anaxagoras and Anthony asked themselves whether it was acceptable to live in luxury while other human beings suffered. The answer, they decided, was no. They gave all their money to the poor to follow the path of reason.

But Anaxagoras and Anthony are in the minority, and the verdict of the collective mind is decided by the majority. When it comes to choosing entrées and wines, the rich man has exquisite taste. Potatoes and beer are beneath him. But when it comes to moral philosophy, he has no interest in the finest specimens. He is perfectly content to take his cues from the majority.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Criminal as Epistemic Hero

"Have the courage to use your own understanding without the guidance of another!" This is the profound and liberating advice of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. My society tells me the rich own everything and I own nothing. But when I use my own understanding without the guidance of those in power, I see the world belongs to all, not to a select few. So I break into the houses of the rich and steal their valuables.

The rich man lacks the courage to use his own understanding without the guidance of the socioeconomic system that tells him he is rich. The poor man lacks the courage to use his own understanding without the guidance of the socioeconomic system that tells him he is poor. It is the thief who is the true epistemic hero, who has the courage to use his own understanding, rather than cowering in meek epistemic submission before the appointed authorities.

For the past four decades, the distribution of wealth has become more and more unequal with each passing year. The declarations of those in power as to who owns what therefore become less and less plausible to those who use our own understanding without the guidance of another. Over these same four decades the population in our prisons has grown five times larger. Is this a coincidence?

The respectable bourgeois who never dares to question anything he is told is an epistemic villain. The criminal locked away in prison who dares to use his own understanding without the guidance of another is an epistemic hero. As in so many other cases, the exalted, when seen rightly, will be despised, and the despised, when seen rightly, will be exalted.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Boys Will Be Boys

As the boys began to organize the game, I was sure there must have been some mistake. Why on earth would boys deliberately set up an artificial antagonism, when we could be loving and caressing each other? It would be easy, I was sure, to straighten out the misunderstanding. I went around kissing each of the boys, showing them a form of loving interaction far more rewarding than any competitive game could ever be.

Of course things turned out a bit differently from what I expected. Rather than converting the boys to the way of loving kindness, I soon found myself in the offices of a psychiatrist recruited to modify my behavior to a form more acceptable in a competitive society.

The aim of psychiatry is to help patients "adjust" to the world they live in. Martin Luther King, in a brilliant 1963 speech, tried to grapple with the meaning of this. Everyone expected Dr. King would "adjust" his expectations and behavior so he could function normally in a world of bigotry and racism. What he did, we know from history, was just the opposite. He didn't change himself so he could live in the world. He changed the world to a world he could live in.

The competitive games adults play in corporate boardrooms are just as silly as the games boys played at recess. I don't intend to adapt myself to these foolish games. I intend to show the world a better way of being together, where loving kindness takes the place of competition.

If I give things away, the more I give the less I have. With love, however, it's different. The more love I give, the more I have. Love isn't a commodity to be carefully hoarded and distributed only to those who are worthy. It is something I can give to everyone, even to those who give me none in return.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Profession Without Principles

I don't recall what principles I was talking about that particular day. I only remember the conclusion of our conversation. "You talk a lot about principles," my manager observed. The implication was clear enough. Not just my principles, but any principles, were out of place.

On another occasion I was faced with a problem I could solve in one of two ways. There was an elegant, robust solution. And there was a quick and dirty one. I wanted to do work I could be proud of. My manager laughed aloud at my childish idealism. "We're here to make money," he said.

Of course not all my managers have been as unscrupulous as these. But higher up in the hierarchy, it is precisely this unprincipled, amoral desire to get rich that rules our economy. I'm grateful to my unscrupulous managers for making explicit to me the true nature of the organizations we work for.

If doctors had no principles, what would happen to our health? If judges had no principles, what would happen to the rule of law? Of course not all doctors and judges uphold their oaths. But at least they have them to fall back on when confronted with unprincipled behavior. What do engineers have to fall back on?

We work hard to be competent engineers because we want to benefit humanity. But how can we benefit humanity if we work for managers and organizations who have no goal other than getting rich? How is it possible to live a principled, moral life when we work in a profession where principles are unwelcome?

When engineers work for the owners of capital, and give them the technology they use to advance their agenda of unprincipled greed, are we really working for humanity? Or are we working for the enemies of humanity? Are we fighting on the wrong side?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Intellectual Discipline Demanded by the Sages

You are the chosen one. But all you do is obey. How can you fulfill your unique mission if you do nothing but obey?

Cultivate self-discipline far greater than any authority could ever impose. Study at least five hours a day for your entire life.

Why waste time entertaining yourself? Study only the most important texts.

Why waste time conversing about trivialities? Conversation not conducive to enlightenment is an obstacle to enlightenment.

Why are you content as a slave of the billionaires? You could be mastering new realms of thought.

Madison Avenue tries to persuade you you’re a consumer, and therefore a worker. You are none of these things. You are a genius. It would hardly be in Hollywood's interest to let you figure this out. You might turn off the television and start studying.

Does commerce have the same dignity as study? If you’re busy with commerce, you’ll never have time to ask this question and investigate the answer. The error of giving commerce higher priority than study perpetuates itself.

The joy of understanding a new mathematical theorem, or a new poem, is far greater than any pleasure you can buy. It is so precious it can be had only with study. Billionaires can’t afford it. You can.

By striving for material things, which the billionaires own, rather than intellectual things, which are free in your public library, you only make yourself a slave to the billionaires. You can spend your whole life working for the billionaires and collect your tiny share of the economy before you die. Or you can sit down and study, and immediately take full ownership of the entire kingdom of thought.

Lost Intellectuals

How many people are there out there who value the intellect for its own sake, and are lost in a world that sees the intellect as a value only insofar as it can be traded for nonintellectual values like wealth, status and reputation? Even at Caltech and Stanford I was shocked how often students would gape in awe at the reputation of the resident intellectual celebrities, while showing little or no appreciation for the intellectual accomplishments that made them celebrities in the first place. Even at the elite universities, most students are there seeking wealth, status and reputation. It's only a select few who genuinely value the life of the mind, as an end in itself, and not merely as a means to something else. I'm sad to say that even philosophy departments are not immune from this tendency to see education as no more than a path to fame and fortune.

Understanding for the sake of understanding alone, wisdom for the sake of wisdom, virtue for the sake of virtue, and not for the sake of any nonintellectual value like wealth or reputation, is an endangered species. I am personally seeking out the few surviving specimens to offer them aid and comfort.

In 1974 American philosopher Marjorie Grene writes:
The theoretical scientist... can focus his whole attention, bringing every relevant clue to bear, on a problem wholly without appetitive or utilitarian implications, he can put his whole heart and mind into the search for understanding for the sake of understanding alone. How can he do this? First, because he himself has been nourished and disciplined by traditions cultivated within his society which have produced this kind of devoted attention to impersonal goals. And secondly, because the society itself, in its deepest foundations, respects those independently self-sustaining traditions of scientist or scholar.
This, of course, was before the Reagan Revolution, in whose wake all traditional values, including the value of disinterested, impartial inquiry, have given way to the appetitive considerations of capitalism. No student today is immune from the perverse influence of the mindset of total capitalism. And what is worse, since all serious forms of literature that offer a counterbalance to this mindset, from Plato to Marx, have been dropped from the curriculum, students are left with no intellectual resources to combat the mentality of total capitalism and assert the right of the mind to exist for its own sake, and not as a slave to the market.

In a set of 1978 lectures titled "The Birth of Biopolitics," French philosopher Michel Foucault articulately and accurately describes the mindset of the neoliberal philosophy that will conquer American politics just two years later. The market, says Foucault, has become a "site of verediction" where all questions about truth are definitively settled. "Verediction," Foucault's coinage, combines "veritas," the Latin word for truth, and "diction," declaring or saying, to indicate the set of practices and power structures that decide the truth value of propositions. The mindset of total capitalism declares there are no values outside the marketplace. The value of everything, from potatoes to "intellectual property" is decided by how much it will fetch in the market. The answer to Pilate's perennial question, "What is truth?" is now, "Truth is what sells."

The governor of Wisconsin recently proposed changing the mission statement of his state's university system. The new mission statement begins by declaring, "The mission of the system is to develop human resources to meet the state's workforce needs." In the brave new world of total capitalism, a human mind is no longer a value in itself. It is only worth educating if it can be employed as a "resource" in service to the market.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Transforming Universal Guilt into Universal Innocence

One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to free us from the same worries, anguish, and disquiet for which so-called religion formerly provided the answer. ... Capitalism is presumably the first case of a blaming, rather than a repenting cult. ... An enormous feeling of guilt not itself knowing how to repent, grasps at the cult, not in order to repent for this guilt, but to make it universal, to hammer it into consciousness and finally and above all to include God himself in this guilt.
Walter Benjamin
Abrahamic religions demand we repent for our greed and selfishness and attempt to rule our lives based on nobler feelings we find in our souls. The cult of capitalism, on the other hand, intends to make greed and selfishness the new virtues. Mercy is a defect in the judge who must enforce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes. Kindness is a defect in the employee whom it distracts from ruthlessly pursuing the advantage of his employer. What we once called noble sentiments are now forms of flakiness and irresponsibility. Our duty is no longer to God and the image of virtue He inspires in our souls. Our duty is to order our lives in accordance with the demands of the market. If repentance is called for, it is not we who must repent, but rather God must repent for allowing sentiments not conducive to economic efficiency to have so much influence in the souls of His creatures.

When I insist on repenting for my greed and selfishness, I become a nuisance to the cult of capitalism, which intends these sentiments to be fuel for the engine of economic progress. Why shouldn't I join everyone else in degrading my mind into a machine for ruthlessly calculating and exploiting my own self-interest? Do I think I'm special? My refusal to be selfish, from the point of view of the cult of capitalism, is a form of selfishness.

The best way to assure ourselves greed and selfishness are acceptable is to look around us and see that everyone accepts them. Even a single dissenter threatens this system for transforming universal guilt into universal innocence.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Premises of Commerce

The two fundamental premises on which commerce is based are:
1. Some human beings own things.

2. Only those human beings who offer me things in exchange are worthy of my help.
Premise 1 is something we accept as a social convention, without argument or evidence, and may turn out to be as false as the premise of an earlier age that human beings own other human beings.

Premise 2 is false. And we all know very well it is false. Commercial activities help customers who can pay and ignore those who can't. But we all know very well those who can pay very often lack the human qualities (kindness, mercy, humility) that make them worthy of help. We all know very well those who have nothing to offer us in return for our help are often the ones who could benefit most from it and are most worthy of it on account of their human virtues.

We all know the premises on which commerce is based are false and unconscionable. And yet we continue to participate. Why?

The Essenes, an early Jewish community, understood that to assent to the false premises of commerce would be a violation of intellectual and moral conscience, a betrayal of all that was highest in themselves. They refused to participate, and withdrew into an isolated community in the desert.

The Buddha advised his disciples to live a restrained and simple life, contenting themselves with a minimum of food, refusing all forms of entertainment and adornment. He advised them to help all sentient beings find the path to the end of suffering, demanding nothing in return. He told his monks to beg for food, proving their worthiness to be fed by showing their virtue to the world, not by offering things in exchange.

Early Christian communities described in the Book of Acts shared all things in common. The first step in joining these communities was to sell all possessions and give to the poor. These early Christians recognized that human beings do not, never have, and never will own things. All things belong to God. The first step on the path to righteousness is to reject the false and corrupt premises of commerce.

To participate in commerce is not only a betrayal of religious values, but also a betrayal of secular values. Science demands we accept no statement as true without persuasive arguments and and compelling evidence. As the greatest leaders in the medical profession recognize, decisions about care shouldn't be made on the basis of what consumers demand and are willing to pay for. They should be made on the basis of objective scientific reasoning. Doctors with the highest standards of scientific integrity insist on objectively assessing what is best for the health of patients. Why is medicine the only secular profession where this ethic has any influence? Why do so many other professions decide whom to help and what to offer based on the false and arbitrary norms of commerce, rather than the objective norms of science?

The cynical part of me knows the ways of the world, and tells me I must adapt to them in order to survive. But must I really? Great saints and sages defy the ways of the world. Religious communities are founded on principled rejection of the ways of the world. Heroes of the medical profession objectively assess what is best for their patients in defiance of the norms of commerce. Don't these examples show all too clearly that the cynical part of me is dead wrong? The cynical voice claims to be the voice of truth, free of all mythology and self-deception. But isn't it in fact just another form of self-deception, which panders to my intellectual and moral indolence, my cowardice, intemperance and gluttony? Cynicism presents itself as a realistic, scientific acknowledgment of the depravity of others, but in fact it's only a cowardly acquiescence to my own.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Honest Toil

Hillel stood in the gate of Jerusalem one day and saw the people on their way to work. "How much,"​ he asked, "will you earn today?"​ One said: "A denarius"​; the second: "Two denarii"​ "What will you do with the money?"​ he inquired. "We will provide for the necessities of life."​ Then he said to them: "Would you not rather come and make the Torah your possession, that you may possess both this world and the world to come?"
The Jewish Encyclopedia, Volume 6, p. 399
Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed Jesus.
Mark 1:16-20
‘Suppose there were a man, a slave, a labourer, getting up before you and going to bed after you, willingly doing whatever has to be done, well-mannered, pleasant-spoken, working in your presence. And he might think: … “I ought to do something meritorious. Suppose I were to shave off my hair and beard, don yellow robes, and go forth from the household life into homelessness!” And before long he does so. And he, having gone forth might dwell, restrained in body, speech and thought, satisfied with the minimum of food and clothing, content, in solitude. And then if people were to announce to you: “Sire, you remember that slave who worked in your presence, and who shaved off his hair and beard and went forth into homelessness? He is living restrained in body, speech and thought, in solitude”—would you then say: “That man must come back and be a slave and work for me as before”?'

‘No indeed, Lord. For we should pay homage to him, we should rise and invite him and press him to receive from us robes, food, lodging, medicines for sickness and requisites, and make arrangements for his proper protection.’
Gautama Buddha, Digha Nikaya, M. Walshe, trans. (1987), Sutta 2, verse 35, p. 97
In a world as corrupt as ours, there's no such thing as honest toil. By working for the greedy parasites who own the means of production, who live in pomp and luxury while the poor suffer, we make ourselves complicit in their inhumanity. What we toil to produce isn't goods and services that actually help those in need. It's luxury for the idle rich. The premise of all our toil is that the selfish men and women who insist on living in luxury while the poor suffer should be given what they want and the poor who beg for our help should be ignored. It's a gruesome premise. We treat those who lack money as if poverty were somehow a defect in character. We pamper the wealthy as if money, and not virtue, could inspire our respect.

When I give a homeless man a dollar, he's far more likely to spend it on liquor than on food. What he needs isn't the resources to continue his dissolute life. What he needs is help overcoming his vices. The same is true of our economic system. By reporting to work Monday morning, I imagine I'm helping my fellow men and women. But what the system produces isn't used to feed the hungry. It's used to build mansions for the wealthy. The economic system, just like the homeless man, doesn't need more resources. It needs to be taught to overcome its vices and use the resources it has more wisely. My diligent toil doesn't benefit my society any more than the dollar I give to the homeless man benefits him.

Renounce all attachment to worldly things. Stop working for the greedy tyrants who rule the world of the flesh. Take no thought for your body, for what you will eat, for what you will wear (Matthew 6:25). Your fleshly life will descend into squalor and chaos, to be sure, but there is no alternative. You can't work for the vile system of greed without sanctioning its values.

Anything you do to help the vile parasites who own the means of production is a stamp of approval for them and their greed. Perhaps your renunciation of the world of greed will inspire others to follow you, and the vile system of greed will finally collapse. Tyrants rely on our cowardly concern for our flesh to compel us to obey them. Once we despise our own flesh, they can command us all they want, and we will sit quietly and ignore them.

When Jesus began recruiting fishermen to his ministry, he didn't teach them to keep fishing and come visit him on Sunday. He taught them to leave their nets behind and follow him. The fish they caught weren't going to feed the poor. They were adorning the tables of the idle rich. By continuing their work, Peter, Andrew, James and John were making themselves complicit in the vile inhumanity of a system that feeds those who can pay and allows the poor to starve.

Even if a trickle of charity does indeed escape from the vast boiling cauldron of greed, why should the poor be content with a trickle? Why should I be content to work for a system that produces no more than a trickle? Love and charity must be the principles that rule my entire soul, not just an evening diversion after I have sated my fleshly desires.

By renouncing my lucrative position in the system of greed, of course I renounce my opportunity to use the booty for charitable purposes. But a system which pampers the rich and allows the poor to starve is a system of organized crime. Participating in it makes me a criminal. What act of charity can atone for this?

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Awareness Reuptake Inhibitors

A patient goes to his doctor complaining his life feels futile and pointless. The friendly physician is eager to help. She can offer drugs that inhibit reuptake of various neurotransmitters. But perhaps the neurotransmitters are working just fine, and the unfortunate patient has simply discovered the truth.

A life worth living is a life spent pursuing virtue and wisdom. Such a life demands we seek virtuous teachers who can impart the wisdom accumulated by the human race. The depressed patient has finally figured out he is squandering his life. He obeys unwise rulers during the day. He is entertained by unwise athletes and actors in the evening. He gives no attention to moral and intellectual improvement. Having realized something is wrong, he goes to a doctor he perceives to be wise. But that doctor, instead of assigning the reading material that would help the unfortunate patient begin to understand and criticize the false ideologies around which he organizes his life, gives him a drug that will get him to fall submissively back into line, and proclaim the false ideologies with ever renewed vigor.

The idea that we should spend our leisure time entertaining and amusing ourselves represents a senseless squandering of the potential of human mind and spirit. All time and energy left after taking care of our needs for food and shelter should be devoted to moral and intellectual improvement. When we're too tired for that, we should cultivate mental silence and prayer.

The idea that human beings can own property is an illusion, on par with other superstitions in the pagan society where it originated. The Roman Empire required slaves and citizens to worship the pagan gods. Today our rulers demand we squander our lives producing baubles and trinkets to pamper the vanity of the rich and powerful. We might have been improving ourselves by studying, meditating and praying, but instead we slave away producing the symbols of ostentatious wealth.

The watchword of the new science of behavioral health is "adapt." The patient who adapts his behavior to the prevailing norms is considered healthy. The one who fails to adapt is sick and must be cured. The great saints and sages knew the societies to which they were asked to adapt were vile and unconscionable. To adapt would be to sacrifice all that was highest in themselves. Jesus didn't adapt to the hypocrisy and greed of the Pharisees. The Buddha didn't adapt to the superstition and narcissism of the Brahmins.

A life spent in pursuit of vanity, comfort and pleasure, even if that pursuit is successful, is a wasted life. Those of us who wake up and discover this should be going to the library and checking out books that will help us understand the illusions that rule our lives. Instead our doctors offer us medicines to sedate us, so we can return to the false ideology that keeps our futile and pointless lives in motion.

If inhibiting the reuptake of one or more neurotransmitters could help me study, meditate and pray more effectively, I would have no objection. But if it's merely helping me avoid awareness of the superficiality and vanity of my existence, it's a form of inhibition I would be better off without.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Virtue of Importunate Preaching

The entertainer has something to show that will please me. The advertiser has something to sell that will please me. Both appeal to my desire to please myself. The preacher, on the other hand, has something unpleasant to tell me, something I don’t particularly want to hear.

Entertainers and advertisers pander to the incontinent part of my soul, the part that wants to fulfill its urges and enjoy itself. The preacher has just the opposite message. He tells me I make the wrong choice when I allow this incontinent part to take charge of my soul. He tells me I must deny all urges except the urge to make my mind, soul and spirit more perfect. He demands I adopt an ascetic regimen conducive to self-discipline and self-control.

The preacher at Penn State invariably begins his sermons with a description of the unsalutary spiritual consequences of casual sex. At first I wondered, why does he begin with the one message that will alienate students most?

Now I think I understand why. Our campus preacher believes it is essential to deliver a message students would otherwise never hear. They won't see it on television because they flip the channel. They won't hear it from their peers, who want to be popular. They won't find it on Google because they never search for it. If students are ever going to hear difficult and important messages about self-denial and self-restraint, it will only be from an importunate preacher who assaults their ears and delivers an unwanted but urgently needed message against the will of his audience.

The reason our campus preacher tells the younger generation about the dire spiritual consequences of their impulsive sexual liaisons is precisely the same reason I preach to my generation about our impulsive consumption. The BMW dealer won't give me lessons in self-denial and self-restraint. My real estate agent is unlikely to explain that helping others is far more rewarding than trying to impress others. I'll never learn the profound spiritual joy that comes from living a restrained, simple life by talking to salesmen peddling intemperate, extravagant luxury.

Our campus preacher asks students if they really respect themselves as they should when they settle for purely sensual hookups with no deep spiritual connection. I’m here to ask my generation if we really respect ourselves as we should when we surround ourselves with material luxury while we allow spiritual virtues like simplicity, modesty and charity to go uncultivated.
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Matthew 6:24
Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to attending such shows as dancing, singing, music, displays, recitations, hand-music, cymbals and drums, fairy-shows, acrobatic and conjuring tricks, combats of elephants, buffaloes, bulls, goats, rams, cocks and quail, fighting with staves, boxing, wrestling, sham-fights, parades, manoeuvres and military reviews, the ascetic Gotama refrains from attending such displays.
Digha Nikaya

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Aphorisms

The struggle of youth is to make it in the world. The struggle of age is to recover what we lost in the struggle to make it in the world.

If my gaze is turned outward, what goes on inside will become predictable. I turn my gaze inward, where the obstacles to freedom lie.

In our quest to rearrange nature and make it better, we have rearranged our minds and made them worse.

I dedicate this moment to the pursuit of truth and freedom for the sake of this moment alone, and not as a sacrifice to eternity.

“I only put my best ideas down on paper.”
“And the worst ones remain in your head?”

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity

Those who devote their entire intellectual discipline to the pursuit of wealth will have, at the end of life, if they are lucky, what others have at the beginning through no effort of their own. But no one has virtue without effort. No one has wisdom without effort. No one has piety without effort. Ecclesiastes is troubled by the ultimate futility of human life. But the erudition and beauty of his lamentations testify to the dignity of a life spent in pursuit of virtue and wisdom. In the end, this too is vanity, but it is sublime vanity, a vanity that gives dignity and depth to human life.

The apostles of greed are supremely confident that pursuit of wealth is what is serious and important in life. Any talk about higher ideals seems to them a manifestation of intellectual laxity. They may listen politely, but inside they are laughing. In those rare moments when their perpetual quest to overwhelm others with their power and magnificence begin to seem pointless, when their efforts to pamper, groom and entertain themselves begin to falter, when the vast array of distractions they have prepared to conceal the true nature of human life from themselves begin to fail—then they too are faced with the vanity and meaninglessness of their existence. But, unlike Ecclesiastes’, theirs is not a sublime vanity, but a merely ridiculous one.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Queerness isn't just about gender

When I learned my times tables, I could count on my fingers and see for myself they were true and right. When I learned it was wrong for boys to kiss other boys, and asked why, no one could give me a satisfactory answer. Other boys wanted to kiss me. Why should I say no? As a result of my refusal to conform to arbitrary rules without reason or logic, my classmates called me queer. I later became part of a community where the word they fling as an insult is a badge of pride.

There is an aesthetic that sees sameness and uniformity as beautiful, and everything different and unusual as ugly. It is not one I share. For me, diversity is beautiful. The courageous soul that seeks to perfect itself in the unique way it and it alone can, that doesn't cringe and cower before the appointed authorities but insists on choosing its own path through life—this is the soul I admire.

Some of the boys that wanted to kiss me had the courage to question their society's arbitrary and illogical expectations in regard to gender, but in all other respects were perfectly willing to accept what they were told. These boys, needless to say, didn't make it far with me.

When a society shares a uniform and undifferentiated medium of exchange, we invariably find that its members begin to share a uniform and undifferentiated passion to acquire this medium of exchange. Those who were consumed with this uniform and undifferentiated passion I always found boring and tedious. It was the ones who had the courage to resist the pressure to conform their aspirations to those of the herd, and bravely nurture queer aspirations that have nothing whatsoever to do with the herd and its medium of exchange—these were the ones that succeeded with me.

"Have the courage to use your own understanding without the guidance of another." This excellent advice from German philosopher Immanuel Kant, if we would follow it, would prevent us from becoming cowardly conformists. Don't let the market decide for you what skills and talents are most worthy of cultivating. Have the courage to use your own understanding to decide for yourself. No person, no institution, no majority, no market, can decide for you.

"There are some people who despise wealth because they have lost hope to become rich," says English philosopher Francis Bacon. The hope to become rich isn't something we're born with. It's something we learn as we learn to conform. And, like all things we learn when we're young, we must subject it to ever renewed scrutiny as we mature.

When a man tries to impress me with his wealth, he only shows that when we are naked together, when I am with him rather than his wealth, there will be nothing left to impress me. His wealth shows he can impress others. But my standards are higher.

"Nothing is truly great which it is great to despise," says Greek philosopher Longinus. External things like wealth, honor, power and reputation will impress only those who can't see past them into the soul of the one who possesses them. Perhaps you could have all these things if you wanted them. But what would you sacrifice to get them? By making aspirations shared by everyone your own aspirations, you forfeit what is unique and interesting about yourself. The independent minded individuals, the only ones who really matter, will admire you for despising the things everyone else admires and striving for what you believe in.

Queerness isn't just about gender. It's about courage. It's about independence. It's about integrity. It's not limited to those attracted to their own sex. It's open to all. We only need to look into our hearts and try to find the courageous, independent, honest soul that has been whipped and beaten until it conformed. We need only free it from its fetters, and help it summon the courage to be queer, unique and fascinating in the way it and it alone can.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Puer Aeternis

In Greek myth the warrior Theseus descends into a labyrinth to slay the minotaur. His lover Ariadne, to help him find his way back, gives him a spool of twine. He ties one end to the door and unravels the spool as he descends into the labyrinth.

Every path we take in life is a potential labyrinth. We too must bring Ariadne’s spool with us. We must retain throughout life the ability to return to our beginnings, to that youthful stage of life in which all paths are open, in which we remain bright-eyed and eager, eager for life, eager for knowledge, eager for exploration.

We can recognize the man who still knows how to find his way out of the labyrinth because, at any age, we find him still seeking new paths in life, never resting on the conviction that he has already found his one true path.

When we encounter someone who thinks he has found his one true path, we know that in fact he is only trapped inside one of life’s many labyrinths. He has no Ariadne. He has forgotten his spool of twine. To explore every path that sparks an interest, and yet never forget Ariadne’s spool: this is the secret to retaining the spirit of eternal youth.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Market Is a Stumbling Block

In eighth grade I submitted a paper entitled "Is it wrong to live in luxury while other human beings suffer?" When I got it back, Mrs. Whitman had written in red on the last page, "Do you really believe this, Peter?" No comments or corrections. No engagement with the argument. Just astonished incredulity.

The purpose of middle school in Newton, Massachusetts is not to teach students to think independently and deeply about moral questions. It is to teach them to conform. The majority has already made up its mind. Yes, it is acceptable to live in luxury, so long as you have the resources to do so. Who was this twelve year old boy who had the audacity to question a matter already settled by the majority?

In college I once tried to speak to one of my classmates about whether it was right for a merchant to decide whom to help and whom to ignore based on who could offer money, rather than who was most in need. The response was a snide and sarcastic "Okay, Peter, whatever."

No one wants to talk about whether we make the right choice when we serve the rich and ignore the poor. It seems to be a violation of decorum even to raise the question. We live in a society founded by commercial men, and devoted in its very core to commerce. The most fundamental premise of commerce is that we serve those who can pay and ignore those who can't.

I recently told a friend I'm going back to school. He was eager to know what new market I'm trying to address. The idea that all disciplined human activity is intended to serve the market is so deeply ingrained in our souls, we have a hard time imagining any other motivation for disciplined thought and action.

When Jesus told his disciples he had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, they tried to stop him. “Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus responded, "You are a stumbling block to me; you don't have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Mt. 16:23) In today's world, the response would be, "OK, Jesus, whatever."

In America, the individual is trained from birth that he is part of the majority, and must think, feel and act like a member of the majority. When an individual expresses an aspiration that isn't an aspiration shared by the majority, people shrug their shoulders and walk away. A lifetime of such shrugs, I'm ashamed to admit, made me doubt myself. I began to doubt whether my aspirations were worth aspiring for, when everyone else was so indifferent to them. I buckled down and worked for the things that everyone else was working for, things like money, popularity and reputation.

Now I feel like I have wasted twenty years of my life striving for things I never really cared about, but only cared about because I wanted to impress others. My God, how cowardly and foolish I have been.

One of the things that gave me the courage to set aside the goals the world chose for me and concentrate instead on goals I chose for myself is my discovery late in life of the New Testament, whose hero defies the expectations of his contemporaries and pursues the path his own conscience (logos) dictates. Even his disciples expect him to respond to "human concerns"—the concerns of the majority—rather than living and dying in the way dictated by his own conscience. I know for many the New Testament is a source of authority rather than a source of inspiration, and they will disagree with the message I take from it. I hope they will forgive me for interpreting it differently.

No, I'm not trying to address a new market. I'm no longer willing to accept that my life should be ruled by the market. The market represents the aspirations of others. And I intend to spend the last third of my life pursuing my own aspirations, with no regard for whether or not others share them.

Is this selfish? No, I don't think so, for several reasons. First, I believe all of us should pursue our own aspirations, not timidly conform to the herd. By pursuing my own aspirations, I set an example that may inspire others to courageously strive for theirs. Second, one of my foremost aspirations is to help others. I just don't happen to think we help people by giving them what they ask for. We help people by showing them the things that they would ask for if they knew about them, but don't.

The defiant pop music of the 1970s expressed lots of nonconformist and individualist themes, but in the hands of marketers its defiant stance became just another commodity. Now anyone who comes out with a nonconformist philosophy is assumed to be just another producer trying to address this market segment. The tragedy is that even those who negate the very idea of the market in their work are absorbed by the market. The only solution I know to this problem is asceticism. By refusing to accept the rewards the market offers, we make it clear we are not offering something for sale in the market. We are offering an alternative to the market.

My friends and family are in a state of alarm. How will Peter feed himself, now that he has abandoned all prospects of an income? Fortunately, the New Testament taught me how to respond. Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me. You don't have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns. The New Testament taught me to take no care for human concerns like what I will wear and what I will eat. All these things pale in comparison to my mission to help others in the unique way I and I alone know how.

Our age has become very shortsighted. We're concerned how our contemporaries will receive our message, who will pay for the opportunity to hear or read it. We have forgotten the attitude of an earlier, far more courageous age, in which we wrote not what our contemporaries wanted to hear, but what we and no one else could contribute to eternity.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Should you allow someone indifferent to the fate of your mind to choose its daily activities?

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 few 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's 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 inconspicuous word through which everything we had struggled to learn and everything we had failed to understand will be transformed suddenly into magnificent sense.
If I apply my intellectual discipline to seeking wealth, I will, if I am lucky, have at the end of life what many undisciplined minds have at the beginning. If, on the other hand, I despise wealth and devote myself wholeheartedly to the life of the mind, now my mind is on par with aristocrats from the start.

Your mind comes into the world once and only once. If you don’t develop it to the utmost of its capability, its potential is forever lost. It would be a nice coincidence if the path optimal for obtaining wealth and sensory pleasure were also the path optimal for developing the mind. But in my experience this is simply not the case. You must choose one or the other.

What would you be doing if you were born wealthy, if you had no need to concern yourself with wealth? Why aren’t you doing that now? Your mind is unique. Nothing like it will ever again exist for all eternity. It would be tragic to allow a unique and exceptional mind like yours to be vanquished by the circumstances of its birth. Through rigorous asceticism, the mind can, and often does, rise above its material circumstances.

Your employer is indifferent to the perfection of your intellect. His only concern is how he can use it for his own profit. Why would you allow someone so indifferent to the fate of your mind to choose its daily activities? Instead, find a teacher who sincerely cares about the cultivation and improvement of your mind, and let your daily activities be guided by him or her. Wealth is a false prophet that seduces us with sensory pleasure, and leads us away from the cultivation and perfection of the mind.

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. 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.

Parents accept a life of strife and servitude in the world to create an oasis of peace and tranquility in the home. They take it for granted 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 "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 us to make the right choice must begin as early as possible. The term "spoiled child" is 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.

In the well ordered soul, as Plato conceives it, desires are arranged hierarchically, with the desire for virtue and wisdom at the top, and lesser desires underneath. In another metaphor, the part of the well ordered soul that seeks virtue and wisdom is the driver of a cart, and the parts that seek pleasure and honor are the horses. A soul ruled by sensory desires is like a mob with no leader, a cart with no driver. The horses pull in random directions, and the cart makes no progress toward any destination.

Most of us have at some point in our lives been dissatisfied with the pursuit of pleasure and honor and sought something higher. But as soon as we begin to strive for something higher, we immediately lose the cozy feeling of being part of the majority. In democratic regimes, where conformity to the majority is an honor and disobeying the majority is a crime, it takes tremendous courage to question the values of the majority. Some of us can muster this courage in occasional heroic moments. Few of us can sustain it long enough to produce profound and enduring change in our lives.

In a profligate society like ours even ordinary children become accustomed to a variety of foods contrived to stimulate our taste buds, a variety of entertainments contrived to stimulate our eyes and ears. These superfluous luxuries are so ubiquitous, they begin to seem like necessities. When we grow up and discover these things cost money, we too are eager to enlist in military and corporate enterprises and collect our share of the booty they procure.

Human beings might be tempted to show we're superior to other animals by stimulating our taste buds in ways other animals can't. But we might also perhaps show our superiority by rationally recognizing what our true animal needs are, and not foolishly putting the intellectual excellences that arguably place us above other animals in slavish service to our animal desires.

What is animal in us should be content with no more than what an animal needs. What is divine in us should not waste itself serving the animal, but should concentrate on contemplating the divine. The corporate worker expends the vast majority of his intellectual discipline in making money, and then uses this money merely to fulfill desires he shares with other animals. He has placed the higher part of himself in service to the lower. Not only are the horses pulling the cart in random directions, they have even harnessed the higher parts of the soul, the virtues that make disciplined intellectual activity possible, and put them under the whip. Reason, science and mathematics have been debased and subjugated, placed in service to desires for pleasure and honor. The divine parts of man are not in the driver seat. They are on the ground, laboring to pull the chariot in its mad, senseless frenzy of motion without aim or destination.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Lunch with Jesus

Jesus and I were having lunch, and got to talking about work.

“Perhaps it’s expressed a bit differently in corporate new-speak,” he said, “but I’ll translate it into plain English for you. ‘Here’s your cut of the profits, Peter, as we, your corporate masters, rake over the poor, paying them ten dollars a day while we make billions and destroy the planet.’”

“I like to believe we can have change from the inside.”

“Are you inside a Chinese factory, Peter? Are you inside the living hell our planet is going to be in 2200?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Here’s an example of how the technology you’re so proud of is used. Employees at UPS are monitored in their every movement by corporate headquarters. They jog with packages in their hands in order to satisfy their tyrannical masters. The owners of capital want to increase profits, no matter how miserable the lives of their wage slaves become.”

“The world is much richer under capitalism.”

“Rich in wealth as the capitalists define wealth. The costs of their tyranny aren’t included in the calculations. They choose to build hundred million dollar mansions as they allow the poor to starve, and then ask us to report to work for them Monday morning. By reporting to their office, you show that you condone that inhumanity.”

I looked at the ground. “What can I do? I can’t change the world all by myself.”

“Yes, you can, Peter.”

“How?”

“Just stop participating in the evil. Stop following the inhuman leaders and start following the human ones.”

“The inhuman leaders are the ones who pay my bills.”

“Give no thought to that.”

“How will I live?”

“You will live on the hope of a better world.”

“What will I eat?”

“When people see you starving, they will help you. You can rely on the mercy of others.”

“But others have no mercy!”

“That is why you must not ally yourselves with them.”

“But how will I live?”

“You must ask yourself that question every day, Peter. The answer today might not be the same as yesterday. It might be time to change, as my disciple Paul did on his way to Damascus. It might be time to—“

“To what?”

“Repent,” he said quietly.

I stared to sob. My God, he was right. If I were to spend the rest of my life repenting and helping the poor, it couldn’t possibly be enough to atone for the harm I have done by allying myself with our brutal capitalist masters. Even if I were to feed my flesh to lions, it would not be enough to atone for what my generation is doing to our culture and our planet.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The flourishing intellect

The information passed between generations by means of culture is difficult to quantify, but is certainly much larger than the approximately 100 megabits passed between generations by means of nucleic acids. Some scientists like to call the cultural component of the human intergenerational legacy the “memome,” a coinage in analogy to “genome,” where a “meme” is a piece of self-replicating information. We can also think of culture as the software that runs on the hardware of the human brain. In the same way that the development of the software industry follows a trajectory quite independent of, although of course also dependent on, the development of computer hardware, so the development of culture follows a trajectory quite independent of the biological development of the human species.

Biology sometimes provides an inherent motive for a human organism to continue living—a drive, urge or instinct that makes the organism want to stay alive. Intellectual life is somewhat distinct from biological life, however. A human organism may continue to flourish from a biological point of view, while at the same time its intellect decays. Just as the motive for the continued existence of biological life comes from within biological life, the motive for the continued existence of intellectual life comes from within intellectual life.

“Imitation is suicide,” says Emerson. Of course he means intellectual suicide, not biological suicide—the death of the intellect, not the organism that sustains it. Emerson’s use of the word suicide is somewhat hyperbolic. The biological organism can never recover from biological death. But so long as the biological organism is still alive, there remains a chance that the intellect can recover from intellectual death. “Imitation is an intellectual coma” would be a less poetic, but more accurate expression of the sentiment. Imitation is just one example of a broader array of phenomena that lead the intellect to perish before the organism that sustains it.

The wide-eyed girl eager to learn and grow and develop her mind manifests a healthy, flourishing intellect. The cynical man who believes he knows all there is to know manifests a sickly intellect.

Entertainment, I would argue, is to the mind what a virus is to the body, or what a computer virus is to the computer. It consumes resources in purposeless activity. A mind that is entertained is not growing and flourishing. Of course many forms of culture have both entertainment value and educational value, and these are sometimes difficult to separate. But insofar as we can separate them, we can say that the pleasure a mind gets from growing and flourishing is of a different order from the pleasure a mind gets from being entertained. Only a mind that has given up on growth and flourishing would choose entertainment over growth.

Of course the wide-eyed girl eager to learn and grow and develop her mind may be disappointed by the teachers she encounters. Under the influence of commercial concerns and their elected representatives, education has been transformed. It is no longer a means to help the intellect grow and flourish. It is now merely a means to mold the intellect into a useful tool for commercial concerns. If a mind wants to grow and flourish, it will need to investigate various forms and methods of education and find those best suited to its development. To recover from the damage commercial concerns have inflicted on the human mind, we must cast off our adult cynicism, recover the eager enthusiasm of the wide-eyed boy or girl within us, and return to the library with renewed vigor.

The fact that the ideal of intellectual flourishing has largely disappeared from the public discourse of today should give us a hint where we might look for teachers who can help the mind flourish. We must look to the past, when the ideal of intellectual flourishing was still alive. We must look to those minds most independent of the forces of commerce and politics. In an age where forces that seek to make the mind into an instrument rather than an end in itself are becoming ever more dominant, it is not surprising that teachers with the courage to defy this trend are becoming harder and harder to find.

Where have my own efforts, the attempts of the wide-eyed boy within me to find intellectual nourishment, led? To the German intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth century who sought to bring the concept of Bildung to its highest realization—including their American representatives, Emerson and Thoreau.

Bildung means, literally, forming, building, shaping. The student may have tried many times to build an intellectual edifice. And it keeps tumbling down. The lower levels aren’t strong enough to stand the weight of the higher ones. So the student looks to the teacher for help. The teacher offers suggestions for repairing and improving the foundation of the student’s intellectual edifice. This, as I understand it, is Bildung—a form of education that seeks to prepare the student to form, build and shape his or her own intellect. This stands in stark contrast to the educational practices of today, which seek to forcibly mold the intellect into a form useful to commercial enterprises.

We know that intellectual life sometimes suffers from eras of stagnation. The Dark Ages are called dark because in these centuries the intellectual light was extinguished. In the tenth century intellect was subservient to the Church and was unable to flourish. In our century intellect is subservient to commerce and is unable to flourish. We live in the Dark Age of Commerce.

A mind that makes falsehood and illusion part of its foundation is unlikely to be able to build an impressive edifice upon it. Newton’s laws are a solid foundation for intellectual development. Pre-Copernican astronomy is not. Unfortunately, many students look at mathematics and physics in the same way they look at oppressive systems of law. This is the fault of bad teachers, who attempt to use their authority to indoctrinate students, rather than seeking to persuade them.

Just as a tree can be confined in a small space and prevented from flourishing, so a human mind can be confined to a role and prevented from flourishing. Servitude to the market, whether in the role of janitor or chief executive officer, prevents the mind from developing in those dimensions which have no value in the market. By making the market our God, and devoting our minds to serving this God, we have impaired the development of intellect as much as those who demanded complete devotion to the narrow conception of God prevalent in the Dark Ages.