Monday, May 4, 2015

Clumsy Atheology

I can understand preaching atheism after thoroughly studying the foundational texts of the worlds great religions. But to say there's no God before completing this task is premature.

Richard Dawkins, the prototypical neo-atheist, shows that God doesn't exist as substance. He seems to have forgotten Aristotle's explanation that there are several ways of being, of which substance is only one. God certainly exists as form. The form is thoroughly documented in the sacred texts of the world's religions. But, Dawkins objects, the form refers to nothing that can be empirically observed. Well, yes, Professor Dawkins, there is no substance that corresponds to the form, because, as Aquinas could have told you, God is not a material substance.

When the atheist says, "God exists only in your mind, not in reality," he sees this as a problem with God, rather than a problem with reality. But if God doesn't exist in reality, this can only be because we ignore the message of His prophets. We use piety one day a week to adorn merciless greed on the other six. We have given up trying to mold ourselves into the form of God and settled for ourselves as we are. Greedy. Selfish. Merciless to the poor and oppressed.

We have ceased trying to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We have closed not only the Bible, but also Plato, the Pali Canon, and all the great books that once taught us about God and prayer. Now we fill our leisure with television, and then claim we have no time for God.

To come to know God is to come to know and perfect your own conception of the good. With every passing year, more and more false prophets preach from their Madison Avenue pulpits, "The good is pleasure! The logos is Wall Street! The market is God!" We bow and say, "Yes, teacher, teach us about the good." Then we take pilgrimages to Disneyland and Rodeo Drive to visit the temples of consumption and offer our reverence and devotion to the market god.

In his first letter, Peter tells his parishioners to rid themselves of all malice and deceit. He tells them to stop gossiping about the faults of their neighbors. Leave your adult self behind, he says. Become like a newborn babe. Suckle on pure spiritual milk as you grow up again.

I must go back to infancy and begin my education all over. I must deliberately forget the trash Hollywood and Madison Avenue have dinned into my mind. I must replace it with pure spiritual milk from saints and sages. The spoiled milk of false prophets whose true goal is not my salvation, but their profit, has been making me seriously ill.
Rid yourselves of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babes, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
1 Peter 2:1-2
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
1 Corinthians 3:1-3
God is the most noble of beings. Now it is impossible for a body to be the most noble of beings; for a body must be either animate or inanimate; and an animate body is manifestly nobler than any inanimate body. But an animate body is not animate precisely as body; otherwise all bodies would be animate. Therefore its animation depends upon some other thing, as our body depends for its animation on the soul. Hence that by which a body becomes animated must be nobler than the body. Therefore it is impossible that God should be a body.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1, Question 3

Monday, April 20, 2015

The market is not God

Your mind comes into the universe once and only once. Why do we waste time and energy discussing such trivial topics? Let's talk about how we're going to perfect our minds. Let's figure out what steps we can take right now to help each other perfect our minds. Enough small talk. Enough superficiality. Let's dive down to the depths.

There's an empty depth, says Hegel, as well as an empty breadth. Isn't talking about the quest for depth without ever actually saying anything deep just another form of superficiality? No, I don't think so. I leave the depth empty so you can discover for yourself what's there.

Sit in a quiet place, says Siddhartha, and concentrate your attention on your breath. Siddhartha teaches you how to dispel repetitive, superficial thoughts and find the stillness you need to gain access to the depths of your mind. But he doesn't tell you what you'll find there.

Augustine's confessions will be read so long as it and man survive. The latest blockbuster will be forgotten within decades. Talk to God, not to your contemporaries. There's no need to dumb down your vocabulary. Make your readers become more God-like by giving them a challenge. Speak in language that will force them to think. Most will merely close the book and look for an easier one. But the one reader you want—the one who wants to be perfect as his heavenly Father is perfect—he will persevere.

When Diogenes was kidnapped and offered for sale in the slave market, potential buyers asked what his skills were. “Ruling men,” he replied. Buyers wanted someone to pander to their desires. But a philosopher teaches men to overcome their desires and put better ones in their place.

The writer I admire is the one who rules me. He doesn't offer to entertain me. He says, “I will tyrannize you. I will force you to become better, smarter, holier, harder, more exacting.” He demands that my mind become more perfect in order to understand him.

The commercial writer, on the other hand, doesn't offer to rule me. He allows me to rule him. He doesn't teach me to overcome my philistinism and ignorance. He panders to it. The way to be popular isn't to improve me. It's to pander to my stupidity.

"Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," says Matthew. What's the perfect you? How you will achieve it? Ask yourself this question every day. The answer might not be the same as yesterday.

If I'm purveying food, should I let money be my guide, serving customers with money and sending away those with empty pockets? Or should I let conscience be my guide, serving the most malnourished? Anyone engaged in commerce will be compelled to serve those with money and ignore those without it. This is clearly a very imperfect way of deciding whom to serve and whom to ignore.

Francis of Assisi understood that money was a means of evading the difficult question of who is worthy of help and who should be ignored. He wisely refused to even touch money, and demanded the same of his disciples.

The premise of commerce is that all the rich customer's desires must be fulfilled. But all desires other than the desire to be perfect merely waste time and resources. They should never be fulfilled. They must be completely ignored.

Of course all this flies in the face of common sense. We live in a world in which very few sincerely seek to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We can expect, therefore, that common sense in this world will be an obstacle rather than an aid in the path to perfection. Did Saint Anthony consult common sense before he retreated to the desert? If he had, he would not have become a saint.

I came very close to being a perfect engineer. But a perfect engineer, like a perfect lawyer or soldier, never questions the goals of his activity. His mind is confined to selection of means. Selection of ends is up to his superiors. The question was bound to arise eventually: is it plausible to pursue perfection without demanding that the ends as well as the means be perfect? I asked myself this question after fifteen years. Then I finally understood that engineering could never be a way to fulfill my desire to be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect. All that time was wasted.

Serious and sustained intellectual attention to any subject, Simone Weil points out, can teach us the discipline we need to devote serious and sustained intellectual attention to God. A perfect understanding of geometry makes my soul more perfect because the discipline I use to obtain this understanding is the same discipline I need to understand the will of God. The activity to which I devote my most serious and sustained intellectual attention is the most important part of my spiritual life.

Nothing stands between the mathematician and God. But when the engineer looks up, his view of heaven is obscured by the market. There are many men and women wiser than him who might help him grow closer to God. But the impersonal market strips all accidental features like virtue and wisdom from its participants.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Menschheitschnitzel

Faust’s student Wagner comes to him in the middle of the night complaining that life is short and art is long, that he will never have time to learn everything he needs to be an eloquent speaker. Faust explains that wisdom is not attained from reading alone.
Is the parchment a holy well from which a drink eternally slakes thirst? No, you have not won refreshment until it has welled up from within your own soul.
If the young Wagner has something he feels passionate about, Faust explains, there will be no need to hunt for words. But if his speeches of love and brotherhood are borrowed from his reading, and don’t come from his own heart, they will never move the hearts of his audience.
All those sparkling speeches you embroider with little cutlets of humanity are no more than leaves rustling in the wind.
The purpose of reading isn't to give me embellishments for my speeches. It isn't to help me to make a stew from the words of others. Feelings of love and brotherhood—“cutlets of humanity”—are of no use unless I digest and assimilate them, so they are no longer merely ornaments, but part of myself.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

You are a genius

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Study! An exhortation to lifelong learning

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The cowardice of our so-called "atheists"

Go back six hundred years and put today’s atheist somewhere where he’ll be tortured to death for questioning the existence of God. What will he do? To answer this question, look at how skeptical he is about sacred beliefs enforced today at the point of a gun.

When it comes to a God in which people believe merely because others believe, with no argument or evidence, our atheist vehemently objects. But when it comes to legal tender for all debts public and private, in which people believe merely because others believe, with no argument or evidence, today’s atheist has nothing to say. This kind of cowardly hypocrisy, perfectly willing to challenge ideologies no longer backed by the sword, but unwilling to challenge equally arbitrary and preposterous ideologies backed by machine guns, seems to me among the most contemptible forms of cowardice.

“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people stupid enough to believe him,” says Rousseau, “was the true founder of civil society.” What physics owes to Isaac Newton, commerce owes to these cowards, who believe what they’re told with no argument or evidence, merely because they’re threatened with violence if they refuse. They form the basis of our entire economic system.

The idea of respecting someone not particularly noble or intelligent merely because he's rich has never been one I could really wrap my head around. It just seems so abjectly servile and cowardly. There were slaves brave enough to talk back to their masters even when they were being whipped to death. But today, when the penalty is far less dire, we don’t even think of disobeying our corporate masters.

The German poet Heinrich Heine complained that his generation obeyed their capitalist lords even without chains or a lash. They were so eager to obey, they hearkened to even the faintest hint from their masters. The slavery was deep in their souls, says Heine, and this kind of spiritual slavery is as dire as any material slavery enforced by whip and chains could ever be.

“The fruits of the earth belong to everyone,” says Rousseau, “and the earth itself belongs to no one.” When the propagandists of the power elite tell you it’s a privilege to serve in their corporate tyrannies, put down the new employee handbook and pick up Rousseau instead. “How much misery and horror the human race would have been spared,” he asks, “if someone had torn up the stakes and filled in the ditches?” It’s not too late to tear down the electrified fences that exclude us from the enclaves of wealth, and take our world back from the tyrants. The level of corruption in our economic and political system has reached the point that the claims of the world’s billionaires to own all the land and means of production are worth no more than the paper they’re printed on. Let’s tear them up and start again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mastering our masters

When Diogenes of Sinope was sold as a slave, he endured it most nobly. For on a voyage to Aegina he was captured by pirates under the command of Scirpalus, conveyed to Crete and exposed for sale. When the auctioneer asked in what he was proficient, he replied, "In ruling men." Thereupon he pointed to a certain Corinthian with a fine purple border to his robe, the man named Xeniades above-mentioned, and said, “Sell me to this man; he needs a master.”
Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 6.73
Diogenes is confronted by a violently enforced social institution in which slaves exist to fulfill the desires of their masters. Courageously defying this institution at the risk of his life, Diogenes insists on giving higher precedence to reason than to violently enforced social hierarchies. Diogenes sees that the Corinthian Xeniades is addicted to luxury. The purple border on his robe shows he’s using resources irrationally, choosing to ornament himself in a world where others suffer dire privation. Xeniades needs a master to rule him, to teach him to behave rationally. Diogenes generously offers to take on the task, to help Xeniades overcome the profusion of intemperate, irrational desires that rule his soul, and put a rational desire to seek virtue and wisdom in its place.

Diogenes’ defiant stance is an example of a philosophical practice in which violently enforced social hierarchies, and the ideological constructs used to rationalize them, are treated as irrelevant for the purpose of deciding the proper course of thought and action. Only a cowardly soul allows itself to be ruled by violence. A brave soul is ruled by reason and reason alone. The ideologies used to rationalize violently enforced social hierarchies are so pervasive, however, a philosopher needs an active approach to neutralize them.

Anaxagoras came from a wealthy family. He gave up his wealth, and the political influence it might have procured, to study science and philosophy. “Thought is something limitless and independent,” he says, “and has been mixed with no thing but is alone by itself. … What was mingled with it would have prevented it from having power over anything in the way in which it does. … For it is the finest of all things and the purest.” One thing that is often mingled with thought is, of course, money. For all but the most pure-hearted philosopher, money enters into philosophical reasoning alongside other factors, corrupting its fineness and purity.

In The Republic, Socrates analyzes the situation of a man who has a horde of money, but no other possessions or ties to the city in which he lives. Such a man, says Socrates, is of no use to the city. He’s like a drone that lives in a beehive without gathering any nectar. He’s no more than a parasite on the productive activities of the hive. At first Socrates’ claim seems odd. If we interpret the actions of the servants who wait on the rich man as the servants themselves do, the rich man seems like a benefactor. If we put the institution of private property in brackets, however, we see that the master is idle while the servants are burdened with work. The exploitative, parasitic nature of the relationship then becomes clear.

In sociology, there are two distinct ways of interpreting human actions. We can try to interpret actions in the way actors themselves interpret them, or we can try to adopt an objective “bird’s-eye” view, where we put the actors’ own interpretation of their actions in brackets and try to find an objective interpretation—as if we were visitors from another planet scientifically observing the peculiar behavior of the human race. Workers who don’t question the ideology of private property, for example, see themselves as acting in their own self-interest when they make themselves subservient to the owners of capital. If we adopt the objective “bird’s-eye” approach to studying this phenomenon, however, putting the institution of private property in brackets to try to objectively understand the events, we will see that some human beings (wage slaves) work arduously for the benefit of other human beings (capitalist masters), while the first live in squalor and the second live in luxury.

A comparison between Plato and Adam Smith will help us better understand Plato’s view. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, we find Smith analyzing the phenomenon of the greedy landlord, also from the objective “bird’s-eye” point of view. The greedy landlord would keep all the grain grown on his land for himself if he could, says Smith, but his appetite can only accommodate so much. His vanity, however, has no such limit. He distributes the grain grown on his land to its inhabitants, and in return demands that peasants produce “baubles and trinkets” he can use to impress himself and guests. The result is that the rich, even though they are motivated by nothing more than their own vain and insatiable desires, “are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants.”

I have my doubts as to whether Smith is being sincere in this passage, but assuming he is, we might point out that leisure is also one of the necessities of life, and the landlord’s greed by no means leads to an equitable distribution of this necessity. If the landlord benevolently handed out the fruits of the earth without demanding his peasants slave away fulfilling his vain and insatiable desires in return, the peasants could have had both sustenance and leisure. The landlord’s greed might unintentionally give them sustenance, but it takes away their leisure. And leisure is the first requirement for philosophy.

Smith’s “invisible hand” argument would lead us to believe that whether we interpret the relation between labor and capital as the actors themselves interpret it, or from an objective viewpoint free from private property ideology, we will reach the same conclusion: the owners of capital are beneficiaries of mankind. Plato, on the other hand, doesn’t neglect the factor of leisure in his calculations. He can see that the master is idle while the servants work. Plato thus understands that the objective view gives a starkly different conclusion about the moral status of the idle rich. From the point of view of the ideologically deluded servants the master seems like a benefactor. But in fact he is a parasite.

A man who “participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have such a principle,” says Aristotle, “is a slave by nature.” Because he understands that reason should rule him, but is incapable of reasoning for himself, such a man will naturally desire a master who can guide him on a rational path. Children, for example, often recognize their inability to reason, and therefore look for adults who can steer them on the path to reason.

But this natural slavery, Aristotle insists, must by no means be thought to coincide with the actual, violently enforced institution of slavery as it existed in Athens. Even if we suppose it is just for victors in war to make slaves of their captives, not all wars are just. Furthermore, even if we assume that all masters in one generation genuinely rank high enough in virtue to justify their position, there’s no reason to suppose heirs in the next generation will be worthy of their position. Although we might imagine that “from a good man, a good man springs,” Aristotle points out, “this is what nature, though she may intend it, cannot always accomplish.”



In the Venn diagram above, the universe of men in Athens is represented by a large rectangle. This universe is divided into six regions based on membership in three sets: the set of men who lack a rational principle, the set of men who lack a rational principle and know they lack it, and the set of slaves in the violently enforced social hierarchy. The six regions include three in which violently enforced status coincides with natural status. But there are also three regions where natural and violently enforced status differ. During the time he is enslaved, for example, Diogenes belongs in the category of men who have a rational principle but are unjustly enslaved. Xeniades, if Diogenes’ assessment of him is correct, belongs in the category of men who lack a rational principle but don’t know they lack it, and therefore should be slaves.

On the one hand, Aristotle insists that some men are natural slaves, and “it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.” On the other hand, Aristotle is very careful to distinguish “slavery by law” from “slavery by nature.” And, he insists, “no one would ever say that he is a slave who is unworthy to be a slave.” (άνάξιος here translated as “unworthy,” might also be translated “undeserving.”) Although a cursory reading of the Politics might lead one to imagine that Aristotle supports the institution of slavery as it existed in Athens, a more careful reading seems to show that Aristotle’s position is more commensurate with that of Diogenes. Some de facto masters like Xeniades are in fact natural slaves, and need a master like Diogenes to rule them.

When an overweight man hires a personal trainer, the ideal candidate is someone a lot like Diogenes, someone who won’t pander to sloth and gluttony, but will teach our overweight man to overcome his present unhealthful desires and put healthier ones in their place. A woman who hires a tutor to teach her algebra is also looking for a wage slave who will rule her, disciplining her mind in the intellectual rigor needed to manipulate equations without altering their truth value.

These examples are exceptional cases where the master has one desire—the desire to lower body mass index or solve quadratic equations—that demands the conquest of other desires. But the peculiarity of the exceptions makes the rule stand out even more. With rare exceptions, wage slaves are expected to uncritically accept the desires of their capitalist masters as sacrosanct and inviolable. Wage slaves who are very clever in finding means to the ends set by capitalist masters are highly prized. Wage slaves who question ends as well as means soon find ourselves unemployed.

In an ancient and venerable shopkeeper tradition, the customer is king. The demands of a paying customer must always be fulfilled if a profit can be made in fulfilling them. This tradition stands diametrically opposed to an ancient and venerable philosophical tradition, the idea that the rationality of demands must always be called into question, that irrational demands must never be fulfilled.

A waiter who followed the example of Diogenes would refuse to serve an overweight customer and instead teach him to fast. A petroleum engineer who followed the example of Diogenes would refuse to extract more oil and instead teach us to walk and bike. An architect who followed the example of Diogenes would refuse to build a new hundred million dollar mansion for the latest billionaire while the poor remain unhoused. The vast majority of consumer demands in wealthy countries are irrational demands. They should be ignored, just as the demands of spoiled children are ignored. This is the lesson Diogenes would teach us, if we cared to learn it.

Although the institution of wage slavery has replaced that of chattel slavery today in the West, Aristotle’s analysis of the phenomenon of slavery is still very relevant. In today’s world we also observe that the set of wage slaves in the violently enforced social hierarchy by no means coincides with the set of those who are natural slaves. Subordinates in the violently enforced hierarchy are often, in the natural hierarchy, superiors of their masters. Capitalist masters often lack a rational principle and urgently need a master.

I fantasize about a future world where those in positions of power make a show of their asceticism as they do now of their extravagance, where those in control of large fortunes show they are masters of their passions and therefore worthy of their wealth. But I don’t expect this to become reality in my lifetime. What can I do now? It is here that Diogenes offers us a role model, a courageous example of nonviolent resistance. Refuse to fulfill the irrational desires of your master. Teach him instead to master himself. Refuse to obey those unworthy of obedience. Ignore the irrational demands of the powerful. Continue to make wise and rational demands, no matter how many times they go unheeded.

In the market, rational and irrational desires are indiscriminately mixed. Because of the impersonal nature of market transactions, we seldom get to meet the capitalist masters who benefit from our services. The market is an opaque wall that stands between wage-slaves and our masters, preventing us from seeing them and deciding for ourselves if they are worthy of our help. The miner in the quarry doesn’t know whether the marble he hews will be used to build a fourth mansion for an unscrupulous billionaire or a shelter for the homeless. If we’re serious about following Diogenes’ advice, never serving irrational masters, then any enterprise that ultimately holds itself accountable to the market is strictly off limits. As the hegemony of the market grows ever wider—it now seems to be on the verge of engulfing even the universities—those of us who refuse to serve irrational masters will find ourselves driven into an ever-tighter corner by our intransigence.

“The wise man must not be ordered but must order,” demands Aristotle, “and he must not obey another, but the less wise must obey him.” Is Aristotle merely expressing a utopian dream? In the real world we see unwise men give orders all the time. We see their orders obeyed. Do we have to wait for a better world with wiser rulers to fulfill Aristotle’s demand? No. The example of Diogenes proves that Aristotle’s demand can indeed be fulfilled by an individual philosopher, not in a future world, but right now in this world, no matter how unwise its rulers are. The wise woman will hear unwise men barking orders at her. But she will ignore them, and thus will not be ordered. She will issue orders to unwise men, whether they are heeded or not. She is a voice crying in the wilderness, begging an unwise society to find its way to wisdom.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Methodical cowardice

If I say that literature and philosophy are mere artistic diversions, I in effect concede that the art forms those in power take seriously (law books, contracts, diagnostic manuals) are the best ones. This is precisely the concession that literature and philosophy refuse to make. The form of rationality that sees the power of other human beings in the same way it sees the laws of nature is merely a systematic and methodical form of cowardice. If I decide my career plans based on what is lucrative rather than what seems to me true and just, I have allowed those in power to decide for me what is true and just. What we call “practicality” is in fact no more than cowardly capitulation.

Suppose a woman helps those she finds most worthy and asks for nothing in return. When she comes to me asking for help, she can offer no money. Even if I want to help her, my duty to my employer makes it impossible. Although I would never concede its truth, the principle that in fact guides my actions is the supposition that only those with money are worthy of help. If a waiter were to behave as a rational and humane distributor of food, turning away fat wallets and feeding the poor and hungry, he would be fired in an instant. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” says Upton Sinclair, “when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It’s difficult to get myself to understand that the principle by which I choose whom to help and whom to ignore is a false principle.

Property rights are a fiction. This fiction, however, happens to be one that those in power take seriously. This makes them, in a sense, a fact. The Spanish Inquisition tormented atheists, and thus made the existence of God, in just the same sense, a fact. The rationalizations offered are also similar. If we didn’t all believe in God, society wouldn't please God. If we didn’t all believe in property rights, society wouldn't produce the largest possible amount of property. The cowardly hypocrisy of today’s skeptics, who proudly announce they are unwilling to believe in fictions, and yet show themselves perfectly willing to believe in fictions enforced by the state, continues to perplex me.

If the world is barbaric, then adjusting to the world as it is will make me barbaric. It is only insofar as I remain unadjusted that I retain any trace of humanity. The quest for unity of theory and practice has been largely discarded by thinkers of today. Theory must now adapt and reconcile itself to practice, no matter how irrational or barbaric that practice may be. The temptation to give up on the unique course of ethical development my mind sees before it at each moment, and conform to the pre-established course of bourgeois life, is ever present.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Memento mori

Memento mori. Remember death. Think every day about death.”
—Advice from ancient Rome.
If, when I aesthetically evaluate potential paths in life,
I always keep in mind that life has an endpoint,
Then I will see
A life that consists of an ever increasing crescendo
Of desperate attempts at self-gratification
Followed by silence
Is not a beautiful life.

If I remember death, I will remember that I must invest my intellectual and moral energy in something good that will endure beyond my death, and not squander it on what is transient.

A principle that seems to me wise is to abstain from all activities that are not conducive to intellectual excellence. Some of the consequences that follow from this principle are nicely elaborated in the Brahmajala Sutta, one of the texts of Theravada Buddhism:
Abstain from weapons and violence.

Abstain from gossip.

Abstain from shows.

Abstain from games.

Abstain from luxury.

Abstain from discussing politicians, criminals, food, beverages, clothing, places, families, cities, wars, battles, heroes, rumors, speculations on how the world was created, speculations about existence and non-existence.

Abstain from accusing, denying, goading and challenging.

Abstain from being the messenger of those in power.

Speak polite, likeable, exact, well chosen words that will make the hearts of your hearers joyful.
In a world dedicated to superficial and ephemeral pleasures, I must perpetually be on my guard. I must abstain from many things. I must always strive for intellectual excellence in the moment, and work to leave a legacy of intellectual excellence to future generations.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Enlightenment as bourgeois decadence

Inquiry into the ends of human action, David Hume tells us, can be taken only so far. “If you push your enquiries farther, and desire a reason why a man hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any.” But when the sincere philosopher asks himself why he hates pain, the question to him is a serious one, and he may decide there is no reason. When a limb is amputated, the patient often feels pain in the phantom limb for the rest of his life. It is, in fact, only biology that demands we hate pain. The mind is perfectly capable, as every ascetic and flagellant can attest, of overcoming its biological programming,. Hume pays no heed to ascetics and flagellants, perhaps because he perceives them as irrational. But aren’t they in fact more rational than he, having overcome the biological prejudice against pain and risen to a higher level of intellectual autonomy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thou shalt not strive to understand thine own mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Critique of critiques

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

Friday, March 20, 2015

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

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

A physicist who assumed without question that the opinions of the majority about physics were correct would not be worthy of our attention. The study of physics requires a degree of dedication and discipline available only to a select few, and only the opinions of this select few are worthy of our attention. We can say the same thing about every other discipline, including philosophy.

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

So many seek to manipulate us in so many ways

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A brief history of gold

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

The premise of the humanities

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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Is philosophy “impractical”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 30, 2015

Taking protrepsis seriously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving kindness as pathology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Invest in the mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

The fence around the Torah

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 24, 2015

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

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

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Eternal truths

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

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

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

Monday, December 1, 2014

How can I escape the cycle of meaningless activity?

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

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

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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The mind that seeks to perfect itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Be not conformed unto the age

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The best thing about the free market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Les bêtes noires de laissez-faire

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

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

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

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Healing the divided mind

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

From a falsehood anything follows

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The mistake of engineers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 6, 2014

You’re too smart to be an engineer

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

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

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

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

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