Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Virtue of Importunate Preaching

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

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

The preacher at Penn State always begins his sermons by talking about the unpleasant spiritual consequences of casual sex. At first I wondered, why does he always start with the one message students are least likely to agree with? Why does he begin by alienating his audience, rather than trying to draw them in? The reason, I concluded, is that he believes this is the message students most urgently need to hear.

Then I ask myself, is it perhaps not entirely coincidental that the message students least want to hear is precisely the message they most urgently need to hear? They will never get this message from television, which is intent on retaining audience share, not delivering difficult messages urgently needed, but not wanted, by the audience. They won’t get it from their peers, who are more concerned to be popular than genuinely helpful. Nor will they get it from the internet, where the fleeting desire of the moment is far more likely to appear in the search bar than difficult moral questions. If students are ever going to hear difficult and important messages about self-denial and self-restraint, it will only be from an importunate preacher who assaults their ears and delivers an unwanted but urgently needed message against the will of his audience.

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

Our campus preacher asks students if they really respect themselves as they should when they settle for purely sensual hookups with no deep spiritual connection. I’m here to ask my generation if we really respect ourselves as we should when we surround ourselves with material luxury while we allow spiritual virtues like self-restraint, modesty and charity to go uncultivated.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Rules for myself

Accept people as they are and try to do good to them as they are.

Learn things about people in order to be pleasant to them, not in order to judge them.

In every situation in which you are forced to say something, try to think of the most pleasant and helpful thing to say. Don’t worry if you occasionally fail. Even a sharpshooter doesn’t hit the bullseye every time.

Don’t try to change people by being unkind. It doesn’t work and it’s unpleasant.

Say nothing unless it's both helpful and true.

Be silent when there's a competition to get words in. It's not helpful to add traffic to an already congested conversation.

Convey your kindness by silently smiling as well as by speaking.

When you're angry, upset, or ill-tempered and are forced to go into society, make an even greater effort to be silent.

Effusiveness feels good at the time, but you'll often regret it later. It is seldom appreciated. Make sure this is one of the rare moments when it will be appreciated before you continue.

Carry a notepad with you. When you have something that you feel you must say, but you can’t get a chance to speak, write it down. This will arouse curiosity, and make people want to hear what you have to say. Interrupting will have precisely the opposite effect.

In any conversation attended by uncouth and polite people, uncouth people will do a disproportionate share of talking. This is unjust and unfortunate, but it's an inescapable consequence of the logic of politeness. Any attempt to remedy the injustice would only make you uncouth yourself, thereby confirming the theorem.

When you're not radiating kindness, it’s better not to radiate anything at all.

I type the wisdom I know over and over again for my own benefit, for the same reason I use flashcards to learn German vocabulary, the same reason I practice scales and arpeggios. Repetition is a good method of learning.

A diary that consisted of nothing but paraphrases and verbatim recitals of my accumulated wisdom would still be a worthwhile activity. Reading it might not be. Writing it would be.

It's a mistake to write only to be read. Sometimes I write for the sake of writing. Rehearsal.

The practice of copying passages is dying out. Few do it in childhood. Almost no one does it in adulthood. This is unfortunate.

When someone speaks at length, get out your notepad and begin taking notes. They have involuntarily recruited you as their therapist, and professional competence becomes obligatory.

The only way to teach good manners is by example. Criticizing the manners of your companions is ill-mannered and only makes you a hypocrite.

If you’re smarter than your companions, be thankful for your intelligence, rather than resentful of their lack of it.

If the conversation is beneath your level, inconspicuously observe it as a sociologist would.

When conversation is painful, remember this: if Shakespeare never listened to fools he wouldn’t have been so competent at writing their parts.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Aphorisms

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

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

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

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

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

The news is like an astronomy teacher who reports the daily motion of the planets instead of teaching us Newton's laws.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Queerness isn't just about gender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

Puer Aeternis

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Market Is a Stumbling Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 18, 2015

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

If there is a duty to others, it is a duty to become the greatest person you can be. Only then will your help be the greatest help you can give—the help you, and you alone, can give. If you continue on a course of intellectual improvement, the last few moments of your life may be worth more to your fellow men and women than all that came before. If you don’t make the perfection of your intellect your primary purpose, you shortchange others as much as you shortchange yourself. Here's how the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts it:
The longer I live, the more urgent it seems to me to endure and transcribe the whole dictation of existence up to its end, for it might just be the case that only the very last sentence contains that small and inconspicuous word through which everything we had struggled to learn and everything we had failed to understand will be transformed suddenly into magnificent sense.
If I apply my intellectual discipline to seeking wealth, I will, if I am lucky, have at the end of life what many undisciplined minds have at the beginning. If, on the other hand, I despise wealth and devote myself wholeheartedly to the life of the mind, now my mind is on par with aristocrats from the start.

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

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

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

In the evening I look for meaningless entertainment. The next day I must do meaningless work to pay for it. If I could only resist the temptation to consume what doesn’t help me flourish intellectually, I would no longer need to produce what doesn’t help me flourish intellectually. Of course production is necessary to fulfill the needs of the flesh. The problem is, I exaggerate those needs. So I’m left with no time and energy to fulfill the needs of the mind. I busily preen and pamper a body hardly different from that of apes, and ignore the one thing that sets me apart from them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Lunch with Jesus

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

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

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

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

I didn’t say anything.

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

“The world is much richer under capitalism.”

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

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

“Yes, you can, Peter.”

“How?”

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

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

“Give no thought to that.”

“How will I live?”

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

“What will I eat?”

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

“But others have no mercy!”

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

“But how will I live?”

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

“To what?”

“Repent,” he said quietly.

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

Friday, June 5, 2015

The flourishing intellect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 8, 2015

Can nature be improved?

Modern man is confident that nature can be improved by working on it, as in the technical arts. And yet he neglects the possibility that he himself might be improved by working on himself, as in the moral arts. When it comes to questions of technology, modern man has forsaken the idea that nature is inherently good. He's all too eager to improve it. But when it comes to questions of morality, modern man insists unhesitatingly that all natural urges are good. What earlier ages saw as attempts to improve upon human nature by training (Greek askesis), our age sees as merely irrational and inconvenient forms of repression.

Ancient thinkers once imagined a life devoted to the pursuit of virtue and wisdom was superior to a life driven by urges. But now this view is out of date. Go ahead and fulfill the urge, I tell myself. A tiny voice in the back of my mind objects. "You never read the ancients. How can you be so sure they're wrong?" But the tiny voice never lasts long. I reassure myself that ideas of true and false, right and wrong, are outdated. What matters today is ideas respected by the powerful. To consider the possibility that the powerful might be wrong demands a degree of intellectual courage I lack.

"Fulfill that urge!" screams every stream of bits from the pulpits of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. In today's ruling dogma, life is a feast where every desire must be fulfilled.

The ancient idea that the happiest and most fulfilling life is a life of intellectual flourishing, in which every moment is devoted to improving the mind, is outdated. What's the point of building up the intellect? No one cares about intellect. People are superficial. Forget intellectual improvement. Go for the money. Consume what Madison Avenue tells you to consume. You don't want to look like a fool. You want to keep up with the latest fashions. Your mind is going to perish with you anyway. What's the point of cultivating and improving it?

Socrates' interlocutors made similar objections. And ultimately there's no entirely satisfactory answer to them. If you want to devote your life to pleasure and neglect the cultivation or your intellect, there really isn't much Socrates or I or anyone else can say to change your mind. If you do decide that intellect is worth cultivating, however, we have some tricks to help you.

First, when seductive urges try to steal time and resources you might have used to improve your mind, and squander them instead stimulating the senses, put them in their place. Show them intellect is in charge and urges have no sway.

Second, remind yourself that wisdom achieved late in life can be passed on to others. Insofar as you succeed in perfecting your mind, you will become a role model for others. In this sense, the improvements you make to your intellect don't perish when you do.

The voice of sensory desires tries to undermine your intellectual confidence. It tries make you cynical. It downplays your prospects of intellectual improvement, so it can steal time and resources to stimulate the senses, time that might have been used to improve the mind.

What deters you from the path to becoming a genius or a saint is the glittering objects that lie on either side. Television programs made to entertain and amuse you distract you from books intended to educate and improve you.

Propel yourself unceasingly toward intellectual and moral excellence. Don't allow yourself to be distracted by the entertainments on board. Turn off the television. Burn the pulp fiction that no longer challenges you and was never intended to. Choose a book you'll feel afterward it was an achievement to have read.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Truths of reason and truths of fact

There are two kinds of truths: those of reasoning and those of fact. The truths of reasoning are necessary and their opposite is impossible; the truths of fact are contingent and their opposite is possible.
Gottfried Leibniz, La monadologie (1714)
For those immersed in the day to day functions of commerce, the idea of questioning whether its tenets are true seems impertinent, irrelevant, perhaps even impossible. Commerce and the ideologies it engenders are an established fact. It is here that Leibniz’s distinction might help us see that, while commercial society is indeed an established fact, it was established not by reason but by historically contingent circumstances, and its opposite remains possible.

The most fundamental tenet of commerce is that the demands of customers must be fulfilled, whether they are reasonable or not. The architect might consider it unreasonable to build a hundred million dollar mansion for the latest billionaire while the poor remain unhoused. But her employer will tell her such reasoning is irrelevant. The reasoning of commerce, in which no opportunity for profit may be neglected, is what rules her profession, whether she likes it or not.

The idea that workers should simply stop work when the demands of their rulers become unreasonable is what animated the labor movement in the first half of the twentieth century. This idea is what gave us Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. Today’s rulers are eviscerating these programs, and unfortunately there is no longer a significant labor movement to oppose them. As wages fall and profits rise, as they did in the first half of the twentieth century, and are now doing in the first decades of the twenty-first, the only real power the working class has to oppose these unjust power grabs is the power to simply stop working. We will never exercise this power so long as we treat the ideologies of commerce as if they were sacrosanct and inviolable. A vibrant labor movement demands minds brave enough to question the justice and wisdom of the system that rules us, minds that can distinguish truths of reason from ideologies corrupt rulers have dinned into our ears so loudly and incessantly that they have become truths of fact.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Divided Faith

Professor Frank waited for all the students to be seated. He stood up and began pacing.

"Would anyone like fifty dollars?" he asked.

The students exchanged nervous glances. They had never been asked this particular question.

After a minute of silence, a brave student in the front row—let's call her Sally—raised her hand.

"Why do you want fifty dollars?" asked the professor.

She hesitated. "To buy things."

"Excellent," responded the professor. "When you give people money, they give you things. How do you know they will do that?"

"Every time I went to the store before, they gave me things when I paid for them."

"Excellent. Why did they do that?"

"Because they're making a profit."

"And why do they want to make a profit?"

"So they can spend it on things for themselves, I suppose."

"You mean, because other people accept money in exchange for things?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because they also want to spend it."

"They have faith people will be persuaded by money?"

"Yes."

"Are there any other ways to persuade people."

"Yes, many other ways."

"For example?"

"Logical arguments."

"Suppose you told the cashier at the supermarket you were hungry, but didn't have any money, would he consider this a logical argument?"

Sally laughed. "Probably not."

"What about mercy? Does pleading for mercy sometimes persuade people?"

"Sometimes."

"If you asked for mercy, what would the cashier do?"

Sally laughed. "Probably call the police."

"Excellent. And do you think they would show mercy?"

"I'm not so sure."

Professor Frank wrote in capital letters on the chalkboard: FAITH. "You have more faith that the cashier would be persuaded by money than that he would be persuaded by logic or mercy. Is that right?"

Sally nodded. "Yes, I suppose so."

"Excellent. Now I would like to tell you a story. Francis was a monk who lived in Assisi, a town in Italy, in the twelfth century. His father was a merchant, and expected Francis to follow him in his trade. But Francis refused. In fact, Francis renounced all his property and position. Other monks soon began following him. One of the first lessons he taught them was that they were never, under any circumstance permitted to handle money. Now, here is question for the whole class. Can anyone think of a reason why Francis might have had such an aversion to money?"

A student in the back timidly stammered a conjecture. "If I offer money to the grocery clerk, I'm relying on his faith in money, not his faith in God, to persuade him to help me."

Postscript:
Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.
François de La Rochefoucauld
Adam Smith tells me by pursuing my own self-interest I will be led, as if by an invisible hand, to advance the interests of others. I need no longer be ashamed of my greed, Smith assures me. It's a salutary incentive to industry.

Clearly the thief doesn't promote anyone's interest than his own. The con artist doesn't promote anyone's interest than his own. The invisible hand argument is only plausible in a framework of law. Our lawbooks double in size with each passing decade in an attempt to keep private and public interest aligned. Is it working?

The notion that my own greed advances the interest of society has become the new form of hypocrisy. We all know it simply isn't true. And yet we keep telling ourselves it is to justify our cupidity.

There's no doubt that greed motivates many people to produce many useful things. But for whom? Do we really fulfill our duty to society by diligently working to advance the interests of the few, while ignoring the poor and oppressed?

Here I have ready at hand another hypocrisy. The rich are rich because of hard work. The poor are poor because of indolence. Again, I know it simply isn't true. But somehow I persuade myself I make the right choice when when I report to work Monday morning, ready and eager to serve customers who can pay and ignore those who can't.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Autonomy

I understand that it’s sometimes necessary to submit to a heteronomous authority in order to achieve an autonomously chosen goal. But when I see how similar the goals pursued by my contemporaries are, it becomes implausible to suppose that they were autonomously chosen. The desire for autonomy is rare. The desire to be rich and successful is far more common than the desire to be free.

The passion for autonomy finds no means of expression in a society where all means of expression have been transformed into commodities. Autonomy isn’t a commodity that can be bought and sold. It's free. And at the same time it’s infinitely precious. It defies the logic of the commodified intellect.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Clumsy Atheology

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. A triangle and the number two do not exist as substance. They exist as form. 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.
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
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

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Do you want to be genuinely happy?

Do you want to be genuinely happy? If so, why do you listen to the madness dinned incessantly into your ears from Hollywood and Madison Avenue?—a message created not by those whose true motive is to help you be happy, but whose motive is their own self-enrichment. “Buy this,” they say, and we obey. Ignoring saints and sages whose message is contrived for purely altruistic motives, we hearken to conmen who want money for the false form of salvation they offer.

We laugh at the rustic who prefers his Bible to his newspaper. But which message was created to try to help its audience, and which merely to enrich its billionaire owners? The monk claims he is happy. How absurd! He doesn’t have all the comforts and conveniences we’ve been taught to want by our dubious choice of reading material. That’s why we look down on him. That’s why we call him rustic.

I love you. And that’s why I hate to see you fall into the hands of these deceivers, who are intent on transforming your soul from a house of God to a den of robbers. “Want this! Want that! Nurture the greed in your soul, as if were a sign of health.” That’s the message Madison Avenue dins into our sacred temples every minute of every day.

It is not only of the house of God which we should be jealous, overturning the tables of the moneychangers within. It is the house of God in our own souls. Kick the moneychangers out of the temple of your soul. They and their greed don’t belong there. No matter how often they din the message into your ears “Buy this!” “Buy that!” “Want this!” “Want that!” “Consumption is good!” “Greed is Good!” you must ignore it. It is corrupting your soul. Happiness is to be found in loving your neighbor as yourself, not in exploiting him for profit and celebrating the conquest with champagne.

The false prophets have amassed trillions peddling their message of greed. And because they have so much, it is they who have the resources to purchase the airwaves and coaxial waveguides that bring us our daily dose of information. If we want to hear the faint message from the saints and sages, the only message that has any hope of making us happy, we must first tune out all the false messages from the prophets of greed.

Before you allow any form of communication access to your soul, ask yourself about the motives of those on the other end. Are they trying to help? Or are they trying to make a buck? To determine the answer to this question, look at how they live. You're more likely to hear a message that's sincerely intended to help you from someone with disinterested motives. That means someone whose needs are simple, whose needs are met, someone who wants to give his wisdom away—the most precious commodity, free for the taking.

Throw the moneychangers out of the temple of your soul. Turn off the television. Shut the newspaper. Unplug the computer. Install free ad blocking software. The precious moments when you’re alone should never be wasted. They should be devoted to becoming a happier, better, kinder, nobler person. If you’re lucky enough to know how to read, that means devoting your free time to reading about those whose have given their lives to becoming happier, better, kinder and nobler—not con artists on Madison Avenue who want to seduce you into their glittering and false world to make a buck.

Before you allow a stream of bits or pixels into your brain, make sure its source is someone who wants nothing in return.
It is not only of the space in the Church which we ought to be jealous, but also of the interior of the house of God in us, so that it might not become a house of merchandise, or a den of robbers.
Ambrose

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 he 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.” Two centuries later, we remain stupid enough to believe tyrants own the earth, with no argument or evidence, merely because we’re threatened with violence if we refuse.

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.” The propagandists of the power elite tell you it’s a privilege to serve in their corporate tyrannies. Don't listen to them. Put down the new employee handbook. Pick up Rousseau instead. “How much misery and horror the human race would have been spared,” asks Rousseau, “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

As 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. 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.