Sunday, November 15, 2015


The answer is, ‘Keep looking for the answer.’

Aphorism: a brief foray into words.

Rich and passionate thinking is fuel for the aphorism.

Sober and precise thinking is fuel for the system.

Don’t be afraid to reinvent the wheel. Reinvention is the mother of invention.

Learning proceeds until death and only then does it stop. (Xun Zi)

To give up on learning is to give up on life.

Great accomplishments are worth repeating, a rehearsal for even greater ones.

Develop all your talents. Specialization is for philistines.

Magnificent house and philistine mind. Or shack and mind that does what it loves. What an easy choice it would be if we weren’t plagued by salesmen trying to sell us things we don’t need.

Many appeals to human weakness have an off switch.

Moments when I seek entertainment and distraction, when I’m closest to learning something new.

To a soul conquered by lust for possessions, modesty is a childish ideal.

Repentance must be habitual or it will be forgotten.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

In the Halls of Academia

“I hear Frederick Jameson just came out with a new book.”

“I’m more interested in you. Tell me about your ideas.”

“Frederick Jameson is highly respected.”

“I respect you. Tell me about your ideas.”

The present academic environment demands a new kind of protreptic that directs students' attention away from celebrities and persuades them to focus their attention on minds who are actually present and prepared to engage. Our winner-take-all society, in which we devote all our attention to winners remote from us, leaves us no attention to devote to the excellent minds near to us.

“I’m sure Professor Jameson is more interesting than me,” I said. “But I am here now. Be here now with me.”

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Hollywood and the Individual Talent

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Secularization or demythologization?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 25, 2015

Drugs and Crime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The world is trying to crush your spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 7, 2015

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

Axiom A1: A = A

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

0 = 0
1 = 1
Triangle = Triangle

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

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

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

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

Consider the following argument:

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

Now consider another argument:

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

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

Now consider this argument:

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

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

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

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

Dollar equals dollar. We don't discriminate.

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

Child: Who is in need? Who has enough? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epistemic collectivism and individual conscience

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Criminal as Epistemic Hero

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 4, 2015

Boys Will Be Boys

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Profession Without Principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Intellectual Discipline Demanded by the Sages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost Intellectuals

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Transforming Universal Guilt into Universal Innocence

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Premises of Commerce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Honest Toil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Awareness Reuptake Inhibitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Virtue of Importunate Preaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Queerness isn't just about gender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

Puer Aeternis

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Market Is a Stumbling Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Lunch with Jesus

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

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

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

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

I didn’t say anything.

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

“The world is much richer under capitalism.”

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

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

“Yes, you can, Peter.”


“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?"



"Because they also want to spend it."

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


"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?"


"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."

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


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.

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.