Friday, June 24, 2011

Interlude: A Moment of Catharsis

Half the work that is done in this world is to make things appear what they are not. -- Elias Root Beadle

My late paternal grandmother, Ann Saling, tried to cultivate in me a taste for the finer things, including serious literature, so she introduced me at a young age to Franz Kafka. When she sat me down to read Kafka's Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), I hated it. It repelled me. I could not stand how unrealistic it was, how wrong everyone's reactions were, how nothing strange was explained. It felt like drinking from a cup of sickness, and I pushed it away.

I missed the point of what she was trying to do until decades later, when I finally came to a place in my life where I could tolerate and even cradle a dark place in my heart for the grim humor, the enraged exasperation and contempt, the grief for humanity in Kafka's work. You need to experience the madness of the human world fully enough to accept it, to be willing to have it called what it is. After that point, one realizes that the status quo is the threat and the messenger is just a healer, a Good Samaritan forced to discuss repulsive things in the hope that a diagnosis will lead to treatment and impoved health.

Until then, one feels polluted by contact with ugly truths, feels that one's health, sanity, even purity are being ruined by hearing them. Until that point, the messenger seems like the threat, so we respond in kind. We accuse the messenger of being mad, polluted, sick, dangerous. We react with hostility not to the real threat, but to its revelation and those who reveal it, and we refuse to believe.

We look for excuses not to listen. If the messenger is upset, then we can rationalize away his message as the exaggerations of an overly emotional person. If he says we face intractable systemic problems, we twist his message to something easier to dismiss, accuse him of believing in conspiracies, of being paranoid or otherwise out of touch with reality.

The irony is that we are the ones out of touch with reality, not the messenger.

As we go about our lives, we fight those who try to warn us that our house is on fire, in the same way that a drowning person sometimes fights the lifeguard. We have powerful vested interests in the way we believe the world works, so those who disrupt our view of the world feel like the threats to all we have invested in our illusions.

When I first encountered Beadle's quote, I reacted as I had to Kafka, by rejecting it reflexively and rationalizing my prejudice to make myself seem more reasonable and the author less so - thereby ironically demonstrating the truth of what he wrote. These days I've concluded that either the human world has grown more in love with illusions than in Beadle's time or he underestimated the scope of the problem.

To those who still find Beadle's summation pessimistic, I offer this explanation:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" -- Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked, 1935

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


When it comes to the truth, we are lappy. We insist that the world lay the truth in our laps for us, perfectly presented, with no distractions or imperfections, custom fit to our personal prejudices and habits of thought.

We take this habit of the mind for reasonableness, or common sense, or mathematical or scientific rigor (that is, we take it in the most flattering light possible), but it's none of those things. Those are just the clothes our mind wears to feel good about itself. Lappiness is one part laziness, one part obsessive-compulsive disorder, and one part self-centeredness. We expect the world to work the way we want it to, to present truths to us in prechewed form, to satisfy our irrational criteria for what counts as true (such as whether we like it, whether it makes us feel good about ourselves, whether it confirms what we already believe, whether it's easy to believe).

The world does no such thing, of course. Outside the world of theory and math, the truth never comes to us in pure, flawless form. The truths of the real world always come to us in complex mixtures, tangled, clad in imperfections and contradictions, precious metals but only in ore form, gems but only in the rough. If we focus only on the critical role of the mind, on searching for imperfections and pushing away anything that contains them, we will reject every actual truth the world has to offer us and eventually be left with nothing but those prejudices too strong and familiar and pure for us to bear to discard them.

This is one of those unpleasant paradoxes of the real world, that the critical faculty whose intent is to purify the truth will in human beings instead tend to purify their prejudices. Those who give in to this obsessive-compulsive habit of the mind tend to deal less and less with real information (too messy) and more and more in false but pure abstrations (mind versus matter, free will versus determinism, sane versus insane, conservative versus liberal, market versus government). This is how people tend to become caricatures of themselves over time, eventually seeing the world only as a dreamworld of artificial but pure categories that lend themselves to the lappy habits of the mind, reacting to other people not as who they really are but instead as how the viewer has categorized them, sleep-walking through life.

In the authentic search for the truth (rather than just its usual simulation), we do not get to begin with true a priori assumptions, nor do we get to logically deduce the truth like some kind of biological calculator. The mind is not a computer and life is not a logical syllogism. We take the processes of criticism and logic too much for granted as tools in the search for the truth. If we mechanically apply them outside their proper and limited domains, we become the man with the hammer to whom all problems look like nails. We become Procrustes again, stretching, twisting, and chopping the truth until its distorted corpse "fits" upon the bed of our minds.

The impurity, the paradoxes, the messiness and miscegenation of truth in the real world requires a very different approach. We have to start by abandoning the role of the lazy critic who waits for the truth to come to him in perfect, predigested form. On the contrary, not only must we search for the truth actively (to turn over much dirt in our search for gold, as Heraclitus put it), we must also learn to be suspicious of lappy information. The only truths that seem to fit us perfectly are those too consistent with our own prejudices to be true.

So here's an imperfect but useful logical syllogism for us all.

Delusions come easily to us, truths only with much difficulty. Therefore, if we don't have to work for it, it can't be true.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Content of Their Character

"We cannot walk alone.

"And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

"We cannot turn back.

"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: 'For Whites Only.' We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until 'justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'

"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

"Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

"And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

"I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," speech delivered 28 August 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.

Monday, March 07, 2011


Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior dreamed of the day when we judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Character trumps DNA. Skin color cannot make you a good person.

Neither can physical excellence.

A dishonest, self-centered coward is not elevated by vigorous might - it just serves his vices - but an honest, compassionate, courageous man is elevated beyond frailty. We covet health, but we need character.

If we take the reverend at his word, we must overturn many cherished notions. For starters, all men may be created equal, but some of them grow up to be jerks. We may grant sociopaths, bullies, and liars equal legal rights, but their character remains inferior.

So does their value to the world.

Much of what's wrong with our world is directly caused by dysdaemoniacs - people cursed with bad character. Any person might grow up to love their brothers and sisters and to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good, but only some do. Many instead treat human beings as things, as abstractions, as resources to be exploited.

The problem is not discrimination; it's failure to discriminate properly. Race can predict a few things, like sunburns, but it cannot predict quality of character, nor value to the world. Character itself, though, predicts many important things.

Failure to discriminate on the basis of character may not only be negligent but dangerous.

For example, we pride ourselves on being a nation of laws, not men, but should we? We have tried for centuries to create a good world by using laws to constrain bad people, to force them to do the right thing. The result? The worst of us, the big criminals, rushed to take charge of that system of laws, to mold it to legalize the crimes they want to commit. Our democracy devolves into kakistocracy, rule of the worst, of those with the strongest vested interest in laws designed to control them.

When laws become the playthings of the amoral and immoral, all we have proven is that the rule of law is just as corruptible, just as prone to become a tyrant over the good, as were the kings of old who our founding fathers did not trust to hold power incorruptibly.

If neither men nor laws can be trusted to govern us, where then should our hope for a better world be placed?


Maybe it's time to reconsider the heretical idea that not only is it okay to judge people, we must. We cannot possibly create a better world until we do. After all, treating torturers and predators and nihilists as the moral and legal equivalent of saints - and vice versa - really hasn't worked out for us, has it?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cosmopolitan Crisis

As Brian Lord wrote in his comment to Cosmopolitan, if we resolve our personal culture crisis by reorienting ourselves to a cosmopolitan worldview, it puts us at odds with most of the people around us.

We will make some people uncomfortable. Some won't like us. Some will hate us.

That is, the solution to our first serious philosophical crisis, shifting to a cosmopolitan perspective, creates a second serious crisis.

It isn't fair, really.

After all, the pre-culture-crisis parochial mindset seems so stable, so effortless (so immune to the broader reality), at least until sufficient contact with other cultures brings an end to that ignorant calm. After all the work it takes to successfully navigate the culture crisis that disrupted that peace, it feels like victory ought to come with some kind of reward, at least a vacation.

Instead, the stable parochial worldview is succeeded by the doubly unstable cosmopolitan one - unstable first because we deliberately destabilize our own worldview over and over in the search for new perspectives and second because we will be treated with variable degrees of hostility for being conspicuously different from most people. We graduate not to a second contentment but to shifting ground with people throwing rocks at us.

That's deeply, inescapably, essentially part of the very definition of the cosmopolitan worldview. Our new, cosmopolitan status quo is a fluxus quo, a state of continuous change, fundamentally different from our mental childhood, different in kind. The cosmopolitan crisis is permanent and sets us in motion for the rest of our lives.

We can never go back to the childhood of our first parochial worldview. Stability and peace are what we sacrifice when we mentally grow up.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Hybris or philosophy? Why did Alexander do the things he did?

Certainly, like anyone else Alexander had many motivations. He did not conquer widely strictly as a result of his philosophical inheritance, to achieve philosophical goals. He grew up to lead the militaristic culture of Macedonia that had succeeded in developing an outstanding military force, so he was going to conquer someone regardless of Aristotle's input to his upbringing.

But Aristotle did shape the way Alexander chose to express his will to conquer.

For example, Alexander's father had already defeated the Greeks, leaving Alexander with a problem - how could he securely rule both Macedonia and Greece while simultaneously conquering new lands? It was Aristotle who warned Alexander that the people of Athens and the other Hellenic city-states would not stay conquered in the sense of submitting meekly to foreign rule. The Greeks were too ambitious, too competitive, too spirited. If he expected the abject submission an ancient conqueror usually expected from his conquered peoples, he was going to be disappointed.

Aristotle told Alexander that if instead he changed his expectations, he could rule even more securely than a traditional conqueror, albeit in a paradoxical way. The Athenians were too proud to submit, but they could be ruled through that very pride. With the right frame of mind and the right guidance, the Greeks could be made to conquer themselves, to rule themselves on his behalf.

Alexander snake-charmed the Greeks, fascinated them by his personal bravery and energy and vision, to draw their attention away from a galling, shameful past - in which Macedonia defeated them, in which they were victims who needed to strike back - to an unthinkably glorious future in which the Greeks and Macedonians would not be conquered and conquerors but rather fellow soldiers fighting side by side to conquer the known world.

Instead of Macedonia conquering Hellas (Greece), the two needed to merge to become something new, a Greek-derived (or Hellenistic) civilization.

They did.

It worked.

It often does.

That strategy, which was poetically described by Heraclitus as bending a force back upon itself as with the lyre or the bow, was explicated millennia later by the German philosopher Hegel, who named it dialectics. Hegel dedicated his entire philosophical career to developing those ideas because the principle involved, in which the conflict between two irresistible forces either is or can be resolved by the generation of a third force, is one of the core principles of the cosmos and helps shape the course of history.

Alexander could have just focused on winning, on merely using his undefeatable military to defeat as many enemies as possible, but had he done that he would have spent all his time defeating, destroying, leaving the world less than it was when he began. Alexander wanted to create, to unite, to leave a positive legacy, and because of Alexander's expert tutelage he knew that his army could not do that if merely used to win.

Leaving the world better than you find it requires more than zero-sum, winner-or-loser thinking, more than an unbeatable army.

If you want to change the world, you have to be willing to change yourself, too, so that together you and the world can synthesize something new.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Far Outstripped

"I shall instance the history of science, which I divide into two periods, one ending in 1800, the other coming down to the present. Until the time of Volta, scientific research and speculation had from the beginning been practiced on identical phenomena. For example, no one had yet observed or even imagined that mechanical or chemical effects, or eifects of light or heat, could occur along the length of an oddly twisted wire. In any case, the very idea then held of science implicitly excluded the possibility of absolutely unpredictable facts.

"In that state of knowledge one could speak of the universe and the unity of nature without doubting that one knew what one was saying. There were such things as time, space, matter, light, and a quite precise distinction between the inorganic world and the other; and the expression to know everything, which is the complement of the word universe, seemed to have a meaning and to be a perfectly clear delimiting expression. Laplace was able to imagine a mind powerful enough to embrace, or to deduce from a finite number of observations, all possible phenomena past and to come.

"But once an electric current was set going, the era of entirely new facts began. Each new fact was in its own way an attack on the theoretical structure of universal dynamics, which was thought to have been conceived in the widest possible generality. The very notion of physical theory has in the end been seriously, if not definitively, compromised. First of all, the mental imagery that had done such good service lost all its meaning once speculation was concerned no longer with subphenomena assumed to be similar to the phenomena directly observed, but rather with "things" that in no way resemble the things we know, since they only send us signals which we interpret as best we can. Furthermore, our language, and hence our logic, our concepts, our causality, our principles, have been found wanting: all this intellectual material will not fit into the nucleus of the atom, where everything is without precedent and without shape. Debatable probabilities have taken the place of definite and distinct facts, and the fundamental distinction between observation and its object is no longer conceivable.

"What has happened? Simply that our means of investigation and action have far outstripped our means of representation and understanding."

- Paul Valéry, "Unpredictability" [1944], published in The Outlook for Intelligence, translated into English by Denise Folliot and Jackson Matthews

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What a Delusion Most Needs

"Socrates, Socrates, Socrates! Yes, one may well call thy name thrice, it would not be too much to call it ten times, if that would do any good. People think that the world needs a republic, and they think that it needs a new social order, and a new religion - but it never occurs to anybody that what the world needs, confused as it is by much knowing, is a Socrates. But that is perfectly natural, for if anybody had this notion, not to say if many were to have it, there would be less need of a Socrates. What a delusion most needs is the very thing it least thinks of - naturally, for otherwise it would not be a delusion."

- Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, Sygdommen til Døden [The Sickness unto Death], 1849

Saturday, January 29, 2011

We are Lived by Powers We Pretend to Understand

"In Memory of Ernst Toller
(d. May 1939)

"The shining neutral summer has no voice
To judge America, or ask how a man dies;
And the friends who are sad and the enemies who rejoice

"Are chased by their shadows lightly away from the grave
Of one who was egotistical and brave,
Lest they should learn without suffering how to forgive.

"What was it, Ernst, that your shadow unwittingly said?
Did the small child see something horrid in the woodshed
Long ago? Or had the Europe which took refuge in your head

"Already been too injured to get well?
For just how long, like the swallows in that other cell,
Had the bright little longings been flying in to tell

"About the big and friendly death outside,
Where people do not occupy or hide;
No towns like Munich; no need to write?

"Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they'd done
Something that was an example to the young.

"We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

"It is their to-morrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends: but existence is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving."

- Wystan Hugh Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973), May 1939, originally published in Another Time (1940), excerpted from Collected Poems: W. H. Auden

Friday, January 28, 2011

Possessed by Them

"[quoting from Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe] Vol. i. p. 17. 'But my ill fate pushed me on now with an obstinacy that nothing could resist; and though I had several times loud calls from my reason, and my more composed judgment to go home, yet I had no power to do it. I know not what to call this, nor will I urge that it is a secret over-ruling decree that hurries us on to be the instruments of our own destruction, even though it be before us, and that we rush upon it with our eyes open.'

"The wise only possess ideas; the greater part of mankind are possessed by them. Robinson Crusoe was not conscious of the master-impulse, even because it was his master, and had taken, as he says, full possession of him. When once the mind, in despite of the remonstrating conscience, has abandoned its free power to a haunting impulse or idea, then whatever tends to give depth and vividness to this idea or indefinite imagination, increases its despotism, and in the same proportion renders the reason and free will ineffectual. Now, fearful calamities, sufferings, horrors, and hair-breadth escapes will have this effect, far more than even sensual pleasure and prosperous incidents. Hence the evil consequences of sin in such cases, instead of retracting or deterring the sinner, goad him on to his destruction. This is the moral of Shakspeare's Macbeth, and the true solution of this paragraph,—not any overruling decree of divine wrath, but the tyranny of the sinner's own evil imagination, which he has voluntarily chosen as his master."

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Notes on Robinson Crusoe," collected in The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 4 edited by James Marsh.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What Box?

One way to get out of the box is to leave the box; that's what Diogenes did. The other way is to destroy the box; that's what Alexander the Great tried to do.

While Alexander's father, Philip II of Macedon, was building the Macedonian army into the greatest in the world and then using it with diplomacy to conquer Greece, Aristotle was tutoring Alexander to build him up into a wonder of the world, perhaps the greatest ruler Europe had ever seen - Plato's dream of a philosopher king.

Alexander's conquests are much discussed, but they were only part of what he put in motion. He accelerated the melting-pot syndrome in ancient Greece by throwing together Greeks from different tribes, migrations, religions, and dialects. In his armies, the dialects merged into a common Greek called Koine Greek. The different strands of Greek religion likewise melded together into a complex, eclectic blend that added new strands from every culture they conquered together. So too was the learning of the different Greek peoples blended.

Under Alexander, the melded Greek peoples began to think of themselves as one people in a way they never had before, since they were now thrown together in battle against common enemies wherever Alexander led them. The incredible series of victories over even mighty empires had them triumphing together, celebrating together, becoming one people.

Alexander even set in motion the cult of youth we associate with Hollywood and glamour magazines. Until then, men wore full beards to prove they were not children, to prove they were worthy to command respect, but young, beardless Alexander swept them and their pretensions away. After Alexander, it became far more fashionable for grown men to shave to emulate Alexander's youth and vitality.

In so many ways, Alexander redefined the world to the Greeks but in this way above all others - after the experiences Alexander forced upon them, it simply was not possible for the Greeks to ever go back into their parochial polis-centric boxes again. The Library of Alexandria is an excellent metaphor for the Hellenistic culture overall that Alexander and his armies forged - the attempt to gather together the best and the brightest ideas and people from all over the world to create a continually improving culture that becomes better tomorrow than it is today. This idea of progress still haunts us today, of course, thousands of years later.

Phillip of Macedonia may have conquered the Greeks diplomatically and militarily, but it was Alexander who conquered them culturally and philosophically by exposing them to the much larger world they could not only participate in but also help create. He drowned the old Hellenic culture, for better and for worse, under the tidal wave of the Hellenistic culture, proved the superior power of a more world-encompassing culture over any one parochial worldview, however refined or worthy it might be.

Alexander set out to spread a cosmopolitan culture around the world, and though he failed in his goals what he did achieve was so unprecedented that it changed the world.

Between them, he and Diogenes proved there is more than one way out of the box.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Philosophical Inheritance

Diogenes and Alexander the Great were philosophical cousins. They each inherited some of their ideas from Socrates, their common philosophical ancestor.

Diogenes studied under Antisthenes who studied under Socrates, which makes Diogenes a kind of philosophical grandchild of Socrates. Alexander studied under Aristotle who studied under Plato who studied under Socrates, which makes Alexander a philosophical great grandchild of Socrates.

The difference in their approaches to the parochialism of the polis is due in part to their different resources rather than any serious differences in their philosophical ancestry.

Antisthenes, whose approach to philosophy may have been much closer to that of Socrates than Plato's was, was comparatively down to earth and skeptical. Diogenes himself had few resources - he was just one man, and he gave away almost everything he had - so it only makes sense that he would opt for the minimal approach to transcending his parochialism by changing himself.

Plato, though, was always more poet than philosopher, and his approach to philosophy was considerably less grounded than that of Antisthenes, more abstract and metaphorical. Plato was horrified when Athens condemned Socrates to death, and he retreated still further into his ideal and imaginary worlds. He transferred his loyalties from his polis of Athens to an imaginary philosophical republic of his own devising. Remarkable as Plato was, his ideal Republic may have been the first rigorous description of a totalitarian state. The worst excesses of the Inquisition and the Holocaust owe something to Plato's republic, as those totalitarian movements struggled to purify their own republics according to abstract theories about who should and should not exist in reality, much like Plato had done in theory.

Aristotle, Plato's most preeminant student, learned not just from Plato's strengths but also from his weaknesses. Instead of prescribing, he studied. Like Diogenes he was one of Plato's most severe critics. When Aristotle turned his attentions to the polis, instead of poetically theorizing about perfection, he studied the varieties of governments the polis has had over time and explored the reasons for their successes and failures. He systematically and empirically analyzed the polis to figure out what makes it work and how to make it work best. As far as we know he wrote little or nothing about Socrates's idea of the citizen of the world, perhaps because he had insufficient examples to study - Aristotle preferred the study of reality to speculation about possibilities - but it's pretty clear he talked about the idea because of what his student did with it.

Like Diogenes, Alexander inherited Socrates's ideas about the cosmopolis - the cosmos as the proper focus of our loyalty - but because of his superior resources he didn't stop by changing his own attitude about the Greek polis.

He decided to change everyone else's too. He decided to create a cosmopolitan world.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Socrates said that he was not an Athenian or a Greek but a citizen of the world.

Everything the man did made an impression. After all, he was willing to die for his philosophical beliefs. So it's not surprising that this statement, too, caught on and changed the Greek world.

After centuries of on-and-off civil war, Greece was almost ready for this idea. Certainly the Greeks needed some alternative to politics as usual, but they didn't quite realize it. The Greeks still had another half-century of civil war to go before they would exhaust themselves with the old idea of parochial patriotism, so when Socrates presented this radical idea, most Athenians wrote it off as just another crazy, provocative statement from crazy old Socrates.

Not everyone ignored him, though.

At least two of his students, Plato and Antisthenes, heard him and were inspired.

Antisthenes, who should be much better known than he is, was the teacher (whether directly or indirectly is unknown) of Diogenes of Sinope. Diogenes was a philosophical troublemaker and one of the founders of the philosophy known as cynicism - which beware! does not mean remotely what you think it does (it's a reference to dogs, for obscure reasons, not to sarcasm or sneering or pessimism).

Diogenes took Socrates's words to heart. He coined the term cosmopolites - the source of our word cosmopolitan - to mean a citizen of the world and, he tried his hardest to live his life that way. He became a living example of a man who could and did transcend parochial loyalties, who gave his loyalty to the whole cosmos.

If Diogenes did it, we can do it.

He transcended his parochial loyalties to a place. We need to transcend our parochial loyalties to any one worldview so we can give our loyalty to the cosmos of ideas.

We have been philosophically parochial. We must become philosophically cosmopolitan.

Monday, January 24, 2011


The biggest group the ancient Greeks could feel patriotic about was the polis, the city-state - that is, the city with its supporting countryside. Bigger than that just didn't feel real to most Greeks.

For some Greeks, even the polis didn't quite feel real. For them, only the family and tribe was real, and many city-states in times of stress broke down into factions along tribal lines. For most Greeks, though, patriotism meant loving, serving, and defending your city-state.

The Greeks knew they shared a language, and a religion, and a culture, and a homeland, but somehow that still wasn't enough for them to feel they were a single people, nor that they were a nation. When the Persians attacked the Greeks, they were able to unite to fight their common enemy, but whenever they weren't under that kind of pressure they tended to fall back apart into city-states. The idea of Greece, of all the city-states united and working together, just wouldn't stick with them for long, just couldn't compete with the simpler idea of one's own home polis.

As long as the relationship between people and polises remained Which side are you on? nobody could transcend the polis, and the history of Greece remained an endless civil war interrupted by periods of uneasy peace.

Although the Greeks had most of the makings of a mighty people, they couldn't stop fighting each other, and so their astonishing energies and innovations went into tearing each other down, leaving them vulnerable to conquest.

And indeed, eventually conquest found them, when Alexander the Great and his armies swept down from Macedonia and resolved all their conflicts for them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I Want It All

A child may fixate on a hammer as the solution to all life's problems, but the adult craftsman knows it's best to use the right tool for the job.

Most craftsmen become collectors of tools to ensure they always have whichever tool that is the best fit for the problem at hand. Building up a toolbox is part of becoming a craftsman. The best craftsmen also become connoisseurs of tools to ensure that of the available choices for each problem they choose the highest-quality version. But even the best craftsmen learn how to use the lower-quality tools, in case they find themselves in situations where that's all they have access to. They become jacks of all trades, proficient with everything they can in their chosen fields of work.

These practices of great craftsmen are fairly widely recognized around the world, yet when it comes to religions, worldviews, and other forms of culture we reflexively revert to the golden hammer. As Abraham Maslow described the situation in The Psychology of Science: A Renaissance, (1966):

"I remember seeing an elaborate and complicated automatic washing machine for automobiles that did a beautiful job of washing them. But it could do only that, and everything else that got into its clutches was treated as if it were an automobile to be washed. I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

Not everything needs to be pounded, but this is what we're doing when we monomaniacally adhere to a single perspective on the world, even though we ought to know better.

So let's grow up. Instead of mental toddlers, let's become great craftsmen of thought.

Instead of pounding away at the world with just one perspective, let's collect viewpoints - all of them. Instead of putting ourselves inside the soap bubble of any one worldview, let's put all those worldviews inside ourselves.

We must become craftsmen of thought.

The mind of a craftsman of thought is a toolbox of ideas, viewpoints, cultures, and religions. Instead of one opinion, a craftsman of thought collects them all, learns to use them all, and learns to let each new problem shape its own solution. Judgments about "which one is true" are irrelevant to the initial problem of collecting them all and figuring out how they can help.

To rule your own mind, you must not let it become subject to any one perspective. This is the paradox of reserving judgment: that instead of holding one opinion we simultaneously hold all of them and none of them, because we collect them all but commit ourselves to none of them.

What I've described here is necessary but not sufficient. A long journey toward wisdom remains beyond this stage of growing up. This though is the pivotal revelation for this rite of passage. To pass through the culture crisis from mental childhood into the beginnings of true adulthood, you need to give up monomania and learn to put opinions in their proper subordinate role as your mind's servants rather than its masters.

After you free your mind, the rest can follow.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Anyone who tries to create the one true, perfect religion or worldview or philosophy or culture becomes a cubist. We may capture what others miss, but only by distorting reality beyond recognition, and we will still miss most of reality.

Inescapably, a single worldview can only see a limited part of the world, only what is visible from that one perspective. What it does let us see is distorted by proximity or distance, and most distant thing are hidden behind nearer things. Further, the soap bubble of our culture then screens the information, distorts it, by magnifying some things and minimizing or hiding or recoloring others solely on the basis of cultural affinity and prejudice. By the time a single worldview is done "seeing" or "thinking" something, what's left in the brain is a homunculous, a grotesque caricature that we then try to reason with.

Like optical illusions, all cognitive illusions are built upon such limited perspectives. Single viewpoints are easily tricked, and they trick themselves with every act of seeing or thought. Nothing we see or understand through them truly is what it seems to be, and most of reality remains obscured.

The attempt to show the hidden sides of things at the same time as the visible sides was the motivation behind the development of the cubist art movement, to show more than one side at a time. Cubism itself was inspired by exposure to the glorious and surreal art of the Pacific Northwest Indian peoples, who invented cubism to suggest the unseen, spiritual world that they believe accompanies and infuses the material world. Within everything depicted in this art, additional figures and faces peer out at us to remind us that there's more to the world than meets the eye.

Whether glorious and inspirational, as the Indian art is, or thought-provoking but grotesque, as so much Western cubist art is, cubism reveals in the plainest possible way - visibly - the limitations of any single perspective. Picasso's hideous gargoyle of a face that shows both sides at once may suggest the exist of the unseen, but only by grossly distorting it. Likewise, the Pacific Northwest Indian artists would be the first to tell you that no matter how beautiful and complex their art may be, it can only hint at what they have always believed about the nature of the cosmos. The real world achieves degrees of unseen complexity with economy and beauty that no single perspective can possibly portray.

So it is with our points of view. There can never be a perfect culture or philosophy or worldview or religion. No one perspective is capable of capturing or even reasonably approximating reality, because single points of view are inherently distorting.

Thus - the solution to the culture crisis is not to try to create a perfect culture, a perfect viewpoint, because that only replaces one soap bubble with another one, complete with its own defects and liabilities. Or to use our previous metaphor, it's like a cyclops trying to overcome the deficiencies of monocular vision by standing in a different place. None of the choices is "the right one."

Our fundamental problem is not the contents of any specific culture; it is the monomania of thinking that any single viewpoint could ever be adequate to comprehend the world and our place in it.

Our passage to freedom requires us to abandon that old reflex to "pick one" and replace it with the obvious strategy, the best chance we have at the truth.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Soap Bubbles

"We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't the fish," Marshall McLuhan said on many occasions. The water man swims in is culture, specifically his own.

Evolution created us from our forerunners largely through neotony, through the retention of childhood characteristics into adulthood. Homo sapiens became a kind of child even in maturity. Thus we lost our fur, grew large heads, became more social and affectionate, grew vastly more curious, became profoundly mimetic, and freed ourselves from most of the instincts that governed the behavior of our distant ancestors.

With that freedom came also chaos - a wider range of possible behaviors than any other species can exhibit. Without the frame of instincts to restrict us to sane, healthy, adaptive behavior, everything became possible. Instead, we filled the abyss where human instincts should be with culture, with learned patterns of imitative behavior that most of the time we instinctually cleave to as firmly as though our specific culture were itself instinctual.

Cultures are psychologically totalitarian; they aim to fit every nook and cranny of uncertainty and leave us with what seems to be a perfectly reasonable and indeed inevitable, inescapable view of the world and our place in it. The preconceptions, assumptions, and habits of thought and feeling we learn from our culture steer us toward certain ways of seeing the world and away from others. A culture is defined every bit as much by what is unthinkable and impossible as by what everyone thinks and does all the time within that culture - maybe even moreso.

To the human mind, culture is very much like a soap bubble that encloses us, a pearly, translucent film between our mind and everything we try to think about or look at clearly. Because it is always there, we can't see it. We assume that the colors and interpretations our culture interposes between us and reality are characteristics of reality itself. The very idea that our cultural perspective is arbitrary is itself among the inconceivable ideas to someone within that culture.

If we undergo the culture crisis and come to understand this soap-bubble nature of our worldview, the most common thing to do is deny it and turn away from it - and so most people do. The second most common thing is to accept the arbitrary nature of our previous viewpoint - and then to decide to replace it with a another viewpoint, a better one. That is, if we accept that the defects and arbitrary qualities of our culture are really there, then we usually set out to choose or create a new worldview of our own that repairs those problems, to create a better culture for ourselves.

With such motivations are the ships of a thousand utopian projects launched.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


The cyclops is a monster because he sees with only one eye - with only one viewpoint, one perspective.

Without the context provided by additional perspectives, all his information is tortured out of shape by his mind to fit the only perspective he has. The mind of a cyclops is a Procrustean bed, named after the mythological Greek criminal Procrustes who tortured and killed travelers by altering them until they exactly fit his bed for guests. Every observation, every "fact," every idea is stretched, truncated, folded, spindled, or otherwise mutilated to make it fit into the one viewpoint the cyclops has. By the time the cyclops is done "thinking" about an idea, it bears only the faintest resemblance to reality - though from his one perspective it's a perfect fit.

A single perspective cannot have perspective on itself, so the cyclops is incapable of introspection. Introspection is the capacity to consider oneself - especially one's ways of thinking about the world. It is a prerequisite for significant personal mental development, since until a person achieves introspection he is inclined to believe everything he believes, to take for granted everything he takes for granted. That is, he is blind to himself. His inner eye is closed, so that he walks through life asleep, dreaming a fantasy that bears only a passing resemblance to reality.

Nor does a cyclops have true empathy. The cyclops's eye creates a self-centered perspective, in which the world is perceived only in relation to oneself. As the Native American saying goes, you cannot understand another man until you walk a mile in his moccasins, until you see the world the way he sees it. That requires an act of imagination, opening the mental eye to new possibilities outside one's own perspective, something a cyclops cannot do. This is why the cyclops is so often a cannibal. Without empathy, other people seem to be just phenomena like cattle or rain, of no special importance except as servants or raw materials. A human being without empathy is a sociopath.

Every human being is born a cyclops. Our two biological eyes create a binocular outward vision, but do nothing to improve our perspective on ourselves or our ideas about the world. We still have only one mental eye, and we assume it is correct - without imagination it is impossible to assume otherwise. That is, we appear to be binocular creatures, but in all the ways that matter we are all cyclopses.

As far as we can tell, in the same way a human being has an instinctual drive for language that must be cultivated to blossom into full expression, so do human beings have an instinctual drive to open up their third eye, to acquire a binocular mind and become capable of introspection, empathy, and the other traits that make human beings more than just monsters. Curiosity is built into the healthy child and will readily develop into imagination given the chance. Parenting and culture are needed to help the child with that passage through the culture crisis; they act as midwives for this second birth. When they go wrong, this path of development withers and an infant's naive cyclopean state ossifies into the hostile cyclopean mind we see all too often in "adults."

Heraclitus wrote "Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for people who have barbarian souls." He was thinking of the cyclops in all of us that we must overcome if we are ever to have a meaningful relationship with the real world.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What Everyone Else Does Not Say in a Book

"I am often asked why, after all, I write in German: nowhere am I read worse than in the Fatherland. But who knows in the end whether I even wish to be read today? To create things on which time tests its teeth in vain; in form, in substance, to strive for a little immortality — I have never yet been modest enough to demand less of myself. The aphorism, the apothegm, in which I am the first among the Germans to be a master, are the forms of 'eternity'; it is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book — what everyone else does not say in a book."

- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Die Götzen-Dämmerung - Twilight of the Idols translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Stand a Little out of My Sun

"Thereupon many statesmen and philosophers came to Alexander with their congratulations, and he expected that Diogenes of Sinope also, who was tarrying in Corinth, would do likewise. But since that philosopher took not the slightest notice of Alexander, and continued to enjoy his leisure in the suburb Craneion, Alexander went in person to see him; and he found him lying in the sun. Diogenes raised himself up a little when he saw so many persons coming towards him, and fixed his eyes upon Alexander. And when that monarch addressed him with greetings, and asked if he wanted anything, 'Yes,' said Diogenes, 'stand a little out of my sun.' It is said that Alexander was so struck by this, and admired so much the haughtiness and grandeur of the man who had nothing but scorn for him, that he said to his followers, who were laughing and jesting about the philosopher as they went away, 'But truly, if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.'"

- Plutarch, Alexander

Monday, January 17, 2011

Monarchy Aristocracy Polity Tyranny Oligarchy Democracy

"The words constitution and government have the same meaning, and the government, which is the supreme authority in states, must be in the hands of one, or of a few, or of the many. The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one or of the few, or of the many, are perversions. Of forms of government in which one rules, we call that which regards the common interests, monarchy; that in which more than one, but not many, rule, aristocracy (and it is so called, either because the rulers are the best men, or because they have at heart the best interests of the state and of the citizens). But when the citizens at large administer the state for the common interest, the government is called a polity. And there is a reason for this use of language.

"Of the above-mentioned forms, the perversions are as follows: of monarchy, tyranny; of aristocracy, oligarchy; of polity, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all. Tyranny, as I was saying, is monarchy exercising the rule of a master over the political society; oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands; democracy, the opposite, when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers....Then ought the good to rule and have supreme power? But in that case everybody else, being excluded from power, will be dishonored. For the offices of a state are posts of honor; and if one set of men always holds them, the rest must be deprived of them. Then will it be well that the one best man should rule? Nay, that is still more oligarchical, for the number of those who are dishonored is thereby increased....The discussion of the first question shows nothing so clearly as that laws, when good, should be supreme; and that the magistrate or magistrates should regulate those matters only on which the laws are unable to speak with precision owing to the difficulty of any general principle embracing all particulars."

- Aristotle, Politics

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Citizen of the World

"If the things are true which are said by the philosophers about the kinship between God and man, what else remains for men to do than what Socrates did? Never in reply to the question, to what country you belong, say that you are an Athenian or a Corinthian, but that you are a citizen of the world. For why do you say that you are an Athenian, and why do you not say that you belong to the small nook only into which your poor body was cast at birth? Is it not plain that you call yourself an Athenian or Corinthian from the place which has a greater authority and comprises not only that small nook itself and all your family, but even the whole country from which the stock of your progenitors is derived down to you? He then who has observed with intelligence the administration of the world, and has learned that the greatest and supreme and the most comprehensive community is that which is composed of men and God, and that from God have descended the seeds not only to my father and grandfather, but to all beings which are generated on the earth and are produced, and particularly to rational beings - for these only are by their nature formed to have communion with God, being by means of reason conjoined with Him - why should not such a man call himself a citizen of the world, why not a son of God, and why should he be afraid of anything which happens among men? Is kinship with Caesar or with any other of the powerful in Rome sufficient to enable us to live in safety, and above contempt and without any fear at all? and to have God for your maker and father and guardian, shall not this release us from sorrows and fears?"

- Arrian, The Discourses of Epictetus, ca. 108 CE, quoting Epictetus paraphrasing Socrates

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Triumph of Folly

"Democracy is the worst form of government. It is the most inefficient, the most clumsy, the most unpractical. No machinery has yet been contrived to carry out in any but the most farcical manner its principles. It reduces wisdom to impotence and secures the triumph of folly, ignorance, clap-trap and demagogy. The critics of democracy have the easiest of tasks in demonstrating its inefficiency. But there is something even more important than efficiency and expediency - justice. And democracy is the only social order that is admissible, because it is the only one consistent with justice. The moral consideration is supreme. Efficiency, expediency, even practical wisdom and success must go by the board; they are of no account beside the categorical imperative of justice. Justice is only possible when to every man belongs the power to resist and claim redress from wrong. That is democracy. And that is why, clumsy, inefficient, confused, weak and easily misguided as it is, it is the only form of government which is morally permissible. The ideal form of government is an enlightened and benevolent despotism; but that is an absolutely unrealizable dream much more visionary than any democratic Utopia. There can never be an adequately enlightened and justly benevolent despot. Your philosopher king is not a practical success. Put a Sir Thomas More in power, and you have a Torquemada; your ineffectual Marcus Aurelius is succeeded by a Commodus. Justice is only possible through a diffusion of power, and it is in point of fact by the progress of democratic power that the progress of justice has been brought about."

- Robert Briffault, The Making of Humanity, 1919, twenty-eight years before Churchill's famous speech before the House of Commons

Friday, January 14, 2011

Give a Small Boy a Hammer

"In addition to the social pressures from the scientific community there is also at work a very human trait of individual scientists. I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding. It comes as no particular surprise to discover that a scientist formulates problems in a way which requires for their solution just those techniques in which he himself is especially skilled. To select candidates for training as pilots, one psychologist will conduct depth interviews, another will employ projective tests, a third will apply statistical techniques to questionnaire data, while a fourth will regard the problem as a 'practical' one beyond the capacity of a science which cannot yet fully predict the performance of a rat in a maze. And standing apart from them all may be yet another psychologist laboring in remote majesty - as the rest see him - on a mathematical model of human learning.

"The law of the instrument, however, is by no means wholly pernicious in its working. What else is a man to do when he has an idea, Peirce asks, but ride it as hard as he can, and leave it to others to hold it back within proper limits? What is objectionable is not that some techniques are pushed to the utmost, but that others, in consequence, are denied the name of science. The price of training is always a certain 'trained incapacity': the more we know how to do something, the harder it is to learn to do it differently (children learn to speak a foreign language with less of an accent than adults do only because they did not know their own language so well to start with). I believe it is important that training in behavioral science encourage appreciation of the greatest possible range of techniques."

- Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, 1964

[possibly a variation on an unrecorded quote by Mark Twain]

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dragging Us Whither We Do Not Know

"I propose to evoke for you the disorder in which we live. I shall try to show you the reactions of a mind as it observes that disorder: how, when it has taken the measure of what it can and cannot do, it turns inward to reflect, and tries to picture for itself that chaos, to which, by its very nature, it is opposed.

"But the image of chaos is chaos. Disorder is therefore my first point; it is this I ask you to think about. A certain effort is needed, for we have come to be accustomed to it, we live on it, we breathe it, we add to it, and sometimes we feel a real need for it. We find it all around us and within us, in the newspapers, in our daily life, in our manners, in our pleasures, even in our knowledge. It sustains us; and what we have ourselves created is now dragging us whither we do not know and do not wish to go."

--Paul Valéry, "Politics of the Mind" [1932], in The Outlook for Intelligence

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Earth-bound Creatures

"While such possibilities still may lie in a distant future, the first boomerang effects of science's great triumphs have made themselves felt in a crisis within the natural sciences themselves. The trouble concerns the fact that the "truths" of the modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought. The moment these "truths" are spoken of conceptually and coherently, the resulting statements will be "not perhaps as meaningless as a 'triangular circle,' but much more so than a 'winged lion' " (Erwin Schrodinger). We do not yet know whether this situation is final. But it could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do. In this case, it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking. If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is."

- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Sick, It Made Ever Sicker

"There are people who are opposed to all philosophy and one does well to listen to them, particularly when they advised the diseased minds of Germans to stay away from metaphysics, instead preaching purification through physis as Goethe did, or healing through music, as did Richard Wagner. The physicians of our culture repudiate philosophy. Whoever wishes to justify it must show, therefore, to what ends a healthy culture uses and has used philosophy. Perhaps the sick will then actually gain salutary insight into why philosophy is harmful specifically to them. There are good instances, to be sure, of a type of health which can exist altogether without philosophy, or with but a very moderate, almost playful, exercise of it. The Romans during their best period lived without philosophy. But where could we find an instance of cultural pathology which philosophy restored to health? If philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker. Wherever a culture was disintegrating, wherever tension between it and its individual components was slack, philosophy could never re-integrate the individuals back into the group. Wherever an individual was of a mind to stand apart, to draw a circle of self-sufficiency about himself, philosophy was ready to isolate him still further, finally to destroy him through that isolation. Philosophy is dangerous wherever it does not exist in its fullest right, and it is only the health of a culture - and not every culture at that - which accords it such fullest right."

- Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, translated by Marianne Cowan

Monday, January 10, 2011

Passage to Freedom

The culture crisis, when we realize our culture isn't the only choice, is our passage to all true personal freedom and higher development. It's also a test, a filter.

Granted, too many people flunk this test and remain behind. Totalitarians, jingoists, bigots, and idealogues do their best to avoid other cultures or drive them into extinction in a misguided effort to resolve their personal crisis by eliminating from the world any choice but the one they know and trust. After all, if there are no other choices in existence, then we don't have to suffer the anxiety of having to choose.

The rest of us, though, realize that if other people can live and think in different ways, then so can we, that we do not have to remain the person we have been up until now, the person our parents and culture molded us to be, but can instead begin to mold ourselves into whoever we want to become.

That is, we can give up the passivity of our mental and cultural childhood to become active participants in creating our adult selves. We can be more than other people's creations; we can become creators of ourselves.

After all, no one and nothing is perfect; every parent and culture does things right, but we also do things wrong and make mistakes. Until we become co-creators of ourselves, we must passively accept not just the strengths our parents and culture imparted to us but also their weaknesses. If we see ourselves only with the ideas they had, we will usually make the same mistakes they did and overlook and therefore preserve and pass on the same weaknesses.

Our development is limited until we transcend our upbringing. The only chance we have to keep the strengths while repairing the weaknesses is to get involved in the process by learning to think about ourselves in different ways than the ways that produced those weaknesses in the first place.

When we instead begin to use more than one culture at a time to evaluate ourselves and the world, our relationship to our ideas and culture becomes qualitatively different - different in kind - than it was before, and we move into a new stage of human development in which we can finally gain perspective on these things, to understand them more fully than the limited framework of their own self-justifying rationalizations would allow.

Resolving this crisis in a healthy way is the pivotal moment, the most important passage, in any person's life between birth and death. Only through this realization is it possible to become an actual adult instead of just the child in an adult's body that so many "adults" remain. We cannot understand ourselves nor can we create any meaningful personal freedom of action unless and until we can see ourselves with new eyes, to gain a new viewpoint on ourselves and our choices that reveals how much more range of thought and action we have than our culture and upbringing alone would have given us.

After passing through this crisis, everything looks different to us, and we need a new way of relating to ideas and opinions. This new way, the way of personal freedom and responsibility, is very different than the childish opinion-mongering that passes for politics in the modern world.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Outside the Box

It's relatively easy for human beings to think outside the box because we have so little instinctual box left.

Here's the bad side.

We have a powerful instinctive drive to fill the psychological hole where other species keep their instincts with a culture instead, and to bind ourselves to that culture as fiercely as though it were instinctive rather than learned. This is one of the main ingredients in the negative side of our flexibility, in which we can have a complete disregard for the truth because of our fanatical attachment to an arbitrary view of the world.

Unfortunately, the challenge for us is that we unthinkingly accept the assumptions and prejudices of our cultures with such tenacity that we often deny the existence of alternatives (or at least deny their right to exist). Psychologically, human culture is a form of monomania, of obsessions and compulsions orbiting a single idea or cluster of ideas we can't seem to escape, as though our adopted culture were biologically hard-wired.

Here's the good side.

Fortunately, the opportunity for us here is that biologically we don't care which culture we slavishly follow. Almost any conceivable culture, no matter how bizarre, will satisfy our craving. This is why we have created so very many different cultures throughout the world over time. In other words, we throw ourselves into our acting roles with unbridled conviction, but we're more or less as happy in one role as another.

In the absence of one instinctual box for all human beings, our species creates many different cultural boxes to replace that missing box.

This is a very, very good thing for our search for the truth, because it creates the opportunity for us to be jarred out of our cultural monomanias when we are shocked by exposure to other cultures. Magic happens to us in that crisis, because we acquire however briefly a glimpse of the essential human truth that our most beloved, cherished ideas and behaviors are not in fact God's own truth, merely an arbitrary choice imposed on us through the accident of our birth.

After all, from within the soap bubble of our own culture, no other culture seems desirable or perhaps even possible, and to us in our naivete that feels like the essential truth of both our culture and the world, so to see other human beings who not only successfully exist within an alien culture but are even happy and fulfilled within it creates an overwhelming problem for our worldview. Their existence simply cannot be reconciled with our worldview, and one of the two has to give.

When we resolve this crisis constructively, we begin to escape the box of our culture and create true personal freedom.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

I Stand Aside

Three words that should be better known are "I stand aside."

Because consensus-based decision making is so prone to gridlock, it includes decision-making tactics that other political systems overlook. Chief among these is standing aside.

Standing aside lets us disagree with a decision without interfering with it. That is, we don't always have to act on our opinions; just because we don't like something, that doesn't mean it should be stopped. After all, there's nothing sacred about opinions; most of our opinions are poorly informed ones. When we can't make an informed decision, we would all be better off if we stood aside and let more informed people make the decision.

Life's too complex and too short for there to be enough time to become informed enough about every subject to make good decisions. We need to choose the subjects we care enough about to prioritize, and then then we need to become educated enough about them for our opinions to do more good than harm; on other subjects we need to learn how to let go, to stand aside.

This is a problem for most of us because we think standing aside might somehow be irresponsible. As with our irrational fear of acknowledging our ignorance, our fear of standing aside is learned in school.

We teach our children that adults in America are free to have their own opinions, but we forget to teach them that they are also free not to have opinions - as well as not to act upon the ones they do have except when they matter most. As a result, it is widely though unconsciously believed that having opinions should be the normal state of affairs, along with pushing those opinions on everyone around us.

Looking at the state of public discourse today, the pointless, endless squabbling and name-calling, surely we can agree that we're long overdue to try something different.

Fortunately, in the search for the truth there are better options than holding and defending opinions.

Friday, January 07, 2011

I Don't Know

In the search for honesty, the three most powerful words are "I don't know."

We teach children that "I don't know" is a failure to answer a question, not an accurate answer. Students are graded down for saying they don't know, thereby teaching them that aditting ignorance is punishable behavior. When in popular fiction we try to portray a genius, we always (foolishly) portray someone who knows all the answers.

This is a source of great folly in the modern world.

Open-minded, scientific or philosophical inquiry is impossible for anyone ashamed to say the words "I don't know," yet even in science classes we punish students who say that.

As we learn in childhood education, so we practice in the modern adult world.

One of the worst problems that afflicts both our democracy and our economy is the combination of willful ignorance - people who have no idea what they're talking about and yet are unwilling to admit it. Both a market economy and a democracy depend upon people being able to act in their own best interests, but the majority of people act against their long-term interests - and frequently even against their short-term interests. Modern adults are surprisingly ignorant of what is healthy or empowering for them and instead act according to how ideas have been marketed to them, that is, they act in ignorance.

Sadly, although it is de facto considered acceptable to be ignorant, it is not considered acceptable to admit to being ignorant.

In almost all of the adult world, to tell someone they're ignorant about a subject is considered an insult - but it shouldn't be, any more than telling someone they have brown eyes is. People should know when they're ignorant, and they should deal with it tactically, as a condition to be taken into consideration when planning.

After all, the best thing every human being can do for themselves most of the time on most subjects to get closer to the truth is to forthrightly admit that we don't know the subject. That recognition gives us the chance to learn, because until we admit our ignorance we aren't likely to recognize that we need to learn.

Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, wore a medallion around his neck that read Que sais-je? (What do I know?) to remind himself and his friends that acknowledging ignorance is the beginning ot any honest inquiry.

If we all did likewise, perhaps we would be better, more honest people, and the world would be a better place.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Willing the Void

"Man would rather will the void than be void of will." That's what Nietsche wrote for the final sentence of The Genealogy of Morals. As usual, Friedrich spotlights an uncomfortable human quality.

Some parents of adolescents notice how often their children will do something self-destructive of their own choice rather than take the healthier action proposed by a parent or other authority figure. Like the terrible twos, adolescence is another period when human beings feel the compulsion to exercise their will for good or ill.

Of course some people never get over the need to overuse their will. I continue to be surprised in life when I run into people who insist on making decisions even about things they know little about. The urge to have an opinion, however poorly formed or misguided, and to impose it on others is irresistable to each of us from time to time - and to some people far too often. Some people would rather be wrong and suffer terrible consequences than let others decide for them - or even let others decide for themselves.

This compulsion is not as widely recognized as it ought to be because it makes so little sense, is so difficult to reconcile with our popular conceptions of human nature. Why would people do this if we are reasonable or spiritual beings?

Likewise, that some people suffer from this affliction (or more accurately inflict it on everyone around them) while others rarely behave this way is yet another example that refutes the idea that we're all the same. There are crucial patterns of differences among people, mental subspecies of the human species, and the unrecognized conflicts among these nongenetic subspecies cause untold suffering in the world.

Reasonable people can usually sympathize with the occasional frustrated cry of "Let me drive," but when the same people always insists on being in charge (and often with an aggrieved air), patience wears thin. Anyone who has served on committees or attended panel discussions is familiar with the type, the one who can't share control.

The Greeks noted that democracy only works when you have a demos (people) fit to kratein (rule). Among the requirements of being fit to rule is knowing when to let other people make decisions - which should be most of the time in any properly functioning democracy. True democracy in this more sophisticated Athenian sense rquires more than elections and polls, requires more than everyone getting a say. It also requires that people lead where they have expertise and needs but follow when they don't.

Whether in democracy, aristocracy, or tyranny, to be an effective ruler requires that we create the conditions in which we are not usually the one making the decisions. To rule effectively requires the ability and propensity to follow as well as to lead.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Man and Beast

Human beings think they're better than other animals.

When we want to insult someone for acting crudely, we accuse him of behaving like an animal. Almost no one uses beastly as a compliment. Some religions describe the superiority of the divine by arguing that God is as far above us as we are above the beasts.

The problem is that we're not better than the animals. We are animals.

This is why biologists and the biologically sympathetic work so hard to argue that man is an animal, not to be treated as better than other animals but as a peer. Over the years, some of us have taken this too far and made the mistake of treating man as identical to the other animals, not different at all.

That exaggerated position overlooks the obvious. After all, no other animal is exterminating other species at the pace we are nor changing the face of the Earth as dramatically as we are. Nor has any other animal developed the technology to travel to the moon and back. Certainly, we are animals, with seemingly endless similarities to our species-cousins, but at the same time we are also different than they are in myriad ways we find difficult to characterize.

Here's my first attempt.

We are not better than the other animals, nor as some animal-rights activists would have it are we worse. We are to the side of them, on a different scale. It is foolish to say human beings are either better or worse than the other animals. The reason is simple.

Biologically we are animals, but psychologically we are something else entirely.

Psychologically and behaviorally we are more variable than any other animal. We are both better than the other animals and worse than them. Lumping all human beings together behaviorally is deeply misguided, let alone comparing them psychologically as a whole to any other species. We may or may not all be created equal as Jefferson asserted, but we sure don't end up that way, as Dr. Mengele and Dr. King demonstrated. Our legal equality is not the same as being psychologically or behaviorally identical.

That variability is our essential character, as Shakespeare noted.

At heart, human beings are actors able to assume many roles in the world rather than a single role. As I wrote in Sleepless almost two years ago, it was our evolutionary neotony that made us so flexible, freeing us from the frame of our old instincts to create the widest range of psychological and behavioral possibilities of any animal on Earth. That wide range created both the possibility of behaving far better than any other animal but also far worse. We can be angels or demons or anything in between.

Our freedom from instincts and our dependence on nurtured culture to replace those instincts is both our heroic strength and our tragic weakness. It is precisely that one evolutionary leap that makes it possible to be passionately consumed by the quest for the truth or to have a complete disregard for it.

What I posted yesterday described the downside of that flexibility where the truth is concerned. What I post tomorrow will describe the upside.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

We Hold These Truths . . .

Everything in the cosmos is self-evident - it is what it is to anyone with eyes to see it - but not to us. We do not have such eyes.

The human mind is not only capable of deceit and self-deceit, it is rarely capable of anything else. Unlike the inherent truth of everything in the cosmos, everything we believe is flawed by our Midas touch, which sucks the truth out of our every idea and replaces it with what we want to believe or have. The philosopher Heraclitus was right to warn us about the things we want.

The same passions and ideologies that lead us to engage dishonestly with the honest world also lead us to misunderstand everything about it, to project our priorities upon it. Those interpretations and meanings we project do not directly change the real world. They change the picture of the world - the map - we carry around in our heads. They create inaccuracies in that map, flattering the things we like, insulting the things we don't, and generally omitting everything we fail to recognize.

The picture of the cosmos in our heads is the only one we really perceive most of the time, which is why human beings repeatedly do the wrong things - they would have been the right things to do if their picture of the world represented reality, but it doesn't.

So as bad as the problem of truth is for human beings when we just consider the ways in which the surface appearances of things can deceive, the problem reveals itself to be shockingly, confoundingly worse when we realize that we rarely perceive even the true appearances of things because we're too busy reacting to the imaginary appearances of things in our heads, the ones overlaid with years and decades of assumptions, desires, prejudices, and defense mechanisms.

Clearly put, if we were such fools as to treat the appearances of things as though they held the truth, we would still be vastly wiser than we are, because we are a step further removed from the truth than that, treating instead our mental pictures of the appearances of things as though they held the truth.

But the problem is far worse than that. Each of us holds our own picture of the world, with our own idiosyncratic prejudices standing between us and reality. It is not one labyrinth of assumptions we have to navigate to reach to the true appearances of things. It is six billion competing labyrinths.

Then it gets worse, because in any modern culture the political process takes us further from reality. As history shows repeatedly, compromising between those labyrinths suppresses the vestigial truths left in them, because the average human delusion - the things we can all agree on - is what is least likely to be true because it's most likely to be what we want. Instead of correcting for our labyrinths, we build a new one that takes as its bricks and mortar not even the appearance of the truth but instead our manifold delusions.

The idea that anything can be truly evident to us as a species is refuted by the human condition. The idea that any "truth" can or should be "self-evident" to humanity, that we do not even need to work for certain truths because it's obvious that they're true - that's trying to make a virtue out of a human defect so vast it is the very wailing abyss where our respect for the truth ought to be.

The most certain thing you can say about the sef-evidence of truths is that the actual truths of the cosmos are indeed inherently self-evident, but never to human beings. We are indeed special among animals in the profundity of our benightedness.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Story and Anthropoculture

Once upon a time, stories were sacred, dedicated to the gods, designed to accomplish culture's highest calling - anthropoculture, the cultivation of good human beings.

The classical Greeks (among others) recognized that human nature is extremely variable, that people can be as good as angels, as evil as demons, or anything in between. The people who come out on the evil side of the human spectrum together with the many average people who foolishly follow or support them are the source of most of the problems humanity has faced since long before the dawn of history. Of the remaining problems, most of those are caused by people who come out on the good end of the spectrum, since even the best human being is still deeply flawed. In other words, as the wise cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

The Greeks realized - as did other cultures such as the Navajos and Hopis - that to make a safer, better world we have to learn how to make better people. Anthropoculture, then, is our most vital responsibility, to make sure that people come out on the good end of the human spectrum.

These cultures also realized that it's very hard to succeed at anthropoculture. Therefore, they decided that to count as truly civilized a culture would need to reinvent every part of itself so that every part of the culture helped cultivate goodness and virtue in people.

For example, the Greeks deliberately reinvented their entire religion. They replaced their many separate tribal faiths with a new Olympian religion, that helped them reduce civil warfare and that also helped them replace their old tribal conflicts with peaceful competitions at festivals like the Olympic games.

As another example, the Navajos integrated their religion so completely with every aspect of their life that when European invaders first met them they couldn't identify a separate religious part like they had. Europeans mistakenly concluded the Navajos had no religion, instead of realizing that on the contrary the Navajos were profoundly more religious than the Europeans were. Everything about Navajo culture, including the layout of their houses and even the structure of their mocassins was designed to reinforce their cosmological and ethical beliefs, which made separate churches and periodic religious services superfluous.

In the cultures that made this breakthrough, those that committed themselves to anthropoculture, even the spinning of yarns was reinvented to replace a simple pastime with an indispensible tool in the struggle to understand and improve human nature.

Maybe we should do likewise.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Discovery of Story

In the modern world we overuse invention as a metaphor. For example, we call even language an invention even though it seems to be built right into the structure of our brain. A few specific languages are inventions, sure, but language itself clearly isn't. We invented it no more than we invented our hands, or our DNA.

Lately I've begun to suspect that story itself is not an invention either, though almost all specific stories are. Story may be an innate property of our minds, something we discovered rather than invented, the discovery that our minds need to understand events in a certain kind of way or else we can't pay attention to or remember the truth no matter how important it is.

This builds off an earlier observation by Harold Bloom that Sigmund Freud's revolutionary invention of psychoanalysis may be completely dependent on Shakespeare (!), that it was Shakespeare who first began writing about characters who could speak aloud their feelings and plans, listen to their own words, react to them, and decide to change their minds about what they would do or who they wanted to be based upon overhearing themselves. Bloom noted that Freud had studied Shakespeare's revolutionary introspection and written about it early in his career, that Freud created a therapy out of Shakespeare's art.

Bloom's theory is worth investigating partly because it's so surprising, but partly because it holds water. The more you study Shakespeare, the more depth you find to his portrayal of human characters. After all, a great writer must first be a great observer of human nature.

Once we throw off our assumption that Shakespeare was mainly an artist in the modern sense of an entertainer and instead begin to consider him as an artist in the archaic sense of one who searches for profound insights into reality that can be captured and represented in ways that move us, his works surprise us again and again.

For example, his "All the world's a stage" quote seems more profound the more thought we give it, shedding the initial appearance of a metaphor and taking on increasingly the shape of one of the most important observations ever made about the core of human nature, that above all we are mimics, that almost everything we do or think or feel is some kind of monkey-see-monkey-do role playing, the memorization and imitation of other people's behavior. In this Shakespearean sense, the path to enlightenment has to begin with the realization that very little of our behavior is intrinsic to us, that we are the actor, not the role, and that we contain within us the potential to behave very differently than we now do if only we can break out of our roles long enough to remember who and what we really are. Much of human behavior and history only makes sense if this is true.

If Shakespeare is right, and I've come to think he is, then not only is the acting we do more than mere entertainment, so too are the roles we play and the stories we tell. That is, if we are essentially mimics then we can learn more about our species by studying how we imitate, the kinds of roles we adopt, the kinds of stories we try to create around ourselves, and what all of those stories have in common - the deep structure of story itself.

Story may be more than an arbitrary means of expression. It may be a universal, innate mental template that helps define what we can and cannot remember and learn, an essential characteristic of the human species.

If we are not essentially rational beings, if we are instead fundamentally mimetic creatures, it changes everything. The discovery of story might then help tell us who we are, which we need to find out to solve the greatest problem facing the human species.


Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Two Threads - Plot and Story

Stories have to be told as two threads.

On the surface, stories seem to consist of just one thread. Words follow each other to form sentences, which follow each other to describe events. That's the obvious thread, the first thread, one event following another from beginning to end to create the plot.

That first thread, though, cannot stand alone. We've all read or watched or heard too many plots that tried to make do on their own, and the results are always bland and empty. No matter how clever a plot may be, it cannot satisfy us on its own. The characters won't interest us. The events won't matter to us. Soon after reading, we forget such plots because they aren't memorable; they don't seem to matter.

A subtle, invisible thread must be woven into the plot to make it come alive for us and stay with us. The author needs to choose the characters and events well to weave that second thread, so that hidden under the surface events of the plot will be a sequence of emotional and philosophical charges set off by those events.

This thread acts as a hidden harmony within the story. It is where we come to care about the characters, come to have expectations about what will happen to them. Those expectations make the events of the plot matter to us; they alternately reward and frustrate us as they occur so that we are emotionally and philosophically involved with the story until the end, and they're what make the ending matter to us.

It is the interplay between these two threads, the plot and its hidden harmony, that create a story. When a story fails to satisfy us, it's almost always because too much of the author's effort has gone into the plot and not enough into the story. When they're properly woven, though, there's something about stories that captures us heart and soul. We crave them as though our need for them were stamped into our blood and bone or written in our genes.

Maybe it is.