Monday, May 14, 2012

The German word "geistig"

“Dancing, business, theatre, cards, dares, horses, women, drink, travel, all these are powerless in the face of the boredom that arises when a lack of intellectual needs makes intellectual pleasures impossible.”—Schopenhauer
The “geistige Bedürfnisse” of which Schopenhauer speaks could also be translated as “spiritual needs.” To our ears, this would give the passage an entirely different meaning. “Intellectual” and “spiritual” might be considered synonymous, both referring to the mind. But unfortunately the word “spiritual” has been usurped by those for whom care of the intellect is a lazy and undisciplined affair. It is as if the word “athletic” had been usurped by those who watch television all day. We may consider ourselves fortunate that, at least for now, the word “intellectual” retains an association with discipline. In our paradisiacal democracy, where we are ruled by those who, in addition to representing the majority, also represent the intellectual level of the majority, this is unlikely to last for long.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pop culture

“Pop culture is created by capitalists intent upon profit, not by humanitarians intent upon educating, improving or ennobling mankind.”

“And who gets to decide what constitutes an improvement? You, I suppose?”

“That’s just the thing. It’s not as if the producers of pop culture have an idea of what ennobles and improves mankind different from my own. They have none at all. They just don’t care about those things. They want to be popular. They want to make a profit. Culture that educates and improves has to also challenge. And most people don’t want a challenge. Pop culture is the cultural equivalent of fast food. Rather than trying to nourish, it bypasses conscience and appeals directly to the palate.”

Friday, April 20, 2012

Theory and practice

When mathematicians, physicists and philosophers say, “Practice is for lesser minds. I concern myself only with theory,” their statement is more than merely arrogance. It represents a conscious decision about priorities. It represents a choice to place intellectual life on a higher plane than material life. It is, in essence, the same decision made by Christians who renounce the kingdom of means for the Kingdom of God, by Buddhists who renounce the world of action for the world of contemplation. The intellectual forms the mathematician or physicist plays with are different from those the mystic plays with. But the belief in the superiority of intellectual life is the same.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Love and desire

“If people were told: what makes carnal desire imperious in you is not its pure carnal element. It is the fact that you put into it the essential part of yourself—the need for Unity, the need for God—they wouldn’t believe it. To them it seems obvious that the quality of imperious need belongs to the carnal desire as such. In the same way it seems obvious to the miser that the quality of desirability belongs to gold as such, and not to its exchange value.”—Simone Weil
A desire comes from nature, and to obey it is to obey nature, to acquiesce in the role of created being. But the neighbor’s desire is as much a part of nature as my own. To satisfy my own while leaving his unsatisfied ceases to be an act of reverence to nature. It becomes instead an act of rebellion against it. Unlike the ascetic’s rebellion, however, it is hard to imagine this being a rebellion on behalf of something higher. Desire can retain its innocence only so long as it is no more imperious than love.

Monday, April 2, 2012


The typical bourgeois endures tedious and unfulfilling work for the sake of extravagant entertainment and sumptuous meals. An existence in which such passive activities are the center and focus is but a pale shadow of what it might have been, had work been its center and focus. It isn’t consumption that satisfies. It’s creation.

One visible effect of the bourgeoisification of the professions is that, over time, the houses of professionals become more and more grand and opulent, while the offices where we perform our work become more and more austere. If work were the center of our life, rather than merely a means, it would be just the other way.

If we expect to find gratification in insignificant things (entertainments and sumptuous meals) and not in significant things (thinking, creating, producing), we will find only an insignificant gratification. Profound happiness will elude us.

The difference between genius and bourgeois is not that genius has more talent, ability or intelligence. It is that for genius work is an end in itself. Genius is gratified by its exercise. The bourgeois refuses to find and exercise his genius. Instead, we find him at the theater and the opera, vainly trying to be gratified by the genius of others. His passivity is a tragedy in its own right, if only he would understand it rightly.

The division of labor efficiently provides for basic necessities, so genius may focus upon developing itself and not be distracted. But it brings with it an unfortunate temptation to sit back and watch others exercise their genius instead of finding and developing our own.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dirty money

According to Harper’s magazine, the estimated net worth of George Washington, in today’s dollars, is $525 million. The fact that politics is corrupted by money is not a new problem. The new problem is that the people with money are no longer educated in the humanities. The only virtues they know are shopkeeper virtues.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


1. No one expects aristocratic virtues from a laborer. In America we all define ourselves as laborers so that no one will ever expect aristocratic virtues from us.

2. To understand the nature of truth, one has to understand the knower as well as the known. There is no deep philosophy without psychology. And in order to understand the psyche, one has to understand the genealogy of its ideas. There is no deep psychology without history.

3. Virtue is to the psychologist as plumage to the ornithologist, or blossoms to the botanist. When the peacock spreads his tail, we appreciate its beauty. But at the same time we know it was contrived by nature merely as a testament to health.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Tamed and domesticated

When Jonas Salk gave his vaccine to mankind, asking for nothing in return, he sent a message to the world. Science is something apart from commerce, something higher than commerce. Its goals are humanitarian rather than commercial in nature.

If this message was heard at all, it was soon forgotten.

Capitalism represents the most successful attempt yet to tame and domesticate genius, to make it useful to the rulers of the regime. Genius is qualitatively different from anything in the bourgeois world. Once traded for a sum of money, no matter how large, it ceases to be qualitatively different, and enters the realm where values are measured by accountants. By succumbing to the lure of comforts and rewards, genius ceases to be genius and becomes just another bourgeois asset. Tamed and domesticated genius is no longer genius.

In order to avoid the necessity of trading itself for wages, genius must of course have a certain amount of wealth. The error of the bourgeois is to mistake how much that amount is. He wants opulence and a corps of servants like the wealthy, but unlike the wealthy, to whom these things come unbidden, he must destroy his genius in order to obtain them.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Intellectual discipline and ascetic discipline

"That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest."—Thoreau
When I spend more money than necessary, I give others more power over me than necessary. Unfortunately, the ones to whom I cede power are usually not the wisest. Wise men are few, and to make money requires a large market.

For those of us who are not wealthy, ascetic discipline is an inevitable component of intellectual discipline. Without it we are forced to take orders from the undisciplined, and all our discipline amounts to naught.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Reason and conscience

The ordinary way of organizing the mind is to make reason the instrument of our desires, and let conscience be the brake. But conscience was never match for reason. Reason is always crafty enough to find a loophole, a detour, a way of placating conscience and getting exactly what it wants. A mind organized this way amounts to a life of petty egoism restrained only by prudence, in which genuine virtue has no part. Only when reason is on the side of what is highest in ourselves can we hope to elevate ourselves above the ordinary.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


1. Some books inspire us to think. Others inform us that someone else is thinking, and that we, therefore, need not.

2. The works of a great man are not a call to adulate him. They are not a call to emulate him. They are a call to be as great as he.

3. Wisdom and virtue will not allow themselves to be accumulated as the miser accumulates his treasure. As soon as we begin to regard them as a treasure stored up within us, rather than as something we must conquer anew in each moment, we cease to possess them.

4. Anyone who can appreciate fine possessions can also appreciate the leisure he must sacrifice to obtain them.

5. Smalltalk: the intellectual equivalent of petty crime.

6. Those fond of incoherent abstractions quickly become impatient with abstract discussions.

7. The regime that seeks to compel justice makes every just act into a cowardly one.

8. Consensus: a suicide pact for seekers of truth.

9. The more we persevere in tasks which bore us, the more boring we become.

10. The philosopher whose books are tedious to read reveals what sort of life he recommends.

11. To say "I am not a saint" is a confession of moral laxity. To say “I am not a genius” is a confession of intellectual laxity. Both adopt the guise of modesty in order to conceal indolence.

12. While we previously imagined that the intellect was something supernatural, we now know it resides in the material world—usually, in the servants’ quarters.

13. At the end of a play, we applaud not only the hero, but also the villain and the fool. If only we were so discerning in life.

14. An unwelcome passion, like an unwelcome guest, should be ejected as politely as possible.

15. The mind of the commercial man conforms itself to whatever shape is conducive to commerce—not the most beautiful shape, but the most useful.

16. All the sciences have their origin in love of truth, just as all human beings have their origin in sexual love.

17. The flight attendant's version of Matthew 7:3: "Secure your own virtues before assisting others."

18. Forming one’s character without reflection will produce results similar to grooming oneself without a mirror.

19. A taste for wine destines a man to become a sot; a taste for epiphany, a sage.

20. Aphorism: a post-it note on the bedpost in the amnesiac ward of wisdom.

21. We are perfectly content to be ignorant, but abhor being idle, so we acquire only that little bit of knowledge we need in order to act.

22. The argumentum ad laborum: “I have invested years of my life in learning this doctrine. Therefore, it must be true.”

23. Amassing a fortune, a detour which the less fortunate are compelled to make from the path to greatness, is often mistaken for the path itself.

24. Everyone is the child of his age. The question is, how much is he willing to misbehave?

Monday, January 2, 2012


The problem with Auguste Comte's proposal to put man in the place of God as the "grand être" is that it puts a real thing in place of an abstraction. An abstract God can represent the intellectual achievements of the greatest men and ignore the intellectually insignificant. By elevating "man" above his intellectual products, we have granted a place to nonintellectuals in intellectual life which they do not deserve. The great products of the human intellect—science, mathematics, philosophy—are worthy of reverence because they are true, and because they are difficult, not because they are useful to nonintellectuals.

Friday, December 23, 2011


On some days we talk about political freedom, on other days about free will. We never pause at intermediate points. What about everyday cases where we forfeit our freedom by our own choices? What about the lucrative job offer that tempts us to do something other than what we would have freely chosen? The state is one potential tyrant. The laws of physics and chemistry may be another. But these are hardly the only two. Each one of our appetites is a potential tyrant—especially when there are plenty of corporate tyrants offering to satisfy our appetites in exchange for obedience. Somehow Continental Europeans have managed to remain aware of the connection between freedom and asceticism. Americans are optimists. We like to imagine we can have our luxuries and our freedom too.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The ascent of man

Could anyone imagine a better way to destroy the humanities than to prohibit the one syllable word used to describe its subject matter, leaving nothing but awkward, convoluted substitutes?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Find your genius now

There is a widely accepted notion that excellence consists in integrating oneself into society, in performing some socially useful function exquisitely. I believe precisely the opposite. The great man performs no function other than being a great man. He is not great because he makes a great contribution to something. He is great because he is something. His existence needs no justification. His goal is to make his existence perfect, not to make it a perfect instrument for society.

The temptation to do something “useful” is the downfall of the intelligent man. There are always dozens of predefined projects that tempt him because he knows he can complete them easily. If he succumbs to the temptation, he will never find the project he desperately wants to do, the project that will take his intellectual development to the next level.

The urge to participate in society is the urge to escape from the restless demands the intellect makes upon itself. The utopian urge to improve society will consume mental energy (indefinitely, since it is always hopeless) in something that I already know how to do.

When someone asks me what I do for a living, my answer is, “There is something that my intellect, and mine alone, is capable of. My sole task in life is to determine what that is.” Emerson said that his eye was placed where one ray would fall that he might testify to that particular ray. What if, instead of testifying to that ray, Emerson had become a lawyer, or exquisitely fulfilled some other determinate function in society? This would have been a tragedy, both for him and for society. The same is true of every intelligent person.

It will be objected that the world could not function if everyone adopted this attitude. But I am not so arrogant to think that I am indispensable. The world will continue to function without me. Economists predict that the market will adapt, of its own accord, to shrinking supplies of copper and oil. Surely it can also adapt to a shrinking supply of servile intellectuals.

The most important question, the question I am faced with anew in each moment is—shall I take the easy way, and do something I have done a dozen times before?—or shall I take the hard way, and create something I have never created before, perhaps something no human being in history has ever created before? It doesn’t matter if what I create is useful to me or to anyone else. What matters is that it sets my mind on a path toward perfection, rather than running in circles.

A great intellect is not something I am given. It is something I create. I create it by working to perfect my intellect. In the course of this I may undertake tasks that help others. But the primary purpose of those tasks must always be to perfect my intellect. If I don’t make this my primary purpose, I shortchange others as much as I shortchange myself. At the end of my road, one moment of my help will be worth years of help in my present state. If there is a “duty” to others, it is to become the greatest man I can be. Only then will my help be the greatest I can provide, the help I alone can provide.

The fact that every man and woman doesn’t aspire to be a genius is a fault of our education. As it is, not even every genius aspires to be a genius. Most aspire only to be competent professionals, performing the same task over and over, the task demanded by their clients, not the task demanded by their genius.

To be a genius means first and foremost to pay attention to genius, to treat its desires as legitimate, as, in fact, the most urgent of all desires. When we place the petty desire for material comfort above the desire of genius for its own development, we make the worst bargain a human being can possibly make.

Unless I am entirely certain that my intellect has reached its full potential (how could I ever be certain of that?), putting my intellect wholeheartedly in the service of society, leaving no time for its own development, is a very bad bargain, both for myself and for society.

Every man and woman is capable of creating something unique. Every man and woman is too much of a genius to be merely fulfilling a predetermined role. Abandon your unfulfilling social roles as much and as soon as you can, and concentrate your effort on finding and developing your genius.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Moral perfectionism

The method I use for deriving my ethical principles is this.

First, I imagine what level of perfection I would achieve in my behavior toward other human beings if I were Socrates, Jesus, or any truly profound philosopher. Then I strive to behave this way all the time.

Second, I imagine what level of perfection I would achieve if I were speaking to a prince, a pope or a philosopher. Then I strive to speak this way all the time.

Today’s ethics is Kant lite. We acknowledge there are rules to follow. But everything else is left up to arbitrary whim. We’re not striving for perfection. We’re not striving for virtue.

Moral progress has succeeded not in transforming virtue into what Emerson would have adored, the full recognition of the unique genius of each person, but rather in eliminating it from our vocabulary. If everyone can have his own form of virtue, what's the point of using the word? Is it just to lecture others on our virtues—and on their vices?

But is it really any more abhorrent for someone who has thought a great deal about virtue to talk about virtue than for someone who has thought a great deal about chemistry to talk about chemistry? If the term “virtue” turns out to be obsolete, then it will be a history lecture. Even then it is useful.

An Emersonian form of virtue would demand that I recognize the genius of each person, and strive to help him develop it. If the world were to adopt such an ethic, the factory owner would no longer be able to direct his workers. The university would no longer be able to crank out workers for the intellectual factories.

The problem with Emerson’s form of virtue, like all the obsolete ones, is that it’s "impractical." But have we forgotten what the prophet of Capitalism Herself said? “The evaluation of an action as ‘practical’ depends on what it is that one wishes to practice.” We are striving for prosperity rather than virtue, and we don’t much like to talk about that. So we have dismissed the very idea of virtue as impractical.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Intellectual discipline

“Western literature is no more than a grand case of narcissistic personality disorder.”

“Yes! The same narcissistic personality disorder than led man to study science—Charcot!—Freud!”

“Don’t shout the names of dead while males to make your point.”

“My point is that without intellectual discipline, there is no way for anyone to study any science, including psychology.”

“So what? I have discipline.”

“Yes, but you need the vocabulary to talk about it. A mind in which discipline is never discussed is like a restaurant in which food is never discussed. The humanities is the menu of intellectual self-discipline. The mathematician has plenty of discipline, but lacks the vocabulary to describe it. He can only grunt when he wants more.”

Friday, December 4, 2009


“When by habit a man cometh to have a bargaining soul, its wings are cut, so that it can never soar. It bindeth reason an apprentice to gain, and instead of a director, maketh it a drudge.”—George Savile
"Whoever has a keen eye for profits, is blind in relation to his craft."—Sophocles
Criticism of commerce has become as cheap as the goods produced by commerce itself. And yet I feel I must add my noise to the din.

Many forms of work have two different kinds of logic. First, there is an internal logic, which, when followed, produces the satisfaction of a job well done. Second, there is a commercial logic, which, when followed, produces the largest possible income.

Consider this case: A patient fits the eligibility criteria for surgery, but the surgeon knows this particular patient is unlikely to benefit. The logic of healing says it would be unconscionable to recommend unnecessary surgery. The logic of commerce says it would be unconscionable to pass up a lucrative opportunity.

Consider this case: Economic logic says that a loan is not in the applicant’s interest. Commercial logic says the loan will yield a profit for the bank. Even if the loan officer is courageous enough to follow conscience rather than commerce, his stance is futile. He will soon be overruled by his supervisors. They, of course, have been carefully selected for their unwavering commitment to the logic of commerce.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Love thy neighbor

The way to find joy in the company of others is to love them. When I hold back my love, I may feel that I am being frugal and prudent, but I am really just depriving myself of joy.

If I interpret “Love thy neighbor” as a sacrifice, I have perverted its meaning. Love for my neighbor allows me to experience a profound joy in his presence. I love him as much for my sake as for his.

If I interpret “Love thy neighbor” to mean “Love all men equally,” I have also perverted its meaning. Equality is not the important thing. Love is the important thing. A far better interpretation is “Love each person as much as you possibly can.”

When I read that “God is love,” I do not interpret this to mean that the ruler in the heavens is a loving ruler, I interpret it to mean that love is divine.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


A dubious notion that certain human characteristics can be traced to the will, while others cannot, leads us to say without hesitation that courage and prudence are virtues, even as we refuse to consider the possibility that beauty and talent might be virtues.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Kant tells us one of the foremost demands of morality is to treat men as ends in themselves, never as means to our own ends. If he is right, then the state that punishes lawbreakers to set an example, using them as a means to achieve law and order, thereby makes itself into a towering example of immorality.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Commerce and reason

“Men make it such a point of honour to be fit for business that they forget to examine whether business is fit for a man.”—George Savile
As rational thought comes to be associated more and more over time with commerce, the sort of words that represent the non-commercial goals of mankind come to be heard less and less often in rational discourse. Such words are now found primarily in trite sentiments on greeting cards, in the emotionally overheated ranting of religious demagogues, in self-help manuals.

If I propose to have a calm and reasonable discussion about the question of what, for me, might constitute a life well lived, I get no more than a trite, dismissive remark. If I attempt to enlist the help of friends in calm and reasonable contemplation about the human condition, I get no more than an incredulous stare. No one believes anymore that such idle questions are amenable to reason. And, in any case, no one has time to discuss them. We are too busy with our commercial endeavors.

What all this busy commercial activity amounts to, effectively, is the implicit assertion that the question of what constitutes the best life for man has already been decisively and definitively answered—and that this decisive and definitive answer, which applies universally to everyone, is the life of commerce. Of course we allow for the fact that each individual has his or her own preferences. These are accounted for by determining which particular sort of productive activity the person engages in, and which particular assortment of consumer goods he purchases. What no longer makes sense to us is an extended discussion of these preferences. Such a discussion now makes no more sense than an extended discussion of one's favorite color, or one's favorite flavor of ice cream. The general character of the best life for mankind has, allegedly, now been decisively and definitively decided, and the particulars in each individual case are merely a matter of personal preference. Such personal preferences might be disclosed, but certainly not rationally discussed or debated.

To rule the notion of virtue out of order in rational discourse is, effectively, to concede by default that all our existing attitudes and behaviors are virtuous. It removes the possibility of examining our own behavior and criticizing ourselves. By convincing ourselves that there is no true and rational standard by which to order our lives, we in effect concede that the false and irrational standard by which we presently order our lives is the true and rational one. The discussion of the good life will probably never rise to the level of pristine rationality found, say, in the proofs of Euclidean geometry. But it also need not be abandoned to the trite, vague, superficial and unsubstantiated sentiments of greeting cards, religious demagogues and self-help manuals.

Relocating to Nirvana

Thomas Hobbes expresses the modern bourgeois mentality well when he says, “The felicity of this life, consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis uitimus, utmost aim, nor summum bonum.” We moderns are always restlessly producing and consuming. We are never satisfied. In fact we don't even have the faintest idea of what would satisfy us. The only thing we know for certain is that it would be preceded by the word "more."

In the fifties, Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert began experimenting with the hallucinogens psilocybin and LSD. He concluded that the state of mind to which the drugs took him was most certainly the summum bonum. He then sought more reliable ways to reach this state of mind. Alpert’s quest eventually led him to India, where he studied Yoga and Buddhism. Alpert concluded that the “Nirvana” referred to in Indian texts is essentially the same as the “high” produced by LSD and psilocybin, just reached by different means. The Indian method of achieving Nirvana was, he decided, superior. Drugs presented the inevitable problem of “coming down.”

In addition to this practical problem, however, there is a deeper theoretical one. Perhaps the tripper experiences the same Nirvana as the Eastern mystic, but he doesn’t really understand how or why. An appropriate analogy is the jet airplane. The jet takes us from one place to another quickly. But it doesn’t give us an understanding of the world in which the two places are situated, or the vastness of the distance separating them. The tripper is a tourist in Nirvana. The guru has relocated.

In Protestant theology, there was once a debate between salvation by faith and salvation by works. Salvation by works won. And this victory has become deeply entrenched in our nominally secular culture. We now unquestioningly privilege material works over psychological satisfaction. Insofar as our society makes use of psychology at all, it is primarily to return nonproductive people to the workforce. The idea that a nonproductive life, a life of contemplation and reverence, might be the higher form of life, has lost its plausibility in the Western world.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Political philosophy

Political philosophers, in considering what sort of social arrangements society should have, are merely deciding how to paint the background of human lives. It is the cowardly part of man that allows his actions to be governed by the state. The brave part will do what he finds most virtuous, irrespective of what society and the state demand. A career in political philosophy amounts to a lifelong concern with the cowardly part of man. I cannot help but wonder, was this part ever really worthy of such devotion?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

When we seek to rule, we often merely allow ourselves to be ruled

“When we examine what glory is, we discover that it is nearly nothing. To be judged by the ignorant and esteemed by imbeciles, to hear one’s name spoken by a rabble who approve, reject, love or hate without reason—that is nothing to be proud of.”—Frederick the Great
“It is far more difficult to avoid being ruled, than to rule.”—La Rochefoucauld
There are certain positions in society, often regarded as powerful and glorious, which no one attains without granting mediocrity its requisite share of attention. The politician, for example, chooses his public attitudes, composes his speeches, and fashions the very image he presents to the world in a way carefully contrived to obtain the approval of the mediocre. He may privately harbor contempt for them, but in public he always flatters them. He must, at any cost, obtain their votes.

The commercial person must likewise account for the needs and desires of the mediocre, who are, after all, his largest pool of potential consumers. A publisher, for example, cannot select his material based solely upon excellence. He must consider its potential appeal to consumers. It is conceivable that a publisher might maintain some standards other than marketability. But if he passes up opportunities for profit because of this, his investors will berate him for his omission. And rightly so, for, in his role as a commercial person, his primary responsibility is to obtain the largest possible profit for his investors. Any other considerations must be deemed irrelevant.

Let us examine more carefully, then, whether and to what extent positions like those of the political person, the commercial person, or any other person who attains his position at the cost of giving consideration to the mediocre, can be accurately characterized as “powerful and glorious.” There is no denying that the political influence of the elected official and the material resources of the commercial person give them formidable power. But in order to obtain this power, they have given others power over them. At some times they rule; at other times they must allow themselves to be ruled. Those who unequivocally praise this sort of position see the power and glory of the rule, but not the ignominy of the submission—in particular, of the submission to inferiors.

Whether and to what extent it is prudent to seek political and commercial success will depend upon circumstances. But before anyone commits wholeheartedly to obtaining one of those “powerful and glorious” positions, as most intelligent people do, perhaps he should consider the alternatives. Perhaps, rather than allowing himself to be ruled by the mediocre and ruling them in turn, he might instead seek merely to be independent of them. He might seek a position in which his power over inferiors is more modest, but he is also more independent of their influence.

A principle that seems to me wise is to allow oneself to be ruled only by those whom we recognize as our superiors. The novice will find many fit to rule him, but as he improves he will find fewer and fewer. Beyond a certain point, the path to excellence is necessarily an independent one.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Self-awareness, old and new

Psychoanalysis resurrects the Delphic oracle, “Know thyself”—except now, introspection, like every other activity, cannot be performed without division of labor.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Psychological laws

Any observation of regularities in human behavior immediately raises a distinction between a lower type that remains enslaved by these regularities and a higher type that transcends them. The psychologist of today, however, is far too egalitarian in his allegiances to admit this distinction. For him, the higher type is merely an inconvenience. It must be included as an exception to his theories.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The digestive functions of society

“Those things which now most engage the attention of men, as politics and the daily routine, are, it is true, vital functions of human society, but should be unconsciously performed, like the corresponding functions of the physical body. They are infra-human, a kind of vegetation. I sometimes awake to a half-consciousness of them going on about me, as a man may become conscious of some of the processes of digestion.”—Thoreau
We teach our children that noises from the digestive tract are to be avoided in polite society. We teach them that products of digestion are not to be discussed in polite society. If, as Thoreau suggests, politics and commerce are the digestive functions of society, perhaps they too ought to be performed quietly and discussed as seldom as possible.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

"The emancipation of man from his state of self-imposed immaturity"?

The “state of self-imposed immaturity,” which Kant deplored and hoped the Enlightenment would cure, has in reality merely been transformed into a new and different, but no less deplorable, form. The bourgeois functionary must absolutely prohibit himself from cultivating any form of sensibility other than a reverence for efficiency. He must deliberately impose upon himself a state of immaturity, particularly in the realm of understanding and refining his passions. This is precisely what allows him to substitute his employer’s and customer’s passions for his own, and thus be effective in his occupation. It is hardly an accident that engineers—who are, simultaneously, among the most highly refined bourgeois functionaries, and among the most highly refined products of the Enlightenment—retain the social and emotional maturity of children throughout their lives.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Schopenhauer on boredom

"The inner vacuity and emptiness we see stamped on innumerable faces is a consequence of mental dullness. It betrays itself in a constant and lively attention to all events in the external world, even the most trivial. This vacuity is the real source of boredom. It always craves external excitement to set the mind and spirits in motion. In regard to the sources of excitement it is not at all fastidious, as testified by the miserable and wretched pastimes to which people have recourse. ... The principal result of this inner vacuity is the craze for society, diversion, amusement, and luxury of every kind which lead many to extravagance and so to misery. Nothing protects us so surely from this wrong turning as inner wealth, the wealth of the mind, for the more eminent it becomes, the less room does it leave for boredom. The inexhaustible activity of ideas, their constantly renewed play with the manifold phenomena of the inner and outer worlds, the power and urge always to make different combinations of them, all these put the eminent mind, apart from moments of relaxation, quite beyond the reach of boredom."—Schopenhauer

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Confucian Aphorisms

Anamika asked, “Master, shall we buy and sell?”

The Master said, “The cult of commerce is the cult of duty. Dutifully serve others, and you will be dutifully served. Duty is the nemesis of genius.”

Anamika asked, “Master, shall we obey the law?”

The Master said, “The duty of obedience is the duty to accept ad hominem arguments. Law is the grammar of society. Crime is its poetry.”

Anamika asked, “Master, do I have a soul?”

The Master said, “The computer technician knows that software is distinct from hardware.”

Ahmed said, “Master, tell us about your system.”

The Master said, “Those eager for a system of thought are eager to be rid of thought.”

Ahmed asked, “Master, what things are worthy of my attention?”

The Master said, “Giving our full attention to little things makes them into big things.”

Ahmed asked, “Master, how shall I meditate?”

The Master said, “The gentleman stops speaking when others have stopped listening. He speaks only when appropriate. He adopts a polite, deferential tone when speaking. The gentleman trains his inner voice to stop speaking when he has ceased to listen to it. He trains his inner voice to speak only when appropriate. He trains his inner voice to adopt a polite, deferential tone when speaking.”

Atalaya asked, “Master, for whom shall I vote?”

The Master said, “It is your duty as a democratic citizen to do as you are told. At election time, it is your duty to tell everyone else what to do. The gentleman never gives orders.”

Ahmed asked, “Master, how shall I pray?”

The Master said, “Do not dwell in grievances. Dwell in gratitude.”

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Darwin and Descartes

Descartes relies upon the benevolence of God to assure himself that his senses could not be deceiving him. Today we rely upon the benevolence of the market to assure ourselves that the press could not be deceiving us. In both cases, the science of evolution would lead us a different conclusion. The senses tell us what is needed to preserve the species. The press tells us what is needed to preserve the market.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mass media

"The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands."—Oscar Wilde
Consumers of mass media often assume that those who create its programs have the discovery and presentation of truth as their motive. In fact, reporters are part of the society they describe, and subject to its psychological, social, and economic influences. A more intelligent consumer would study the motives of reporters and take these into account in deciding how much credence to place in their programs.

Under some conditions, the market tends to provide incentives for excellence. Under other conditions it does not. In the case of mass media, commercial success has little to do with truthfulness, and much to do with appeal to consumers. It is as foolish to assume that market mechanisms will encourage truthfulness when the public cannot discern truthfulness as it is to assume that market mechanisms will encourage healthy food when the public judges with the palate rather than nutritional analysis.

Of course the journalist does care about the intellectual fitness of his readers. He cares the same way that the fast food cook cares about the physical fitness of his customers. He gives them what they order, and doesn't ask too many questions.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


The ordinary man calls the way he earns wages his vocation. The wise man calls the way he pursues joy his vocation.

Monday, July 16, 2007


Swinging back and forth between extremes of joy and sadness is considered undignified for adults. So, as adults, we sacrifice both joy and sadness, and settle for a tepid contentment.

Friday, June 15, 2007


The typical psychologist understands his patients well enough to help them achieve a moderate sort of contentment. The great psychologist would understand his patients well enough to help them achieve a state of intense rapturous exultation.

It is, in fact, unlikely that a psychologist will understand anyone other than himself well enough to achieve this state. And once he has achieved it, he may very well be too occupied with enjoying the rapturous exultation to share his wisdom with others.

The guru probably can't teach anyone how to attain a state of rapturous exultation. The path is different for each person. But he can inspire them to seek it, rather than settle for the tepid contentment most of us settle for.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Reasoning about reason

To turn the gaze of reason upon itself, to investigate its origins and its proper use, is, far from being a form of irrationalism, a necessary part of the rational life.

Those who make the mistake of assuming that the origin of reason must be found in something rational (St. Thomas, for example) are led to another mistake, belief in a rational Creator. Nature is capricious and far from rational, and yet man and reason have arisen out of her. The origin of reason can only be properly investigated through the use of reason, without appeals to sentiment.

To one who says that it is always good to be rational, we must say, “What about sleep?” Surely he is exaggerating. Perhaps not only sleep but other ways of resting the rational faculty will be beneficial to its overall functioning. This question can only be settled by a rational investigation.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Advice to a young student contemplating business school

“He who busies himself with mean occupations produces in the very pains he takes about insignificant things evidence of his negligence and indisposition to what is really great.”—Plutarch
The commercial aspect of the human experience, particularly when viewed from the point of view of the commercial man himself, is arguably among the least sublime aspects of that experience. To adopt the role of a commercial man is to guarantee that the central character of one’s experience in life will henceforth be a calculating, cunning, and, ultimately, bland and insipid sort of experience.

To spend years of one’s life, only to prepare for a role that subsequently guarantees an inferior sort of experience in the remaining years, seems to me among the most foolhardy of decisions. Yet this is the very path that most would consider “wise” and “practical.”

Specialized training interposes a role between us and our experiences. We experience things as a lawyer would, as an accountant would, but rarely ever as a man or woman would. This is a mistake. We should seek to attune our senses to the aspects of human experience that are most sublime, not those that are most lucrative.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007


The act of assenting to a contract involves only a part of the mind. Yet the law interprets it as an agreement of the person in his entirety. A party to a contract cannot later say, for example, that the part of him that signed the contract is not the part he considers his best part, and try to annul the contract on these grounds. The law recognizes that there are special cases, such as insanity, intoxication and duress, where assent to a contract is not assumed to be authentic. But why does insanity merit such skepticism, when everyday neurosis does not? Why does duress by physical threats merit such skepticism, while duress by psychological manipulation does not? If a person is hypnotized, is his assent to a contract genuine? What about when he is hypnotized by television? The presence of attractive models in advertisements, for example, is a form of psychological manipulation, which, if properly considered, would call into question the validity of all the contracts upon which daily commerce in contemporary society is based.

To make a commitment requires a unity of consciousness that is rare and difficult. To make this an everyday occurrence, as contract law intends to do, is to make something uncommon into something common—both in the sense of making it more frequent than it ought to be, and in the sense of cheapening it.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The problem with commerce

Commercial society allows those with different views on how to order their lives to peacefully coexist with one another. This is its virtue. But there is no mechanism within commerce that helps us to actually understand one another’s views, rather than merely coexisting with them. The market rationally and effectively equalizes supply and demand, but it never asks us to discuss why we supply what we supply, why we demand what we demand.

In a rational discussion, false opinions are challenged, opposing arguments are brought to bear. In the marketplace, both true and false opinions create demand, so there is really no need to distinguish them. Both are opportunities for sales and profit. No matter how false and irrational the demands of customers are, criticizing them is rarely the path to commercial success.

The market leaves each of us to figure out for himself the path to a virtuous and happy life. It requires each of us to develop independence of mind. And yet it provides no mechanism by which we might help one another in developing that independence.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Philosophy as a Profession

Montaigne points out that “it is far easier to live like Caesar and talk like Aristotle than to live and talk like Socrates.” In other words, it is far easier to rest content in the smug satisfaction that one is in possession of the truth than it is to unremittingly persevere in the quest for truth, recognizing that one is and will always remain merely a seeker.

The intellectual of today obtains his smug satisfaction by becoming a “specialist.” Acquiring a narrow but exquisite understanding of one narrowly circumscribed area of knowledge, he becomes, or imagines that he becomes, a possessor rather than a seeker of truth. The truth he possesses, however, is not the sort of comprehensive truth that encompasses the human condition—or even his own individual condition—in its entirety. His specialized knowledge is from the outset intended to be relevant only in his “professional” life. The sole benefit it confers upon his “personal” life is the income he obtains by placing it at the service of his employers.

Our age endeavors to impose this same sort of separation of personal and professional life even in the realm of philosophy, thus effecting a grave and momentous change in what it means to be a philosopher. The philosophers of the past who lived austere and ascetic lives, for example, did not consider this an incidental fact about their “personal” lives, but rather a definitively important part of their philosophical method. Their austerity arose from a frank acknowledgment of the fact—a fact our age resolutely tries to conceal from itself—that every man must make an inevitable choice between two paths: the pleasant, agreeable path to wealth and honors, and the austere, difficult path to truth and wisdom. Hypocrites who claim to be lovers of wisdom, but in reality merely intend philosophy to be a “profession” in which they can achieve wealth and honors, justly deserve the ridicule that has been so aptly dispensed to them by genuine lovers of wisdom—for example, by Plato to the Sophists, by Schopenhauer to “university philosophy,”and by Nietzsche to “culture-philistines.”

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

When the “professional philosophers” of today render their services to the democratic regime, there is indeed just such perversion and alteration. John Rawls, for example, tells us that philosophy conceived as a “search for truth” cannot possibly provide “a workable and shared basis for a political conception of justice in a democratic society.” He proposes instead that we conceive of political philosophy as a process of collecting and categorizing the “settled convictions” of such a society and deriving our conception of justice to accord with these convictions. Thus political philosophy, formerly conceived as a quest for truth and wisdom about political regimes, is now redefined as a quest to reach predetermined conclusions that accord with the settled convictions of the present regime. Like any competent professional, the “professional philosopher” must place the interests of his employer—whether he conceives of this as his state, community, society or regime—above “personal” passions such as those that might inspire him to seek truth and wisdom.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The way to properly honor the classics

The way to properly honor the classics, Nietzsche tells us, is not to treat them as merely a source of historical knowledge, and not merely to imitate their methods and assimilate their results, but rather “to continue seeking in their same spirit, with their same courage, and not to weary of the search."

The great thinkers of the past undoubtedly intended to convey in their writing the truths they found and the methods they used in their search. For many, however, we must recognize another aim of equal or perhaps even greater importance. We must recognize that many of the great thinkers of the past earnestly sought to arouse in their readers those same noble passions that allowed them to become great thinkers in the first place—the passions that inspired their lifelong quest for truth and wisdom—that sustained their ardor in this quest—that gave them the audacity to defy all obstacles in their way.

When we write philosophy today, we proceed as if our sole aim were to convey information as efficiently and succinctly as possible. When we read philosophy, we proceed as if our sole aim were to extract the information contained therein as efficiently as possible. Seldom do we give our attention to understanding those artful contrivances which past writers have used to inspire the passion for truth and wisdom. Even more seldom do we attempt to produce any new such contrivances. In fact, the insipid academic writing style of our age often seems as if it were deliberately contrived to extinguish any sort of passion, or to repel those who already have it. We cultivate discipline, but not passion, forgetting that both are requirements for a genuine philosopher.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ayn Rand and her followers

Ayn Rand’s acolytes congratulate themselves for having found in their mentor the apotheosis of Western culture, the woman who was finally able to purify the Western tradition from the taint of theism, altruism and irrationality that had infected it for centuries. They are, like all of us, busy people, and thus are very glad of this discovery. It spares them the trouble of reading all these tainted books. The Ayn Rand acolytes, like those fundamentalist Christians who believe that all truth is to be found in the Bible, now have an excellent excuse to avoid reading other books. They can remain ignorant of the entire trajectory of Western culture without feeling guilty about it. Perhaps most tragically, their complacency deprives them of the very knowledge about Western culture that would allow them to assess the validity of the claim that Ayn Rand constitutes its culmination. Philistines seem to be very adept and finding rationalizations to justify their philistinism, and in this regard the Ayn Rand acolytes are no exception.

In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand condemns impostors who demand that they be recognized for “erudition without study, authority without cost, judgment without effort.” (p. 63) When I read this, I think of no one more than I think of her own followers, who pose as philosophers without having studied philosophy, as sociologists without having studied sociology, as economists without having studied economics.

In another ironic twist, the Ayn Rand acolytes do not even find it necessary, when they laud independent thought and creativity, to devise their own way of expressing these sentiments. They merely parrot the aphorisms of their mentor.

Some might find Ayn Rand’s strident condemnations of other writers to blame for the philistinism of her acolytes. I do not. There is nothing inherently blameworthy in exaggerating one’s differences with other thinkers and artists. This is what allows a writer to make these differences clearly visible. The fault lies rather in the credulousness of her readers, who uncritically accept her judgments about other writers without even taking the trouble to read them.

Ayn Rand did not get to be Ayn Rand by reading only the books that she agreed with. She read and carefully analyzed the opposing viewpoints too. They offered a challenge, an exercise in refutation skills. Wouldn't those who admire Ayn Rand want to choose books from her reading list, the books that led, via both positive and negative influences, to her becoming the writer they admire?

While many have lamented the baneful influence of Ayn Rand on her “inner circle” of followers in the 1950’s and 1960’s, most fail to consider the possibility that the followers may have corrupted the leader just as much as the leader corrupted the followers.

The integrity of Ayn Rand’s philosophical views and the quality of her writing, it seems to me, begin to degenerate after the 1950s, precisely the time in which she begins to interact with her admirers. This can be seen by contrasting The Fountainhead with Atlas Shrugged.

The Fountainhead displays a reflective attitude toward capitalism, recognizing that private property is a necessary requirement for the independent man to exist, yet also recognizing the potential for the independent man to be corrupted through commerce with secondhand men.

Just as democracy must be limited, because the majority does not always understand or respect the rights of men, so the man engaged in commerce must carefully limit the influence he allows potential trading partners, because the majority of these potential partners will not understand or respect the integrity of his work. If he fails to maintain such a limit, his integrity will inevitably suffer.

To put it another way, the individual who breaks free from the collective power of the state only to then submit to the collective power of “the market” is hardly worthy of being called an individual. The truly independent individual always steadfastly adheres to the course demanded by his own genius, irrespective of whether the state approves of it, whether the community approves of it, whether the market approves of it.

In Atlas Shrugged, this sort of reflective attitude toward capitalism is largely absent. By then Ayn Rand's writings on capitalism have for most part degenerated into simple-minded panegyric, blissfully if not willfully disregarding the influence of secondhand men in the market.

Those who read Ayn Rand’s books and take away from them nothing but her praise of commerce are, it seems to me, like the followers of Henry Cameron in The Fountainhead who are impressed by nothing but the economical aspect of his innovations. “The sole part of his argument irresistible to the owners of new structures was financial economy; he won to that extent.” (p. 473)

Those who read Ayn Rand’s books and take away nothing but her praise of political freedom resemble another group of Cameron’s followers—those for whom “the freedom from arbitrary rules, for which Cameron had fought, the freedom that imposed a great new responsibility on the creative builder, became mere elimination of all effort.” (pp. 473-474)

The fact that Ayn Rand devoted her later writing primarily to the commercial and libertarian aspects of her philosophical and artistic vision might perhaps result in part from the fact that these are the aspects in which her followers took the greatest interest. Her followers did not care so much for the vision of the uncompromising man faithful only to his own genius. But they were very fond of the vision of the commercial man faithful only to his own material interests. This was a much less demanding vision, much more comfortable. This, therefore, was the vision she chose to develop in her later work.

In the period between The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, the method by which Ayn Rand presents her philosophy has also degenerated.

Among the techniques The Fountainhead uses to criticize the philosophy of the secondhand man, one of the most effective is the speeches made by the secondhand men themselves (Peter Keating, Ellsworth Toohey). These speeches, by making the assumptions behind the secondhand man’s philosophy explicit, show just how corrupt and inhuman such a philosophy really is.

In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand speaks of “ponderous inanities ... uttered as a revelation and insolently demanding acceptance as such.” (p. 491) But in Atlas Shrugged, we find the former critic of such inanities uttering them herself. She never tires, for example, of repeating “A is A” and “existence exists.”

The sheer number of repetitions of such statements makes one suspect that perhaps Ayn Rand had begun after all to understand the mental capacity of her followers and to adjust her style of presentation accordingly. Perhaps she, like Gail Wynand’s teacher in The Fountainhead, had given up on trying to teach the best and the brightest and, devoting her attention to the slow and the dull, “repeated and chewed and rechewed, sweating to force some spark of intellect from vacant eyes.” (p. 403)

More importantly, however, the fact that Ayn Rand in her later years degenerated to the point where she could only respond to sophisticated arguments about the nature of reason and language with ponderous inanities like “A is A” and “existence exists” suggests that she was no longer taking the trouble to really understand opposing arguments. She coarsely grouped classes of philosophers together and classified them as evil and corrupt, without stopping to consider that perhaps, in some cases, some of their arguments may have been correct and some incorrect.

When I hear the later Ayn Rand condemn philosophers and whole schools of philosophy, branding them as “evil,” I think of Alvah Scarrett calling Howard Roark “a crank and a freak and a fool.” (p. 524) When Scarrett disparages Roark, it is only because he doesn't understand his work.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ubi nihil valeo, ibi nihil velim

A favorite motto of Samuel Beckett was "Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis," or, "where you are worth nothing, there you must want nothing." The quote seems to come originally from Arnold Geulincx, a 17th century Flemish philosopher.

Democracy gives the ordinary citizen the illusion that his vote gives him some influence upon the state. This illusion, like the illusion that the lottery is a path to wealth, will only confuse those who are bad at calculating probabilities.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Heirs and vagabonds

The heir to a great fortune will, in rare cases, develop a strikingly independent character. He can have all the splendor of wealth without making himself subservient to anyone. He can think, do, and say what he wishes, without regard for authority or convention.

Even more seldom, a man who is born destitute develops the same sort of independence. He finds it better to remain destitute than to make himself subservient.

These two sorts of independent character have many things in common. Among these is their shared contempt for the covetous, ambitious character.

When the independently wealthy character looks at the ambitious character, he thinks, “How silly he looks, sacrificing all his pride and independence, prostrating himself to others—all this, merely to attain what I have without effort.”

When the destitute character looks at the ambitious character, he thinks, “How silly he looks, sacrificing his pride, his independence, his dignity—all this, merely to attain something that is, in fact, quite possible to live without.”

Convenient oversimplifications

It is inevitable that we must simplify, and therefore always to some extent falsify, the bewildering complexity of the human condition. But we must be wary of going further than necessary. The idea of a unitary “soul” or “subject” simplifies our view of the mind, but only at the cost of entirely falsifying it. The notion that the self is unitary is a useful from of self-deception for those who would like to conceal from themselves the chaotic disorganization of their own minds. Something that is by definition unitary does not need to be made into a unit. Integrity is achieved by definition.

A conversation

"Don’t you think you are being arrogant?"

"No, not arrogant, but rather skeptical. Just to make this clear, I will not accept any of your assertions merely on the basis of your experience and authority. You will have to prove each one to me. This is for two reasons. First, you may be wrong despite your experience, and second, I will never learn to understand things if I merely accept them on authority and do not try to understand each in my own way. If you find this too much of a burden, then I suggest that you find a submissive, whimpering coward to assist you. But don’t expect him to perform his work with anything like the excellence and alacrity that I can provide. True understanding comes only to those who relentlessly insist upon achieving it—only to the stubborn and 'arrogant.'"

Herds of intellectuals

One of the reasons that it is difficult to make much headway in trying to convince a religious zealot that his opinions are irrational is that he feels himself to be a part of a community, and, at a fundamental level, he sees this community, and not himself, as the arbiter of decisions about what is rational and irrational.

One encounters this attitude even among the highly educated. There is a certain sort of intellectual who sees himself primarily and essentially as part of a community—the sociologist as part of community of sociologists, and so forth—and sees this community, and not himself, as the ultimate arbiter of rationality and truth.

Just as the Christian supports his position by citing passages from the Bible, taking for granted that the Bible constitutes the primary source of undisputed truth, this sort of intellectual refers to “the literature” of his field to support his position, and takes for granted that we will accept this as a source of undisputed truth. If you ask him to provide not merely a reference to an article , but to actually recount the specific evidence that convinced him of his particular position, you will find that he very often cannot. The evidence that produced the conviction has faded from memory, and yet the conviction itself steadfastly remains.

Culture requires leisure, but does it really require a "leisured class"?

Lukács cites the following passage from Nietzsche:
A higher civilization can only come about when there are two distinct social castes: that of the working people and that of the leisured, those capable of true leisure; or, to put it more strongly, the caste of forced labor and the caste of free labor.
Nietzsche, Works (Kroner, Leipzig), Volume II, p. 327
Lukács assumes that Nietzsche had perpetuation of bourgeois imperialism as his final goal. In fact, it is an intermediate goal. The final goal is existence of a leisure class that is not subordinated to anyone, and can thus produce art and literature that expresses something individual rather than something devised merely to please others and earn a wage for it’s author.

Nietzsche is certainly right that leisure is required to produce great art, philosophy, and other manifestations of civilization. In order for someone to produce great art he must to a large extent be at leisure to choose his subject matter, and he must not feel compelled to produce art that appeals to the masses. But whether this requires a distinct caste is open to question. Propitious conditions for culture can also occur if there are enough patrons of humanities to support culture, or if the state supports culture, or if there is enough of a paying audience with refined taste to support culture, or even if the artist needs to divert only a small fraction of his time into mundane works that “pay the bills” to support his more advanced art. Could it be that Nietzsche’s pessimistic views on this subject were conditioned by his own inability to obtain an adequate income from his writing?

The label "evil" shields us from a true encounter with art—and with ourselves

In order to shield ourselves from the true awfulness of horrific crimes, we distance ourselves from the perpetrators, putting them into a category separate and isolated from ourselves, the category of the “evil man.”

Great art resists this tendency, making it impossible for us to neatly categorize the perpetrator. We cannot help but sympathize with Roskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

Contemplating horrific crimes without our protective distance forces us to imagine ourselves in the place of the criminal, and to imagine what we would think and feel in his position. What we feel is often a remorse so intense that it cannot possibly be explained by the conventional notion of morality, the notion of following rules. One just doesn’t feel this much remorse for breaking rules. Works like Crime and Punishment teach us that a rule-based morality can never be an inadequate description of the moral universe.

Writer Roommates

Jonathan called out to his roommate Edward, who was sitting in the kitchen, “Edward, could you get me a glass of water?” Edward came to him (sans aqua). “Perhaps," he said, "I should also put on some livery for you, sir?”

“When you're writing, I’ll put on livery for you too. Whoever has the creative fire burning in him is the aristocrat of the moment.”

“Yeah, right. I somehow find myself unable to imagine you waiting on me when I’m having a moment of inspiration.”

“I will, I promise.”

Edward went back to the kitchen to get Jonathan his water, fully intending to collect on the debt at least tenfold.

Jonathan has done something brilliant. In addition to getting Edward to wait on him, he has also given him a new reason to be creative. As it turns out, Jonathan will end up having to pick up Edward’s dry cleaning and groceries. But, oh, what we will not do for a friend whose work we believe in.

Material independence

The formula for material independence is:
r × C + IE
i.e., real interest rate times capital plus any income from activities which (in the absence of financial concerns) we would be doing anyway in pursuit of our own passions—this sum must be greater than or equal to expenses. The variables r C and I are largely not under our own control. We cannot decide how much capital we will inherit. We cannot decide whether the activity about which we are passionate will produce an income. (Although we can certainly deceive ourselves about where our passion lies.) The only variable that is partially under our control is our expenses. The path to independence is frugality.

Even when it is impossible to satisfy the inequality, we might still achieve a partial independence by pursuing some lucrative but undesirable activity for part of our lives. The danger here is that, in our scramble to make up the shortfall, we will soon come to forget where our true passion lies.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The philosophy of television

Television commercials encourage us in the belief that all of our needs can be met by the passive and impersonal means of the marketplace. The television programming supported by these commercials encourages us in the belief that all of our intellectual needs can be met by adopting the passive role of a spectator.

Television presents a certain point of view on the care of the self, which can be specified approximately as follows: "All the activity of the self should be directed toward the marketplace. Creative activity should be directed toward creating marketable goods in order to acquire money. Recreational activity should be directed toward consuming marketable goods in order to spend this money."

What is absent in the television-inspired view of the world is a relationship of the individual to himself and others not mediated by pixels or dollars.

Let us now contrast the television worldview with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius as a representative of the philosophical worldview.

The philosopher “looks to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason.” The television viewer flips the channels until he finds something entertaining.

The philosopher recognizes “how few the things are which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods.” The television viewer recognizes that a rich variety of things is required to be constantly entertained and distracted.

The philosopher knows that “those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.” The television viewer knows that the movements of celebrities are far more entertaining.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Should one respect the law?

The question "Should one respect the law?" resolves into four questions. Do laws deserve more respect than the legislators who devise them? Do legislators deserve more respect than the groups who elect them? Do groups deserve more respect than the individuals that compose them? And, finally, what sort of individual elects our legislators?

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The culture of scientific beauty and technical elegance

Today's tendency toward specialization makes ever scarcer the person of both science and letters, the person who is initiated into the esoteric world of science, and yet has enough of a background in the humanities to place his pursuit in a wider historical, intellectual and aesthetic context. One of the reasons such persons are needed is to recognize and articulately describe the nobility and beauty of science.

Goethe says, in regard to mathematics, that the mathematician is excellent only insofar as he is sensitive to the beauty of mathematical truths. This applies just as well to any other science. If, in the future, we are to have scientists and engineers who are, by this standard, excellent, we will need at least some to be articulate and aesthetically educated enough to help their peers recognize the nobility and beauty of their pursuits, pursuits that are most often perceived as useful and lucrative, and yet morally and aesthetically indifferent.

In particular, as the governance of science and engineering is usurped more and more by commerce, which finds value, not in their elegance, but only in their tangible results, it becomes ever more important to articulate the non-commercial, non-utilitarian aspects of science and engineering. If we aspire to make the scientists and engineers in our society something more than wage laborers—to restore to these professions at least some of the reverent awe which was formerly their due—or, at least, to allow scientists and engineers some satisfaction from their work aside from wages—we must preserve what is perhaps the most neglected aspect of the heritage of science and technology, the culture of scientific beauty and technical elegance.