Institutions cannot help but reward loyalty over innovation. For the bricks of institutions are mortared by conventions, and the safest path for anyone whose livelihood depends on that institution is to routinely repair the existing mortar to its original state — that is, to preserve the doctrines and dogmas as they have been passed down, and to resist change. That is why transformational change must so often be initiated from outside, by the likes of Socrates or Christ.
Societies work that way too, so the most static parts of society resist change with a ferocity proportional to how unsuited they are to the coming changes.
A dictum of Bruce Lee, quoted from a blog post (http://barryeisler.blogspot.com/) by Barry Eisler (a writer of interesting thrillers, including the John Rain series): “Absorb what is useful. Reject what is useless. Add what is uniquely your own.”
For Locke, all legitimate power is based on morality. For Hobbes, all sustainable morality is based on power (hats off to Leo Ramsey-Watson, promising student of political theory). The question of politics, then, is how to construct a government that balances legitimacy and sustainability. Kant’s answer is that, in human history, sustainability comes first, legitimacy later. (Likewise, self-replicating organisms develop before intelligent ones.)
The Net hasn’t made us smarter, it’s just made the echo in Plato’s cave more resounding.
Nowadays, whenever a politician speaks, there’s a sign language translator to translate their remarks for the deaf and dumb. And when Fauci speaks, there’s Trump to translate for those who are just dumb.
You can’t do a Wuhan handshake anymore; with social distancing, you can’t get close enough to tap shoes.
When you go to the bank wearing your mandatory mask, wear your blue disposable gloves too. That way they know you’re not a bandito!
How to hook up during a pandemic? With a full-body condom.
And which of us will ever forget the most important 20 seconds of our lives?
To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill (Sun Tzu).
It is both necessary and good to learn from one’s mistakes, but it is better to learn from the mistakes of others.
Conspiracy theories are the opium dreams of weak minds; they’re like the lottery, offering an illusory hope of equality to the hopelessly unequal.
Many forms of cultural loyalty are less cultural courage than intellectual cowardice.
The purity of one’s ideals are soiled by the means one employs to attain them.
At one end of the spectrum of folly are those who think they can impose ideals free of practical or political trade-offs; at the opposite end are those who think noble ends attained by evil means go untarnished.
A meme now making the rounds of thoughtful people who understand politics, and especially the census year statehouse elections in purple (and even red) states (see Politico article): “Friends don’t let friends vote for Bernie.“
Economics is known in the trade as the dismal science but, next to political science in our current Age of Demagogues, it’s starting to look like the feel-good science.
Kant was a Prussian, and not noted for his sense of humor. But it’s there, if you dig for it, and it’s deep and dark.
His work on human progress through history, Perpetual Peace, was published, like all books in its time, with an engraving inside the cover called the frontispiece. For Perpetual Peace it was a Dutch tavern sign of the same name depicting a graveyard.
Kant’s point was not quite that grim. He meant that human history, driven by the perpetual and accelerating growth of human powers, leads inevitably to a fork in the road between lawfully-governed relations and mutual annihilation. Put more positively, Kant foresaw Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) in 1776.
In that same work, Kant, says that it would be possible, in principle, to create a law-governed society from a race of devils. The joke here is that this claim is not a hypothetical, it’s a historical observation, and it’s about us.
In other words, history can take man out of the state of nature (i.e., self-interest run amok), but it can’t take self-interest out of man.
And that is all that historical progress shows us, or ever could.
The first philosopher to attract my attention was Diogenes the Cynic. This would be high school, late ’60’s, early ’70’s. I’m young and in my hippie phase.
Diogenes was known for the kind of clever stunts that capture a rebellious teenager’s imagination.
He strolls about Athens, holding high a lantern in broad daylight, telling anyone who asks that he’s searching for an honest man.
He lives in a barrel in the street, with neither possessions nor privacy.
One day a young Alexander the Great finds him and tells him “Had I not been Alexander, I would have been Diogenes” and he offers Diogenes whatever is in the power of his gift. To which Diogenes replies, “Step out of my sunshine.”
When Plato, a far more methodical thinker than Diogenes, classifies man as the featherless biped, Diogenes tosses a plucked chicken over the wall of the Academy, saying “I present you with Plato’s man”.
(Jeez! This guy ruled memes before they were a thing!)
As my acquaintance with philosophy grew, I learned to appreciate and crave richer fare than this, but something of the cynic still abides in me.
And so I offer a few choice cynicisms.
The human condition: born with our heads up our asses, that’s where they stay, until we decide to pull them out. Some people never do.
(I have just accounted for a good 40% of the Internet.)
Professions of virtue far outnumber actual virtue.
For professing virtue advances personal interests more directly than does practicing virtue. Call it hypocrisy.
And aligning one’s virtues with the virtues professed by a group advances one’s personal interests within that group better than does practicing virtue. Call it tribalism or, in its modern guise, partisanship.
I am not a nihilistic cynic but an idealistic one. You will find good people if you search for them with the right lantern. They are just fewer or more incomplete than appearances would suggest.
Diogenes was called Diogenes the Dog, because he lived like one, without shame and without possessions. From kuon, Greek for dog, comes the term cynic.
I prefer my own just-so story of the origin of cynic. The cynic, like the dog, believes the social face presented to him, only if it passes the sniff test.
So, next time you’re feeling proud of yourself for holding the moral high ground, hold that lantern high, and ask yourself whether your virtue passes the sniff test!