Excerpts from chapter one of Notes of an Underground Humanist

The naïve idealist’s despair.— “Philosophy! My eyes glisten at the sight of your death throes! What treasures the Greeks and Romans bequeathed to us, and the ancient Indians and the Europeans!—what treasures have we buried! The vast thoughts of the Upanishads echoing through millennia, echoing in the orotund voice of primeval civilization, reverberating insights into our origins from beyond time’s chasm. The pioneering logical rigor and skeptically confident idealism of Plato. The heroic struggles of Nietzsche to overcome the nihilism attendant upon God’s death by creating edifices of ideas couched in luminous prose. The noble if quixotic attempts to scale the vault of heaven and look Creation in the eye. The sheer desperate determination to plow on in the face of all odds and pierce the veil of Maya just to catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of truth—propelled not by any utilitarian consideration but simply by the obsession to consummate this Wonder that is practically coextensive with consciousness. The taming of the turmoil of experience into a Weltanschauung and the brief triumphant respite as the thinker contemplates the world he has created, knowing full well that soon his Homeric restlessness will reassert itself, the prospect of adventure will tantalize him, and he’ll set solitary sail on seas of uncharted peril. He may not reach his destination, but the quest is what electrifies and justifies him. He needs nothing else; and if he is deprived of it he is nothing, in his eyes and the world’s. He is ignorant of the force that compels him toward his Faustian destiny, but it acts on him as the wind acts on a leaf.

“His spirit has dissipated in postmodernity. Now we have the hordes of scribblers scribbling critiques of critiques of dead philosophers’ ideas from their spiritual cubicles and receiving a paycheck in return. Immersing themselves in the sacred texts but unable to imbibe the Dionysian essence that wafts from the words to anyone with unslaked thirst for meaning in life. Such empyreal joy is unnatural in a society that worships money, that prostrates itself before The Corporation, and has been bureaucratized into a minutely organized division of labor—a division of labor that places intellectual worker-bees in isolated combs with high walls that prevent them from seeing their aggregate, crushing their latent ambition, if indeed it was latent at all. –Yes, modern bureaucracy has crowded out philosophy and left room only for ‘scholarship.’”

 

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What is philosophy?— One could write an entire book in answer to this question. Here I’ll say only that philosophy, as I understand it, is not what it has tended to become. It is not logical symbolism or formalization; it is not occupied purely with methodology or linguistic analysis; it does not consist in shallow discursiveness or logical exercises, and certainly not in the trivial questions that occupy so many academics now. Rather, it is something that the intelligent, informed layman can comprehend, something he can be moved by. It is nothing more nor less than an intellectually honest engagement with the perennial questions of life. It ought to inspire; it ought to broaden one’s vision, impel one to think on one’s own, for it is man’s original and instinctual attempt to assimilate the world—his primordial impulse to ask questions. To bring order out of chaos. All the sciences emerged from it. They are extensions of it.

Philosophy is, in fact, the broadest of human endeavors. Every curious child asking his parent why the sun sets is a pure philosopher; every great poet and scientist is in a direct line from Plato. Percy Shelley, Wordsworth, Milton, Shakespeare, Whitman, even Wilfred Owen—analytically they weren’t rigorous thinkers, but the spirit animating their writings was philosophical. Wonder, awe, despair at universal absurdity, joyfulness in living, the drive to understand. The true philosopher has a mind so expansive that he is often dissatisfied with himself; and his dissatisfaction drives him to push the boundaries of thought and life. He might be called a “genius,” but he is really just a thoughtful person who, because he can’t find contentment in ordinary life, spends his time contemplating himself and the world. Indulging his fascination is what makes him happy. 

In this broad sense, moreover, philosophy is rebellion against the status quo. And philosophers are necessarily rebels. They have to be, because they are individuals. Social conditions are never modeled on rationality or justice, so the thinker is bound to come into conflict with them. Especially in a world where alienation is the norm, where power-structures suppress the individual’s development as well as his understanding of reality, philosophy must take on the character of rebellion. It must be socially critical and engaged; but it must also be lived—passionate, for it requires passion to subvert ossified ways of thinking and being.

No, philosophy can never die: the world is too immense and wonder-full.

 

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Wonder vs. knowledge.—

 

“Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,

Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,

Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?

And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?

Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?”

                                                                                    

The poet in me understands Edgar Allan Poe’s bitterness toward the scientist. The poet cherishes life only so long as he can marvel at it. He prefers myth to “dull reality,” and wonder to knowledge. His ignorance of truth allows his fantasies to roam freely, unencumbered by the pangs of a guilty intellectual conscience. The “scientist,” on the other hand, cares nothing for flights of fancy; he wants only to chase away the confusion of not knowing truth. He hates living in doubt; he feels as if doubt forces him to put his life on hold. To always speculate on the causes behind phenomena is debilitating.

Taken as a whole, I’m neither a poet nor a scientist, though I share traits with both types. I relish the experience of wonder: it gives magic to life; it substitutes the Universe for God. Through wonder I can strive; I can worship a world that is beyond me—beyond my existence and my limited capacities for understanding. But unlike Poe, I don’t enjoy not having knowledge. I have little need of romantic self-delusions. In other words, he dislikes reality and wants to avoid it; I love reality and want to seek it—but never to attain it completely, because then life would cease to be “beyond” me, superior to me: it would be equal to me and thus boring. No longer would I have goals: in understanding them (their psychological causes, their transience, their ultimate meaninglessness) I would despise them. So I work feverishly to gain knowledge even as I hope that I fail. And yet, I can’t tolerate living in confusion—which means I hope I don’t fail. Which is worse: living in confusion or understanding everything? Which is better: knowledge or wonder? Admittedly, the two aren’t always mutually exclusive—in fact, an increase in knowledge can often increase wonder: for example, the more I learn of the brain sciences, the more stupefied I am—but, ultimately, the perfection of knowledge is the negation of wonder. I suppose the answer is that, inasmuch as I’m human and not divine, I’d rather continue to live in confusion (i.e., wonder) than know everything.

Gotthold Lessing was right to choose the hand that offered striving over the hand that offered truth.

 

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The intellectual virtue of humility.— The fact that intuitively we find it a complete mystery how our limbs move—“miraculously”—when we “will” them to proves the hopelessness of our trying to understand ourselves. Consciousness is sunlight glancing off the ocean’s surface.

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The sovereign of nature.— A case can be made that the human brain, or certainly the human body, is the most complex structure in the universe.

 

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Majesty in the ‘microscopic.’— The universe’s most awesome achievement is to have created a being capable of contemplating the universe, and of partially understanding it! A being that can even pass judgment on the universe! Humans are so wondrous that even they cannot fathom how wondrous they are.

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Nature’s desire for recognition.— Had humanity not been created, what a ridiculous comedy the universe would be! All this pageantry, all these spectacles, all this beauty for nothing! It would be a play performed for no audience, with no purpose. The beauty of the sunset, of New Zealand’s landscape, of an evolutionary equilibrium that is an artistic masterpiece would have no observer, no Other to appreciate it! It would not exist; it would be dead. A brute fact opaque to itself. Humanity created it. In nature’s creation of humanity, nature created itself.

 

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On value.— One reason I’ll never be truly happy is that there isn’t a God. There isn’t a “Truth” in matters of value (moral value, aesthetic value, personal value).* No such thing as greatness or genius, because these concepts are, implicitly, values made into objective truths, which is impossible. Predicating greatness of someone is not like predicating some value-neutral quality like “featherless biped”-ness of him, predications that can be simply true. But that’s what I unconsciously strive for, greatness and genius. So I’m plagued by this cognitive dissonance, this conflict between my more primitive ambitious side, which can’t be reasoned with, and my knowledgeable side, my reason (which tells me that my desire to be “objectively valuable” is impossible because the notion of objective value is meaningless). If there were a God I could strive for his approval, which would be approval from Reality and would thus objectively confirm my value. But because there isn’t, I’m destined to be restless and unsatisfied. Similarly, the absence of God, or of objective truth in matters of value, means that there is no point in seeking fame if it’s done for the sake of confirming your value to yourself (which, of course, it is). Recognition (or fame) proves nothing, because there is nothing to prove. In short, there is nothing outside of self-respect, no “reality” that one’s self-respect can correspond to or be justified by. One’s belief in one’s value is neither true nor false. But we all think it’s true or want it to be and act accordingly, trying so very hard to prove our worth, or bolster or confirm our self-esteem by bringing our self-image in line with notions of the ideal human being. Value-talk is an illusion, but it’s a psychologically inescapable one: hence the “Wise Man’s” cognitive dissonance.

All there is is people respecting you or you respecting yourself and so on. There is only subjectivity here, no objectivity. There are only attitudes—attitudes and more attitudes, no firm ground anywhere, just a floating around in the fog of attitudes, a bottomless pit. It’s maddening! I have to stand somewhere—I can’t keep hovering here my whole life, it takes too much effort—but there’s no ground anywhere! And I’m going to keep living my life trying to achieve certainty (repose) in this one area like everyone else but there can be no repose because we humans are irrelevant and superfluous like everything else in the universe. There is no meaning, it’s all de trop.

*To say it in an illustrative way: no scientist will ever discover by investigating nature that murder is wrong. In philosophical jargon, “realism” about values is mistaken. See J. L. Mackie's classic Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, and also this paper of mine.

 

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Cognitive dissonance.— Here’s the paradox: people say and do things that make you, e.g., contemptuous of them, but you say and do those things yourself—or you could do them while remaining essentially the same person you are. If a driver on the highway cuts you off you think “Jerk!”, and you’re convinced of your judgment. But you could do and probably have done the same thing, even though you know you’re not a jerk. So why is he a jerk and you’re not? Maybe you’ll retort, “My opinion that he’s a jerk is an outgrowth of anger, and I don’t really mean it.” But no, you do mean it. In the moment when you think it, you’re sure of it. You’re disgusted and dismissive of him. “He’s a jerk!”: that’s what he is, that and nothing else. He doesn’t merit further thought because he is inferior. You’re wrong, though, as you recognize when your anger has subsided.

Similarly, in thinking that George W. Bush is a bad person because of his actions and beliefs, you’re (in a sense) making a mistake. Aside from the fact that “bad person” and “evil man” have little meaning—because they’re value-judgments, or subjective reactions that project themselves into supposed objective facts—you’re writing him off as “this, and only this.” You’re ignoring his individuality, his humanity, treating him as a thing, before trying to understand his position or the experiences that have led him to it. You’re wrong. To understand is, in some sense, to “forgive.” –And yet I, more often than most people, feel palpable contempt for political conservatives. That implies that I’m treating them as “things,” as fixed, immoveable, as though it is of their essence to be contemptible. In order to live in truth you cannot pass value-judgments on people, or at least you have to recognize the conditionality and relativity of such judgments.

But, damn it, it’s fun to despise conservatives! Like Steve Bannon! What a piece of filth! Seriously, part of me can’t understand how such people are not “bad,” bad in their essence. –I’m trapped between these two extreme positions. It’s distressing. I fluctuate from one to the other and never attain certainty.

 

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The Dalai Lama as role-model.— The source of fanatical inhumanity is certainty in value-judgments. The cure to such inhumanity is to recognize that value-judgments are basically meaningless—reifications of attitudes of approval or disapproval—and relative to some set of standards, not “absolute.” Compassion and tolerance are not only humane but true;* hatred and intolerance are not only horrible but false.

*Strictly speaking, the attitudes themselves are not “true,” since attitudes aren’t the sort of things that have truth-values. Rather, compassion is more compatible with a recognition of the relative unfoundedness of value-judgments than hate is, because hate is premised on impassioned belief in someone’s “badness.”

 

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The greatest error.— Human life revolves around the illusion of objectivity.

 

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Value-judgments are always relative to something, not absolutely true (not just “true, period”). A person is not intelligent, period. He is intelligent relative to someone or to some standard.* Hitler was not bad; he was bad relative to certain standards** (and, in a slightly different sense of “relative,” relative to certain people). A value-judgment not made in relation to some set of standards is not really meaningful. The desire to help people is good…not “in itself” or “objectively” but given other values. The problem is that when we make value-judgments, the form of the assertion is categorical or “absolute” or “objective” in the way I’m criticizing, which means that the assertion is not wholly meaningful. “It’s good to help people”: that statement seems to have a very determinate meaning when you first look at it, but the more you think about it, the more elusive its meaning becomes. Insofar as the meaning is unanalyzable, it doesn’t exist. Only if you give reasons for the statement, i.e., justify it on the basis of other values, does it acquire a concrete meaning. So, why is it good to help people? Because, e.g., that reduces suffering, and you value a reduction in suffering. Thus, helping people is good inasmuch as it brings about the realization of some further end—and this statement is wholly meaningful. It isn’t a categorical claim ascribing “intrinsic value” to something, a notion that makes no sense.

There is no such thing as intrinsic value. Not even happiness is “intrinsically valuable,” at least in the sense I’m discussing. What would it mean to say, “Happiness is intrinsically good”? Or “Beauty has intrinsic value”? Every value is such in relation to a preference (i.e., an act of valuing). A masochistic person might deny that pleasure or happiness is valuable, and this is a perfectly coherent thing to do. Why do I think happiness is good? Just because I prefer it to unhappiness. It isn’t good in itself; it’s good because of (or “relative to”) my set of preferences.

On another understanding, though, there are intrinsic goods. Virtue is intrinsically good, in that it’s good by definition. Vice is intrinsically bad. But specific vices are not “intrinsically bad”—except insofar as they’re classified as vices. For instance, lying is not intrinsically, essentially “bad”; it’s just a way of behaving, like any other way. But insofar as it’s classified as a vice, it is bad, because vices are defined that way. Of course, this is really just saying that “insofar as it’s bad (a vice), it’s bad.”

If an intrinsic good is something that is desired or valued for its own sake, then there are intrinsic goods. Pleasure is usually desired for its own sake. So is happiness. So is recognition, or self-confirmation. These aren’t good in themselves; they’re good insofar as they’re valued, and they’re intrinsically good insofar as they’re valued for their own sake. But it is worth noting that specific instances of these general goods are not valued for themselves: for instance, a massage is valued not for its own sake (what would that even mean?) but for its pleasurable quality. So, a massage is extrinsically good, good on account of something else (conceptually distinct from it) which is realized through it.

*Actually, “intelligent” may be more descriptive (value-neutral) than evaluative. I’ll leave aside such terms.

**Contrast “This patch is yellow” with “This painting is beautiful.” The former is “objective” and non-relational in a way that the latter is not, however much it appears to be. The painting is beautiful to me, or relative to my preferences.

 

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Value characterizes a relation between a subject and an object. It is incoherent to say that an object (or a person) is valuable in itself, i.e., with no reference to a subject (a subject’s purposes, attitudes, etc.), because this contradicts the nature of value. But this is basically what one is doing when one makes a value-judgment. The statement “That painting is beautiful,” by virtue of its form, ascribes intrinsic value to an object, i.e., considers it valuable “in itself”—without reference to a subject—which is incoherent. The meaningful way of expressing the same sentiment is to say something like “I find that painting beautiful,” or to list the criteria by which one judges aesthetic merit and then say that that painting fulfills the criteria.

 

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The meaning of life?— Life is not totally “meaningless.” People’s commitment to their work, to relationships, and to life itself proves that. However, it is hard to deny that life is not as meaningful as we’d like. It is the evolutionary product of “meaningless” random variation and natural selection, not meaningful teleology or some kind of cosmic purpose. The course of a person’s life is molded to a great extent by accidents; his very existence is an utterly improbable accident. No one is as special or valuable as he thinks he is. Whether he is popular or unpopular does not mean what he tends to think it does, that he is (respectively) valuable or not valuable. There is little justice in the world. A person’s basic existential project of objectively confirming his self-regard, or his value—which is ultimately what the desire for “meaning” is all about—is unrealizable. He implicitly wants to be remembered by the world forever, or at least for a very long time, because he thinks that that kind of recognition would make his life more consequential, but he will not be. And even if he were it would not matter, because he’d be dead. His life is organized around illusions, such as that of the durable, “permanent” substantival self, and of the special value of loved ones, and of the “necessity” of his own existence. His place in the universe is not what he likes to think it is. In the long run and on a broad scale, his achievements are inconsequential. All this is not meaninglessness, but it is insufficient meaningfulness.

Another way to say it is that in wanting life to be “meaningful” in some deep sense, people want the world to have value “in itself.” Intrinsic value. Their desire for some kind of recognition from the world (i.e., for self-confirmation)—which is inseparable from their desire to have a meaningful life—is also inseparable from their implicit belief that the world has value. (We want recognition, love, etc., only from things or people to which/whom we attribute some sort of value.) But it doesn’t. Nothing has value in itself; its value comes from the subject, in other words from us. We give things value by adopting a certain orientation to them. The world and life itself have no “intrinsic value,” whatever that means, which is to say they are essentially meaningless. Thus, the human project, viz., the urge for self-confirmation, is, from at least one perspective (in fact several), fundamentally deluded. It presupposes that there is some value in “confirming” oneself, in objectifying one’s self-love, in making it a part of reality so to speak, which itself presupposes that reality or the world has some sort of “objective value,” which it doesn’t. In any case, the notion of objectifying one’s self-love is nonsensical, because freedom and value are necessarily subjective things.*

*More exactly, from one perspective it is nonsensical to “objectify” or “confirm” your self-love. From another perspective, though, it isn’t; we do it constantly. We project our self-love into, and through, our activities and interactions with others, thereby in some sense actualizing it or objectifying it. But the goal of putting your self-love, your self, into the world so that it stays there, so to speak, i.e., so that the world from then on necessarily reflects to everyone “John’s value!” or something like that—something that can be read into the world—is nonsensical, though we all desire it (implicitly). What we desire, in other words, is to overcome the boundaries between self and world, self and other. That’s what it all boils down to, the desire for meaning and everything else. But it is impossible, indeed meaningless.

 

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“Meaning.”— A purpose, a goal, a project, self-transcendence, community, recognition, self-confirmation in the world, the realization of self-ideals, purposive self-projection into the world, making a contribution, changing something, making lasting change, devoting oneself to something “other,” love, commitment, faith, hope, spiritual “ordering,” “centering” oneself, awareness of connection, transcendence of atomizing self-consciousness, transcendence in various ways of the merely “given,” immersion in the other, passion, truth, authenticity, spontaneity, affirmation.

 

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More thoughts on values.— I don’t understand how a criticism or a compliment of me can be true—or, more accurately, I don’t understand what it would mean for a criticism or compliment to be “true.” I am who I am; to say that certain things I do are, for instance, “weak” or “petty” is ultimately meaningless. What does it mean to class a person or some aspect of him under some evaluative property? “He’s arrogant.” Okay…he thinks he’s better than other people and acts like it. So what? What is really being said? The implication is that, insofar as he’s arrogant, he is unpleasant or bad. Arrogance is a flaw. But flaws or strengths are such only from an external viewpoint, an “otherly” viewpoint. From the perspective of the subject, the interior, they have no significance. I can think of people who might call me selfish or generous or whatever. But from my own “internal” perspective, these words wash over me. They can’t stick, they can’t have much meaning; and to say they’re true would be an empty statement. I’m just living, just a thing in the world changing from moment to moment, experiencing myself and others, acting and reacting; whether I or my acts “have value” is a whole other kind of thing divorced from me, an artificial, static, other-imposed label, a way of simplifying and categorizing the experiencing of me. This applies to everyone.

Thoughts like these are hard to pin down. All you can do is grope towards them.

 

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It’s hard for me to take seriously people’s responses to me, whether positive or negative, because in different circumstances they would have responded in the opposite way. It is never just you to whom people respond, but you in such and such conditions. An indefinite number of external factors enters into people’s attitudes toward each other. (It’s true that these attitudes are rarely groundless. They are merely not as grounded as they pretend to be.)

 

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Admiration.— To admire is to misunderstand. It means to pick out and simplify certain traits or acts, abstracting them from the person’s living totality—which, after all, incorporates other things you wouldn’t admire. All people are merely people, “good” and “bad” in different ways, determined largely by innumerable factors outside their control.

 

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It makes no sense to praise someone for something over which he has no control. Since people have very little control over who they are, it makes little sense to praise someone for his personality or his “noble mind” or his wit or his talent or his natural propensity to work hard or any such quality. And insofar as his acts express his propensities, it is senseless to praise or condemn him for them. In fact, similar reasoning probably leads to the conclusion that any act of condemnation or praise is, in a sense, misguided. (Other chains of reasoning also lead to that conclusion. For example, if the principle is that an act ought to be “praised” insofar as it is motivated by concern for others, then no act ought to be unreservedly praised, since all acts are motivated by at least as much self-regard as other-regard. Or, rather, they—at best—implicitly express both self-love and other-love. There is no “purely unselfish,” or “purely un-self-ish,” act.) The paradigm for all these value-judgments, their “form” and real meaning, is revealed in something silly like the implicit approval that people project towards a good-looking person. It is a cognitively senseless emotional reaction. Properly speaking, it has the form “I like” or “I am impressed,” not “You deserve” (even though for the admirer—i.e., in the phenomenology of his mental state—the form is the latter, the objective statement, not the former, the subjective statement). When we judge people’s worth we’re trying to say something about them, but, ultimately, the more meaningful—and sensible—thing is what we’re saying about ourselves, such as the implicit statement “I don’t like him” or “I am in awe of him” or whatever.*

*Insofar as our judgment, however, incorporates a description as opposed to an evaluation, it is meaningful. For example, the statement “He’s an idiot” is meaningful insofar as it gives, or half-gives, a value-neutral description of his intelligence.

 

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Having finished reading Albert Camus’s The Fall, I feel obligated to myself to make a few observations on the book’s relation to me.

The narrator’s successful, happy, easy life was interrupted one day when he realized that he was not as virtuous as he pretended to be. —On second thought, no, I don’t feel like laying it all out for you. The point is that the narrator experienced a crisis when he realized he was not “an innocent man” but a guilty one, and that everyone is fundamentally guilty. The problem was, how could he live his life under the glare of this knowledge? How could he live in an unhypocritical way, in such a way that he could go on judging people as always, as everyone must (in order to justify his implicit self-love), without deserving to be judged by them at the same time and for basically the same reasons that he judged them? He wanted to have a clear conscience, to believe he was superior, as he always had, but by rights he couldn’t. For a while he struggled with this problem, until finally the solution came to him: if he judged himself with sufficient severity (“J’accuse—moi!”), he could go on judging others and dominating them with a good conscience. If, from time to time, he “profess[ed] vociferously [his] own infamy,” he could go on permitting himself everything (for example, the duplicity that he couldn’t help practicing, being a modern man). The point seems to be that by repenting periodically, accusing himself, he salvages the craved conviction of his superiority (presumably because he knows that other people don’t accuse themselves, and so to that extent at least he is better, or more honest and insightful, than them). “The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you.”

This is all very similar to what I’ve said many times. All these paradoxes, all these ironical self-justifications, are classic me. The difference between us is that we adopt different “solutions.” (Mine, needless to say, is better.) While the narrator, Jean-Baptise Clamence, judges himself mercilessly, thereby giving himself the right to judge others, I say that we simply have to go on living our lives as before, judging and so on, while remembering in the back of our minds that our judgments are ultimately superficial and often hypocritical. Indeed, the very act of judging is virtually meaningless. And yet at the same time I recognize something that Clamence doesn’t, and which at least apparently can justify certain judgments: taking ordinary values as our yardstick—perhaps even clarifying them a little, making them more honest, etc.—some people, after all, have more worth than others. Some are worse, some are better. Dick Cheney is worse, Albert Schweitzer is better (relative to particular standards, not “objectively” or “in his essence,” as though one could list his qualities and include “badness” in them). It isn’t as though everyone is simply “guilty” (as Clamence thinks) and nothing else can be said on the matter. There are subtleties, there are gradations in worth. If all goes well, I myself am one of the good ones—and so to that extent I’m justified in putting myself on a (low) pedestal and criticizing others. My solution is the better one because it’s more subtle and insightful, less self-deluding, and more ironical.

 

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Reading Hannah Arendt’s classic On Revolution (1963). In her analysis of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, she remarks insightfully that “The sin of the Grand Inquisitor was that he, like [the French revolutionary] Robespierre, was ‘attracted toward les hommes faibles,’ not only because such attraction was indistinguishable from lust for power, but also because he had depersonalized the sufferers, lumped them together into an aggregate—the people toujours malheureux, the suffering masses, etc. To Dostoyevsky, the sign of Jesus’s divinity was his ability to have compassion with all men in their singularity, that is, without lumping them together into some such entity as one suffering mankind.” Yes, reification, depersonalization, is really the origin of “evil,” and to the extent that even “good” people reify others they’re not far removed from “bad” people. So, in a way, the hero of Camus’s The Fall was right: in modern society everyone is guilty, because everyone necessarily reifies “humanity.” Goodness is compassion, and compassion is concrete, not abstract. Nevertheless, it is psychologically impossible for us not to posit abstract entities like humankind or “the poor” or “the rich” and act with them in mind; the best we can do is to try to keep in mind the interests of real people when acting on behalf of abstract concepts or ideologies.

 

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It’s paradoxical that what makes us human, the ability to abstract from concrete things, from the concrete “other” (a capacity that accounts for self-consciousness), is what makes possible not only the concept of morality but also the horrors of Nazism, of hating an abstract thing called “the Jew” and wanting to kill everyone who instantiates this thing. Gandhi and Hitler are made possible by the same human capacity of mediation, of abstracting from the immediate and subsuming people under categories.

 

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“What goes on behind the scenes?”— In most cases, “essence” differs from “appearance.” Truth has to be uncovered painstakingly, dug out hour by hour, year by year. Like a miner digging through a mile of granite for a nugget of silver. The essence of our thinking and behaving is false, deluded. For example, the self—what is the self? Not some sort of “spiritual substance,” a “soul,” a personal entity or self-identical thing like “Chris Wright”—what deceptive things are names!—or me or you or something metaphysically real. The self is, in a sense, an illusion—yes, the Buddhists are right: at its core it is nothing but self-consciousness, consciousness looking at itself, consciousness of consciousness. I…am a will-o’-the-wisp, an ignis fatuus, a mere fold in consciousness, a brain-produced, brain-controlled, invisible glint in its (the glint’s) own eye. There is a body, yes; memories, yes; consciousness, yes; a name, yes—a name to enhance the illusion—and thus all the appurtenances of a “SELF” exist. But what is behind it all? David Hume said it: nothing.

No self? Then what is love? What is anger? What is ambition or hatred or shame or regret or admiration or any other experience? Certainly not what we think it is. But whatever it is, it’s somehow an illusion—because at the center of every experience is this illusory “self-substance.” Nature deceives us, tricks us into taking ourselves seriously.

Or think of something different: think of your patriotism. Or think of any cliché about America’s greatness. “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech.” Not true. No document “guarantees” anything. With a little digging, you learn that the reason we have anything resembling freedom of speech now is not the Constitution: the reason is that thousands, millions of people have fought for the right to express their opinions. Socialists, workers, women, African-Americans—decades upon decades of fighting. The Constitution has no power to do anything: it’s an inert document. It didn’t stop the Sedition Act from being passed (1798) and approved by the Supreme Court; it didn’t stop the Espionage Act from being passed during World War I; it didn’t strike down Jim Crow: that required a civil rights movement. –Any seemingly obvious preconception you have about America or the social order is probably wrong.

In short, he who wants to be justified in his beliefs has to dig, has to dig himself out of illusion. The granite-heavy accretions of eons-old “conventional wisdom.” Nature and society cooperate to hide truth from us.

 

***

 

An example of the above, from Marxism.— According to Karl Marx, capitalism functions in such a way that its appearance differs from its essence. What happens in the marketplace conceals what is happening in the sphere of production. His theory of “commodity fetishism” elaborates on that claim, and it leads to the theory of “reification.” Both are sketched below.

Any economist knows that a commodity has two aspects: its use-value (its utility for the consumer) and its exchange-value (the price it commands). In Capital, Marx points out that, as a use-value, the commodity is something natural and particular, concrete, while as an exchange-value it is purely the proportion of goods it can be exchanged for. It “embodies” this proportion, so to speak; it is an abstract thing, a quantity, and as such is qualitatively equal to every other commodity. In this sense, commodities are abstract and comparable to each other; as use-values, though, they are just themselves, i.e., their manifold concreteness. They therefore have a dual phenomenology: they can be experienced as themselves, as things that were produced to have a specific telos and with whose natural properties one interacts, or they can be experienced as “alienated” from their utility-essence, by being viewed as a mere quantity of value. This second, alienated, aspect is the form they take in the marketplace.

The exchange-values of commodities appear to the consumer to be objective, “socio-natural” properties of the things themselves. Thus, commodities, as exchange-values, seem to take on a life of their own: price-movements are mysterious objective facts, things that just “happen”—determined by forces outside people’s control, by mysterious interactions between the things themselves when they enter the market. Exchange-relations between commodities confront the producer and the capitalist, and the seller and the buyer, as brute facts, impersonal and seemingly inexplicable. In reality, of course, exchange-relations are in no sense properties of the things themselves: they do not exist outside social relations, as appears to be the case, but rather express them. Exchange-values are really expressions of relations between people—between workers and competing workers, capitalists and competing capitalists, workers and capitalists, etc. Movements of prices, which are determined by the fluctuations of supply and demand, serve to allocate social labor, by providing economic agents with information they need to make economic decisions. For example, when the demand for a product increases, its price will rise because selling that product has become more profitable. At the same time, the seller may well demand more of the product from its manufacturers (so as to sell more of it and make a higher profit), who will therefore either raise its price or move proportionately more labor into its production than into the production of other goods. Hence, in the economy as a whole, a change may take place in the allocation of labor. The higher price of the product expresses the higher value of the labor that goes into producing it—that is, the now-greater social necessity of employing labor in production of this particular commodity. So its price is basically a monetary expression of the changed relation between spheres of labor, and between individual laborers, even though it seems to express only a relation between things themselves.

Thus, in a capitalist society relations between people are reified into relations between things. And these thing-like relations are seemingly subject to their own laws of movement. The result, to quote Georg Lukacs, is that “a man’s activity becomes estranged from himself, it turns into a commodity which, subject to the nonhuman objectivity of the natural laws of society, must go its own way independently of man just like any consumer article.” Social activity in general acquires more and more this alienated character, this character of being determined by strange forces outside the individual’s control. One can’t find a job in a certain sector, so one has to enter another until something happens and one gets laid-off, etc.; relations between friends and family members are conditioned by the impersonal functioning of the economy, and one feels increasingly like a cog. One is compelled to take jobs one doesn’t want; one desires mindless entertainment and release from the unpleasant “realm of necessity” (hence the love of video-games, television, smart phones); and one’s relationships become increasingly dysfunctional. Ultimately, “just as the capitalist system continuously produces and reproduces itself economically on higher levels, the structure of reification progressively sinks more deeply, more fatefully and more definitively into the consciousness of man,” such that life becomes more stressful, more mysterious, more atomistic. It comes to be dominated by the half-conscious perception of a vast impersonal Other that gets associated, in his mind, with the faceless strangers he sees, with the company he works for, with his boss, with his dissatisfaction and his unfulfilled desire for recognition (for freedom). He develops an amorphous hostility, sort of an indiscriminate distrust that colors his relationships with people.

Of course, the culture of our own late capitalism exacerbates alienation in ways not analyzed by Marx. (See, for example, the movie Office Space.) The point is that only by getting below appearances can one understand the way the world works.

 

***

 

“The human harvest.”— Peter Marin: “Kant called the realm of [human] connection the kingdom of ends. Erich Gutkind’s name for it was the absolute collective. My own term for the same thing is the human harvest—by which I mean the webs of connection in which all human goods are clearly the results of a collective labor that morally binds us irrevocably to distant others. Even the words we use, the gestures we make, and the ideas we have, come to us already worn smooth by the labor of others, and they confer upon us an immense debt we do not fully acknowledge.” When you talk or think, you are channeling the past and other people. When you put on your clothes or drive your car or use your computer, you are relating yourself to a global network of people. We are all indebted to each other.

***

It’s a cliché but it’s worth repeating: one cause of modern loneliness is the attitude of treating people as means to an end, namely happiness. “If a person doesn’t entertain me or stimulate me,” people implicitly think, “I’ll end my relationship with him.” Relationships have become conditional on stimulation and the achievement of satisfaction. But what’s needed is commitment. You commit to someone as an end in himself, as you commit to an end. Commitment should be conditional, if at all, only on the other’s respect for your humanity, on his treating you as an end. (No physical abuse, etc.)

Why does the modern attitude cause unhappiness? Because happiness comes from the interaction between oneself and a significant other. Happiness is relational: “happiness was born a twin,” said Byron. The interaction between two equals, not between a lesser partner (a means) and a greater partner (an end). You necessarily desire recognition from someone you respect as you do yourself, because only someone fully human can fully affirm or confirm you. But we tend not to respect others as we do ourselves, i.e. as ends, which means we can’t have a significant other (in the truest sense) in our lives. –One of the reasons for our lack of respect for others is that this is (unconsciously) a defense against rejection. If we don’t let ourselves truly respect them, or if we don’t get very attached to them, we won’t care if they reject us. Perhaps we interact with them in a friendly, affectionate way, but we don’t really allow them to become a part of our psyche. Unfortunately this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we withhold true respect for people out of an unconscious fear of rejection, our doing so will cause them to reject us precisely because they can probably sense our lack of engagement with them. –Well, that’s a simplification. Many people are fully engaged when they’re with their acquaintances but can’t develop deeper relationships anyway. This isn’t mainly their fault; it is because society as a whole has instilled in people an underlying emotional distance (atomism), a veritable structure of feeling that conditions how they relate to others.

Commitment is fundamentally not a hedonistic stance. It’s a moral stance: it means commitment to the person, not to his or her function as satisfying you in some way. Hedonism even in a less crude sense than Benthamism or (in a different way) Freudianism has very little to do with the good life, with genuine happiness. The moral stance is not only the most moral one; it also makes possible your greater happiness than any other stance.

In short, you must care for, not use. Things are meant to be used; people are meant to be cared for. It’s the practical versus the affective mode of being: the first should characterize your relationship to things, the second your relationship to people (and “aesthetic objects,” like nature). But modernity is the upside-down world: we care for things and use people (and nature). Is it any wonder we’re unhappy? We’re misdirecting or suppressing our emotional energies. We’re victims of social “reification,” in Marxian jargon.

 

***

 

What does it mean to treat someone as an end? Literally it means to adopt that person as a goal, as something you want to bring about. That is to say, you want to (help) bring about his sense of self, his desires, his “objective interests”—all of which, in the end, amount to his freedom, or his self-confirmation (as a free being). A person essentially is the urge or the movement toward self-confirmation, and self-confirmation is, by definition, a matter of freedom, because it’s self-confirmation (the self’s achievement of itself). So, Kant’s formulations of morality in terms of both autonomy/freedom and treating others as ends do, in a sense, entail each other, as he thought. And they both entail specific commitments with regard to the organization of society.

 

***

 

A 25-year-old’s love affair.— Noam Chomsky is my intellectual conscience. I think about him every day, multiple times a day. He helps guide my thinking, at least on social and political questions. He has a genius for stating clear principles, premises or conclusions, which are nearly truistic but are surprisingly easy to ignore. Such as his insistence that the most elementary moral principle is that you apply to yourself the standards you apply to others. People have a very hard time doing this, which is why nearly everyone is a hypocrite in many ways. (They condemn snobbery but are snobs themselves,* condemn inconsiderate behavior but are inconsiderate themselves, and so on. I’m not immune to these lapses.) Especially in politics. When “they” (our enemies) do it, it’s a crime, whereas when “we” do it, it’s justifiable or even noble. This tendency to think and act hypocritically can perhaps be called a species of unintelligence, of “abstractly-interpersonal (or -empathic)” unintelligence. An inability to put oneself in the other’s shoes, or to think of oneself from the position of the other. The very foundation of morality is the ability to imaginatively adopt the viewpoint, or occupy the situation, of the other—which is why morality in its explicit form is limited to the human species. (Humans are the animal most capable of internalizing the perspective of the other, i.e., of being self-conscious.) But most “civilized” people—or maybe most people in all of history—seem not to be well-endowed with this capacity.

Chomsky’s great virtue, in other words, is simple clarity of thought. He can make explicit thoughts that are usually only implicit. For example, I’ve read a lot about capitalism and have always considered it unjust, but never have I explicitly drawn the obvious conclusion that corporations are systems of private totalitarianism. That thought has been implicit in my mind, but Chomsky makes it explicit, thus permitting clarity of thought. You can talk about contracts and unions and all that, but, in the end, a corporation remains a private tyranny because one side has vastly more power than the other and issues dictates to the relatively powerless, the employees. Orders are sent down through the ranks; democracy is not the operative principle, and one is expected to behave as a cog. Since this is so, and if you accept that tyrannies are unjust, you’re rationally bound to oppose capitalism, especially neoliberal American capitalism. You may like that it has created great wealth and even improved standards of living, but morally it is indefensible, since it tends to deprive people of their autonomy.** (What limited autonomy they do have inside and outside the workplace is largely a result of achievements that have been won by the working class fighting against capitalism.)

Aside from these intellectual points, I can’t help remarking that there’s something irresistible about Chomsky’s persona. He has an odd sort of anti-charismatic charisma, a self-deprecating grandfatherly sweetness. It’s a humility, or humanity, that glows from his shy smile and his rumpled clothing. There are no fireworks about him, no honed maneuvers of manipulation and not a trace of self-aggrandizement; he is the opposite of everything pop-cultural. He also reminds me that people are fundamentally good, because a world that loves him (notwithstanding the elite's hostility) is a world that has moral value, a world worth saving.

*Snobbery: not deigning to associate with certain people, considering oneself too good for them, because they’re “nobodies.” Usually it operates on an almost unconscious level.

**Fascism, too, and Soviet “Communism,” eventually improved standards of living for most people. Does that mean they were good ways of organizing society?

 

***

 

Morality, a prerequisite for happiness.— Strictly speaking, humans are not “ends in themselves,” i.e. intrinsically valuable, because nothing is. The notion doesn’t make sense. (“Ends” are relative to values and desires.) But they are, or can be, valued for their own sake, so to speak: my valuing someone’s self is effectively synonymous with my valuing my own self-confirmation, since it is through the mediation of another valued self that I confirm myself (my implicit self-love). My valuing myself is, in a sense, my valuing others. If I don’t respect others then I don’t fully respect myself, because it is through being respected (or loved) by someone whom I respect that I respect myself. Thus, if I am to fulfill myself, to attain a sort of complete self-confirmation, I have to value others as I value myself. Arguably that’s impossible, maybe even incoherent. But it can be approximated.

In any case, morally speaking you should act as if people are intrinsically valuable. That’s what morality is.

 

***

 

A revaluation of values.— The quality of being a “natural leader” is not particularly admirable. For one thing, it usually entails that one tends to be overbearing, to act inimically to the collective exercise of spontaneous democracy. For another, “charisma” is not in itself a moral quality. It is neutral, neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. Third, a person who aspires to lead others aspires thereby to have power over them, which is an amoral goal at best. The kind of involuntary respect that leaders usually command is subhuman.

 

***

 

To sum up.— The problem is that we tend to judge someone’s worth, at least implicitly, on the basis of his intelligence and confidence, not on the basis of his thoughtfulness and how he treats people. That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective but not an ethical one.

 

***

 

Immoral socializing.— It requires a special kind of cruelty, albeit a common one, to ignore a person.

 

***

 

Unavoidable immorality.— I can’t escape the impression that for me to be happy when others are unhappy is morally repugnant. If a friend of mine is depressed, what right do I have not to be depressed with him or her? What right do I have to forget his depression long enough to have fun with people, to hang out with them and have a good time? How can I be happy while he is miserable? The callousness is breathtaking. How can I walk past a hungry homeless person in the street and continue my conversation with my friend as though the hungry person does not exist? I must be a monster. We all must be monsters. In every minute of our lives we show how little other people mean to us.

***

 

Ultimately, the things people do are done essentially, on some basic level, for themselves. Necessarily. In that half-empty sense, everyone is “selfish.” The moral project is to incorporate others into oneself—as deeply as possible—and to incorporate as many others into oneself as possible, so that in acting for oneself one is also acting for others, ideally for humanity as a whole. That is morality, and that is how morality is possible.

 

***

 

L’enfer, c’est les autres?— If hell exists, it is not other people. It is the absence of other people. An eternity of not being reflected in an other. After a while, in fact, the self would simply dissolve for lack of something to contrast itself with and define itself in relation to. The “abstract Other” in its consciousness, which is essentially a half-conscious or unconscious residue of the totality of the self’s experiences with other selves (including their expressions in books, television, magazines, etc.), would eventually lose whatever determinateness it has, which means that the self would lose its opposition to itself (in losing its internalized Other), thereby losing its self-consciousness. One would revert to an animal state.

 

***

 

Clues to human nature.— It’s the little things people do that are most revealing, the unnoticed things that reveal humanity. Like in the park today when the woman talking to her friend sitting on the picnic-blanket burst out laughing very hard, tipped backwards and raised her legs in the air and kicked them gleefully in a vertical sawing motion for a few seconds. I saw that and thought to myself, “That’s a very natural, fun thing to do when you’re sitting on the grass and laughing. Kick your legs up in the air! It doubles the pleasure of laughing. But why? Why exactly did she lean backwards and kick her legs in the air? It wasn’t a considered, intended act; it was a spontaneous expression of glee. But why does glee express itself in that way? Waving your limbs about, running around, jumping up and down, just moving your body senselessly in any way can be a joy. Why? Because that’s the way humans were meant to be: to be animals that take joy in their living, in their physical activity, in their throwing themselves into the world,* acting on it wildly like the wild frolicking animals they are.” A whole world, a whole worldview can be contained in the simplest act of a woman on a picnic blanket in the park.

*Take that, Heidegger, you pessimist! [Heidegger emphasized man’s “thrownness.”]

 

***

 

Innate humanism.— When you watch a young child dancing and singing along to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or a child inquiring about the world’s causes and life’s purpose, or a child painting a picture vibrant with color, you realize that the higher things in life are not taught to people but taught out of them.

 

***

 

The essence of humanity.— The human spirit (the self) has three spontaneous manifestations, which are experientially united but can be analytically distinguished: to freely create, to freely understand, and to freely love. Each of these is a manifestation of the human mind’s—or the body’s—essential impulses to, on the one hand, project itself into the world, i.e. remake the world in the image of itself, and, on the other hand, to assimilate and internalize the world. The self wants to abolish the separation between itself and the Other, the not-self; its goal, its unfulfillable project, is to be at one with the world. The frustration of one or more of the aforementioned urges to create, to love, and to understand may result in psychological disorders. Psychologists should take this fact as their starting point.

***

Life for its own sake.— The universal fear of death shows that in life itself is a profound, though profoundly subtle, pleasure.

 

***

 

My hope.— History is so full of treasures, cultural and intellectual treasures, jewels of humanism scattered all over the earth—and I’m worried they will be buried in time! So much might be lost to future ages! Our traditions are so rich, there is simply too much to assimilate. So it will all be scattered, with some people admiring this jewel, others that jewel, and most forgetting most of them. What a tragedy! It cannot be. So I have made it one of my missions to collect all my favorite jewels—suitably re-cut and re-polished—and store them in my journal, to salvage them and pass them along to posterity. I want there to be one place where people can go, an index, as it were. They will read about this and that, this artifact and that idea, and they will seek them out for themselves. And our tradition will reach a few more people (as will, incidentally, truth, of which the journal is a repository).

 

***

 

Technology in the service of humanism.— If someone like Friedrich Nietzsche had been told that in a hundred years there would be an electronic network around the world allowing billions of people to share information at rates of speed measured in fractions of a second—and that this network could store nearly infinite amounts of data, including millions of books, and that it could all be accessed with a few movements of one’s fingers—his reaction might have been to shudder with joy and envy at the thought of the vast education one could acquire by not even budging from one’s chair. The internet has made it possible for humans to be exponentially more knowledgeable than they have ever been. Funny that it often has the opposite effect (a consequence of the consumer-capitalist structures in which it is embedded).

 

***

 

Our collective tragedy.— Think about the poignancy of this situation. In a civilization where communities have been shredded by technology, millions of young people find ways to construct artificial communities by using this very technology. They spend hours every day interacting electronically. They become virtual zombies, obsessed with the tenuous human connections they’ve made in cyberspace. This is what communities have been reduced to.

**​*

 

American anti-intellectualism.— The contempt in which intellectuals are held by most Americans is not necessarily contemptible. I’m inclined to think it is partially justified, though doubtless it takes crude and stupid forms. Intellectuals, in general, are parasites on the productive work that others (in the working class) do. They tend to lead privileged, comfortable, isolated lives, and they unjustifiably consider themselves superior to others. Most of the work they do is basically irrelevant, uninteresting, and masturbatory—or, in many cases (especially in the media), dishonest and pathetically subordinate to power—and they usually don’t do it very well anyway. They pride themselves on their independent-mindedness despite being arguably the most indoctrinated and least independent-minded group in society. If the average American gave these reasons for his contempt, I’d have to conclude that “American anti-intellectualism” is healthy and good. On the other hand, insofar as it arises from the emotional fascist ideas that “intellectuals aren’t ‘one of us,’ they’re unpatriotic, they’re liberal,” anti-intellectualism is stupid and potentially dangerous.​


***

Fame.— People who are famous are overrated, and people who aren’t famous are underrated. Indeed, ambition itself is by no means the virtue people think it is. I’m more inclined to respect those who don’t thirst for stupid fame or money, who don’t care much about social status but just live unassumingly like human beings and devote themselves to family and friends and the community. Abstract recognition, a famous name, pseudo-immortality, is unreal and pointless; the desire for it is indicative of psychological insecurity.

 

***

 

“Success.”— The more one experiences the world, the more one understands how difficult it is to be “successful” and have integrity at the same time. Maybe most successful people don’t have much of a “core self” to begin with; they’re just malleable, their essence from youth is malleability. Few convictions, certainly no courage of whatever convictions they have. Depending on which institution it is you want to succeed in, such things as fake pleasantness, obsequiousness, continual obedience, a willingness to narrow yourself, and a lack of intellectual curiosity are required. Conventional behavior is, from a sort of “human” perspective, despicable. Most people understand this, and yet the successful are respected anyway. Why? In itself—other things being equal—success is more like something contemptible than something admirable. Yet frequently I hear people expressing near-reverence of this person or that person, this respected mainstream academic or that respected mainstream journalist, apparently forgetting momentarily what they acknowledge at other times, that success tends to be more like something negative than something positive. And insofar as it isn’t negative, it’s based largely on luck, on institutional connections and so forth. Some things that deserve respect are kindness, moral and intellectual integrity, activism on behalf of the downtrodden, contempt for authority as such, the challenging of conventions; talent as such deserves no respect (since one is, to a great extent, born with it), and mainstream success usually deserves even less.

For these reasons, by the way, I can’t escape residual doubts about the integrity of famous political radicals. Have they not had to “sell out” in order to become successful and famous? What deals have they made with the devil? It’s true that this preoccupation with integrity and honesty can be taken to absurd extremes, for it is impossible not to live in modern society without morally and intellectually compromising yourself constantly. Just by virtue of buying products from a corporation or paying taxes to a government, one is participating (indirectly) in distant moral outrages. Social life, too, necessitates that one sometimes “lack integrity” in a different way, by pretending to like people one doesn’t like, etc. Nevertheless, there is surely a line to be drawn somewhere between this daily necessity of “lacking integrity” and a really contemptible sacrifice of integrity for the sake of money or power or fame. Such a sacrifice is even more deplorable in the case of a political radical, who, as such, is defined by his adherence to certain exalted ideals. The striking thing about some of the famous leftists I admire is that they seem to have achieved their success without substantively flouting their principles.

***

 

Mainstream laziness.— Nothing is easier than to be agreeable. What one should strive for is to be “disagreeable”—to provoke people out of their shallow role-playing.

 

***

 

A false idol.— The individualist is he whom everyone exalts in theory but condemns in practice.

 

***

 

The self-identity of banality.— Mediocre minds think alike even more than great minds do.

 

***

 

Does “certainty” always indicate closed-mindedness?— You should remember that there are two kinds of certainty: Sarah Palin’s kind and Noam Chomsky’s kind. The one is founded on unquestioning acceptance of the beliefs one has been trained to accept; the other is founded on continuous critical analysis of one’s beliefs. It’s the certainty of close-mindedness versus the “certainty” of open-mindedness. The certainty of unreason versus that of reason. These two ideal-types intermix in everyone, but some people are more rational than others.

 

***

 

Two urges: to enforce equality, and to idolize.— He who aims to rise above the crowd faces opposition from all sides, which, however, has a common source: the universal desire to keep him at one’s own level, not to let him step out of line or think he is “superior.” The most extravagant means will be employed to keep at bay his ambitions. But if he perseveres and triumphs, he is revered as a god.

 

***

 

“All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”— Most blogs and other postings on the internet, such as the comments posted under YouTube videos or news articles, are like portals into the heads of ordinary people, into their thought-processes. Unfortunately, the world into which one steps through these portals is not well-lighted, has shadows everywhere, and is very, very frightening.

 

***

 

Dangerous intelligence.— The greatest danger for the perceptive observer of humanity is that he’ll become convinced of the smallness of life, and will thus retreat from a life of action into passive resignation.

 

***

 

The mind-body problem.— Watching people interact, the impression is inescapable that they truly are beings of matter. Earth-bound beings with muddy souls. And one returns to the realm of spirits with relief....

 

***

 

Functionaries of the mind.— In L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856), Tocqueville points out again and again, in astonishment, that nobody foresaw the French Revolution, even on its very eve. He opens his book with this sentence: “No great historical event is better calculated than the French Revolution to teach political writers and statesmen to be cautious in their speculations; for never was any such event, stemming from factors so far back in the past, so inevitable yet so completely unforeseen.” A hundred forty years later, Walter Laqueur, the political scholar, devoted much of his book The Dream that Failed to the question of how it was possible for Western academics to have failed utterly to predict the fall of the Soviet Union, even after glasnost and perestroika. Specialists on the USSR, people who devoted their lives to studying it, had no inkling whatever of what was about to happen. The enormous industry of scholarship on the USSR had not a single word to say about a REVOLUTION!!! or even the COMPLETE DECREPITUDE OF SOVIET SOCIETY!!! until after the fact!!! Fifteen years later, similarly, almost no economists foresaw the Great Recession. —The moral of the story, kids, is that the academic community is not to be taken seriously. The “analyst,” the “expert,” who has real insight is an incredible rarity. These people are just intellectual bureaucrats.

(Not to mention the “experts” who actually have a hand in guiding policy. The experts who led Kennedy into the Bay of Pigs, the experts who waged war on Vietnam, the experts who planned the Iraq war—a veritable army of them, in policy institutes, in the Pentagon, in the State Department, in the White House. It seems as though the more educated you are, the less in touch you are with reality. Which isn’t surprising, since “education” basically means “indoctrination.”*)

*Chomsky: “One reason that propaganda often works better on the educated than on the uneducated is that educated people read more, so they receive more propaganda. Another is that they have jobs in management, media, and academia and therefore work in some capacity as agents of the propaganda system—and they believe what the system expects them to believe. By and large, they’re part of the privileged elite, and share the interests and perceptions of those in power.”

 

***

Present philistines, future scholars.— What does it say about people that the most popular thinkers and writers in their time are usually not the most popular ones centuries later? It says that, in general, the recipe for success in life isn’t genuine merit judged on the basis of transhistorical standards of reason, creativity, originality, beauty, etc., but skillful, “talented” obedience to the cultural and institutional norms of one’s day. It says that most people don’t know how to judge real merit if it exists among them—and maybe don’t even care, since what matters is fitting into institutions and the dominant culture. However, they are better able to judge past merit, because institutional and cultural norms constrict their thought in relation to the present more than the past. They are supposed to apply to the living more than the dead—and so the dead are allowed to step outside the bounds of institutional respectability.* Also, the withering away of older norms and the rise of new ones means that works that successfully embodied the former are no longer celebrated.

*That also has to do with the arrogance of the present: a person who reacted (creatively) against the “quaint” or “benighted” old traditions of his day is seen as anticipating the more sophisticated present. By appreciating the past rebel, the present is proving to itself its open-mindedness, generosity, capaciousness of thought, superiority over the past. Moreover, it flatters itself by appropriating the brilliance of the rebel. “It wasn’t until we came along that Nietzsche could be appreciated.”

 

***

“Absurdity” in philosophy.— As I was reading Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Germaine Brée, an amusing image struck me. I imagined hundreds of chimpanzees in their jungle, dressed in clothes, wearing glasses, huddled over manuscripts they were writing having to do with one chimp in particular, who had died decades ago. They were describing what he was like, describing his oddly contemplative character, his un-chimpish personality, his gentleness toward his fellow chimps, as well as certain discoveries he had made about the futility of life in the jungle, the dangerous animals that lurked in shadows, the forbidding height of certain kinds of trees, the absurdity of swinging gaily on vines and jumping from branch to branch while screaming like monkeys. All these chimpanzees sitting in trees silently, scribbling praise of this other chimp who had, like them, sat in trees away from his playmates scratching his head while watching the action below, occasionally baring his teeth. And I put the book down.

***

A celebrated bureaucrat.— In the library today I happened to pass Harry Truman’s memoirs. Picked the book up and flipped to the pages on the atomic bomb. “…General Bloodlust [or whatever his name was] wanted to drop the bomb on Kyoto, but Secretary Stimson argued that Kyoto was an important cultural and religious shrine.” Stimson had spent his honeymoon there and had fond memories of it; hence, it was saved. Because of a honeymoon. A treasure-trove of history and culture saved because one guy said “No” because of his honeymoon. And then you tell me there’s a God!

Upon receiving the telegram reporting that the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Truman “was deeply moved. I turned to the sailors I was having lunch with [on some battleship somewhere] and said, ‘This is the greatest thing in history. We’re going home.’” Yes, he said it was the greatest thing in history. And–the next page is on a different subject. No reflections on the meaning of Hiroshima or the decision to use the bomb; just…it was the greatest thing ever, and then on to his negotiations with Stalin. The man was amoral. An arch-bureaucrat, an amoral machine, like Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and most heads of state in history.

How that level of unreflectiveness is possible, I don’t know. Years afterwards, as he’s writing his memoirs, he doesn’t stop to reflect on his decision to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. He takes it for granted that American lives are more valuable than Japanese lives, and that it’s better to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians than to let far fewer American soldiers die. (In fact, scholarship has demonstrated that the bomb was totally unnecessary to ending the war, and was used only for geopolitical purposes.) Had the Japanese not surrendered, he and his generals would have gone on dropping as many bombs as necessary. They would have been happy to obliterate every city. A million deaths, two million deaths, priceless cultural artifacts destroyed…it would have been okay, because it would have served U.S. geopolitical strategy. 

Being a “man of action” is not a positive thing. It means you’re not a man of reflection. It signifies only the absence of reflection.

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright