Stanley Fish debates the eternal

This podcast on Stanley Fish’s panel discussion was originally posted by the Institute for Arts and Ideas

While the world turns we think ideas, right or wrong, are eternal. Yet meaning changes over time and context. Should we conclude that, like the material world, ideas are transient and knowledge and morality passing stories? Or is the eternal in our grasp after all? New York Times columnist and author of Think Again Stanley Fish, philosopher of language Barry C. Smith, and award-winning novelist Joanna Kavenna seek out the eternal.

Stanley Fish is the author of numerous books, including How to Write a Sentence, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and Versions of Academic Freedom. He is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at Florida International University and the Visiting Floersheimer Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School. He previously taught at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education.

Hugo Drochon on Nietzsche’s Politics

DrochonWhen Hugo Drochon first encountered Nietzsche’s intoxicating Beyond Good and Evil, he was struck by the realization that “many things in life didn’t rise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith.” But what exactly did Nietzsche think and how did he engage with the main political events and transformations of his time? While Nietzsche’s impact on the world of culture, philosophy, and the arts is uncontested, his political thought has long been mired in controversy and remains, according to Drochon, seriously under-explored. In his new book, Nietzsche’s Great Politics, Drochon places Nietzsche’s politics back in the nineteenth century from which they arose, asking what politics meant for the famous thinker as well as how his ideas speak to contemporary debates. Recently, Drochon took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

When did you first encounter Nietzsche?

I first encountered Nietzsche during the second year of my undergraduate degree. I took two different courses that year that were to be quite significant for me: ‘History of Political Thought’ and ‘Theories of International Relations’. The latter focused on different theories of IR, from classic realism, liberalism, neo-realism and neo-liberalism, to more critical approaches including critical theory, green theory, feminism and postmodernism. Theory was new to me, but I was an instant convert. I think I bombarded the lecturer with questions until she finally said to me: ‘go read Nietzsche’. Happily we had an anthology for the History of Political Thought course – one I also really enjoyed, and which set me upon my future career path – which had as its final text Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I read it over the summer.


It was an epiphany. Nietzsche just spoke to so many themes that resonated with me, and he opened up my eyes to the fact that many things in life didn’t arise out of a politics of good faith, as it were, but rather of bad faith. Moreover, all readers of Nietzsche will bear witness to the intoxicating nature of his writing.

Did you decide there and then you would work on Nietzsche’s politics?

Not quite, that would come a little later. In the last year of my undergraduate I studied Marxism, democratic theory and the French Revolution, which all combined very nicely in a certain way. And whilst I was impressed by the analytical tools Marxism provided, I always felt the picture it offered was incomplete. It was up to Nietzsche to fill it out.

So you came back to Nietzsche’s politics.

Yes. Beyond Good and Evil had struck me as being obviously interested in politics in different ways, but when I turned to the secondary literature to get a firmer grasp of what Nietzsche’s politics were meant to be, I was left feeling quite dissatisfied. Not least because half the literature denied Nietzsche was interested in politics!

A legacy of his use by the Nazis during WWII?

Undoubtedly. After his misappropriation by the Nazis it was natural to depict Nietzsche as a thinker who was not interested in politics as a way of saving him from the philosophical abyss he had fallen into after the war, which Bertrand Russell had branded ‘Nietzsche’s War’. And we are undeniably indebted to Walter Kaufmann and others for having done that. Since then there has been a renewal of interest in Nietzsche and politics, but that has mainly been through the various ways Nietzsche is thought to contribute to the renewal of ‘agonistic’ democracy. What exactly politics meant for him, however, is still something that remains, in my view, mostly under-explored.

How did you go about exploring Nietzsche’s politics?

I think the main move was to place Nietzsche back into his own context of late nineteenth century Germany and Europe – our current debates are still too stuck, to my mind, in the twentieth century. Nietzsche was writing during Bismarck’s era, not Hitler’s. And Bismarck’s era was fascinating. It saw a number of tremendous transformations, not least the unification of Germany through Bismarck’s infamous politics of ‘blood and iron’, and the power politics between the great European nations. It was an era full of tensions and contradictions, with the simultaneous rise of nationalism and colonization – the ‘Scramble for Africa’ – socialism and democracy.

Bismarck’s ‘Great Politics’ inspired the title of your book?

Indeed. The idea was to see whether Nietzsche thought and engaged with the main political events and transformations of his time, and if he did then whether that might open the door to understanding what Nietzsche’s own politics might amount to. Nietzsche, in fact, actively participated in many of the major events of his time: he served as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, which sealed Prussia’s dominance over the newly-founded German Empire. And he thought hard about them too. Drawing from his own experience of the war, Nietzsche was at first very critical of Bismarck’s ‘great politics’. But with Beyond Good and Evil he was able to develop his own theory of what great politics should truly be about. Instead of a politics of nationalism and self-aggrandizement, Nietzsche wanted to unify Europe through a trans-European ‘Good European’ cultural elite. This united Europe could then play on a level playing field with the British and Russian Empires in the ‘Great Game’ of international politics, but it would also have a more exalted calling of fostering the emergence of a new high European culture, reminiscent of the Greeks of old.

By placing Nietzsche back in his nineteenth century context, does that mean he has nothing to say to us today?

I hope not. But if we are to understand what we might still learn from him today, we must first get a good handle on what politics meant for him, instead of just seeing how he might contribute to our contemporary debates. In the book I argue that Nietzsche’s greatest legacy is the conceptual tools he affords us in understanding the world we live in. Of course the late nineteenth century is quite different to our own time, but it also saw the development of certain aspects of politics – democratization, not least – which are still relevant to us today. The notions Nietzsche developed to theorize his world can help us better understand the world we live in today. Therein lies, in my view, his greatest teaching.

And guide us too?

Hopefully, yes. Coming up to the EU referendum in the UK on the 23 June I wrote a piece for Project Syndicate about how Nietzsche can help us think about the European question. Much of what Nietzsche says about Europe is of course dated, but there is at least one way in which I think Nietzsche can help. That is in his distinction between a ‘great’ – as he understood it – and ‘petty’ politics of European unification, which is how he recast Bismarck’s power politics in light of his own. So do we want a ‘great’ politics of European unification or a ‘petty’ politics of European fragmentation? Unfortunately the vote didn’t really go in the direction I was advocating, but I hope to have at least shown how Nietzsche can be made to address our present concerns.

Final question: who do you want to reach with this book, and what are you hoping to achieve?

Nietzsche scholars of course, but I’d like to think historians of political thought, political theorists/philosophers, intellectual historians, and a larger discerning public might be interested in it too. Nietzsche has a broad appeal, and I hope to offer here a slightly different dimension. I’ve suggested some of the things I hope to achieve above – relocating Nietzsche’s politics to his own time; how the intellectual tools he fashioned for himself can help us better understand the world we live in today – but let me finish with one last thought. I said I first came across Nietzsche in an anthology of political thought, where I read Beyond Good and Evil. That anthology, in its revised version, has replaced Beyond Good and Evil with On the Genealogy of Morality, which is in line with how Nietzsche is being taught across universities today. That, to me, is a shame. I do not mean in the least to deny the importance of the Genealogy – which is a fantastic book, and I can understand how it is easier to teach given its more focused material – but Beyond Good and Evil strikes me as a more complete text (the Genealogy was meant to serve as its appendix), which applies Nietzsche’s main philosophical ideas directly to his political context. If we are serious about studying Nietzsche’s political thought in its own right, then we must try to understand how Nietzsche’s politics is related to his philosophy. Beyond Good and Evil is the best place to do just that.

Hugo Drochon is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political thought and a postdoctoral research fellow at CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, at the University of Cambridge.

Ethics in the Real World: An interview with philosopher Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of such influential books as Animal Liberation, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save, has taken the time to answer questions about his new collection of essays, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things that Matter. Applying moral philosophy to recent current events, Singer’s essays address thorny issues such as whether chimpanzees are people, whether smoking should be outlawed, and whether consensual sex between adult siblings should be decriminalized. Read on for Singer’s own thoughts on altruism, the influence of his work and its controversial nature.

You’ve written essays on climate change, extreme poverty, animal rights, abortion, and the ethics of high-priced art, to name just a few. Is there a certain topic that has attracted the most attention?

PS: From that list, the two issues on which my views have been most widely discussed are our treatment of animals, and what we ought to be doing about extreme poverty. These are also the issues on which my writings have had the biggest impact. In the case of animals, they have contributed to new laws that have improved the lives of billions of animals, and in the case of extreme poverty, my work has spurred the development of the effective altruism movement, which has caused hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to the non-profit organizations that are most effective in helping people in extreme poverty.

You address a wide range of ethical questions with arguments that challenge people’s deeply held beliefs. In your experience, do people change their beliefs based on others’ arguments?

PS: There is no doubt that some of them do. Almost every time I give a public lecture, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how reading my work led them to become vegan, or start donating a share of their income to organizations that are aiding people in need. I know someone who donated a kidney to a stranger as a result of a discussion of one of my articles in his class

Who is the audience for your new book, Ethics in the Real World?

PS: Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This book is for everyone who is willing to reflect on how he or she lives, and everyone who wants to be stimulated to think about how we ought to live.

You’ve been called both the most influential and the most controversial philosopher of our time. Why do you think your work stirs controversy?

PS: It can be controversial to question accepted moral views. To discuss whether it is more seriously wrong to kill a member of our own species than to kill an animal, you need to ask “What is wrong with killing?” Even if you conclude, as I do, that in most circumstances killing a human being is worse than killing an animal, some people object to raising the question at all. They don’t want their ethical views disturbed. And we all know what happened to Socrates.

What would you have been if not a philosopher?

PS: Probably a lawyer. I was planning to continue with law, because I enjoy a good argument, but I got a scholarship to do graduate work in philosophy, and found that in philosophy I could argue for what I really believe is right and true, and not just for what is in the interests of my client.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He first became well known internationally in 1975 with the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include How Are We to Live?, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), and The Most Good You Can Do. He divides his time between Princeton and Melbourne.



An interview with Emrys Westacott on frugality, happiness, and everyday ethics


Philosophers from Socrates to Thoreau have associated a happy life with frugality and simple living, but in today’s materialistic society, the simple lifestyle is hard to sustain. Emrys Westacott examines why enlightened philosophers have advocated spending less money… and why so many people have ignored them. In The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less, he takes an unprecedented look at a topic that has come into considerable vogue: simple living. Recently, Westacott answered some questions about his book.

What led a philosopher to write about frugality?

EW: A few years ago I taught an honors class at my university titled, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Tightwaddery: The Good Life on a Dollar a Day.”  The theme was suggested by friends who knew of my own tightwaddish tendencies.  These honors classes meet for one evening a week, and are often experimental and a little quirky.  My Tightwaddery course made it into several lists of bizarre college courses, and some people who didn’t know anything about it assumed it was a perfect example of silliness passing for education.  If they’d bothered to look at the syllabus, though, they’d have seen that the course had plenty of respectable content.  We studied canonical philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Thoreau, as well as contemporary culture critics such as Sut Jhally and Judith Schor on issues such as consumerism, advertising, poverty, and the nature of work.  There were also practical components to the course, a few of which were admittedly not so serious.  Students were required to keep track of all their expenditures; they learned about matters such as unit pricing and dollar cost averaging; they had a go at cutting one another’s hair; and the course ended with a class banquet consisting of super cheap dishes that the students concocted.

Although the specific focus of the course was on frugality, the broader questions being asked really had to do with clarifying our most important values and our ideas about the good life–questions that have been central to philosophy ever since Socrates.  I’ve taught the course on frugality several times since. More recently I began teaching classes on Happiness, a topic which also obviously relates to questions about the good life.  And for many years now I’ve been writing about everyday ethics.  My last book, The Virtues of Our Vices, included essays on topics such as gossiping, rudeness, snobbery, and humor.

These overlapping interests in frugality, happiness and everyday ethics came together in a set of questions I found myself asking.  E.g. Why has frugality been praised down the ages as a moral virtue?  Are those who praise it right?  Is it possible that today, when the opportunities for consumption of all kinds are so much greater than in the past, and when our economy depends on millions of people constantly getting and spending, that thrift is an outmoded virtue, rather like chastity?  Should it even, perhaps, be included among what David Hume called the “monkish virtues”?

Once I started thinking about these questions, I realized that it was very difficult to keep separate the notions of frugality and simple living.  The concepts overlap, and so do the various arguments that have been put forward in favor of living a life of frugal simplicity.

Was the class popular?  Is simple living a topic that engages students today?

EW: Yes, the class was popular. (I might add that parents I spoke to were also enthusiastic about their offspring learning how to be frugal!) We hear in the news that the most popular undergraduate major in the US these days is Business, and that many graduates from Harvard and similar institutions head straight for Wall Street, following the money.  But I think there is clearly another movement, perhaps especially among young people, in the opposite direction.  A lot of people are critical of the prevailing consumerist culture, concerned about the environment, and interested in voluntarily structuring their lives around values like frugality, simplicity, and self-sufficiency. The recession of 2008 encouraged this trend since it made the frugal lifestyle a practical necessity for many who might not otherwise have been inclined to embrace it.

There are plenty of books out there about how we can and why we should live frugally or simply.  How is this one different?

EW: In several ways.

First, it’s not a self-help book or a compendium of practical advice.  If you want to learn how to make toilet brush holders out of used milk cartons, you should buy a book like Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette.

Second, it’s a philosophically informed study that focuses throughout on the arguments that have been (or can be) given both for and against simple living.  There is a rich philosophical tradition going back to ancient times in which these arguments are advanced and debated.  One of the things I try to do is identify what I take to be the main arguments within this tradition and examine them in an orderly way.

Third, it’s not a polemic.  The message of the book is not: Your must change your life!  I certainly am sympathetic to the views and values of those I call “the frugal sages” (a group that includes, among others, the Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Epicureans, Cynics, Stoics, Jesus, St. Francis, Boethius, More, Rousseau, and Thoreau). And in the last two chapters I offer reasons why it would be good for our society to facilitate and encourage simple living.  But I also recognize that there are some powerful arguments on the other side, arguments in favor of luxury and extravagance.  A failing of the frugal sages is that, for the most part, they don’t pay any attention to these arguments.  I try to correct this omission and to recognize that there really are cogent reasons for questioning the idea that the good life is the simple life.

What would you say is the guiding question of the book?

EW: There are actually three guiding questions:  Why do most philosophers advocate simple living?  Why do most people ignore them?  And who’s right?

What, exactly is meant by “simple living”?

EW: It turns out, when you think hard about it, that simple living is a complex notion.  It could include, or refer to, any of the following ideas:

  • fiscal prudence (as advocated by Ben Franklin)
  • living cheaply (using little money and few resources)
  • self-sufficiency (doing things for yourself; also not depending on others for favors or patronage)
  • living close to nature (like Thoreau at Walden)
  • being content with simple pleasures
  • asceticism, or self-denial (as practiced, for instance, by monks and hermits)
  • physical or spiritual purity
  • living according to a strict routine
  • aesthetic simplicity (e.g. shunning ornamentation, or preferring the rustic)

Some of these senses of simplicity overlap or support one another.  E.g. tending a vegetable garden is a simple pleasure that saves you money, makes you more self-sufficient, and brings you closer to nature.  But they can also conflict.  Diogenes the Cynic undoubtedly lived cheaply; his home was a large ceramic jar, and he kept all his possessions in a small bag.  But since he was a beggar he could hardly be described as self-sufficient.

Why do so many philosophers advocate simple living?

EW: Most of the reasons they give can be classified as either moral or prudential.

The moral reasons typically associate frugal simplicity with various virtues, such as hardiness, fortitude, unpretentiousness, temperance, and wisdom.  We still make this connection.   When the present pope was selected, lots of people pointed out that as a cardinal in Buenos Aries he had chosen to live in a small downtown apartment rather than the palace put at his disposal.  This was taken to be a sign of his integrity.

The prudential reasons are those that connect simple living with happiness.  The basic argument is that if you embrace frugal simplicity you’ll experience fewer negative emotions like anxiety, envy, frustration, or disappointment, and you will be more content with life.  You’ll need to work less, for instance, so you’ll have more leisure time in which to do as you please.  Once you get off the hamster wheel pursuing false goods such as money, possessions, status, fame, or power, you’ll find it much easier to achieve peace of mind.  You won’t be dissatisfied over what you lack, nor anxious about losing what you have.  You’ll realize that satisfying your basic needs is quite sufficient in order to be happy.  In fact, doing without luxuries can even enhance your capacity for enjoying both luxuries, when you occasionally experience them, and the humbler, everyday pleasures of life as well.  Epicurus champions this outlook on life as persuasively as anyone; in his view, nothing much more was needed for happiness than a cup of wine, a bowl of cheese, and a few good friends with whom to share the feast.

So why do so many people ignore the “frugal sages”?

EW: Well, there are quite a few reasons, and some of them make good sense.  One argument is that a serious commitment to frugality can have a morally objectionable aspect. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, for instance.  An ingrained habit of penny-pinching can lead to parsimoniousness, ungenerosity, and pointless self-denial. Another fairly obvious point is that having a certain amount of wealth offers a degree of security, and hence peace of mind.  Even the bible–which tells us not to toil after wealth–says that “a rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall protecting him.”

More interesting, though, in my view, are the arguments that can be given in favor of what the frugal sages would view as extravagance–that is, getting and spending far more than is needed for a life of simple contentment.   Extravagance generally gets a bad rap from thinkers like Ben Franklin because they automatically think of it as imprudent.  And it often is, of course.  Look at the hundreds of billions of dollars in credit card debt that Americans carry over from month to month, paying exorbitant rates of interest.   But what about affordable extravagance?  Here, I think the situation is complicated, and I find that my own attitude is ambivalent.

On the one hand, like many people, I’m inclined to criticize the self-indulgence of the super-rich when they spend vast sums on tasteless parties where ice sculptures of Michaelangelo’s David pee vodka, or on satisfying ridiculous whims, like Paris Hilton building a replica of her own mansion for her dog at a cost of $325,000.  Given how much more usefully the money might be spent, this sort of expenditure seems callously wasteful–although, truth be told, most of us who are comfortably off quite often indulge ourselves in a similar way; we just do it more cheaply.

On the other hand, one has to admit that extravagance has its pluses.  Think about where tourists go.  They go to see the Taj Mahal, the palace at Versailles, the stately homes of England, the art and architecture of Florence, and countless other cultural treasures that the extravagance of long dead fat cats has bequeathed to us.  The fact is, extravagance fuels culture.  How many of us could honestly wish that the Medicis had been more frugal, or that the aristocratic patrons of Haydn and Mozart had dispensed with their court orchestras?

And there’s another problem.  If I ask my students whether they would like to live the good life as described by the likes of Socrates and Epicurus–the life of frugal simplicity, humble pleasures, and conversation with friends–some find it appealing, but many don’t.  And the reason is simple: they find this ideal boring.  They want to go places, see things, do stuff, have adventures, and make their mark.  From this point of view, the frugal sages fail to squeeze all they could out of life.  They content themselves with too little.  That attitude perhaps made sense throughout most of human history, when  life was terribly insecure for almost everyone, and both vocational and recreational opportunities were very limited.  But things are different today.  The quintessentially modern attitude is that of Faust in Goethe’s drama: he wants to experience everything the whole of life to the full.  So here is another reason for being extravagant: done right, it makes life more interesting and exciting.

Does this imply that the philosophy of frugal simplicity, the outlook championed by Epicurus, Thoreau, and the rest, is past its sell by date?  Or is it still relevant today?

EW: These are the questions I take up in the final two chapters of the book.  My answer is that there is still plenty of wisdom in the frugal tradition that we can apply today, but that we also have to recognize its limitations, given how dramatically the world has changed over the past two centuries.

Two changes in particular present us with issues that the frugal sages of the past never really considered: the size and complexity of modern economies; and the environmental problems engendered by the industrial revolution and the subsequent growth in human population.

Anyone who advocates a return to frugal simplicity has to deal with the problem that if enough people took this path over a short period of time, there would be a massive decline in demand for goods and services that one pays for.  But many people’s livelihood depends on this demand remaining high.  A modern economy stays buoyant because enough people are running around getting and spending.  So the question is whether we can simplify our lives in desirable ways without impoverishing ourselves and creating depression-era levels of unemployment.  I think we can.  But it requires government policies that positively support simple living. If, for instance, people enjoyed free universal health care, adequate state pensions, cheap public transport, and affordable housing, they could feel assured of a decent quality of life without the need to make lots of money.  In that situation, the prospect of working fewer hours and having longer holidays–the obvious solution to the problem of unemployment– becomes more inviting.

The way our material standard of living is tied to consumer activity poses a difficulty for the philosophy of frugality.  But the environmentalist problems we face suggest new arguments in favor of this philosophy.  Limiting consumption, cutting out waste, downsizing, and simplifying will, in most circumstances, reduce one’s ecological footprint.  Here, too, there are complexities and legitimate grounds for disagreement.  On the whole, though, the environmentalist arguments in favor of simple living are strong, for the need to combat problems like global warming and pollution is urgent.   And a shift toward simpler living might also be useful in helping us handle the social disruption and ethical challenges thrown up by constant rapid technological change with greater wisdom than we have managed to date.

Emrys Westacott is a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Alfred, New York and the author of The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More – More or Less and The Virtues of Our Vices (Princeton). Westacott’s work has been featured in the New York Times and has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now, to name a few.

The Law is a White Dog author Colin Dayan debunks the rationality of law

What do abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guantánamo and supermax facilities, and slaves killed by the state have in common? They have all been deprived of their personhood by the law. In The Law is a White Dog, Colin Dayan shows how the law can be used to dehumanize and marginalize, even as it upholds civil order. Dayan puts the topic in historical context, showing how these issues are still prevalent today. In an interview with WFHB Indiana, the author speaks to recent instances of police brutality. Listen for a fresh take on a a timely issue.

Tom Jones on Alexander Pope’s “original vision of humankind”

PopeHighly regarded as one of the most important and controversial works of the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man” was a way to “vindicate the ways of God to man” in terms of the existence of evil, man’s place in the universe, and how humankind should behave in the world. Tom Jones has provided a comprehensive introduction in his accessible, reader-friendly new edition of the famous poem, An Essay on Man. Recently, Jones answered some questions about the poem, its reception, moral lessons, and distinctive contribution to ethical theory:

What does Pope say about ‘man’ in his essay?

TJ: (I’ll talk about ‘people’ in this interview, to avoid suggesting that the Essay on Man is about men rather than men and women.) Pope says some contrasting things about people in this poem, and one of the pleasures of reading it is working out how they do or don’t fit together. The poem is divided into four epistles, or letters, to Pope’s friend, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Each of the epistles considers man from a different perspective: as one link in a chain of creatures; as an individual; in society; with respect to what makes people happy. Each epistle has a different feel or dominant tone. The first emphasises that people can only know a part of what is going on in the universe. The second, that we are a confusion of antagonistic psychological principles. The third, that self-love and social instincts turn out to support one another very fully. And the fourth, that human happiness rests in learning that individual goods always tend to be goods for others too, and that we ought to widen our perspective to consider other people’s good. So the tone of the fourth epistle is really quite different from the first. Rather than being contradictory, however, I would suggest that the poem is partly a story, the story of how we get from knowing only a part and not the whole, to how we start to consider perspectives above and beyond our own – truly social and more truly human perspectives. The poem is an encouragement to adopt these higher social perspectives.

Why is this essay in verse?

TJ: The kind of moral lessons Pope was trying to make available were, he thought, best communicated and memorized when written in verse. The fact that fragments and couplets from this poem (and others by Pope) have achieved proverbial status (‘For Forms of Government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best’, III.303-4, is amongst the most famous from this poem) is good evidence for that claim. Pope also claimed he could be more concise in expressing these thoughts in rhymed verse. He probably meant that he could communicate exactly what he wanted to in exactly the right number of words, with the slightest possible chance of misinterpretation. But since Pope’s time we have tended also to value poetry not for saying just enough, but for saying too little or too much, and leaving us some work to do with what is missing or what is left over. As well as the memorable quality of its maxims, the poem also gives us this pleasure, as we work out that time frames have been compressed in a single sentence, or that a particularly knotty sentence refers back to an earlier subject, or that the implications of a metaphor or comparison are much more disturbing that we would have thought. The compression and economy Pope was aiming at for the sake of clarity can also produce revealing complexities.

Does Pope make a distinctive contribution to ethical theory or to philosophy more broadly?

TJ: Reason and the passions were often put in opposition to one another in the philosophy of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Pope was one of the writers who rehabilitated the passions, even saying that passions could become virtues if they had a tendency towards social goods (II.97-100). Pope also has a view that passions emerge over the course of time and tend to reinforce themselves in daily behavior, so he was a philosopher of custom who edges towards what we might anachronistically call a description of the formation of neural pathways (II.128ff). And, moving from the individual to the species, he had a view that social practices and virtues emerge over the course of human history (III.169ff). So in some ways he is an early instance of, even an inspiration to, philosophers of custom of the later Enlightenment – philosophers like David Hume.

That leads on to another question: Who read the poem and what were their reactions to it?

TJ: It’s hard to overstate how widely and enthusiastically this poem was read. Originally published anonymously, it was positively received for its philosophical and religious views. There were critical responses too, some of which accused Pope of denying free will and of identifying God as the soul of the material world. But the poem was widely echoed and imitated in English poetry, and philosophers with interests in politics, cosmology, metaphysics, social norms and many other topics picked up on phrases, images and arguments from the poem in their published work. I find it particularly interesting to trace the connections between Pope’s writing on the problem of limited human perception in a potentially limitless universe and Immanuel Kant’s work on cosmology and the sublime. Kant cited Pope’s poem in an early work, and his distinction between the mind’s limited capacity empirically to conceive of particular numbers, and its simultaneously existing purely rational capacity to conceive of the infinite may count Pope amongst its inspirations.

Who were Pope’s great inspirations?

TJ: Broadly, those philosophers and theologians who see that the world in front of them is sufficiently bad for the existence of a divine providence to require serious explanation, but who nonetheless believe that such explanations can be given. That’s a very diverse group, and some of the most tempting candidates include people we can’t be certain Pope had read – Plotinus and Leibniz, for example. Amongst the people we know Pope read there are philosophical poets like Lucretius, whose atomism and naturalism might have appealed to Pope, but whose assertion of the indifference or non-existence of the gods was unacceptable to most of Pope’s audience. There are also French essayists of different kinds, many of whom responded antagonistically to one another, such as Montaigne and Pascal. Pope is close to both these writers – to Montaigne on the narrow distinction between animal instinct and human reason, for example, and to Pascal on the pragmatic value of superficial social distinctions such as rank – but Pascal had reacted very strongly to Montaigne’s more moderate form of Christian skepticism: Pascal wanted to reassert the divine reason behind what could appear to be merely arbitrary custom. So like many great writers Pope draws on his predecessors and contemporaries for ideas and images, but his real work is in the imaginative transformation of those sources in the construction of an original vision of humankind, whose natural sociability emerges through a particular institutional history, whose reason and passions are sometimes collaborators in the production of distinctively human virtues, who recognize their limits but nonetheless always aim to broaden the scope of what is contained by them.

Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is the author of Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present and Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy.

Justin E. H. Smith: How philosophy came to disdain the wisdom of oral cultures

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Smith jacketA poet, somewhere in Siberia, or the Balkans, or West Africa, some time in the past 60,000 years, recites thousands of memorised lines in the course of an evening. The lines are packed with fixed epithets and clichés. The bard is not concerned with originality, but with intonation and delivery: he or she is perfectly attuned to the circumstances of the day, and to the mood and expectations of his or her listeners.

If this were happening 6,000-plus years ago, the poet’s words would in no way have been anchored in visible signs, in text. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have been on Earth, words have had no worldly reality other than the sound made when they are spoken.

As the theorist Walter J Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke.

As a consequence of the development of writing, first in the ancient Near East and soon after in Greece, old habits of thought began to die out, and certain other, previously latent, mental faculties began to express themselves. Words were now anchored and, though spellings could change from one generation to another, or one region to another, there were now physical traces that endured, which could be transmitted, consulted and pointed to in settling questions about the use or authority of spoken language.

Writing rapidly turned customs into laws, agreements into contracts, genealogical lore into history. In each case, what had once been fundamentally temporal and singular was transformed into something eternal (as in, ‘outside of time’) and general. Even the simple act of making everyday lists of common objects – an act impossible in a primary oral culture – was already a triumph of abstraction and systematisation. From here it was just one small step to what we now call ‘philosophy’.

Homer’s epic poetry, which originates in the same oral epic traditions as those of the Balkans or of West Africa, was written down, frozen, fixed, and from this it became ‘literature’. There are no arguments in the Iliad: much of what is said arises from metrical exigencies, the need to fill in a line with the right number of syllables, or from epithets whose function is largely mnemonic (and thus unnecessary when transferred into writing). Yet Homer would become an authority for early philosophers nonetheless: revealing truths about humanity not by argument or debate, but by declamation, now frozen into text.

Plato would express extreme concern about the role, if any, that poets should play in society. But he was not talking about poets as we think of them: he had in mind reciters, bards who incite emotions with living performances, invocations and channellings of absent persons and beings.

It is not orality that philosophy rejects, necessarily: Socrates himself rejected writing, identifying instead with a form of oral culture. Plato would also ensure the philosophical canonisation of his own mentor by writing down (how faithfully, we don’t know) what Socrates would have preferred to merely say, and so would have preferred to have lost to the wind. Arguably, it is in virtue of Plato’s recording that we might say, today, that Socrates was a philosopher.

Plato and Aristotle, both, were willing to learn from Homer, once he had been written down. And Socrates, though Plato still felt he had to write him down, was already engaged in a sort of activity very different from poetic recitation. This was dialectic: the structured, working-through of a question towards an end that has not been predetermined – even if this practice emerged indirectly from forms of reasoning only actualised with the advent of writing.

The freezing in text of dialectical reasoning, with a heavy admixture (however impure or problematic) of poetry, aphorism and myth, became the model for what, in the European tradition, was thought of as ‘philosophy’ for the next few millennia.

Why are these historical reflections important today? Because what is at stake is nothing less than our understanding of the scope and nature of philosophical enquiry.

The Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico wrote in his Scienza Nuova (1725): ‘the order of ideas must follow the order of institutions’. This order was, namely: ‘First the woods, then cultivated fields and huts, next little houses and villages, thence cities, finally academies and philosophers.’ It is implicit for Vico that the philosophers in these academies are not illiterate. The order of ideas is the order of the emergence of the technology of writing.

Within academic philosophy today, there is significant concern arising from how to make philosophy more ‘inclusive’, but no interest at all in questioning Vico’s order, in going back and recuperating what forms of thought might have been left behind in the woods and fields.

The groups ordinarily targeted by philosophy’s ‘inclusivity drive’ already dwell in the cities and share in literacy, even if discriminatory measures often block their full cultivation of it. No arguments are being made for the inclusion of people belonging to cultures that value other forms of knowledge: there are no efforts to recruit philosophers from among Inuit hunters or Hmong peasants.

The practical obstacles to such recruitment from a true cross-section of humanity are obvious. Were it to happen, however, the simple process of moving from traditional ways of life into academic institutions would at the same time dilute and transform the perspectives that are deserving of more attention. Irrespective of such unhappy outcomes, there is already substantial scholarship on these forms of thought accumulated in philosophy’s neighbouring disciplines – notably history, anthropology, and world literatures – to which philosophers already have access. It’s a literature that could serve as a corrective to the foundational bias, present since the emergence of philosophy as a distinct activity.

As it happens, there are few members of primary oral cultures left in the world. And yet from a historical perspective the great bulk of human experience resides with them. There are, moreover, members of literate cultures, and subcultures, whose primary experience of language is oral, based in storytelling, not argumentation, and that is living and charged, not fixed and frozen. Plato saw these people as representing a lower, and more dangerous, use of language than the one worthy of philosophers.

Philosophers still tend to disdain, or at least to conceive as categorically different from their own speciality, the use of language deployed by bards and poets, whether from Siberia or the South Bronx. Again, this disdain leaves out the bulk of human experience. Until it is eradicated, the present talk of the ideal of inclusion will remain mere lip-service.

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7. He writes frequently for The New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. His latest book is The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (2016).

Cicero on Going Emeritus

Guest post by Michael Fontaine, Acting Dean of Faculty, Cornell University.

Michael Fontaine

© Joe Wilensky/Cornell University

When a long and fulfilling career comes to an end, what do you do next? Seriously, what do you do?

That question came to mind over and over last week, when I suddenly found myself tapped to host a celebration for newly retired faculty at Cornell University. I teach Latin in the Classics department there, and this past semester I’ve been the acting dean of faculty. What on earth was I to say? I was told to speak off the cuff for five or ten minutes, but for someone who’s only just entering middle age, it’s hard to know what gems of wisdom could possibly sound sincere. What could unite a distinguished group of intellectuals from different departments at a huge research university and resonate with them?

Then it hit me—Cicero’s essay On Old Age! I’d been passing Philip Freeman’s new translation around to relatives and recommending it to friends since it came out a couple months ago. I grabbed my copy and marked out a half-dozen passages for the Provost and me to take turns reading. I worried that the title Freeman gave the essay, How to Grow Old, might put people off, so I had to be careful how I introduced the book. It could have blown up in my face.

But it didn’t blow up. The crowd loved it.

The context was crucial. I began by pointing out that Cicero’s title, De Senectute, could also be translated “On Old Age” or “On Retirement” or “On Turning 60.” I then pointed out that like Barack Obama, Cicero was a politician who rose from humble beginnings to achieve Rome’s highest office. He became consul—the equivalent of president—in 63 BC, and he did it purely through his sensational gift of public speaking. In his year in office, Cicero thwarted a terrorist attack and survived an attempt on his life, and wound up being hailed as a second founder of Rome. And in his spare time, he was a devotee of philosophy, poetry, and political theory—a real thinker.

I also pointed out that the speaker of the dialogue, Cato the Elder, was a man much like Cicero—or themselves. He enjoyed a tremendous career and then had to figure out what to do with his newfound spare time. That is surely why our first extract was the most popular of all:

So you see how old age, far from being feeble and sluggish, can be very active, always doing and engaged in something, as it follows the pursuits of earlier years. And you should never stop learning, just as Solon in his poetry boasts that while growing old he learned something new every day. I’ve done the same, teaching myself Greek as an old man. I have seized on this study like someone trying to satisfy a long thirst…. I have heard that Socrates learned as an old man to play the lyre, that favorite instrument of the ancients. I wish I could do that as well, but at least I’ve applied myself diligently to literature. (pp. 55-7)

Retirement is perfect for learning new languages—and Latin is one of the most popular choices. These faculty knew exactly what Cicero meant. They got the point of the next one, too, but not in the way I expected:

What indeed could be more pleasant than an old age surrounded by the enthusiasm of youth? For surely we must agree that old people at least have the strength to teach the young and prepare them for the many duties of life. What responsibility could be more honorable than this?… And no one who provides a liberal education to others can be considered unhappy even if his body is failing with age. The excesses of youth are more often to blame for the loss of bodily strength than old age. (pp. 61-3)

I assumed Cicero’s point about liberal education and being surrounded by young people would resonate with those who had spent their careers in university teaching. In the event, it was the final sentence that set of peals of laughter—and a few knowing smiles—from the crowd. Luckily, the Provost elevated the tone once more by reading our third extract:

We must fight, my dear Laelius and Scipio, against old age. We must compensate for its drawbacks by constant care and attend to its defects as if it were a disease. We can do this by following a plan of healthy living, exercising in moderation, and eating and drinking just enough to restore our bodies without overburdening them. And as much as we should care for our bodies, we should pay even more attention to our minds and spirits. For they, like lamps of oil, will grow dim with time if not replenished. And even though physical exercise may tire the body, mental activity makes the mind sharper. (pp. 73-5)

These words of advice never fail to win the attention and agreement of readers today; they seem to come right out of the latest self-help book for seniors. And because so many faculty look forward to retirement to at last devote more time to their research, I thought the next passage would hit home:

I am now working on the seventh book of my Origins [of Rome] and collecting all the records of our earliest history, as well as editing the speeches I delivered in famous cases. I am investigating augural, priestly, and civil law. I also devote much of my time to the study of Greek literature. And to exercise my memory, I follow the practice of the Pythagoreans and each evening go over everything I have said, heard, or done during the day. These are my mental gymnastics, the racecourses of my mind…. I also provide legal advice to my friends and frequently attend meetings of the Senate, where I propose topics for discussion and argue my opinion after pondering the issues long and hard. All this I do not with the strength of my body but with the force of my mind. (pp. 79-81)

This again brought forth giggles from the crowd, since many of them are active indeed in our faculty senate, but it was the phrase mental gymnastics that really caught their attention. It was a nice opportunity to point out that “gymnastics of the mind,” as Raffaella Cribiore has reminded us, is itself an ancient expression.

Retirees are a huge demographic that my field, Classics, ought to reach out to. Our outreach activities seem forever targeted toward the rising generation, but that’s a huge missed opportunity. We could, and should, do much more to think about other audiences for the classics—especially those for whom essays like De Senectute were written. That is the point of the final passage we chose for our celebration:

How wonderful it is for the soul when—after so many struggles with lust, ambition, strife, quarreling, and other passions—these battles are at last ended and it can return, as they say, to live within itself. There is no greater satisfaction to be had in life than a leisurely old age devoted to knowledge and learning. (p. 103)

Cicero is right. I recommend How to Grow Older to everyone out there who’s newly retired, or thinking about it.

Justin E. H. Smith on six types of philosophers

Smith jacketThe Natural Philosopher, the Sage, the Gadfly, the Ascetic, the Mandarin, and the Courtier. What would the global history of philosophy look like if it were told as a series of job descriptions—ones that might have been used to fill the position of philosopher at different times and places over the past 2,500 years? The Philosopher: A History in Six Types by Justin E. H. Smith does just that, providing a new way of looking at the history of philosophy. Why six types? Are some types superior to others? Recently, Smith took the time to answer these questions and more about his latest book.

This book doesn’t have a conventional structure or approach. In addition to straightforward scholarly exposition, it also contains autobiographical elements, as well as what appear to be fictional excursuses, written from the perspective of invented historical figures who represent different philosophical types. What are the reasons for this experimental approach?

JS: When I began speaking with my editor at Princeton University Press, what intrigued him most were some reflections of mine on the relationship between the activity of a philosopher and the practical need we all have to earn money and pay the bills. I had recently moved to Paris, was having trouble making ends meet with my modest French university salary, and so had begun experimenting with some ‘freelance’ philosophical dialogues with people willing to pay—mostly Anglo tourists who were looking to experience the frisson of sitting in a Parisian café and talking about love and death and stuff just like Sartre and De Beauvoir. So when I began writing, that personal experience served as the point of departure for reflecting on the long history of the problematic relationship between money and philosophy—after all, one of the most common foundation myths of the tradition is that it began when Socrates refused remuneration, thus liberating whatever it is we’re doing qua philosophers from whatever it is the Sophists had been doing. This approach then sort of expanded to other parts of the book: launching into an investigation of some aspect of the definition of philosophy by revealing something about my own personal engagement with it.

As for the fictional elements, I suppose this is just an irrepressible symptom of the sort of writing I’ve come to believe can best get across what I’m trying to do philosophically. I’m with Margaret Cavendish, who explicitly lays out at the beginning of her delirious 1666 novel, Blazing World, how it is that fantasy can be harnessed and utilized for the exploration of philosophical questions in ways for which the faculty of reason alone might be less ideally suited. I faced some resistance to these portions of the book from some readers of drafts. They wanted me to more clearly mark off and explain what I was doing in them, somewhat as Martha Nussbaum does when she introduces a fictional figure in one of her books to guide as through the exposition of arguments that follow. But I didn’t want my characters to serve simply as didactic aides. I wanted rather for the work to be, at least in part, a work of fiction, a product, like Cavendish’s, of the literary imagination.

Is this book philosophy, or is it about philosophy?

JS: I don’t know that there can really be a valid distinction here. By the same token, I’ve never understood what people mean when they talk about ‘metaphilosophy’. We’re all just trying to come to a clearer understanding of the nature of this activity we’re engaged in, in order, in part, to better engage in it. Philosophy is peculiar in that a great deal of effort is expended, by those who profess to practice it, in seeking to determine where its boundaries are, and what falls outside of them. This is a problem sedimentologists, say, don’t have, and one might easily suspect that philosophy is essentially constituted by this activity, that there’s not much left over to do once philosophers have stopped trying to determine what philosophy is not. I think my approach, the transregional and wide-focused historical survey of the very different ways people we think of as philosophers have themselves conceived what they were doing, helps to establish this point: ‘philosophy’ is said in many ways, to paraphrase Aristotle. I’m sure some critics who have some stake in portraying philosophy as essentially thus rather than so, or vice versa, will be quick to say that this book is ‘not philosophy’. But I think I can survive that, and in fact I think they’ll be helping to support my thesis.

Why six types? Is this list exhaustive or arbitrary?

JS: I make it very clear in the book that there has been no transcendental deduction of all possible types of philosopher, or anything like that. My approach is more like the one Kant accused Aristotle of taking in his elaboration of the ten categories: his listing of them continued until he grew tired. I also make clear that what we usually see when we look at actual philosophers is hybrids of two or more of the types, or different dimensions of the types becoming apparent at different moments in their work. The point of thinking in terms of types is to help reveal the degree to which the expectations placed on a person occupying the social role of the philosopher will determine in part the range of questions or problems that philosopher considers worthy of attention. I think of types as social categories, and for this reason certain social circumstances need to obtain in order for a given type of philosopher to make an appearance. Is an amateur observer of the way snails copulate in Central Park in 2015 a philosopher? No, but someone who was doing the same thing in the Jardin des Plantes in 1665 probably was.

You seem to be more sympathetic to some types than to others. Why?

JS: My training as a scholar, and so to speak my spiritual home base, is in the 17th century, which I see as a brief period of tremendous openness, of liberality and of true love of knowledge, inserted in the middle of what has generally been, philosophically speaking, a long, dark history of tedious scholasticism, provincialism, and submission to authority. Not coincidentally, this is also the period in which most of the philosophical action was going on outside of universities.

While I didn’t mean to structure things in this way when I began writing, as it turned out the chapters, each of which focuses on a particular type, move from my most to my least favorite. The first chapter is on what I call the ‘Curiosa’ (or, masculine, ‘Curiosus’), and the fictional personnage is inspired by none other than Margaret Cavendish. She represents the intellectual virtue that I believe is most lacking in university-based philosophy since at least the moment, sometime around the end of the 18th century, when the natural sciences broke off from philosophy and ‘natural philosophy’ ceased to be a vital and central concern of philosophers. My least favorite figure is the Courtier, whose fictional representative is based loosely on Jan Sten, the Soviet philosopher who was called in to tutor Stalin on Hegel and dialectical materialism and whatever other profound things the dictator was having trouble understanding, and who was eventually purged in the Moscow show trials. Serves that groveling worm right, we’re inclined to say at our safe distance, but the truth is many of us are doing something somewhat similar when we bend ourselves to the reigning ideology of market-driven university research, and pretend to ourselves and others that that’s still philosophy.

You draw on many sources that are not traditionally considered philosophy in the narrow sense. What is the purpose of this?

JS: I just don’t know how one could possibly coherently define the corpus of texts that deserve to be included in, as it were, the imaginary library of the history of philosophy. Recently (too recently to be included in the book) I’ve been thinking a great deal about the philosophical problem of the concept of ‘world’, as it developed in the 17th century, and the way in which this development is central for our understanding of the metaphysics of possibility, counterfactuals, one of Kant’s three transcendental Ideas, and so on. I’ve learned a great deal about the history of this concept from the work, in French, of Édouard Mehl. One thing I’ve come to appreciate is that this concept simply cannot be adequately understood without reading early modern novels, particularly the ones we might call ‘proto-science fiction’, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s Les états et empires de la Lune. Am I supposed to exclude that just because it’s not a treatise? But then I will fail to adequately understand the philosophical problem that interests me, and that would be bad.

Often we are willing to pay attention to things that canonical philosophers say that are, quite frankly, no less fantastical than 17th-century lunar fantasy novels, simply because they are already categorized as canonical philosophers and therefore, we presume, everything they say is of interest. So Leibniz says that every drop of water in a pond is a world full of beings, and that is poetic and wonderful, but is it any more worthy of our attention as philosophers than when, say, Walt Whitman finds that he incorporates “gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss”? Both capture something profound about nature and our place in it. Whitman says it better, in my view, and there’s no reason not to pay attention to it, as philosophers, on the grounds that Whitman didn’t also come up with the principle of sufficient reason or the infinitesimal calculus.

In the end you describe the work as ‘aporetic’? Does this indicate a failure?

JS: No, it’s philosophy’s fault.

Justin E. H. Smith is university professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII. He is also the author of Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy and Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life (both Princeton). He writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Cabinet Magazine, and other publications.


Top 5 Tips for Aging from Cicero

CiceroIn 44 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote a short dialogue on the joys of one’s advanced years called On Old Age. You can read it in translation in our edition, How to Grow Old, translated by Philip Freeman. In the meantime, take these nuggets to heart as time draws you inexorably onward.

  1. Those who are unhappy in their youth will be unhappy in their old age as well. Begin cultivating the qualities that will serve you best when you are young and you will have a pleasant winter of life.
  2. Nature will always win. Certain things are meant to be enjoyed at different times of life, and trying to cling to youthful activities in old age will lead to frustration and resentment.
  3. The old and the young have much to offer one another. In exchange for the wisdom and experience of age, young people give joy to the twilight years.
  4. Use your increased free time productively. Cicero himself wrote extensively. He expounds on the joys of gardening for older people. Find an interest and pursue it!
  5. Do not fear death. Your soul will either continue on, or you will lose all awareness. Either way, the best thing to do is make the most of the time you have left.

There you have it! Armed with this knowledge, you too can enjoy a fruitful old age. For the rest of Cicero’s thoughts, pick up a copy of How to Grow Old.

For the love of books

The Quotable Kierkegaard jacketFeynmanCalaprice_QuotableEinstein_pb_cvrthoraeu smalljefferson

What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than with a heartfelt declaration of our love of books? We offer up these quotes from our Quotable’s, as well as a special giveaway!

PUP Books

The Quotable Kierkegaard

“It is the most interesting time, the period of falling in love, where after the first touch of a wand’s sweeping sensation, from each encounter, every glance…one brings something home, just like a bird busily fetching one stick after the other to her nest, yet always feels overwhelmed by the great wealth.”

“What is it, namely, that connect the temporal and eternity, what else but love, which for that very reason is before everything and remains after everything is gone.”

The Quotable Feynman

“It’s necessary to fall in love with a theory, and like falling in love with a woman, it’s only possible if one does not completely understand her.”

The Quotable Thoreau

“How insufficient is all wisdom without love.”

“It is strange that men will talk of miracles, revelation, inspiration, and the like, as things past, while love remains.”

“What is the singing of birds, or any natural sound, compared with the voice of one we love?”

The Ultimate Quotable Einstein

“Love brings much happiness, much more so than pining for someone brings pain.”

The Quotable Jefferson

“If I love you more, it is because you deserve more.”

“We think last of those we love most.”


In Love’s Vision, Troy Jollimore puts forth a new way of thinking about love. For the most romantic holiday all year, we’re giving away three copies starting February 12. The entry period ends February 20. As you pay special attention to your loved ones let Troy Jollimore’s vision of love give you food for thought.

Jason Brennan: Our relationship to democracy is nonconsensual

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Democracy Doesn’t Rest on the Consent of the Governed

By Jason Brennan

There’s a popular idea—an idea you might get from middle school civics classes—that democracy is based on the consent of the governed. Now, democracy is more responsive to what people want than other forms of government, and it gives the governed a large say in what happens. However, it’s a mistake to say that the relationship individual citizens have to their government in a democracy is consensual. Let’s think about why.

Recently, I purchased a Marshall JVM amplifier from a dealer. It was an archetypical consensual transaction. It had each of the following features:

A.       I performed an act that signified my consent. In this case, I ordered the amplifier. The outcome—that I lost money but gained a JVM—would not have occurred but for my performing the act that signified consent.

B.       I was not forced to perform that act—I had a reasonable way to avoid doing it.

C.       Had I explicitly said, “I refuse to buy a Marshall JVM at that price!” the exchange never would have taken place.

D.       The dealer was not entitled to take my money unless it sent me the amplifier—it had to hold up its end of the bargain.

Now, imagine that any one of these conditions didn’t happen. Suppose, instead of A, that the dealer just extracted money from my bank account and sent me the amp, even though I’d never placed an order. In that case, that would be strange kind of theft. The dealer would have taken my money without my consent. Suppose, instead of B, the dealer (or someone else) had said, “Buy this amp or I’ll murder you.” In that case, we still wouldn’t call it consensual—it would be a weird form of theft. Suppose, instead of C, I tell the dealer, “I absolutely refuse to buy a JVM!,” but the dealer just sent it to me anyways. In that case, it would have been like it had given me a gift without my consent. If they then sent me a bill, I wouldn’t have any duty to pay it, since I’d told them I didn’t want to buy the amp. Suppose, instead of D, the dealer takes my money but never sends the amp. In that case, it would be fraud. In each of these cases, the transaction would not be consensual.

In general, our relationship as individuals to our government doesn’t look much like a consensual relationship.

If you don’t vote or participate, your government will just impose rules, regulations, restrictions, benefits, and taxes upon you. Except in exceptional circumstances, the same outcome will occur regardless of how you vote or what policies you support. So, for instance, I voted for a particular candidate in 2012. But had I abstained or voted for a different candidate, the same candidate would have won anyways. This is not like a consensual transaction, in which I order a JVM and the dealer sends me the amp I ordered. Rather, this is more a like a nonconsensual transaction in which the dealer decides to make me buy an amp no matter whether I place an order or not, and no matter what I order.

If you actively dissent, the government makes you obey its rules anyways. For instance, you can’t get out of marijuana criminalization laws by saying, “Just to be clear, I don’t consent to those laws, or to your rule”. This is unlike my relationship with my music gear dealer, where “no” means “no”. For government, your “no” means “yes”.

You have no reasonable way of opting out of government rule. Governments control all the habitable land, and most of us don’t have the resources or even the legal permission to move elsewhere. Governments won’t even let you move to Antarctica if you want to. At most, a privileged few of us can choose which government we live under, but the vast majority of us are stuck with whatever government we’re born with. This is unlike buying an amp from, which, by the way, I highly recommend as a dealer.

Finally, governments require you to obey their rules, pay taxes, and the like, even when they don’t do their part. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the government has no duty to protect individual citizens. Suppose you call the police to alert them that an intruder is in your house, but the police never bother dispatch someone to help you, and as a result the intruder shoots you. The government still requires you to pay taxes for the protection services it chose not to deploy on your behalf.

So, in summary, it looks like in general our relationship to our governments lacks any of the features that signify a consensual transaction.

None of this is to say that governments are unjust or illegitimate, or that we ought to be anarchists. There are other reasons to have governments. Nor is it to say that democracies are not in some way special. Democracies in fact do a much better job than alternative forms of government of responding to their concerns and interests of most of their members. But it’s a stretch to say that democracy rests on the consent of the governed, or, more precisely, it’s a stretch to say that you consent to democratic rule.

Check out Jason Brennan’s recent post on Why Smart Politicians Say Dumb Things.

Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief History of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Democracy, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.