Justin Smith on Irrationality

It’s a story we can’t stop telling ourselves. Once, humans were benighted by superstition and irrationality, but then the Greeks invented reason. Later, the Enlightenment enshrined rationality as the supreme value. Discovering that reason is the defining feature of our species, we named ourselves the “rational animal.” But is this flattering story itself rational? In this sweeping account of irrationality from antiquity to today—from the fifth-century BC murder of Hippasus for revealing the existence of irrational numbers to the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of Donald Trump—Justin Smith says the evidence suggests the opposite. From sex and music to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history.

What led you to write a book about irrationality?

I had long supposed that human thought and behavior have been a relatively static thing for the past 200,000 years, that there is a fairly narrow range of species-specific responses to the world around us, and that these are not going to fundamentally change until or unless we become a different sort of animal. The past few years have tested this long-held assumption. I came to feel that the world was going mad, that many people, including many I know and love, were now speaking and reasoning as if they had passed through to the other side of a looking-glass, or had come back from the other side, and were now communicating in a frenetic glossolalia or in pretend robot-voices. And it terrified me. I began to wonder whether this is not a normal process of disillusionment one can expect to go through at a certain stage of life, when the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that human beings have been bonkers all along and that society is just a flimsy tarp that camouflages this madness, or whether, instead, there really is something important about the present moment that is bringing the irrationality out, like methane from below the ice of the melting tundra. It seemed to me the best way to answer this question would be to investigate it historically, with a maximally sweeping view, attempting so to speak a genealogy of irrationality, one which reaches back into the past, but always with an eye to understanding the present. 

You say that irrationality is ineliminable from human life. Why do you think humans are so inherently irrational? Why doesn’t it seem to matter to us if there are facts that directly contradict our irrationally-held beliefs?

The point of emphasizing its ineliminability is that, again at least until we become a different sort of animal by evolution or by genetic engineering, harm to human beings will be reduced if we understand irrationality as something to be managed, in the way we manage our proneness to tooth decay and do not simply knock our teeth out and replace them with dentures, rather than as something to be obliterated, like polio or cancer. Historically, every attempt at structuring society in a perfectly rational way has been a folly, and has resulted in tremendous individual suffering, in part because the human beings made to endure such political projects remain exactly the same inwardly as humans in those societies that have found effective ways to manage all our dark impulses and unjustifiable but beautiful attachments rather than simply to suppress them. In this respect my argument is kind of boring in its centrism and its attachment to the golden mean, but it also discerns, I think, an important dialectical connection between the two poles in question: do not become too devoted to reason, or you will be pulled over into the opposite extreme. 

Can groups like LessWrong ever really eliminate irrational decision-making as it relates to artificial intelligence and business operations?

Of course not. As I say in the book, they’d be a lot better off just reading some Virgil or Shakespeare and not worrying so much about whether it’s helping them to better apply Bayesianism to their daily lives, rather than acting as if human flourishing is equivalent to making rationally justifiable choices. I mean, obviously, if you spend your days writing Harry Potter fan-fiction, which seems to be a thing in that subculture, something has gone very wrong, and no amount of formal epistemology or probability theory can rescue you from what appears to an outsider to that subculture as an obviously bad choice, not just of how to spend one’s time, but of a whole form of life. 

Is there any benefit to thinking or behaving irrationally?

Sometimes, but it can also kill you, so you need to make your decisions wisely. Sometimes it’s a good idea to smoke; sometimes it’s a good idea to be foolhardy in combat; sometimes it’s a good idea to free solo climb El Capitan. Other times it’s not. The big mistake is to suppose that one can turn to philosophy to find ‘rules for living’ that would dictate generic principles applicable in all circumstances, rather than acknowledging that the only answer is, often, what may be called a radical choice, ungrounded in any principle or rule. 

So, what can we take away from all of this?

The book is an essay and not a theoretical or argumentative work, which means that it is a contribution to a genre in ill repute among academics, and runs the risk of being dismissed by my philosopher-peers as conveying little more than what is called on Twitter a ‘mood’. I can live with that. Moods can be diagnostically very useful, and we certainly know more about what people were really thinking, say, in the 16th century, when we read Montaigne than when we read Francisco Suárez. In any case if the book were making a theoretical argument, it would almost certainly be wrong. In being honest about its true character as an essay, I may hope that at least some readers will be able to share the mood of it, and perhaps thereby to accompany me in the project of becoming a bit wiser. 

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7–Denis Diderot. His books include The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton). An editor at large of Cabinet Magazine, he also writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and other publications.

‘Cute’ around the world

kittenCuteness has taken the planet by storm. Global sensations Hello Kitty and Pokémon, the works of artists Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons, Heidi the cross-eyed opossum and E.T.—all reflect its gathering power. But what does “cute” mean, as a sensibility and style? Why is it so pervasive? Is it all infantile fluff, or is there something more uncanny and even menacing going on—in a lighthearted way? In The Power of Cute, Simon May provides nuanced and surprising answers. 

Although “cute” is a versatile word in English, we questioned our multilingual colleagues and learned that that’s not necessarily the case in other languages. Read on for an exploration of “cute” around the world.birds

 

Brigitta van Rheinberg, Director of Global Development
German

I think the closest equivalent to the English “cute” would be the German word “süß,” which means “sweet” or “adorable.” Babies can be “süß” as can animals or people, or you could use the word to describe a certain behavior (as in how somebody smiles). Other words that get close to the English “cute” are “niedlich,” or “reizend” or, very colloquially (and in my opinion inappropriate and outdated because it is used in a more sexual way for young females): “schnuckelig.”  That word in fact seems straight from the 50s and 60s, so one would hope not to hear it much any longer except perhaps in an ironic and self-reflective way, we hope? Then there is “putzig” (somewhat arcane, perhaps for a small furry animal) or “goldig” for a young child. On reflection, there isn’t quite one exact word that expresses all the connotations that we have for the English “cute.”

Marlene Richardson, Administrative Assistant
Jamaican Patois

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of CUTE being expressed in our Jamaican culture, or “patois,” is in describing a woman—is a “Miss Hottie Hottie.” A “Miss Hottie Hottie” isn’t limited to North America’s standard of beauty; her body type can be big, medium, or small, her complexion can be medium, dark, or fair. It doesn’t matter her class status. A CUTE ‘ooman (note the spelling of the word woman in our patois language) know how fi put dem self together! Di clothes don’t have to be expensive. Dem just know how fi wear di clothes to look fashionable.

Chris Lapinski, Design Coordinator
Polish

The English word “cute” is astonishingly versatile. A vast range of living things, inanimate objects, and places can be called cute. If you’re visiting a charming little town, for instance, you might remark on how “cute” it is. The closest equivalent to cute in Polish is the word “słodki,” a homonym that means sweet. It is pronounced swuht·kee. Słodki can be used literally and figuratively, but only within certain limits. I could call a baby “słodki” or a puppy “słodki” or a cup of tea “słodki,” but I would be remiss to describe a town as słodki. For that, I would have to say “uroczy” (oo·ruh·chih), which translates roughly to “charming”—but uroczy too has its limits. Alas, there is no word in Polish with the same distinctiveness and adaptability as cute. 

Ines ter Horst, Director of Contracts, Rights, and Permissions
Venezuelan Spanish

Depending in which Spanish speaking country you are, there are many particular ways of saying cute. In Venezuela, the word cute would translate as “cuchi,” and refers to something or someone small and cute, as a baby or a figurine such as Hello Kitty. It would also apply to a sweet situation, such as a small kid randomly giving someone a hug. In Spain, cute is ‘mono/mona’ and applies to babies, and is used to describe an attractive person of any age.

Dimitri Karetnikov, Illustration Manager
Russian

There are some words that do not translate seamlessly into Russian, “privacy” and “savory” are classic examples. I think cute is one of them. The common translation of “cute” is милый or милая (female), it sounds like miliy /milaya. However, this translation has other meanings, depending on the context. Generally it covers the more romantic aspect of cute, and it is often used to describe a kind and/or attractive person, it is quite beyond the cute spectrum. If I wanted to describe a cute comedy, or a comically cute puppy, I would say забавный or забавная (female) sounds like: zabavniy /zabavnaya.

Xuetong Zhou, Associate Marketing Manager 
Chinese

In Chinese, there are two different ways to describe cute. One is “可爱”, which means loveable, in the sense of being cute. The other expression is “萌”, which actually derives from a Japanese word “萌え”. “萌” means something new born, for example we would refer to a sprout as “萌芽.” Another word to describe cute things that illicit an emotional reaction is “萌”, used most often by the younger generation.

Margaret C. Jacob on The Secular Enlightenment

JacobThe Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In this landmark book, familiar Enlightenment figures share places with voices that have remained largely unheard until now, from freethinkers and freemasons to French materialists, anticlerical Catholics, pantheists, pornographers, readers, and travelers.A majestic work of intellectual and cultural history, this book demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

What accounts for the fact that ordinary people began to see the world on its own terms, rather than through the prism of religion, during the 18th century? 

So many factors were present but I would highlight a few: the realization that there existed whole continents where the Christian God was unknown; the growing realization that Europeans had persecuted and enslaved non-Europeans often in the service of religion. The behavior of the clergy at home was one of the main themes in the new pornography; and of course religious divisions between Catholics and Protestants played into skepticism about all the claims of religion. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the ensuing persecution of French Protestants put the issue of religion, and how its representatives treated others, on the European wide agenda. This was compounded by the thousands of Protestant refugees to be found by 1700 in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, etc. They were articulate and took to the printing presses to alert the world of the injustices perpetrated by the French king and clergy.

What does your book bring to the conversation of secularization during the Enlightenment that hasn’t appeared before?

The book draws upon new sources, many of them found only in manuscript form. Such sources often reveal private thoughts and struggles about the veracity of religion or expressions of doubt and clerical hostility. It also crosses national boundaries, and focuses on the main urban centers in Germany, Italy and of course France, the Dutch Republic and Britain.

How common was it for ordinary people to read the works of Enlightenment thinkers during the 18thcentury?

It depends upon what we mean by ordinary. Anyone fully literate had access to the ideas found in the new journals or the writings of the philosophes. Note also that in France, for example, local clergy were advised in detail what heretical books contained so as better to refute them. From the pulpits of London (and the Boyle Lectures) to the French provinces any listener could hear about the details of the latest heresy.

Why have the voices of people you shed light on in the book been largely silent up to now?

So much attention has been given to the major thinkers from Locke and Newton to Adam Smith and Rousseau that lesser folk, often their followers, do not receive attention. Also digging in archives means a lot of travel to places often off the beaten track. How many books access archives in Leiden or Strasbourg or Birmingham? However, I do not neglect the major thinkers.

How did the religious establishment of the 18th century react to this shift?

Not as many people were burned at the stake or tortured as in previous centuries but there are big exceptions: the wife of a Dutch pastor and school teacher, a heretic, who went mad while locked away in prison; the book seller from Strasbourg who went to Paris in search of bad or forbidden books and spent over two years in the Bastille; the Italian heretic forced to flee to London where, impoverished, he continued to publish.

Do we see any attempts at justification on the part of groups or individuals for their decreasing attention to religious matters?

The literature of heresy consistently mocked the pretensions of the clergy and courts; their perceived hypocrisy was one good reason to avoid religion altogether. Others, like the busy industrialists in northern England, could plea the pressure of work or family obligations, so too could travelers and itinerants.

Was there anything that surprised you when you were researching for this book?

Yes, how many people had been left out of Enlightenment history; how incredibly thorough the French police were at spying and reporting on heretical behavior—or what they thought was heretical. Similarly, how coteries could remain relatively underground and then circulate some of the most virulent heresies of the age, for example, the group that brought out the Treatise on the Three Impostors. It argued that Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed had been the three. All involved managed to die in their beds.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

Antidotes to the claims made by biased contemporary clergy; the role of deism and freethinking for American philosophes like Jefferson and Franklin; and finally, how widespread enlightened ideas were by 1750.

Margaret C. Jacob is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her many books include The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans and The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850. She lives in Los Angeles.

Cass Sunstein on On Freedom

SunsteinIn this pathbreaking book, New York Times bestselling author Cass Sunstein asks us to rethink freedom. He shows that freedom of choice isn’t nearly enough. To be free, we must also be able to navigate life. People often need something like a GPS device to help them get where they want to go—whether the issue involves health, money, jobs, children, or relationships. Accessible and lively, and drawing on perspectives from the humanities, religion, and the arts, as well as social science and the law, On Freedom explores a crucial dimension of the human condition that philosophers and economists have long missed—and shows what it would take to make freedom real.

How did you come to write this book?

The origin of the book might be foreign travel! When you don’t know how to get from one place to another, you feel lost, and in a way, in a kind of prison. It’s terrible. I realized recently that the problem is very general – a kind of metaphor. When people can’t navigate life, they are not free. All over the world, people can’t navigate life.

Can you give a summary of the main argument?

In short: we don’t focus nearly enough on how hard it is for people to get where they want to go. Freedom of choice is very important, but what if you don’t know how to find a doctor, a job, or job training? You might want to quit smoking or alcohol or opioids – but how? If there isn’t a good answer to that question, people are less free (and they might end up dead). Self-control problems are one of my central concerns. Take the case of an opioid addict. He wants to be free (a good word) of his addiction, but he needs some help in getting there. Or take people living under conditions of poverty. They might be free of mandates and bans. But how can they get what they need?

Can you provide a specific example of an individual having their freedom of choice hindered?

Suppose that your child is sick, and you are told that health care is available. Where do you go? What do you do? Or suppose that you have a serious legal problem. Maybe an employer has discriminated against you. You have freedom of choice. But how do you navigate the system? Or suppose that you suffer from depression or acute anxiety. What’s the solution? In particular: there is a lot of “sludge” out there – obstacles to navigability. Employers, governments, hospitals, schools, and more need to cut the sludge. It reduces freedom.

What are some practical solutions to the current limits on freedom of choice?

Give people a GPS device, or the equivalent, in many spheres of life. If, for example, people want to stop drinking, help them find a way out. Freedom-respecting nudges often make it a lot easier to navigate life, whether the goal is to be safe on the highways, to avoid unhealthy food, or to escape discrimination.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

A main goal is to get people to focus on the problem of navigability. It’s not a lovely word, but life is a lot lovelier when it is navigable. I hope also to spur some thinking about freedom and well-being – about what really matters in life. The tale of Adam and Eve makes several appearances, and its competing messages about the human condition – and what it means to fall – tell us a lot about what is to be human (There is also a fair bit about romance).

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, where he is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. From 2009 to 2012, he led the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler) and The World According to Star Wars. The 2018 recipient of Norway’s Holberg Prize, he lives in Concord, Massachusetts. Twitter @CassSunstein

Jason Brennan: When the state is unjust, citizens may use justifiable violence

If you see police choking someone to death – such as Eric Garner, the 43-year-old black horticulturalist wrestled down on the streets of New York City in 2014 – you might choose to pepper-spray them and flee. You might even save an innocent life. But what ethical considerations justify such dangerous heroics? (After all, the cops might arrest or kill you.) More important: do we have the right to defend ourselves and others from government injustice when government agents are following an unjust law? I think the answer is yes. But that view needs defending. Under what circumstances might active self-defence, including possible violence, be justified, as opposed to the passive resistance of civil disobedience that Americans generally applaud?

Civil disobedience is a public act that aims to create social or legal change. Think of Henry David Thoreau’s arrest in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes to fund the colonial exploits of the United States, or Martin Luther King Jr courting the ire of the authorities in 1963 to shame white America into respecting black civil rights. In such cases, disobedient citizens visibly break the law and accept punishment, so as to draw attention to a cause. But justifiable resistance need not have a civic character. It need not aim at changing the law, reforming dysfunctional institutions or replacing bad leaders. Sometimes, it is simply about stopping an immediate injustice­. If you stop a mugging, you are trying to stop that mugging in that moment, not trying to end muggings everywhere. Indeed, had you pepper-sprayed the police officer Daniel Pantaleo while he choked Eric Garner, you’d have been trying to save Garner, not reform US policing.

Generally, we agree that it’s wrong to lie, cheat, steal, deceive, manipulate, destroy property or attack people. But few of us think that the prohibitions against such actions are absolute. Commonsense morality holds that such actions are permissible in self-defence or in defence of others (even if the law doesn’t always agree). You may lie to the murderer at the door. You may smash the windows of the would-be kidnapper’s car. You may kill the would-be rapist.

Here’s a philosophical exercise. Imagine a situation in which a civilian commits an injustice, the kind against which you believe it is permissible to use deception, subterfuge or violence to defend yourself or others. For instance, imagine your friend makes an improper stop at a red light, and his dad, in anger, yanks him out of the car, beats the hell out of him, and continues to strike the back of his skull even after your friend lies subdued and prostrate. May you use violence, if it’s necessary to stop the father? Now imagine the same scene, except this time the attacker is a police officer in Ohio, and the victim is Richard Hubbard III, who in 2017 experienced just such an attack as described. Does that change things? Must you let the police officer possibly kill Hubbard rather than intervene?

Most people answer yes, believing that we are forbidden from stopping government agents who violate our rights. I find this puzzling. On this view, my neighbours can eliminate our right of self-defence and our rights to defend others by granting someone an office or passing a bad law. On this view, our rights to life, liberty, due process and security of person can disappear by political fiat – or even when a cop has a bad day. In When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (2019), I argue instead that we may act defensively against government agents under the same conditions in which we may act defensively against civilians. In my view, civilian and government agents are on a par, and we have identical rights of self-defence (and defence of others) against both. We should presume, by default, that government agents have no special immunity against self-defence, unless we can discover good reason to think otherwise. But it turns out that the leading arguments for special immunity are weak.

Some people say we may not defend ourselves against government injustice because governments and their agents have ‘authority’. (By definition, a government has authority over you if, and only if, it can oblige you to obey by fiat: you have to do what it says because it says so.) But the authority argument doesn’t work. It’s one thing to say that you have a duty to pay your taxes, show up for jury duty, or follow the speed limit. It is quite another to show that you are specifically bound to allow a government and its agents to use excessive violence and ignore your rights to due process. A central idea in liberalism is that whatever authority governments have is limited.

Others say that we should resist government injustice, but only through peaceful methods. Indeed, we should, but that doesn’t differentiate between self-defence against civilians or government. The common-law doctrine of self-defence is always governed by a necessity proviso: you may lie or use violence only if necessary, that is, only if peaceful actions are not as effective. But peaceful methods often fail to stop wrongdoing. Eric Garner peacefully complained: ‘I can’t breathe,’ until he drew his last breath.

Another argument is that we shouldn’t act as vigilantes. But invoking this point here misunderstands the antivigilante principle, which says that when there exists a workable public system of justice, you should defer to public agents trying, in good faith, to administer justice. So if cops attempt to stop a mugging, you shouldn’t insert yourself. But if they ignore or can’t stop a mugging, you may intervene. If the police themselves are the muggers – as in unjust civil forfeiture – the antivigilante principle does not forbid you from defending yourself. It insists you defer to more competent government agents when they administer justice, not that you must let them commit injustice.

Some people find my thesis too dangerous. They claim that it’s hard to know exactly when self-defence is justified; that people make mistakes, resisting when they should not. Perhaps. But that’s true of self-defence against civilians, too. No one says we lack a right of self-defence against each other because applying the principle is hard. Rather, some moral principles are hard to apply.

However, this objection gets the problem exactly backwards. In real life, people are too deferential and conformist in the face of government authority. They are all-too-willing to electrocute experimental subjects, gas Jews or bomb civilians when ordered to, and reluctant to stand up to political injustice. If anything, the dangerous thesis – the thesis that most people will mistakenly misapply – is that we should defer to government agents when they seem to act unjustly. Remember, self-defence against the state is about stopping an immediate injustice, not fixing broken rules.

Of course, strategic nonviolence is usually the most effective way to induce lasting social change. But we should not assume that strategic nonviolence of the sort that King practised always works alone. Two recent books – Charles Cobb Jr’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed (2014) and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back (2013) – show that the later ‘nonviolent’ phase of US civil rights activism succeeded (in so far as it has) only because, in earlier phases, black people armed themselves and shot back in self-defence. Once murderous mobs and white police learned that black people would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and black people in turn began using nonviolent tactics. Defensive subterfuge, deceit and violence are rarely first resorts, but that doesn’t mean they are never justified.

When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (2018) by Jason Brennan is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Jason Brennan on When All Else Fails

Brennan When All Else FailsThe economist Albert O. Hirschman famously argued that citizens of democracies have only three possible responses to injustice or wrongdoing by their governments: we may leave, complain, or comply. But in When All Else Fails, Jason Brennan argues that there is a fourth option. When governments violate our rights, we may resist. We may even have a moral duty to do so. The result is a provocative challenge to long-held beliefs about how citizens may respond when government officials behave unjustly or abuse their power.

What led you to write this book?

Almost daily for the past year, I have come across news stories about police officers using excessive violence against civilians, or about people being arrested and having their lives ruined over things that shouldn’t be crimes in the first place. I watched the Black Lives Matter protests and started reading histories of armed resistance. I watched as president after president killed innocent civilians while pursuing the “War on Terror.” I see people’s lives destroyed by the “War on Drugs,” which continues on the same course even though we have strong evidence it makes things worse, not better. Every day, government agents acting ex officio are committing severe injustices. 

I ascertained that contemporary philosophy was largely impotent to analyze or deal with these problems. Most political philosophy is about trying to construct a theory of an ideal, perfectly just society, which means philosophers usually imagine away the hard problems rather than consider how to deal with those problems. Philosophers often try to justify the government’s right to commit injustice, but they often rely upon irrelevant or incoherent models of what governments and their agents are like. For example, Suzanne Dovi’s theory of political representation is grounded in a false theory of voter behavior, while John Rawls’s argument for government simultaneously assumes people are too selfish to pay for public goods, and government agents are too angelic to abuse their power. I saw an opening not only to do original philosophy, but to do work that bears on the pressing events of our times.

You can see that in the book. The “thought experiments” I use are all based on actual cases, including police officers beating up black men who did nothing more than roll slightly past a stop sign; officers shooting unarmed, subdued men; governments spying on and wiretapping ordinary citizens; drone strikes on innocent civilians; throwing people in jail for smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine; judges having to enforce absurd sentences or unjust laws; and so on.

Can you give a summary of your argument?

The thesis is very simple: the conditions under which you may exercise the right of self-defense or the right to defend others against civilians and government agents are the same. If it is permissible to defend yourself or others against a civilian committing an act, then it is permissible to defend yourself or others against a government agent committing that same act. For instance, if I wanted to lock you in my basement for a year for smoking pot, you’d feel no compunction in defending yourself against me. My thesis is that you should treat government agents the same way.

My main argument is also simple: Both laypeople and philosophers have offered a few dozen arguments trying to defend the opposite conclusion: the view that government agents have a kind of special immunity against defensive resistance. But upon closer examination, we’ll see each of the arguments are bad. So, we should conclude instead that our rights of self-defense or to defend others against injustice do not simply disappear by government fiat. On closer inspection, there turns out to be no significant moral difference between the Commonwealth of Virginia imprisoning you for owning pot and me imprisoning you in my basement for the same thing.

To be clear,  I am not arguing that you may resist government whenever you disagree with a law. Just as I reject voluntarism on the part of government—I don’t think governments can simply decide right and wrong—so I reject voluntarism on the part of individuals. Rather, I’m arguing that you may resist when governments in fact violate people’s rights or in fact cause unjust harm.

Some will no doubt complain this thesis is dangerous. In some ways it is, and I take care to highlight how to be careful about it in the book. But on the other hand, the opposite thesis—that we must defer to government injustice—is no doubt even more dangerous. People tend to be deferential and conformist. Most people will stand by and do nothing while armed officers send people to death camps. Stanley Milgram showed most people will electrocute another person to death because a man in a white lab coat told them to. If anything, defenders of the other side—of the view that we should defer to government injustice—have a duty to be cautious pushing their dangerous view.

Can you talk a bit about the meaning behind the title? What exactly has to fail in order to justify the actions you describe?

Usually, lying, stealing, destroying property, hurting others, or killing others is wrong. However, you may sometimes perform such actions in self-defense or in defense of others. The basic principle of defense, codified in both common law and commonsense morality, is this: you may use a defensive action (such as sabotage, subterfuge, deceit, or violence) against someone else when they are initiating a severe enough injustice or harm, but only if it is necessary to defend yourself. Here, “necessary” means that you cannot use violence if a nonviolent means of defense is equally effective; you cannot use deceit if a non-deceitful means of defense is equally effective. So, the title is meant to signal that defensive actions—such as deceit or violence—are, if not quite last resorts, not first resorts either. 

What is the place of uncivil disobedience within a peaceful and successful polity?

What we call “civil disobedience” is a form of public protest. In civil disobedience, people publicly and explicitly break the law for the purpose of trying to have the law changed. They will often accept legal punishment, not necessarily because they think punishment is warranted and that even bad laws must be respected, but because it is strategic to do so to garner sympathy for their cause. Civil disobedience is about social change.

But self-defense is not about social change. If I kill a would-be mugger, I’m not trying to reduce crime or change gun policy. I’m trying to stop myself from being the victim of that particular injustice. Similarly, if you had been present and had acted in defense of Eric Garner, you would not necessarily have been trying to fix American policing—you would have just been trying to save Garner’s life. Defensive actions—or uncivil disobedience—are about stopping particular wrongdoers from committing particular harms or violating particular people’s rights. 

What are your thoughts on recent protests and movements such as Take a Knee, Me Too, and March for our Lives?

Globally, US policing and US criminal policy are outliers. American criminal justice is unusually punitive and harsh. We have 4.4% of the world’s population but around 25% of the world’s prisoners. We give longer, harsher sentences than illiberal countries such as Russia or China. Our police are unusually violent, even to the most privileged in our society. I applaud movements that bring attention to these facts.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s, though the US had a higher than normal crime rate, its sentence lengths, imprisonment rate, and so on, were on the high end but similar to those of other liberal, rich, democratic countries. But starting in the 1970s, things got worse. 

Right now, Chris Surprenant and I are writing a book called Injustice for All explaining why this happened and offering some ideas about how to fix it. We argue that the problem is not explained by racism (as leftists argue), the War on Drugs (as libertarians argue), or crime and family collapse (as conservatives argue), though these things are each important factors. Rather, the US criminal justice system became dysfunctional because nearly every person involved—from voters to cops to judges to politicians—faces bad incentives created by bad rules.

Are there examples from history of individuals or groups following your philosophy with success?

Two recent books, Charles Cobb Jr.’s This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back provide strong evidence that the later “nonviolent” phase of civil rights activism succeeded (as much as it has) only because in earlier phases, black Americans involved in protest armed themselves in self-defense. Once murderous mobs and law enforcement learned that they would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and activists in turn began using the nonviolent tactics with which we are familiar.

Do you think there are changes that can be made that would lessen instances in which uncivil disobedience is justified?

A facile answer: all governments have to do is respect citizens’ rights.

More realistically: we need to train police differently, change recruitment tactics, and stop using SWAT teams so often. We should decriminalize many behaviors that are currently criminalized. We need to change tax codes so that poor localities are not dependent upon law enforcement issuing tickets to gain revenue. We need Congress to rein in the executive branch’s war and surveillance powers.

But even these kinds of ideas are too facile, because there is no willpower to make such improvements. Consider an example: violent crime in the US has been dropping since 1994 (and no, it’s not because we keep locking up all the violent criminals). Yet most Americans mistakenly believe, year after year, that crime is rising. They feel scared and vote for politicians who promise to be tough on crime. The politicians in turn support more confrontational, occupying-force style methods of policing. Here, we know what the problem is, but to fix the system we need to fix the voters, and we don’t know how to do that. To be clear, When All Else Fails is not a theory of social change, and not a prescription for fixing persistent or systematic social problems. As I often tell my political economy students, while we may know which institutions work better than others, no one yet has a good account of how to move from bad institutions to good.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. His many books include Against Democracy and The Ethics of Voting.

Kieran Setiya: Idleness as Flourishing

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.”[1.Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 1, April 15, 1758; reprinted in The Idler and The Adventurer, edited by W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell (Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 3–4.] As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.”[2.Johnson, The Idler, no. 3, April 29, 1758; in The Idler and The Adventurer, p. 11.]

This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time: a manifesto by MIT professor Alan Lightman; a critical history by philosopher Brian O’Connor; and a memoir by essayist Patricia Hampl. Each author finds a way to write in the spirit of idleness. Yet none of them quite resolves our double vision. Even as they bring its value into focus, they never shake a shadow image of the shame in being idle.

Why idleness now? Because we are too busy, too frantic; because of the felt acceleration of time. Lightman supplies a measure. “Throughout history,” he writes, “the pace of life has always been fueled by the speed of communication.”

When the telegraph was invented in the nineteenth century, information could be transmitted at the rate of about four bits per second. By 1985, near the beginnings of the public Internet, the rate was about a thousand bits per second. Today, the rate is about one billion bits per second.

We are in principle accessible anywhere, at any time; we can be texted, emailed, tagged: “The world today is faster, more scheduled, more fragmented, less patient, louder, more wired, more public.” There is not enough downtime. So Lightman argues in his brisk, persuasive essay. His snapshots of the relevant social science portray the grim effects of over-connection in our digital age: young people are more stressed, more prone to depression, less creative, more lonely but never really alone. Our time is ruthlessly graphed into efficient units. The walking speed of pedestrians in 32 cities increased by 10 percent from 1995 to 2005.

With its brief chapters and bright illustrations, Lightman’s book is itself well-designed for the attention deficits of the internet era, perfect for the postliterate teenager or the busy executive with only an hour to spare. It makes an elegant case for downtime: unstructured and undistracted, time to experiment and introspect. For Lightman, this is the kind of time-wasting that is not a waste of time. It augments creativity, which draws on undirected or “divergent” thinking. It replenishes and repairs us. And it gives us space in which to find ourselves.

Lightman’s definition of “wasting time” as undirected introspection is deliberately tendentious. The phrase could just as well describe the smartphone addict playing Angry Birds. Ironically, one of the most intriguing studies in Lightman’s book concerns the positive impact of trivial games. Asked to come up with new business ideas, people who were forced to procrastinate with Minesweeper or Solitaire for several minutes were “noticeably more creative.” Lightman does not pause to ask whether this effect can be scaled up. (I pushed it pretty far myself in graduate school, with mixed results.) But he offers a suggestive catalog of artists and scientists whose best ideas arrived when they were staring at a wall.

Lightman ends with concrete, practical prescriptions: 10-minute silences during school days, “introspective” college courses that give students more time to reflect, electronics-free rooms at work, unplugged hours at home. The changes are not radical and leave intact the media ecology in which we are to live. “It is within the power of each of us as individuals,” Lightman writes, “to make changes in our way of living to restore our inner lives. … With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time.”

Perhaps it is modesty, or realism, that prevents Lightman from seeking social remedies for a social problem. In the short term, he suggests, we have to work on ourselves: a conservative therapy for what ails us. Lightman’s apology for wasting time is conservative in other ways, too. He celebrates not downtime itself but its instrumental value, its usefulness as a means to integrity and achievement. Lightman cites psychologist Abraham Maslow on two forms of creativity: the kind that involves an artistic escape from stress and the kind that fuels “‘self-actualization,’ the desire to become the best we can be.” For Lightman,

there is a kind of necessary homeostasis of the mind: not a static equilibrium but a dynamic equilibrium in which we are constantly examining, testing, and replenishing our mental system, constantly securing the mental membrane between ourselves and the external world, constantly reorganizing and affirming ourselves.

If this is wasting time, who has the energy for it?

Not Brian O’Connor, who makes bolder, larger claims on behalf of being idle. Idleness flouts the prevailing social order and the conception of autonomy as arduous self-fashioning that Lightman and Maslow share. O’Connor traces the exhausting project of self-constitution to Kant and Hegel, through Karl Marx. What Lightman depicts as the ultimate purpose of wasting time, O’Connor sees as an alien imposition, an order issued without authority. Modern philosophy instructs us to make something of ourselves, but it has no right to tell us what to do, and its edicts are appropriated by societies that make exorbitant demands for work, tie recognition to material success, and exalt the individual at the cost of real community. For O’Connor, idleness is indifference to productive work and social prestige; it rejects the need for guiding purpose or self-formation. He adds to the acknowledged benefits of downtime its value as social critique.

Although O’Connor’s book has a guiding purpose, it nonetheless stays true to the ethos of idling. For the most part, O’Connor is content to answer the case against idleness made by its philosophical critics, not to argue for idleness itself. The burden of proof is placed on the opponents of being idle, who must work to convince the idler he is wrong. The idler’s objections are appropriately laconic.

O’Connor’s principal antagonist is Kant, who argues that we must make every choice as if we were legislating for all, and that we have a consequent duty to develop our talents. Scholars may query O’Connor’s interpretation of Kant as drawing on “that special feeling of worthiness” that comes from being useful to society. But even if he is wrong about this, O’Connor is right to find in Kant a vision of freedom as responsibility, of autonomy as work: the daunting project of determining how to be. For Kant, freedom requires one to live by principles one can will as laws for every rational being. One must bring this severe ambition to everything one does; only then is one entitled to be happy. “It is,” O’Connor writes, “a profound theoretical justification of an idea that has now become commonplace: that a life worth living is one marked by effort and achievement.” The idea that a good life calls for onerous self-creation fuels Nietzsche’s injunction to “become who you are” and Sartre’s existentialism.

Marx is a more difficult customer, since his emphasis on the alienation of labor under capitalism could easily be read as a critique of work. In fact, it is a call for the transformation of work into new, authentic forms. Marx’s idea of alienation was developed by Herbert Marcuse, the closest O’Connor gets to an intellectual ally. For Marcuse, alienation involves the internalization of goals that have nothing to do with what we really want. In order to function, contemporary society requires its members to be alienated in this way. What O’Connor finds suspicious in both Marx and Marcuse is the desire to solve the problems of alienation by changing the nature of work, rather than putting it in its place. Describing the conditions of work under communism, Marx writes: “What appears as a sacrifice of rest may also be called a sacrifice of idleness, of unfreedom, of unhappiness.” Marcuse strives instead for a synthesis of work and play.

O’Connor sees no hope of reconciling labor with leisure. Where Marx wants to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner,” O’Connor wonders why he can’t just take a nap.[3.Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, translated from the German by Salo Ryazanskaya, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed., edited by David McClellan (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 185.] Work needs to be transformed, but even after its transformation, it should not be our model of meaning in life and it cannot subsume the value of being idle. Idleness is freedom not just from alienated labor, but from the pressures of autonomy and authenticity. It is another mode of flourishing, against which the lure of striving and success should seem, at best, a lifestyle choice.

What O’Connor’s provocations miss is that for Kant, and for Sartre, the responsibility for oneself that defines autonomy is at the same time a responsibility to others. It is one thing to slack off when I could develop my talents; that is no one’s problem but my own. It is another to be idle in the face of urgent need, and so to be indifferent to suffering. John Berger wrote: “On this earth there is no happiness without a longing for justice.”[4.John Berger, Hold Everything Dear (Verso, 2007), p. 102.] It has been an aspiration of philosophers since Plato to show that this is true. An adequate defense of idleness would have to address that aspiration, to assuage the idler’s guilt. I may not owe it to myself to strain and struggle, but don’t I owe it to you?

Ironically, the work that most directly confronts the tension between idleness and ethical responsibility is neither a manifesto nor a monograph, but an essay in the spirit of Montaigne. Like Montaigne, Patricia Hampl is moved to reflect by grief and writes in conversation with someone she has lost. Like Montaigne, she rates description over narrative. And like Montaigne, she is willing to meander. Framed by a pilgrimage to Montaigne’s tower near Bordeaux, Hampl’s book does not arrive at his estate for more than two hundred pages and stops at its destination for a perfunctory eight. On the way, it pays visits to the homes of authors, saints, and scientists who embraced idleness by retiring from the world.

The most memorable are two Anglo-Irish women, Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, who eloped together unsuccessfully, disguised as men, in 1778. Returned to their homes, they wore their families down and were permitted to leave together two months later, setting up a cottage in Llangollen, Wales, where they lived on their limited family income, reading books, writing letters, and tending their garden, “famous for wishing to be left alone.” They were visited by celebrities from Shelley and Byron to the Duke of Wellington and Sir Walter Scott.

What the Ladies of Llangollen have in common with Montaigne is a strategy of “[retreat] during ages of political mayhem,” in their case the French Revolution, in his the Reformation. Today, many of us may also feel tempted to retreat. The way of life the Ladies called “our System,” with its monastic regularity and disdain for social expectations, is subversively attractive. Like Montaigne’s essays, it assures us that “the littleness of personhood is somewhere alive, taking its notes,” that it is okay to “enjoy yourself in the littleness of the moment” when the narrative of history goes awry. Withdrawal is not defeat. And if it is irresponsible to withdraw completely, doing so has a point. The limit cases of Montaigne or Ponsonby and Butler, whose idleness did not serve some further goal, show that wasting time is worthwhile in itself. This is what we see in the model their lives present even if, in the face of our obligations to others, it is not a model for us.

It may not even be a model for them. At the end of her book, Hampl quotes a passage from Montaigne: “We say; ‘I have done nothing today.’ What, have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations … He says this in his Essai titled—what else?—‘On Idleness.’” Except he doesn’t. The quotation is from the sprawling essay “Of Experience,” with which the Essays close. “Of Idleness” is an earlier piece, a distillation of self-doubt in which Montaigne indicts his enterprise: “The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself.” If he commits his extravagances to paper, he writes, it is in order “to make my mind ashamed of itself.”[5.Michel de Montaigne, “On Idleness,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated from the French by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 21.]

Like Montaigne, who played a diffident but competent role in politics—he was mayor of Bordeaux—most of us forge a rotten compromise between idleness and industry. What else can we do? We see the flourishing of life in the little moments, as we see the scale of its shirked responsibilities. To manage our ambivalence is necessary work.

  1. Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 1, April 15, 1758; reprinted in The Idler and The Adventurer, edited by W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell (Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 3–4. 
  2. Johnson, The Idler, no. 3, April 29, 1758; in The Idler and The Adventurer, p. 11. 
  3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, translated from the German by Salo Ryazanskaya, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed., edited by David McClellan (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 185. 
  4. John Berger, Hold Everything Dear(Verso, 2007), p. 102. 
  5. Michel de Montaigne, “On Idleness,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated from the French by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 21. 

Featured image: Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers (1900–1906). Oil on canvas, 6 feet 10 7/8 inches × 8 feet 2 3/4 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons

Kieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, Reasons without Rationalism (Princeton) and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife and son.

Idleness: A Philosophical Essay by Brian O’Connor is available here.

A. A. Long on How to Be Free An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (according to Epictetus)

How-to-be-free-epictetus-ancient-romeHow to be Free is a book for every place and occasion. I can say this without any pride or self-promotion because the ideas of the book are not my own but those of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and they have stood the test of time. In fact his guide to life, which I translate and introduce here, is more relevant and needful today than at any period in its long and salutary history. I say this because the freedom that Epictetus promises and justifies—freedom to take charge of one’s own individual thoughts and actions—is under attack by market capitalism, commercial advertising, social media, and cyber aggression. By manipulating desires and infiltrating mindsets, these powerful forces are undermining autonomy and personal independence with disastrous results. They are a main cause of the anxiety and depression that oppresses so many people, through the fear of falling short in health, wealth, personal success, relationships, appearance, and status.

Epictetus counters the pressures of the external environment by making a deceptively simple distinction—between things that are up to us (call them U things) and things that are not up to us (call them N things). U things comprise our will and our motivations, our likes and dislikes, our actions and reactions, our feelings and emotions—in other words the essential person that each of us is. N things comprise everything else—the state of the world, the people around us, our work and income, even our bodies because our limbs and physical wellbeing are not absolutely under our direct control. This is a stark distinction. Its value is to highlight the notion that what we want or do not want, what matters or does not matter to us, depends primarily on our own individual decisions, and not what is done to us by others. On this view, it is we ourselves, and not outside forces, that ultimately determine our happiness and unhappiness and condition our reactions.

The freedom that this book seeks to promote has two sides: one side is freedom to act without constraint by external forces, whether people or media pressures or mistaken impressions that we have to react in certain ways; the other side is freedom from disabling emotions and anxieties that inhibit the full exercise of our will and mental capacity. Along with freedom Epictetus emphasizes self-sufficiency and competing with oneself to be as good as possible in facing the challenges of life. Read this book as you approach a cold shower. You will feel great when it is over, toned up and ready for anything.

A. A. Long is professor emeritus of classics and affiliated professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to LifeStoic Studies, and (with Margaret Graver) Seneca: Letters on Ethics. He lives in Kensington, California.

Philip Freeman: How to Be a Friend (according to Cicero)

In a world where social media, online relationships, and relentless self-absorption threaten the very idea of deep and lasting friendships, the search for true friends is more important than ever. In this short book, which is one of the greatest ever written on the subject, the famous Roman politician and philosopher Cicero offers a compelling guide to finding, keeping, and appreciating friends. With wit and wisdom, Cicero shows us not only how to build friendships but also why they must be a key part of our lives. For, as Cicero says, life without friends is not worth living. Translator Philip Freeman has taken the time to answer some questions about How to be a Friend.

Who was Cicero?

A Roman lawyer, politician, and philosopher who lived in one of the most dangerous places and important times in human history—first-century BC Rome. He was friends and sometimes enemies with Julius Caesar and almost every other key player at the end of the Roman Republic. It was an age of war, revolution, and mass slaughter, yet also a time of amazing creativity. Cicero saw it all and lived long enough to write about it until Marc Antony finally had his head cut off.

What did he write about?

Practically everything. God, religion, sex, greed, growing old—you name it. He was also a key political philosopher. The American founding fathers were huge Cicero fans. In fact, the American government as found in the US Constitution is largely based on the writings of Cicero. But one of his best little works is about the subject of friendship.

Why should we care what Cicero says about friendship? I mean, he lived over two thousand years ago. Surely in an age of social media, all the rules have changed.

Friendship—like all the important things in life—doesn’t change at all as the centuries pass. How people make and communicate with friends may have shifted in some ways, but the crucial role of friendship in our lives never will. We all hunger for the ties we make with friends whether we’re in ancient Rome or a modern California suburb. Without some form of friendship in their lives, most people would wither away and die, spiritually if not physically. We are social creatures who desperately need meaningful connections with others. Cicero is right when he says that life without friends is simply not worth living.

Cicero talks about different kind of friendships. What does he mean?

He says we all by necessity have different types of friendships, each good in its own way. There are friendships of utility such as those we have with our auto mechanic or dentist. You can have hundreds of these in your life. They are an essential part of living in any society in which you must interact with others. But you’re hopefully not going to tell your most intimate secrets to the guy who sells you bagels at the corner shop. Then there are friendships of pleasure, the dozen or more people you enjoy hanging out with at the local pub or in your neighborhood. Finally there are the deepest of friendships you have with only a handful of people—or maybe just one or two—friends you tell everything to and would take a bullet for if necessary. These last sort of friends are what Cicero calls “another self.”

What’s the best way to tell if a person can be a true friend?

Cicero would say look if they’re willing to be honest with you. Not honest in a hurtful way—plenty of people will do that—but honest because they care deeply about you. A true friend will tell you if a boyfriend you’re crazy about is bad news even if you don’t want to hear it. That kind of friend is willing to risk even the friendship for the sake of honesty. If you find friends like that, never let them go.

Can a bad person have friends?

A good way to answer this is to look at the extreme case of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books and movies. He’s a character totally focused on himself who cares nothing about others except how he can use them for his own purposes. Thankfully there are few Voldemorts in the real world, but I imagine all of us know people who seem to use others only for their what they can get from them. These selfish sorts could have friendships of utility, maybe even of pleasure, but never true friendships.

Would Cicero be on Facebook?

I think he would love Facebook. He was an accomplished letter writer, the only social medium of the day. We actually have a collection of many of his letters, especially those he sent to his best friend Atticus who lived far away in Greece. But I think Cicero would draw an important distinction between posting photos of his cat to thousands of followers and intimate interactions with his closest friends, whether written or face-to-face. Cicero would probably say that the social media universe can be a good thing if used properly and terribly harmful to the soul if not.

Philip Freeman is the editor and translator of How to Grow Old, How to Win an Election, and How to Run a Country (all Princeton). He is the author of many books, including Searching for Sappho (Norton) and Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths (Simon & Schuster). He holds the Fletcher Jones Chair of Western Culture at Pepperdine University and lives in Malibu, California.

Helena Rosenblatt on The Lost History of Liberalism

Lost History LiberalismThe Lost History of Liberalism challenges our most basic assumptions about a political creed that has become a rallying cry—and a term of derision—in today’s increasingly divided public square. Taking readers from ancient Rome to today, Helena Rosenblatt traces the evolution of the words “liberal” and “liberalism,” revealing the heated debates that have taken place over their meaning. This book sets the record straight on a core tenet of today’s political conversation and lays the foundations for a more constructive discussion about the future of liberal democracy. 

What led you to write this book?

 I became interested in the history of political thought in college and my interest grew in graduate school.  My PhD dissertation, which became my first book, was on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I wrote my second book on Benjamin Constant. Both these thinkers had a huge influence on liberalism, Rousseau as a kind of gadfly, and Constant as a founder. In the course of my work, I became aware of a curious fact: despite the importance of liberalism to our history and current politics, no comprehensive history of liberalism had been written in a surprisingly long time. So I began thinking about writing such a history myself.

I set to work, but soon confronted a series of perplexing questions and contradictions. In one way or another, they all involved defining liberalism. Why was it, I wondered, that liberalism means one thing in Europe and something else in the United States? Why do some people speak of a “classical liberalism” that they say is more authentic than today’s? Why are there so many different “founders” of liberalism? Some call Machiavelli a founder, while others speak of John Locke, or even Jesus Christ.  How can they all be founders of liberalism when they are so radically different? While pondering these and other questions, I couldn’t help noticing that liberalism was often called a “slippery,” “elusive,” or “vague” concept in the books and articles that I read. All of it led me to ask a deceptively simple question: what is liberalism? And how do you write a history of liberalism when you don’t know what it is? After struggling for some time, the smoke cleared and I fell upon a new approach.

What is original about your approach to the history of liberalism?

I made it my mission to let the past speak for itself. In my book, I trace the history of the words “liberal” and “liberalism” over the course of history, starting with classical Rome—when the word “liberal” existed, but not yet “liberalism”—and ending today. What did “liberal” mean to the people who used the term two thousand years ago and how did that meaning change over time? When was the word “liberalism” coined, why was it coined, and what did it mean to the people who used it? When was the first “liberal party” formed and what did it stand for? These are the sorts of questions my book asks and seeks to answer. And my approach leads to a number of surprising findings.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

 It is hard to summarize the many interesting discoveries I made. One concerns liberalism’s origins. We tend to think of liberalism as an age-old and venerable “Anglo-American” tradition with roots stretching deep into English history. Some trace its origins as far back as the Magna Carta. From England, liberalism is said to have spread and slowly gained acceptance until it was transported to America in the eighteenth century. There its principles were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. During the 19th century, liberalism continued its steady and inexorable progress until it became the dominant doctrine of the West.

This is a nice story, but it’s inaccurate. “Liberalism,” as a word and cluster of concepts, emerged in France in the wake of the French Revolution, not before. Its first theorists were Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, not John Locke. For most of the nineteenth century, liberalism was widely seen as a French doctrine and closely associated with France’s successive revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871). The Encyclopaedia Americana of 1831 did not contain an entry on “liberalism,” and the article on “liberal” explained that its political meaning came from France. Only half a century later was liberalism given an entry in the American Cyclopaedia of Political Science and, even then, it was a translation of a French article equating liberalism with the “principles of 89.” During the closing years of the nineteenth century, “liberalism” remained a rare word in the language of American politics and, when it was used, was sometimes spelled “liberale,” or rendered in italics, to indicate its foreignness. The word “liberalism” only gained currency in America’s political vocabulary in the early twentieth century and the idea of an “Anglo-American liberal tradition” half a century later.

What is the relationship between liberalism and democracy?

A common mistake we make today is to use the expression “liberal democracy” unproblematically, as if “liberalism” and “democracy” go together naturally. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably as if they were synonyms. However, for the first one hundred years of their history, most liberals were hostile to democracy, which they associated with chaos and mob rule. Certainly, the founders of liberalism were not democrats. Although he believed in popular sovereignty, Benjamin Constant insisted that it be limited and advocated stiff property requirements for voting and office holding. Madame de Staël championed the “government of the best,” which she distinguished from democracy.

To Constant, de Staël, and many other liberals, the French Revolution proved that the public was utterly unprepared for political rights. People were ignorant, irrational and prone to violence. Under popular pressure, the rule of law had been suspended, “enemies of the people” guillotined, and rights trampled upon. Napoleon’s despotic rule, repeatedly legitimized by plebiscite, only confirmed the liberals’ apprehensions about democracy.  They watched with horror as demagogues and dictators manipulated voters by appealing to their lowest instincts. It was obvious to them that the masses lacked the judgement necessary to know their true interests, and even less those of their country. Liberals accepted democracy very late and even then they thought hard about ways to contain it.  They pondered methods to “enlighten” and “educate” democracy and make it safe. 

What is the relationship between liberalism and socialism?

The relationship between liberalism and socialism is often described as antagonistic, but this is untrue. Again, the question has a lot to do with definitions, since “socialism” has always been a contested and evolving cluster of ideas. At first, the word “socialist” simply described someone who felt sympathy for the poor. Three more revolutions, in 1830, 1848, 1871, and the dislocations and hardships brought to the poor by the Industrial Revolution, caused many liberals to become increasingly receptive to socialist ideas. By the early twentieth century, some began calling themselves “liberal socialists.” In 1909, the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, championed what he referred to as a “socialistic” form of liberalism dedicated to improving the lives of the “left-out millions.” A leading British liberal weekly declared that “we are all Socialists in that sense.”

It was World War II and the fear of totalitarianism that caused the rift between liberalism and socialism with which we are now familiar. First published in 1944, the bestseller, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, warned that the “social liberalism” toward which Britain and America were headed would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Such anxieties caused other prominent Cold War liberals increasingly to distinguish themselves from socialists.

How is your book relevant today?

As an historian, I tend to think that getting history right is important in its own right. But I also think that history can lend critical perspective on the present. It can tell us about the challenges people in the past faced, the options they had, and the choices they made. Today it is clear that liberalism is facing crisis. Alarming statistics indicate that people around the world are losing confidence in liberal democracy. Populism is on the rise, American hegemony in decline. And it is not just that liberalism is being attacked by enemies or losing adherents. Liberals are divided among themselves. Some say that they have lost sight of their essential values. Some are beginning to ask what liberalism’s essential values really are. One way of answering this question is to turn to the history of liberalism. That is what my book does.

Helena Rosenblatt is professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her many books include Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion and Thinking with Rousseau: From Machiavelli to Schmitt. She lives in New York City.

Brian O’Connor on Idleness: A Philosophical Essay

idleFor millennia, idleness and laziness have been regarded as vices. We’re all expected to work to survive and get ahead, and devoting energy to anything but labor and self-improvement can seem like a luxury or a moral failure. Far from questioning this conventional wisdom, modern philosophers have worked hard to develop new reasons to denigrate idleness. In Idleness, the first book to challenge modern philosophy’s portrayal of inactivity, Brian O’Connor argues that the case against an indifference to work and effort is flawed—and that idle aimlessness may instead allow for the highest form of freedom. A thought-provoking reconsideration of productivity for the twenty-first century, Idleness shows that, from now on, no theory of what it means to have a free mind can exclude idleness from the conversation.

Could we start by asking you to tell us what you mean by idleness? Which sense of the word is important for your book?

Yes—that’s really key to appreciating what I’m interested in exploring. I actually don’t mean anything that’s at all obscure. The sense of idleness at the center of the book is that of doing little or nothing that’s considered productive, of feeling free of the pressures of caring about what one is supposed to make of oneself. An idle person is not pinned down by any plan that shapes their future. It’s a kind of way of being that, in the context of life today, amounts to a disavowal of those inclinations that make us into effective social agents, like being useful, busy, or competitive.

What gave you the idea of writing a book on philosophical criticisms of idleness?

Many years ago I was struck by Kant’s claim that no rational being—that is to say, a properly functioning moral person—would ever believe it proper to live according to the rule of idleness. This was no throwaway remark. It was backed up by some quite complex reasoning. Nevertheless, I found myself completely unimpressed by his position. What Kant was trying to convince us of in that claim just didn’t resonate with me personally. I noticed a number of other philosophers from around and soon after Kant’s time devising their own original ways of denigrating idleness. Eventually, I thought it was time to react. The book is my effort to expose the problems and assumptions within those philosophies which tell us that idleness is an unworthy way of life.

Why did you feel motivated to react with that critical attitude?

There’s a philosophical interest in identifying and exposing arguments that seem to serve as apologies or defenses of some kind of the basic practices of life in the modern world. I just happen to be drawn to the longstanding practice of unsettling philosophy’s complicity with the troubling and often destructive burdens social structures place on human beings.

But there’s also a sense that lives pursued through an obsession with reputational and material advance bring a significant amount of harm to our world. We seem to be driven to see a large part of who we are in terms of how much we can accomplish. It’s a precarious and anxious way to live. Although I don’t develop that point in the book, it’s held in mind throughout.

Does your book argue, then, that we need to work less and do more to enjoy our free time?

No. I make no positive proposals for any alternative lifestyle. The philosopher as guru is not a happy spectacle. What I do try to do—and different lessons might be drawn from this—is show that some of the most ingenious arguments against idleness developed by some exceptionally influential philosophers turn out to be justifications of our anxious world. What’s more broadly intriguing about those arguments is that they express sentiments that have become increasingly common outside philosophy. At the core of them is this idea, that a life worth living is one of effort and recognized achievement. If we can successfully criticize that idea perhaps it contributes in some small way to reflection on the power it ought to hold over us.

You mentioned that you look at particular philosophers opposed to idleness. Which ones and why?

I’ve already noted Kant’s austere perspective. And added to his formal argument are quite a few condescending dismissals of lives that seem to be quite free of any effort to achieve social worth, in Kant’s sense of that idea. There’s a similar move found in Hegel who values the process of turning us into autonomous self-perpetuating workers. As we work we serve a system whose power over us Hegel doesn’t find troubling. He too sees nothing impressive in cultures that seem to survive quite happily in near idleness. And then there’s Marx who famously designs a picture of utopian co-operation in which the fullest freedom and self-realization might be found in even the most arduous forms of labor. He has no interest in the kinds of freedom that might be enjoyed in the absence of labor.

Your book also looks at the question of boredom. How does that fit with the topic of idleness?

It’s virtually inevitable to experience boredom when we have nothing to do. And when we reflect for a moment on that experience we might want to conclude that idleness, as a state of doing nothing in particular, could actually be a cause of boredom. If so, then what’s the point in trying to rescue idleness from its hostile characterizations? The most ambitious philosophical expression of a deep connection between boredom and idleness is found in Schopenhauer. I raise questions about whether Schopenhauer mistakes our socialization for facts of nature. He’s certainly no advocate of the modern world, yet he doesn’t quite see the degree to which the experiences he describes are peculiar to that world.

A more difficult question is posed when looking at de Beauvoir’s notion of the idle woman. She compellingly outlines the circumstances which, in her time, encouraged women to invest little in developing skills and to dream instead of idleness. But the reality was often lives crushed by boredom since the group she describes had only really been encouraged to develop what would turn out to be an impaired ability to keep themselves occupied.

Bertrand Russell praised idleness and noted that human beings have forgotten how to play. Do you think the idea of play is close to what you mean by idleness?

Yes it is. I give quite a lot of space to exploring two major theories of how play might be considered as an alternative to the grueling processes of ceaseless industry and the discipline it imposes on us. I’m quite sympathetic to those theories—they belong to Schiller and Marcuse. Play means living without seriousness, with a readiness to respond rather than impose, an openness rather than a strictness about what one might do next. I do tease out some of the difficulties in the formulations of those theories while trying to keep their importance as sources of resistance to the anti-idlers firmly in view.

In reply to some of these questions “freedom” seems to be a significant feature of idleness. How does that sense of freedom compare with senses more familiar from moral and political theory?

At first it looks like idle freedom belongs to some space that’s beneath any kind of philosophical interest. That, at least, is what some of the philosophers I examine would like us to believe. I try to show that idle freedom—a positive experience of freedom from social expectation, and indifference to life plans and so on—may actually come closer to what we expect freedom to be than the very influential yet often philosophically artificial idea of autonomy. Too often autonomy—supposedly the highest freedom—has been tied to social participation under the conditions of the modern world. It also frankly endorses the idea that freedom can be a burden, but that’s just how it is. I hope some of the ideas I’ve conveyed in this Q&A will give you a sense of why those features of autonomy at least—core features—seem less defensible than the notion of idle freedom in terms of their respective appreciation of what ordinarily matters about freedom.

Brian O’Connor is professor of philosophy at University College Dublin. He is the author of Adorno and Adorno’s Negative Dialectic.

C.C. Tsai on ‘The Analects’ and ‘The Art of War’

Tsai AnalectsC. C. Tsai is one of Asia’s most popular cartoonists, and his editions of the Chinese classics have sold more than 40 million copies in over twenty languages. These volumes present Tsai’s delightful graphic adaptation of The Analects and The Art of War, two of the most influential books of all time and works that continues to inspire countless readers today. The texts are skillfully translated by Brian Bruya, who also provides an introduction.

What got you interested in illustrating the Chinese classics?

Ever since I was small, I loved reading—the Bible, detective stories, world classics, science. Of course, the Chinese classics were also part of the mix. In 1985, I moved to Japan to hide away and draw something new. This was a time when teenage love stories were all the rage in Japan. It occurred to me that I could use the simple-to-understand form of the comic to express difficult-to-understand ancient classics. I started with the charming stories of Zhuangzi.

How were these different from what you’d been drawing all along? And what did you hope to get across to your readers?

Before these books, I did mostly comic strips, and in those, I did all the creative work, including the story lines. With the classics, I am illustrating the works of thinkers like Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Mencius. It still required quite a bit of creativity to distill the works into digestible episodes, but it also required an enormous amount of background reading and research. My aim was to put the essence of their thinking into pictures.

I’ve heard that you have unique working habits—that you go to bed at 5 p.m., get up at 1:00 a.m., and work until 2:00 p.m. When did you start this routine, and why?

My lifestyle resembles that of the great French writer Balzac: to bed at dusk and up at about 1:00 a.m. Then, stand in the window drinking coffee and thinking. 95% of my thinking at this time is about the future. Only 5% is about the past. Then I start working and work straight through until about 2:00. Then, I eat, take a nap, and either read or watch a movie on the internet.

When you really focus on one thing, there is nothing but silence, and it’s as if you are the only thing that exists in the whole world. It’s as if time slows to a halt. This is why I prefer to get up in the night to welcome each new day.

From my experience, the stomach and brain are in a reciprocal relationship. Creativity is highest when the stomach is empty. And when the stomach is full, the brain turns off. I don’t really like to eat and prefer not to interrupt my work with meals. After eating, I can never get back to the same state of creativity.

You’ve done so many amazing things in your life. What are you the most proud of?

The thing that I am the most proud of is using maximal freedom to live the simplest life. I took ten years off just to study physics. Those were the ten happiest years of my life. Second to that was the four years that I spent in Japan while drawing the Chinese classics. If you can do what you most love over an extended period of time—that is a life worth living!

Of all the comic books you’ve created, which is your favorite?

The sage Laozi is my idol, but Zhuangzi must have been my form in a previous lifetime. I’m most like Zhuangzi, and I like Zhuangzi the most. He was blind to fame and fortune and simply lived his own life without concern for what others thought. I do the same, and this is why I drew Zhuangzi first in the series.

Are you one of those old guys trying to bring back traditional culture? Doesn’t it seem out of touch with today’s youth, who prefer surfing the Internet, getting on social media, and figuring out ways to make a quick buck?

There is nothing wrong with getting online or wanting to make a quick buck. The question is: how many people succeed in making that quick buck? Maybe one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand. I have always lived by three simple principles:

  1. Find something you are good at and that you like to do and then devote yourself to it.
  2. Once you get good at something, your efficiency will increase exponentially, and you’ll be faster than you ever expected. This builds on itself, so that you increasingly get faster and better.
  3. When you can perform efficiently and at a high level, you’ll have very little competition. Challenge yourself. Every time you do something, try your best to do it faster and better than you did it last time. Soon, you will speed right past all of your peers.

You began drawing when you were 4 years-old. Do you remember your first drawing?

I have a deep impression of my first work of art. When I was two years-old, I was awe-struck by the special red ink that my dad would sometimes use in his calligraphy, so when he wasn’t looking, I grabbed his brush and used that red ink to draw the shape of a person on our white wall. The subsequent punishment is what made it stick in my memory.

Have you ever altered your style to meet the demands of your readers, or of the market?

In the fifty years that I’ve been drawing comics, including 7 years doing animation, I’ve developed 20 different styles. I tailor the style to the content. For traditional philosophy, I balance the difficulty of the thought with a light and breezy drawing style. But this is in service to the reader. I always have the needs of the reader at the front of my mind. Do these sections flow together? Is this sentence clear? A book is a way to connect with a reader’s mind. From creation, to editing, to printing, to distribution—a book is not complete until the reader has finished reading.

What is the focus of your work now? Do you have any plans for a new series?

I just finished a series on Buddhism, along with two animated feature films, and am now planning a series on the “wisdom of the East.”

What other kind of challenges do you plan to take on?

I have a strong interest in creating a comic book series devoted to helping people understand physics and mathematics. I’ve been studying these subjects for many years and am just about ready. At this point in my life, though, it becomes a matter of whether I am still alive and have the energy to complete the project.

Has drawing comics always been your goal in life?

Drawing comics is not my goal in life. My goal is to live with as much spiritual freedom as possible and as few material desires as possible.

There is a story of a little chick that has just pecked its way out of its shell when it comes across a snail. “So that’s what a shell is for,” it says to itself. So the chick picks up the pieces of its shell and carries them on its back for the rest of its life.

We are born free, so why accumulate shells to carry on your back? Our purpose in life is not to accumulate fame and fortune that we can’t take with us when we die; it is to be who we are to the fullest extent possible. Since we only have one life to live, we have to make the most of it. That’s why I’m not willing to spend an ounce of energy pursuing fame or fortune. Look at your life from the perspective of your death, then go and do something significant.

What books have influenced you the most?

I’ve found that reading is the most rewarding investment of one’s time. By the time I was three, I had finished reading the Bible. At 9, I had read many of the world’s most famous works of literature. Up to now, I’ve probably read over twenty thousand books, including eight thousand comic books. Of these, my favorite author is Kahlil Gibran. My favorite books are Gibran’s The Prophet and Sand and Foam and Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell.

From your own experience and perspective, to what do you attribute your success. What could your fans learn from you about how to succeed in their own lives?

A person without a dream is like a butterfly without wings. In Taiwan, there is a saying: a blade of grass, a drop of dew. In the early morning, every kind of plant, whether big or small, a weed or a flower, will have dew on it. What this means is that nature is fundamentally fair, in that everyone has their own talents and abilities. You just have to develop them.

You have popularized comic books about ancient times. Do you feel like you have some special connection with the ancients?

I am interested in anything that has to do with wisdom. Reading is like being a neighbor to the ancients, like forming a friendship with them. I have never traveled for the sake of traveling, like a tourist does. Instead, I travel with the people of the past.

Where do you find your inspiration?

My inspiration comes from my attempt to connect with wisdom. I try to use this creative form to pass on some wisdom to later generations. My process lies in reading and note-taking. I’m slow at reading paper books and now prefer to read books on the computer. I download some ancient book, convert it to a Word document, and add correct punctuation. It’s hard on my eyes, and I sometimes think I’ll go blind doing it like this. Is this a bottleneck in my workflow? Actually, no. If I were to convert all of my notes to paper notebooks, I estimate they would take up something like 800 volumes.

Whenever people achieve a level of great success, it’s natural that others wonder how they were able to do it. What would you say is the secret to your success?

The secret to success is to find something you love and then do it. Even today, I still love to work. I work 16 – 18 hours per day. I don’t have a cell phone, and still use a land line. I also don’t have material desires to speak of, getting by on about $8/day. Besides working, my next love is playing bridge online. I’m still that little kid from the Taiwan countryside—very simple, just doing whatever he enjoys the most.

When did you first think of putting ancient thought into comics? Did your understanding of it come through studying it on your own?

When I was 9 years-old, I realized that if you really want to learn something, you have to teach yourself. The questions are yours, and you have to come up with the answers. Most teachers are just average people and are limited in their ability to satisfy a child’s curiosity. It was then that I began my project of self-learning. Self-learning is how you learn fast and efficiently. Everything I know, I’ve learned this way: cartooning, animations, physics, advanced mathematics, Japanese, bridge, Asian philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, and so on. I’m an autodidact through and through.

When I was 36 years old, I had the idea that putting classical literature into comics could be of great benefit to others. So, I decided to go to Japan and spend four years creating this series. Wouldn’t it be great to take priceless ideas of the Chinese classics and transmit them via the most efficient modern media format? Nothing could be more natural! 

Who has most influenced your drawing style?

I was exposed to the Bible when I was just one year-old. When I was 3-and-half, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. When I was four-and-a-half, I decided that I would become an illustrator. At 9, I set my mind on becoming a professional cartoonist. I published my first comic when I was 15. When I first started drawing comics, I was heavily influenced by my idol at the time, Tetsuya Chiba. But after a year, I found my own voice and developed my own style. At 36, when I was traveling through the Kuala Lumpur airport, I came across some comics by a cartoonist who goes by the name of Lat. There is a freedom to his drawings that helped me develop my carefree style. But the one thing that has been most influential in my drawing has been my own studies—of classical Chinese painting, Western art history, Bauhaus design, not to mention physics and mathematics. It was only after studying formulas in physics and math that my drawing took on a kind of lyrical openness. But I don’t have just one style. Right now, I can draw in any of 20 different styles. It’s not a problem if a beginning artist is influenced by an idol’s style, but the artist has to very quickly transition to a unique style. We’re each a unique being from the day we’re born. If we can’t be ourselves, who is going to come and be us? We are our own selves, not copycats of others.

C. C. Tsai is one of East Asia’s most popular illustrators. His bestselling editions of the Chinese classics have introduced generations of readers to the wisdom of such luminaries as Zhuangzi, Sunzi, and Laozi. Born in Taiwan, Tsai now lives in Hangzhou, China. 

 

Tsai