The Sovereignty of Good – Book Review

Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good is perhaps her best known philosophical book. It consists of three essays focused on moral philosophy and her belief in a Platonic basis for it. I’ve had the book on my mega monopoly bookseller wishlist for quite awhile, probably when I read Mathew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft which frequently references Murdoch’s concepts of attention. My recent focus on ethical philosophy in Happiness, specifically Plato, prompted me to buy this book. It’s a short book, only 100 pages, and the three essays are straightforward to read.

The main theme of the book and essays is the concept of Good as the primary ideal of moral philosophy. The first essay, The Idea of Perfection, examines the state of moral philosophy in the mid to late 20th century from Kant to the behaviorists to the existentialists to the most recent movements in analytic philosophy. None of these schools have a rich and nuanced concept of moral philosophy. Each school drives out the self in a variety of ways: Kant via Reason, Existentialism through the removal of intrinsic meaning defined by an external source, etc. Our removal of the self and its messiness along with science’s influences on society in moving away from God means that moral philosophy is reduced to thinking goodness and morality are functions of our will and not some externally existing ‘thing’. We choose what is good based on the freedom of our will and that is that. Additionally, we move away from the idea of virtue and towards a concept of “right”. We no longer ask “What is Good?”. Instead, we ask “What is Right?” which biases us towards a materialistic, false scientism when it comes to moral philosophy.

Murdoch strongly disagrees with these concepts and instead presents a moral philosophy based on a transcendent Good that is undefinable but still clearly exists external to our will for us to focus on. This makes our materialistic, technocratic selves quite uncomfortable in an age where everything supposedly has a reason and must be measured for its efficiency. But if we examine our lived experience and lean on common sense, it seems true that the Good really does exist even if we can’t quite put our fingers on what it is. Her debt to Plato and the Allegory of the Cave is clear here.

Murdoch argues for a much richer inner life than do her contemporaries or immediate philosophical ancestors. This inner life is “hazy” as she puts it and not subject to measurements or efficiencies. Contemporary moral philosophy judges every thing on actions: we have no way to inspect the inner life Murdoch treasures and therefore can only decide whether a person is moral by his or her actions. Murdoch argues this is far too limiting to develop a rich, moral philosophy and instead that our inner life can (and DOES!) contain much more. This lines up with most people’s simple common sense beliefs about their “self”.

Murdoch’s example involves M and D, two women associated via the marriage of D to M’s son. M behaves towards D flawlessly (her external visible actions) but internally, she believes that D is simple and plain and below her son. Over time, M’s vision of D comes to change. She sees that her son loves D, that perhaps instead of simple, D is carefree and happy, etc. Her actions have never changed but her morality has in that it has grown along a continuum. Modern moral philosophy has no mechanism with which to judge this example because there are no actions that have changed. M’s actions are the same yet something has changed. This is why Murdoch argues for concepts beyond the examination of actions that behaviorism and existentialism focus on. Most people would likely agree with her that there does seem to be some rich inner life and that a moral philosophy that does not account for this life is suspect.

This also has implications for concepts like Freedom. In the existentialist/behaviorist view, Freedom is the will making its moral choices often divorced from any anchor in reality. For Murdoch and a theory of Good, Freedom is the choices made on a progressive continuum towards Perfection. It is not random free choice. In other words, M chose to look more carefully, to attend more clearly, to D’s characteristics and her son’s love for D. M had the Freedom to choose whether to do this but once she chose it, her path was set moving her forward towards an idea of Perfection, e.g. constantly improving via choice one’s understanding of something, in this case the personality of her daughter-in-law.

This idea of Perfection and constant movement on the continuum towards it is fundamental to Murdoch’s philosophy. By conceiving of a transcendent Good and then attending to it, we grow more moral over time. This is in sharp contrast to the materialistic view of existentialism where everything is based on external actions and there is no historical context, e.g. no continuum, within which to judge the morality of an agent. It’s also important to note Murdoch’s concept of attention. For her, morality comes via attention to reality, the real world (the relationship M’s son has with D for example) and then fitting ones decisions and beliefs around that. By contrast, in existentialism, the will operates independent from reality leaving one’s morality to be developed in a void. This is a slippery slope towards “things that are right for you aren’t right for me”. Only by judging moral philosophy on its connection to reality can we have standards that we once derived from the Divine.

Murdoch’s idea of Perfection requires the governance of reality as a guide for growth in a moral way. We must attend to what we experience, our relationships, our impacts on the environment, etc so that we can develop our moral philosophy towards better actions. Reality comes first, then growth towards the Good, then actions unlike the existentialists and behaviorists for whom actions are the genesis of moral philosophy. For them, actions are everything. But for Plato and Murdoch and Aquinas among others, the genesis of moral philosophy is a transcendent Good (for Aquinas, this was God as primary, for the others the Good is primary on its own) towards which we apply attention first that enables actions. The Good is contextual, it has a history to which we must attend and this is how it differs dramatically from the existentialist/behaviorist view with its isolated will.

On Happiness – Epicurus, Seneca, and Augustine

This is part of a stop and start series summarizing the writings in Happiness – Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy. You can read other parts of the series starting here.

Today’s third installment is a summary of what the Stoics represented by Seneca and Augustine felt about happiness. The Stoics have in recent years returned to popularity, largely through the writings of Ryan Holiday. Stoicism was in direct competition for mind share and pupils with Epicureans during the ancient world. The writing of Seneca in this book is in response to the core Epicurean belief that pleasure is the highest good. Seneca believes Virtue is the higher good. Seneca’s main argument with Epicurean philosophy is not that it is necessarily bad but that it is far too easy to fall into a vicious cycle when pursuing happiness via pleasure.

According to Seneca, Virtue is the highest good and has the added benefit of providing some pleasure. The analogy he uses is like the field plowed for corn that then allows some flowers to bloom around its borders, Virtue allows for pleasure to bloom in small ways as well. The benefit of Virtue is that it allows man to stand up to the tribulations of life whereas pleasure does not. As someone who struggles with things like carbs and Twitter, I can attest to pleasure largely being weak and fleeting.

Interestingly, Epicurus, while having a totally materialistic metaphysical basis for his philosophy, did not advocate for the gluttony that we typically associate with his philosophy. Much of what Epicurus said was directed at developing a freedom of fear, both of the gods and of man, and directing one’s life to learning via our senses. This then allowed man to acquire pleasure though still in some moderation. As so often with philosophical leaders, it was later adherents to the philosophy who bastardized the concepts.

Seneca advocated for Virtue being the standard bearer for our direction in life and that by doing so, man would be able to both acquire pleasure (via higher goods like learning and philosophical development) and to withstand all the things that buffet and attack our happiness and equilibrium in life. Virtue allows us to be free from suffering because we know that our actions have truth. Virtue is independent of Fortune. One can lead a virtuous life filled with truth and wisdom while remaining poverty stricken but a rich man whose happiness is based on his pleasures can be stripped of them by Fortune. Virtue places man beyond the grasp of desire which means he achieves freedom via being virtuous. This is not unlike the ideas of Iris Murdoch who talks about freedom not as an independent thing in a laissez-faire will but a result of the consequences of a framework for action. In other words, by striving towards Virtue (or Perfection for Murdoch), we gain freedom from the whims and baseness of pleasure.

Seneca says “We have been born under a monarchy; to obey God is freedom.” This is a much deeper definition of freedom (and a seemingly paradoxical one to the modern mind) than one we operate in today where we are bombarded by people yelling about freedoms to not wear a mask or the freedom to develop a cryptocurrency or other “freedoms” based on an independent will that is largely nihilistic in nature. This freedom is hard to comprehend when one has been immersed in the cultural idea of individual freedom as the highest good. Our cultural idea of freedom is totally independent choice. However, Seneca believed that this led to base desires ruling man’s life and that true freedom came from a structural metaphysic based on virtue. Only in this path would we gain true freedom from those base desires like gluttony and greed. As Jerzy Gregorek has said, “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.” Today’s definition of freedom (and happiness) are entirely of the first time. But Seneca (and in some ways Epicurus and more so Augustine) believed freedom came from the latter.

Interestingly, something that is not regularly talked about is that Seneca believed Virtue came from God, that we had a sacred obligation to be human, e.g. not be bothered by those things which affects us because we are not divine. This relates him to Augustine in some ways who had similar thoughts. Augustine’s core moral was Wisdom which came from God. Wisdom is the opposite of want or more accurately, frees one from want much as Seneca believe Virtue freed us from the spiral of pleasure seeking. Wisdom for Augustine was the measure of the soul, that it kept the soul in equilibrium and prevented that same spiral into pleasure seeking behavior. Wisdom requires a constant seeking (which interestingly ties back to Murdoch’s ideas in The Sovereignty of Good) and therefore, we are never deemed “wise”, only that we are constantly trying to increase our wisdom.

The way to wisdom for Augustine was through moderation, that want (of pleasures or riches) pulls us away from wisdom which is defined as seeking God. Again, as with Seneca and later, Murdoch, Happiness is derived via our pursuit of something less concrete than basic pleasures and our ability to improve or increase that pursuit over time. Happiness is not derived from the acquisition of things but from the acquisition of wisdom. Things can be a means to this (I bought a guitar during the pandemic, the purchase of which provided a tiny bit of impermanent happiness) by allowing us to develop wisdom (playing the guitar and increasing my abilities provides a constant stream of happiness). But it is key for both Seneca and Augustine that it is not the materialistic thing itself, it is what it provides on the path to wisdom. If I had to sell the guitar to make rent, I could still sing as a way to improve musical abilities.

To me, Seneca and Augustine have a very similar view of Happiness and its providence. I’ve read far more Stoic philosophy than I have that of Augustine but I’m interested in branching out further into his beliefs. Next up is Thomas Aquinas who believed happiness came from the contemplation of God.

On Happiness – Plato Edition

This is the second in a series of posts on readings from Happiness: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy. The series start is here along with an index if you are interested in others.

The first reading from the book is from Plato’s The Republic and includes Books II, IV and IX. The selected readings are concerned with justice and whether or not it is a good in and of itself or if instead, as Glaucon argues, merely something irksome like gymnastics practice that we ascribe to for its results only. Said another way, should justice be something we aspire to do or have like feelings of enjoyment or is justice something we do only because of compulsion? Glaucon and his brother argue that it is the latter, that given the opportunity to be unjust without consequence, man would invariably choose to do so in the same way man would choose to avoid other disciplines aimed at the future over the present.

Plato via Socrates believes the opposite, that justice is an end, not a means and that man, being separate from the animals based on his rational capacity, will choose to be just in the same way he would choose to be happy. Plato supports his argument by discussing the rational principle versus the appetitive principle in man. He does this utilizing the emotion anger in an interesting way. Initially, Glaucon thinks that anger belongs to the appetitive or irrational side of man. But Plato points out that we are never angry with ourselves when we are overindulging or being unjust, only after the fact. Spirit, this lion that resides in us, is separate from both the appetitive impulses and the rational man.

These three concepts (appetitive, the lion that represents the spirited side, and the rational) make up the whole man. Glaucon is arguing for a mixture where the appetitive and the spirited would reign supreme while the rational would be weak and ineffective, e.g. someone who was wholly unjust while appearing to be just on the outside. Socrates argues that happiness comes from having the rational man as the strongest principle and that the other two occur in moderation.

Whether one sides with Glaucon or Socrates here seems to boil down to one’s fundamental belief about how man derives happiness from existence. On one hand, the picture is that of selfish greed, excess consumption and the immediate. This is a pessimistic view of humanity, a precursor to nihilism where nothing matters at all. On the other, rationality holds the stronger hand and that by keeping appetites in check, happiness is increased because then the higher goals of justice and meaningful pleasure via philosophy can be achieved.

In today’s world, we are surrounded by appeals to our animal nature, far more than anything Glaucon could have imagined. Consumerism and consumption is THE portrayed ideal whether it’s through acquiring more thing or drowning ourselves in the incessant fire hose of information from social media and the internet. We have become gluttons for these things because they are easier and closer to the appetitive principles in our animal nature. To achieve true happiness, Plato would likely have advised us to keep this in check and turn towards our rational side. Is the thing in the path you are striving for what’s important for happiness or is it the path itself? This shift changes how we value things and lessens the disappointment when we do not achieve the “thing” we were focused on.

The appetitive side will always lead to short term happiness and long term disappointment. We can only eat Cheetohs for dinner for so long before the effects are felt. This goes for any other concrete thing we might strive for from a new car to a promotion to a ranch. Far better, as the Stoics have taught, to curb the appetites and be satisfied with what we have, turning the energy we had focused on the short term achievement towards the underlying mechanisms that provide those achievements.

In the end, Plato advised us that happiness comes not from the immediate but from the movement towards perfection of an ideal. This also had the fortunate side effect of building a better society at the same time, something our consumerist culture should take note of. Strengthening our rational side while taming the appetitive side with the spirit’s help will lead to a happier, more meaningful life that avoids the ups and downs that come from indulging our immediate tendencies.

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On Happiness – A Blog Post Series, Maybe

This is a series on readings on happiness. This is the first post. An index of other posts is below.

I’m currently reading Happiness – Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy which I picked up at the Dickson Used Bookstore in Fayetteville, AR a few weeks ago. I was looking for another book by Cahn that’s been on my Amazon wishlist for quite awhile but this was the only one they had in stock. This book is a collection of writings on searching for happiness. Whether this turns into an actual series of posts, only time will tell but a friend of mine asked for a TL,DR; on it so here we are.

The first reading in the book is from Plato’s The Republic. I read about half of it and decided to move on to Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics. In the past, I’ve found Plato difficult to read and the excerpt here is no different. Aristotle is more straightforward so let’s start small, shall we?

Aristotle’s main theme is that every art, action and inquiry is pointed at some good and that therefore, all things emanate from the good. This portion of The Ethics is looking at what that means, specifically in search for the chief good or the root. My notes here equate this to a graph with a root node, all leaf nodes pointing towards or leading to the chief good. In the 19 page excerpt here, Aristotle comes to the conclusion that reason and a contemplative life focused on truth is the chief good, that the life of philosopher is the ideal focus and that this derives from the gods who, being immortal and without need for bravery, justice or liberality (other goods that humans might partake in), must practice the contemplation of truth as part of what it means to be a god. The contemplative life of man, requiring no actions, must then be as close to divinity as we can be.

The other goods Aristotle mentions are actions, specifically those of bravery or justice or liberality. These are derivative goods that do lead to happiness but not the root happiness. When given a choice of action, we should choose actions that are of these types when possible.

…if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul exhibiting excellence, and if there are more than one excellence, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we must add “in a complete life.” For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy. Book I

The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. Book X

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle believed that the happy life was a life of exertion, not physical exertion necessarily but exertion of temperance, of choosing reason over amusement. The easy life is defined by easy choices, those closer to our animal desires. I was struck by how much of modern life is the latter, how easy it is to reach for easy amusements today and how much discipline is needed to choose reason instead. Western civilization is based on consumerism and fluff. Is it any wonder we live in an age of anxiety and depression? Happiness according to Aristotle is about the long term and the collection of choices we make aimed at reason and the contemplation of truth.

This idea leads to the derivative idea that mastery is a characteristic of happiness, that we as humans can achieve happiness only through the evolution of our abilities even in our amusements and hobbies. Happiness does not come from consumption because to consume is always the easy choice avoiding exertion. Only production (very generally speaking, not in a specific way of producing things in our work or hobbies) leads to mastery and therefore happiness. Achievements that happen from exertion are always more rewarding and therefore supporters of happiness.

Overall, Aristotle is a good place to start this study. I’ll probably return to Plato at this point because my favorite contemporary philosopher, Iris Murdoch, built a theory of ethics based on Platonism aimed primarily at Simone Weil’s “concept of “attention” to reality, including both other people and a transcendent Good.”

Sunday Musings On Nihilism and Bitcoin

I ran across this reply last night in this thread by Travis on the logical fallacies committed in defense of Bitcoin as a store of value and found it interesting enough to contemplate. I think at the heart of what Travis tries to do regarding the status of Bitcoin is point out that because it is currently a sort of nihilistic investment (no one yet clearly understands the Tether relationship, there are no investor protections around the entire space, e.g. there is no meaning built in by regulatory or legal means), it therefore is important to try and understand the underlying rationale for Bitcoin before investing.

First, nihilism as defined by Wikipedia is “a philosophy…that rejects general or fundamental aspects of human existence such as objective truth, knowledge, morality, values or meaning.” Ironically, I imagine that many proponents of Bitcoin would argue that it is not nihilistic because of the objective truth regarding the underlying definition of what a Bitcoin is. However, I think a careful reading of Travis’ arguments over the last year on Twitter would say he believes the concept of Bitcoin as a store of value is what is nihilistic.

Regarding Christopher, the person who he’s referring to and his statement, it’s clearly based in nihilism whether the author recognizes it or not. Basically translated, it’s ok to make be wrong as long as you make money doing it. Now, the modern and postmodern world would largely agree with this statement. Nihilism is one of the defining characteristics of postmodernism and modernity to a lesser degree. Interestingly, in the thread continuing down the nihilism road, Christopher continues to argue from a nihilistic position which is probably why those two are never going to come to some agreement. “Was it right? Was it wrong? Who cares I made money!” is nihilism.

So what would a non-nihilistic, possibly Platonist (Travis mentions this later down thread) view of Bitcoin specifically and the broader market more generally look like? First, one would have to have a well defined personal philosophy defined by something other than “As long as I make money, it’s all ok.” Travis clearly has this as expressed in numerous explicit and implicit comments on Twitter. That definition might have a premise like “To be considered a store of value, the investment vehicle must have some intrinsic or extrinsic protections built into it for the investor class” e.g. be free from fraud. This could be the start of a moral framework within which you could make decisions about what to invest in. Carried to the extreme, you might only invest in companies fighting climate change or companies trying to provide worker protections, etc. Most people in the market would say this was both ridiculous and pointless because they believe the primary reason to be in the market is to make money. But someone investing only in green technology has a different primary reason, a moral framework defined by societal goods, and she operates within that framework. This is a perfectly acceptable idea and it leads to a more congruent personal life infused with meaning that combats the nihilism of postmodernity.

I think at the core of Travis’ writings is this honorable fight against some of the nihilistic underpinnings of the marketplace and our modern world. If you make money in Bitcoin because you were lucky enough to get in early but then later people are wiped out because they got in at a time when perhaps the government began regulation of the space or it turned out Tether was the fraudulent system the entire Bitcoin regime was based on, yes it’s totally fine for you but has moral and social implications in the larger view. Note: neither of these things has happened but they are within the realm of possibility. By ignoring these (and by having a society that ignores them, collectively saying “was it right? was it wrong? who cares I made money!”), it is possible that underlying foundations of our civilization can become weak leading to even more nihilistic exploitation possibly leading eventually to collapse.

On Being Present

It occurred to me early this morning (I can only assume this happened because we watched Kung Fu Panda last night and Master Oogway’s words had an impact) that being present is difficult because the present is a tiny moment in time compared to the past or the future. I have been meditating somewhat consistently for 18 months or so now and the basic difficulty of staying present on the breath has certainly shown me this but it has never been made concrete in my rational mind.

Meditation, especially breath meditation where you focus attention on the breath, is designed to move focus to the present moment where air flows into your body through the nose and out again in the same manner. It is one of those things in life that sounds incredibly easy but is actually impossibly hard, at least in my experience. My tendency is to make it to about breath number two before something intrudes on my focus whether it’s a bad choice from the past, an anxious need from the future or an item on the always present TODO list that lurks like some evil spirit in the shadows of my mind.

One of the reasons this is so hard even in good circumstances is that the Past is a vast treasure trove of fears and delights, times when things went well and poorly, events that seem much more interesting to think about than the ennui of breath in, breath out. The Future is an equally vast cornucopia of possibilities, many of them terrible if the average social media timeline is to be believed, possibilities that spring to mind easily and often to interrupt the focus of the present moment. Add to this the anxiety and cognitive load of the TODO list which I am prone to and the result is a situation where being truly present can seem impossible. The human mind seems especially talented at focusing on the past (depression) or the future (anxiety). The present in contrast is a pinhead of space where this moment you are present in is so fleeting as to be imaginary, gone before it can even be recognized.

Yet the present is the key to practically everything. It is the way to happiness, to progress, and to health. When I watch Wobbles closely, her joie de vivre comes from her total immersion in the present. All children are like this. They run and leap and laugh and cry based on this moment. I believe much of the anxiety of the youth (and perhaps the world) of today can be tied directly to social media usage which is designed to turn our attention to either the past through reminders of what our life used to be five minutes or five years ago or to the future when hopefully we will be having a great dinner in Italy like our friends Karen and Bob and their two perfect children. Unless carefully managed, social media removes us from the present and places us into some other period over which we have almost no control.

The present on the other hand is within our control. What we choose to do with now is where all beauty and happiness lies. It is a great paradox that so many people obsess about the past as one long list of bad choices but obsess about the future as a time when we can get things right, ignoring the more likely outcome that they will continue to make the same choices then and get the same results. Being present is the way out of that trap.

The Stoics were masters at the present, putting forth a philosophy designed to recognize this situation that teaches us not to revel or dwell on our past or worry about the future because they are out of our control. Instead, we must focus only on what we can do in the current moment which results in peace of mind. It is also interesting to me, though probably the topic of another essay, that creation and experience and appreciation of art happens in the present moment. Writing, music, drawing, painting, it’s all done here and now. In fact, the book Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain is a book that specifically teaches you how to leave the judgmental and controlling left side of the brain and fall into the flow of the present that the right side of the brain is so in tune with.

Another interesting way to look at this is that the past and the future don’t actually exist, only the present moment as Master Oogway noted. The past is gone, a litany of present moments spent and cast aside. The future is unstable, a stream of present moments affected by randomness and contingency that we have less control over than we imagine. The only way to achieve a different past or future is to do things differently in the present. Whether that’s saving money or losing weight or learning Spanish, the way to achieve anything is by doing something in the present moment other than dreaming about the future or wallowing in the past. These present moments then compound over time to produce a savings account of memory and learning that redefine our past and change the opportunities for our future. The present is the only way to true happiness.

On The Realm Of Shadows

I recently finished reading this book which was the final major philosophical work of Henri Lefebvre, a French philosopher in the 20th century who is best known for his development of the critique of everyday life. He also was the first to develop a French reading of Nietzsche that was tragic in nature which plays a large part in this book. I picked up this book early last year from Verso Books when the pandemic hit and small bookstores were in dire shape. I had been reading some Marxist thinking without actually reading Marx which made this book appealing.

Because the book took me most of a year to read, these notes are less an insightful summary of the book and more a collection plate for tithes to a future reading that is more concentrated. Most of what I remember and took notes on was the Nietzsche file so it plays a prominent part.

The book has three main sections, one for each of the major philosophers covered. It is a comparison of their thought and impact on Western philosophy, culture and civilization. Lefebvre believed that these three men had contributed the core philosophies to develop the modern world and that each one contributed a different idea. These ideas actually conflict in many ways and Lefebvre wrote this book to analyze and attempt to reconcile the differences.

These three philosophers represented three key ideas to Lefebvre and to the modern world. Hegel, through his study of history and belief in rationalization and logos, contributed much of the foundation for the modern State. Hegel essentially believed history was inevitable. For Hegel, the State was the highest point of human progression. This was based on a historical viewpoint that basically said the State was the logical conclusion of man’s progression. And for Hegel, it was THE conclusion. There was no other thing to move towards. Hegel believed and in fact contributed a great deal to the philosophical concept of idea as harmony and his vision of the State is driven by this. His idea of the State was a harmonious one, a support for a constitutional monarchy that was liberal in nature. If we look at the State since Hegel’s time, we see that this must be incomplete, that the natural progression does not end in a liberal, rational State but instead often becomes fascist (in the true definition of the word, ala the fascists of Germany and Italy in the early 20th century).

For Hegel, knowledge is key to the development of The State. Knowledge rests on reason and rationality and his historical interpretation of the development of the State rests on the supremacy of knowledge. The paradox here is that knowledge also leads to power. Those who control knowledge have power. This in turn leads to ideology and the abuse of knowledge by the State to meet its own ends as it begins to control the information required to develop knowledge. This is a key triad in the development of the state: knowledge, constraint (violence), ideology. The State rests on knowledge but the State eventually controls and directs knowledge to keep power. This is a powerful critique of Hegel’s thought and requires that we turn elsewhere for help. That help for Lefebvre is Marx.

Hegel represents the past because his philosophy is defined by it. He believes and adheres to the historical progression to the modern State as the end all. Marx on the other hand represents the future because one of the key tenets of Marxism is the day the proletariat rises up in the future and subsumes capital or the bourgeoisie and becomes a single movement. Where Hegel represents the State, Marx represents Society. A key to Society is space defined by Lefebvre and others as social space where those within society can operate freely and safely. The State eventually seeks to restrict this space through necessity to retain ideological power. The rational, logical State of Hegel’s philosophy breaks down.

For Marx, a different triad (from Hegel’s knowledge, constraint, ideology) is key: exploitation, oppression, humiliation. This triad then synthesizes into a single concept: alienation. This was key to Marx and anyone who analyzes our modern age sees it as a key concept today as well. The working class was (and is!) alienated from society, from the Hegelian State, and is left to enjoy the crumbs from the hegemonic class.

Marx looked at Hegel and saw that the Hegelian State could not be correct because of alienation. However Marx did not give us a systematic way to look at society. What he did provide was a vocabulary, a language, that was different from anything we had at that point or since, a vocabulary that opened up ways of expressing modern life that had been missing. For example, Marx gave us “surplus value” instead of “profit”. This new vocabulary enables a social interpretation of our experience where Hegel (and others) only provided a political or economic interpretation.

Marx believed that eventually Labor would have a revolution to remake society away from the concentration of Capital (that he had already been writing about and which continues today far more expansively) and towards a new society which at times was expressed ethically by Marx (each person respects all others) and other times aesthetically (everyone would be a poet or an artist, or at least interpreted as such). One of the interesting paradoxes of Marx is that this revolution would happen within a current class, defined by the system within which it worked. Working within the system, the system would be overthrown. How? Knowing what we know now about the modern State and its penchant for constraint (violence) to achieve its means, both foreign and domestic, this seems to be a strong criticism of any future proletariat revolution.

Marx (along with Saint-Simon) recognized and elevated social classes as a construct in political analysis. Hegel misunderstood the French Revolution, ignoring the conflict between the working class, those masses in the street, and the aristocracy. Marx saw this as THE key to the French Revolution, that social classes, not political ones, were the driving force of the world. Marx also named the manager class the bureaucrats or bureaucracy and was the first to notice that they were incentivized to expand their control to the point of dominance. The bureaucrats control the surplus social value through taxes, state corporations and others and over time tend to dominate the economy, sucking value up and out away from those who produced it. We see this today in the expansion of the federal government in many ways, especially the military-industrial complex.

The political state is in fact tied to the social reality, something Hegel missed or misunderstood in his analysis. The political state has a social basis: the relations of production. Marx saw that because power has a tendency (always a tendency with Marx, never a rule or a law) to migrate up the relations of production towards the bureaucracy, the working class would always be disadvantaged by Capital or the bureaucracy. Eventually, the structure begins to crack as in the French Revolution, the working classes organize and reorganize but never revolutionize, and then it all starts over.

This concept of constant change violates the rationalism of Hegel, his logos. Change is key to Marx. Berman wrote an entire book about it. Hegel believed that the State was superimposed on top of society. Marx showed that it was just a construction of society and should be subordinate to it. This idea should be fertile ground for analyzing the modern age where we have allowed the State to once again be superimposed on society (think of how many people are consumed with national politics or how few actual demands we make of the State as a society, etc). Marx’ thought is almost entirely social in nature which is a great irony since his main critics in the modern age focus almost entirely on the economic writings.

Nietzsche until recently, notably with some of Lefebvre’s work, was historically misinterpreted. Nietzsche was interpreted as anarchistic or elitist. However the historical truth based on his writing is that he was neither of these. Much of this misunderstanding came after his death, spread by his sister who was anti-Semitic. This led Nietzsche to be a talisman for the far right and even the fascists in Europe in the early 20th century.

Where Hegel was the State and Marx was Society, Nietzsche is Civilization. Where Hegel was about the past (the historicism that brought about the state) and Marx was about the future (when the proletariat rose up through revolution to overthrow the bourgeoisie) Nietzsche was about the present, the lived moment, the subjective. Nietzsche did not abandon knowledge or science, he instead subordinated them to lived experience, to the moment of now. Consciousness and knowledge, far from being the rational conclusion according to Hegel, were in fact just random chances in the universe.

In many ways, Nietzsche was a mystic, at least in my reading. His main concern, starting in Untimely Meditations was a freedom of spirit. His definition of such began with nihilism brought about by the supposed knowledge of his day (the science of the 19th century was leading society to be secular, hence Nietzsche’s most famous quote “God is Dead!”) and led him beyond to a definition of free thinker which rejects any appeal to history to justify and legitimate the actual.

A key concept for Nietzsche is that man does not live as a being of need or desire but instead of ressentiment which is far stronger than the English word it resembles. Resseentiment is the result of humiliation and it leads to alienation, a core Marxian concept though Nietzsche gave no credit to Marx for it. This humiliation is irreparable in nature. Where both Hegel and Marx see a way out of the humiliation, Nietzsche believes that the being will have developed modes of life, of dealing with it, that are etched in stone. The humiliated will have found ways to psychologically deal with their humiliation, will have developed mental workarounds and explanations for the humiliation. No amount of revolution or knowledge can overcome these. This is also fertile ground for analyzing the modern state. Think about the 2008 mortgage crisis and the hundreds of thousands of families that lost their homes. The loss of a home isn’t just some moment in time, it is the crushing of a dream. It is an immense humiliation. It would never go away. Nietzsche saw that this was true for almost everyone, that the modern state with its bureaucracy and power, created circumstances that humiliated everyone. From the humiliation comes culpability which politicians in the West can then exploit for their own means. Culpability is a state, not a fact, e.g. we all live in a state of culpability for some humiliation. This in turn leads to the predominant idea of the modern Western civilization which is nihilism.

How to overcome this emptiness that the modern age has inflicted upon us? Nietzsche advocates a “return to body”, which he sees as the depth beneath consciousness. This is not a call for hedonism but instead to focus on the energy of the body, the energy of poetry and music and dance, the energy of lived experience. The present.

In our age of bureaucracy and technocratic control, a very materialistic age not just in our whims but also in our ethical and aesthetic behavior, there is something refreshing about this reading of Nietzsche who I think above all was trying to find a solution for the nihilism of modernity. Nietzsche believed that rationality in the Hegelian sense was not just limited but in fact illusory. We cannot know all the things we think we do. On top of that, one of Nietzsche’s core insights was that power was key, that power drove everything and that too often, human beings came to worship those that had power over them (or in our age, the thing that has power over them?) and the humiliation from that experience is permanent and debilitating. To escape it, we must embrace the tragic nature of our modern existence and then make a leap beyond rationality into the creative, into the body, into poetry and art as paths out of the humiliation.

In the end, for Lefebvre, Marx represented an objective, socio-technical breakthrough and away from the rational State and its natural tendency towards violence and ideology. Nietzsche represented a subjective (poetic) breakthrough from both past and future to live fully in the present moment. This was a pretty thought provoking book that will probably require a closer reading at some point in the near future.

On Not Being A Bug

Levquist went on, ‘I am close to death. That is no scandal, old age is a well-known phenomenon. But now the difference is that everyone is close to death.’
Gerard said, ‘Yes.’ He thought, it consoles him to think so.
‘All thought which is not pessimistic is now false.’
‘But you would say it has always been?’
‘Yes. Only now it is forced upon all thinking people, it is the only possible conception. Courage, endurance, truthfulness, these are the virtues. And to recognise that of all things we are the most miserable that creep between the earth and the sky.’

From The Book and The Brotherhood Iris Murdoch

Family movie night was A Bug’s Life recently which is only the second time we’ve watched that particular film (unlike Cars or Mary Poppins which are on continual repeat). At the end of the film, we played a fun four year old game which is “what bug would you be if you were a bug?” The womenfolk picked ladybugs and I said I’d be a native Texas honeybee. The next day, at the soccer field while we rested in the shade and watched ants on the ground, Wobbles said “We aren’t really bugs, are we Papa?” “No, of course not.” The question, a reasonably standard one as four year old questions go, struck a chord with me as I have been thinking about this experience of living in a pandemic, meditating on Levquist’s comment regarding how death and its proximity is forced on all people.

It is true that death has always been close. Only in modern times have we been somewhat isolated from death with our wars in far off places not even shown on TV and modern medicine keeping us alive (but not particularly healthy) for what seems like forever. Modernity, with its veil of isolation, from death, from philosophy, from connection, has made it difficult to deal with a situation where it seems to lurk round every corner, on every apple at the grocery store, in every visit to the veterinarian. We are ill-equipped to deal with this situation because our lives are built around newness and change and distance from the day to day truth of a life cycle we very much a part of. Modernity has conditioned us to function only within change, a new job, a new phone, always searching and needing new stimulation. All that is solid melts into air as Marx and later Berman put it.

But now, in the midst of a pandemic, death and finality have come to the fore. As it turns out, our sheltered modern life with its constant change does not protect us from the realization that we are in fact bugs as far as Mother Nature is concerned. Our life feels just as capricious as the ant for whom death lurks near. This is terrifying and unsettling. However it doesn’t stop the ant. He and his community continue on being ants, building, gathering food, operating as if tomorrow is guaranteed but also operating as if it isn’t, that the natural cycle of things involves both life and death. If Bob the Ant ventures forth for food but doesn’t come back because a four year old girl happened to bounce her soccer ball by at an inopportune moment, the contingency of the event (or life) does not seize the community

I have found myself recently talking about how I long to go to a coffee shop to work and how in 9-12 months, life will be back to normal once the wonder and genius of mankind has found a vaccine. In some sense, this is likely true. People who say that they aren’t sure we’ll ever have a vaccine or be able to conquer it forget that mankind has been infected by diseases throughout history. Science has always found a way through. We will find a vaccine or a treatment or just achieve some significant level of herd immunity. Life will resume. Life will be normal. But our consciousness of life may be altered. The illusion of difference from the bugs, that we in some way are qualitatively different when it comes to the contingency of Nature will be squashed. While life will return to “normal”, it is a mistake to long for that day because in the interim, thousands more people will have died, thousands more will have been infected and possibly suffer from as yet unknown morbidity effects. Longing for that day assumes one even makes it to that distant promised paradise.

Instead, perhaps the Bob the Ant and Marcus Aurelius are better guides. Aurelius, the famous Stoic emperor of Rome, said “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” Modernity teaches us that if we don’t like how something is going, we can change it. The Stoics teach us that in actuality there is little we can change other than our mind and our reactions to our situations. True happiness comes from this, that each day is precious and that our appreciation of it is key to our being.

The way we are truly different from the bugs is not because we can somehow pretend that death is not near. It is in our minds’ ability to comprehend this and still find power and meaning in the beauty of the day, to choose not to suffer from that anxiety of the unknown. The ant suffers no anxiety (as far as I know, never having been an ant.) We suffer anxiety because we pretend to live our lives in some non-guaranteed future day when things are rosy and the contingencies of life have been solved. That future is an illusion. The anxiety that stems from it is a curse that can be treated by focusing on the day we have been given. Is that easy? No of course not. Our entire media structure (one that we choose to participate in) is built around panic and rage and catastrophe. But today is the key to happiness. Flowers in the garden. Heat of the sun on our face. When we choose to wish for some future, we lose both because today is wasted wishing and the future will not happen as we wished anyway. Aurelius also said “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

I couldn’t explain to Wobbles that we are neither ants nor non-ants, that while it seems that our lives are different, more meaningful, the contingency of Nature applies equally to us as it does to them. We are not squashed by random acts of soccer violence but we do catch a disease from a trip to the grocery store that might kill us or fail to wake up because our hearts stopped in the night. A child’s mind lacks depth to understand this. But a child’s mind has something greater, the ability to live for only today. We played soccer (and hopefully killed no ants), we ran to the fence, she beat me there occasionally, she laughed her infectious laugh when she did, all during a pandemic that continues to rage across the globe. That anxiety I feel about longing for a distant future where I can work in a coffee shop will not be remembered in 10 years but, God willing, the moments of watching my child enjoy the experience of today will remain. Levquist and his pessimistic, Schopenhauer-like outlook were wrong. Learn to appreciate the moment of today and the pessimism turns towards optimism. It will always be a struggle but it will always be worthwhile.

On Action

We cannot spend the day in explanation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is a book on implementing Stoic philosophy with three main attack vectors: perception, action and will. The book is designed to help with how the reader deals with obstacles in the path first by changing how we perceive them, then how we act against them and finally (I assume, I’m not this far into the book yet) how we stay focused on them until they are dealt with.

The Emerson quote particularly struck home with me. The full context of the quote regards how Emerson must write when the Muse strikes him, regardless of what else is going on in his life. Of course, it is easy to act when the Muse is heavy upon us. The real power in a bias towards action lies in all the days when the Muse is silent or hungover or generally feeling sorry for Herself. Continuing to act on those days is a super power, one that results in a lifetime of results and more importantly, improvement in the craft.

This is something I have come to struggle with a great deal. I THINK about doing things all the time. Projects, todos, phone calls, letters, cleaning tasks, garage organization, websites, they all rotate regularly through my consciousness. Yet, at the end of the day, I’m more like James McMurtry than Emerson when he said “All I want to do now is sell all my stocks and sit on the coast. I don’t believe in Heaven but I still believe in Ghosts.” Ghosts of previous days when I was in shape or when I did build websites or when things got done.

Action is hard. It gets harder when you think about right action or “not having to do it again” action. But in reality, doing things twice is better than not doing them at all as long as you aren’t writing software for the Space Shuttle or doing heart transplants. If you’re learning to write or playing the piano or drawing or learning some new technology, any action is better than mere thought about action. When I read Emerson’s quote, I want to apply it not in an anti-social way regarding rejecting all in times of Muse-y-ness but in an admonition against the constant “thinking about action” trap that I regularly find myself in.

One way to do this is to be present in the moment which unsurprisingly is another tenet of the book. In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer hammers this point home that no amount of concern or thought can change either the past or much of the future. You only have this moment now and the worry and anxiety of results from the past or potential disasters in the future are wasted time. Focus on this moment, pick something to act upon and do it. My main struggle in this area is just the size of many projects and the fact that if I start now, I may get interrupted or I only have 1 hour so why bother. But 1 hour done regularly can make a world of difference. Building a bias towards action can overcome the long, tedious middle ground of a project or craft when it seems nothing is changing, no progress made.

A focus on the present also removes all fear of failure or internal discussion of ability from the equation. We cannot fail in the moment. Failure is an artifact of the past viewed through the lens of history and hindsight. Remaining here in the moment removes failure as a consideration. There is only right now, learning another chord or writing another paragraph or putting a few more strokes on a painting. Thinking about anything else immediately introduces failure as an option. Focusing on that failure puts the obstacle right back in your way.

In The World Outside Your Head, Matthew Crawford explains an interesting phenomenon as a motorcyclist. I have encountered something similar on a bike. If you are going along and you notice an object in your path, you must note it and then immediately move your eyes back to the path or road ahead. If you do not do this, invariably, the bike or motorcycle will track directly at the object until you hit it. The obstacle becomes the focus and try as you might, you cannot avoid it. Where we focus our attention is critical not only to our success but also our progress along the path.

Combining presence with action will undoubtedly change the output and result of any task, project or obstacle. I find that it my focus on the final result that hinders my progress. I think of how great it will be to be done or what it will provide. But who can know what the final result of anything might be? The Stoics would tell you that you have little control over the future, that this might be your last breath so use it as if it were. Some people then find this approach fatalistic and it’s important to avoid this. If you have no control over the future, why do anything? This is where I think Stoicism reveals itself less as a philosophy and more as a structure for self control. The Stoics say little about morality or values as guidance for what to do. You must augment Stoicism with a set of values that you develop separately. Your values tell you why and what to do, Stoicism tells you how.

If we can combine our values with the Stoic principles of presence and action, we can live a fulfilled life. We will be both less concerned with final results and more able to achieve them successfully.

Playing With The Hand You’re Dealt

“Poker is a combination of luck and skill. People think mastering the skill part is hard, but they’re wrong. The trick to poker is mastering the luck.”

Tonight was workout number 2 of the CrossFit Games Open, affectionately named 14.2 by those of us in the know. Last week, we had to do as many rounds as possible in 10 minutes of 30 double unders and 15 75 lb power snatch. For those not in the know, that means you had to jump a bunch of rope except every time the rope had to pass under your feet twice instead of once to be counted and you had to throw 75lbs over your head 15 times.

This week was a little more complex. The exercises were 95 lb overhead squats and chest to bar pullups. An overhead squat involves holding weight on a bar over your head, in this case 95 pounds, and doing squats with it. It is the ultimate core exercise as any weakness in your midline (read: abs) causes the bar to get all wobbly (which is the scientific term) and tends to come back to earth. Chest to bar pullups involve regular pullups except some part of your chest below your collarbone has to actually touch the bar.

This post started out in my head as a manifesto on how CrossFit, while a meritocracy, has become unbalanced in favor of those who are genetically gifted. That post may still happen (because I believe it’s true) but instead, I think it’s more important to talk about what CrossFit is on an individual level apart from any Games hyperbole or fluff. For most of the year, CrossFit is without a doubt the most effective way to increased health and fitness. The Games is a special time when we focus on the best in the world and that’s good. But the real story is how CrossFit makes you a stronger, healthier human being.

Last week, I wrote about my experience with 14.1. In that post, I complained about not bringing my own rope, about the gym being crowded making a warm up hard and about the fact that people who were more genetically gifted had a better chance at workouts involving weights. Tonight, I started to write about how the bar was wobbly and that 95 lbs was almost half my body weight which put me at a disadvantage. However, what I realized before I wrote that post (thankfully) was that CrossFit generally and the Open in particular aren’t about a level playing field. They aren’t about equal competition or fair play or any of that. CrossFit is about being stronger and healthier in the most effective way possible. On top of that, CrossFit allows me and other athletes (and we’re all athletes, regardless of skill level) to achieve things we never thought possible on an INDIVIDUAL level. That’s what’s important.

I wrote last week that 3 years ago, I did the same workout and managed 125 reps. This year, 3 years older and at an age when lots of people feel like the best is behind them, I did 165 reps. That’s a 32% improvement. It’s the opposite of the idea of aging we have been taught to believe in. It’s proof that no matter where you start, it’s possible to heal the things that afflict you and grow stronger and healthier.

While at this time of year, the Open causes many of us to focus on the competition of CrossFit, the real benefit of CrossFit is the improvement in health and well being of individuals across the world. While I could complain about being smaller than most people and thus at a disadvantage, it misses the very important point that without CrossFit, I would be a weaker individual physically, mentally and emotionally. We aren’t guaranteed to be dealt a fair hand in life. We have afflictions, we have shitty bosses, we have distant families, we have pain and anguish and sorrow. The hand itself isn’t what is important. It’s what we choose to do with that hand. We all make decisions every single day as to how we face life. Most of us choose to complain and wish for something better. That’s the path I started down tonight when I was disappointed in my performance on 14.2. I didn’t want to think that instead of wishing everything was just right, I made the most of what I had. I wanted it all to be equal. But that’s not how life works. And the happiest people in the world are those that realize that and refuse to let it affect them.

That quote in the beginning is hard to understand for lots of people. How do you master the luck? Some people are lucky and some people are unlucky. But almost everyone can take the luck they have and turn it into something. We worry about jobs and bosses and spouses and fortune when we should worry about taking the cards we’re dealt and playing the absolute best way we can. Tonight, I didn’t do nearly as many reps as I wanted to. If I’m honest with myself, that’s because I wanted more than I was capable given the amount of work I had put in. Instead of having expectations, take what you have and do the very best with it. And then do what you can between performances, whether it’s CrossFit or work or whatever and concentrate on getting better individually. Because it’s not about what you did compared to everyone else. It’s about what you made out of the abilities you had. That’s what CrossFit is about.