In a recent discussion on whether moral philosophy can be useful, redditor Minutenewt had the following to say:
Do you wish to get rich? Do you wish to obtain the best looking women? Do you wish to lead a life of indolence punctuated by greed and rapacity? Then no, moral philosophy will only hold you back.
I think this gets it backwards. In my experience, my most successful friends are also some of the kindest and most conscientious people I know. Meanwhile, my loser friends take flagrant short cuts, and seem willing to expend all their social capital on short-term gains.
That’s not a successful strategy for the 21st century economy, where reputation sticks, and automation is driving up the premia on humanity’s remaining comparative advantage: sociability. Likewise, in the mating market, women seem to value confidence and extroversion, not being an anti-social jerk contrary to popular wisdom.
Take the writer Neil Strauss as a case study. To be perfectly clear, Strauss is a bald, nerdy looking guy who, when he laughs, makes weird chortle noises through his nose. Nonetheless, he is also an expert “pickup artist,” and author of The Game.
Now, while The Game was destined to become a kind of bible for rapacious creeps, I think of Neil Strauss as being in some sense maximally virtuous. That is, he uses an applied understanding of human nature and a high degree of meta-rationality to calibrate virtuous behaviours (self control, discipline, courage) toward — at least one definition of — flourishing.
If there was anything I’d learned, it’s that the man never chooses the woman. All he can do is give her an opportunity to choose him.
Ethical argumentation works on the same principal. As Hume showed, prescriptive rhetoric lacks access to an ultimate “moral ought” to give itself foundation. And yet, it still has sway over human action. This can only be because effective arguments hit on the right moral aesthetics, encouraging a shift in perspective and motivation.
As further evidence that Strauss is a virtue ethicist in disguise, in a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast he was asked to name the one book he loves so much that he gives copies away. His response: On the Shortness of Life by the infamous stoic Seneca the Younger. What does stoicism have to do with picking up women? Evidently, quite a lot.
Whether they realized it or not, the Stoics developed a philosophy of life for living in an age of relative abundance. Our minds come hard wired with a suite of instincts and intuitions that are only adaptive to a world of immense scarcity, including sexual scarcity.
Take our sense of retribution. It’s an instinct that can be very useful for fostering cooperation in small, tight-knit groups. But as societies grew larger and more complex, retributive-ness became a hindrance to large scale cooperation. The state and the other fora for impersonal justice removed our right to enact personal vengeance millennia ago, but that doesn’t stop the offended from feeling angry anyway.
The Stoics like Seneca recognized anger’s uselessness under civilized circumstances:
Now no passion is more eager for revenge than anger, and for that very reason is unfit to take it; being unduly ardent and frenzied, as most lusts are, it blocks its own progress to the goal toward which it hastens.
Barring innovations in desire modification, broccoli will never taste as good as chocolate, and sexual encroachments will often tend to result in fisticuffs. But Reason still sits atop our emotional Elephant, and with practice even the temperamental can tame their soul.
Stoicism is just one method for coping with our abundance, supplying cognitive-behavioural tricks to help us master our passions. Many other systems exist, including any variety of Buddhism that counsels ego and attachment reducing meditation exercises. With so much stuff, and so many people, clinging to objects and identities has become a relative hindrance to larger scale cooperation, like retribution before it. Timothy Leary even thought we’d all be better off taking magic mushrooms in lieu of these less permanent options.
In the context of The Game, Strauss was a virginal nerd all through highschool, college and even while on tour with Motley Crue. Shy awkwardness ruined his chances with women, even with so many around him, until a secret society of pick-up artists taught him Stoic coping techniques inadvertently. Through rational reflection he became able to militate against the emotional distress of rejection, instincts long past their best-before date. He then turned the scarcity mind-set in his favour by applying the “cat string theory of attraction” (in essense, playing hard to get).
I am not saying go out and become a pickup artist, but do recognize the vice that results in failing to find your own way to cope with abundance. Recent studies have shown Facebook usage lowers well-being, for reasons everyone understands. The abundance of thin, attractive people in our media diets has escalated the prevalence of serious eating disorders in young women. And recently, in a video entitled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution” (emphasis mine), a young man detailed his hatred against all women before going on a killing spree. Ironically, Rodger’s was a frequenter of PUAhate.com, a vice fuelled forum dedicated to other “involuntary celibates” who “bash” women and pick up artists like Strauss.
Was it not Lucretius, protégé to Epicurus, who warned that over-stimulation of our sexual passions threatened ataraxia, our inner tranquillity?
Images of idyllic, beatified, electrified, passionate love are ephemeral images , mirages, incapable of feeding our real, earthly, embodied human relationships but fully capable of poisoning them.
And yet for the Epicureans love was a greater danger than sexual desire, for love threatened our long term self-sufficiency. Lucretius went so far as to recommend having multiple partners, to avoid falling for any one.
That might make Strauss even more virtuous than I initially realized. But for me it signals the limits to Stoic thinking — the paradox that self-realization and love, the realization of your self in an other, are not just compatible, but mutually reinforcing in a way that defies comparison.