Experience and the Unity of Politics, Ethics, and Rhetoric

La Discussion politique, by Emile Friant
La Discussion politique, by Emile Friant

From our first awareness of ourselves, when we emerge into childhood from infancy, life seems like a game where the rules and the purpose aren’t quite clear. We take our cues from our peers, and from the adults, especially parents and teachers. But we also take our cues from stories. It is through stories—and for modern children this more often than not means cartoons—that we’re exposed to characters being brave, doing the right thing, making mistakes and coming to terms with it, and so on.

It is given to us as entertainment but it forms a large basis of our early sense of what life is about. Just as play, which is unserious activity aimed at delight, is often what children take most seriously of all.

The most trivial schoolyard drama has all the elements of most situations we will encounter in our adult lives. Because the stakes are so different, and children lack the perspective to see how low the stakes are, we adults often forget the similarities. But not always. Confronted by the politics in our work place, many complain that it seems we never left high school. The lack of a connection, in high school, between peer politics and grades, or the college you get into, makes the politics seem trivial in retrospect, though it mattered to us much at the time (even, or especially, if we hated it and rejected it). It was “just” a game, or “just” politics and gossip.

But once we leave school, our relationship to superiors becomes much more like peers than like students and teachers. After all, we are in theory able to take their job some day, or even, in some circumstances, to become their boss. As such, the trivial game in a school setting becomes a game with career implications at stake out in “the real world.” To attempt to be above politics as a child is to delay gaining experience in politics until adulthood—that is all.

What is experience? How can some learn a right lesson from it and others a wrong one? How harmful is drawing a wrong conclusion? How helpful is drawing a right one?

I recently drew a distinction between being audience and author of your life, and it is a useful one, but it is not absolute. Gadamer argued that all understanding, even theoretical understanding, involves application. We can only be an audience at all in as much as we have been authors. This does not mean that we have to be writers in order to be readers. It does mean that we must be able to apply what we read to the life we are living and are still in the process of making. “Apply” need not mean take some action, but simply see it within our standpoint, a horizon developed by living our life. Through experience. Experience is a prerequisite for being an audience, which is part of why there is such a dramatic learning curve in the first few years of our life, as we go from no experience at all, to focusing on a few very specific sorts of experience, to slowly broadening out.

Our experience is polyvalent. This is why it is valuable even if we draw the wrong lessons from it. It is possible for the whole of our experience to disclose entirely new lessons to us or to reject previous lessons we had drawn. In social psychology, they speak of construal. The situation we are in is to no small degree the situation we construe ourselves to be in. This construal is tied up in our worldview, and in our experience.

But we are rarely alone in a situation, as social animals. Others participate in the meaning of our life in their roles as audience. In our daily lives, they also participate in the meaning of our life in their role as co-author of the situations we are in together. At stake in the authorship of the situation is its implications for the meaning of the lives of all involved. And so we engage in rhetoric, to try to persuade people to share our reading of the situation. And we engage in politics, to try to work together in co-authorship rather than against one another.

Conflicts of authorial intent in such moments begin dialectically. We attempt to persuade each other. Ideally, we try also to understand one another, for skillful rhetoric and politics both require understanding. If we have gone astray, it is at these moments when we might be set right. The meaning of the situation is inextricably linked to the meaning of our life as a whole. If someone can convince us that we have misconstrued the situation, if we find ourselves reevaluating our reading of it, the reevaluation is unlikely to stop there. The mistake was not likely made in the moment, but at some earlier point. Depending on how deep this goes, we could end up reevaluating a great deal.

Moments of crisis, such as profound doubt confronting a deep faith, or hitting rock bottom after a long period of addiction, begin with reconstruing a situation and end in reconstruing our lives and our sense of ourselves in large an important ways. Even if we reaffirm our faith after such a moment, it will have been transformed in receiving the questions that our doubt posed to us.

Every situation brings the possibility of reconstrual and every reconstrual brings the possibility of a moment of crisis. The fact that our understanding can change is of course not enough. Should we expect it to change for the better?

There are no guarantees. Most people agree that we should be brave, disciplined, just, generous, faithful, hopeful, and prudent, but are hazy on the particulars. And when it comes time to take action in a specific situation, disagreements arise, sometimes very fundamental ones.

There are no guarantees. I’m not going to offer any. I have a pretty high opinion of humanity. We can accomplish incredible things together, in the realms of both doing and knowing. But there’s no denying that we are also capable of doing terrible things together, and even reaching terrible understandings—understandings which become the vessel for immoral social orders.

I have faith that we strive towards goodness by inclination, and hope that we mostly succeed most of the time. But I also think that the wise will accept the tragic nature of the world; its radical imperfectability. Progress and decline are often the same movement, as new understandings give rise to new misunderstandings, as movement towards the good in one respect is mirrored by movement towards evil in another—that this latter movement is a consequence of the former, not merely some sort of cosmic symmetry.

The wise accept this, and yet still have faith in humankind, and hope for its future.

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Faith

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In a secular age, we are often uncomfortable talking about faith outside of church or possibly among family. Many of us do not even go to a church, or have not ever. Especially among decisive, hard-headed people of business, faith can be an embarrassing subject. But it is an important subject, for Atheists and Christians, businessmen and teachers alike. And this isn’t a high-minded statement pronounced while looking down from above—faith is as crucial to the practicalities of daily life as the very ground under our feet.

For thousands of years there have been philosophers who made a name for themselves by attacking what was accepted on faith. The ancient skeptics believed all knowing and reasoning was impossible. The ancient cynics thought human society was inferior to nature. More recently, David Hume argued that the fact that something has happened repeatedly does not logically demonstrate that it will happen again—so there is no proof that the sun will come up tomorrow. Even more recently, Derrida emphasized that context determines the meaning of what we say and do, but we have an endless amount of context that we could focus on for any one action. So how can we ever be sure we understood it or have been understood?

In some sense, all of these skeptics were right. There are deep limitations to our knowledge and what we can work out with nothing but reasoning.

Faith fills in these gaps and makes it possible to live a full life without constantly being paralyzed by uncertainty. This is not a blind faith—treating faith and reason as opposites is a big mistake. It’s not just that you need faith and prudence together to be fully virtuous, the way you need to be courageous on behalf of justice rather than cruelty. It’s more than that. You need faith before prudence is even possible. Remember our discussion of the novel—how all other books and stories we had read or heard or watched helped form the perspective we bring as readers of a specific book. This is faith—the belief that everything we have experienced up until now in our lives is not for nothing, that it is salient as readers of the situation we are now confronted with and as authors of the rest of our lives.

Again, this is no blind faith! When we are confronted by circumstances that challenge our perspective as it stands, the prudent person will reexamine those aspects of their perspective that have been challenged. The just person knows that they owe it to the people in their lives to be open to the questions such circumstances pose to us, rather than stubbornly ignoring them and missing an opportunity to refine our judgment.

But stubbornly ignoring the questions posed by situations that do not fit your expectations is not what it means to be faithful. That is an unvirtuous faith, an imprudent faith, just as much a vice as an imprudent courage is mere recklessness. Moreover, unexpected circumstances only appear at all if we have expectations in the first place. It is the faith that we bring into the situation that identifies it as special to begin with. It is only because of the perspective we already have that we are capable of viewing our subverted expectations productively in the form of questions that such subversion raises.

Without faith, you are just a “bundle of experiences,” as Hume put it. With faith, you are a person, a character in an ongoing story of which you are both a reader and a co-author. Confidence, self-assurance, and trust—these qualities, which are so vital to our lives, are aspects of the virtue of faith.

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Secret Handshakes and [Reputational] Suicide Pacts

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Earlier this week, our taste for the novel and strange was sated by “Florida Man”: Libertarian candidate Augustus Sol Invictus, self-described Old World Pagan in the Thelema tradition and white Southerner. Attention was drawn to him by the protest resignation of fellow Libertarian Adrian Wyllie, who protested the association of the party with Invictus, who has admitted to performing animal sacrifice and drinking goat blood (but not dismemberment), and who is backed by white supremacist groups such as Stormfront and Vinelanders, although he insists that he himself is not racist, citing the fact that his own children are Hispanic.

To extent this is news of little importance outside of Floridian Libertarians; however, full-throated paganism is still culturally controversial in ways that conversion to Buddhism or the varieties of New Age are not. This, in fact, was what Wyllie was depending on by ‘exposing’ Invictus to the attention of the Libertarian Party.

Continue reading “Secret Handshakes and [Reputational] Suicide Pacts”

The White-Collar Permian Event

A couple months ago, Venkatesh Rao (of ribbonfarm) unveiled season 1 of Breaking Smart, a series of closely-linked essays about the relation of software and society.

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Embedded below was my first tweetstorm response to the series, focusing on the theme of work.

Mark Ames on the Techtopus. Chris Hedges on sacrifice zones. Scorched Mind: A mind forced into life scripts so far outside its ken that it halts in honorable refusal. (paraphrase of Venkatesh Rao)

In related news, Nick Srnicek and Alex William’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work comes out next month.

Bedroom Eyes

The most accomplished serial killer in civilian US history confessed to 71 murders. Gary Ridgway, known by his nom de couteau the Green River Killer, may have slain upwards of ninety women between 1982 and his capture in 2001. Worldwide, the top spot belongs to La Bestia, the Colombian Pishtaco infamous for raping, torturing, murdering, and butchering street urchins, not necessarily in that order. Luis Garavito’s confessions topped out at 147 kids in a five-year span in the 1990s, but it’s likely he simply lost count in the midst of his frequent outings. Hoosegow-sketched maps to his mass graves (plural) led investigators to unearth the remains of over 400 victims ranging between the ages of 8 and 16, all boys. Pedro Lopez, also working in Colombia and neighboring nations boasted a better memory than Garavito. He recalled the rape and murder of over 300 girls between the ages of 8 and 12. Convicted on 110 counts, Lopez was released from custody in 1998. When last the world stood in repair, his whereabouts were unknown.

Yet for all their ferocity, for all their sleepless nights bent to their grisly craft, for all the evil and corruption infecting their souls, no serial killer in history could hope to stain their fingers as indelibly crimson as even a middling sovereign phoning it in on a lazy Sunday. Take seriously for a moment Truman’s “the buck stops here” maxim. If true, every battlefield casualty avoidable through diplomacy, every state-sponsored execution, every corpse left festering in the wake of well-intentioned legislation riddled with unintended consequences, every grave occupied thanks to the negligence, incompetence, obtuseness, or intractability of the ruling apparatus litters the dais upon which languishes the sanguinary head of state. Even if there’s but a crumb of truth in the slogan, the capacity of ruling cabals to indulge violence domestically and abroad reduces the most industrious efforts of private madmen to barely-distinguishable rounding errors. Men may kill in drips, drabs, ones and twos. Dozens if well-prepared and lucky. Organizations kill institutionally, great machines of death grinding hapless flesh in numbers too large to process individually. The victims of large-scale violence cease to be people, and are instead rates, counts, comparative statistics, database summaries. They are robbed of their humanity as well as their life. Dying at the hands of a serial killer is tragic. Dying at the hands of the state is ignoble. Continue reading “Bedroom Eyes”

Where Do the Virtues Come From?

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Some ten years ago, a Catholic virtue ethicist group blog linked to something on my father’s blog, Vulgar Morality. So long ago was this in Internet years that I cannot even find the virtue ethicist blog in question, and my father had not moved to WordPress yet, but was using Radio UserLand—a for-pay frankenstein hybrid between desktop publishing and blogging.

It was my first encounter with the very concept of virtue ethics, but I didn’t really look into it at the time. I remember my dad remarking “there seems like there’s something to it, but I don’t really understand where the virtues are supposed to come from.”

It was years before I took any interest in the virtues again. I won’t bore you again with the details, but suffice to say that if you’ve spent any time at Sweet Talk at all, you’re probably aware I have a bit of an interest in the subject these days.

A year ago I attempted to think about this question of where the virtues come from.

David, sensing epistemological arrogance, was quite critical of my post:

How, just how do you think that you would ever in a million years have any confidence in knowing the telos of the sum of your short number of breaths in this mortal coil? That really is the nub of the thing: one simply does not have enough time to contemplate the day ahead before its sun sets, and you expire, going to rest in the dust.

My response amounted to “something something historically contingent something something Heraclitus’ river.”

Having let that discussion sit for some time, I’d like to return to it again, now that I have a more hermeneutic understanding of virtue.

Now, like a year ago, I think the answer must be something like the version of naturalism elaborated by Philippa Foot. She speaks of “goodness” in the sense of “a good specimen of X.” A sickly, or uniquely asocial chimpanzee would not make for a good example of chimpanzees. It might be useful, for human purposes, if we wanted to understand the sicknesses that sometimes befall chimps or the range of social deviance from the norm, and what happens to such deviants in the wild. But we could not even do this without a sense of what a good specimen is like, in contrast to the deviant.

As Adam Sandel puts it, the way of life of chimpanzees points towards their good. A good specimen is healthy, pro-social, skilled at hunting and defending against rival groups, and so forth. In this sense the good chimp is “above average;” you cannot get a sense of it by merely averaging the qualities of the group.

These days I think what everyone wants is to be able to situate their moral philosophy in an evolutionary story. But David put it best; the question of what something is is distinct from how it came to be.

When Father Carves the Duck is an easily recognizable Thanksgiving ritual, lampooned. “How Ritual Came To Be” informs us readily with descriptors of primal provenance, e.g., the sacrificial duck, but it hardly addresses what is going on presently in this ritual, and why the poem resonates among cultural participants. If the description of what is going on travels too far from “familial interaction,” it fails to be an effective describing process for the purpose of application. In other words, there is no sacrificial duck here. What, then, is this?More distinctions are needed to be made. More work.

The fact that we can discuss how father came to have the role of the one who carves the duck at Thanksgiving in terms of primal environments or sacrificial rites does not tell us what the nature of that role is now.

Consider a more straightforward example: the heart. Asking “what is the heart?” is much more straightforward than “how did humans evolve to have hearts?” We can observe the heart in action. We have a robust medical tradition of studying hearts in various states of health. We have a very good idea of what hearts do and what a “good heart” consists of. We do not have to answer the evolutionary question before we can answer the question of what a good heart consists of. If anything, our investigation takes the opposite direction; we use our stronger evidence and better information about what the heart is to try and figure out its evolutionary origins (may a thousand “just so” stories bloom).

So when we ask “what is virtue?” or “what is a good person?” we can put to the side, for the moment, the question of “how did virtue or ‘the good’ come to be?”

From Sandel:

Aristotle understands our comprehensive “situation,” or “life perspective,” in terms of the good life. The good (to agathon), he writes, is not some abstract form to which we look for guidance but a concrete end (telos) expressed in our action (praxis). Whenever we make things, put them to use, and live out certain roles, our actions aim at the good (whether or not we consciously reflect upon the good as our aim). For “the good,” Aristotle maintains, is the end of all ends— that “for the sake of which everything else is done.”  As such, the good is both the aim of our action and its condition. It is the ultimate end (telos) toward which we strive, and, at the same time, the source, or beginning (arche), of all striving.

Virtue and the good life exist in a holistic relationship. We try to become the person we need to be in order to get the kind of life that we believe we should have. We have to understand the life in order to understand what kind of person we should be, but we need to understand what kind of person we should be in order to understand what sort of life we should lead. Virtue and the good life are a hermeneutic circle.

But our understanding of this relationship isn’t stuck in an infinite regress. It is incomplete, projective, and revisable. This is why Aristotle insisted that a philosophy of ethics would be lost on the young, who as of yet know very little about life. As we grow up and live our lives alongside other people living their lives, and receive an education, we are exposed to countless stories in books, films, and even video games—and of course, stories told to us by people in our lives. We begin to adjust ourselves towards some understanding of a good life, however haphazard or tacit.

These experiences expand our horizon, giving us a fuller, richer picture of what the good life is and what kind of person it takes to live it.

We can get a sense of what the good is and what the virtuous person is from how people live their lives. But again, this is not an averaging. As with the examples of the heart and the chimpanzee, it’s a proper notion of a good based on an understanding of what people are.

And as with those examples, how we arrive at this understanding isn’t mysterious. Pay attention, live your life, read what other people have said on the subject, and use your judgment. Join the conversation; try to persuade but be open to being persuaded.

That is my understanding of what virtue is and how we come to understand it.

Edit: Found the original discussion mentioned in the first paragraph.

O Father, O Satan, O Sun

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A nine-foot bronze Baphomet was dedicated in Detroit this summer by the local chapter of The Satanic Temple. In the absence of prominently displayed trigger warnings, the event produced its requisite amount of religious outrage but, as with the freewheeling collectivity Anonymous, the outrage generation is a feature, not a bug.

And it’s much more in keeping with the spirit of the Morningstar who, from Milton and Goethe through to Mike Carey’s comic series Lucifer, is more than willing to allow the foolish and arrogant fall into their own pits.

Lucifer_Vol_1_65I recently re-read that latter for the umpteenth time, and it gets better with each re-read. But for all of the Nietzschean overtones of an entity of pure will, leaving hell and (small spoiler alert) creation is as much as reaction of spite as an act free-chosen. In fact, it’s this reactionary foundation that can never quite be abjured that prevents Lucifer from realizing his uncompromised desire.

It’s another character, rather—Elaine Belloc—who reaches outside creation, only to reach back inside. Where Lucifer refuses to bind his fate to a world, Elaine sees the power she wields, even with the constraints imposed by second-order consequences of intervention, and sees that she must yield her freedom to a creation unwilling or incapable of truly grasping her efficacy or sacrifice.

Nietzsche had begun to grasp this tension; in The Dionysian Vision of the World, he writes:

Apollonian seeming is governed by the principles of non-contradiction and individuation, whereas Dionysian ecstasy is, as we will see, precisely the falling away of these principles.

If Nietzsche ultimately grasped the contradiction of freedom and commitment (as I believe he did), it was occult, as nearly all who read his writings took from it rather an philosophy of the noble sacrifice and rebirth of elites.

Venkatesh Rao, in the closing chapter of his series about the power dynamics of The Office (featuring the triad Sociopaths [not the clinical term], the Clueless, and Losers defined in Part I of The Gervais Principle), recognized the split that divorced Lucifer and Elaine in Carey’s series.

Of those who weather reality shock, most simply accept their life and their permanent estrangement from non-Sociopaths. They have ascended to freedoms they cannot explain to those who do not possess them. They are somewhere between contemptuous and mildly indulgent towards those who inhabit the realities they create. Indifference is the default middle-ground attitude.

[…]

But freedom can also be a scary condition. It offers no canned reasons to do one thing instead of another, or even do anything at all. It offers no fixed motivations. There is nobody to blame for failures, no meaningful external validation for success. If physics allows it, you can do it. The consequences mean whatever you decide they mean.

So for some, freedom becomes a burden rather than a source of power. […] The dissolution of social realities leaves behind only the cryptic material universe that must be painstakingly decoded through that supremely nihilistic behavior, scientific inquiry. But without a social order within which to value and make sense of decoded realities, such inquiry comes to seem like a worthless endeavor.

[…]

What is known cannot now be un-known. There is no way to reverse the effects of the red pill of Sociopathy.

So instead, such Sociopaths turn into compassionate Messiahs, protecting the innocence of the Clueless, restoring the faith of Losers, using their Sociopath powers to guard the exits of paradise lest some unwittingly walk out. Unlike Sociopaths at peace with their freedom, who generally welcome enlightened new company, Messiahs send them home to paradise when they can.

However, he treats it as an a choice of either/or, and not both/and. The split is truly a split along the fault line between the individual and the social. Since the Enlightenment we’ve developed various scripts collectively to become more resilient against these highly entropic individuals who, sensing the safer conditions, have responded by becoming more prominent and self-assured.

But giving oneself to the task of Prometheus; this requires squaring the circle of presenting the acidic fire of the gods to an alkaline social order. Be a virtue ethicist if you like, but don’t show your work! The lazy pluralism that uncritically accepts all worldviews as equally valuable is a coping mechanism for disavowing a responsibility presented of owning one’s own worldview and values; and this without ground or guarantor!

In fact, it is this lack of a guarantor that is the structural difference between an atheism and what Rao calls an encounter with the ‘absent god’, or what Levi Bryant calls atheology:

The real issue is not whether one should side with believers that assert the reality of the divine and supernatural, and the secular who assert only the reality of the material world or the naturalistic; rather, the debate is between logics of transcendence/sovereignty/patriarchy/state versus logics of immanence/anarchy.

Some atheists groups have made much hay about the Pew research showing a strong increase of the ‘nones‘, but category covers a lot of ground, and the ‘atheological’ cuts sideways, with many nominal atheists resolutely gripping to their preferred replacement guarantor of meaning (science, politics, etc.), and the occasional mystic tentatively continuing along an absurd journey. This “sideways” cut is what drives a lot of the work from Peter Rollins, who was involved in the Ikon community in Belfast, and sees what needs to be done more as the staging of an intervention than presenting a coherent, packaged worldview for people to return or convert to.  He’s dubbed his more psychoanalytic approach ‘pyrotheology’, writing:

It is all too common for people to think that the problem with unbelief is that it stands in opposition to belief, that it is that which prevents us from believing. However the problem with unbelief lies precisely in the dialectically opposing position: namely, it supports and sustains belief. In short it enables us to continue in our belief.

[…]

Unbelief allows the communities to get the psychological pleasure from the beliefs that they hold (treating them as a security blanket) without having to confront the horror of them.

This is why the people who leave fundamentalist communities are often not the ones who don’t take it seriously enough, but those who do (and who are thus confronted with the true horror of the communities beliefs).


Can a social order be constructed that can retain hold of these hard-won, meta-social/meta-cognitive insights? To all appearances this is a contradiction in terms, and any aspiring ‘sociopath messiahs’ should look at their chances of success with as piercing a gaze as they once had.

Sarah Perry identifies the tension in her book Every Cradle is a Grave:

Experience Machines vary along the dimensions of being effective (producing desirable, meaningful experiences and preventing or at least domesticating negative experiences), honest (not hiding the fact that they are cultural artifacts designed to produce experiences), and voluntary (rather than forced upon adherents). These traits are not necessarily independent; I suspect the most effective Experience Machines that have evolved in human societies are probably some of the least honest and least voluntary, and I’d expect honesty and voluntariness to generally correlate negatively with effectiveness.

All of this doesn’t mean it hasn’t been attempted. The Satanic Temple is a fairly straightforward political project, and LaVey’s Satanism is closer to Ayn Rand’s objectivism than the sort of rewoven social we describe. More promising, however, have been parodic religions. Alan Moore is far from shy describing his worship of the snake god Glycon as sincere, while being fully aware that this Roman mystery cult was centered around what was, effectively, a sock puppet.

Scott Alexander has been taking the naming of gods seriously, and his post on Moloch is an excellent starting point toward what could be a sort of folk taxonomy for complex physical and social systems.

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And of course, there are the classics: chaos magicians praying to Batman or utilizing the Expecto Patronum; Discordian koans and popes; pirate-talking Pastafarians. The jokes may be a necessity, allowing us to cynically disbelief our belief, but retain our functional belief (hrm, sounds like ideology). The practitioner of chaos magick will argue that prayer works the same as the devout Presbyterian, but will give a functional explanation that’s closer to mind-hacking, just as Adam Gurri has argued that the social connectedness of regular involvement with a church, synagogue or mosque ‘counts’ toward one’s well-being whether or not one commits to the dogma.

However, history takes a sharp view of this sort of self-aware approach, and communities have defense mechanisms against freeloaders who would poach from their communities (whether literal costs such as selling one’s home and donating the proceeds, or simply the social cost of professing beliefs deemed abhorrent or irrational by society). The costliness of commitment serves as a kind of un-fakeable evidence of commitment, and allowed cults like the early Christians survive when numerous mystery cults didn’t. Sarah Perry, again:

Those who are susceptible to sacredness are valuable as sincere cooperation partners since they are unlikely to defect. Signaling that one is susceptible to sacredness is therefore valuable, and actually being susceptible to sacredness might be the best way to do this. Experiencing sacredness together—mutually acknowledging invisible but tacitly understood objects—enables human coordination at a high level of complexity.

All of which seems far afield from the typical Sweet Talk territory, except it isn’t; the early Greek philosophers, these lovers of wisdom, were unabashedly cult leaders, teaching their peculiar brand of wisdom to their acolytes. The process of training required a kind of submission to the ‘rule of the order’, an initiation into a particular community of rhetoric. The best of these equipped their disciples with the faculties with which to turn around and criticize their teachers, but many fell into the easy trap of accepting the provisional metaphysics as actual.

An infernal choice, if there was one: freedom and struggle; slavery and ease?

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The Island of Leng

The island of Leng is split down the middle by a deep ravine – so deep that the ocean flows through it. The ravine is hundreds of feet deep, with crashing waves and sharp rocks at the bottom. The wind from the sea is always blowing through it. You could even say (because of the water in the ravine) there are two islands, but no one says that. Instead they just say call the two halves “Leng proper” and “the western bit”. And because of this ravine splitting the island of Leng, a curious custom has arisen.

You see, Leng proper is where everyone lives; it is where they are born and inevitably where they die. But many people like to spend time on the western bit too. It’s genuinely nicer there – the grass is greener, the air is fresher, and fruits and flowers grow there that grow nowhere else. Because the natural treasures of the western bit exists regular travel to the western bit improves the lives of everyone in Leng proper, whether they go to the western bit themselves or not.

Getting to the western bit is not easy however. There is a long, narrow bridge crossing the deep ravine. It is built about as well as anyone knows how to build bridges of this type, but it is still narrow, and shaky, and when the wind blows the whole things vibrates like a harpsichord string. The fact is that the great majority of Lengers are too easily frightened to cross the thing without help. The several who have tried discover a latent acrophobia and immediately return to Leng proper before getting ten steps from the edge.

The allure of the western bit of Leng is so great though, and the demand to go there so strong, that a profession has arisen to meet the need to cross the bridge. A certain few of the Lengers have become “Walkers”, and they are so called because they walk across the bridge with anyone who wants to cross. Walking however is not their core professional skill. Anyone can do that. Their primary skills are the ability to conquer their fear of heights, and a willingness to lie.

The job of a Walker is quite simple. People come to the Walker’s offices, called a “branch” for some reason, which are situated at a safe distance from the ravine where neither the cliffs nor the bridge can be seen. The walker then places a blindfold on the customer and leads them up the path to the bridge and across it to the western side. All along he whispers lies into their ears about how safe the path is, how no one could ever be in any danger, and also (those these are truths, not lies) how green the grass and how fresh the air is on the western bit of the island. Once safely across and sufficiently far from the ravine that it cannot be seen the walker takes the blindfold off the customer and sends them off to grow the fruit and collect the flowers that only grow on the western bit of Leng.

Despite the lies of the Walkers however, the bridge is not perfectly safe. It is narrow and high, and when the wind blows it vibrates like a harpsichord string (as I mentioned above). This makes the footing a bit unstable, but the Walkers are used to this sort of upset and quickly mention to their wards that it’s perfectly normal and nothing to be afraid of. Happens all the time. And if the occasional customer is blown off the bridge and dashed on the rocks below, they must have brought that fate upon themselves somehow. Nothing wrong with the path. It’s safe. Sound. Everything’s fine.

So long has this custom been practiced on the island of Leng that many of the residents (the ones who are not Walkers anyway) have convinced themselves that there really isn’t a bridge at all. After all, they’ve never seen the bridge, and neither has their father. There must be some sort of natural connection between Leng proper and the western bit, which no storm or wind can dislodge. Or maybe there is a bridge, but it’s made of such strong stone and steel that the islands would sink into the sea before the bridge would go out. And the Walkers keep nets under the bridge anyway, don’t they? They wouldn’t just let people fall. The point is, the people have listened to the Walkers lies for so long, and so strong is their need to believe that the western bit is accessible and safe to go to, that their powers of self-deception have caused them to genuinely believe that which is not so.

Once a century or so, though, a storm comes along. Not an ordinary storm, but a great storm. Greater than the bridge can withstand. Greater than even the western bit of the island can offer safety from. When the storm comes, all the Lengers on the western bit of the island are swept out to sea, never to be seen again. And all Lengers on the bridge are thrown into the ravine, to die on the rocks below. The Walkers are thrown off the bridge too, of course, and some of them die, but most of them are wearing parachutes made of a soft golden cloth you see – they land safely enough on a ledge they have stocked with supplies and shelter, having prepared themselves for this very day.

(As an interesting aside, part of the myth of the Walkers is that they are brave, but this is not so. Most of them are just sociopaths who have seen to their own comfort with the adornment of parachutes and opulent lodgings, and don’t really care whether their wards are safe or not. Like all Lengers, their powers of self-deception allow this play to continue for many a year, but instead of believing in the false safety of the bridge, they have convinced themselves that this “easy work” will continue indefinitely.)

For the residents on Leng proper though, this is all too much. A great anger fills them, and they demand that the Walkers be held accountable for the damage done by the storm. After all, someone must be at fault for the danger found on the bridge and Leng’s western bit. It wasn’t constructed as well as it ought to have been, and the western bit of the island should have been outfitted with proper shelters from the storm. Safety must be restored! And never mind that no one knows how to build a bridge better than the old one, and that covering the western bit of the island with shelters will prevent it from growing the fruit and flowers that are the reason anyone goes there in the first place. The residents of Leng demand a return to the status quo that existed in their heads, you see, where safety existed and they eat the fruit too.

And so, protests occur, and politicians pass laws. The old Walkers are told to retire, and some of them actually do, but for the most part they are replaced by the same sort of men (or even the exact same men). The bridge is rebuilt much the same as before, but this time with politicians offering advice on the placement of support structures and tension wires. And while the residents of Leng are told that shelters have been built on the western bit of the island, they are small, and over time dismantled by the fruit-growers who want more land for crops. And the new Walkers are still called Walkers (not something more accurate, like Liars, for that would defeat the purpose of their employment), telling the same old lies and collecting the same old tolls. And the people of Leng enjoy the fruit that is grown thereby.

Are the people of Leng bad? Are the Walkers? It seems that fear of heights is something inherent to most of the people there, and if the lies are not told then the people will not cross and the fruit will not be grown, harvested, and eaten. Life in Leng proper will suffer as long as the truth is scrupulously told. Occasionally a crazy person in town square, who sees the truth and cannot un-see it, will be driven to yell at his neighbors “Have courage!”, or (even less likely to happen) “Be satisfied with the fruit grown here!” — but who wants that? No one I know.