The Way Things Are

Ah! The objectivists’ wet dream: to know what is. If we know what is, then we also know the way things ought to be. Bringing society into compliance is a mere task of rhetoric and control. Elaborate scaffolding is erected to construct the ideal society, at least on paper, and either on paper, on the blackboard, on twitter, or in real life, the scaffold and the idol come tumbling down. This is true.

In a recent fit of fundamentalism, I posited the way things ought to be:

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

Adam Gurri correctly pointed out the way things are:

It also seems to me that a problem with David’s critique might be that modern poverty of a more persistent sort often arises precisely because the institutions of a particular community have become hollowed out, and there’s very little community left to speak of. One may shake their fists at modernity for bringing this about, but I suspect it is not unique to modernity; we’ve simply reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal, though not exactly pleasant either. Nevertheless, the question remains of whether those of us who have found ourselves in more fortunate circumstances have any responsibility to those who do not.

[emphasis added]

Well, now. Shaking my fist at modernity, am I? Like a crotchety old man, indeed, I concede that I do, and it is insufficient. Adam will not allow for insufficiency, so he offers a succinct point for debate, which I propose as: “We have reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal.” There, I think, is the no man’s land of the way things are (to stretch the metaphor), where the boundaries are in constant flux, to the extent that anyone who desires to dwell there will become inimical to all who do not; nevertheless, it is contested land for some who desire to dwell in peace and safety, secured by cheerful submission of taxes to the current overlords who themselves expended perfectly good blood to acquire no man’s land.

Now that I’ve stretched that metaphor too far, another metaphor will suffice to develop my argument. A priceless marble statue of a human figure is adorned with a waxen nose. It is, thus, malleable to the whim of each succeeding generation, especially those elements of the generation which possesses the marble statue. Therefore, the nose can be made into any shape whatsoever. Even so, consumers of the marble statue will object if the waxen nose is no longer nose-shaped. In other words, we may not know the way things ought to be to the extent that we can ever build the perfect society, i.e., no objective reality is sucking us to the light of final and pure societal enlightenment, but we can object when structures have become so misshapen as to not resemble practicability.

This is called Wisdom. Not phronesis, which is good judgment driven by arete and virtue and euvoluntary exchange, et. al., but Wisdom, the extrapolation from observation of the universe of certain sculptured marble tenets which have, so far, transcended cultural boundaries and technological advances through the ages. Wisdom does not guarantee anything, especially the “shape of the nose,” but it does make a claim to intuitive and time-tested deductive practicability. A defense of Wisdom as such can be summarized like this: there are some universals which, when ignored, emerge. It is the negative to societal evolution. Thus, “A wise man does this and lives; a fool does this other thing and dies.”

Societal evolution, on the other hand, is susceptible to something called philosophy, which says, “the love of wisdom,” but isn’t; it is the love of reasoning. Much of philosophy is produced in that crucible of bad-faith one-upmanship which might yield refined theory for practical application within cultural boundaries and technological advances in a given epoch. Usually it yields insufferable personalities and unreadable tomes, a handful of which survive long enough to be studied in graduate school, as Heraclitus says, “They would not know the name of justice if it were not for these things” (Fragment LX), and also, “Every animal is driven by blows” (Fragment LV).

Wisdom observes the condition under which we become animals. Taking Adam Gurri’s point for debate, for example, the changeable condition which becomes intolerable in the ebb and flow of life, regardless of culture or technology, is affluence. Affluence is the given which is currently true, and as it stands now, it is most certainly the way things are. Affluence, unfortunately, is not immutable, which evokes some universals being ignored, to wit: affluence cannot replace certain kinds of relationships, blood and contractual (marriage). Moreover, affluence is the lynchpin which sustains the naked triangle, to wit: the state forcibly, inefficiently and haphazardly, removes affluence from those who have acquired it and gives it to someone who has not acquired it. Morals and ethics? Whatever.

The result is a stasis which is unwise, not founded on the way things ought to be. The Wise are captured by a conundrum requiring a great deal of Wisdom to navigate. The thing about Wisdom and those who seek to employ it is that it is personal, not, as philosophy must be, dispassionate. Somewhere along the line, the Wise enter no man’s land to be killed because entering no man’s land is the compassionate thing to do. In other words, Wisdom acknowledges that the thing is out of balance: affluence will wither away, dissolving this triangle, sounding the trumpet call to restore blood and contractual interpersonal relationships as the building blocks of a society which produces the most individual arete. In the meantime, the Wise accept the way things are, be they ever so impermanent. Furthering the example of the naked triangle: affluence has created a penalty-free interpersonal and soul-sucking void where there should be layer upon layer of relationships. Perhaps the Wise acquiesce to the reality of the thing; perhaps not, preferring instead to clothe the naked triangle, as it were, with policies which might encourage the reestablishing of the blood and contractual interpersonal relationships.

In the former case, the Wise shrug their shoulders, turn their pockets inside out, and bid a hearty Godspeed to the money in the hope that it will, indeed, mitigate suffering. In the latter case, the Wise run for public office or commence the re-creation of those lost institutions using privately and additionally acquired money in some hope that this artificial edifice will endure at least for a little while to the benefit of the needy. Both will probably hasten the painful end of the naked triangle. People will experience agony and injustice while the universe corrects the imbalance brought about by the way things are.

The Wise, however, constantly warn that the way things are is quite unstable, that the scaffolding and the structures are always about to come tumbling down, whence reconstruction begins, the great re-testing of the universals which emerge when they are ignored. And so, being Wise, they die as fools to rebirth Wisdom.

Heraclitus The Happy

“They call you the Weeping Philosopher,” I said sometime during the wee hours that first night I got there.

“Nincompoops!” he said. “I’m one of the happiest people I know.”

The map is deceiving, how far east you must travel to get to Ephesus. Rome is right there, with Athens a hoplite’s skip away, and then, it seems, there’s Ephesus, where Heraclitus makes his home, which, by the way, is situated along the Mediterranean facing west, due west. He has a lovely cedar patio for a roof, complete with a fireplace surrounded by cedar furniture with down-padded cushions and a servant always in attendance to fetch us more wine and the occasional morsel of cheese and bread. Nevertheless, when you deplane in Athens, Ephesus is still a long way to the east, especially once you board the oxcart that gets you through the mists of time. The names are all Greek, but the land is all Anatolia. Moreover, there’s a distinctive gilding to everything, every road, every building, every conversation. The din of the Mediterranean West gives way to something more polite, measured, neighborly.

We propped our feet up on the railing while we listened to the ocean wash the rocks below, and I said, “Happy people don’t hate Athens like you do.”

Without looking at me, he put down his skin of wine, took his station at the railing, lifted his chiton, and urinated into the ocean. “I think ‘hatred’ is a rather weak attempt at capturing my utter contempt for those Athenian scum-sucking pigs,” he said. “Did you see how the wind pushed my golden river a few degrees to the south? Follow that river, and you’ll find Athens, where you’ll agree that micturition is only the smallest font of their many and varied stenches.” Then he added, “Besides, I’m not a philosopher. Philosophers have to know too much. Moreover, you’ve had too much to drink, and you’ve become a terrible guest. By sleeping you may help work out those things coming to pass in the world. So do us both a favor, all right?”

The next morning came at midday, and I had a headache. I was in no mood to eat, talk, or drink, so I sat under the sun, watching the ocean roll in from Athens.

“Wet soul?!?” I heard him shout, to my great discomfort. “The soul needs to be dried out by wine, as I told you, but it has a saturation point, whereupon it becomes wet again.”

“I feel like death,” I croaked.

“Perhaps your soul is not as wet as I thought,” he said. “You’re in good shape, then.” And he sat down, eating a bowl of yogurt with blueberries and, I think, grass. Between bites, he pontificated. “Cyrus brought friendship, you see, not conquest. There was virtually no war. The Haxamanis literally says, in Persian, ‘Having a friend’s mind,’ and that’s what they were all about. They settled affairs in their own country, working their way west while folding nations into their friendship like folding whipped goat’s milk into honey-beaten egg yolks.”

Cyrus the Great Standard
The standard of Cyrus the Great

He paused for a moment. “Grated nutmeg on top. Can you taste it? Delicious.” Whatever it was I was tasting at the moment was bilious, so I bade him continue.

“When they arrived here, in these parts, they met their first real resistance.”

“Because Hellas is hella!” I said. He ignored me, scraping the bottom of his bowl of grass-yogurt with his spoon.

“Athens, in the meantime, was having one bacchanal after another, their noble aristocracy dancing before their idols upon the backs of the farmers their families enslaved only two generations hence. Cyrus desired to set them free and end usury.”

“End usury? How would business get done?”

“Usury, the Haxamanis say, is the Lie. Debt is a force pushing forward deception, both on the part of the lender and the borrower, and the Lie, when it comes to property, creates slavery and imprisons innocent men. How can a man pursue arete when he is imprisoned by the Lie? How can he be human when he is on a leash?”

Very sobering, I thought to myself. I asked, “How did the resistance go?”

“We here, thankfully, are Persian, but only for the moment. Ionians are as witless as Atticans, driving off anyone with any sense at all. My teacher Xenophanes has made himself naked with them, to my great shame. We Greeks want our slaves. Darius will spill much Greek blood to set them free, but we will spill much Persian blood to keep them. Those Dionysian feasts are something to behold; and they call him ‘The Liberator.'”

“Haven’t you said that ‘all things the fire, when it comes upon them, will adjudge and seize for itself’?”

“Something like that,” he replied. “But who wants that?”

“I thought you would.”

“Perhaps I do. So it comes, the injustice of war to make the injustice of slavery come to an end, and then we will have justice for a time, while they grapple with one another, intertwined, for mastery.”

For some time while Heraclitus was lecturing I felt in my belly a compassion that had sprung for the farmers who had been enslaved, and it rose. There it was again, much higher, manifesting itself next to the beating within my breast. It was hatred.

 


 Fragments Consulted

 

It needs be that by having inquired well of very many things men are philosophers —On Nature, Fragment XLIX

Those who sleep are laborers and co-laborers of the things coming to pass in the world —Fragment XC

Stupidity is better to conceal, but it’s quite the labor when relaxing also with some wine. —Fragment CVIII

A dry soul is wisest and best —Fragment LXXIV

All things the fire, when it comes upon them, will adjudge and seize for itself. —Fragment XXVI

The Diminishing Marginal Utility of Navel-Polishing

Double D forwards an Aristotelian lament: ‘I would like to be able to improve my ability to apply what I’m learning from the Sweet Talk folks.”

In other words, what good is theory without practice, what good is #phronesis without #eudaimonia, what good is armchair philosophy? How long shall I pick the fluff of justice out of my bellybutton before I cowboy up and act with honor, courage, temperance, wisdom, and professionalism in the world of hockey fights, subway frotteurism, and militarized police?

Boy oh boy, what I wouldn’t give for a nice little nostrum, an inspiring bit of practical advice for the ordinary citizen looking to scale the summit of Maslow’s pyramid. 

I have no such advice. Moreover, it would be presumptuous of me to offer any. Virtue is personal and subjective. This isn’t to say that anything goes, but rather that on the margin, it cannot be up to me to tell you whether you’re acting harmoniously, in accordance with the highest virtues, or if you will be remembered for your good deeds. The voyage towards #arete is mere tourism if you let someone else grip your tiller (lol).

You’re right, David. There are diminishing returns to introspection. But there is some heavy mind lifting to be done in translating the virtue ethics into the applications of economics and the topsy-turvy world of abundance that would have flabbered the gast of Plato and Aristotle. Thank you for helping with that, my friends.