Refine The Mind Question all the things. Peace. Fri, 22 May 2015 18:23:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 20 More of the Best Things I’ve Read on the Internet Wed, 20 May 2015 22:23:45 +0000 Continued]]>

“Sit in a room and read—and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time.”

― Joseph Campbell

The indelible Joseph Campbell may have been talking about books in the above quote, but I imagine that if he’d lived long enough to see the web in its current form, he would also be damn enthusiastic about reading the “right [stuff] by the right people” on the Internet. (If you do want book suggestions, look no further than the RTM Library.)

A while back, I shared a list of 22 outstanding essays I’d read online, and humans responded quite favorably. And that was fine and dandy because I’m all about propagating meaningful online content—i.e. content that is morally challenging, educational, mind-stretching, insightful in unexpected ways, and/or humanistically/existentially illuminating.

I see the Internet as this profoundly powerful tool with the potential to help us become more compassionate, study virtually any subject, gain a more nuanced understanding of our lives and the world we’ve created, and other such good stuff like that. But in practice, most of us seem to use the Internet to watch fail compilations and tell our Facebook friends about our latest frustrations.

Which is really whatever. I’m not some kind of Internet fascist. Things will be as things will be. But nonetheless, I just have this weird idea that Earth might be a cooler place to live if each of us asked more questions instead of assuming we have the right answers and just generally tried to be kinder and more altruistic. And I think the Internet, if used in a certain way, can totally help us to move in that direction.

That’s why I created and continue to create this website. It’s also why I share daily aphorisms, passages of literature, book recommendations, and links to long-form writing on Twitter and Facebook. Social media game mad nourishing of heart and intellect. Yeah, bro.

Anyway, now that you’ve heard my unsolicited mission statement, here are 20 dazzling pieces of writing that I discovered whilst dredging the caverns of the Internet-ocean.

Against the Wind by Atelier ŽITNIK. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Against the Wind by Atelier ŽITNIK. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons


20 Things

1. SSC Gives a Graduation Speech by Scott Alexander / SLATE STAR CODEX

Brief Description: This astonishing essay takes the form of a faux graduation speech in which the speaker poses the question, “Is education worth it?” What follows is a cortex-withering analysis of our mass education systems that will make you question pretty much everything.

2. Indifference is a power by Lary Wallace / AEON

Brief Description: This essay provides a refreshingly careful explanation of Stoicism, an oft-misunderstood school of Philosophy, and argues that each of us might benefit from integrating Stoic principles into our worldview.

3. Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture by Sarah Perry / RIBBON FARM

Brief Description: A profound piece of writing exploring the idea that our epoch is dominated by a particular variety of consciousness. The author considers our experience of time, identity, and the self to elucidate certain peculiarities of 21st-century consciousness.

4. The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel / GQ

Brief Description: An unbelievable story of a man who, for nearly thirty years, lived secretly in the woods of Central Maine. Apart from being a powerful narrative account, the story of this man’s life contrasts so starkly with the experience of the average person living today that it all but forces us to see our social order from a new perspective.

5. Beware of cupcake fascism by Tom Whyman / The Guardian

Brief Description: A provocative piece arguing that the cupcake is the perfect symbol for a new form of “fascism”—that is, a homogenizing force which consists of infantilized middle-class values and imagery being inserted into the general cultural sphere with the effect of obfuscating or trivializing real social issues.

6. Good and Bad Procrastination by Paul Graham

Brief Description: This classic essay from Paul Graham opens with the counterintuitive claim that the most impressive people the author knows are all horrible procrastinators. It then proceeds to consider why this is the case and how some forms of procrastination might actually help one to optimize for the attainment of higher aspirations.

7. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men #6 by David Foster Wallace / THE PARIS REVIEW

Brief Description: Probably one of my favorite pieces of fiction of all time, this story from David Foster Wallace takes the form of an interview with a man who has experienced a dramatic shift in values and perspective after an encounter with a free-spirited woman.

8. The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle by Peter Singer / UTILITARIAN.NET

Brief Description: In this concise essay, Peter Singer suggests that in a globalized world, our circle of human compassion should expand to include all human and non-human animals on Earth. Furthermore, he argues, transitioning from a purely self-interested life to an ethical one can provide a significant sense of meaning and purpose that many of us seem to be lacking in our egocentric societies.

9. The Danger in Demonizing Male Sexuality by Alyssa Royse / GOOD MEN PROJECT

Brief Description: This poignant piece discusses the damage caused by the media-perpetuated stereotype of heterosexual men as predators, asserting that the “vast majority” of men “simply are not.” It also provides a list of insights on how men can work to shift the collective impression of male sexuality in a more positive direction.

10. Ad nauseam by Adam Corner / AEON

Brief Description: This piece might be somewhat unsettling if you consider yourself to have transcended, via the perfect combination of smarts and hip detachment, the influence of advertisements. The author explains how advertisers capitalize on cynicism and anti-consumerist sentiment by creating self-aware, self-critical ad campaigns that appeal to a jaded generation.

11. Everyone I know is brokenhearted. by Joshua Ellis / ZENARCHERY

Brief Description: This piece is something of a manifesto of disillusionment and frustration for any and all people who are concerned about the state of the world, and reading it was definitely a cathartic experience for me. I do, however, think the author falls prey to the fallacy of mistaking the fact that we’re more aware of the bad stuff going on worldwide nowadays for evidence that we’re all actually worse off than ever before. Many studies suggest the opposite.

12. I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup by Scott Alexander / SLATE STAR CODEX

Brief Description: Another absolute tour de force from Scott Alexander that examines the dynamics of ingroup and outgroup formation in human social organization. The piece totally flips intuition on its head, suggesting that one’s truest outgroup—the group toward which one directs the most animosity—is likely to be, in many regards, indistinguishable from one’s ingroup.

13. Why are Psychedelics Illegal? by Tao Lin / VICE

Brief Description: This article was one in a fantastic twelve-part column on Terence McKenna which Tao Lin wrote for Vice last year. In this piece, Lin approaches the question of why psychedelics are illegal from the unexpected-yet-fruitful macro-perspective of an age-old struggle between dominator and partnership forms of human culture/society—a topic I’ve addressed as well.

14. The self is moral by Nina Strohminger / AEON

Brief Description: An excellent essay that invokes several interesting studies to argue that the most integral aspect of personal identity—i.e. the aspect wherein we humans tend to identify the true essence of a person—is moral character.

15. George Saunders’ Advice to Graduates by George Saunders / NEW YORK TIMES

Brief Description: This transcript of a graduation speech delivered by author George Saunders to the Syracuse University class of 2013 is, I daresay, probably one of the most concise, potent statements of wisdom that any human has ever scribed.

16. Avoiding Factory Farms: An Eater’s Guide by Nicolette Hahn Niman / HUFFINGTON POST

Brief Description: Eating fewer animal products, specifically animal products from factory farms, is one of the easiest ways for any of us to reduce suffering on Earth. One need not become a full-fledged vegan overnight, either. Gradually adopting a flexitarian diet has worked well for me. If everyone did this, animal suffering would be dramatically reduced. Anyway, this is the best, most comprehensive guide I’ve found to eating less factory-farmed food.

17. Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person by Scott Alexander / SLATE STAR CODEX

Brief Description: I’m a huge fan of Scott’s writing, okay? This piece is a work of short fiction in the form of a hilarious dialogue between someone on DMT and some strange entities the person has encountered. Among other things, the story grapples with a paradox of “enlightenment”—that those who supposedly attain it aren’t really able to explain what it is or how one might attain it but seem to be reduced to speaking in riddles or ostensibly gooey platitudes.

18. Young Minds in Critical Condition by Michael S. Roth / NEW YORK TIMES

Brief Description: An excellent short piece that argues that too heavy an emphasis on critical thinking can actually be detrimental to education. The author suggests that if students become overly critical, habitually focusing only on the weak points of a piece of literature, they may lose the ability to truly participate in the work, to become immersed, and to open themselves to new possibilities.

19. America as Afterimage in True Detective by Marian St. Laurent / SENSITIVE SKIN 

Brief Description: Perhaps you, like me, feel that the first season of HBO’s True Detective was the best season of television you’ve ever seen. If so, this semiotic analysis is the most insightful piece of writing I’ve found regarding the show. It offers an illuminating close reading of the show’s heavy symbolism, arguing, among other things, that most everything about the season is a covert metaphor for shifting American values.

20. On Being an Illegible Person by Venkatesh Rao / RIBBON FARM

Brief Description: This idiosyncratic piece from one of my favorite bloggers is a meditation on what it’s like to be a nomad and an “illegible” person—i.e. a person whose identity evades compartmentalization within standard social scripts.

If you don’t use Pocket, you should. It’s a great app that I use all the time to quickly and easily save great essays like these in one place for future reading. Integrates with all devices.

If you liked these, you might want to follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter, where I regularly share long-form reading material.

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“Go With the Flow”: Plumbing the Unseen Depths of a Hippie Platitude Thu, 09 Apr 2015 19:41:57 +0000 Continued]]>

“Flow with whatever may happen, and let your mind be free: Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”

― Chuang Tzu

A sizable number of humans who hear the phrase, “go with the flow,” probably barely register it or associate it with some reductive hippie philosophy of yesteryear—a philosophy of laziness and complacency that overlooks the complexities and difficulties of day-to-day life.

But I’m here today to stand up for those four words, bro! Because, well, in my experience, they’re actually, like, a spectacularly concise formulation of what I consider to be potent, evergreen, life-reupholstering wisdom. To understand why, we have to take a bit of a detour.

The well-known Taoist symbol of the yin and yang represents the interdependent nature of all things. Source: Public Domain

The well-known Taoist symbol of the yin and yang represents the interdependence of all things. Source: Public Domain

The Taoism Tangent

Fittingly, it’s been too long since I’ve gone on a nice Taoism tangent on this web-haven, so, hell yes, let’s talk about Taoism¹. To give you a brief refresher course, Taoists are all about that “Tao,” which translates literally to mean “way,” or “the Way.”

The Tao is essentially the one and only path of all things, the spontaneous way in which existence unfolds. “Tao” is mostly another term for “nature’s course,” but infused with a kind of ineffable, sacred dimension. It’s basically a really cool term for the primordial, fundamental, flowing energy of existence—the basic quantum jive-juice, the ever-unfurling cosmic tapestry, the interpenetrating river of being that flows through you and me and every germ, pelican, cloud, quasar, landfill, and petunia. “The Tao is that from which nothing can depart,” as some have said.

The irony is that you can never really define “Tao” because “the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” as the Chinese philosopher and OG of Taoism, Lao Tzu, once observed. This dude recognized that words are mere representations of things—symbols that conjure different concepts in the subjective minds of different individuals. Lao Tzu wanted to be sure that people recognized that the word is not the thing itself, that every human would have a different conception of “Tao,” and that no person’s conception could ever equate with the true Way.

In truth, it goes deeper than that. Taoist sages have held that it is in the very act of naming things that we create a world of separate objects. The moment we call that brown and green nature-claw a “tree” is the moment we produce a false belief—i.e. the belief that “tree” is something independent, something separate from the soil, the planet, the entirety of existence. In truth, if we could forget words, we would see that a universe of separate objects is really a necessary illusion that our minds create to navigate the material world. On the deepest level, there is but one process, one unfolding existence, one Tao. This is why the great Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu (if Lao Tzu is the Batman of Taoism, Chuang Tzu is Robin) once observed:

“The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?”

Language is of course perennially necessary for the functioning of our complex societies, not to mention a beautiful/useful human-thing in its own right, but Taoists urge us to see beyond words, to perceive and contemplate the nameless, the inexpressible, that which words cannot characterize and are likely to muddle. The famous Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed to this same domain of the inexpressible when he wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

So, in sum, the Tao is the inscrutable, indescribable stream of existence, ever-faithfully bearing us from point to point, ever-flawlessly containing the sacred, immutable tension between the yin and yang—symbols representing the polarity and interdependence that Taoists perceive to be inherent in all things. There is, of course, more to Taoism than what I’ve mentioned here, but for our purposes, this will suffice.

Flow With the Go

So congratulations, you’ve passed Taoism 101. Have a yin-and-yang-themed cookie. Now it’s time to consider how the Taoists felt we should live, given our knowledge—not a conceptual understanding, more of a spiritual-intuitive-mystical knowledge—of the Tao. To employ contemporary parlance, they mostly said we should all chill the hell out, give way fewer fucks, do our thing, have compassion, and groove with whatever’s going on. “Embrace what you are and whatever is happening to you” is a pretty apt summation of the practical side of Taoist philosophy. Or, said another way, “go with the flow.”²

Since the ancient genesis of Taoism, Taoist poets and philosophers have employed metaphors to characterize the Tao, and the most popular and seemingly effective metaphor is: Tao = water. Think about it for a moment. Without any thought or effort, water has an ineffable way of always doing precisely what is appropriate. It simply does its water-thing, flowing when it’s time to flow, stagnating when it’s time to be still, changing shape to fit its every container perfectly. Without striving or setting goals for itself or worrying about anything, water manages to sustain all life on Earth, to rise to the heavens and to fall back to the soil, to carve valleys and canyons out of solid stone. Water does all of this not by wielding some kind of superpower, but by being nothing more and nothing less than itself. Bruce Lee, the renowned martial artist, was heavily influenced by Taoism and once wrote:

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”

The effortlessness with which water accomplishes its every feat is essential to note. Effortlessness, or non-action, is a key Taoist concept, known in Chinese as wu wei. Lao Tzu referred to this concept in the Tao Te Ching, the principle text of Taoist philosophy, when he wrote:

“The truly good man does nothing,
Yet nothing is left undone.”

This idea might be difficult to wrap your mind around, especially since you’re likely approaching it from a Western point of view. In the West, we tend to prize hard work and to worship those individuals who exert Herculean efforts to do things that ordinary people could not hope to do. We tend to think that if someone is “failing” to do something, then they ought to “try harder.” We furrow our brows, grit our teeth, and neurotically and incessantly ask ourselves what tasks we can tackle to further our life’s pursuits, to reach our “goals.”

Taoist sages kind of just don’t do any of that. Rather, they aspire to be like the Tao. Remember, the Tao is like water because it simply does. It simply flows. It is never right or wrong, good or evil, successful or failing; it simply is. Just as a river doesn’t have to try to be a river or think about how to do its river-thing, the Tao—existence itself—just happens, and yet “nothing is left undone.” It just is how it is, and how it is results in supernovas and waterfalls, dreams and love, black holes and rainforests, poetry and elephants. Pretty magnificent, bruh bruh.

And so Taoists of the ages have been like, “Well, shit we are the Tao, too, right? The Tao is everything and in everything. So maybe if we just stop striving, stop over-exerting, stop seeking, and stop worrying, things will just naturally arise in their own splendid way. And maybe while we’re at it we should have compassion for all sentient beings because really we’re all Tao and the Tao indiscriminately nourishes.” And then they just sat around for the rest of their lives doing absolutely nothing, THE END. Nah, jk.


It might seem at first that if one takes Taoist precepts to heart, one could easily become a perpetually couch-ridden non-entity. I suppose it’s possible, but probably unlikely. My take is that if one can step back and let go of excessive striving, concrete goals, and expectations for the future, all that will remain is one’s organic self, purely aligned³ with the Tao, existing in the moment, accepting life as it comes and blossoming in whatever way it wishes to blossom—“going with the flow,” in other words. And I think that for most people, going with the flow would probably mean doing all sorts of stuff, though perhaps more so for intrinsic delight and enrichment than as a means to some external end.

It might also seem that Taoist philosophy is ultimately one of unconsciousness—i.e. one which suggests we shouldn’t even think about what’s happening and just act on impulse. I don’t think so, and neither did British philosopher Alan Watts. Watts thought Taoism and Zen encouraged us to flow intelligently with our nature. We can simply be what we are, but that doesn’t preclude us from being conscious. I would argue that an important aspect of “going with the flow” involves possessing a deep understanding of ourselves—our core values and identity—and allowing that understanding to meld seamlessly with our naked whims to result in a free-flowing self that is both spontaneous and aware/intelligent.

El Fin

Since first delving into Taoist philosophy a couple years ago and finding it inexplicably nourishing, I’ve done what I can to surrender to the way of things, to just roll with what is happening inside and out, to flow intelligently with my nature, to let my deep-down self express itself freely and organically in the world, to “go with the flow” and “do my thing.” Sometimes I have failed miserably, but on the whole, I’ve found that this way of being has resulted in my becoming a more contented person with greater equanimity who is able more so than before to experience the completeness of the moment and to enjoy whatever it is that I’m doing. And, perhaps surprisingly, I’ve done quite a lot—graduated university, taught English for a year in South Korea, read an array of marvelous books, traveled to 10 Asian countries, written a couple books’ worth of words, re-discovered drawing, and made a bunch of weird rap music—simply by doing what comes naturally.

This philosophy probably isn’t for everyone, especially if you’ve passed a significant amount of time living by the precepts of goal-setting and hard-working, but as Robert Plant once sang, “There’s still time to change the road you’re on.” Give this essay some thought, and maybe you’ll opt to look further into the wisdom of Taoism. If you’re curious enough, I think you’ll find that there are ways of resetting your default mode of being. Alan Watts’ books, Tao: The Watercourse Way and The Way of Zenmight aid you in your quest as well. Whatever the case, maybe we can all agree to go forth and “take it all a little less seriously,” “not sweat the small stuff,” etc. You know, just go with the flow, man. Or whatever, do whatever.

“Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.”

― Chuang Tzu


1. I.e. the philosophical tradition of Taoism, not the organized religion.

2. It should be noted that “go with the flow” could be interpreted via numerous lenses other than Taoist philosophy. This essay is not tracing the etymology of the phrase, per se, but rather offering one interpretation that seems useful/meaningful to the author. However, a cursory Google search reveals that the phrase may in fact have originated in the 60s counterculture, which was largely propelled by a resurgence of Eastern mysticism (Buddhism, Taoism, etc.). Still, the phrase can also mean “to side with the majority,” which is decidedly not the meaning being explored here.

3. If you were paying attention, here you might have asked yourself, “Well, wait, you said the Tao is that from which nothing can deviate, so aren’t all the try-hards and over-exerters therefore just as aligned with the Tao as the non-strivers?” On some level, yes, that would seem to be the case, but it appears to be something of a paradox. We are all fundamentally inseparable from nature (Tao), but there are some who seem fully to realize this communion in the depths of their beings, to live it by electing to become precisely what they are and nothing more, and to discover a profound sense of liberation in the process.

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22 Outstanding Essays I’ve Read on the Internet Thu, 26 Mar 2015 21:38:17 +0000 Continued]]>

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

― Neil Gaiman

As Mr. Gaiman cleverly suggests in the opening quote, the Internet is, like, a super-sea of information, and a whole lot of the information on the web is just . . . noise-content—i.e. irrelevant, undesired, vapid, and/or bite-sized content.

In the past I’ve contrasted online “noise” vs. “meaning,” arguing that creating/sharing more meaningful content—i.e. in-depth, thought-provoking, empathy-conjuring, educational, artistic, and/or humanistically/existentially illuminating stuff—might be an important and worthwhile thing to do.

That’s not to say that I never mindlessly browse Twitter, binge on Imgur memes, or stop by /r/notinteresting. I love the silly and willfully ephemeral nature of much of the web. But, I like to balance things out by absorbing a fair portion of deeper, intellectually and emotionally stirring stuff too—stuff that might “stand the test of time.”

Anyway, the thrust here is that I read a lot of essays and things and want to share a list of some of the best stuff I’ve read online to maybe increase the collective effervescence of our ape-noggins. Because more humans losing themselves in sustained contemplation can’t be anything but #fabulous, amiright?

Wechselwirkung by Hermann Reimer. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Wechselwirkung by Hermann Reimer. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

22 Essays

1. The mental block by Michael Hanlon / AEON

Brief description: Beautiful essay arguing that the “Hard Problem”—i.e. the problem of understanding the origin and true nature of consciousness—isn’t going away.

2. Sex is sex. But money is money. by Svetlana Z / MEDIUM

Summary: A grippingly intimate look into the experience of one Russian ex-pat who came to America in search of opportunity and became a high-end escort.

3. The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence by Tim Urban / WAIT BUT WHY

Summary: Totally accessible, fantastic break-down of the technological progression toward advanced artificial intelligence and the potential implications of superintelligent computers.

4. The Trip Treatment by Michael Pollan / THE NEW YORKER

Summary: The best, most comprehensive essay I’ve read on the history of psychedelics-as-medicine, the present renaissance in psychedelic research, and the spiritual and mind-reconfiguring potentialities of psychedelic substances.

5. Antiwork — a radical shift in how we view “jobs” by Brian Dean / CONTRIBUTORIA 

Summary: Terrific analysis of the modern work culture and its ideological underpinnings, as well as a fascinating manifesto for “antiwork,” a movement opposed to pointless drudgery.

6. On Police Brutality in America by Victor “KOOL A.D.” Vasquez / WONDERING SOUND

Summary: Candid, considered piece on the recent history of police brutality against minorities in the United States, the failings of the US justice system, and the possibility for a more equitable future.

7. Terence McKenna’s Memes by Tao Lin / VICE

Summary: Probably the Internet’s best introduction to the brilliant mind of American philosopher Terence McKenna (Lin’s entire series on McKenna for Vice is spectacular).

8. How to Do What You Love by Paul Graham

Summary: Classic essay of the Interwebz exploring what it means to “do what you love” and the complexity hidden beneath that tidy little phrase.

9. We Aren’t the World by Ethan Watters / PACIFIC STANDARD

Summary: Mega-interesting tale of how one UCLA grad student challenged the foundations of psychology and economics by revealing the Occident-centric nature of many/most findings in those disciplines.

10. Education is not the Answer by Dean Baker / JACOBIN

Summary: A short but poignant piece arguing that while improving the American education system is important, it will ultimately do little to remedy the deep-rooted systemic inequality that plagues the nation.

11. Off-beat Zen by Tim Lott / AEON

Summary: The best introduction I’ve found to the work of Alan Watts, Zen Buddhism, and the practical benefits of studying Zen.

12. Mr. X by Carl Sagan

Summary: Carl Sagan’s famous essay details his personal experience with cannabis and his convictions about cannabis’ benefits and advocates for legalization.

13. What is Science? by George Orwell

Summary: George Orwell’s wonderful essay argues that there is great danger in seeing scientists as men of pure reason who are less likely than other people to be biased in domains beyond their specialization.

14. Diary: In the Day of the Postman by Rebecca Solnit / LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS

Summary: Intriguing reflection on the technological changes of the last few decades, the seemingly ever-increasing speed of communication, and what it takes to re-discover slowness.

15. When “Life Hacking” is Really White Privilege by Jen Dziura / MEDIUM

Summary: A fresh take on “life hacking,” in which the author questions what role race might play in one’s ability to hurdle red tape and “hack” one’s way into socially exclusive situations.

16. Big Red Son by David Foster Wallace

Summary: Once upon a time, the incomparable David Foster Wallace attended the Adult Video News awards and wrote one of the most incisive and entertaining narrative accounts that the world has ever known.

17. I’m still here: back online after a year without the internet by Paul Miller / THE VERGE

Summary: Captivating account of one man’s quest to quit the Internet for a year and his reflections on what the experience taught him about the so-called Digital Age.

18. Endless love by Aaron Ben-Zeev / AEON

Summary: Tremendous essay focusing on how our conception of romantic love has changed in recent times and what it takes for profound love to last a lifetime.

19. The Tiger Cure by Gene Stone / NEW YORK MAGAZINE

Summary: A homosexual man reflects on the despair and confusion of navigating his sexual identity and how one woman—a sexual surrogate—eventually helped to liberate him from a cage of anxiety.

20. On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber / STRIKE!

Summary: An anthropology professor considers why John Maynard Keynes’ bold 1930 prediction—that technology would advance sufficiently by the end of the 20th century to allow countries like the US and Great Britain to achieve a 15-hour work week—did not come true.

21. The Parrot by Venkatesh Rao / RIBBON FARM

Summary: A detailed phenomenological report on numerous persons’ reactions to a white parrot in a bustling square that morphs into a reflection on the filters that prevent our minds from responding “authentically” to reality.

22. Escape to Earthship: building a home for the End of Days by Trent Wolbe / THE VERGE

Summary: A great piece of investigative journalism exploring Michael Reynolds’ “Earthships”—radically sustainable structures made from recycled materials—and the movement that has blossomed around them.

If you don’t use Pocket, you should. It’s a great app that I use all the time to quickly and easily save great essays like these in one place for future reading. Integrates with all devices.

If you liked these, you might want to follow me on Facebook, where I regularly share long-form reading material.

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In Praise of Idleness: Bertrand Russell on the Virtues of Leisure Fri, 13 Mar 2015 02:02:59 +0000 Continued]]>

“The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.”

― Bertrand Russell

In 1932, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell penned a poignant and paradigm-challenging essay titled “In Praise of Idleness.” In it, Russell critiqued an idea that has always been, like, fundamental to the organization of Western civilization—namely, the idea that work is inherently virtuous and an end in itself.

Russell was basically like, “Nah, wage labor is pretty cool sometimes, but leisure is awesome too and produces great things. We have the technology and infrastructure to greatly reduce the forced workload of the average human, and that should be our goal—to liberate people from excessive work so that they can freely pursue the things that bring them intrinsic joy and happiness.”

Oil painting of Bertrand Russell by Roger Fry (colors changed), 1923. Photo Credit: Public Domain

Oil painting of Bertrand Russell by Roger Fry (colors changed), 1923. Photo Credit: Public Domain

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this was and still is a radical idea—one which many would deem preposterous. Decades of diligent ~40-hour work-weeks are still considered by many to be indispensable to a successful, upstanding life. Hard-working people are perceived as making the world go round, while idle people or people engaged in ostensibly non-pragmatic affairs are considered lazy leeches on the system.

In “In Praise of Idleness,” Bertrand Russell complicates this reductive conception of work by analyzing the essence of what work is, why we do it, and how we might think differently about it. Let’s take a closer look at Russell’s argument.

Defining Work

Early on in “In Praise of Idleness,” Russell declares what might be seen as the thesis statement of the essay:

“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”

After this early mission statement, Russell delves into the task of defining work:

“First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

[. . .]

Throughout Europe, though not in America, there is a third class of men, more respected than either of the classes of workers. There are men who, through ownership of land, are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work. These landowners are idle, and I might therefore be expected to praise them. Unfortunately, their idleness is only rendered possible by the industry of others; indeed their desire for comfortable idleness is historically the source of the whole gospel of work.

So, Russell says, there are two kinds of work: the first—and the one in which the majority of people engage—involves rearranging matter in some fashion, toward some desired end. Even today, in an era in which many people’s jobs involve sitting all day in front of a computer, this definition remains relevant, as digital labor nonetheless involves rearranging bits of data which are accompanied by physical impressions on a hard drive.

The second kind of work—a more enjoyable and higher paid variety—involves telling other people what matter to rearrange and how to do so. A third class of men, Russell says, don’t work, but rather own the land on which others labor and charge them for the right to exist and work there. Russell was speaking of the remnants of the system of feudalism once prevalent in Europe, but his description of landowners bears a close resemblance to today’s mega-wealthy global elite—the top ~1-2% of the world’s rich who tend to own land/enterprises/resources and passively to collect outrageous profits, having no need to work themselves, if they don’t want to.

The History of Work

After this brief definition, Russell moves on to consider the history of work in Western civilization:

“From the beginning of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard as he did, and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by warriors and priests. . . . A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system, and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technique has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.

It is obvious that, in primitive communities, peasants, left to themselves, would not have parted with the slender surplus upon which the warriors and priests subsisted, but would have either produced less or consumed more. At first, sheer force compelled them to produce and part with the surplus. Gradually, however, it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness. By this means the amount of compulsion required was lessened, and the expenses of government were diminished. To this day, 99 per cent of British wage-earners would be genuinely shocked if it were proposed that the King should not have a larger income than a working man. The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.

That was a long passage, but I promise it’s important, so let’s unpack it a bit. Throughout most of the history of civilization, Russell says, people had to work damn hard just to secure the basic necessities of life. They might produce a small surplus (which would then be snatched from them by the upper classes), but for the most part, they busted their asses to cultivate the land and to produce the resources necessary for survival.

At first, this labor was simply an imperative for survival, but over time, the ruling classes conditioned the working classes to see their work as something desirable—an ethical and noble duty. In the West, Judeo-Christian values of industry and hard work were emphasized/propagated by the ruling classes, conveniently convincing the masses that work was inherently good—a way to humble oneself before the Lord and secure one’s place in Heaven.

This is perhaps one of the most elaborate deceptions in history—this conditioning of the masses to want to work tirelessly in order to survive, all the while padding the pockets of a small group of elite. The very “conception of duty,” as Russell points out, has served as something of a coercive psychoactive substance which the wealthy deploy to “induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.”

Finally, note Russell’s point that the pre-modern system of labor was around for so long that it has of course “naturally left a profound impress upon men’s thoughts and opinions.” The system might be dead, but the values that it fostered and the ideas that were used to justify it are still very much alive. So, basically, an enormous workload for the average person is no longer necessary, but we still believe that it is, because of cultural momentum.

The Case Study of World War I

“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war.”

Russell goes on to claim that World War I is something of a case study demonstrating that the amount of labor necessary to secure life’s necessities for the masses has dramatically decreased in the modern world

“At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since.”

So Russell is like, “Wait, wait, wait . . . just look at what happened during WWI. Vast segments of people were occupied by war-related work and were doing nothing in service of producing the actual necessities of life. And yet, the average dud(ette) on the Allies’ team was actually better off than any time before or since. Doesn’t this, like, prove that we now live in a world in which a relatively minuscule portion of mankind’s collective time/energy can supply the necessities for all of mankind?”

Why, yes, Bertrand, that would seem to be the case. But what happened post-WWI?

“. . . the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.”

Russell explains that after the war, the majority of people went back to working eight hours each day, and (as is always the case) a sizable percentage of people unable to find work were left unemployed, forgotten, starving. Russell proposes that the post-WWI workday could reasonably have been reduced to four hours, and that this would have allowed everyone to work, while still supplying the necessities of life for all and greatly reducing the collective amount of time/energy expended.

Why would this work? Because, as the war demonstrated, technological progress had made it possible for the same amount of resources to be produced with far less human effort. But, unfortunately, the system did/does not pay people in proportion to what is ultimately produced, but “in proportion to [their] virtue as exemplified by [their] industry.” That long-entrenched tyrant called Duty dictated that people ought to continue to work long hours for low wages, and only a handful of intellectuals grasped that exponentially greater efficiency via machine-automation ought to benefit the common man accordingly. Russell offers an anecdote to illustrate how ludicrous the system was/is, given the potential of machines to replace labor:

“Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

As machines continued to replace human labor during the Industrial Revolution, mankind halved the work-week, increased minimum wages accordingly, and devised innovative means of wealth re-distribution to ensure that the people of the world would benefit collectively from the advancements of a new technological age.

hahaha jk bro.

Of course that’s not what happened. At least not for the most part. When one adjusts for inflation, the minimum wage in the US actually peaked in 1968 and has barely doubled in ~80 years, despite the fact that machines have made us exponentially more productive.

Have we really become that much more productive, though? Good question. Consider this: in 1880, 49% of the Americans were farmers. Today, 2% of Americans are farmers. Other examples could be listed, but I think this one is sufficient to demonstrate just how much manpower has been replaced by machines. And yet, the day-to-day life of the average Westerner doesn’t really reflect these changes.

Instead of saying, “Wow, hey, these machines are doing a lot of the work for us now. No one should have to work as much!,” we said, “We need to create more jobs!” Instead of re-distributing the outrageous sums of wealth being amassed in ever-more efficient, machine-supplemented industries, we allowed a tiny segment of mega-wealthy people to become way wealthier.

And thus was the genesis of our present-day situation, in which the wealthiest 1% of the global community will soon control over half of the world’s wealth and in which the average person works a job that is utterly disconnected from the basic realities of life. Huge portions of humanity spend their days balancing someone else’s checkbook, or trying to sell people shit that they don’t need, or trying to come up with more effective ways to manipulate people into valuing their “brand,” or moving boxes around on a digital screen to make the display more aesthetically pleasing, or talking on the phone with people who are dissatisfied with a product that they didn’t need in the first place, etc. etc. etc. I realize that today’s situation differs dramatically from those of previous eras and that therefore some of these sorts of jobs are necessary, but it seems that to some extent we’ve simply conjured up countless superfluous societal roles in an effort to allow everyone to “do his duty.”

We constantly invent jobs and industries in an effort to reduce unemployment instead of recognizing that we long ago reached a point after which far fewer people actually need to work, and for far fewer hours each week. And now, in the 21st century, we are moving into an era in which artificial intelligence will replace even more human labor, physical as well as intellectual. Unemployment will increase, and we will be forced to try to manufacture new, frivolous “jobs” for the average human, a practice which is presumably untenable in the long-term. The alternative, of course, is to finally recognize the beautiful possibility of a shorter work-week, much higher wages, and something like a Universal Basic Income. For decades, such initiatives have, despite much resistance, been gaining traction and mainstream approval, though in most places their implementation remains to be seen.

The Benefits of Leisure Time

“A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.”

What would people do with significantly more leisure time? I think Russell is correct in suggesting that someone who has worked long hours all his life would likely be restless or discontented if suddenly he/she no longer needed to work. This is why so many people continue to work post-retirement—force of habit.  However, Russell contends that a considerable amount of leisure is necessary to enjoy “many of the best things” in life.

Many of us still seem to think that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”—that giving many people the opportunity to work far fewer hours would lead to all sorts of delinquency and debauchery and “sin.” Russell rejects this idea and offers a radically different one—i.e. the idea that leisure time gives people the chance to explore life and discover its hidden groove-pearls. He writes:

“The fact is that moving matter about, while a certain amount of it is necessary to our existence, is emphatically not one of the ends of human life. If it were, we should have to consider every navvy superior to Shakespeare. . .

It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”

Russell suggests that a “cult of efficiency” in the modern world has deteriorated our capacity for light-heartedness and play, implying that we would be wise to re-kindle the ability to indulge in simple delights and whimsical activity for no reason other than the joy which they provide. He argues that the modern man has lost touch with such intrinsically enjoyable, meaningful activities, focusing only on activities that will further some external agenda—accumulating more money, impressing other people, completing some imaginary “success” checklist, etc.

Russell goes on to assert that more leisure time ultimately frees people up to pursue the things that really matter to them, and that such pursuits have historically resulted in much of what we think of as civilization—science, art, philosophy, etc. He concludes the essay by imagining a world in which no one is forced to work more than four hours each day:

“In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”

Though admittedly somewhat idealistic, Russell paints a vivid and compelling picture of how the world could change if we relinquish our outmoded allegiance to Duty, share our resources more effectively, and return to people the time and energy expended unnecessarily each week.

Leisure time creates the space necessary for imagination, inquiry, aesthetic contemplation, introspection, and the pursuit of that which one finds most exciting and reward. When people are given that space and the opportunities it affords, there’s no telling what unrealized potentialities might blossom.

On a societal level, we can push for the sorts of political changes that would allow Russell’s vision to manifest. On an individual level, we can prioritize space, idleness, and rest, recognizing that life can be more than a bustling, bustling, bustling from one item on a to-do list to the next. If we’re able to do this—to expand and live deeply our leisurely hours—we might find that pausing to breathe, daydream, gaze, wander, and do whatever comes naturally isn’t just something for lazy people, but an integral aspect of a rich and meaningful human life.

If this was fascinating, I encourage you to read Russell’s essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” in full. It’s available online here.

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25 Profound Quotes That Will Make You Question Everything Wed, 18 Feb 2015 23:22:04 +0000 Continued]]>

“Man is a mystery. It needs to be unravelled, and if you spend your whole life unravelling it, don’t say that you’ve wasted time. I am studying that mystery because I want to be a human being.”

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I’m guilty, I confess: I love quotes. In our meme-saturated, sound-bite culture, it seems almost sacrilegious for a thinking person to celebrate aphorisms, snippets, and bits of content that can be processed in 30 seconds or less. “Read big, long, heavy books!” I ought to be saying. And I have said that. And if you want book suggestions, the Refine The Mind library is just a click away.

But, yeah, so, well, look: quotes are not a replacement for great long-form essays, world-expanding novels, or incisive non-fictional tomes. They can, however, be pretty damn thought-provoking, jarring, or moment-of-clarity-inducing. And let’s face it: meme-culture isn’t going away, and an unthinkable number of people probably read books’ worth of memes/quotes each year without reading any actual books.

So if one purpose of this site and community is to increase the amount of deeply meaningful, thoughtful, transformative, humanistically penetrating content in the Internet multiverse, we can’t simply eschew the galaxy of quotes and memes. No, I think we ought to work in every sort of online medium—in tweets, images, videos, music, long-form articles, books, etc.—to infuse all corners of the web with content that pushes people toward a more contemplative and empathetic existence.


Henry David Thoreau. Photo Credit: Public Domain

In the service of doing just that, I put together this collection of quotes that I think suggests the essence of a number of questions with which I have concerned myself both on this site and elsewhere. Our aim should be to point beyond the self-perpetuating simulacrum of vapid one-liners and cute animal pics to the complexity of the human enterprise and the mystery of being itself. Or something like that. Laughs are good too. Anyway, marinate on these, humans, and propagate them onward! Shower the Internet in potential epiphanies! For posterity!

“The wise man knows that it is better to sit on the banks of a remote mountain stream than to be emperor of the whole world.”

― Zhuangzi

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.”

― Doris Lessing

“Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?”

― Henry David Thoreau

“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.”

― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”

― Neil Gaiman

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

― Frida Kahlo

“One sticks one’s finger into the soil to tell by the smell in what land one is: I stick my finger in existence — it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? Why was I not consulted, why not made acquainted with its manners and customs instead of throwing me into the ranks, as if I had been bought by a kidnapper, a dealer in souls? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? Why should I have an interest in it? Is it not a voluntary concern? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. Is there no director? Whither shall I turn with my complaint?”

― Søren Kierkegaard

“When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”

― Jiddu Krishnamurti

“Every fact of science was once damned. Every invention was considered impossible. Every discovery was a nervous shock to some orthodoxy. Every artistic innovation was denounced as fraud and folly. The entire web of culture and ‘progress,’ everything on earth that is man-made and not given to us by nature, is the concrete manifestation of some man’s refusal to bow to Authority. We would own no more, know no more, and be no more than the first apelike hominids if it were not for the rebellious, the recalcitrant, and the intransigent. As Oscar Wilde truly said, ‘Disobedience was man’s Original Virtue.’”

― Robert Anton Wilson

“1492. As children we were taught to memorize this year with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.”

― Kurt Vonnegut

“She sowed in my mind the idea that reality is not only what we see on the surface; it has a magical dimension as well and, if we so desire, it is legitimate to enhance it and color it to make our journey through life less trying.”

― Isabel Allende

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

― David Foster Wallace

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

― Malcolm X

“We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn, or scoff at the totality of being.”

― Abraham Joshua Heschel

“It’s like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall. Smash! And all that ink spread. And in the middle, it’s dense, isn’t it? And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets get finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see? So in the same way, there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread. And you and I, sitting here in this room, as complicated human beings, are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We are the complicated little patterns on the end of it. Very interesting. But so we define ourselves as being only that. If you think that you are only inside your skin, you define yourself as one very complicated little curlique, way out on the edge of that explosion. Way out in space, and way out in time. Billions of years ago, you were a big bang, but now you’re a complicated human being. And then we cut ourselves off, and don’t feel that we’re still the big bang. But you are. Depends how you define yourself. You are actually–if this is the way things started, if there was a big bang in the beginning– you’re not something that’s a result of the big bang. You’re not something that is a sort of puppet on the end of the process. You are still the process. You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. When I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as―Mr. so-and-so, Ms. so-and-so, Mrs. so-and-so―I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way. I know I’m that, too. But we’ve learned to define ourselves as separate from it. ”

― Alan W. Watts

“The truth is always an abyss. One must — as in a swimming pool — dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order to later rise again — laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.”

― Franz Kafka

“All I need is a sheet of paper
and something to write with, and then
I can turn the world upside down.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

“You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book… or you take a trip… and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death. Some never awaken.”

― Anaïs Nin

“I’m glad mushrooms are against the law, because I took them one time, and you know what happened to me? I laid in a field of green grass for four hours going, ‘My God! I love everything.’ Yeah, now if that isn’t a hazard to our country . . . how are we gonna justify arms dealing when we realize that we’re all one?”

― Bill Hicks

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality.”

― Lao Tzu

“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”

― J.D. Salinger

“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”

― Terence McKenna

“The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does. They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted.”

― Aldous Huxley

“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin

“What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”

― Michel Foucault

Find books by these authors and more in the Refine The Mind library.

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Lastly, one time I made a rap song invoking a number of the thinkers referenced here. Maybe you’d like to listen to it:

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Society of the Spectacle: The Unsettling Consequences of Living in an Image-Based Culture Thu, 05 Feb 2015 16:17:29 +0000 Continued]]>

For the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence… illusion only is sacred, truth profane.”

― Ludwig Feuerbach, 1843

Life on Earth in the twenty-first century is characterized by the near inability to avoid being constantly bombarded by images, day in and day out. No matter where you are, there is more likely than not a television, an advertisement, a magazine, a logo, or a computer screen within your field of vision.

Peach Blossom Thief by Yangna. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Peach Blossom Thief by Yangna. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

It does not matter whether you are in a public space or in the comfort of your own home; the endless barrage of imagery is almost inescapable. Airports, libraries, and bars all have televisions plastered on their walls blaring about the latest terrorist attack or the NFC Championship game. Drivers on the highway are always treated to depictions of delicious food or maps of cellular network coverage. Pedestrians in the cities gaze at the figures of celebrities which adorn the faces of entire skyscrapers. And if public spaces are lacking in vivid illustrations, nearly everyone carries around a screen in their pockets with which they can transport themselves into new fantastical worlds at any point in time.

Of course, this isn’t news to anybody. Fears of our transference to an image-based culture have been voiced by many for centuries. Furthermore, hardly anyone can deny that this transition is nearly complete given the daily experience of our lives. What has really been lacking, however, is a widespread recognition of and critical engagement with the consequences of this mode of cultural existence. While many prescient writers, including Ludwig Feuerbach, Daniel Boorstin, Guy Debord, and Neil Postman, have attempted to grapple with the way the image structures the way we think about the world, their voices have largely been ignored, drowned out by the spectacle of modern existence. This is a tragedy, because a large part of the profound alienation and cultural breakdown which we are experiencing today can be attributed to the effects of the image on our minds.

The Ascension of the Image

Before the image dominated our lives, public discourse was primarily mediated by spoken and written language. In the age of the newspaper, the average citizen learned about current events by reading about them and by hearing about them through the grapevine. Education was accomplished almost exclusively through reading and verbal instruction; visual aids and Powerpoint were nowhere to be found. This was the age that gave birth to and characterized the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Scientific and cultural progress were made by the interplay of various actors making well-reasoned arguments in pamphlets, newsletters, and books. In the political sphere, decisions were made by the citizenry after vigorous debates in the town hall. Candidates for office regularly held debates which often went on for half the day, at which there was enthusiastic attendance. The result of this cultural environment was such that even the average citizen was used to following long arguments and dealing with sophisticated language. Important decisions were often made on the basis of reasoned logic rather than quick, emotional judgments.

Today we have found this type of environment almost completely transformed. If a person even keeps up with the news at all these days, it is often through the medium of 24-hour news networks, which continually display emotional headlines, extravagant graphics, and a ceaseless array of photographs. Education is becoming increasingly characterized by the use of Powerpoint presentations and textbooks filled with fancy diagrams. And while political participation is at an all-time low, what’s left of it is marked by visceral appeals to emotion and simple language. As Chris Hedges writes in his book, Empire of Illusion:

“The Princeton Review analyzed the transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates of 2000, the Clinton-Bush-Perot debates of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. It reviewed these transcripts using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum educational standard needed for a reader to grasp the text. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln spoke at the educational level of an eleventh grader (11.2), and Douglas addressed the crowd using a vocabulary suitable (12.0) for a high-school graduate. In the Kennedy-Nixon debate, the candidates spoke in language accessible to tenth graders. In the 1992 debates, Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did Perot (6.3). During the 2000 debates, Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Gore at a high seventh-grade level (7.6) .27 This obvious decline was, perhaps, raised slightly by Barack Obama in 2008, but the trends above are clear.”

In fact, literacy has declined so much that over half of Americans never read for pleasure at all, a proportion that is increasing rapidly.

The primary catalysts for this transformation were/are the plethora of image-creating and image-reproducing technologies that have appeared within the last two centuries. The arrival of the photograph, combined with the printing press, was of course foundational in the ascension of the image. But as Neil Postman argues in his colossally important work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the technology which delivered the death blow to language-based culture was the television. Television is a medium, he argues, which relies on constant visual novelty to hold our attention. It is exceedingly difficult to draw viewers to a channel on which reasoned discourse is taking place when the mere press of a button can transport the viewer to the colorful rainforests of South America or to the tranquil beaches of the Caribbean. The way our brains are structured is such that marvelous scenes such as these are almost irresistible to us. Before the television made these visual fantasies possible, people were forced to fill their lives with the slow though often rewarding discourse which language had to offer. Postman writes:

“On television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.”

The Internet is another technology which has made the constant delivery of new and exciting images even easier than it was before. YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, and Reddit are all platforms which happily deliver novel images of crazy pranks, stimulating dramas, our friends vacations, and cute kittens daily. Interestingly, the Internet has also given rise to a new form of the article in which images and flashy headlines play a primary role and words are subordinate. One need only look to websites like BuzzFeed and Cracked to get a sense of these so-called “clickbait” articles. Of course, we must also be aware that the Internet, unlike television, can be used for the propagation of language-based discourse, as well. Wikipedia makes written knowledge universally accessible, e-books are widely available across the web, and there are countless blogs just like this one where reason and ideas are still the rule rather than the exception. But because the Internet bloomed in a time when TV was already king, it has been predictably used to perpetuate the extant trend of image-ification.

Appearance and Essence

Even if one grants that our culture is dominated by images, it is probably unclear to many why this should be a problem. At least on the surface of things, it appears that while the image is ever-present in our consciousness, it has not diminished the importance of words in our daily lives. And indeed, images have been present in human society for most of history, in the form of paintings and sculptures. Why should our present age be negatively affected by the supremacy of the image?

In order to understand the answer to this question, one must be able to grasp the distinction between a thing’s appearance and its essence. This distinction is an important one in the history of philosophy, particularly German philosophy. While a thing’s essence is its constitution, what is inherent in it, or the truth of its Being (as Hegel would put it), its appearance is simply a reflection of this essence. As such, it may have many distinct appearances but only one true essence. We cannot always discover the essence of a thing simply by observing its appearance; sometimes we must consider the many appearances of an object or an event to discover the truth about it. Thus, Karl Marx writes: “All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.”

German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach was among the first to notice that the culture of his age was beginning to become more concerned with the appearances of things than with their essences. The Essence of Christianity, first published in 1841, was Feuerbach’s attempt to critique the religious tendencies of his day. He writes:

“Religion has disappeared, and for it has been substituted, even among Protestants, the appearance of religion – the Church – in order at least that ‘the faith’ may be imparted to the ignorant and indiscriminating multitude.”

For Feuerbach, the Christian religion had devolved into a mere image of its former self. More concerned with maintaining a facade of religiosity and faith to its congregations and outsiders than with imparting to its followers the true essence of its religion, the Church had become an institution confused in all sorts of glaring contradictions and petty rituals. Feuerbach’s perception was an important one, but unfortunately his warnings were heeded by few.

Karl Marx was one of the few who attempted to apply Feuerbach’s insight to other areas of knowledge. His magnum opus Capital was mainly a reaction against the nineteenth century economists who were mostly concerned with maintaining a certain positive appearance of capitalism rather than understanding its true essence. But as the image became more and more important in facilitating our understanding of the world, the gulf between appearance and essence grew ever wider. Because images give us only the appearances of events and objects without teaching us their constitution, we begin to have confused and inconsistent ideas about these things. The more we focus only on appearances, the less effective we become at understanding the world.

Take, for example, the recent tragedy in France involving the mass shooting of journalists at the newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Naturally, the loss of human life is always despicable thing, and the journalists should certainly be mourned. For the average citizen, then, the appearance of million-strong crowds in France and across the world after this event seems to signify a bold stand against the senseless killing of innocent people in the name of a twisted ideology, as well as a strong affirmation of the principle of free speech. This is the image portrayed by the Western media.

When one begins to really think about this situation, however, certain strange contradictions become clear. These Western solidarity marches claim to condemn the murder of twelve innocents in France; yet they have nothing to say when their own governments kill twelve people on the way to a wedding in Yemen with drones. Both events are motivated by ideology. One is an ideology of religious fundamentalism and violent extremism; the other, economic fundamentalism and violent imperialism. Should we not condemn each of these events equally? Furthermore, the crowds claim that they will not be scared out of their right of free speech. And yet nobody seems to complain when rallies against the mass murder of innocents in Gaza are banned in France.

Alienation and The Last Man

Western culture’s obsession with appearances, combined with the proliferation of image-creation technologies, has resulted in an environment in which we are able to construct fantasies to live in rather than experience visceral, immediate reality. Television channels are overflowing with so-called “reality” shows, in which the intimate details of a variety of lives are captured on camera for the world to experience. Video games now offer such an immersive experience that some gamers live primarily in virtual worlds for long stretches of time. Sports have become so ubiquitous that many fans spend all of their free time not only watching the games themselves, but analyses of the games; some even build their own “fantasy” teams with which to compete with others, which requires constant updating of rosters and statistical analysis. The sad truth is that for many Americans, our lives consist mainly in working most of the day for a measly wage, coming home and entering the fantasy of living someone else’s life through the medium of television and computers, and sleeping, ad infinitum.

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

― Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

American historian Daniel Boorstin was acutely aware of this dangerous tendency. In his 1961 book, The Image, he warned that “we risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” Unfortunately, his premonition has become all too real. Our withdrawal from reality in the West has resulted in a pronounced sense of alienation from which it can be incredibly difficult to recover. One in ten adults in the US have suffered major depression, and diagnoses are growing at “an alarming rate.” Suicides in the US have hit the highest rate in twenty-five years. Driven by deep feelings of insecurity, guilt, and estrangement, people continually turn to drugs, alcohol, diet fads, self-help programs, infidelity, and violence to help heal their wounds. Unfortunately, these distractions often serve to widen the gap between appearance and reality even further.

In a society where the image is king, women learn that only their appearance matters to others. “Others are not concerned with your beliefs, your experiences, or your personality,” scream the Miss USA pageant and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, “the only way to be worth anything is to be sexy.” Men, likewise, spend their time observing images of perfect strength and athleticism. On top of all of this, the incessant pressure on men and women alike to engage in sexual acts before they are even comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality results in even more insecurity.

In schools, where standardized tests can give the appearance of intelligence to those who do well, those who do not begin to view themselves as stupid and worthless. This pressure continues all the way through our childhoods, all the way up until the college admissions process separates those “destined” to be successful from those who are not. Other cultural pressures constantly tell us which TV shows to watch, which kind of music to like, which books to read, and which political views to have. For a society which claims to be founded on individualism, there is an impossible amount of pressure on each individual to conform to certain standards; as a result, many people spend most of their time crafting a certain appearance for themselves rather than discovering the true essence of their individual selves.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, this blog’s figurehead, Friedrich Nietzsche, crafted a category which he called “The Last Man.” The Last Man is characterized by apathy, a lack of passion, and contentedness: “A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ – say the Last Men, and they blink.” Lamentably, many of us in the West are looking more and more similar to Nietzsche’s Last Man.

Concerned more with image than with truth, we attempt to craft lives which merely look happy from the outside, despite the fact that they are often marked by a deep sadness. We seek easy, ephemeral pleasures rather than striving to achieve true happiness. The supposed mark of success and well-being in the West is that all-knowing god Money; the message is that only material wealth brings peace of mind. But the real essence of happiness is not measured in dollars, cars, or TV screens. It is marked by meaningful relationships, novel experiences of nature and culture, the search for true understanding of the world, and passionate work. The Last Man knows none of these things; his obsession with the false image of happiness distracts him endlessly.

Escaping the Spectacle

Despair not, my fellow humans. The fact that you are here and reading this likely means that you have seen the spectacle of modern existence for the farce that it is. There are many means available to us for escaping the culture of images which has been ingrained in us for most of our lives. Many of the articles on this very blog describe methods by which you can remove yourself from the world of appearances in order to begin to truly understand the world, yourself, and others. These include, but are not limited to: reading books, falling in love, writing, meditating, traveling, seeking novel experiences, creating art, and having discussions about things which are meaningful to you with your friends. All of these activities allow you to live deeply your own life instead of living by proxy. Via these modes of direct experience you can find a truer world and real, lasting contentment.

In your contact with other people, I implore you to fight the destructive power of the image culture. When a friend voices insecurity about the way they look or anxiety about their future success, reassure them that the essence of life does not lie in these fleeting frivolities. Encourage others to follow their passions. Try your hardest to see through corporate media pageant in order to understand the underlying basis of world events. Question everything you’ve been taught, everything you hold dear; no matter how certain you feel of some of your beliefs, they have likely been passed on to you through an ideological lens.

Finally, do not be afraid to love. It is all too easy in this world to hate; acts of violence, strange beliefs, and odd habits are often seen as valid reasons to despise another person. What far too few people understand, however, is that every weird expression or violent action has underlying it billions and billions of lived experiences, relationships, and ideas. The infinite web of human social relations is far too complex for any one person to understand. It is far better to attempt to structure our society in such a way as to foster mutual understanding and love rather than violently oppressing all of those who are different. In order to achieve this, however, we must first remove ourselves from the spectacle of our image-based culture.

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Kierkegaard + Batman: Bodacious Comic Re-Imagines Father of Existentialism as Dark Knight Wed, 28 Jan 2015 21:31:36 +0000 Continued]]>

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”

― Søren Kierkegaard

For quite some time now I’ve been enjoying and sharing Existential Comics, a webcomic about existentialism and other areas of philosophy. For me, Existential Comics embodies the enormous potential for entertainment and education to meld seamlessly on the Internet.

Corey Mohler, the dude behind Existential Comics, successfully takes arcane philosophical ideas and elucidates them clearly and humorously via the medium of the webcomic. This is the sort of innovative educational idea that has the potential to appeal to attention-fractured youth and to further distinguish learning from the super-serious, one-size-fits-all stuff that most of us did in school. Education can be play, after all.

If you dig Existential Comics, you’ll be excited to hear that I’m probably going to do an interview with Corey and publish it here on Refine The Mind sometime in the next couple months, so keep an eye out for that. Without further ado, the comic:

The Dark Knight of Faith

darkKnightKierkegaard1 (1)

darkKnightKierkegaard2 (1)

Father of Existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard was a 19th-century Danish philosopher who is considered by many to be the “father of existentialism.” He emphasized the centrality of the individual’s subjective experience to any conception of truth and famously said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” He was referring, as the comic suggests, to the anxiety of living a finite life in relation to an infinite universe or God.

Basically, Kierkegaard thought we were all in the same existential predicament and needed to recognize our own freedom in order to embark on a path toward becoming a true self. Kierkegaard was himself a poet and had a soft spot for aesthetes, whom he characterized as escapists more or less drifting in their own imagination, finding delight and beauty in the quotidian world by means of poetic will.

Kierkegaard felt, however, that the individual must rise above the mere aesthetic to claim an ethical and ultimately religious existence. He argued that a “leap of faith” in the form of religious belief (he was a Christian) was ultimately the only path to becoming a true self. On Existential Comics, Corey almost always includes a “Didn’t get the joke?” box which elaborates on a particular comic and sometimes suggests further study. For this comic, he wrote:

“This comic is a bit of a mash up of a lot of Kierkegaard’s thought. You can read more about Kierkegaard on despair and anxiety (which he called the dizziness of freedom). Briefly, he thought people who tried to ignore or distract themselves from the human condition of having a finite life and being forced to make free choices were on the lowest stage of despair (but the worst to be in, for Kierkegaard). They had to become more aware of this, and develop themselves by making real choices in the world. This would cause more anxiety and despair, but eventually, he thought, the only solution would be to make the “leap of faith” into Christianity.

The “teleological suspension of the ethical” is from Fear and Trembling, which is Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story of Abraham being tested by God to sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard says that killing his son is unethical, since Abraham can’t be sure that it is really God giving him the command, but he must suspend the ethical due to his faith.”

Ultimately, I don’t personally agree with Kierkegaard’s assertion that Christian faith is the only means of arriving at a true self, but I appreciate his thought and have gleaned a number of useful and fascinating insights from studying his work.

For one, I’ve come to feel that his assertion that “subjectivity is truth” is correct, at least in the sense that our own personal truths and narratives about life are, in the final analysis, the only ones that make any difference for us. We create our own world through our thoughts, dreams, actions, and relationships, and I think that it is in this individual creation—rather than in a set of supposedly objective “facts”—that each of us must find whatever meaning life has to offer. I think Terence McKenna was channeling this idea when he said:

“You have to take seriously the notion that understanding the universe is your responsibility, because the only understanding of the universe that will be useful to you is your own understanding.

― Terence McKenna

For more on Kierkegaard, I recommend the article about him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a perennially groovy resource. And, once again, be sure to check out more of Corey’s stelliferous philosophy comics over at Existential Comics.

If this was cool, read the mission and follow us on Twitter.

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6 Destructive Ideas Perpetuated in Western Culture Fri, 23 Jan 2015 19:32:05 +0000 Continued]]> Since the day you emerged into this bizarre, sparkling universe, you’ve been conditioned to think in certain ways.

And that’s damn wonderful a lot of the time. It’s arguably a blessing that our minds learn to auto-dismiss certain notions—like, say, walking off of that cliff or stabbing Uncle Melvin with a butter knife—and auto-accept others.

But it’s also problematic. Because, well, our minds are gullible—sufficiently gullible, at least, to spend the first decade or seven of our lives unconsciously internalizing the dominant ways of thinking of our culture.

From our earliest years, we are surrounded by the worldviews of our parents, our education systems, our economic systems, our governments, our media, our religious institutions, and myriad other sources of foundational values and ideas. Depending on one’s culture, this situation eventually results in significant suffering, as we’ll see. And arguably this would not be the case if, at a young age, we were instructed to view all of these sources as reliant on fallible, human ideologies, but this is almost never the case.

Unknown Title, Ewa Gorals. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Unknown Title, Ewa Gorals. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Incentives for Claiming to Know the “Truth”

At least in the United States, my home country, most of these entities are portrayed, or portray themselves, as possessing and delivering the capital-T Truth. The media often portrays itself as a “No Spin Zone” and delivers only firm, declarative statements; the government purports to understand what is most beneficial “for the people”; religion has access to the “word of God”; schools teach “the facts”; mama “knows best,” etc. All of this contributes to a sense that those before us figured everything out, that we need not ask questions. The “Truth” has already been filed away.

There are strong incentives, for both individuals and institutions, to claim to hold or to genuinely believe they hold a monopoly on the “Truth.” One of those incentives is to protect themselves, their fellow citizens, and their loved ones from the unknown, or the unknowable. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:

“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

Culture is like an operating system that provides default answers to all of life’s questions to protect us from the inevitable insecurity and anxiety that arise when we admit that we know very little about what is actually going on—about what we are, why we’re here, what we should do, etc. I would not be so bold as to suggest that this is never a good thing. Culture can aid us, I think, by providing stabilizing structure where none would otherwise exist. And some cultural values are surely worthy, human-friendly ones. However, in emphasizing a specific set of values, most cultures (particularly dominator cultures) seem to become dogmatic—i.e. seem to reach a point where they do not recognize other ways of seeing and thinking and living than their own predominant prescriptions. For anyone curious about the truth of our condition or about alternative modi operandi, this can become an absurdly limiting and oppressive state of affairs.

Another incentive for sources to claim to possess the “Truth” has to do with rhetoric, persuasion. In an age of expert opinions and fifty million channels of information, the “Truth” gets people to listen. And everyone wants an audience, wants to propagate their worldview for its own sake or for other ends. Convincing people to do and believe what you want them to do and believe is supremely dependent on presenting yourself or your organization as wise, enlightened, certain.

No One Has the Answers

But, as you are hopefully aware, the “Truth” changes, depending on who you ask. It differs wildly from continent to continent, culture to culture, institution to institution, family to family, individual to individual. There are infinite variations on the “Truth.”

It may follow that truth is utterly subjective, but I’ll save the nihilism discussion for another day. What’s imperative to realize, here and now, is that one culture’s truth is another culture’s fiction; and to consider, furthermore, that much of what has been presented to you as “True” might be an agenda-driven house of cards—a collection of misguided, propagandistic faux-facts, some of which lead to despair if left unchallenged.

I don’t mean to pull a wide-eyed “What if I told you?” stunt à la the Matrix Morpheus meme. This is just food for thought, and again, this is not to say that culturally inherited perspectives and structures can never be useful, meaningful, life-stabilizing, social-cohesion mechanisms. I think they often are. But I humbly submit to you that an idea of inconceivable purchase—especially in terms of un-learning certain insidious culturally inherited worldviews—is the idea that no one has the answers. If we’re honest (which might be a good idea sometimes), every person, every culture, and every institution tells a story, and everyone’s story is, at root, relative to their point of view and way of life. Including mine, so don’t take me too seriously.

When you start to think in this way, you become much more curious and critical. You begin to take personal responsibility for separating the strawberries from the smegma—for deciding which ideas are worthwhile and which are malignant. Presuming you see value in this undertaking, let me suggest to you (in cute, easily processable listicle-blurbs) that the following six ideas—ideas prevalent in (though not exclusive to) the West—are at best unsound and at worst, utterly destructive.

Idea #1: Uncertainty can and should be eliminated from existence.

“Only mystery allows us to live, only mystery.”

— Federico García Lorca

From our earliest years of schooling, there is a rhetoric of certainty wafting in the air, a notion of control over knowledge and over events. Year after year, the system has already determined what’s best for us: first grade to second grade to third grade, et al. Life has an order, an obvious trajectory. Schools, experts, and scientists seem, conveniently, to have “the facts”—everything we need to know about the universe and everything we need to know to “succeed” (slippery linguistic sign, that one).

By the time we’re 15 or 16, we’re well-aware of a traditional life-path narrative in which people go to college, find a nice job, work their way up in the world, get married, have kids, buy a house, settle down, retire, die. At the same time, we’re beginning to be bombarded with terms like “career path,” “next step,” “plan your future,” etc. etc., all of which serve to further cement in us the notion that it is desirable and possible to “figure out” our lives, to schedule them down to the smallest detail, to eliminate uncertainty.

Eventually, though, this narrative breaks down. We eat some strange fungi or get fired or read too much philosophy or break our pelvis or miss a flight or gaze too long at the stars or our dog dies, and it becomes (perhaps distressingly) clear that things are not so certain. Existence forever evades compartmentalization, and countless events, both micro and macro in scale, occur despite our expectations otherwise. Innumerable questions defy our understanding. Our efforts to impose certainty and control onto the universe are attempts to avoid countenancing the inevitable fear that comes with acknowledging our own physical and perceptual limitations.

This fear seems to cause many people to need certainty—to insist that they or someone else (priests, scientists, etc.) understands How Things Are in some kind of absolute way. I see this as tragic. It’s as if these people want to take kaleidoscopic, inscrutable, inarticulable existence and put it in some kind of hermetically sealed canister in order to feel proud that it’s been contained and dissected thoroughly. From my perspective, this attitude eliminates or severely paralyzes one’s ability to really see the living mystery that surrounds us all the time and to feel what is, I think, the greatest of feelings—profound astonishment and awe at the fact of one’s own existence.

Ultimately, we cannot escape the unknown. It will eventually return to engulf, torment, and cripple us if we have long suppressed it. For some time, I’ve aimed to adopt an attitude I dub “dancing with uncertainty.” Rather than feeling that I need to know anything, I have aimed to embrace that I am immersed in and inseparable from a colossal, mysterious unfolding of being and don’t really know what will occur tomorrow, let alone in five years. I admit that I don’t understand this whole “life” thing, and from that admission emerges humility, wonder, curiosity, and an openness to novelty and possibility. I heed the poet Rilke’s words: “Live the questions.

Idea #2: You deserve to feel great all the time, and you can.

“This is Bob. Bob is doing well. Very well indeed. That’s because not long ago with just a quick phone call Bob realized that he could have something better in his life.”

You may have recognized the above ad-copy as that of Enzyte, “Natural Male Enhancement,” and were unwittingly prompted to imagine “Bob,” that disturbingly perky boner-boosting poster boy and his eerily exaggerated inhuman perma-smile. “Bob” is a prime (if a bit extreme) example of an archetype that is widely propagated by advertisers, self-help “gurus,” and the hokey, think-positive people who you unfollowed on Facebook for incessantly posting “Just Be Happy Now” memes.

The archetype is that of the ever-smiling person—the complete and totally realized human who has discovered happiness and now just feels so damn good that they can hardly stand it. In a culture that places an inestimable premium on individual happiness, it’s comforting to believe that such an ideal can be realized. It’s also quite lucrative to sell people an image of themselves attaining the ideal.

But beneath the glamorous, ever-grinning archetype is a serpentine subtextual message, a message that can quite literally make you feel as if something is terribly wrong with you. The message is that happiness consists in never feeling depressed, lonely, scared, anxious, or downright shitty. That if we just buy the product or adopt the right mentality, perpetual Best Days Ever are within reach. But is such a vision really tenable or the substance of agenda-driven fantasy? My vote: the latter.

Perhaps “happiness,” if the word means anything at all, means accepting whatever circumstances or emotions arise. To be human is to experience a vast spectrum of emotion, and there will always be an ebb and flow. Remembering to approach all happenings with an attitude of “this too shall pass” is more valuable than a warehouse full of consumer quick-fixes.

Furthermore, as many a thinker has argued, our pain can be an essential catalyst toward resilience, self-knowledge, and compassion. Friedrich Nietzsche famously stated, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Viktor Frankl, a renowned psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, thought that in our suffering we could discover profound meaning. Dostoyevsky, Schopenhauer, Rilke, and other writers, poets, and philosophers have likewise held deep convictions about the metamorphoses and purposes to be found in misery. So, in sum, if you feel like hell, chill. You’re human. Be with those feelings; see what they might mean to you and know that they’re temporary.

Idea #3: You should be afraid.

“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. […] This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.”

— Terence McKenna

In numerous ways, society implicitly communicates to us that the world is a harsh and frightening place. As mentioned above, we’re implored to meticulously design our future, to plan the “secure” career—the sure bet, the foolproof strategy. Risky, bold, or unpopular decisions are thus necessarily presented to us as avoidable traps. Caution is portrayed as the only way to ensure success. Anything that thousands or millions of other people aren’t already doing is likely to be met with unease from our parents, counselors, coaches, and advisors.

Moreover, the entirety of the outside world becomes something to fear if one invests in mass-media narratives (something all too easy to do, consciously or unconsciously). Every other news story is a sexual assault or homicide or bombing or school shooting or shocking accident. The news is over-saturated with exceptionally enraging, fear-inducing, and unsettling stories. This pattern communicates an inaccurate image of a world where death and danger lurk in every shadowed alley. That’s not to say that there isn’t a whole lot of frankly fucked up garbage happening in this world. There is, and we should keep our wits about us, have compassion for all, and care about helping to develop more effective systems and a sense of global solidarity.

But the point is that the media skews our perception, exaggerating stories for shock value and subtly conditioning us to expect highly improbable events to affect us. We’re taught to look out at the world and see tragedies rather than possibilities. This situation and other sources of fear become further reasons to take the cautious life-path that is advertised to us in schools and acted out all around us by the majority of citizens.

But when fear dictates our lives, we almost inevitably avoid things that beckon to us. Often times, the things that you really want to do—the stand-up comedy bit, the backpacking trip abroad, the music project, etc.—are petrifying. God forbid, we might not get the result we want or be laughed at by other people. This fear prevents most of us from “doing our thing”—i.e. expressing ourselves openly and honestly in our lives/actions, flowing intelligently with our nature. I have my fair share of fears and anxieties, but I refuse to be reduced and controlled by them—I let them be and try always to do the personally meaningful things that arise organically within me. To invoke Vonnegut once more: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

Idea #4: The products can fix you.

“It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”

— David Foster Wallace

The subtext of 99% of advertising for consumer products is this: You’re inadequate, ugly, uncool, no fun, average, predictable, prudish, and inessential, but our product can fix you. As Wallace points out in the above quote, advertisements are designed to foster in us a sense of anxiety about some aspect of our lives, to give us a sense that something is missing, but that the emptiness can be dispelled “for just $19.95!.”

This is the rhetoric of consumerist culture, and goddammit it is effective. I mean, look around you. People are working endless hours, week after week, year after year, just to throw it all away on a TV with imperceptibly higher resolution, an upgrade for their perfectly functional cell phone, silicone body parts and liposuction, a new wardrobe that won’t be “stylish” by next year, janky and extraneous gadgetry, plastic fruit, lawn ornaments, ShamWows, skin creams, throw pillows, diet pills, and infinite other bits of trivial bullshit.

The obvious point is that if any of this rubbish actually rectified the void that people try so desperately to remove from their lives, they’d stop buying. But they don’t—because making a purchase is simple and addictive and because the jolt of relief and satisfaction that arises from purchasing is fleeting as it is liberating. Rather than being any sort of real solution, consumption is merely a cyclic distraction. No amount of external accumulation can resolve internal issues and conflicts. These things require time, reflection, introspection, and a willingness to countenance unsexy truths about ourselves/life. It’s no surprise that most people try to escape this oft-uncomfortable work.

Idea #5: There are “good” people and there are “bad” people.

We all remember hearing things like “Be a good girl, Wilma.” or “Don’t be a naughty little boy, Sigmund.” From a young age, we were introduced to a set of ethical rules—rules which determined whether a person was “good” or “bad.” Most of the stories we grew up with, whether in the form of movies or books, contained morally unambiguous characters—that is, heroes and villains, the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”

Furthermore, those of us who were indoctrinated into certain Western religious institutions were taught that the species Homo sapiens is inherently sinful, and that some “good” people go to a Heaven while other “bad” people burn for eternity in Hell. In the US, at least, criminals are typically viewed not as fallible humans who made a mistake, but as irrevocably evil men who deserve decades-long prison sentences or capital punishment, rather than a second chance or rehabilitation.

This dichotomy of “good” and “bad” is firmly established in Western culture. It burrows deep into our fundamental conception of the world, generating guilt, shame, and doubt regarding our actions. I don’t deny that people are shitheads at times. Some of us do downright hideous things, and all of us make regrettable errors and end up hurting ourselves and other people we would rather not have hurt. The problem with a cultural dichotomy of “good” and “bad” is that it suggests to us that any one ephemeral mistake could have lifelong consequences, could prove that we are just downright “bad” people.

Though I personally feel we should hold ourselves largely accountable for our actions (while viewing ourselves and others with compassion), we must recognize that numerous factors beyond our control contribute to our mental state and impulses at any given time. As humans, it is a given that we will falter at some point. “The deck is stacked against us,” I often say. We will fuck up, but we will also do generous, loving things. These two poles arise mutually within us, and one allows us to experience the other, and vice versa. We are neither purely “good” nor purely “bad.” Kahlil Gibran knew this when he wrote:

“You are good in countless ways, and you
are not evil when you are not good,
You are only loitering and sluggard.
Pity that the stags cannot teach swiftness
to the turtles.”

Judging someone else to be a “bad” person is an exercise in subtle self-aggrandizement, and conversely, dwelling in excessive guilt or shame over our mistakes is entirely counterproductive. As Albert Ellis once pointed out, the most effective way to express remorse for our actions is to acknowledge that what we did was misguided and then to focus on doing better now—in the moment we can still influence.

The other thing to consider is that both “good” and “bad” might be wholly native to the human experience and not objectively real. Existence may well be amoral, as Zen, Taoism, and other schools of thought suggest. This is one of those arguably unanswerable questions I mentioned earlier. Either way, I take the position that a basic moral compass—something as simple as compassion deriving from a recognition of mutual suffering—is an indispensable component of a meaningful human life. I humbly submit that we ought to aim for kindness and understanding, remembering that all people are human, just like us.

Idea #6: You are better than “them.”

We humans naturally form our identities by contrasting ourselves with that which appears different from us. We call ourselves “artists” or “athletes” because not every person is creatively expressive or adept at sports. If everyone was, the terms “artist” and “athlete” would lose their meaning and simply be subsumed into our “human” identity—the identity we form by contrasting our physiology with that of other animals. Curiously, all of our individual identities and even our collective “human” identity are rendered illusory when we examine ourselves at the atomic or subatomic level—at this fundamental level, everything is the same—but most of us don’t focus on this most of the time. Which is okay, because it’s fun and interesting to lose oneself in the game of human identity and social existence, wherein distinctions between people are indispensable for order and civil behavior. But I digress.

Groups—distinct parcels of people often set in opposition to one another—provide an ideal opportunity for the sorts of contrasts that we rely on for a sense of identity. For this reason and others, we in the Western world endlessly divide ourselves into in-groups and out-groups. We’re jocks, hipsters, nerds, feminists, Vikings fans, environmentalists, atheists, Republicans, stoners, frat guys, bikers, vegetarians, transcendental idealists, et al.

Unfortunately, this group-based social dynamic is a slippery slope to narcissism and animosity. A healthy amount of pride in a given community identity can silently morph into an elitist sense of superiority and a desire to spite relevant out-groups or people generally who are not “in the club.” These types of attitudes have historically been and remain a mainstay in religious organizations, political parties, races, and social classes, as well as in countless other niche-groups such as the “popular” kids in a high school or a segment of health enthusiasts on the Internet or NRA members or all of the professors in a given department at a university.

Ironically, if it weren’t for all of the people that are different from you or I, we would be rendered indistinguishable from one another, retain no shape to call our own, and the whole game of human identity would be kaput. As I said above, we create our identities by contrasting ourselves with that which we are not, so maybe we ought to be thankful for those unlike us. On a deeper level, we might realize that our personal differences are illusory and temporary. We invent endless differences in an ongoing game of human drama when, at root, we are all members of the same species living on a tiny rock in a mysterious void. Beyond that, we’re all sentient beings. And beyond that, we’re all star-stuff, energy, subatomic particles.

Deciding that “we” are better than “them” has been a fatal error throughout human history leading to innumerable wars, genocides, and other unspeakable acts of brutality. We ought to aim to define ourselves first and foremost as the same fundamental stuff in an unknowable existence and realize that everything else is a little human game that we’re playing.

In sum, beware of dysfunctional cultural operating systems. Cool? Cool.

I’ll leave you with this passage—which echoes my introductory sentiments and distills the crux of this piece—from the philosopher Robert Anton Wilson:

“It’s important to abolish the unconscious dogmatism that makes people think their way of looking at reality is the only sane way of viewing the world. My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything. If one can only see things according to one’s own belief system, one is destined to become virtually deaf, dumb, and blind. It’s only possible to see people when one is able to see the world as others see it.”

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“Dominator” vs. “Partnership” Cultures: A Profound Re-Telling of Human History Wed, 14 Jan 2015 22:11:50 +0000 Continued]]>

“In sum, the struggle for our future is . . . the struggle between those who cling to patterns of domination and those working for a more equitable partnership world.”

— Riane Eisler

Recently, I’ve written a couple of essays about the present global situation. One of those essays focused on the sociocultural dysfunctions of America and the other elaborated how the 500-year history of Western colonialism and imperialism that birthed our modern world has rendered the “problems of America” inextricable from the problems of the human race.

I consider myself a collector of lenses—mental models I can employ at any time to make sense of the world and my place in it. Yesterday I happened to remember one such lens—a truly remarkable one, I think—that I overlooked in the aforementioned essays. Nonetheless, this lens seems to me a kind of keystone that further contextualizes and reinforces my arguments in those essays and has tremendous implications for the predicament we face in the present historical moment.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 1483-85. Photo Credit: Public Domain

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 1483-85. Photo Credit: Public Domain

A Story of “Dominator” and “Partnership” Cultures

Riane Eisler, a world-renowned Austrian-born American systems scientist, writer, and social activist, has proposed that we ought to understand human cultures and societies in terms of two fundamental categories: “dominator” and “partnership.” In her landmark work, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, our Future, she suggests that our conventional social categories—religious vs. secular, right vs. left, capitalist vs. communist, Eastern vs. Western, and industrial vs. pre- or post-industrial, etc.—are insufficient to describe the whole of a society’s values, beliefs, and institutions.

Eisler argues that these categories overlook the fact that, historically, many societies in all of the aforementioned categories have been unequal and violent, whereas some societies—the majority of which existed millennia ago—have been much more equalitarian and peaceful. Eisler points out that we lack a frame of analysis that encompasses the differences between these latter societies/cultures and the vast majority of societies/cultures that are prevalent today. Thus Eisler turns to the historical and archaeological record to argue that throughout human history, sociocultural systems have existed on a continuum between the extremes of “dominator” and “partnership” systems. A couple of passages from her website seem a worthy starting point for understanding the definitions and profound implications of these categories:

In the domination system, somebody has to be on top and somebody has to be on the bottom. People learn, starting in early childhood, to obey orders without question. They learn to carry a harsh voice in their heads telling them they’re no good, they don’t deserve love, they need to be punished. Families and societies are based on control that is explicitly or implicitly backed up by guilt, fear, and force. The world is divided into in-groups and out-groups, with those who are different seen as enemies to be conquered or destroyed.

In contrast, the partnership system supports mutually respectful and caring relations. Because there is no need to maintain rigid rankings of control, there is also no built-in need for abuse and violence. Partnership relations free our innate capacity to feel joy, to play. They enable us to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This is true for individuals, families, and whole societies. Conflict is an opportunity to learn and to be creative, and power is exercised in ways that empower rather than disempower others.

I’m guessing that you, like me, see your own society reflected in the description of the dominator system. Most societies existing today are paternalistic, disciplinarian, materialistic, and hierarchy-based. Judgment from peers, guilt over one’s actions, the threat of force, and fear of alienation or punishment are among the primary dictators of most people’s behavior. Groups of people are labeled, marginalized, and discriminated against based on surface-level characteristics.

Many people tend to believe that these sociocultural norms are simply an expression of “human nature” or just “how life is.” Eisler is offering an astonishing and radically different narrative. She’s turned to history, archaeology, anthropology, mythology, and other fields to conduct cross-cultural comparisons and argues convincingly that for the majority of the last ~37,000 years, humans lived primarily in partnership societies, in a global partnership culture—a state of affairs nearly unimaginable today.

For approximately 30,000 years, Eisler argues, partnership was the norm. She points to numerous societies across continents and throughout (pre-)history that appear to have been devoid of inequality in social relations and without war for many centuries at a time. These societies seem to have cherished the force that gives, rather than takes, life and worshipped the “Great Goddess,” a feminine deity representing fertility, nourishment, and the miracle of creation.

In part because of this recognition of the life-giving feminine, it seems that neither men nor women were considered superior or inferior to one another in these societies. Eisler holds that this most fundamental relationship—between man and woman—formed the basis for all other relationships and institutions in these societies, and thus that people were “linked” by their differences rather than considered “above” or “below” one another. Eisler argues that these various societies were representative of a many-millennia-spanning global trend toward partnership culture.

Rise of the Dominator

Around 5000 BC, though, a new model of social organization began to, well, dominate. In an exceptional article on Vice (highly recommended for further study of this topic) regarding Eisler’s work, Tao Lin explains Eisler’s findings:

“It wasn’t until ~5000 BC that the dominator model appeared in the form of “nomadic bands” from peripheral areas that attacked the preexisting civilizations, which were all partnership societies. Defense mechanisms like trenches and ramparts—previously nonexistent—gradually appeared. ‘These repeated incursions and ensuing culture shocks and population shifts were concentrated in three major thrusts,’ wrote Eisler, calling these ‘Wave No. 1′ (4300-4200 BC), ‘Wave No. 2′ (3400-3200 BC), and ‘Wave No. 3′ (3000-2900 BC). ‘At the core of the invaders’ system was the placing of higher value on the power that takes, rather than gives, life,’ observed Eisler. As the dominators conquered, they also began to suppress the old way of living, which meant suppressing worship of the Goddess, which meant the marginalization of women in general. The Goddess, and women, Eisler claimed, ‘were reduced to male consorts or concubines. Gradually male dominance, warfare, and the enslavement of women and of gentler, more ‘effeminate’ men became the norm.'”

Eisler argues that cultures based on domination arose somewhat spontaneously, probably during a period of relative chaos. This period may have been caused by rising populations, scarcity of resources, natural disaster, or a number of other possibilities. Partnership societies, unprepared in terms of both attitude and technology, were naturally conquered, destroyed, and suppressed by dominator peoples/societies.

The cause of the rise of the dominator system is less important than its implications for the world that would develop over the next 7,000 years (and still exists today)—a world in which the partnership model has been all but forgotten, in which war has become the norm, in which women, poor people, various races/ethnicities, and numerous other groups have been systematically subjugated and oppressed, in which the very possibilities of human life have been greatly restricted by the idea that everyone must “know his place” and submit to authority, or else.

Though the historical dominators have tended to be male (and more recently, on the global stage, white), Eisler holds that her theory of dominator/partnership cultures is not ideology-, gender-, or race-specific. In essence, any human has the propensity to dominate other humans under certain conditions. For Terence McKenna, an American philosopher who praised Eisler’s work, this was an important point:

“I don’t see it as a male disease. I think everybody in this room has a far stronger ego than they need. The great thing that Riane Eisler, in her book The Chalice and the Blade, did for this discussion was to de-genderize the terminology. Instead of talking about patriarchy and all this, what we should be talking about is dominator versus partnership society.”

McKenna, who famously coined the meme, “Culture is not your friend.,” also said this of Eisler’s work:

“Her position is that it is the tension between these two forms of social organization and the over-expression of the dominator model that is responsible for our alienation [from nature, from ourselves, and from each other]. I am in complete agreement with Eisler’s view.”


Indeed, Eisler argues that the dominator model of social organization permeates all aspects of life and experience, causing inconceivable pain, repression, and alienation that we take to be normal aspects of the human experience. She asserts that the only way to remedy this situation is to devise social structures and belief systems based on partnership instead of domination:

“We know the pain, fear, and tension of relations based on coercion and accommodation, of jockeying for control, of trying to manipulate and cajole when we are unable to express our real feelings and needs, of the tug of war for that illusory moment of power rather than powerlessness, of our unfulfilled yearning for caring and mutuality, of all the misery, suffering, and lost lives and potentials that come from these kinds of relations.

Most of us have also, at least intermittently, experienced another way of being, one where we feel safe and seen for who we truly are, where our essential humanity and that of others shines through, perhaps only for a little while, lifting our hearts and spirits, enfolding us in a sense that the world can after all be right, that we are valued and valuable.

Our human yearning for caring connections, for peace rather than war, for equality rather than inequality, for freedom rather than oppression, can be seen as part of our genetic equipment. The degree to which this yearning can be realized is not a matter of changing our genes, but of building partnership social structures and beliefs.”

For me, Eisler’s re-telling of history is marvelous and also deeply troubling. Ponder the implications of this work, and you’ll realize that the war, genocide, slavery, oppression, discrimination, and unbounded accumulation of material wealth that have characterized much of recorded history can be traced to this period ~7,000 years ago when the human race began to transition from partnership models of social organization to dominator models. That’s not to say that humans have ever been or could ever be totally non-violent—just that we could arguably be significantly more peaceful, free, and equal than we presently are.

Look around, and in every area of our societies—the family unit, the government, the military, the school system, religious institutions, business organizations—you will find hierarchy-based, authoritarian systems in which some people are considered to be “above” other people. Observe how people tend to interact with or talk about other people, and you will find gossip, judgment, belittling, and manipulation—constant leveraging for a fleeting sense of power and control. Think for a moment about how openly loving, caring for, and being kind to other people is often considered a sign of being “soft” or “weak,” whereas showing little affection, acting “macho,” and never needing another’s help or tenderness is glorified as the image of strength and heroism.

We are living on a planet in which the dominator model of social organization has become ubiquitous throughout most of the human race, shaping our fundamental assumptions about how to design institutions, how to act, and how to treat one another. This is a frightening and tragic situation that has driven our species to the brink of extinction and planetary destruction.

Thankfully, we seem to have managed at least temporarily to quell our urges to drop city-melting warheads on each other, and large-scale war may actually be disappearing. However, environmental catastrophes yet loom on the horizon, and, even if the disasters can be averted, who wants to live in a world where inequality, manipulation, conflict, exploitation, alienation, and violence are so commonplace that we often hardly notice them? Not this human.


We might be in luck, though. Eisler argues that the last three hundred years or so have seen a strong trend toward a re-discovery of partnership values, and that there may be hope for a kind of renaissance:

“The last three hundred years have seen a strong movement toward partnership. One tradition of domination after another has been challenged – from the rule of despotic kings and male dominance to economic oppression and child abuse.

But this forward movement has been fiercely resisted, and punctuated by periodic regressions. That is the bad news.

The good news is that we do not have to start from square one. Though we still have a long way to go, in bits and pieces the shift from domination to partnership is underway.

There is also strong evidence from archeology and the study of myth that the original direction in the mainstream of our cultural evolution was in a partnership direction. So much that today may seem new and even radical, such as gender equality and a more peaceful way of life, has ancient roots going back thousands of years, before the cultural shift toward domination about 5000 years ago.

During much of recorded history, rankings of domination – man over man, man over woman, race over race, nation over nation, and humans over nature – have been the norm. But in our time of nuclear and biological weapons and high technology in service of the once hallowed ‘conquest of nature,’ high technology guided by an ethos of domination could take us to an evolutionary dead end.

In sum, the struggle for our future is not between East and West, North and South, religion or secularism, capitalism or socialism, but within all these. It is the struggle between those who cling to patterns of domination and those working for a more equitable partnership world.

Each one of us can contribute to the partnership movement. We can change by example, education, and advocacy. We can shift our relations from domination to partnership – starting with our day-to-day relations all the way to how we relate to our mother earth.”

If you pause and reflect, you’ll note that in a little over 150 years, the United States has seen the end of slavery, the attainment of suffrage for all citizens, legislated equality for all genders and races/ethnicities, major strides toward legislated equality for all sexual orientations, paradigm-shattering environmental initiatives, and major steps toward the legalization of cannabis and a saner drug policy generally. The Occupy Movements have challenged systemic economic and social inequality worldwide, and in many places ideas such as universal health care, free higher education, and a Standard Basic Income have been implemented or are taking hold. I take these facts to be indications that a renaissance of partnership values is presently occurring on this planet—that the human race has begun collectively to realize that it now faces an ultimatum: cooperate with each other and the planet, or self-destruct.

Pushing this movement forward begins with each of us—with the day-to-day, unglamorous decisions we can make to treat people as equals, to show respect and kindness, to try to imagine the lives of others, and to openly express and demonstrate love and affection. We can have candid, gentle conversations with others about these ideas. We can support humanitarian projects and political reforms that aim for a more equal, compassionate, open, sustainable society. We can create videos, blogs, music, social media content, and other art or projects that challenge the status quo and contain messages of love and togetherness. The Internet can help us and might just be the supreme tool for greatly accelerating this transition/renaissance. In these ways, we can continue to re-orient the collective human enterprise away from division, inequality, alienation, and domination toward unity, equality, openness, partnership, and love.

If this process is indeed occurring and will continue to occur, it will be a slow one. We shouldn’t conceive of it as something that will occur in our lifetime, but rather, as a revival that began centuries ago and will continue indefinitely into the future. We must think in terms of what one special professor I was privileged to work with calls the “long now”—a term referring to the long-term resonances, amplifications, and ripple effects that can result from the smaller-scale work we are able to do in this moment.

Rather than feeling discouraged by the timescale of this reclamation of partnership values, we ought to feel privileged to be living in the midst of such revolutionary changes, to be working to re-direct several thousand years of cultural momentum, to be contributing to monumental and exciting changes in the human enterprise. Signs abound that this renaissance in human thinking is happening and accelerating, and I for one feel that contributing to its potency and reach is about the most important thing any of us can do.

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Note: This summary of Eisler’s work is necessarily reductive and incomplete. I tried to touch on the main premises of her argument, but I’ve hardly scratched the surface of her work. If this topic is of interest to you, I highly recommend further study. Start here:

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Do Something: A Short Diatribe Wed, 07 Jan 2015 20:54:41 +0000 Continued]]> “Be quiet, play by the rules, stand in line,” the system implicitly tells us.

To hell with that. Break the rules. Open your eyes. Make some noise. Our institutions and sociocultural structures are failing us, and now is the time to take notice. Economic inequality has never been greater. Billions of people are living in poverty, starving, and/or dying of preventable diseases. Hate and misunderstanding abound. Education is broken. Wars rage on. Our air is unclean. Our food is full of chemicals. Environmental crises loom. The list is endless.

Portrait of G. Courbet, Author Unknown. Photo Credit: Public Domain

Portrait of G. Courbet, Author Unknown. Photo Credit: Public Domain

Don’t let this depress or paralyze you. Don’t wallow in self-pity and ask why you had to be born into such a shitty epoch. Every epoch has been both hideous and gorgeous in countless ways. Ours is arguably better, in many regards, than any prior time in human history. We’re simply more aware of the corruption, suffering, and violence nowadays in this so-called Age of Information. With that awareness comes a certain amount of responsibility. Most people choose to ignore or escape the shittiness/suffering or claim that it’s someone else’s problem. I say again: to hell with that. We’re all drifting through this bizarre void on this tiny rock together. We’re a deeply interconnected global community sharing finite space and resources; our actions unavoidably affect everyone else.


Thus we’ve got to care, on an individual level, about changing our collective ways. We’ve got to extend our individual vision and sphere of compassion to encompass all living beings—everyone affected by our common predicament. If we don’t, we will continue to disregard the billions of people and animals who have been on the losing end of the last few hundred years of history. We will continue to condemn, exploit, dominate, dehumanize, compete with, and discriminate against one another, instead of sharing, loving, and cooperating. We will continue to pollute the planet and sap its resources until scarcity and environmental disasters foment widespread conflict, pandemonium, and global catastrophes.

Our situation is phenomenally difficult for any one of us to grasp. I certainly don’t claim to understand this hyper-complex historical moment or to know how I ought to live in the midst of it. No single person grasps the convoluted web of technologies that now permeate the planet and allow our modern world to function. We are arguably not built to fathom, let alone care about, seven billion humans, and that’s saying nothing of the 8.7 million other species on Earth. Most of us find it difficult (or lack the luxury of spare time necessary) to see beyond our own immediate context—to consider how our day-to-day actions affect people across the world, or how they will affect our descendants two hundred or two thousand years from now.

But I don’t need to grasp fully our situation to perceive the unsustainability and injustice inherent in our current system. I don’t need to have all of the answers to begin making small-scale efforts to change my own lifestyle and affect the larger human enterprise. I would argue that the urgency of our present situation dictates that we cannot wait for some crystallized understanding that may never come. We must undertake the work of educating ourselves, changing our lifestyles, and contributing to various movements and initiatives that aim to fundamentally alter our global systems.

This doesn’t mean that any of us have to make a 180-degree change overnight. We can’t. The process of becoming more active, caring humans is unending. It doesn’t have to consume all of our time, and it might even be enjoyable. Make small, gradual, conscious efforts to become a kinder, more generous person. Raise your voice on social media and in the “real world” against injustice and in support of humanitarian efforts. Attend protests. Subvert and disrupt the status quo. Make some art. Plant a garden. Form real communities. Become a more conscious consumer. Recycle. Educate yourself in conventional and unconventional ways. Donate to worthy causes. Become minimalist. Strive to find work that helps others and is in some way an expression of self. Seek love and truth, not wealth and comfort. Travel to gain perspective. Have empathy. Promote peace. Disregard the critics. Realize that your every action is in some way political, whether you like it or not. Vote for a more just, open, humane, sustainable system in the way you live your day-to-day life.

Recognize that in spite of all of the darkness, much beauty, joy, and love still exist in this world. Don’t forget to perceive and pursue those wonderful things in your own life―existence hardly seems worth it without them. Feel and express gratitude. Much needs to be changed and re-imagined, but you’re still alive, and that means infinite possibilities. It’s an adventure, and no one knows what the hell is really happening, so chill, soak it in, do your thing. But begin to open up to the idea that “doing your thing” might involve positively impacting the people around you, your local community, and the entire global shindig.

It could be cool: a couple new habits here, a bit more awareness there. Ripple effect, ripple effect. Yes. You have more power than you know.

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