Conquer Your Fear

Apr 062012

A fourth grade girl screws up her courage to make her first ski jump:

The beginning is hard to watch, but the ending is awesome!

Just a few hours after I watched this video, I read this amazing news story about an 80-year-old woman, without any training in flying, landing a plane after her husband collapsed.

“She was remarkable on the radio,” Keith Kasbohm of the Door County Cherryland Airport said of Monday’s incident. “She kept her composure and sounded like she had been a pilot for years. She knew what to do when they told her ‘flaps down, increase the throttle, increase the trim.’ She was doing it well.”

Sadly, her husband died, but she saved her own life (and gave him every chance at life) by acting sensibly under such difficult circumstances.

Too many people, accustomed to indulging their emotions in ordinary life, collapse under the pressure of difficult circumstances. Unless saved by sheer luck or some rational person, they suffer failure, pain, loss, injury, and even death.

Life requires that a person govern his emotions by his reason in the ways advocated by Aristotle. If your emotions are not in harmony with your reason, then you’ve got to work on your moral psychology. Your life and happiness depends on it!

Ayn Rand on Dictatorship and Aristotle on Tyranny

Aug 302011

Note: I wrote this for Modern Paleo last week, but I thought it might be of interest here.

In her 1964 Playboy interview, Ayn Rand identifies the four core qualities of a dictatorship as follows.

PLAYBOY: What is the dividing line, by your definition, between a mixed economy and a dictatorship?

RAND: A dictatorship has four characteristics: one-party rule, executions without trial for political offenses, expropriation or nationalization of private property, and censorship. Above all, this last. So long as men can speak and write freely, so long as there is no censorship, they still have a chance to reform their society or to put it on a better road. When censorship is imposed, that is the sign that men should go on strike intellectually, by which I mean, should not cooperate with the social system in any way whatever.

In Book 5, Chapter 11 of his Politics, Aristotle discusses the means by which the worst kind of tyrant maintains his power. Aristotle’s comments delve into the psychology of tyranny, as opposed to its outer forms. On reading them again, I’m amazed to see how well his observations apply to modern tyrannies. (I’ve added extra paragraph breaks to make the text more readable.)

There are firstly the prescriptions mentioned some distance back, for the preservation of a tyranny, in so far as this is possible; viz., that the tyrant should lop off those who are too high; he must put to death men of spirit; he must not allow common meals, clubs, education, and the like; he must be upon his guard against anything which is likely to inspire either courage or confidence among his subjects; he must prohibit literary assemblies or other meetings for discussion, and he must take every means to prevent people from knowing one another (for acquaintance begets mutual confidence). Further, he must compel all persons staying in the city to appear in public and live at his gates; then he will know what they are doing: if they are always kept under, they will learn to be humble. In short, he should practice these and the like Persian and barbaric arts, which all have the same object.

A tyrant should also endeavor to know what each of his subjects says or does, and should employ spies, like the ‘female detectives’ at Syracuse, and the eavesdroppers whom Hiero was in the habit of sending to any place of resort or meeting; for the fear of informers prevents people from speaking their minds, and if they do, they are more easily found out.

Another art of the tyrant is to sow quarrels among the citizens; friends should be embroiled with friends, the people with the notables, and the rich with one another. Also he should impoverish his subjects; he thus provides against the maintenance of a guard by the citizen and the people, having to keep hard at work, are prevented from conspiring. The Pyramids of Egypt afford an example of this policy; also the offerings of the family of Cypselus, and the building of the temple of Olympian Zeus by the Peisistratidae, and the great Polycratean monuments at Samos; all these works were alike intended to occupy the people and keep them poor.

Another practice of tyrants is to multiply taxes, after the manner of Dionysius at Syracuse, who contrived that within five years his subjects should bring into the treasury their whole property. The tyrant is also fond of making war in order that his subjects may have something to do and be always in want of a leader. And whereas the power of a king is preserved by his friends, the characteristic of a tyrant is to distrust his friends, because he knows that all men want to overthrow him, and they above all have the power.

… the tyrant also has those who associate with him in a humble spirit, which is a work of flattery. Hence tyrants are always fond of bad men, because they love to be flattered, but no man who has the spirit of a freeman in him will lower himself by flattery; good men love others, or at any rate do not flatter them. Moreover, the bad are useful for bad purposes; ‘nail knocks out nail,’ as the proverb says. It is characteristic of a tyrant to dislike every one who has dignity or independence; he wants to be alone in his glory, but any one who claims a like dignity or asserts his independence encroaches upon his prerogative, and is hated by him as an enemy to his power. Another mark of a tyrant is that he likes foreigners better than citizens, and lives with them and invites them to his table; for the one are enemies, but the others enter into no rivalry with him.

Such are the notes of the tyrant and the arts by which he preserves his power; there is no wickedness too great for him. All that we have said may be summed up under three heads, which answer to the three aims of the tyrant. These are, (1) the humiliation of his subjects; he knows that a mean-spirited man will not conspire against anybody; (2) the creation of mistrust among them; for a tyrant is not overthrown until men begin to have confidence in one another; and this is the reason why tyrants are at war with the good; they are under the idea that their power is endangered by them, not only because they would not be ruled despotically but also because they are loyal to one another, and to other men, and do not inform against one another or against other men; (3) the tyrant desires that his subjects shall be incapable of action, for no one attempts what is impossible, and they will not attempt to overthrow a tyranny, if they are powerless.

Under these three heads the whole policy of a tyrant may be summed up, and to one or other of them all his ideas may be referred: (1) he sows distrust among his subjects; (2) he takes away their power; (3) he humbles them.

How much of these qualities do we see in America today? More than I’d like — particularly in light of the ever-increasing meddling by the government with almost every facet of our lives. (Yes, that includes our food supply and our health!) Still, we have quite a ways to go before we’re faced with the prospect of dictatorship. So what must we do to protect freedom in America? Talk, while we still can! Here’s Ayn Rand again:

PLAYBOY: Short of such a strike [of refusing to "cooperate with the social system in any way whatever"] , what do you believe ought to be done to bring about the societal changes you deem desirable?

RAND: It is ideas that determine social trends, that create or destroy social systems. Therefore, the right ideas, the right philosophy, should be advocated and spread. The disasters of the modern world, including the destruction of capitalism, were caused by the altruist-collectivist philosophy. It is altruism that men should reject.

PLAYBOY: And how would you define altruism?

RAND: It is a moral system which holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the sole justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, value and virtue. This is the moral base of collectivism, of all dictatorships. In order to seek freedom and capitalism, men need a nonmystical, nonaltruistic, rational code of ethics — a morality which holds that man is not a sacrificial animal, that he has the right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor others to himself. In other words, what is desperately needed today is the ethics of Objectivism.

Ayn Rand’s essay on the foundations of her ethics is The Objectivist Ethics. That and other essays on her ethics can be found in The Virtue of Selfishness.

I just can’t resist quoting this last segment:

PLAYBOY: Do you believe that Objectivism as a philosophy will eventually sweep the world?

RAND: Nobody can answer a question of that kind. Men have free will. There is no guarantee that they will choose to be rational, at any one time or in any one generation. Nor is it necessary for a philosophy to “sweep the world.” If you ask the question in a somewhat different form, if you say, do I think that Objectivism will be the philosophy of the future, I would say yes, but with this qualification: If men turn to reason, if they are not destroyed by dictatorship and precipitated into another Dark Ages, if men remain free long enough to have time to think, then Objectivism is the philosophy they will accept.


RAND: In any historical period when men were free, it has always been the most rational philosophy that won. It is from this perspective that I would say, yes, Objectivism will win. But there is no guarantee, no predetermined necessity about it.

PLAYBOY: You are sharply critical of the world as you see it today, and your books offer radical proposals for changing not merely the shape of society, but the very way in which most men work, think and love. Are you optimistic about man’s future?

RAND: Yes, I am optimistic. Collectivism, as an intellectual power and a moral ideal, is dead. But freedom and individualism, and their political expression, capitalism, have not yet been discovered. I think men will have time to discover them. It is significant that the dying collectivist philosophy of today has produced nothing but a cult of depravity, impotence and despair. Look at modern art and literature with their image of man as a helpless, mindless creature doomed to failure, frustration and destruction. This may be the collectivists’ psychological confession, but it is not an image of man. If it were, we would never have risen from the cave. But we did. Look around you and look at history. You will see the achievements of man’s mind. You will see man’s unlimited potentiality for greatness, and the faculty that makes it possible. You will see that man is not a helpless monster by nature, but he becomes one when he discards that faculty: his mind. And if you ask me, what is greatness? — I will answer, it is the capacity to live by the three fundamental values of John Galt: reason, purpose, self esteem.

Volition in Animals

Feb 152010

I’m always amazed that Conrad seems to take an instant liking to some dogs at the dog park, and an instant dislike to others. However, this story of instant love between an oragutan and a dog takes the cake:

Unlike my friend Kelly, I don’t think that the video suggests that the orangutan exercises volition. Volition (or free will) is not merely the power to choose between alternatives based on values. It requires reason (in the sense of the faculty of reason); it’s the power to focus one’s rational mind or not, simply as a matter of will. That’s not evident in this video… yet nor can the behavior be explained by vacuous appeals to “instinct.” Instead, the orangutan exhibits highly complex behavior, probably largely based on associational learning and imagination. He doesn’t seem to have concepts though, and that means no faculty of reason and no power of volition.

I propose that his actions should be described as “voluntary” but not “chosen.” As per Aristotle’s usage, some action is voluntary if (1) the agent has the power to do or not do the action and (2) he knows what he’s doing at the moment of action. To act by choice requires more: it requires acting based on rational deliberation, meaning the exercise of volition.

Aristotle thought that some beasts act voluntarily at least sometimes, and I agree with that. More neurologically advanced animals seem to have the power to act voluntarily on a perceptual level: they can do or not do some action, in part based on their power to direct their own perceptual-level attention. So a dog can voluntarily prevent itself from chasing the cat by directing its attention elsewhere. And animals have the power to know what they’re doing, in a perceptual way, as opposed to when they’re acting on some kind of mistake. So that dog knows whether he’s chasing the cat or playing with his toy. Hence, the dog does act voluntarily but not by volitional choice.

In short, we need to be careful about what we mean by “volition” when attributing that to animals. Also, we must keep in mind that denying volition to animals is not equivalent to claiming that they’re deterministic robots. Some more subtlety is needed, I think. And that can be found in Aristotle — particularly Book 3, Chapters 1-5 of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Aristotle on the Mean

Oct 282009

One of my past-fellow philosophy graduate students at Boulder recent reported on the following response to a quiz question:

Question: “Illustrate the Doctrine of the Mean using the virtue of courage.”

Response: “Too little courage makes you cowardly. Too much courage makes you an asshole.”


Why I Love Aristotle, Reason #82721

Feb 102009

Here’s a delightful passage from the Nicomachean Ethics, Book 7, Chapter 6:

That incontinence [i.e. lack of self-control] in respect of anger is less disgraceful than that in respect of the appetites is what we will now proceed to see.

Anger seems to listen to argument to some extent, but to mishear it, as do hasty servants who run out before they have heard the whole of what one says, and then muddle the order, or as dogs bark if there is but a knock at the door, before looking to see if it is a friend; so anger by reason of the warmth and hastiness of its nature, though it hears, does not hear an order, and springs to take revenge. For argument or imagination informs us that we have been insulted or slighted, and anger, reasoning as it were that anything like this must be fought against, boils up straightway; while appetite, if argument or perception merely says that an object is pleasant, springs to the enjoyment of it. Therefore anger obeys the argument in a sense, but appetite does not. It is therefore more disgraceful; for the man who is incontinent in respect of anger is in a sense conquered by argument, while the other is conquered by appetite and not by argument.

Aristotle is correct to say that indulgence in unjustified anger requires some kind of rational judgment, whereas indulgence in mere appetites (i.e. bodily pleasures) does not. I’m not certain that the difference makes indulgence in anger less disgraceful than indulgence in appetites; I’m doubtful that such a comparison is sensible. (The argument above is not Aristotle’s only argument for that conclusion, however. He offers quite a few in that chapter.)

Regardless of such concerns, what I love about this passage is his analogy to the hasty servant and the barking dog. That’s just priceless — and oh so much like Aristotle.

Aristotle on Anger and Laughter

Jan 132008

An interesting tidbit from Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

The emotions are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgments, and that are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear and the like, with their opposites. We must arrange what we have to say about each of them under three heads. Take, for instance, the emotion of anger: here we must discover (1) what the state of mind of angry people is, (2) who the people are with whom they usually get angry, and (3) on what grounds they get angry with them. It is not enough to know one or even two of these points; unless we know all three, we shall be unable to arouse anger in any one. The same is true of the other emotions.

Aristotle’s subsequent dissection of anger is particularly interesting for its view of proper and improper humor. (I’ve added some paragraph breaks to the online text to make it more readable. And yes, it’s well worth reading in full.)

Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one’s friends. If this is a proper definition of anger, it must always be felt towards some particular individual, e.g. Cleon, and not ‘man’ in general. It must be felt because the other has done or intended to do something to him or one of his friends. It must always be attended by a certain pleasure–that which arises from the expectation of revenge. For since nobody aims at what he thinks he cannot attain, the angry man is aiming at what he can attain, and the belief that you will attain your aim is pleasant. Hence it has been well said about wrath,

Sweeter it is by far than the honeycomb dripping with sweetness,
And spreads through the hearts of men.

It is also attended by a certain pleasure because the thoughts dwell upon the act of vengeance, and the images then called up cause pleasure, like the images called up in dreams.

Now slighting is the actively entertained opinion of something as obviously of no importance. We think bad things, as well as good ones, have serious importance; and we think the same of anything that tends to produce such things, while those which have little or no such tendency we consider unimportant.

There are three kinds of slighting–contempt, spite, and insolence. (1) Contempt is one kind of slighting: you feel contempt for what you consider unimportant, and it is just such things that you slight. (2) Spite is another kind; it is a thwarting another man’s wishes, not to get something yourself but to prevent his getting it. The slight arises just from the fact that you do not aim at something for yourself: clearly you do not think that he can do you harm, for then you would be afraid of him instead of slighting him, nor yet that he can do you any good worth mentioning, for then you would be anxious to make friends with him. (3) Insolence is also a form of slighting, since it consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to yourself, or because anything has happened to yourself, but simply for the pleasure involved. (Retaliation is not ‘insolence’, but vengeance.)

The cause of the pleasure thus enjoyed by the insolent man is that he thinks himself greatly superior to others when ill-treating them. That is why youths and rich men are insolent; they think themselves superior when they show insolence. One sort of insolence is to rob people of the honour due to them; you certainly slight them thus; for it is the unimportant, for good or evil, that has no honour paid to it. So Achilles says in anger:

He hath taken my prize for himself and hath done me dishonour,


Like an alien honoured by none,

meaning that this is why he is angry. A man expects to be specially respected by his inferiors in birth, in capacity, in goodness, and generally in anything in which he is much their superior: as where money is concerned a wealthy man looks for respect from a poor man; where speaking is concerned, the man with a turn for oratory looks for respect from one who cannot speak; the ruler demands the respect of the ruled, and the man who thinks he ought to be a ruler demands the respect of the man whom he thinks he ought to be ruling. Hence it has been said

Great is the wrath of kings, whose father is Zeus almighty,


Yea, but his rancour abideth long afterward also,

their great resentment being due to their great superiority. Then again a man looks for respect from those who he thinks owe him good treatment, and these are the people whom he has treated or is treating well, or means or has meant to treat well, either himself, or through his friends, or through others at his request.

It will be plain by now, from what has been said, (1) in what frame of mind, (2) with what persons, and (3) on what grounds people grow angry. (1) The frame of mind is that of one in which any pain is being felt. In that condition, a man is always aiming at something. Whether, then, another man opposes him either directly in any way, as by preventing him from drinking when he is thirsty, or indirectly, the act appears to him just the same; whether some one works against him, or fails to work with him, or otherwise vexes him while he is in this mood, he is equally angry in all these cases.

Hence people who are afflicted by sickness or poverty or love or thirst or any other unsatisfied desires are prone to anger and easily roused: especially against those who slight their present distress. Thus a sick man is angered by disregard of his illness, a poor man by disregard of his poverty, a man aging war by disregard of the war he is waging, a lover by disregard of his love, and so throughout, any other sort of slight being enough if special slights are wanting. Each man is predisposed, by the emotion now controlling him, to his own particular anger.

Further, we are angered if we happen to be expecting a contrary result: for a quite unexpected evil is specially painful, just as the quite unexpected fulfillment of our wishes is specially pleasant. Hence it is plain what seasons, times, conditions, and periods of life tend to stir men easily to anger, and where and when this will happen; and it is plain that the more we are under these conditions the more easily we are stirred.

These, then, are the frames of mind in which men are easily stirred to anger. The persons with whom we get angry are those who laugh, mock, or jeer at us, for such conduct is insolent. Also those who inflict injuries upon us that are marks of insolence. These injuries must be such as are neither retaliatory nor profitable to the doers: for only then will they be felt to be due to insolence. Also those who speak ill of us, and show contempt for us, in connexion with the things we ourselves most care about: thus those who are eager to win fame as philosophers get angry with those who show contempt for their philosophy; those who pride themselves upon their appearance get angry with those who show contempt for their appearance and so on in other cases. We feel particularly angry on this account if we suspect that we are in fact, or that people think we are, lacking completely or to any effective extent in the qualities in question. For when we are convinced that we excel in the qualities for which we are jeered at, we can ignore the jeering.

Again, we are angrier with our friends than with other people, since we feel that our friends ought to treat us well and not badly. We are angry with those who have usually treated us with honour or regard, if a change comes and they behave to us otherwise: for we think that they feel contempt for us, or they would still be behaving as they did before. And with those who do not return our kindnesses or fail to return them adequately, and with those who oppose us though they are our inferiors: for all such persons seem to feel contempt for us; those who oppose us seem to think us inferior to themselves, and those who do not return our kindnesses seem to think that those kindnesses were conferred by inferiors. And we feel particularly angry with men of no account at all, if they slight us. For, by our hypothesis, the anger caused by the slight is felt towards people who are not justified in slighting us, and our inferiors are not thus justified.

Again, we feel angry with friends if they do not speak well of us or treat us well; and still more, if they do the contrary; or if they do not perceive our needs, which is why Plexippus is angry with Meleager in Antiphon’s play; for this want of perception shows that they are slighting us–we do not fail to perceive the needs of those for whom we care. Again we are angry with those who rejoice at our misfortunes or simply keep cheerful in the midst of our misfortunes, since this shows that they either hate us or are slighting us. Also with those who are indifferent to the pain they give us: this is why we get angry with bringers of bad news. And with those who listen to stories about us or keep on looking at our weaknesses; this seems like either slighting us or hating us; for those who love us share in all our distresses and it must distress any one to keep on looking at his own weaknesses.

Further, [we feel angry] with those who slight us before five classes of people: namely, (1) our rivals, (2) those whom we admire, (3) those whom we wish to admire us, (4) those for whom we feel reverence, (5) those who feel reverence for us: if any one slights us before such persons, we feel particularly angry. Again, we feel angry with those who slight us in connexion with what we are as honourable men bound to champion–our parents, children, wives, or subjects. And with those who do not return a favour, since such a slight is unjustifiable. Also with those who reply with humorous levity when we are speaking seriously, for such behaviour indicates contempt. And with those who treat us less well than they treat everybody else; it is another mark of contempt that they should think we do not deserve what every one else deserves. Forgetfulness, too, causes anger, as when our own names are forgotten, trifling as this may be; since forgetfulness is felt to be another sign that we are being slighted; it is due to negligence, and to neglect us is to slight us.

The persons with whom we feel anger, the frame of mind in which we feel it, and the reasons why we feel it, have now all been set forth. Clearly the orator will have to speak so as to bring his hearers into a frame of mind that will dispose them to anger, and to represent his adversaries as open to such charges and possessed of such qualities as do make people angry.

Just consider the contrast: in our modern world, expressing any anger in response to insolent remarks suggests the grave moral defect of failing to laugh at yourself. What a horrible package-deal that is! To laugh at one’s own trivial, silly errors is a far cry from laughing at one’s most precious values. Yet so many people fail to see the difference — or refuse to do so.

Aristotle on Trust

Jul 022006

Yet delightful tidbit from Aristotle’s Rhetoric, this time on trust:

There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character–the three, namely, that induce us to believe a thing apart from any proof of it: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill. False statements and bad advice are due to one or more of the following three causes. Men either form a false opinion through want of good sense; or they form a true opinion, but because of their moral badness do not say what they really think; or finally, they are both sensible and upright, but not well disposed to their hearers, and may fail in consequence to recommend what they know to be the best course. These are the only possible cases. It follows that any one who is thought to have all three of these good qualities will inspire trust in his audience. The way to make ourselves thought to be sensible and morally good must be gathered from the analysis of goodness already given: the way to establish your own goodness is the same as the way to establish that of others.

Are Aristotle’s three qualities to inspire trust — good sense, good character, and goodwill — genuinely exhaustive?

Aristotle on Diviners

Jun 242006

Skeptics — in the sense of debunkers of paranormal claims — often observe that supposed psychics usually speak in vague generalities, subtly allow their audience to fill in the details, then claim to have divined that information. So the psychics seem to know a great deal that they couldn’t possibly know — at least to the gullible eager to believe. To my delight, Aristotle makes the same basic point in his Rhetoric. In the course of offering five elements of the “correctness of language” at “the foundation of good style,” he says:

(3) The third is to avoid ambiguities; unless, indeed, you definitely desire to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something. Such people are apt to put that sort of thing into verse. Empedocles, for instance, by his long circumlocutions imposes on his hearers; these are affected in the same way as most people are when they listen to diviners, whose ambiguous utterances are received with nods of acquiescence-

Croesus by crossing the Halys will ruin a mighty realm.

Diviners use these vague generalities about the matter in hand because their predictions are thus, as a rule, less likely to be falsified. We are more likely to be right, in the game of ‘odd and even’, if we simply guess ‘even’ or ‘odd’ than if we guess at the actual number; and the oracle-monger is more likely to be right if he simply says that a thing will happen than if he says when it will happen, and therefore he refuses to add a definite date. All these ambiguities have the same sort of effect, and are to be avoided unless we have some such object as that mentioned.

The line about Croesus refers to this great story recounted by Herodotus.

As for those who “definitely desire to be ambiguous,” such as “those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something,” I’d like to nominate the academic work of Chris Sciabarra. For example, consider the “Dialectics in Rand’s Philosophy” section of “this essay. (It’s a slightly edited version of the initial discussion of Ayn Rand’s supposed “dialectics” from the introduction to The Russian Radical, pages 16-18.) Here’s a taste:

It is this emphasis on the totality that is essential to the dialectical mode of inquiry. Dialectics is not merely a repudiation of formal dualism. It is a method that preserves the analytical integrity of the whole. While it recommends study of the whole from the vantage point of any part, it eschews reification, that is, it avoids the abstraction of a part from the whole and its illegitimate conceptualization as a whole unto itself. The dialectical method recognizes that what is separable in thought is not separable in reality.

Moreover, dialectics requires the examination of the whole both systemically and historically. From a systemic perspective, it grasps the parts as structurally interrelated, or “internally related,” both constituting the whole, while being constituted by it. For example, Rand, as a dialectical thinker, would not disconnect any single theoretical issue, such as the problem of free will, from its broader philosophic context. She necessarily examines a host of connected issues, including the efficacy of consciousness, the nature of causality, and the reciprocal relationships between epistemology, ethics, and politics.

From a historical perspective, dialectics grasps that any system emerges over time, that it has a past, a present, and a future. Frequently, the dialectical thinker examines the dynamic tensions within a system, the internal conflicts or “contradictions” which require resolution. He or she refuses to disconnect factors, events, problems, and issues from each other or from the system which they jointly constitute. He or she views social problems not discretely, but in terms of the root systemic conditions which they both reflect and sustain.

The dialectical thinker seeks not merely to understand the system, but to alter it fundamentally. Hence, a dialectical analysis is both critical and revolutionary in its implications. Thus, Rand, as a dialectical thinker, does not analyze a specific racial conflict, for example, without examining a host of historically-constituted epistemic, ethical, psychological, cultural, political, and economic factors that both generate racism–and perpetuate it. In Rand’s view, racism–like all vestiges of statism–must be transcended systemically.

Translation from Polish: Ayn Rand integrated her knowledge.

Analytic philosophers are often terrible writers, often to the point that their basic ideas cannot be understood. However, the brazen assertion of deliberate obfuscation as complex and difficult thought requires the slippery goo of postmodernism. And that’s exactly what Chris Sciabarra uses to conceal the lack of substance in his academic writings. And yes, I do think the impenetrable style of the above passage — and the rest of The Russian Radical — is deliberate obfuscation rather than incompetence or laziness. The tip-off is not merely the lack of substance underneath all those fancy words, nor the careful consistency of the style, but the simple fact that Chris routinely writes clearly and forthrightly in other contexts. So he can do better, but chooses not to.

Thankfully, most academic philosophers disdain the bullshit style practiced by Chris Sciabarra and his postmodern brothers. If they didn’t, I surely would have quit philosophy long ago.

Aristotle on Pity

Jun 202006

Aristotle’s discussion of various emotions is perhaps the most fascinating part of his Rhetoric. In the case of pity, I’m struck by the difference between his concept of pity and our modern concept thereof. In particular, notice that Aristotle holds that the object of pity must be morally good — and thus not deserving of his fate. (I’ve added paragraph breaks for readability.)

Let us now consider pity, asking ourselves what things excite pity, and for what persons, and in what states of our mind pity is felt. Pity may be defined as a feeling of pain caused by the sight of some evil, destructive or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it, and which we might expect to befall ourselves or some friend of ours, and moreover to befall us soon.

In order to feel pity, we must obviously be capable of supposing that some evil may happen to us or some friend of ours, and moreover some such evil as is stated in our definition or is more or less of that kind. It is therefore not felt by those completely ruined, who suppose that no further evil can befall them, since the worst has befallen them already; nor by those who imagine themselves immensely fortunate–their feeling is rather presumptuous insolence, for when they think they possess all the good things of life, it is clear that the impossibility of evil befalling them will be included, this being one of the good things in question. Those who think evil may befall them are such as have already had it befall them and have safely escaped from it; elderly men, owing to their good sense and their experience; weak men, especially men inclined to cowardice; and also educated people, since these can take long views. Also those who have parents living, or children, or wives; for these are our own, and the evils mentioned above may easily befall them. And those who neither moved by any courageous emotion such as anger or confidence (these emotions take no account of the future), nor by a disposition to presumptuous insolence (insolent men, too, take no account of the possibility that something evil will happen to them), nor yet by great fear (panic-stricken people do not feel pity, because they are taken up with what is happening to themselves); only those feel pity who are between these two extremes.

In order to feel pity we must also believe in the goodness of at least some people; if you think nobody good, you will believe that everybody deserves evil fortune. And, generally, we feel pity whenever we are in the condition of remembering that similar misfortunes have happened to us or ours, or expecting them to happen in the future.

In contrast to Aristotle’s definition, simply defines pity as “sympathy and sorrow aroused by the misfortune or suffering of another.” No innocence or goodness required for the object of pity. That’s why it’s perfectly sensible in contemporary usage to pity the person who suffers through his own faults, e.g. the alcoholic bum living in a cardboard box or the dishonest woman estranged from all her friends.

I’m intrigued by these kinds of conceptual differences in moral terms from the Greeks and Romans to today, largely because those differences often indicate just how thoroughly our culture has been saturated by altruism. A justice-oriented culture cares whether a person suffers by his own hand. It scorns such voluntary suffering, reserving pity for the innocent. In contrast, an altruistic culture cares for nothing but the suffering, ignoring the cause or justice thereof.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric

Jun 172006

A few months ago, I listened to Aristotle’s Rhetoric. (It’s available from, packaged with his Poetics and Topics.) Although I’ve read it before, it has been some years. The work contains a great deal of interest beyond the narrow topic suggested by the title. For example, it includes some helpful discussion of voluntary action in relation to luck, a topic on which I’ve written some and expect to write more. And here’s a little gem:

We shall learn the qualities of governments in the same way as we learn the qualities of individuals, since they are revealed in their deliberate acts of choice; and these are determined by the end that inspires them.

Ah, how simply put! We can infer the desired ends of a person based upon the actions he chooses over time, precisely because those actions aim at those desired ends. And a person’s desired ends reveals much about his character. In determining the goals which motivate a person, actions speak much louder than words.

So a Marxist professor may claim as loudly as he likes that he’s deeply concerned for the plight of the world’s poor, but his persistent advocacy of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” responsible for killing, starving, and torturing hundreds of millions of people tells us much, much more about his actual desires — and his character. Or an self-described Objectivist organization may claim to promote Ayn Rand’s philosophy, yet offer the originators of unjust and dishonest attacks upon her person and philosophy platforms upon which to do even more damage. Although they claim to be promoting “open and honest discussion of ideas” amongst “honest individuals” so that “truth win[s] out in the end,” their refusal to even read The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics speaks volumes.

In all of these cases, and so many others, the person’s actions tell us so much more his goals and his character than do his empty words.

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