One of the most annoying constructions of contemporary sociology is Richard Florida’s conception of the “creative class.” Florida isn’t necessarily wrong in his claims, and indeed I am sympathetic to some of his arguments, though much of his analysis turns upon taking a naïve conception of creativity and moving the goal posts so that this intuitive conception of creativity comes to be bestowed upon patently uncreative individuals who pad the ranks of the corporate hierarchy. By marginalizing a “Bohemian” creative class and putting at the center of his analysis the suits who congratulate themselves on being creative, he has arguably misconstrued the sources of creativity in society, but that is not what I want to focus on today.

Here is how Florida defines his “creative class”:

“I define the core of the Creative Class to include people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. Around this core, the Creative Class also includes a broader group of creative professionals in business and finance, law, health care, and related fields. These people engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital. In addition, all members of the Creative Class — whether they are artists or engineers, musicians or computer scientists, writers or entrepreneurs — share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit.”

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, second edition, pp. 8-9

Florida’s use of the phrase “high human capital individuals” (employed throughout his book) begs the question as to who exactly are the low human capital individuals. Needless to say, formulations like this are self-congratulatory to the point of delusion, because no one who uses the phrase “high human capital individuals” believes themselves to be anything other than a high human capital individual. Here Nietzsche is relevant, though what he said of philosophers must now be applied to sociology: It has gradually become clear to me what every great social science up till now has consisted of — namely, the personal confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious memoir.

We need not employ Florida’s annoying formulations. Let’s consider another approach to essentially the same idea. Take, for example, Marx’s version of the “creative class”:

“Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, was an unproductive worker. On the other hand, a writer who turns out work for his publisher in factory style is a productive worker. Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for £5 and thus became a merchant. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig who produces books, such as compendia on political economy, at the behest of a publisher is pretty nearly a productive worker since his production is taken over by capital and only occurs in order to increase it.”

Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, London et al.: Penguin, 1976, p. 1044

Clearly, Marx here evinces no romantic notions of the creative genius in isolation, praising the Leipzig hack over the genius of Milton. And this is Florida’s conception of “creativity” in a nutshell, nearly indistinguishable from “productivity” as used in contemporary economics. One can imagine in one’s mind’s eye Richard Florida reading this passage from Marx and nodding his head with an odd grin on his face.

Suit-and-tie guys who are “knowledge workers” in their own imaginations, but in who are in reality time-servers in a corporate hierarchy, are the members of the “creative class” who are fulfilling the function that Marx assigned to the Leipzig hack. In other words, the same kind of people who, fifty years ago would have been reading the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, are the same people who still today are reading the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, but now they fancy themselves to be part of the “creative class” and they take micro-doses of LSD when they go to Burning Man each year to “unleash” their creativity.

But this is exactly the kind of “creative class” that the global economy wants and needs; Marx had put his finger on something important when he raised the Leipzig hack over Milton. The less creative you are, and the more you have adapted yourself to be a creature of the institutions you are serving, the more successful you will be (according to conventional measures of success) and the more money you will make.

The pedestrian fact of the matter is that industry — whether something as flashy as the film industry or something as prosaic as the energy industry — advances mediocrities to its top positions. Usually the top people are mediocrities with some redeeming qualities, or a hint of limited talent, but still mediocrities. The truly creative types know that mediocrities are being advanced beyond them and taking the top positions in the industry, and that there is nothing that they can do about this. These truly creative types aren’t living the life of the one percent; indeed, they aren’t living the life the ten percent. Most of them make less than six figures, and there are probably many plumbers, sheet rockers, electricians, and truck drivers who make a lot more than them, and who have no massive college debt hanging over their heads.

The Bohemian creatives, the ones actually creating things, find themselves in the position of performing alienated labor at the behest of their corporate masters, who neither understand nor appreciate them. Having failed to learn one of the simplest lessons in life — that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar — the lowest strata of the creative class spew their resentment at every opportunity. (The dirtbag left today might be thought of as part of a Bohemian fringe of creative types, though at the political end of the creative spectrum.) They are so convinced of their own virtue that they are unable to see or to comprehend that they themselves have become the bitter, punitive gatekeepers that as “creatives” they presume to despise.

Resentment, it seems, flows uphill. By creating a permanently resentful underclass, which is the basis of the entirety of society (because the underclass have the jobs that keep industrialized civilization functioning), the resentful underclass creates a popular culture derived from this pervasive resentment, and this pervasive popular culture resentment eventually finds its way into the routines of comedians, into television, into films, and ultimately into élite cultural institutions, which imagine themselves setting the cultural and aesthetic agenda, but which in fact respond like reactionaries to the authentic energies of the lower classes.

The phenomenon of resentment flowing uphill manifests itself powerfully among the “creative class.” As we have seen, the most creative members of the creative class experience the appearance of fame but the financial reality of entry-level positions, so that they belong to the permanent underclass and its bitterly resentful view of the world, which is a view of the world from the bottom up. They are well aware of their low financial status, and that they do not share in the rewards of the uncreative members of the “creative class.”

Ultimately, the resentment of the creative class and the bourgeoisie becomes, over time, the resentment of the élites, and this is when we know that society is rotten from top to bottom. When those who have been given every advantage and every preferment in life are bitter and angry about their world, clearly something has gone off the rails. Of course, the resentment of the élites is expressed in a distinctive way, filtered through their thinly-veiled dog whistles and symbols, but not only is it there to be seen, as clear as day, but also pervasively present throughout the institutions that they superintend.

Apparently, it isn’t enough to rule the world and to enjoy a standard of living that is the envy of the masses; more than this, one must have the acquiescence of those masses in their subjection to the rule of élites. Mere compliance and conformity is not enough; there is also to be some formal recognition that the élites deserve their status and are making the best choices for the rest of us. (We live in a meritocracy, right?) When this recognition is not forthcoming, we glimpse the resentment of the élites for those they fancy the low human capital individuals.

It is a fascinating commentary on the resentment of the élites who grow out of a “creative class” that Nietzsche’s analysis of ressentiment crucially turns upon creativity:

“The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself’; and this No is its creative deed. This inversion of the value-positing eye — this need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself — is of the essence of ressentiment: in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all — its action is fundamentally reaction.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, section 10

This is a dialectic of creativity, in which creativity has nothing to work on, so it works on nothing — ressentiment is the creation of new values from nothing. It is an ex nihilo morality par excellence. Nietzsche once wrote of the finest flower of ressentiment, as related by Walter Kaufmann:

“Among the exceedingly few discoveries made in recent times concerning the origin of moral value judgments, Friedrich Nietzsche’s discovery of ressentiment as the source of such value judgments is the most profound, even if his more specific claim that Christian morality and in particular Christian love are the finest ‘flower of resssentiment’ should turn out to be false.”

From Walter Kaufmann’s introduction to his translation of On the Genealogy of Morals

Today our finest flower of ressentiment is the resentful élite who rule over us with a bad conscience — the creative class, the powerful, the educated, the well connected, the wealthy — and who never tire of reminding us of how deeply we have disappointed them. This is the kind of contempt that is exhibited when urbanites speak of “white trash” or some such similar social construct that expresses the bitter hatred of the privileged for the downtrodden. Both in the US and the UK, the political parties that formerly represented the interests of the working classes have been transformed in the past half century into parties that represent urbanized professionals, and they do not even bother to veil their contempt for the working class, who now appear to them as a distasteful embarrassment at best, a contemptible mass at worse, fit only to be ridiculed and despised.

In a Nietzschean analysis, one would expect that it would be the creative few who would be de facto Übermenschen, and so possessed of the virtues of the Übermensch — or, if you prefer, the virtù of the Übermensch — therefore these few would be among the least resentful elements in society, because the Übermensch expends his energies. If we were a society dominated by a truly creative class, we should be a society and an economy of supermen, creating new values and spontaneously releasing any pent up energies, but it is ressentiment that rules the present. Why?

The artificiality of our institutions, which demands that the ruling élites must bend the knee to democratic forms and make a pretense to upholding the rule of law that, in theory, binds their actions no less than ours, constitutes the hostile external world against which the ruling élites react, the Other that is Outside and Different. The creative deed of the élites of the creative class is its emphatic “No!” directed against the world from which it seeks to distinguish itself. Robbed of triumphant affirmation, they must rule without appearing to rule, and the reality of power coupled with its seeming denial is creating new values even now, though these are values that only can be savored in submerged and secret places — that is to say, in the hearts of the members of the creative class.

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The 50th anniversary of what exactly?

On 20 July 1969 the Apollo 11 mission landed two men on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another astronomical body in the solar system. I was alive for the moon landings, and remember watching them on a black and white television. It was a triumph of science and technology and human aspiration all rolled into one.

What does the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 mean? We cannot say, “Fifty Years of Lunar Voyages,” because fifty years of lunar voyages did not follow the Apollo program. Except for the handful of human beings who have been to the moon because of the Apollo program, no one else has been beyond low Earth orbit. We cannot say, “Fifty Years of Human Space Exploration Records,” because the achievement of reaching the moon was not followed by further achievements of human space exploration (except for long-duration stays on space stations — periods of time sufficient for exploration of the solar system, if only we had undertaken such missions). The human mission to the moon was not followed by a human mission to Mars and then further human missions to the farther reaches of the solar system.

I have heard it argued that there needed to be a pause in space exploration and development after Apollo, whether because the cost of the program was unsustainable (when people say this I remind them that the Apollo program didn’t tank the US economy; on the contrary, it stimulated the US economy) or because life on Earth simply had to “catch up” with the Space Age. Either we weren’t ready or (worse yet) weren’t worthy of following up on the Apollo Program with further and more ambitious programs. When I hear this I am reminded of Pascal’s following pensée:

“‘Why does God not show Himself?’ — ‘Are you worthy?’ — ‘Yes.’ — ‘You are very presumptuous, and thus unworthy.’ — ‘No.’ — ‘Then you are just unworthy.'”

This appears as no. 13 in the Penguin edition of the Pensées in the appendix, “Additional Pensées,” and attributed to Blaise Pascal, Textes inédits, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1962 (i.e., you won’t find this in most editions of the Pensées.)

Regardless of your response, you’re going to be unworthy. There is always some reason that can be found that human beings don’t deserve any better than they have. This may sound like an eccentric point to make, but I believe it to be deeply rooted in human psychology, and we neglect this aspect of human psychology at our peril.

So if I ask, “Why do we not have a spacefaring civilization today?” Someone may respond, “Is humanity worthy of a spacefaring civilization?” I answer “Yes,” and I am told, “Humanity is very presumptuous, and therefore unworthy of it.” And if I answer “No,” I am told, “Then humanity is just unworthy.” Put in this context, we see that this is not really an observation about religion, as it appears in Pascal, but an observation about human self-perception. We have, if anything, seen this attitude grow significantly since 20 July 1969, so that there is a significant contingent of persons today who openly argue that humanity should not expand into the universe, but should remain, ought to remain, confined to its homeworld, and entertain no presumptions of greater things for itself.

It is easy to see how a long history of high-handed moral condemnations of the human condition, only just below the surface even today, even in the busy midst of our technological civilization, can be mobilized to shame us into inaction. In other words, this is about original sin, expiation, atonement, sacrifice, and purification — a litany that sounds strikingly similar to what Hume called the “monkish virtues”: celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude. Is this to be our future? Do we aspire to medieval ideals in the midst of modernity? Should we aspire to medieval ideals?

It is worth noting that this spacefaring inaction represents one particular implementation of what I have called the waiting gambit: things will be better eventually, so it is better to wait until conditions improve before undertaking some action. If we act now, we act precipitously, and this will mean acting suboptimally, and perhaps it will mean our ruin. Better to wait. That is to say, better to consign ourselves to silent meditation upon our sins than to exert ourselves with bold adventures. And this reminds me of one of Pascal’s most famous pensées:

Diversion. — When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

No. 136 in the Brunschvicg edition and no. 139 in the Lafuma edition

While there are some among us who are suited for this Pascalian quietude, for most of us, we are at our best when exposing ourselves to pain and peril, engaging in what William James called the “strenuous life.” As Hegel once said, nothing great in the world is accomplished without passion, and pain and peril are the inevitable companions of passionate engagement with the world.

The most charitable thing that can be said about the past fifty years of non-achievement in spacefaring development is that it constitutes a “strategic pause” in the development of spacefaring civilization. But fifty years could easily stretch into a hundred years, and after a hundred years a strategic pause in the development of spacefaring civilization takes on a different character, and we would have to ask ourselves if a century spent waiting to be worthy was a century well spent. Could we call a century of inaction a “pause”? I don’t think so. A century has a particular historical resonance for human beings; it represents a period of historical significance, and cannot be readily dismissed or waved away.

Though I am concerned about the human future and the eventual development of a spacefaring civilization, I also have reason to hope: recent years have seen the development of reusable rocket technology — by private industry, and not by the government run space programs that participated in the Space Race — and this may become a major player in space development. Moreover, my own study of civilization has made it clear to me that civilization today, despite pervasive declensionism in the western world, is more robust than ever before, and the ongoing prospect of civilization is hopeful in and of itself, because as long as technological civilization endures, and new technologies are developed, eventually the technology for a spacefaring breakout will be available at a sufficiently low cost that a small community interested in space exploration will eventually be able to engage in this exploration, even if the greater part of humanity prefers to remain quietly on our homeworld.

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David Hume, philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment and advocate of book burning.

The Dark Underbelly of the Enlightenment

There is a well known passage from the final paragraph of David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, XII. “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy”

In the dialectic that is human history we would expect that a dominant paradigm — like the Enlightenment today — would alternate between its benevolent expression and its malevolent expression, sometimes showing to a world a bright and cheerful aspect, while at other times betraying a dark and sinister aspect. This is not distinctive to the Enlightenment, it is a function of human nature, with its ever-present shadow side that we attempt to suppress and obscure and ignore. We can find this dialectic in all stages in the development of human civilization, and in all civilizations in all parts of the world. There are inspiring moments of brilliance, and devastating moments of horror, both flowing from the human heart in all its complexity and mendacity.

We prefer to focus on the novel and edifying aspects of the Enlightenment, and to pass over in the silence the destructive and sinister aspects of the Enlightenment, but both aspects are fully present in the Enlightenment no less than in other historical periods and other intellectual movements. The Enlightenment not only promoted a set of humanistic values, it also anathematized a set of traditional values associated with a form of society that preceded the Enlightenment.

There is another passage from Hume (which I earlier quoted in The Illiberal Conception of Freedom) that drives home the Enlightenment imperative not only to advance its own program, but also to extirpate tradition:

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, Section IX, Conclusion, Part I

Hume has here lined up all virtues given pride of place during the Middle Ages (admittedly honored more in the breech than the observance) and roundly condemned them as being counter to human interests and therefore to be cast aside in favor of the values and virtues of the Enlightenment. For Hume, it is not enough merely to promote the rationalism and humanism of the Enlightenment, it is also necessary to extirpate rival moral systems.

When Hume wrote his philosophical works, the memory of the burning of heretics and witches was still fresh in European memory. Indeed, the Enlightenment was largely a reaction against the excesses that followed the Protestant Reformation, and especially the Thirty Years’ War. No doubt Hume saw the representatives of celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, and solitude as responsible, in whole or in part, for the atrocities of the religious wars that had so devastated early modern Europe. The book burning advocated by Hume has a spectacular theatricality that invokes both the auto-de-fé of the Inquisition and the Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence under the brief rule of Savonarola. One good bonfire, it seems, deserves another.

The motives that led Hume to advocate book burning were not qualitatively different from motives that led earlier and later ideologies to advocate book burning and equivalent forms of censorship and the destruction of a former tradition now believed to present an obstacle to the construction of the kind of society that is to be built. During the Protestant Reformation, the furnishings of Catholic churches were looted and destroyed. Perhaps there were cases in which there was a desire to profit from this, but the many damaged sculptures and paintings demonstrate that there was also a desire merely to destroy for the sake of destruction, and to do so with a clear conscience because one was destroying in pursuit of a higher good.

I have previously quoted Montaigne on destructive enthusiasms excused by religious fervor in Transcendental Humors:

“The mind has not willingly other hours enough wherein to do its business, without disassociating itself from the body, in that little space it must have for its necessity. They would put themselves out of themselves, and escape from being men. It is folly; instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts; instead of elevating, they lay themselves lower. These transcendental humours affright me, like high and inaccessible places; and nothing is hard for me to digest in the life of Socrates but his ecstasies and communication with demons; nothing so human in Plato as that for which they say he was called divine; and of our sciences, those seem to be the most terrestrial and low that are highest mounted; and I find nothing so humble and mortal in the life of Alexander as his fancies about his immortalisation.”

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Essays, Book III, “Of Experience”

The Soviets destroyed countless Orthodox churches and monasteries, as the Chinese have destroyed many Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries, as the Taliban destroyed the legacy of Buddhism in Central Asia, and the Saudi government has presided over the destruction of almost all pre-Islamic monuments in Mecca (though it should be pointed out that the Saudis, in their enthusiasm for iconoclasm, also routinely destroy sites associated with early Islam). Clearly, this iconoclastic impulse as part of a desire to found a new social order is not distinctive to the Enlightenment or to western civilization. What is interesting here is not a presumption of uniqueness that can be shown to be false, but rather the similarity of the Enlightenment to other movements that look to humanity starting over again with a clean slate. In other words, it is the non-uniqueness of the Enlightenment that interests me in this respect.

The explicit and purposeful destruction of a legacy in order to begin anew from scratch points to an important aspect of contemporary iconoclasm: the blank slate is not a description, but a prescription. If we are to bring forth a new order, we must utterly destroy the old order, because the new order must be brought forth in all its purity and innocence, uncontaminated by the errors of the past. A blank slate is the necessary condition of building the brave new world the revolutionary dreams of founding. The blank slate given an epistemic exposition by Locke during the Enlightenment is thus seen as a moral precondition for the mind of the future, and not a description of the mind of the present. Locke is here engaged in what Nietzsche described as philosophy as the confession of its originator.

Today iconoclasm is viewed as a necessary prerequisite for every undertaking, and the idea of the blank slate continues to wield tremendous influence. I find it frightening that the future is regarded by many as a blank slate, upon which we project our ideals of a better and more just society. These are admirable motives, but they have been the motives of every revolutionary force that has demanded the indiscriminate demolition of all traditional institutions for the sake of a better tomorrow. Most worrisome of all, the lesson of history is that the focus of righteous wrath is usually fixed upon anything that represents a past ideal, as this ideal represents a rival conception of the good that cannot be tolerated. We must expect, then, that that which we have most valued will be most insistently targeted for destruction.

With renewed interest in space exploration in recent years, we are also seeing renewed interest in humanity establishing itself off the surface of Earth, and this interest has contributed to a growing discussion around space settlements. I intend to address these ideas elsewhere, as they are intrinsically interesting, but in connection with the above discussion of Enlightenment iconoclasm I want to focus on just one motif that recurs repeatedly in the discussion of human expansion beyond Earth. This motif is the idea that space is a blank slate for human beings where a new social order can be constructed that leaves behind the problems that have dogged the human condition on Earth. There are those who believe that human beings simply should not leave Earth (and these must be distinguished from those who believe that we cannot leave Earth, because the problem of human space settlement is intractable), but there are also those who do not specifically object to the expansion of humanity beyond Earth, but believe that we should wait until we clean up our act on our homeworld (a position that I call the waiting gambit), or that when we do move out into the solar system, and eventually to other stars, we must do so according to a new social template. In other words, we must abandon the past in order to create new institutions for this new frontier.

Given what has been noted above in respect to Enlightenment iconoclasm, we can see that his conception of humanity’s expansion beyond our homeworld being contingent upon a planetary-scale iconoclasm directed at the entire tradition of human civilization up to the present time is truly a disastrous conceit, and if we attempt to put this into practice, the result will be misery and suffering proportional to the extent that this conceit is realized.

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Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility is not only a classic of English literature, but also a classic of moral psychology, investigating the contrast in temperaments between sense (in the person of Elinor Dashwood) and sensibility (in the person of Marianne Dashwood). This was one of the internal tensions of the Enlightenment, and Austen personalizes this tension in the lives of her memorable characters. The proneness to emotion (or, we might even say, emotionalism) represented by sensibility in the character of Marianne Dashwood was given philosophical expression in the the life and work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who pioneered the valorization of feeling even in the midst of the Enlightenment and its rationalism.

The more sober side of life, as represented by the self-sacrificing prudence of Elinor Dashwood, is a perennial tradition in western thought, most famously and anciently represented by Stoicism. The Enlightenment thinkers who distanced themselves from Rousseau’s emotionalism didn’t call themselves Stoics, but they were, after a fashion, Stoics by another name, and they were able to draw upon a deep philosophical well, including the great Stoic philosophers of classical antiquity. For example, Marcus Aurelius.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius introduced what we would today call a thought experiment — a thought experiment that has subsequently come to be known as, “the view from above.” Here is the locus classicus from the Meditations:

Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.

This is a fine saying of Plato: That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries.

Consider the past; such great changes of political supremacies. Thou mayest foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now: accordingly to have contemplated human life for forty years is the same as to have contemplated it for ten thousand years. For what more wilt thou see?

That which has grown from the earth to the earth, But that which has sprung from heavenly seed, Back to the heavenly realms returns. This is either a dissolution of the mutual involution of the atoms, or a similar dispersion of the unsentient elements.

Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, translated by George Long, Book Seven

This idea was taken over by Antony, Earl of Shaftesbury, who rendered the same idea in the more flowery English prose of his time:

“View the heavens. See the vast design, the mighty revolutions that are performed. Think, in the midst of this ocean of being, what the earth and a little part of its surface is; and what a few animals are, which there have being. Embrace, as it were, with thy imagination all those spacious orbs, and place thyself in the midst of the Divine architecture. Consider other orders of beings, other schemes, other designs, other executions, other faces of things, other respects, other proportions and harmony. Be deep in this imagination and feeling, so as to enter into what is done, so as to admire that grace and majesty of things so great and noble, and so as to accompany with thy mind that order, and those concurrent interests of things glorious and immense. For here, surely, if anywhere, there is majesty, beauty and glory. Bring thyself as oft as thou canst into this sense and apprehension; not like the children, admiring only what belongs to their play; but considering and admiring what is chiefly beautiful, splendid and great in things. And now, in this disposition, and in this situation of mind, see if for a cut-finger, or what is all one, for the distemper and ails of a few animals, thou canst accuse the universe.” 8

Antony Ashley-Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), The Philosophical Regimen, “Diety”

Here we have the Enlightenment mirror of a classic Stoic idea. I find it fascinating that this Stoic thought experiment is intended to communicate what is essentially a Copernican lesson — the smallness of human beings and their concerns in the “ocean of being” that is the universe. The view from above is a moral thought experiment rather than a cosmological or metaphysical thought experiment, and it draws upon Stoic cosmology and metaphysics in order to underline the central moral lesson. As a moral thought experiment, the view from above is to be compared to more familiar thought experiments of our time, the most obvious being the ability to imaginatively place oneself in the circumstances of another, and thereby by gain a visceral appreciation of the other’s moral experience. This latter idea is not only familiar to us in our ordinary day-to-day moral thought, but also forms the basis of John Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” thought experiment intended to define a just society.

The contemporary moral thought experiment that is so familiar to us places us in the midst of the ocean of being; its ontological parallel might be taken to be an object-oriented ontology that insists upon a “democracy of objects.” The Stoic thought experiment is profoundly anti-modern in so far as it places us above the ocean of being, putting the thought experimenter not in the shoes of another, but transcending the other, and transcending everything of this world. (Nietzsche — the modernist’s anti-modernist — has several similar passages, especially when he writes about hyperboreanism.) The ontological parallel to the Stoic thought experiment may be taken to be the Great Chain of Being, which is a hierarchical conception — an aristocratic ontology, if you will. While Stoic moral thought may be considered a perennial touchstone in western philosophy, its tenets, as we have seen, are in many respects radically alien to the modern mind. The “view from above” is intended to inculcate an noble attitude to the world, but the idea of nobility as a virtue has almost disappeared from a world in which aristocracy (presumably the social class with the greatest nobility) is considered at best irrelevant and at worst an evil to be extirpated.

From space we have achieved the Stoic ‘view from above,’ but we don’t interpret it as the Stoics would have interpreted it.

The nobility of the “view from above” is, at the same time, an invocation of what we today call the overview effect, though an overview effect conceived before an actual visual overview of our homeworld was technically possible and, perhaps more importantly, conceptualized in terms of Stoic reserve and moral distance. Since the Greek scientists of classical antiquity proved that the Earth is a sphere, and that it is indeed a world among worlds (an idea that the ancients called the infinity of worlds), there has always been the possibility of conceptualizing the overview effect, though it was only with twentieth century industrial technology that it became possible to see the sphere of the Earth and its place in the cosmos with the same eyes that had, until then, only seen Earth from its surface.

If the civilization of classical antiquity had not faltered, but had remained more-or-less intact until it had produced a technology capable of achieving Earth orbit, the overview effect as experienced by individuals of that civilization would doubtless have been taken as scientific confirmation of Stoic moral ideals. This is not, today, how the overview effect has been received. While a perennial form of moral psychology, the particular form of ancient Stoicism was an intellectual expression of a particular era of human experience; the selection pressures that shaped Stoicism, while partly reflective of perennial features of the human condition, have nevertheless qualitatively changed since classical antiquity.

The overview effect would have had an impact upon any conscious being, and especially upon a reflexively self-conscious being, regardless of the social milieu of any such being. Had it been possible for our Paleolithic ancestors to experience the overview effect, or for the Greeks in the time of Pericles, or the Mongols in the time of Genghis Khan, or for the Victorians to experience the overview effect, that effect would have been profound, but, in each case, interpreted and understood within the context of the conceptual framework of the conscious being who attains a homeworld overview. I have here used examples from different times and places of terrestrial history, but the idea can be generalized to the experience of any conscious being and its conceptual framework. As we have all learned from recent philosophy of science, all observations are theory-laden, and so too with the overview effect: all experiences of the overview effect are theory-laden, and the theory with which they are informally laden is the conceptional framework of the society from which the observer is derived.

A gold doubloon from Quito was nailed to the mast of the Pequod in Moby Dick.

Long before it was asserted that all observation is theory-laden, Kant put it like this: “Concepts without percepts are empty, percepts without concepts are blind.” (“Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriff sind blind” in the section “Von der Logik Überhaupt” KdRV) This, too, is a perennial idea of western civilization — i.e., the idea that our perceptions are shaped by our conceptions; that we are blind without our conceptual framework — and we find it in a famous passage from Moby Dick, in which Melville describes the response of the crew of the Pequod to the golden doubloon from Quito nailed to the mast:

Now those noble golden coins of South America are as medals of the sun and tropic token-pieces. Here palms, alpacas, and volcanoes; sun’s disks and stars, ecliptics, horns-of-plenty, and rich banners waving, are in luxuriant profusion stamped; so that the precious gold seems almost to derive an added preciousness and enhancing glories, by passing through those fancy mints, so Spanishly poetic.

It so chanced that the doubloon of the Pequod was a most wealthy example of these things. On its round border it bore the letters, REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR: QUITO. So this bright coin came from a country planted in the middle of the world, and beneath the great equator, and named after it; and it had been cast midway up the Andes, in the unwaning clime that knows no autumn. Zoned by those letters you saw the likeness of three Andes’ summits; from one a flame; a tower on another; on the third a crowing cock; while arching over all was a segment of the partitioned zodiac, the signs all marked with their usual cabalistics, and the keystone sun entering the equinoctial point at Libra.

Before this equatorial coin, Ahab, not unobserved by others, was now pausing.

“There’s something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here, — three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self. Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it cannot solve itself. Methinks now this coined sun wears a ruddy face; but see! aye, he enters the sign of storms, the equinox! and but six months before he wheeled out of a former equinox at Aries! From storm to storm! So be it, then. Born in throes, ‘t is fit that man should live in pains and die in pangs! So be it, then! Here’s stout stuff for woe to work on. So be it, then.”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Chapter 99 — The Doubloon

After Ahab’s “not unobserved” soliloquy on the Quito doubloon, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Manxman, and then Queequeg look into the doubloon and gave their own account of it, each distinctive of the man, thus confirming Ahab’s judgment of the doubloon as a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. Melville’s account, then, of how perceptions are shaped by conceptions is based on the differences among individual men, but there are also differences based on particular peoples from different times and different regions of the world. Indeed, all of the harpooners of the Pequod — Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo, and Fedallah — are representatives of distinct civilizations, though all have, by chance, been brought together on the Pequod. Each has his distinctive conceptual framework that overlaps and intersects with that of his crew mates, but which perfectly coincides with none of the others.

We too, today, have our peculiar conceptual framework, and it pervasively shapes our view of the world. It needs to be understood that our peculiar conceptual framework determines how we experience the world, and, in the case of the overview effect, “the world” means the planet entire. The overview effect appeared at a particular moment in human history, and, as a consequence, the overview effect was and has been primarily interpreted in terms of human experience in the twentieth, and now the twenty-first, century. That the overview effect appeared at the historical moment in which it did appear — relatively early in the development of a technological civilization, and immediately upon the advent of spacefaring capacity — is significant.

We are closer in time to Marianne Dashwood than to Candide, or indeed closer to Werther in his blue coat and yellow breeches than to Rameau’s Nephew. That is to say, our worldview is more akin to romanticism than to the Enlightenment, owes more the Rousseau than to Locke, though romanticism, too, has passed into history and into dust, and has been replaced by newer ideas and ideologies. Nevertheless, the romantic ideal remains stamped on western civilization and the experience of individuals within that civilization (moreover, romanticism, like Stoicism, is a perennial expression of the human condition), and it is the romantic response of primarily an emotional character that marks responses to the overview effect. This may not be obvious at first, but it becomes more obvious in comparison to the Stoic idea of the overview effect in the view from above thought experiment.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell has been the most forthcoming in describing his unique experiences while in space. Mitchell had a particularly compelling experience while returning from the moon during the Apollo 14 mission:

“Perhaps it was the disorienting, or reorienting, effect of a rotating environment, while the heavens and Earth tumbled alternately in and out of view in the small capsule window. Perhaps it was the air of safety and sanctuary after a two-day foray into an unforgiving environment. But I don’t think so. The sensation was altogether foreign. Somehow I felt tuned into something much larger than myself, something much larger than the planet in the window. Something incomprehensibly big…”

“Then, looking beyond the Earth itself to the magnificence of the larger scene, there was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught. My understanding of the separate distinctness and the relative independence of movement of those cosmic bodies was shattered. There was an upwelling of fresh insight coupled with a feeling of ubiquitous harmony—a sense of interconnectedness with the celestial bodies surrounding our spacecraft. Particular scientific facts about stellar evolution took on new significance.”

Edgar Mitchell, The Way of the Explorer, New York: Putnam, 1996, p. 57-58

Mitchell was driven by his experience to read widely about religious and mystical experiences, eventually commissioning a study on esoteric practices. Mitchell’s sponsored study converged upon the idea of savikalpa samadhi, as a traditional (at least, native to the Indian tradition of thought) expression of what he experienced as an astronaut.

Astronaut Russell L. Schweickart has also given a detailed account of his experiences in space. Frank White has cited Schweickart’s experiences in his exposition of the overview effect:

“The Earth is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in the universe that you can block it out with your thumb. And you realize on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.”

Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Third Edition, Reston, VA: AIAA, 2014, pp. 36-37; Part III of The Overview Effect consists of statements by and interviews with astronauts and cosmonauts, all of which are relevant here. An account of Schweickert’s experiences also can be read in No Frames, No Boundaries: Connecting with the whole planet — from space by Russell Schweickart.

As Plato quoted by Marcus Aurelius gives a litany of the familiar things of this world — assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets — so, too, Schweickart gives a litany of the familiar things of this world — history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games — but the implied meaning and value of this terrestrial litany is different in each case. There is a difference between seeing these familiar things from a terrestrial perspective, and seeing them viewed from above, but what exactly is this difference?

Astronaut Ron Garan references the overview effect, but also formulated his experiences in space in terms of the “orbital perspective” and even “elevated empathy”:

“In addition to the overview effect, however, there is another element to the orbital perspective, which I call elevated empathy… For the fifty-plus years that humans have been flying in space, astronauts and cosmonauts have commented on how beautiful, tranquil, peaceful, and fragile our planet looks from space. These are not trite clichés; it truly is moving to see our planet from space. But looking down and seeing a border between India and Pakistan, recognizing the undeniable and sobering contradiction between the staggering beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet for many of its inhabitants, also inspires empathy for the struggles that all people face.”

“This elevated empathy is an important aspect of the orbital perspective. Elevated empathy helps us realize that we are all riding through the universe together on this spaceship we call Earth, that we are all interconnected, that we are all one human family. This scar on the otherwise beautiful landscape was a compelling call to focus on the need for global collaboration to overcome the world’s problems, to recognize that, in spite of our disagreements, we should behave like a family, should communicate, support, stand by, and care for each other.”

Ronald J. Garan, Jr., The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of Seventy-One Million Miles, Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015, pp. 64-65

All of these accounts are experiences of connectedness and of integration, not of establishing a distance from which the petty concerns of the world seem as nothing. The ordinary business of life on Earth — death and birth and love, tears, joy, games — takes on a greater significance; rather than being diminished by the experience of the overview effect, they are magnified by it.

The overview effect has changed and is changing human perception of our homeworld.

Let me return to one of the opening thoughts of Frank White’s The Overview Effect in order to refocus on the difference between the Stoic “view from above” and the overview effect as it has been experienced by human beings as a consequence of space travel. Here is a passage I have quoted many times previously:

“…mental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location. Our ‘worldview’ as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”

Frank White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Third Edition, Reston, VA: AIAA, 2014, p. 1

As we have seen above, an observer not only has a physical location in space, but also observes from the point of view of a particular conceptual framework, which we might call the observer’s “location” in what Wittgenstein called logical space. While Wittgenstein did not develop his conception of logical space in any detail, Donald Davidson formulated a conception of logical geography that entails locatedness in logical space:

“…to give the logical form of a sentence is to give its logical location in the totality of sentences, to describe it in a way that explicitly determines what sentences it entails and what sentences it is entailed by.”

Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, “Criticism, Comment, and Defence”, p. 140

Since we’re talking about the overview effect, “logical space” is more appropriate than the essentially terrestrial (if not geocentric — a conceptual geocentrism, i.e., geocentrism in an extended sense) idea of “logical geography,” but the terminology doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the idea of the relation of ideas to other ideas, which is a function of a conceptual framework. I would go further than Davidson and add to his account of logical geography the particular logic employed, because relations of entailment are relative to the logic used to derive what is entailed by what.

Davidson’s formulation is strongly linguistic, which may be understood as an artifact of the high-water mark of linguistic philosophy; the same point could be given a somewhat more traditional formulation by substituting “proposition” for “sentence.” In any case, an observer’s conceptual framework could be described as a location in logical space or logical geography, and this location involves the relationship of each idea within the conceptual framework to other ideas within the conceptual framework, as well as the relationship of the conceptual framework entire (in so far as it can be understood as a whole) to other conceptual frameworks or to ideas that lie outside the framework.

An observer, then, has a particular location in physical space as well as a particular location in logical space. These locations are not independent, but rather each informs the other: the observer’s location in physical space shapes his location in logical space, and his location in logical space shapes his location in physical space. The second part of this sentence may sound a bit odd. Think of it as a form of emergent complexity: the observer’s location in logical space does not physically create or physically shape the observer’s physical space, but it does transform this physical space through making it the space of an observer, and hence a vantage point from which to observe, describe, and understand the world. A standpoint comes into being, as it were, by being the vantage point of an observer; before that it is merely a coordinate in space, but it is not a standpoint, so that the existence of an observer brings a standpoint as a standpoint into existence. That is to say, a standpoint is an emergent complexity from space simpliciter.

When a Stoic assumes the standpoint of the view from above, he sees the world brought into existence by his standpoint, and when a contemporary astronaut sees the overview of the planet from space, he too sees the world brought into existence by his standpoint. From a purely formal point of view, these experiences are symmetrical. These standpoints are distinct in so far as they do not perfectly coincide (like the harpooners on the Pequod), but they overlap and intersect. The harpooners on the Pequod lived in close quarters and hunted whales together, so they had much in common. And we have much in common with them, as we do with the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius or the Stoic slave Epictetus, and more yet in common with the astronauts on the ISS. But there are aspects of experience that are narrower, and are thus shared by fewer individuals than the way in which all human beings share their experience of the human condition.

If humanity is able to project itself beyond its homeworld and to build a spacefaring civilization, the overview effect will be experienced from as many different standpoints as what was seen by the sailors of the Pequod when they looked into the Quito doubloon. Over time, the overview effect will be not one, but many. Our history has already supplied us with an example of this: if an astronaut came back from space and asserted that the overview effect made him wish to purge away the filth of the terrestrial life, this account would not be well received; it belongs to a different age and to a different conceptual framework. And if human beings use their advanced technology to change themselves (technology derived from the same industrial infrastructure that makes space travel possible), the human condition itself may change, and then the overlap of our experiences with those of our ancestors will be diminished. We will have less in common, and what we see when we look into the Quito doubloon will evolve over time, and humanity will be not one, but many.

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Overview Effects

The Epistemic Overview Effect

The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking

Hegel and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect in Formal Thought

Brief Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought

A Further Addendum on the Overview Effect in Formal Thought, in the Way of Providing a Measure of Disambiguation in Regard to the Role of Temporality

Our Knowledge of the Internal World

Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

The Overview Effect over the longue durée

Cognitive Astrobiology and the Overview Effect

The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight

Planetary Endemism and the Overview Effect

The Overview Effect and Intuitive Tractability

Stoicism, Sensibility, and the Overview Effect

Homeworld Effects

The Homeworld Effect and the Hunter-Gatherer Weltanschauung

The Martian Standpoint

Addendum on the Martian Standpoint

Hunter-Gatherers in Outer Space

What will it be like to be a Martian?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot being held by Russia.

Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot until recently incarcerated in Russia.

The Defiance of Nadiya Savchenko

I don’t believe that I have ever seen a more complete or perfect expression of defiance than that on the face of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who was until quite recently imprisoned in Russia (and who was elected to the Ukrainian parliament during her imprisonment). This display of defiance is an appropriate opportunity to consider the nature of defiance as an emotion (specifically, a moral emotion) and its place within human life.

It is a natural human response to feel angry when confronted with obvious injustice. When that injustice is not merely observed, but involves ourselves personally, there is also a personal element to the anger. When an individual is angry for an injustice done to themselves, and is not yet defeated, but possesses the strength and the energy to persevere despite on ongoing injustice, that is defiance.

I am sure everyone reading this has had this experience to some degree; this is a universal that characterizes the human condition. This kind of defiance is a staple of classic literature; for example, we know defiance as the spirit of the protagonist of Jane Eyre:

“When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should — so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again… I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.”

The young friend of Jane Eyre, Helen Burns, replies:

“Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine, but Christians and civilised nations disown it.”

When published Jane Eyre was considered something of a scandal, and Matthew Arnold (of “Sweetness and Light” fame) said of the novel, “…the writer’s mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage and therefore that is all she can, in fact, put in her book.” Another Victorian critic wrote, “…the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.” (Elizabeth Rigby, The London Quarterly Review, No. CLXVII, December, 1848, pp. 82-99) Today we recognize ourselves in the protagonist without hesitation, for what comes naturally to the unbroken spirit of Jane Eyre comes naturally to all of us; it resonates with the human condition (except, perhaps, for the condition of Victorian literary critics). There is much more that could be said in regard to Victorian attitudes to defiance, especially among children, but I will save this for an addendum.

Savchenko 0

Defiance as a Moral Emotion

Our conventional idea of an emotion as something that we passively experience — emotions were traditionally called passions because they are affects that we suffer, and not actions that we take — is utterly inadequate to account for an emotion like defiance, which is as much action as passion. At least part of the active nature of defiance is its integration with our moral life, which latter is about active engagements with the world. For this reason I would call defiance a moral emotion, and I will develop the idea of moral emotion in the context of emotive naturalism (see below).

Moral emotions are complex, and it scarcely does them justice to call them emotions. The spectrum of emotion ranges from primarily visceral feelings with little or no cognitive content, and indistinguishable from bodily states, to subtle states of mind with little or no visceral feelings associated with them. Some of our emotions are simple and remain simple, but many states of human consciousness that we carelessly write off as emotions are in fact extremely sophisticated human responses that involve the entire person. Robert C. Solomon’s lectures Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions do an excellent job of drawing out the complexities of how our emotional responses are tied up in a range of purely intellectual concerns on the one hand, and on the other hand almost purely visceral feelings.

Solomon discusses anger, fear, love, compassion, pride, shame, envy, jealousy, resentment, and grief, though he does not explicitly take up defiance. In several posts I have discussed fear (The Philosophy of Fear and Fear of Death), hope (The Structure of Hope and Very Short Treatise on Hope, Perfection, Utopia, and Progress), pride (Metaphysical Pride), modesty (Metaphysical Modesty), and ressentiment (Freedom and Ressentiment), though it could in no sense be said that I have done justice to any of these. The more complex moral emotions are all the more difficult to do justice to; specifically moral emotions such as defiance present a special problem for theoretical analysis.

The positivists of the early twentieth century propounded a moral theory that is known as the emotive theory of ethics, which explicitly sought a reduction of morality to emotion. This kind of reductionism is not as popular with philosophers today, and for good reason. While we would not want to reduce morality to emotion (as the positivists argued), nor to reduce emotions to corporeal sensations (a position sometimes identified with William James), in order to make sense of our emotional and moral lives it may be instructive to briefly consider the origins of emotion and morality in the natural history of human beings. This natural historical approach will help us to account for the relevant evidence without insisting upon reductionism.

Savchenko 1

Emotive Naturalism

What emotions are natural for a human being to feel? What thoughts are natural for a human being to think? What moral obligations is it natural for a person to recognize? All of these are questions that we can reasonably ask about human beings, since we know that human beings feel, think, and behave in accordance with acknowledged obligations. I wrote above that it is natural for one to feel anger over injustice. If you, dear reader, have never experienced this, I would be surprised. No doubt there are individuals who do not, and who never have, experienced anger as a result of injustice, but this is not the typical human response. But the typical “human” response is descended with modification from the typical responses of our ancestors, extending into the past long before modern human beings evolved.

I have elsewhere quoted Darwin on the origins of morality, and I think the idea contained in the following passage cannot be too strongly emphasized:

“The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable — namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts… the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”


I would go further than Darwin. I would say that animals with intellectual powers less developed than those of humanity might acquire a moral sense, and that we see such a rudimentary moral sense in most social animals, which are forced by the circumstances of lives lived collectively to adopt some kind of pattern of behavior that makes it possible for group cohesion to continue.

There are many species of social animals that live in large groups that necessitate rules of social interaction. Indeed, we even know from paleontological evidence that some species of flying dinosaurs lived in crowded rookeries (there is fossil evidence for this at Loma del Pterodaustro in Argentina), so that we can derive the necessity of some form of social interaction among residents of the rookery. Many of these social animals have very little in the way of intellectual powers, such as in the case of social insects, but there are also many mammal species, all part of the same adaptive radiation of mammals that followed the extinction of the dinosaurs and of which we are a part, and constituting the sentience-rich biosphere that we have today. Social mammals add to the necessity of social rules for group interactions an overlay of emotive responses. Already in groups of social mammals, then, we begin to see a complex context of social interaction and emotional responses that cannot be isolated one from the other. With the emergence human intellectual capacity, another overlay makes this complex context of social interaction more tightly integrated and more subtle than in prior social species.

I call these deep evolutionary origins of human emotional responses to the world emotive naturalism, but I could just as well call it moral naturalism — or indeed, intellectual naturalism, because by the time human beings emerge in history emotions, morality, and cognition are all bound up in each other, and to isolate any one of these would be to falsify human experience.

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Being and Emotion

While the philosophy of emotion is usually discussed in terms of philosophy of mind or philosophical psychology, I usually view philosophical problems through the lens of metaphysics, and the active nature of defiance as a moral emotion gives us an especially interesting case for examining the nature of our emotional and moral being-in-the-world. This accords well with what Robert Solomon argued in the lectures cited above, which characterize emotions as engagements with the world. What is it to be engaged with the world?

My framework for thinking about metaphysics is a definition of being that goes back all the way to Plato, which I discussed in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being (and which I further elaborated in Agents and Sufferants). Plato held that being is the power to affect or to be affected, i.e., to act or to be acted upon. From this starting point we can extrapolate four forms be being, such that non-being is to neither act nor be acted upon, the fullness of being is to both act and be acted upon, while narrower forms of being involve acting only without being acted upon, or being acted upon only without acting. One may think of these four permutations of Plato’s definition of being as four modalities of engagement with the world.

An interesting example of metaphysical engagement with the world in terms of a moral emotion radically distinct from defiance is to be found with our engagements with the world mediated by love. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in Sermon 50 of his Sermons on the Song of Songs wrote, “Love can be a matter of doing or of feeling.” In other words, love can be active or passive, acting or being acted upon. St. Bernard goes on to give several illuminating examples that develop this theme.

How does the moral emotion of defiance specifically fit into this framework of engagements with the world? We typically employ the term “defiance” when an individual’s circumstances severely constrain their ability to respond, as was the case with Nadiya Savchenko, who was incarcerated and who therefore was prevented from the ordinary freedom of action enjoyed by those of us who are not incarcerated. Nevertheless, she was able to remain defiant even while in prison, and under such circumstances the emotion itself becomes a response. (The reader who is familiar with Sartre’s thought will immediately recognize the connection with Sartre’s theory of emotion; cf. The Emotions: Outline of a Theory) This may sound like a paltry form of “action,” but if it contributes to the differential survival of the individual, defiance has a selective advantage, as it almost certainly must. Defiant individuals have not given up, and they continue to fight despite constrained circumstances.

Nadiya Savchenko has now been freed from incarceration in Russia.

Nadiya Savchenko has now been freed from incarceration in Russia.

The Social Context of Defiance

The survival value of belief in one’s existential choices, which I discussed in Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology, is exemplified by defiance. Defiance, then, has the ultimate evolutionary sanction: it is a form of confirmation bias — belief in oneself, and in one’s own efficacy — that contributes to the individual’s differential survival. As such, defiance as a moral emotion is selected for and is likely disproportionately represented in human nature because of the selective advantage it possesses. As a feature of human nature, we must reckon with defiance as a socially significant emotion, i.e., an emotion that shapes not only individuals, but also societies.

While we do not often explicitly talk about the role of defiance in human motivation, I believe it is one of the primary springs to action in the human character. Looking back over a lifetime of conversations occurring in the ordinary business of life (for I am an old man now and I can speak in this idiom), I am struck by how often individuals express their displeasure at pressures being brought to bear upon them, and they usually respond by pushing back. This “pushing back” is defiance. Typically, the other side then pushes back in turn. This is the origin of tit-for-tat strategies. Individuals push back when pressured, as do social wholes and political entities. Those that push back most successfully, i.e., the most defiant among them, are those that are most likely to have descendants and to pass their defiance on to the next generation of individuals or social wholes.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Duck Rabbit

What happens when an individual achieves a new level of perspective taking? Is one perspective displaced by another? Is a new perspective added to existing perspectives?

Firstly, what do I mean by “perspective taking” in this context? In a couple of posts I’ve discussed perspective taking as a theme of developmental psychology — The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking and The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking — but I haven’t tried to rigorously define it. The short version is that perspective taking is putting yourself in the position of the other and seeing the world from the other’s point of view (or perspective, hence perspective taking). This is, as I have previously remarked, one of the most basic thought experiments in moral philosophy.

Kant implicitly appeals to perspective taking in his categorical imperative, in which he asserts that one ought to act as though the principle that guides one’s actions should be made a universal law. In other words, you ask yourself, “What would the consequences be if everyone acted as I am acting?” This, in turn, supposes that one can place oneself into the position of the other and imagine how the principle of your action would be interpreted and put into practice by others.

It could also be argued that Kant’s categorical imperative is implicit in the regime of popular sovereignty, which has its origins in Kant’s time but which only in the twentieth century became the universally acclaimed normative standard for political entities. Everyone knows that their individual vote does not count, because if you subtracted your vote from the total in any election, it would not affect the outcome. Nevertheless, if everyone came to this conclusion and acted upon it, no one would vote and democracy would collapse.

To return to perspective taking, there are much more sophisticated formulations than the off-the-cuff version I have given above. There is an interesting paper that discusses the conception of perspective taking — THE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIO-MORAL MEANING MAKING: DOMAINS, CATEGORIES, AND PERSPECTIVE-TAKING — the authors of which, Monika Keller and Wolfgang Edelstein, converge on this definition:

“…perspective-taking is taken to represent the formal structure of coordination of the perspectives of self and other as they relate to the different categories of people’s naive theories of action. The differentiation and coordination of the categories of action and the self-reflexive structure of this process are basic to those processes of development and socialization in which children come to reconstruct the meaning of social interaction in terms of both what is the case and what ought to be the case in terms of morally responsible action. In order to achieve the task of establishing consent and mutually acceptable lines of action in situations of conflicting claims and expectations, a person has to take into account the intersubjective aspects of the situation that represent the generalizable features, as well as the subjective aspects that represent the viewpoints of the persons involved in the situation. In its fully developed form, this complex process of regulation and interaction calls for the existence and operation of complex socio-moral knowledge structures and a concept of self as a morally responsible agent. The ability to differentiate and coordinate the perspectives of self and other thus is a necessary condition both in the development of socio-moral meaning making and in the actual process of solving situations of conflicting claims.”

“THE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIO-MORAL MEANING MAKING: DOMAINS, CATEGORIES, AND PERSPECTIVE-TAKING,” by Monika Keller and Wolfgang Edelstein, in W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz (Eds.) (1991). Handbook of moral behavior and development: Vol. 2. Research (pp. 89-114). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

I recommend the entire paper, which discusses, among other matters, the attempts by others to formulate an adequate explication of perspective taking. But I have an ulterior motive for this discussion of perspective taking. The real reason I have engaged in this inquiry about perspective taking is because of my recent posts about the overview effect — The Epistemic Overview Effect and The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking — in which I treat the overview effect as a visceral trigger for perspective taking on a global (and even trans-planetary) scale.

Thinking about the overview effect as perspective taking, I considered the possibility that taking a new global or even trans-planetary perspective might involve either dispensing with a former perspective in order to replace it with a novel perspective (which I will call the displacement model), or adding a new perspective to already existing perspectives (which I will call the augmentation model). (And here I want to cite Siggi Becker and Mark Lambertz, who commented on my earlier overview effect post on Facebook, and spurred me into thinking about what it means for one to achieve a new perspective on the world.)

For cognitive scientists and sociologists, perspective taking is cumulative, especially in the case of moral development. There is an entire literature devoted to Robert L. Selman’s five stages of perspective taking (which is very much influenced by Piaget) and Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development (three stages — pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional — each broken into two divisions).

There are, however, definite limits to this Piagetian cognitive basis for the development of the moral life of the individual. Without some degree of empathy for the other, all of this cognitive approach to moral development falls apart, because one might systematically pursue the development of one’s perspective taking ability only to more successfully exploit and manipulate others through a more effective cunning than that provided by a purely egocentric approach to interaction with others. Thus we arrive at the Schopenhauerian conception such that compassion is the basis of morality.

Max Scheler systematically critiqued this classic Schopenhauerian position in his book The Nature of Sympathy. Scheler concluded that compassion alone is insufficient for morality, thus undermining Schopenhauer’s position, but that compassion alone may not be a sufficient condition for morality, it may yet be a necessary condition. Perhaps it is compassion and perspective taking together that make morality possible. These philosophical issues have also been taken up in the spirit of social science by Carol Gilligan’s work on the ethics of care. I only touch on these issues here in passing, since any serious consideration of these works and their authors would require substantial exposition.

Perspective taking is central to Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and what Kohlberg calls “disequilibrium” (which serves as a spur to moral development) might also be called “disorientation,” or, more specifically, “moral disorientation.” And it is disorienting when one achieves a new perspective, and especially when one does as suddenly, as in the case of the visceral trigger provided by the overview effect. Plato describes such a disorienting experience beautifully in his famous allegory of the cave — the philosopher is twice disoriented, initially as he ascends from the cave of shadows up into the real world, and again when we descends again into the cave of shadows in order to attempt to enlighten those still chained below. A power experience leaves one feeling disoriented, and much of this disorientation is due to the collapse of a familiar system of thought that gave one a sense of one’s place in the world, and its replacement by a new system of thought that is not yet familiar.

If we focus too much on cumulative and continuous aspects of perspective taking, on the assumption that each level of development must build upon the immediately previous level, we may lose sight of the disruptive nature of perspective taking — and moral development is not a primrose path. As individuals confront moral dilemmas they are forced to consider difficult question and sometimes to give hard answers to difficult questions. This is central to the moral growth of the person, and it is often quite uncomfortable and attended by anxiety and inner conflict. One often feels that one fights one’s way through a problem, only to surmount it. This is very much like Wittgenstein’s description of throwing away the ladder once one has climbed up.

If the overview effect constitutes a new level of perspective taking, and if perspective taking is central to moral development, then the perspective taking of the overview effect constitutes a stage in human moral development — and it constitutes that stage of moral development that coincides with civilization’s expansion beyond terrestrial boundaries.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Freedom and Ressentiment

1 September 2013


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche

Sometimes when I am asked my favorite book I reply that it is Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which is the most systematic of his books on ethics and which gives his most detailed exposition of ressentiment. I reread the third essay in the book today — “What is the meaning of ascetic ideals?” — keeping in mind while I did what I wrote about freedom day before yesterday in Theory and Practice of Freedom.

To give a flavor of Nietzsche’s argument I want to cite a couple of passages from the book that I take to be particularly crucial. Firstly, here is the passage in which Nietzsche introduces the idea of ressentiment becoming creative and creating its own values:

“The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self ’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.”

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, EDITED BY KEITH ANSELL-PEARSON, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, TRANSLATED BY CAROL DIETHE, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 2007, p. 20

Near the end of the book, Nietzsche reiterates one of his central themes, that man would rather will nothing than not will:

“It is absolutely impossible for us to conceal what was actually expressed by that whole willing that derives its direction from the ascetic ideal: this hatred of the human, and even more of the animalistic, even more of the material, this horror of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get away from appearance, transience, growth, death, wishing, longing itself — all that means, let us dare to grasp it, a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental prerequisites of life, but it is and remains a will! …And, to conclude by saying what I said at the beginning: man still prefers to will nothingness, than not will…”

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, EDITED BY KEITH ANSELL-PEARSON, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, TRANSLATED BY CAROL DIETHE, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 2007, p. 120

One of the themes that occurs throughout Nietzsche’s works is the critique of nihilism — Nietzsche finds nihilism in much that others fail to recognize as such, while Nietzsche himself has been accused of nihilism because of his iconoclasm. The immediately preceding passage strikes me as one of Nietzsche’s most powerful formulations of unexpected and unrecognized nihilism: willing nothing.

I think Nietzsche primarily had institutional religion in mind, especially those institutionalized religions that put a priestly caste in power (whether directly or indirectly), but there are plenty of examples of thoroughly secular forms of ressentiment developing to the point of creating its own values, and I think one of the principal forms of secular ressentiment takes the form of the denial or the repudiation or the rejection of freedom. The denial of freedom is a particularly pure form of the nihilistic will saying “No!” to life, since life, in the living of it, is all about freedom — we realize our freedom in the dizziness that is dread, and make our choices in fear and trembling. Many people quite literally become physically ill when faced with a momentous choice — so great a role does the idea of freedom play in our thoughts, that our thoughts are manifested physically.

The denial of freedom takes many forms. For example, it often takes the form of determinism, and determinism itself can take many forms. On my other blog I wrote about determinism from the point of view of the denial of freedom as a philosophical problem — something I wanted to do to counter the prevalent attitude that asks why so many people believe in their own freewill. This approach seems to me incredibly perverse, and the more reasonable question is to ask why so many people believe they do not have freewill. Now, Nietzsche himself was a determinist, so he likely would not be sympathetic to what I’m saying here, but that does not stop us from applying Nietzsche’s own ideas to himself (something Max Scheler also did in his book on Ressentiment).

Probably the most common form that the denial of freedom takes is a rationalization of a failure to take advantage of one’s freedoms. This is a much more subtle denial of freedom than determinism, and in fact assumes the reality of free will. If the palpable reality of freedom, and the potential upsets to the ordinary business of life that it presents, were not all-too-real, there would be no need to formulate elaborate rationales for not taking advantage of one’s freedom and opting for a life of conformity and servile acquiescence to authority.

Understanding that freedom is honored more in the breach than the observance was a well-trodden path in twentieth century thought. Although Freud had deterministic sympathies, his theories of reason as the mere rationalization of what the unconscious was going to do anyway incorporates both determinist and free willist assumptions. The denial of freedom is a central theme in Sartre’s work (the spirit of seriousness and the idea of bad faith are both important forms of the denial of freedom), and through Freud and Sartre the influence on twentieth century thought and literature was profound. I have previously cited the role of Gooper Pollitt in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a paradigm of inauthenticity (in Existential Due Diligence).

All one need do is look around at the world we’ve made, with all its laws and statutes, its codes and regulations, its institutions and rules, its traditions and customs — it would be entirely possible to pass an entire lifetime in this context without realizing, much less exercising, one’s freedom. And these are only passive discouragements. When it comes to active discouragements to freedom, every nay-sayer, every pessimist, every wagging finger, every shaming tactic, every snide and cynical comment is an attempt to dissuade us from enjoying our freedom and entering into the same self-chosen misery of all those who have systematically extirpated all traces of freedom from their own lives.

Everyone who has given up freedom in their own life understandably resents seeing the exercise of freedom in the lives of others, and when this resentment turns creative it gives birth to every imaginable form of slander of freedom and of praise of servility — whether to a cause or to a movement or to an individual or to an institution — not to mention endless rationalizations of why the refusal of freedom isn’t really a refusal of freedom. Don’t believe it. Don’t believe any of it. Don’t buy into it. There is nothing in this world that is worth surrendering your freedom for — not matter how highly it is praised or how enthusiastically it is celebrated — this praise and this celebration of unfreedom is nothing but the creative response of ressentiment directed against freedom.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A medieval illustration of the four humours: melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic, and sanguine (clockwise from upper left).

What is a definitive formulation?

Recently on my other blog I discussed the philosophical pursuit of definitive formulations. What is a definite formulation? The reader will, I am sure, immediately see that giving a concise and accurate idea of what constitutes a definitive formulation would itself require a definitive formulation of a definitive formulation.

I don’t yet have a definitive formulation of what constitutes a definitive formulation. I could simply say that it is a formulation of a concept that could serve as a definition, but this wouldn’t be very helpful. Here is how I characterized it in my other post:

“…a handful of short, clear, concise, and intuitively accessible sentences…”


“…to put this in clear and simple terms, if I have a definitive formulation, that means if you stopped me on the street and asked me to explain myself while standing on one foot, I could do it. Lacking definitive formulations, the attempted explanation would go on a little too long to be comfortable (or safely balanced) on one foot.”

Lacking a definitive formulation of an idea that is central to our thought means that we can only say what Augustine said of time in his Confessions:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. (11.14.17)

quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio. fidenter tamen dico scire me quod, si nihil praeteriret, non esset praeteritum tempus, et si nihil adveniret, non esset futurum tempus, et si nihil esset, non esset praesens tempus.

In some cases, I think that we can move beyond this Augustinian limit to definition, and it is when we hit upon a definitive formulation that we are able to do this.

It seems appropriate that I should give a concrete example of something that I would identify as a definitive formulation, and since I have recently hit upon a formulation that I rather like, I will try to use this to show what a definitive formulation is.

Call it what you will… temperament, personality, disposition… but people are not all the same.

What is temperament?

I have written several posts about temperament, including Temperamental Diversity, A Third Temperament, Intellectual Personalities and Temperament and Civilization. I don’t think that philosophy, science, or socio-political thought has yet done justice to the role that temperament plays in the world.

But what is temperament? The seventh of ten definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (which of the ten is the closest to the sense of “temperament” as I have been using the word) defines temperament as follows:

“Constitution or habit of mind, esp. as depending upon or connected with physical constitution; natural disposition”

The sixth of the OED definitions defines temperament in terms of the four humours recognized in medieval medical theory and practice:

“In mediæval physiology: The combination of the four cardinal humours (see humour n. 2b) of the body, by the relative proportion of which the physical and mental constitution were held to be determined; known spec. as animal temperament; also, The bodily habit attributed to this, as sanguine temperament, choleric temperament, phlegmatic temperament, or melancholic temperament (see the adjs.).”

In traditional philosophical parlance, a dictionary definition gives us a nominal definition, but as philosophers what we really want is a real definition. While the philosophical distinction between nominal and real definitions is ancient and widely familiar, and therefore probably ought to remain untouched, I think it is more intuitive to call these two kinds of definition formal definition and metaphysical definition. A formal definition situates the meaning of a term within a formal system, perhaps within the system of language, whereas a metaphysical definition situates the meaning of a term within the structure of the world. So I guess what I am saying here is that one function of a definitive formulation is to give a metaphysical definition — but to be able to do so without requiring the exposition of an entire metaphysical system. You can imagine why this might be difficult.

So, what would I offer as a definitive formulation of temperament, that (hopefully) goes beyond the formal (i.e., nominal) definition in the OED? I define temperament as follows:

Temperament is the intellectual expression of individual variability.

I hope that the reader doesn’t find this too anti-climactic. I’ll try to explain why I find this to be a fruitful formulation.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, former Russellian, later anti-Cantorian

The charm of an idea

A definitive formulation, as I understand it, has an aphoristic quality: it is brief, concise, sententious, and pregnant with meaning. It also has a certain indefinable “appeal” that, like most forms of appealingness, is compelling to some even while it leaves others cold.

Wittgenstein formulated this appeal by calling it the “charm” that some proofs in mathematics and the foundations of mathematics possess. The later Wittgenstein was concerned to criticize the whole Cantorian conception of set theory and transfinite numbers, and much of Wittgenstein’s later philosophical of mathematics has this purpose implicitly as the center of the exposition. (In connection with this, I have previously mentioned Brouwer’s influence on Wittgenstein in Saying, Showing, Constructing, and more recently wrote more about Brouwer in One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism.)

Here’s what Wittgenstein said about mathematical “charm” in his lectures of 1939:

“The proof has a certain charm if you like that kind of thing; but that is irrelevant. That fact that is has this charm is a very minor point and is not the reason why those calculations were made.–That is colossally important. The calculations have their use not in charm but in their practical consequences.”

“It is quite different if the main role or sole interest is this charm — if the whole interest is showing that a line does cut when it doesn’t, which sets the whole mind in a whirl, and gives the pleasant feeling of paradox. If you can show that there are numbers bigger than the infinite, your head whirls. This may be the chief reason this was invented.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939, edited by Cora Diamond, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 16

With this in mind, I am well aware that the “charm” that I find in my definitive formulation of temperament may well be lost on others. The fact that an idea that has a certain charm for one person has none for another is itself a function of temperament. Individuals of different temperaments will find an intellectual charm in different formulations.

Theoretical contextualization

Part of the charm that a formulation has (or fails to have) is the connections that it forges to familiar theories. A definitive formulation, among its other functions, contextualizes a less familiar or less precise concept in an established theory or theories, enabling a systematic exploration and exposition of the idea in relation to familiar and therefore more thoroughly explored theories. Well known theories provide clear parameters for an idea, which, when formerly known only in a vague and imprecise form, had no clear parameters.

In formulating temperament as the intellectual expression of individual variation I am contextualizing human temperament in evolutionary theory, and thereby suggesting an interpretation of temperament based in and drawing upon evolutionary psychology. Thus evolutionary theory provides the parameters for temperament understood as the intellectual expression of individual variability.

Individual variability is one of the drivers of natural selection. When distinct individuals have distinct properties, a selection event may favor (select for) some properties while disfavoring (select against) other properties. Usually we think of the properties of an organism as being structural features of an organism: one finch has a longer beak than another, or one ape is better at walking on two legs than another. These differences might disappear into the dustbin of natural history if no selection event comes along that favors one or the other. But if a selection event does occur, and it favors some structural attribute of an organism that varies among individuals, the favored individuals will go on to experience differential survival and reproduction.

While we usually think of selection in structural terms, a selection event can also select for behaviors. Organisms can adapt to their environment through behaviors just as certainly (and much more rapidly) than through structural changes in their bodies. Behavioral adaptation is no less significant in natural history than structural adaptation.

At very least with the emergence of human beings, and probably also with other species, both hominid precursors of homo sapiens and other large-brained mammals, mind emerged in natural history. With the emergence of mind, there emerged also a novel basis of selection. Some minds are constituted in one way, while other minds are constituted in other ways. In other words, the same individual variability we find in bodies and behaviors are also to be found in minds.

If a selection event occurs that should happen to favor (or disfavor) any one kind of mind over any other kind of mind, those possessing the favored minds will enjoy differential survival and reproduction. With individual variability of minds represented in a sentient population — individual temperaments that lead individuals to think in different ways, and value things in different ways, and deliberate over alternatives in different ways — there is the continual possibility of natural selection.

The more variety of minds that there are, the greater the number of alternatives amongst which a selection event can select, the greater the likelihood that some one temperament is more fitted to survive the particular conditions that obtain than other temperaments.

Thus to formulate temperament as the intellectual expression of individual variability is to place mind within natural history.

To place mind within nature is a metaphysical formulation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In the painfully slow process of the formulation of a secular world view having started from civilizations that, throughout the world, have been permeated by religious significance — so much so that each of the world’s major religions roughly correspond to each of the world’s major civilizations — one of the walls against which we repeatedly crack our heads is that of the traditional sense of grandeur that is so perfectly embodied in the religious rituals of ecclesiastical civilization.

For many if not most human beings, this grandeur of ritual translates into intellectual grandeur, and, again, for many if not most, this equation of religious grandeur with human honor and dignity has meant that any deviation from the traditions of ecclesiastical civilization have been treated as deviations from the intrinsic respect due to human beings as human beings. That is to say, many Westerners (and possibly also many elsewhere in the world) express indignation, outrage, and anger over a naturalistic account of human origins. The whole legacy of Copernicus is seen as invidious to human dignity.

Among those in the sciences and philosophy, it has become commonplace to attribute the strongly negative reaction to naturalism (especially as is touches upon human origins) as a reaction to the re-contextualization of humanity’s place in nature in view of a naturalistic cosmology. Anthropocentric cosmology is here treated as an expression of overweening human pride, and the need to re-conceptualize the cosmos in terms that make human beings and human concerns no longer central is not only a necessary adjustment to scientific understanding but also serves as a stern lesson to human hubris.

In other words, the scientific demonstration of the peripheral position of humanity in a naturalistic cosmos is understood to be a moral good because it, “brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes” (to quote Thucydides). Science is a rough master, and by formulating scientific cosmology in these unforgiving terms I have made it sound harsh and unsympathetic. This was intentional, because this formulation comes closer to doing justice to the visceral intuitions of the indignant anthropocentric than the usual formulation in terms of a necessary correction to human pride.

Seen in this way, both anthropocentric-ecclesiastical civilization and Copernican-scientific civilization are both related in an essential way to a conception of human pride. Both conceptions of humanity and of civilization have a fundamentally conflicted conception of pride. In ecclesiastical civilization, human pride in species-being (to employ a Marxist term) is magnified while individualistic pride is the sin of Satan and central to the fallen nature of the world. In Copernican civilization, human pride in human knowledge is magnified — and I note that human knowledge is often an individualistic undertaking, but see below for more on this — but pride in species-being is called into question.

In ecclesiastical civilization, pride in species-being is raised to the status of metaphysical pride and is postulated as the organizational principle of the world. But, of course, pride in species-being is identified with humility, and the whole of humanity is dismissed as sinners. In Copernican civilization, pride in knowledge — epistemic pride — is raised to the status of metaphysical pride and is postulated as the organizational principle of the world. But, of course, the epistemic pride of science is often identified with epistemic humility. As Socrates once said to Antisthenes, “I can see your pride through the holes in your cloak.”

Individualistic pride is closely connected to the heroic conception of civilization, and as civilization continues its relentless consolidation of social institutions integrated within a larger whole of human endeavor, the role (even the possibility) of individual heroic action is abridged. Individualistic pride in this context is even more closely connected with the heroic conception of science, which is (as I have pointed out elsewhere) already an antiquated notion.

When civilization was young and scientific research was the province of individuals, not institutions and their communities of researchers, almost all scientific discoveries were the result of heroic individual efforts. Science, like civilization, is now a collective enterprise, and just as the story of civilization was once told as the deeds of kings, so the story of science was once told as the deeds of discoverers. Such authentic efforts could still be found in the nineteenth century (in the person of Darwin) and even in the early twentieth century (in the person of Einstein). But it is rarely the case today, and will become rarer and possibly extinct in the future.

Pride in species-being (in contradistinction to individualistic pride) is something that I have not spent much time thinking about, but when I think about it now in the present context it seems to me that this represents a heroic conception of the career of humanity — a kind of collective heroism of a biological community striving to overcome adverse selection. Thus, if the world is magnified, how much greater is the glory of the species that triumphs over the deselective obstacles thrown up by the world? Religion magnifies the anthropocentrically-organized world in order to magnify the species-being that has been made the principle of the world; science magnifies the Copernican decentralized world in order to magnify the knower whose knowledge has been made the principle of the world.

As ecclesiastical civilization slowly, gradually, and incrementally gives way before Copernican civilization, novel ways will need to be found to supply the apparent human need for a heroic conception of the career of humanity as a whole. It will not be enough to insist upon the grandeur of the scientifically understood universe. We have seen that religion, science, and philosophy can all appeal to the grandeur of the world in making the case for a unification of the world around a particular principle. The Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” Nietzsche wrote even as he was losing his mind, “Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are filled with joy.”

Scientific knowledge is now a production of species-being, but I don’t think that science as an institution can bear the heavy burden of human hopes and dreams and expectations. Perhaps civilization, which is also collective and a production of species-being, could be channeled into a heroic conception of species-being that could serve an eschatological function. This seems like a real possibility to me, but it is not something that is yet a palpable reality.

If those who will someday formulate a future science of civilizations also see themselves as engineers of the human soul, i.e., that they conceive of the science of civilization not only descriptively but also prescriptively, they will want to not only formulate a doctrine of what civilization is, but also what civilization will be, can be, and ought to be. If civilization is to be a home for human hopes, then it must become something that is capable of sustaining and nurturing such hopes.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Kenneth Clark, in his Civilisation: A Personal View, concludes his multi-hour documentary with a reflection on moral psychology, although he does not call it that. He particularly mentions the rise of humanitarianism. This sort of thing would not go over well today, some forty years later, as it would be seen as rather too credulous, and smacking of progressivism (which, we are given to understand, is a terrible thing). But listening to Clark it is obvious that it is already in his time becoming dangerous to say such things — dangerous, because one is liable to be thought a simpleton. Clark himself calls himself a “stick-in-the-mud.”

I do not disagree with Clark, and I am not so dismissive of progress as has become common today, but this is a point I will not argue here. I simply tell you my prejudices so you know that I agree with Clark on this point. This is significant because, even if we recognize the emergence of a humanitarian consciousness in the nineteenth century, we must recognize at the same time the earlier wisdom of Hamlet, viz. that we often discover that we must be cruel to be kind.

One might consider it a kindness that the First World War was ended by agreement with an armistice, and that this spared lives and property by not necessitating an invasion of Germany itself, but the very fact that the defeat of Germany was not made absolutely manifest on the home front in an age of popular sovereignty meant that the armistice did not settle the war. As Foch said, and was proved right, “it is not peace, but an armistice for twenty years.”

Would it have been a “kindness” to push on an defeat the Germans on German soil, taking the lives of more soldiers and destroying the infrastructure of Germany in the teens? This would possibly have changed subsequent history, and it might not have been necessary to level Germany twenty years later with a strategic bombing campaign. And it would have been primarily soldiers who were put at risk of life and limb. During the First World War, more soldiers died than civilians. During the Second World War, more civilians died than soldiers. This is a portent that says something truly horrific about our time.

Such horrific choices have faced us repeatedly throughout our history, and still face us today. Because these choices are hideous, the way that each of us comes down on one side of the question or the other is often used against us, when the most unflattering construction is placed on our preference. This is disingenuous, because either side can smear the other side with the unsavory and unavoidable corollaries of a forced choice. And history forces us to make such forced choices — or forces us to avoid making a choice and, as we say today, kicking the can further down the road — time and again. We should not conceal this from ourselves.

Here is a semi-contemporary example. I have read interviews with one of the scientists who was involved in the design of the neutron bomb. He had served as a solder in Korea, and he had seen the devastation wrought in Korea by conventional weapons. Many cities were annihilated, not unlike the German cities subject to strategic bombing during the Second World War. This vision of destruction on an apocalyptic scale was an inspiration to this scientist, and was part of his experience that contributed to the design of the neutron bomb. For this man, the neutron bomb was a more humanitarian weapon — not unlike the guillotine, which when first invented by a doctor, was conceived as a humane form of execution.

After it become possible to build a neutron bomb, and some nation-states considered adding it to their arsenals, the very idea of the neutron bomb was held up as something ghastly and ghoulish, as though it had been designed with the intent to killing people while “saving” their property, which latter might be expropriated by others who would simply move in to a depopulated urban area. Anti-neutron bomb activists put the worst possible construction on the intention of the neutron bomb. For them, it was apparently more “humanitarian” to keep war so horrible that it would remain unthinkable. From this point of view, mutually assured destruction is a good thing. And I certainly understand this argument, but at the same time as I understand the argument, I know that, for some people, mutually assured destruction is one of the great moral obscenities of our time, and our civilization should be ashamed of itself for having made such a conception possible, not to mention the very foundation of the international order during the Cold War.

What is more “humanitarian”: the threat of a nuclear genocide of a significant proportion of our species, or the threat of a lesser degree of destruction that might settle a war at a lower cost? I think that if you are honest with yourself, you will acknowledge that each alternative is a moral horror. That does not mean that I regard the argument between the two as indifferent. On the contrary, I believe that rational arguments can be made on both sides of the question. All I am saying here is that the irrational thing is to believe that moral horror is exclusively on one side or the other.

This is certainly not the only paradox of humanitarianism, but it is certainly one of them.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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