The Gifts of Humility

Civilization is weak and precarious, and life, ever stronger and more savage, always comes out on top. Self-assertion is natural, gratifying, erotically charged, whereas self-denial is anything but. Of all the animals, the human variety may be the most difficult to tame. And this is precisely why humility is so important. Through it we can learn how to tolerate ourselves and others, and make ourselves a touch less abominable. For good or ill, it is the best tool we have to tame the beasts that we are.

There is nothing shocking about this. If anything, it is one of the most banal — or should I say humble? — philosophical ideas. From the Buddha to the Sufi masters to Schopenhauer to Bergson and Weil, mystics and philosophers, East and West, have not in essence said anything else. If hearing it again does shock us, it is only because we have, perhaps like never before, become so blindly, erotically entangled in the race of life that we have even forgotten that we have eyes to see.

—Costica Bradatan, The Gifts of Humility

It’s All About Proportion

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Edmund Burke

In 1791, in a letter to a Member of the National Assembly, the British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke wrote:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

The above quote calls to mind another quote by the Roman historian Tacitus, relating to the character of his late father-in-law Agricola, “He took from philosophy its greatest gift: a sense of proportion.”

So Burke is saying that to the degree in which men (or mankind) rein in their appetites and desires, and instead seek to love justice, level headedness, and wisdom, will be the degree to which men are capable, or qualified for (psychologically and socially) civilization, and without the need for a greater degree of external (law and government) restraint or supervision. An observation that seems well supported by history, psychology, and common sense. Arguably, Burke is anticipating Sigmund Freud, and his idea that Civilization and its Discontents (degrees of restraint) actually make civilized society possible. In other words, civilization may have its discontents but God knows we wouldn’t want to live without them!

Of course Burke believed that the “controlling power” in each individual should mostly come from culture, custom, religion, and tradition. For the most part, I think Burke was right, but with a caveat—that surely Thomas Paine and the American Founders, revolutionaries themselves, I remind you, would sympathize with—that while all of these things are important, they can sometimes be the very things that are complicit in forging our fetters. Thomas Jefferson was thinking, I believe, along these lines when he wrote: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The tyrannies we suffer under aren’t always from the acts of other men, but are more often from pernicious ideas and beliefs that have slowly captured and infected our hearts and minds. And so we must be mindful that the conceptions that seemingly bind us together, may actually be the ideas, the mental chains, that are truly enslaving us.

I can imagine Burke, with a little chuckle in his voice, listening to all this and replying, in that Englishman’s voice slightly tinged with an Irish brogue, “Well, sir, I did say it was all about proportion.”

Quote: Leo Tolstoy and the Challenge of Learning

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“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” — Leo Tolstoy

Bad Thinkers

Is the way people think, to use the computer metaphor, always amenable through a software update? Or, are there people whose hardware just can’t be updated?

I suspect we all know of people (hopefully not too many) who believe in wild conspiracy theories. They tend to reject contrary evidence, solid science, or sound arguments. So a fair question arises: Are these people misinform or just badly educated? Or is their bad thinking something innate? Is this way of thinking just part of their character?

Well Quassim Cassam, a professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick at Coventry, discusses this idea in an Aeon piece. Cassam illustrates his argument through the fictitious story of Oliver, a guy who believes 911 was a massive conspiracy. Regardless of the overwhelming evidence against his conspiracy theory, Oliver dismisses that evidence and believes 911 was a big conspiracy. Oliver cannot be reasoned out of this belief. You cannot, and will not, get through the thicket of nonsense that’s taken hold of him.

The typical argument is that people like Oliver have an information problem: they either lack enough or cannot process it correctly. But Cassam sees the problem as even more fundamental. Oliver’s wild conspiracy beliefs aren’t the result of a lack of relevant information, they have more to do with Oliver’s intellectual character:

I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn’t mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.

This is a controversial idea, but my own experience leads me to believe Cassam may be right. It does make sense intuitively, but it would take experimental research to confirm it. The difficulty I see in conducting this research is trying to separate structural, innate, mental deficiencies in thinking from information processing problems and willful ignorance.

I suspect some bad thinkers, I realize I’m being optimistic, can be improved if they have the right attitude and receive the right kind of education. But “attitude” is critical. I say this because without some admission or realization that you’re wrong or maybe not applying good thinking skills it’s not likely any amount of education will work. As the saying goes, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” So I’ll admit attitude may be the very thing you can’t turn with a bad thinker. Cassam is not as optimistic:

It is in the nature of many intellectual character traits that you don’t realize you have them, and so aren’t aware of the true extent to which your thinking is influenced by them. The gullible rarely believe they are gullible and the closed-minded don’t believe they are closed-minded. The only hope of overcoming self-ignorance in such cases is to accept that other people – your co-workers, your spouse, your friends – probably know your intellectual character better than you do. But even that won’t necessarily help. After all, it might be that refusing to listen to what other people say about you is one of your intellectual character traits. Some defects are incurable.

For the most part a good education should lead to a high degree of epistemological humility. The more we learn the more we realize just how much we don’t know. Barring strong evidence or sound logic we should approach ideas cautiously. Our path to knowledge should be inferentially, moving in a linear path from one valid point to the next, stepping stone to stone across the river. But it may be that the ability to do this or not do this, at least in some of us, is more about something that resides in our personal constitution than in our cognitive tool kit.

A Quote to Note

John Ruskin

“A wise man always finds some support for himself in everything, because his gift is in obtaining goodness from everything.” — John Ruskin