Frankl: He who has a WHY can bear any HOW

Despair = Suffering – Meaning

So Viktor Frankl says in the video above, summarizing his theory of logotherapy, which I’ve read at greater length in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In other words, if people suffer but see meaning in their life, and even in their suffering, they do not despair, as he himself did not despair when he was in Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

He is therefore, as he also says in this video, the anti-Sartre. Sartre and the other existentialists believed that we have to accept the meaninglessness of our existence. I, in my black-turtleneck and Gauloise phase (everyone has one), used to think that was cool. But Frankl thinks it is nonsense.

Or rather, he thinks that it is unhealthy and unhelpful. Hence logotherapy, which

focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. (Logotherapy, indeed, is a meaning-centered psychotherapy).

He calls it logotherapy because

Logos is a Greek word which denotes “meaning.” Logotherapy, or, as it has been called by some authors, “The Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy,” focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning.

According to logotherapy,

this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term “striving for superiority,” is focused.

Speaking of the will to power, Frankl likes to quote Nietzsche:

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy. In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.

Those people who do see meaning in their lives, says Frankl, are able to

transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.

And here you see how this is relevant for my book, which is about the two impostors, triumph and disaster.


I want to agree with Frankl, but the trouble starts when he describes how he applies his approach to actual therapy. To me it sounds like semantic trickery. He meets desperate people and tries to change their attitude, but really he only does some conceptual gymnastics and calls that meaning.

Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

I don’t doubt that the old man, out of love for his wife, preferred to bear the pain of being the survivor so that she did not have to. But his wife was still gone. His job (surviving her) was done. Pointing out that he had saved her pain did not give him meaning for his life from that point forward.

So my critique of logotherapy is really the same as my critique of religion: Sure, it might be helpful to see meaning (= believe in God), but that does not mean that there actually is meaning (=God). Sartre might be right after all.

That said, I am impressed enough with Frankl to include him in my pantheon of great thinkers.

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The rape of Melos: Thucydides as great thinker


One of the most important dialogues in all of literature, all of history and all of political philosophy (and yes, I am aware that this is a bold statement) is the so-called “Melian dialogue”. Its subject is power.

Its author was Thucydides (above), whom I’ve introduced before. He was a contemporary of Socrates, a general in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and of course the preeminent historian of that war. He is also considered the world’s first Realist.

I’m using that word in the context of International Relations and Political Science, as distinct from Idealism. All later Realists, from Thomas Hobbes to Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger, owe an intellectual debt to Thucydides.

So the purpose of this post is:

  1. to include Thucydides in my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers, and
  2. to try to give you a short and easy intro to that famous dialogue.

1) Background

The dialogue is supposed to have taken place in 416 BCE, roughly in the middle of the long war between Athens and her allies (mostly the islands and ports around the Aegean) and Sparta and her allies (mostly the land-locked cities of the Peloponnese).

One life time earlier, the Athenians, Spartans and other Greeks together had kicked out several huge Persian invasion armies. This was the beginning of Athens as a superpower. Democratic and idealistic at first (parallels?), Athens quickly became nakedly self-interested and arrogant and dominated its allies as though they were vassals. That alliance was called the Delian League but was really an Athenian Empire. Here is a map of it, before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War:

Athenian Empire.svg

If you click through to enlarge the map, you will see the tiny island of Melos in the southern Aegean, just outside the line demarcating the Athenian Empire. Melos was a Spartan colony but otherwise neutral. It was, in short, a tiny Switzerland. It wanted to stay out of the troubles.

The premise of the dialogue, then, is simple: The Athenians send a fleet to Melos and flatly demand that Melos bow to Athenian power and become a vassal or else be ethnically cleansed. (!)

The Melians appeal to higher ideals (hence Idealism) such as justice.

In the course of the dialogue, excerpts of which I am about to give you, the Athenians and Melians use all the arguments that Realists and Idealists have been using ever since.

And then, Thucydides ends with one of the most abrupt–but, I believe, intentional and genius–codas in literature. But let’s wait till we get to that.

2) The dialogue


  • You can read the full version here, but I have cut it for ease of use
  • Glossary: Lacedaemon = Sparta. (Laconia is the area around Sparta, whence “laconic”, since the Spartans didn’t apparently say more than necessary.)

Athenians: … we shall not trouble you with specious pretences … and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying … that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Melians: … you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right….

Athenians: … We will now proceed to show you that we are come here in the interest of our empire, and that we shall say what we are now going to say, for the preservation of your country; as we would fain exercise that empire over you without trouble, and see you preserved for the good of us both.

Melians: And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?

Athenians: Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you.

Melians: So that you would not consent to our being neutral, friends instead of enemies, but allies of neither side.

Athenians: No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power.

Melians: Is that your subjects’ idea of equity, to put those who have nothing to do with you in the same category with peoples that are most of them your own colonists, and some conquered rebels?

Athenians: As far as right goes they think one has as much of it as the other, and that if any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection…

Melians: … if you debar us from talking about justice and invite us to obey your interest, we also must explain ours, and try to persuade you, if the two happen to coincide. How can you avoid making enemies of all existing neutrals who shall look at case from it that one day or another you will attack them? …

Athenians: … it is rather islanders like yourselves, outside our empire, and subjects smarting under the yoke, who would be the most likely to take a rash step and lead themselves and us into obvious danger.

Melians: … it were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried, before submitting to your yoke.

Athenians: Not if you are well advised, the contest not being an equal one, with honour as the prize and shame as the penalty, but a question of self-preservation and of not resisting those who are far stronger than you are.

Melians: … to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope

Athenians: Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources … [But] you, who are weak … hang on a single turn of the scale…

Melians: You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust…

Athenians: When you speak of the favour of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practise among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do

Melians: … we now trust to [the Lacedaemonians’] respect for expediency to prevent them from betraying the Melians, their colonists, and thereby losing the confidence of their friends in Hellas and helping their enemies.

Athenians: Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger; and danger the Lacedaemonians generally court as little as possible.

Melians: But we believe that they would be more likely to face even danger for our sake … as our nearness to Peloponnese makes it easier for them to act, and our common blood ensures our fidelity.

Athenians: Yes, but what an intending ally trusts to is not the goodwill of those who ask his aid, but a decided superiority of power for action; and the Lacedaemonians look to this even more than others. … now is it likely that while we are masters of the sea they will cross over to an island?

Melians: But they would have others to send…

Athenians: … we are struck by the fact that, after saying you would consult for the safety of your country, in all this discussion you have mentioned nothing which men might trust in and think to be saved by. Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious. … Think over the matter, therefore, after our withdrawal, and reflect once and again that it is for your country that you are consulting, that you have not more than one, and that upon this one deliberation depends its prosperity or ruin.

With that the Athenians left the Melians to make their decision. Let’s just summarize the dialogue briefly:

  1. A: Cut through the crap: might makes right. Don’t waste our time. M: We have a right to invoke justice!
  2. A: We would prefer to let you live, so submit! M: How exactly would submitting be in our interest?
  3. A: Were you not listening? Because you would live! M: Why can’t we be neutral? We would not bother you.
  4. A: Somebody somewhere might think we are weak. M: If you exterminate us, all other neutrals will hate you.
  5. A: Let us worry about that. M: We are not cowards and we want to stay free.
  6. A: For you it’s not about freedom but survival. M: We still have hope.
  7. A: Hope is for the powerful. And you are not. M: The gods are on our side because our cause is just.
  8. A: The gods are just like you and us: They do what power lets them. M: The Spartans will come to our aid.
  9. A: No, they won’t. They know they would lose at sea. M: We think they would send somebody.
  10. A: Enough of this silly nonsense. You make up your mind. Submit or die.

The Melians decided not to submit and to fight. Thucydides then describes at some length the Athenian siege. Eventually, the Athenians overpower the Melians.

And then, in perhaps the most abrupt final sentence in literature, Thucydides simply informs us that the Athenians

put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.

3) Exegesis

  • Style: Thucydides writes the dialogue (admittedly, with my cutting I have accentuated this) a bit as Hemingway does: This is a staccato back-and-forth, not a treatise. We are not teasing out a subtlety of argumentation here. We simply have two sides who are talking past each other, and one side has power whereas the other does not.
  • Style: Any modern editor would have forced Thucydides to provide more “color” at the end, to make the true horror of the extermination more vivid. Thucydides has none of that. He wants the atrocity to be a mere afterthought. This is the way the world is, he is saying.
  • Content: Does Thucydides approve of the Athenians? We have no idea. Probably not. Who cares?, he is saying. This is reality.

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Great, if not greatest, thinker: Galileo


Four hundred years ago exactly, Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope at the moon and began, with his wonderfully open mind, writing down what he saw. Other people had done this before him. So why include Galileo in my pantheon of the greatest thinkers ever?

Two reasons:

  1. He made us understand that our universe is much bigger than we could imagine.
  2. He, in his human and fallible way, stood up for truth against superstition, ignorance and fear, otherwise known as… but I get ahead of myself.

I) The universe is bigger than we can imagine

It’s one of those many cases in science, and in all thought (think: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), when a great contribution came from several people building on the work of one another. This is wonderful. We place far too much emphasis on the solitary genius.

In Galileo’s case, he built on the prior work of, among others,

  1. Copernicus,
  2. Tycho Brahe, and
  3. Johannes Kepler,

in the process proving wrong the views of Aristotle and everybody else that the sun (and everything else) moved around the earth.



Copernicus was the first to realize that the earth in fact moved around the sun, which must count as one of the most revolutionary (pun intended) advances in our understanding of ourselves and our world. But Copernicus assumed (and why not?) that the orbit was a circle.

Tycho Brahe took things an important step further not so much by thinking as by measuring: the motion of Mars, in particular. He created data, in other words.



Kepler, who was Brahe’s assistant, then looked at those data and realized that our orbit, and those of the other planets, could not be circular but had to be elliptical. (A colleague of mine wrote a good and quick summary of all this.)

And Galileo? He filled in a lot of the blanks with his telescope.

  • He saw the moons of Jupiter, realizing that they were orbiting another body besides the earth and the sun, which was a shocker.
  • He saw that Venus was, like earth, orbiting the sun.
  • He saw that the sun was not a prefect orb.
  • He saw that the Milky Way contained uncountable stars just like our own sun.

For Homo Sapiens, who was still coming to terms with the fact that the earth was round, all this was almost too much to bear. Our universe was vastly, unimaginably, bigger than the Bible had told us. How would we react to that news?

II) Those who seek and are open to truth will have enemies

This brings us to the church, or shall we say “religion” generally. The church hated Galileo and everything he said and stood for. He questioned what they thought they “knew”, which unsettled them, scared them, threatened them. But they had power. With Nietzschean ressentiment, they attacked him.

You can make anybody recant, and Galileo did. Sort of. In any case, he was declared a heretic and sentenced to house arrest for his remaining life.

In one of my all-time favorite ironies, the Catholic Church, having condemned him, decided–359 years later, in 1992, two years before I sent my first email!–that Galileo was in fact right. How? A committee had discovered this. Good job, guys.

And so, Galileo is still with us, inspiring many. As he discovered that our universe was incomprehensibly big, we are discovering, as another colleague of mine, Geoff Carr, puts it, that

the object that people call the universe, vast though it is, may be just one of an indefinite number of similar structures … that inhabit what is referred to, for want of a better term, as the multiverse.

And as Galileo had to confront the the mobs of ignorance, fear and superstition, so do we today. Here, remind yourself with this casual comment by an Arizona state senator (!), Sylvia Allen, Republican, that the earth is 6,000 years old:

Oh, and what about Aristotle? He was the one proved wrong, you recall. That’s OK, as I have argued. You can be wrong sometimes and still be a great thinker, provided you were genuinely looking for the truth.

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New thread: Socrates


The Hannibal Blog is kicking off yet another series, this one on Socrates.

You’ve encountered Socrates before on this blog, as when he represented the “left leg” in this body metaphor of the Western tradition, or when discussing irony. He came up only indirectly, via Plato, in my series on the world’s greatest thinkers, of which he is of course one.

So why now an entire series? Because he deserves it. And because of an oddly serendipitous string of events:

  1. I have been thinking for a while about writing my second book about a theme illustrated by Socrates, rather as the theme of success/failure is illustrated by Hannibal in my first book–even though it’s not even out yet.
  2. Even though I haven’t told anybody about this, several people, indeed several readers of The Hannibal Blog, have been sending me ideas and links and recommendations that have to do with Socrates. (More about those soon.)

Hannibal embodies more than one theme in our lives, although any good story needs one theme for focus, with the others appearing along the way.

For Socrates, too, I have one theme in our lives in mind. But it’s way, way too early to get into that. For the rest of this blog thread, let’s just start counting all the other ways in which Socrates, like Hannibal, is relevant to us, today. There are so many.

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Clausewitz and you: Life strategy



It’s time to talk about tactics as opposed to strategy in life, because knowing the difference is crucial to achieving success, and avoiding disaster. And that, of course, is the topic of my book.

The person to know about in this matter (besides Hannibal and Scipio, of course) is Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian (and later Russian) officer on the losing side against Napoleon. He also witnessed Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia, which made a deep impression on him. Think of him as the equivalent of an adviser to Scipio or Fabius, the Romans on the losing side against my main character, Hannibal.

Clausewitz is without any doubt one of the great thinkers in world history, even though he is enigmatic and still confuses people to this day. The main reason for that is that he spent his career taking notes–hundreds and hundreds of pages worth–which he meant to consolidate into a coherent whole. But then he died of cholera, at the age of fifty-one. So his great treatise, Vom Kriege, “On War”, was not coherent. Even so, it is now considered the most profound work on strategy ever, thanks to the thoughtful analysis of people such as Kenneth Payne, Patrick Porter and David Betz at King’s College in London.

Let’s look at his most famous and controversial quote:

War is nothing but the continuation of politics (or policy) with other means.

Lots of mediocre minds have, over the years, worked themselves into a fury over the alleged cynicism of this quote, entirely missing its point and getting the meaning backward. Clausewitz was not saying that all politics is potentially like war, but that all war must remain subservient to political/policy objectives. This is subtle.

Elsewhere he had set up the basic tension in war: War can in theory be:

  1. absolute, or
  2. limited

In practice, all wars must be limited but simultaneously “want to” escalate. And here we get into Clausewitz’s wisdom:

Means vs ends

A tactical mind always and only wants to win the battle–whatever battle is being waged. (Remember Pyrrhus?) This is the mind that wants to escalate any war toward its absolute extreme. In future posts I will give some devastating examples of what this can lead to.

A strategic mind wants to win “the war” or, better yet, “the peace”! Battles are simply a means to an end. So it makes perfect sense to adjust your battle tactics not to the goal of victory but to the goal of achieving the kind of peace you ultimately want. This almost always introduces moderation and limitation into your tactics.

As with so many bits of profound wisdom, this is deceptively easy to shrug off. But consider how earth-shattering it was in its time. There was, for instance, a pompous strategist named Heinrich von Bülow, who defined tactics as “the science of military movement in the presence of the enemy,” whereas strategy was “the science of military movements beyond the range of cannon-shot of either side.” What banal and trivial drivel!

Now consider how earth-shattering Clausewitz’s insight can be for your own life: “The object of war,” he said, and I will add emphasis in bold:

as of all creative activity, is the employment of the available means for the predetermined end.

And here you see why I include Clausewitz in my pantheon of great thinkers: Simple, profound and specific, and yet expandable to other areas of life.

Have you ever “won” a fight with your lover only to feel that you’ve lost something far greater? “Won” a promotion only to feel that you’ve lost something? “Won” in a bout of office politics only to feel that you should not have entered battle to begin with?

Are you, in your life, confusing tactics with strategy, means with ends? You need some Clausewitz.

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Free as Diogenes: a fantasy


One of my idols–and everybody has many and mutually contradictory idols–is Diogenes, the ancient Greek sage famous for living with no material possessions in a barrel.

I have to be careful about saying that because it might be misunderstood. Diogenes lived, quite deliberately, like a dog. Above, you see him with dogs. The Greek word for doglike, kynikos (as in, via Latin, the English canine) is the root of our word cynical. Diogenes was a cynic in the original and pristine sense.

So, yes, Diogenes defecated in public, masturbated in the marketplace and generally displayed the same unapologetic honesty towards others as, well, dogs do. I don’t intend to do any of those things, you’ll be reassured to know. So….

What’s the point?

My point, and the point of original cynicism, is to live a life that is:

  • simple
  • virtuous
  • honest
  • free

And there you have them, my favorite themes, especially simplicity and freedom.

Put differently, Diogenes and his crowd reacted against the complexity and dross of human society, something that I have been criticizing especially in American life.

The goal, you might say, is no entanglements; no bullshit; no striving for success as defined by the consumer society or power politics, because all of that only causes … suffering.

And with that last word, you see the connection that I make between Diogenes and the Buddha, Patanjali and Laozi (all of whom lived very roughly during the same ‘axial age’). They all believed in radical uncluttering and simplification as a way out of human suffering and into a higher form of freedom.

And so I hereby include Diogenes in my list of the world’s greatest thinkers. He was really a …

Greek Buddha

Calling Diogenes a Greek Buddhist is funny, of course. The three Asians I am comparing him to above (and others have made the same connection) communicated their insight in an Asian way: They retreated to some banyan tree or rode off on some water buffalo, kept themselves very clean, remained resolutely gentle towards others and wore that perennial smile that we Westerners eventually find somewhat annoying. (We do, don’t we?)

The ancient Greeks, by contrast, were confrontational, in-your-face, bring-it-on types. That was as much part of their Hellenism as their great art and culture. And in that way, they are recognizably Western–ie, like us.

But I believe the message of the cynics was the same as that of the Buddhists, Yogis and Taoists. And Diogenes delivered that message without ever preaching it, by simply living the example.

Diogenes looked past the vain and venal veneer of ‘civilized’ people around him and sought honesty instead–he carried a lamp around (in the picture above) to symbolize his search.

To stay simple and free, he volunteered for blissful poverty because he only wanted what he needed and we humans, as it turns out, need almost nothing. He had a wooden bowl to drink but then saw a boy drinking with his cupped hands and realized that he did not even need his bowl; so he threw it away and was happier for it. When Alexander the Great came to him (Diogenes being something of a celebrity by this time) and granted him any favor, Diogenes replied: ‘Yes, please, step out of my sunlight.’ (Alexander, being great indeed, was not offended but impressed. The two great men would die in the same year.)


Sounding like Einstein, Diogenes once said that

Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.

When asked where he was from, Diogenes was also the first person ever to say

I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)

Cosmopolitan, eccentric, cynical (in the good way) and free: That was Diogenes. Wouldst that I had the same courage to bid all this crap in life adieu to live merrily in a barrel somewhere. Perhaps someday I will.

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One-sided thinker: Ayn Rand


I’ve been meaning for a while to respond to Jacob’s nomination of Ayn Rand as the greatest thinker ever. You notice that Rand did not make it into my roster of great thinkers, and I want to explain why.

First, you have to understand where I’m coming from. In my twenties, I had an extreme Objectivist phase. For me, as for many of her fans, her radical and uncompromising individualism had as much romance–yes, romance–as the diametrical opposite ethic, socialism, had for other young people. And that is what young people need above all in a philosophy: romance. The time for nuance is old age; the time for bold clarity is youth.

So there we were, the young’uns. Some had Che Guevara posters on their walls (sexy, romantic, idealistic). Others were curled up with Atlas Shrugged and pictured John Galt (sexy, romantic, idealistic). Oh, and yes, they stood for opposite ways of looking at the world. But we were all revolutionaries in our ways, and happily so.

My type went on to become libertarians (properly called liberals), which I am. We reveled in our individualism, as I did and do. It was a great party.

Later in life, when I got to Silicon Valley, I had flash-backs of nostalgia. A lot of the geeks there still call themselves Objectivists. I remember a fun conversation I had with Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia and a Rand enthusiast. Indeed, some of us are still at it.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that Rand’s philosophy and, worse, her characters do not age. They are caricatures. Howard Roark, the über-architect in The Fountainhead, John Galt, the über-entrepreneur in Atlas Shrugged, are sketches of square-jawed action heroes as a girl who had escaped from Soviet Russia (ie, Rand) would draw them. They have no complexity, no nuance, no contradictions; they are, in short, not human. As you get older and put more life behind you, you lose interest.

Unfair? Not at all. Because Rand chose to deliver her philosophy through these characters, through narrative, through stories. And, as someone fascinated by storytelling, I think she got that part right. But her stories do not cut it.

I am still an invidualist today. But what Rand offered us was not individualism but atomism, the misguided and rather naive view that individuals exist discretely of one another and their surroundings and do not interact in patterns that reflect back on them.

She wrote at a time when Objectivism (the notion that there is one objective and observable reality) should already have been seen as untenable, given that Heisenberg had given us his uncertainty principle. Everything we have learned since should make us even more humble about our ability to observe reality. If I see red and the dog sees grey, thanks to the way photons form different patterns in his neurons and mine, what is the objective part?

Regarding individualism, it was always a distortion to deny collective patterns. Ask E.O. Wilson about his ants! Just as our cells do not run around bragging about their individualism but (usually) work together in our bodies, insects form colonies that come close to having their own consciousness.

If I were to nominate an individualist and libertarian for great thinker, it would not be Ayn Rand but Friedrich von Hayek, who thought about freedom and individuals holistically.

Finally, I cannot forgive Rand for making no allowance for humor. And don’t any of you Galtians pretend that there was any. Here, remind yourself:

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Great thought: Continuous partial attention

The Hannibal Blog only pretended to close off the thread on great thinkers by anointing a winner (Patanjali). This is a blog about a forthcoming book (mine), but also about ideas, so I will keep highlighting the best thinkers I come across.

Today: Linda Stone, formerly a researcher at Apple and Microsoft, and now simply a thinker and a liver of life.

Her idea is called continuous partial attention. It has been the bane of our existence in the rich world for the past two decades, and it is not multitasking. The good news is that the age of continuous partial attention is almost over. I will explain below, but if you have time, watch Linda:

Let me flesh that out a bit with the notes from my interview with her in 2006. (I ended up quoting her, but only tangentially, in this concluding chapter of my Special Report on new media in The Economist.)

  • From about 1945 to 65, we lived in an era when we “we suppressed our creativity” in order to pay full attention to whatever we were doing. The cultural icon was I Love Lucy: she “talked on the phone with her whole body and did nothing else! Everything in that era was focused on company or family. You were committed. You stayed put.”
  • From 65 to 85, “we questioned authority and asked for creativity.” This era became “all about me and my personal expression.” We wanted freedom. Divorce went up, commitment down. We paid attention only if we saw a payback. And so we began multitasking. Our motivation was to become more productive so that we might have more opportunities in life.
  • From 85 to 2005 we became “narcissistic and lonely and reached out for connection“. Technology increasingly allowed us to be “always on” the network, via email, cellphones, WiFi etc. Our motivation shifted from creating opportunities to scanning for opportunity. So we began to pay continuous partial attention. Instead of Lucy, we had Seinfeld, talking on the phone while doing other things, such as making out with his girlfriend. He was not multitasking; he was paying partial attention in case something better came along.

This is the important but subtle key to understanding Linda’s idea. Continuous partial attention (think SMSing while you’re in a meeting) does not come from a desire to be more productive and efficient but from

desiring to be a live node on the network and fearing that you’re missing out on something.

Now the good news

Starting about now, says Linda, we are entering a new era. That’s because we are “overwhelmed” by technology, and

longing for protection and meaningful connections, quality over quantity.

So we consciously forgo some opportunities to savor others, such as dinner with friends. We reassert our power over technology and the network by making our gadgets filter our world to keep out the noise. As Linda says,

The real aphrodisiac in this next era is attention…. What we’re moving into is an era where we value ownership of our time” [and] “discover the joy of focusing”

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Greatest thinker ever: Patanjali


And so: the winner. The Hannibal Blog‘s search for what makes great thinkers great, and what does not, took ten posts. My nominee is Patanjali.


Those of you who have been checking in regularly might have had your suspicions that something yogically-themed would come up again. But do not make the mistake of thinking that Patanjali is “only” about Yoga! Yes, he wrote (or so we think) the Yoga Sutras, which is, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the three great texts of Yoga. But what he said–with masterly economy, in 196 aphorisms that form a single logical thread (sutra)–qualifies not only as the earliest but also as the greatest thinking yet on the human mind.

Mind matter

And that says it all: This is about the mind, or psyche in Greek. So he was, with the Buddha (who might possibly have been a contemporary), one of the first psychologists. That said, the ancient Indians put our psychologists to shame.

We Westerners have one word for mind (not counting breath or spirit, which the ancients conflated), just as we have one word (give or take) for snow. The Yogis had hundreds of words for mind, just as the Eskimos have many words for snow. That is because they observed it with so much more nuance. For example, the Bhagavad Gita is about a war between the five Pandava brothers against their cousins, the one hundred Kaurava brothers. The five Pandavas represent the five positive minds, including Arjuna, who represents buddhi, or clear intelligence. The one hundred Kauravas represent all the negative minds (fear, anger, envy,….)

Stillness and …

Let’s cut to the chase. The first sutra simply says Now we start this exposition on Yoga. But in the second sutra Patanjali essentially says it all. (Talk about simplicity!) It is famous, so here is the Sanskrit:

Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah

This is the E=MC² of the mind. It means (using Iyengar’s translation):

Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.

There is a lot of important precision in that slightly clunky-sounding phrase, but we would be oversimplifying only slightly by reducing it to my phrase:

Yoga is a still mind

A reader who grasps all the ramifications could stop reading there. Most of us do not. So Patanjali elaborates…

… Motion

The trouble is that the mind is almost never still. It moves, pulled by thoughts as wild as bucking broncos. And this is what confuses and torments us. Patanjali’s greatest (and most overlooked) contribution is his analysis of these naughty ones that we call thoughts or emotions.

You know them all: anger, fear, envy, greed, lust, anxiety and so on. They show up and take your mind captive. You think they are you, and you suffer and make others suffer.

Patanjali proves that they are not you. You can, with the techniques that he describes, let them go. A naughty one shows up in your mind stage left, you say, ‘Oh Hi, Mr Anger’ and label him, then allow him to exit again stage right. And you keep doing that.

Over time, you make a discovery. Who is saying Hi and doing the labeling and letting go? It can’t be Mr Anger. So anger is not me, it’s just some schmuck passing through. See you!

I am therefore something else. Patanjali calls this I the seer. As the seer sees more clearly, the mind comes to rest.

And for all those who are still with him at that point, he sketches out how to unite (=Yoga) with this seer in order to feel whole and free. Non-trivial, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

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Greatest thinker, runner-up: Darwin,

So here we are in the ninth and penultimate post of The Hannibal Blog‘s search for the world’s greatest thinker ever. And the runner-up is…. Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s thought fits all the criteria The Hannibal Blog has laid out so far: his insight was simple and yet non-obvious and subtle (and thus still frequently misunderstood). He appears to have been right. And for good measure, his insight is also extensible, explaining far more than “just” speciation.


Even though the details are still being debated, the core insight is so simple that I always think it borders on tautological. Those genes whose vehicles (phenotypes) are relatively better at making it to the next generation and the next and the next … are the ones you see around you today. Duh. Those genes that manifested themselves in phenotypes that kicked off too early to reproduce, or that reproduced but created offspring that couldn’t repeat the performance … are not the ones you see around you today. Duh.


As Geoff Carr, our science editor at The Economist, once reminded me, people often get the implications of natural selection and evolution (which is what I described above) wrong. I’m not even talking about the fire-and-brimstone creationist types. What many people infer is that evolution is somehow about improvement. (This is the seed of an entire genre of cartoons.) It is not. Instead, evolution is about adaptation. It would merrily go on if we humans were to wipe ourselves out tomorrow with a nuclear war. The bacterial slime in thermal vents would carry on unperturbed.

The other thing that people get wrong is to overemphasize the survival part. It’s the reproduction part that drives the process. Somebody once explained it to me best by saying it’s about which organisms have the most grandchildren. Ie, think of a strapping stallion and a purdy donkey. Both are great at surviving, and great at reproducing, but something in their genotype makes them choose each other. They will have lots of sterile mules. Two generations later, their genes will be gone.


I think the expansion of the concept really kicked off in earnest with Richard Dawkins and his idea that even non-biological systems evolve. Culture is such a system, and the equivalents of genes are idea snippets called memes. Some memes (ideas, fads, fashions) adapt, travel and spread, others do not.

The basic concept also explains so amazingly much else. Why grandmothers tend to be closer to their daughters’ children than to their sons’. Why women show a bit more skin at one time of the month than during the rest of the month. Why humans are sometimes altruistic and sometimes not. Why so many of us are religious. And on and on and on. In short, why we are who we are….

Next time: the overall winner. Once again, I promise a surprise.

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