Socrates, the cynics, idiots and me

Antisthenes

Antisthenes

Socrates’ most famous disciple was of course Plato. But his oldest disciple was a man named Antisthenes (above), who became the first of the cynics and the teacher of that Diogenes whom I so admire and envy, because I would love the simplicity of living in a barrel.

I quite sympathize with Antisthenes, in several ways. Socrates was forever going around interrogating everybody in this intense–we would say anal-retentive–quest to come up with perfect definitions. What is virtue? What is justice? What is the good? Whatever answers others gave, Socrates dismantled them, but rarely came up with anything positive. Antisthenes eventually got rather bored and frustrated by all this.

So he concluded that these things that Socrates was obsessed with were really just names, or words. They mean what you want them to mean. 2,360 years later, French intellectuals like Derrida would say the same thing and get famous for it.

So to hell with words, said Antisthenes, and let’s get out of here. Screw society and its norms and conventions. Jury duty? Puhleeze. Vote? No way. That stuff was for those do-goody Athenians who were under the illusion that they were “free“. Antisthenes, who had a good sense of humor, regularly recommended that the Athenians should vote that asses are horses, as a way of celebrating democracy.

He, and all the Cynics, were thus what we would call apolitical: without politics, without a polis, without a city. Aristotle thought there was something pathetic about being apolitical, cityless–like being “a solitary piece in checkers”. But Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes and those types saw freedom in this withdrawal.

As Jag Bhalla, an expert on such matters, has already pointed out on the Hannibal Blog, the Greeks had a word for these people: keeping out of public affairs, they were private, or idiotes. In time we came to call people who cut loose from conventions idiosyncratic, but also tried to discourage that sort of thing and gave idiots a bad name.

I, for one, stick by my Diogenes dream: Being an idiot sounds great to me.

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The original “gadfly”: Socrates’ negativity

783px-Horse_fly_Tabanus_2

Socrates saw himself as “a gadfly to a horse”, where the horse was Athens–a “sluggish horse” in need of a bit of “stinging”. This the origin of our cliché. As we keep discovering in this thread on Socrates, the old man is still with us all the time, whether we are aware of it or not.

Socrates also liked to compare himself to a midwife. (Perhaps that metaphor came to him because his mother was a midwife.) What he meant by it was that, through his dialectical questioning and conversation, he “birthed” the thoughts that his conversation partners were already pregnant with. Put differently: He felt that he brought something out of people: he led (Latin ducare) something out (ex), ie educated.

But how did others see him?

Cicero, a few centuries later, said that Socrates practiced a “purely negative dialectic which refrains from pronouncing any positive judgment.”

Hippias, one of the sophists (teachers) Socrates interrogated, said that “You mock at others, questioning and examining everybody, and never willing to render an account yourself or to state an opinion about anything.”

Meno, another conversation “partner”, tells Socrates that “You are extremely like the flat torpedo sea-fish; for it benumbs anyone who approaches and touches it… For in truth I feel my soul and my tongue quite benumbed.”

In short, it is hard to avoid concluding that Socrates left everybody feeling bad. If you were lucky, he merely belittled or embarrassed you; if you were unlucky, he exposed and humiliated you. He never made anybody feel confident or good. In our lingo, he left everybody 😦 and nobody 🙂 .

What if Socrates had talked to Patanjali?

This is quite worth thinking about.

You recall that Patanjali was my nomination for the title of “the world’s greatest thinker ever“. He was the original sage of Ashtanga Yoga. Which is to say: Whereas the Bhagavad Gita outlines Ashtanga Yoga (which it calls “Raja Yoga”: “regal union” or “kingly discipline”) in a narrative form, Patanjali was the first to analyze the “how to”, step by step.

As it happens, he had a lot to say about something that Socrates valued: truth, or Satya in Sanskrit. It is one of the Yamas, or ethical principles, that yogis must adhere to if they want to embark on the journey that leads to enlightenment. Don’t lie, in Commandment language, to others or yourself.

But Patanjali is more subtle than Socrates. Another of the Yamas is Ahimsa, non-violence: Don’t hurt people (others or yourself), physically or psychologically.

The subtlety lies in understanding that Satya and Ahimsa, truth and gentleness, often conflict. It may be true that you are ugly, but do I need to tell you that and hurt you? In Socrates’ case, it may have been true that his interlocutors were, if not ignorant, at least far less wise than they pretended. But did he need to humiliate them publicly?

There was widespread consensus that his negativity helped the cause of truth only insofar as it tore down certain falsehoods. That’s a step forward! But Socrates did not then build on the rubble with a positive truth.

Patanjali might ask Socrates: What, sir, were you trying to accomplish by humiliating your opponents in your dialectic? Did you not forget your own distinction between eristic dialogue, in which the parties try to win, and proper dialectic, which brings people closer together in the common search for truth?

Sometimes, in life and world history, one must be violent in the name of truth. Other times truth is not worth violence. There must be a higher purpose, a positive goal. Otherwise a gadfly is just another gnat that bites to feed on the blood of others.

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The spoken and the written word

Socrates_teaching

So Socrates loved good conversations, which he called dialectic, and disdained bad conversations, which he called eristic, as I described in the previous post of this series on Socrates. But that actually opens up lots and lots of fascinating and difficult issues.

For instance: the relative value of the spoken and the written word.

Since I happen to write words for a living, I spend quite a bit of time pondering this, as you might imagine.

Socrates never wrote a single word. He did not believe in it. Why waste your time killing words (since to write them down was, to him, to kill them) when you could send them back and forth in intimate conversation such as the scene (with him on the left) above?

His student Plato was more schizophrenic on the point. He agreed with Socrates but also, obviously, felt that he should write things down to make them immortal, to reach more people, to make Socrates’ wisdom ‘scalable’ in our lingo. So he compromised, you see: He “wrote” by transcribing … conversations!

One generation on, and we get to Aristotle, who clearly did not agree at all, and wrote what we would consider genuine philosophical treatises. No qualms about the written word at all!

Why did Socrates disdain the written word?

He sort of tells us in one of his (ie, Plato’s) dialogues, the Phaedrus. He takes several shots:

  • He tells a legend from Egypt, in which a god gives a king the gift of writing as an aid to memory. The king, however, observes that writing things down is likely to be a remedy for reminding, at the expense of remembering, and thus will lead to less wisdom, not more.
  • He then compares writing to paintings, which “remain most solemnly silent” whenever you question them, and just say the same thing over and over, stupidly and dumbly. People wise and ignorant alike will look at them and understand and misunderstand them. And they (the words/pictures) cannot talk back, defend themselves, explain themselves.

So text has several problems, in Socrates’ opinion:

  1. It is not a conversation, not dialectic, because it cannot go back and forth and climb toward something higher, such as a truth.
  2. An author has no control over what idiots or assholes might read his text, whereas somebody in oral conversation does control with whom he speaks.
  3. Words outside of their original context (ie the intention of the person using them, and the way a listener might hear them) can mean anything, and thus nothing at all.

Ultimately, Socrates disdained writing for a subtler reason that unifies all these points: It’s just not what life is about!

Instead, life is about communing with others and discovering yourself and truths in conversation. Not about recording this or that, or propagating this or that. Socrates believed that you can’t find yourself when you write, only when you converse.

Where does that leave us writers?

In a tight spot, it would seem.

Then again, we have moved on 2,400 years, and few things are becoming clearer. Here is how I would converse with Socrates on the matter if he were to visit us today:

The need for conversation…

First, I would tell him that he is mostly right, even and especially for writers. Only a tiny part of “writing” consists of typing words–5%, if I had to guess. The other 95% consists of living, experiencing, interviewing, discussing, talking, reading what others have written, and so on. The ideas and stories that end up on pages don’t come out of nowhere. They still come out of conversations.

… but also for order

But writing, which should never replace conversation, has something to contribute: order. Real conversations–and Socrates’ own dialogue with Phaedrus is a great example–run all over the place, like foals on a meadow. That’s the fun. But it can also be frustrating when you want structure and discipline about one particular issue. Writing can simply be a way of forcing yourself to structure the thoughts that came up in conversations.

Why not written conversation?

This is one bit that Socrates overlooked. You can converse in written form.

Some of the greatest conversations in history have been exchanges of letters. Just think of Voltaire and Frederick the Great.

Today there is a fascinating technological twist. In 400 BCE, it was impossible to imagine ‘place-shifting’ (via tele-phony, far-hearing) or time-shifting conversations. But time-shifting is exactly what we do when we …. blog!. I write words, and those then turn into conversations in the comments below, or on other blogs that link to them. So the words are not dead at all. They can talk back. Writing can be conversation.

Indeed, by time-shifting the back-and-forth of a real conversation, the dialectic can become better. All of the people who talked to Socrates must have felt, a few hours later: “Doh! If only I had said…..” Well, now it’s possible to take a moment to think–without the distractions of, say, a famously ugly face such as Socrates’, or body odor, or wind, or sun–and then to come back with a clearer thought.

The inevitability of context

But Socrates was right on at least one point: The written word without context, as provided by conversation, is treacherous. Just take this notorious example, which we call the 2nd Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Does that mean that a people has the right to keep an armed militia, or that every shmuck in the people individually has a right to bear everything from a pocket knife to nukes, whether there is a militia anywhere to be seen or not?

Socrates would find the author and … converse!

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Good & bad conversations: Recognize Eris

Eris_(Discordia)

I ended the previous post, the first in this series on Socrates, by suggesting that we “count all the other ways in which Socrates, like Hannibal, is relevant to us, today.” So let’s start with perhaps the most important (if not the most famous) insight that Socrates gave us: the incredible importance of knowing good from bad conversations. And for that, I need to introduce you to that strange lady above, whose named is Eris.

We spend much of our lives, and indeed many of our happiest moments, conversing with others. I love that word, which means turning toward each other. Good conversations make us human and whole, make us feel connected to others and bring us closer to the truth of something (or at least further from a fallacy).

Unfortunately, we also spend at least as much time in bad conversations. You know them:

  • bickering between husbands and wives
  • political “debates” on Fox, or indeed almost anywhere else.
  • Cross-examinations in courtrooms,
  • and on and on and on

Those “conversations”, which are really a turning away from one another, do the opposite of what good conversations do: They leave us depleted, down, disconnected, alienated, sleazy, yucky.

What is the difference between the good and the bad conversations? Socrates told us, by giving us two new words:

  • dialectic (=good), and
  • eristic (=bad)

Meet Eris, the Ur-Bitch

So now it’s time for a story. It’s the most famous of the many stories about Eris, whose Roman name was Discordia.

Eris was the goddess of strife. Nobody liked her, so when the future parents of Achilles had their wedding, everybody was invited except Eris. Eris fumed.

She knew what she was good at, and did it: She left a golden apple lying around the wedding party. It said “To the most beautiful”. How cunning, how feminine.

Three extremely beautiful goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, immediately started bickering about who had rights to the apple. It was decided to appoint a judge, somebody sufficiently hapless, naive and male to be easily manipulated. They settled on Paris, a prince of Troy.

“Paris,” whispered Athena, “don’t you think I’m the most beautiful? I’m the goddess of wisdom, as you know, and I could be persuaded to make you the wisest man alive.”

“Choose me,” said Hera, “I’m the wife of Zeus and can make you the most powerful man in the whole world.”

“Oh, Paris,” cooed Aphrodite with a tiny bat of her languorous eyelids. “You know who I am, don’t you? We all know that the apple is mine. Say so, and I will give you the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Paris, with the priorities of the average teenager, chose Aphrodite. Athena and Hera were fuming. Hatred descended on the wedding party. And everybody knew that Paris was now to get Helen, the most beautiful of the mortal women.

The only problem: Helen was already married, to a Spartan who was the brother of the great king Agamemnon. Agamemnon and his Greeks would have to come after Paris and his Trojans to get Helen back. Ten years of bloody war followed. Eris had outdone herself.

Eristic conversation

So Socrates chooses to call bad conversations eristic. They are full of strife, because–and this is the key–they are conversations in which each side wants above all to win. Where there is a winner, there is usually a loser, so these conversations separate us.

The opposite was dialectic, whence our word dialogue, the Greek form of the Latin conversation (ie, turning toward). When you turn toward another, you are not trying to win, you are trying to find the truth. That is your motivation, and it is one you share with your conversation partner (as opposed to opponent). Everybody wins, as long as you climb higher through your conversing, toward more understanding or more communion.

We today

I mentioned in the previous post a series of serendipitous events recently. The first was an email from Cheri Block Sabraw, a writing teacher and reader of The Hannibal Blog, that pointed me to this essay, “Notes on Dialogue”, by a great intellect named Stringfellow Barr.

Written in 1968, it might as well have been penned today, as Barr describes eristic and dialectic conversation in our own world:

There is a pathos in television dialogue: the rapid exchange of monologues that fail to find the issue, like ships passing in the night; the reiterated preface, “I think that . . .,” as if it mattered who held which opinion rather than which opinion is worth holding; the impressive personal vanity that prevents each “discussant” from really listening to another speaker and that compels him to use this God-given pause to compose his own next monologue…

Expressing the Socratic ideal, Barr says that

We yearn, not always consciously, to commune with other persons, to learn with them by joint search,

and that

the most relevant sort of dialogue, though perhaps the most difficult, for twentieth century men to achieve and especially for Americans to achieve is the Socratic….

What makes good (Socratic) conversations good? They have a completely different dynamic than bad conversations. They tend to be

  • poor in long-winded declarations and rich in short, pithy back-and-forth,
  • egalitarian in that it does not matter who says what but what is said (even though this does not mean “equal time” for any nonsense)
  • spontaneous, in that they follow wherever the argument leads, even and especially to surprising destinations,
  • playful, and indeed humorous, for that is what makes “serious” investigation possible and sublime.

In short, this sort of conversation is what The Hannibal Blog is about, with the amazing input by all of you in the comments that make each topic come alive. If The Hannibal Blog is against anything, it is Eris and her spawn.

And so I leave you with just one famous instance when two fakers were called to account and told  just what sort of “conversation” they dealt in:



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New thread: Socrates

800px-UWASocrates_gobeirne

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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Free as Diogenes: a fantasy

800px-gerome_-_diogenes

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.)

387px-alexander_visits_diogenes_at_corinth_by_w_matthews_1914

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

ayn_rand1

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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Greatest thinker NOT: Hegel

hegel_portrait_by_schlesinger_1831

Yesterday I threw down the gauntlet: to look for and find the greatest thinker in world history. Today I want to kick off this series of posts by laying down some criteria for our search, with the aid of a negative example: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Criterion: Simplicity.

You’ve read my opinion on the importance of simplicity before. We can go one step further and define thinking as simplifying something complex, bringing order to something unordered, uncluttering something cluttered, and thereby making it accessible and meaningful.

So thinking is not wowing everybody by making something simple complex, or something complex even more complex. It is not making long lists of ideas. If you cannot boil down all your thinking into a digestible morsel, you have not actually thought.

Hegel: Archetype of the Teutonic Windbag

So what does Hegel have to do with this? Well, he represents the archetype of every confused and pompous academic or intellectual snob out there who has ever used his students or the pages of his book as a garbage dump for undigested idea-snippets. He apparently once said that in order to understand anything he has ever written one must first read everything he has ever written. That pretty much says it all.

Am I being unfair? No. I did my fair share of suffering through his verbiage, in German and in English. So he tells you that “history is the dialectical process whereby spirit comes to know itself and realizes its Idea,” that “freedom is the idea of the Spirit and Spirit is Reason in-and-for itself,” and so forth. Folks, it is time to call his bluff.

The reason he got away with it for so long is that, like many of his ilk, he intimidates a lot of people. If you’re smoking Gitanes and wearing black turtlenecks in certain cafés, you cannot afford to poopoo Hegel, because you would not get laid again. If that is you, the answer is to get out of that particular café. (I did, thank god.)

White Knights of common sense

Fortunately, windbags cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Eventually, they will run into somebody who is both clever and confident. That’s when you get a refreshing Emperor-has-no-clothes moment. I will let Arthur Schopenhauer do this service (via Wikipedia). Hegel’s “thought”, said Schopenhauer, was

a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage…

And so we have established our first criterion: Simplicity. Next time, let’s move on to contemplate another issue: Is it necessary for the winner to have been … right?

The greatest thinker of all time

Man, right elbow on left knee is so uncomfortable. Rodin, you done yet?

Man, right elbow on left knee is so uncomfortable. Rodin, you done yet?

The Hannibal Blog is starting a short series of posts to figure out who the greatest thinker of all time was/is.

This is very tangentially related to my book, because some of the people I will feature–either to dismiss or to anoint them–may have lived lives or produced ideas that come up in my book (although I promise that the book is a very light read!).

But the main point is just to have some fun, and to clarify my own thoughts. It gives us a chance, for instance, to boil various thinkers and their ideas down to a digestible morsel, almost in the vein of the great Shit happens series that explains the world religions.

And, of course, The Hannibal Blog wants to hear from you. Feel free to propose/reject candidates for greatest thinker of all time starting now.

That said, I have already decided whom I will propose as the greatest thinker of all time. Stay tuned. It will surprise you.

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Wu wei: doing by non-doing

Lao Tzu

One of the subtlest notions in my book is the Taoist idea of wu wei, or non-doing. It doesn’t come up often, but in one or two chapters, for two of the main characters and several of the minor ones, it is crucial. What is it?

The idea ultimately comes to us from Laozi, pictured riding away on his water buffalo above. (I’m using the modern Pinyin. You may know him as Lao Tse or Lao Tzu). He was the subtlest of all the philosophers of the Axial Age. He talked the least and said the most. That’s because the Tao is not understood by words.

Fine, but words are what a blogger has. So what is wu wei?

It is not: staying in bed and doing nothing.

It is (my definition): exerting the minimal effort in any situation in order:

  • not to interfere with the natural flow of things but instead
  • to go with the flow, as though “letting” things happen and harmonizing yourself with them.

There’s no need to get too philosophical about this. In my experience, sailors grasp the concept intuitively. How utterly foolish would you look trying to act against the wind! Instead, you tack through it in order to let it blow (suck, technically) you to where you want to go. You don’t interfere, you harmonize.

The same principle applies in all sorts of situations, small and large. Just think about your own life.

Thus wu wei becomes a vital ingredient for winning and success, its violation for failure and disaster. And so you have the relevance for my book thesis.