On the Genealogy of Morality

I just finished Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality. While I digest the book for a longer write-up, here are some passages I found thought provoking:

We modern men are heirs to the ancient practice of vivisecting our consciences, and inflicting curelty upon our animal selves. This we have practices for the longest time, and it has perhaps become our characteristic art; at any rate it represents our refinement, the indulgence of our taste. Man has for too long regarded his natural inclinations maliciously, and thus eventually, they have become in his mind associated with ‘bad conscience.’


Except for the ascetic ideal, Man, the animal man, has had no meaning. His existence on earth had no purpose; ‘what is the purpose of Man at all?’ was a question without an answer; the will for man and the world was lacking; behind every great human destiny rang, like a refrain, a still greater ‘in vain!’ The ascetic ideal simply means that something was lacking, that man was surrounded by a tremendous void – he did not know how to justify himself, to explain himself, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his own meaning. He suffered also in other ways; he was in the main a diseased animal; his problem was not suffering itself, though, but the lack of an answer to that crying question, ‘Why do we suffer?’…. The senselessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse which lay upon humanity… any meaning is better than no meaning… man will desire oblivion rather than not desire at all.

If that piqued your interest, but you don’t feel up to the whole book, I highly recommend the Talking Politics: The History of Ideas episode on the book. If Stoicism is the most overrated philosophy in the self-help section, Nietzsche is the most underrated.

Stoicism and self-help

I was at Kinokuniya on the weekend with a group of friends who were all looking for the same book. On the third floor of a mall in the city, Kinokuniya basically occupies the entire level, wrapping around the escalators from which you enter. Most bookstores have a history section, Kinokuniya has a Latin American history section. That row is next to Russian history, and behind cultural studies. It’s big.

There were two copies of the book, but three friends. While they argued about whether priority should be given to those who saw the book first, or those who touched it first, I walked over to the philosophy section. The covers of philosophical books are often very enticing, I expect to compensate for what lies beneath the covers; even the impenetrable Being and Time looks like a fantasy novel from a distance.

The slickest covers were reserved for the books on Stoicism – poor Hegel was in ghastly green. It was hard to miss them, perhaps 40% of the philosophy section was devoted to Stoic philosophy. Seneca rubbed shoulders with six different editions of Marcus Aurelius. Modern entrants crowded about the primary texts, countless handbooks and beginners guides, each promising happiness, resilience, or ‘the good.’ The rest of the philosophical canon was squeezed onto another shelf around the corner, where my friends were still arguing, now about whether being more likely to read it first was a relevant consideration.

Stoicism was not the first school of philosophy to deal with the good life, nor was it the last. Everyone from the ancient Epicureans to Nietzsche has opined on it. Still, Stoicism has the closest relationship with contemporary self-help. On Amazon.com.au there are over 1000 results for stoicism under “self-help.” Only one book on the first page was a primary text (Seneca), the remainder are made up of books with titles like, “Stoicism and the Art of Happiness” or “The Good Life Handbook.” There was also “The Stoic Cop – Policing through Stoic Virtue.”

Mentions in books scanned by Google Ngram

Part of the attraction is Stoicism’s accessibility. Seneca or Marcus Aurelius write with clarity and a minimum of jargon. They wrote short essays and aphorisms which directly relate to everyday human issues like death, anger, or boredom. There are few areas of philosophy where a lay person can read a primary text unaided.

Still, are there are other reasons Stoicism is so popular? To paraphrase Nietzsche, what is the meaning of the desire for what Stoicism has to offer? Does the popularity of a philosophy which emphasizes self-regulation and resilience say anything about our social world?

Isaiah Berlin thought that the emergence of ideas had something to do with particular historical moments:

It sometimes happens in human history – though parallels may be dangerous – that when the natural road towards human fulfillment is blocked, human beings retreat into themselves, become involved in themselves, and try to create inwardly that world which some evil fate has denied them externally. This is certainly what happened in Ancient Greece when Alexander the Great began to destroy the city-States, and the Stoics and the Epicureans began to preach a new morality of personal salvation, which took the form of saying that politics was unimportant, civil life was unimportant, all the great ideals held up by Pericles and by Demosthenes, by Plato and by Aristotle, were trivial and as nothing before the imperative need for personal individual salvation.

All I’m saying is, there is a gap in the market for self-help with Hegel.

What do jobless men do all day?

From a new study in the AEI by Nicholas Eberstadt and Evan Abramsky: “What do prime-age ‘NILF’ men do all day?” (thanks to Marginal Revolution)

Some excerpts:





A few quick thoughts:

We don’t know why these men are not in the labour force. Does an absence of paid work/income support cause screen time and anomie, or is there a third (and fourth and fifth) factor at work here.

Is this the way things are or the way things must be? Where the paper sees anomie and alienation naturally following from the absence of work, I see it as contingent. We live in a society which extols paid work and demonises the unemployed. Should we be surprised that those who inhabit such a stigmatised rung of society are not a garden bed for the flowering of the human spirit?

A towering infrastructure of education, encouragement, and coercion has been required for people to accept that they must organise their identity and time around the eight hours a day, forty hours a week, they spend in contractual labour. Were we to reach a point where that became economically superfluous, we would need to develop a new infrastructure to encourage and educate people to live as they chose.

Why should we police what people do with their own time? I know many professionals who spend their weekends wedged between a bottle and a baggie who will tell you that the working poor must be kept in place lest they do the same. If you believe in human freedom and human creative potential, you should want to limit unnecessary restrictions on it. When the economy reaches a point where it becomes unnecessary to compel the population into paid work each day, we should cease to do so for the same reason we no longer compel people to serve in the armed forces. If they choose to drink all day, and despite fair and accessible options otherwise, that is truly what they wish to do, I have no issue with it. Freedom-loving conservatives quickly become paternalistic statists at the prospect of more leisure for the masses.

The moralisation of work: We are constantly told about the dignity of labour, usually by those who work for high pay in air conditioned offices. I fail to see what is dignified about being compelled to spend the majority of your day doing something you would rather not, in conditions you would prefer be different, with people you sometimes dislike. I can say it no better than Bertrand Russell: “The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

The only reason to compel paid labour is that our collective economic prosperity requires it; the health of the tribe requires that we devote some portion of our time to the modern equivalent of hunting deer or harvesting wheat. Should a day arrive where robots can take our place in the fields, we should consign paid work to the dustbin of history as fast as we possibly can.

Competing visions of the future: Arguments in the vein of, “if we give people X (a good thing), they’ll just do Y (a bad thing), because they’re too uneducated / lazy / ignorant / selfish / unprepared, have been deployed against every social reform from the right-to-vote to the 8-hour work week. Those who use them are pessimistic about human potential, or our ability to realise it. I remain an optimist in both respects. I aspire to a world where people’s decisions about how they spend their time, and exercise their creative energy were not overly constrained by the need to feed, cloth, and house themselves. A world where that is possible will take some building, but as Oscar Wilde said, a map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at.

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A budget for giving

At lunch with a friend yesterday, they mentioned how they set aside a portion of money each week to spend on other people. It’s part of their standard budget, just another category alongside rent, groceries, or entertainment.

What does he spend it on? Anything from buying a coffee for someone at work, to treating friends to dinner at a nice restaurant. One week he might buy a small gift for a friend.

I suspect for some, the thought of formalising giving into something so austere as a budget seems mechanical and forced, contrary to the spirit in which giving should take place. As someone for whom spontaneous giving does not come as naturally as I might like, this practice is a way to build the character I aspire to.

I think it is a virtuous practice, and hope you all find it as helpful as I have.

How important is it to be original?

Have you ever written, spoken, drawn, molded, shaped, sewed, welded, or taught something, only to discover you were not the first? That your creation was derivative? Maybe deeply so?

It is a painful experience, especially when the work of the lone inventor, the creative genius, seems so vital. Across the crucibles of human progress, Mars, climate change, the internet, the world seems to be dragged forward by mavericks. The word innovation is now everywhere, and if my LinkedIn news feed is any indicator, it is here to stay.

Still, if we pause as our ego deflates, we might ask, what does it really mean to be original?

What does it mean to be original?

The question is taken up in this wonderful piece on literary imitation in the London Review of Books. The focus is writing, and the millennia long struggle with one’s literary predecessors. It charts how attitudes towards imitation have changed over time, from venerating historical influence. to hiding it.

The author pits Harold Bloom, who believed one’s predecessors must be struggled against before finally being overcome, and Burrow, who thought influence was inescapable and to be cherished.


In The Mathematical Experience, the authors ask a similar question: where should credit for mathematical discovery lie, the lone creative genius or the society that surrounds them? Here the tension is between the individual and their community, not their ancestry. The authors defer to William James, in his essay “Great Men and Their Environment:”

The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual; the impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community

Since originality is always in dialogue with ancestry and community, make sure to write them a letter of thanks.

I suspect we overemphasize the importance light-bulb-moment, bolt of lightning type creativity. The world is drowning in original thought, just in academia, hundreds of thousands of new PhD’s are minted each year. This rate of production, paired with our short lives and even shorter attention spans, means most information is immediately condemned to be forgotten. A 17th-century manuscript, wedged in a dusty corner of a provincial library is not lost, but it might as well be. For information to persist in a useful manner it must be passed on, it must circulate through the social body. In an information dense world, originality is nothing without transmission.

In an information dense world, those who search, filter, interpret, and apply are vital. Nor are interpretation and application mere rote tasks. Each generation re-imbues what it receives with new meaning. Application is not object-paste-surface so much as creative re-imagination – or at least it can be.

On learning which of Merriam-Webster’s 63 definitions of work suited me

I was taught very little about how to work at school or university, which is odd when I think about it. My youth was spent being (asked) ordered to do things – write essays, mow lawns, be nice, wash dishes, give presentations – but rarely being told how.

I suspect the adults did not know either. Merriam-Webster lists 32 distinct definitions – 63 if sub-definitions are included. There is the familiar “activity that a person engages in regularly to earn a livelihood,” which one hopes at least occasionally “functions or operates according to plan or design.” Too few jobs live up to the aspiration of “to exert an influence or tendency,” tending instead to “to be in agitation or restless motion.” I aspire to “sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result,” although the latter part of the sentence follows far less frequently from the former than I would like.

We could do worse than Bertrand Russell’s:

This ambiguity means the how and why of those who work has always interested me. When do they wake up? (Why do they wake up?) How do they decide what to work on? Do they use tools? What does their work look like up close, from the vantage point of a minute and an hour? Do they have rituals? When do they stop?

Then there are the questions specific to the work I enjoy: what do they do when confronted by the blank page? How do they remember, and combat forgetfulness. How do they learn? How do they make the words follow each other without seeming coerced at gunpoint?

There is a small industry devoted to these questions (more on that another time), but first my own experience.

I organised my time around goals, which were, by and large, output based. They sat on the first page of my ring-bound journal. It looked like the first page of a spreadsheet: one article a week; three novels in Spanish; thirty in English; an eight-five average at university; a deeply unrealistic number of push-ups.

The neat rows and columns quickly disappeared beneath strikethroughs and amendments. Weekly became monthly. Spanish novels became videos, became an app, became children’s books, became another app, before settling on novel (singular).

All I achieved was an unstable mood. I swung between exhaustion and depression. Some weeks I managed to get it all done. More than likely though, life would intervene. I would go shopping, get bored cook meals, have showers, check my phone, see friends – the sorts of things that did not merit entry into my productivity worksheet. The only truly regular habit was self-punishment. I remember trying to optimise my showers by only washing my hair every second day.

Now I set process based goals. I read each day, I write each day, I do something in Spanish each day. Yesterday that meant walking to a Latin restaurant for lunch, going blank on two years of Spanish in front of the beautiful waitress, blushing, finding something of interest between my feet, stammering out what I hope was an order, and leaving five minutes later with something – presumably food – in a box.

Still, I did something.

I trust myself. Output based goals and strict schedules were a disciplining mechanism; a way to dominate the reluctant parts of my will which I feared could break loose at any moment. In time I accepted I had the opposite problem, an inclination to guilt, not sloth (the German for guilt, schuld, connotes the harshness better). I discovered I functioned far better when I gave myself the benefit of the doubt, confident I was always more likely to be drill master than dropout.

I still have goals, but they are larger and more abstract. They orient my daily processes without being constricting. Part of the issue with strict outputs was my inability to accurately assess how hard something was, and therefore how long it would take. I would perpetually over-promise and under-deliver. Now, I suspect that if my work got defined, predictable, and rote enough to conform to strict outputs, it would be time to move on to a new challenge.

Two reflections on this topic I’ve enjoyed that I suspect you might too:

Tyler Cowen on how he practices at what he does and Brain Pickings on the daily routines of great writers

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