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My Stoic Journey
The sound of no hands clapping.
Dateline: December 2014
Well this Christmas I celebrate the success of the project I had several years ago to get the hell out of the Enterprise software business and get into Open Source, DevOps and the Cloud. It's done. I'm there. I work at home and run several suites of stacks for several customers and that's all good. The Last Kid is a senior in highschool and we're in the middle of planning how to ditch the four bedroom house for cheaper, cozier digs.
Along the way, some unexpected things happened, most significant of these were a dramatic increase in my credit rating and consequent quality of luxury furnishings. But seriously, it was the discovery of Stoicism and my martial education. These two things, which I didn't plan, came sideways out of the discovery, I suppose at long last, that I really don't like people in actuality as I do in theory. In theory I am an absolute modernist liberal. In practice, I feel most people don't deserve the benefit of the doubt. People meaning the people who practice democracy in America as a form of cultural identity and social complaint. I've concluded that things fall apart and at this rate my best efforts should be in divesting myself of the of the emotion so many have put into public debate.
I was introduced to Stoicism, although I didn't know it at the time, by the following quote by John Boyd.
“The most important thing in life is to be free to do things. There are only two ways to insure that freedom — you can be rich or you can you reduce your needs to zero.”
My mind always drifts back to a series of afternoons in Southern California back in 2008 when I was working in Orange County. I was on the precipice of accepting the job before my current gig. At the moment I was making out quite well as an independent consultant. Although I was commuting 100 miles a day and gas was approaching $4, I was happy and confident. A bit too much, I thought, in my BMW 750il. I considered my neighbor and friend who had recently purchased a large diesel Ford pickup truck. It was an anti-vanity. The issue of the day was immigration and I spoke for a moment about Jameil's Law on the local radio show with Warren Olney. But my mind during lunches and commutes were focused on the larger role of long term thinking as I engaged the podcasts of the Long Now Foundation, of which I am now a member. In the long haul, I thought, I want to turn away from the politics of the sort that placate a loud public capable of rationalizing away the very meaning of 'illegal alien' and toward science. Scientific discipline has taken a back seat in our discourse and I don't want to be the guy in this society driving a luxury sedan. I'm about hard and excellent work at the top of my profession, or so I thought. And so in those days when nobody quite knew how bad the economy might get, I began a long march towards new sensibilities, anticipating no democratic solutions.
So I was preparing myself for things to get worse. In fact, I wanted to purchase a Hummer, making a kind of outsized apocalyptic gesture. In the end, I wanted something that said smart survival. I wound up with a Toyota FJ Cruiser, and it has become my favorite vehicle ever. But deeper than this outward sign of an inward commitment, I was seeking a way to leave the chatter behind. I made a name for myself as a black Republican and founder of the Conservative Brotherhood, a move that was optimistic for values against a practical backdrop that was stunningly mechanical. For anyone who bothers to look closely, the GOP struggles mightily with reconciling the needs of electoral power, dedication to virtues and the responsibilities of governance. Pick one and a half. It was a boulder I'd rather not push.
Fortunately I had dedicated my blog, the center of all my public thinking, to Socratic dialog, and people were still engaging me well enough to spark my own thoughts on every significant public matter. After some time however, once I got my final new job, working at home made me rather stir crazy. So I used Meetup groups to get from behind the keyboard and into real dialog. It turned out to be better in my own lab and library than in the agoras of Southern Cal. I met a few interesting people, but I would hesitate to call them friends. They too were single-minded or abstracted beyond much friendly use. Still, the philosophy meetup groups, the cloud computing meetup groups got me going. Raising my expectations and reducing my needs began to start coming more naturally. I decided not to be disappointed by disappointments in the field, and stick even tighter to long term thinking.
Playing a major part in my transition was the entire zombie vibe that has infected our society. So I really began to think about what if democracy really did fail in America, not just in parts but the whole thing? I knew instinctively that we would revert to hierarchies and tribalisms, as many of us are doing in our solopsist idiot ghettos behind the barbwire interdictions of political correctness. But what if it weren't just Antioch University? So I began to develop my Peasant Theory, already making a very strong statement in my own sights that Obama's electorate was no place for my sort of long term thinking.
Oddly enough, if these lessons in disappointment weren't quite enough, a couple video games helped push me the extra mile. Of course I read Seneca and Epictetus, but it was literally a boss battle in a game called Amalur that brought me to write:
As I approached the highest levels in Amalur, resolving the ultimate faction quest of the sages, I battled the Archsage's mental demons one of which was Ambition and the other Indifference. Having won, I got to choose and I chose Indifference as a power. Indifference is the power of equanimity. I know it contradicts Ayn Rand, but perhaps now is the time to consider disinterest. For years since my 40s I have been waiting for all the kids to eat first and being a river to my people with the pride of earning and giving away. But now it all starts to feel more and more like Indifference because it surely is not Ambition. Ambition is a tool to make one's river wide and deep. Indifference serves wisdom best. It makes one confident in judgment. The Judge is critical, but does not belong.
I was becoming very judgmental. And it was finally Harold Bloom and Charles Dickens that helped me understand myself. People were behaving, according to me, at very low standards, and yet the chatting classes kept expecting to outsource a new generation of experts by public acclamation and internet aggregation. We were and still are in the midst of a crap-populist revolution in America, both political parties harvesting shit tons of power by the buttload from the manufactured consent of a nation of asshats. And I knew that Wall Street was going to feed its own and the Exxon would still be Exxon. While the masses were tweeting out selfies, there was real long term thinking done by industry. Sure much of it was infantilizing the once formidable American middle-class, but once they decided to spend money through Verizon and AT&T texting adolescent spellings rather than essaying in paragraphs, well.. certain dislocations were inevitable. My job was not to outrun the bear, my job was to be in my castle not searching for mystical communications with nature in the first place. And so Bleak House has been my guide to what civilization can be without democracy.
In the back of my mind is the Gangstarr soundtrack.
Check it stupid
While you're out there, on the main streets frontin
Your game's week, so I'm huntin you down clown
Cause you need to learn somethin
All that bluffin, won't get you nothin but killed
No mission fulfilled, because there's others who will
get jealous, hell if they can take clout from you, they'll do it
So that's what I'm about to do, I'll step to it
and strip you of your pride (your pride)
And then I'll stick and I'll rip you up from all sides
or possibly I'll let you slide, slime
Cause you'll set your own death in just a matter of time
Yeah, and I'll be somewhere on the sidelines, y'know
I won't disclaim all of that gangbanging harshness. What made us think we could be mellow in the first place? You cannot be mellow on credit. You're owned. Don't get me wrong. This is not pessimism. It's not even particularly skeptical or cynical. It's the mere acknowledgment that in the long term, to paraphrase Taleb, whatever can be, will be. In the long term, a black American president is inevitable. So is a limited nuclear exchange. The point is not to be shocked, but to be prepared. There are always backstreets. There are always sucker MCs, there are always men whose games are too tight to come apart at the seams. The trick, as Kipling would say, is to walk with kings nor lose the common touch. To observe judgmentally at the appropriate distance, and to have a home to return to at the end of what may or may not be an eventful day. The Chinese curse is not to live in interesting times, but that you would be become overly shitfaced by the whipsaw of the crap-populism of interesting times. I walked down the crapulous backstreets of Dickensian London. I get it. Buy better boots.
One of the most intriguing ideas I have entertained in the past decade was an understanding of the best reasons for war, which have nothing do do with self-defense in the immediate sense, but the defense of reason itself. The purpose of war is to destroy myths. The purpose of war is to restore human faith in cause and effect. The purpose of war is remind humankind of its limits. I didn't expect to be thinking such thoughts, but there it is all put together. It's only that thinking about my developing Stoicism that concerns me. Do I need war? Am I indifferent to that path to war? Do I accept it like the tank captain in Fury? "Ideals are peaceful, history is violent."
The other day I read this excellent review of Mein Kampf by Orwell.
[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all "progressive" thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades…. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people "I offer you a good time," Hitler has said to them "I offer you struggle, danger and death," and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. -- George Orwell, 1940
I cannot be indifferent to that probability happening here in America, in the long term. If I were to mind the currents to a greater degree, I might be alarmed by those signs I could see. But I have decided to limit my field of vision to my own domestic tranquility, to my own probity, to my own property. I no longer am concerned about how I appear so much in the public sphere so long as I have a Western gentleman's comforts and privileges, because I aim in no uncertain terms for Western civilization to be sustained. Sinatra may be dead and Sammy may no longer dance the old soft shoe, but their pictures are still on the wall in my favorite restaurant where the bartender has read Kingsley Amis. I can survive another Blitz when Duke Ellington is triply redundant in the Amazon Cloud and I can still get packet radio. More importantly, I have friends with whom I can trust my life. I have tapped into some military tradition, and I will some more.
Here is where things get a bit nebulous, because here is where I am. I don't have all of my answers, but I know where to look and whom to ask. I know that vodka makes good mouthwash, and I know I can drink vodka straight. I am a new organic all over again, and my loyalty remains to the city states of Los Angeles and New York, just in case things mostly don't work out. I can lose weight and run. I can shoot and cook and mend wounds. My martial education is advancing and I will have covered all bases by the time I reach 60.
You see I understand and forgive the world its callow activities. I must. I have children I love, and I see the extent to which I have entrusted their education to the decrepit mediocrities of the American public. We don't know what class is any longer, because so little of what we have was forged by the harsh realities of war. We can lose the New Republic in a heartbeat because today's billion dollar fortune bears no resemblance to that of Carnegie's. Old money is dead, and hackers are trying Bitcoin. There's no gold standard, so you really have to get your own gold. We could lose the whole Republic in a heartbeat if the whole thing goes off standard. Which standards matter? (He said rhetorically as if to placate those post-modernists who actually wonder). I suppose Plato spoke about golden souls, did he not? I am ultimately in the business of aiding the survival of the Western, modern liberal ideal, in theory. But in practice, I leave my house in an urban assault vehicle. I don't survive on hope. I'm too heavy for that. I fall through hope's thin rafters so I'm all about concrete foundations, Fred Flintstone in Bedrock. Fred does not go to war. He is good natured, but very practical, and very defensive of his women.
Will that be what it takes? Will it be war that brings us out of the confusion that allows our politics to suffer in such reputable treachery? If so, then let me be a war profiteer. Let me gain strength from the suffering of mankind, like a surgeon. Let me not profit from mankind's foolishness, like a rock star politician. I don't know. Will I be indifferent? I will work to be wise in my judgment, knowing judgment must come for each of us. We are men after all, and we do good and evil and must meet with our due rewards.
For the time being, I am an engineer among people who read tea leaves. I mock them. Yet I resist the impulse to slap the teapot over into their laps and rudely interrupt their mindless meditations. I sit in silent judgment, good natured and affably indifferent. I enjoy the tea. But I also don't complain about the price because I am part of the system that delivers it to the store where the common man shops. I am invested in keeping the ships afloat and the planes in the air. There remains infrastructure to be put to good use in the modern world, despite how many asshats vote for those who would deconstruct it mercilessly in search of an idiot-proofed utopia. Still, I'm not sure how much not to care the common man's ever more common mistakes when the health of the nation seems impaired by it. How many of us are just passengers on this ship?
The German comic Henning Wehn says something very deep about clapping along and enjoying yourself. I am Stoic. I am doing my work, and calculating, observing and judging with a studied indifference for the purposes of wisdom. I am reducing my needs to zero while focusing on my long term thinking, prepared for what can go wrong in my house made of bricks. I'm not just clapping along and enjoying myself in the public sphere.