Discover more from Stoic Observations
Second Order Epistemics
It was not Stoicism itself that led me to any better understanding of the value of heterodox thinking and pluralism. It was the failure of black political and cultural movements to establish any disciplined hegemony on black American life and prospects the convinced me, along with the kind of common sense interpretation of national cultures and various schools of philosophical thought that ultimately led me to Popper. Even as I participated in American politics on the left and right for roughly two decades I got more and more fed up with its winner take all populism. Identity politics replacing more principle-based Leftist and Rightist ideology frustrated me even more. I think it became most clear during the controversy over gay marriage as I saw no political compromise but a clear social amity that could be established. Nevertheless, the voting public raised it to state constitutional levels as if it were the political equivalent of DEFCON, when all they needed to have done was consider at length the facts of the way Lawrence v. Texas was decided in favor or defending the freedom of consenting adults in private.
The status quo of gay life had long been established in America without the benefit of complete and total legality. I can imagine without much difficulty the ways and means of gay men’s culture have their own appeal apart from the fundamental urges of homosexuality itself. So I confess my favorite Village Person was the Indian. But beyond that, nobody could follow the life of say Marlon Riggs and say that homosexuality was always and only about getting your kink on. Yet to identify as gay, or queer, or any other number of archetypes is the tip of an iceberg of individuality that certainly has its own diversity. It was perfectly obvious to me that the blessing of the state was not the cultural existential crisis that political advocates made it out to be. None of my own gay friends, not that they would bother to tell me, have bothered to get married. So there’s an anecdotal data set of about 4.
In one of the past two conferences I spoke at, I made a point to introduce myself in several ways away from the Progressive pet dimensions of identity, but I think that I failed to elaborate the consequences that logically follow in the direction of imagination that everyone should be familiar with. Before I go there I will go one step deeper with my own conviction that the proper philosophical framework for Western culture should the model of John Locke, despite the fact that many Americans in their political activist habits don’t seem to know or care.
These are what I take to be the primary, modern principled frameworks of Western democracies. How exactly post-modernism alters these is a useful thing to know but not the subject of this essay. Suffice it to say that to deconstruct and play with the substantial and largely permanent aspects of these frameworks requires nothing more or less than monetization of markets of belief. That monetization is unsustainable in a dynamic world and must collapse to these or very similar frameworks. Any and every philosophical framework about the State of Nature is subject to Newtonian Physics under which all humans must operate. Thus they are permanent. There are plenty of events and circumstances that will defy the more spontaneous explanations and justifications of market phenomena. People who decide to go with the flow of their market-based pseudo-philosophies are subject to bankruptcy. Let them eat virtual cake.
In the meantime, it is incumbent upon those of us who would defend the viability of these frameworks to assess the quality and character of parties and politics that acquire and employ government power. I think we have recently witnessed enough chatter about Monarchy to understand that it is not a threat to current Western governments. But it does bear mentioning that the social aspect of the reign of Elizabeth 2 did much to sustain a reasonable faith in societal values over the multifarious instantiations of government in the United Kingdom. As with the social conventions of a putatively extralegal sexual orientation, society makes better accommodations on its own than does the legal apparatus of government. With this dynamic as primary, the Lockeans like myself can be satisfied by a Supreme Court decision like Lawrence. It is the very model of responsive government of, by and for the people who are indeed free to do what they want. That motion from chaos to order is in the best interest of the people and the state. Society should be the prime mover.
If one takes the view of Rousseau that primacy is said to sovereign and collected in a sort of aggregation of power that is absolute. All I can say is beware of monsters from the id. Well that’s not all I can say, but a government that doesn’t check the will of the people against the limits of reason will wind up enforcing laws that whiplash the people who wish to be left alone. I know plenty of Americans enjoy the idea behind the Purge movies. Over here we seek to avoid Terror.
If one takes the view of Hobbes, the chaos and conflict between peoples is assumed to be permanent and the fundamental aspect of humanity itself. Leviathan forces must then be applied to pacify and civilize us all. I think both Putin and Xi justify their powers in exactly that way.
The more frightened and horrid people in society become, for whatever reason, the more they punt to the powerful. For all the reasons there are to hate Disney’s rendition of the Star Wars sagas, they do an admirable job in portraying this aspect of individuals who work in service to the Empire and the Order in the first new episodes of Andor. I find ample reasons to be inspired by Americans despite our collected depravities, as I mentioned before, in those aspects of music and cuisine, fundamental to living well. As of today, Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard do not require special protection from the state, or the state’s approval of their arts. Nor do Thomas Keller or Eric Ripert. We who adore them suffice.
So this brings us to the very matter of why I might introduce myself as a lover of Count Basie’s music, or as a collector of decorative skulls, or as an admirer of a good glass of whiskey. It is an opportunity for you, as we engage in our second-order epistemic skills of interpersonal communication to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and connect.
As a young person who lived a somewhat hermetic life as a programmer in the mid 80s, there was this enormous social gap between us coders and ‘normal’ people. The imaginations of Americans did not come close to figuring out what kind of weirdos we must have been to sit in front of a screen all day and sometimes into the evenings. It seemed almost astonishing to me that other people could get through a day without the assurances I got from my compilers, that I was being logical and syntactically correct in my work, ever closing in on solving a problem of suffering I could effectively remove from human experience. I was ever a defender of Bartleby the Scrivener who simply would rather not earn his living doing the menial labor I could train a computer to do. I was working to free up and accurize the work of millions of clerks. Well, that’s the plus side, I’m well aware of the industry’s unintended consequences. Outside of my compute work, I gradually moved from individual sports to team sports. I therefore adopted the language of soccer, often in Spanish. Then beach volleyball. And so there became more possible avenues to know me and share my life with others. Of course my entire career as a writer, an online writer at that, has opened up quite a world. None quite as large as my actual physical travel for business and leisure.
So we might talk about Jacksonville. Or we might talk about movies. In fact, those who have met me in person for the first time will immediately recognize my unusual but memorable first questions. In what town were you born and what is your favorite cartoon character? It’s very likely that we’ll find something to talk about. I’ve always been born in Oceanside, CA which to the knowledgeable signifies proximity to Camp Pendleton. Sometimes I’ll explicitly bring my father’s service in the Corps, sometimes I’ll leave it for later. It’s always important to my own assessment of my life that, as the oldest of 5 kids, discipline and order were integral to my upbringing. I’m a big brother and I will never not be.
On the other hand, my favorite cartoon character has changed over time. Initially when I first came up with this concept, it was Snagglepuss, the aesthetically astute mountain lion who wore french cuffs and broke the fourth wall. At some point I actually had a nicely fitting understanding of what ‘mergatroid’ actually meant, but after a time I dropped the character in favor of Race Bannon, the machine-gun toting bodyguard, surrogate mother and ballsy adventurer of the Johnny Quest show.
Whereas I loved Snagglepuss for his wit and charm, actually being not a cowardly but mostly non-violent lion, Bannon reflected more of how I saw myself as a father. He also appealed to that aspect of my Cold War upbringing that is attracted to the sort of Top Secret Big Science that Dr. Quest did. Plus he was just obscure enough for me to have to tell folks about Johnny Quest. More recently I chose Steven Universe, who to me has to be the most perfectly ethical cartoon character ever created, even moreso than my childhood favorite Kimba the White Lion, reincarnated as everyone knows as Simba, the Lion King. I could go on about Steven Universe and his moral arc, but I leave that to you as an exercise. Having done so I have reverted back to Race because I have discovered that it’s very difficult for the adults I question to get a grasp on the idea that there’s a cartoon character outside of the Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera catalog that this gray haired man is asking them to consider. Amateur psychology is fraught, but it remains a standard kind of thing for me.
More recently I have started asking people, what two things about them could they tell me that are unique and unforgettable about them. In fact, I forgot those details the last time I used it on a guy named Tim, but I do remember that he was from Jersey. So this approach requires work.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, assuming as I do that human communication is difficult, and I remain somewhat amazed that it actually happens given fundamental problems with language in representing reality, I tend to lock on to virtues I sense in people as we converse. I collect skulls primarily in the vein of Hamlet praising old dead Yorick, and as a Stoic reminder that the best things about us may remain mysterious and unremarked upon during our entire lives. More recently in my rejection of racial identity I start to see people as living skulls, and I am most interested to know what they have inside of theirs, if anything. This is a useful way of looking at people in defiance of identity shenanigans and for the purposes of my own inspiration and disinterest. You remember the old saw about “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about themselves, and small people talk about others.” My own personal arc in my dedication to wisdom makes me want to be the old man on the mountain. How exactly should I be talking to other people? I want to be able to handle any news from them dispassionately, not because I don’t judge, but because I want to be just and fair and let them know that I will say what I say in what I think their best interest is for themselves. I guess I got that from my own psych counselor. Love for the other as the other.
In all this, I come out on the side of the kind of self-possession and personal wisdom that Stoicism avails, though there may be many paths to this. The self-actualized individual is thus the atom in Locke’s formulation, with perfect freedom to do what they want, while nurturing themselves to want only what is reasonable and not be seduced into desiring whatever monetized markets or ambitious charlatans might produce, or sustain temporarily. There is thus an aspect of conservatism that recognizes that which has sustained mankind over many generations across many civilizations. There is as well an aspect of liberal humanism that recognizes that creativity and imagination gives us a virtual infinite set of combinations of second-order epistemic relationships for us to generate spontaneously. There is an aspect of liberty that must fundamentally be respected such that this creativity and imagination are not unduly constrained by the force of government. This is the sine qua non of the open society, and this openness is the prime mover from chaos to order when power is managed properly.
I think I can come full circle and account for functional class in my Peasant Theory, the difference and distance between sophisticated cosmopolitans and simple living yokels, and understand practical ways and means to enable some sense of citizenship that binds us together first as a civilized society of human beings, and secondarily as a nation of laws and convention. I know this is possible because I have personally transcended the limits assumed to be my proper place, even having accepted them for some fraction of my life. It is in seeking nobility that we can find the best in others and in ourselves. That business of finding our true selves, our best selves also serves in us finding it in others. It ought to be easier for those dedicated to Christian ethics, and I have found some similarities in the practices of Islam as well. I think there is something of Buddhist practice and in the observation & recognition of the Tao that leads to similar disciplines and ends. In the final analysis, given we all evolved simultaneously and very slowly, a universal Humanism is real, and I stand by many of Huxley’s conclusions of universal mysticism.
What remains to be worked out are the borders and networks that will comprise the entities of belonging in this world of computer mediated communications. To that end I am employing (once again) a barbell strategy. On the positive side, I am reading Balaji Srinivasan’s The Network State. On the downside I am reading Joshua Gayou’s Commune: The Battle of D.C. which is the fifth book in an extraordinary series. Am I more pessimistic? Probably. I am also keeping my house in order, my powder dry, my wife happy and my liquor cabinet stocked. Outside of Putin & Xi what could possibly go wrong?