Post scriptum (2022, week 17) — Hopeful pessimism, why your ‘true self’ is an illusion, and Elon Musk’s Twitter saga
Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s Post scriptum: Pessimism is a virtue for our deeply troubled times; how the belief in a ‘true self’ affects the way we behave and see the world; Elon Musk’s Twitter saga; what does art actually mean?; wonder is curiosity reclined; Mussolini tells us how democracy dies; ‘third places’ and the waning art of hanging out; a farmhouse routed in tradition; and, finally, a new dimension to a meaningful life.
The terms ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’ find their origins in the longstanding philosophical debate about how a good God could allow the existence of evil and suffering in the world.
“‘Optimism’ was […] coined by the Jesuits for philosophers such as Leibniz, with his notion that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ (for surely, if God could have created a better one, he would have done so). ‘Pessimism’ followed not long afterwards to denote philosophers such as Voltaire, whose novel Candide (1759) ridiculed Leibnizian optimism by contrasting it with the many evils in the world. ‘If this is the best of all possible worlds,’ Voltaire’s hero asks, ‘what on earth are the others like?,’” Mara van der Lugt writes in Look on the dark side.
“But really, Voltaire wasn’t much of a pessimist: other philosophers such as Bayle and Hume went much further in their demonstrations of the badness of existence. For Bayle, and for Hume after him, the point is not just that the evils of life outnumber the goods (though they believe this is also the case), but that they outweigh them. A life might consist of an equal number of good moments and bad moments: the problem is that the bad moments tend to have an intensity that upsets the scales. A small period of badness, says Bayle, has the power to ruin a large amount of good, just like a small portion of seawater can salt a barrel of fresh water. Similarly, one hour of deep sorrow contains more evil than there is good in six or seven pleasant days.
Against that bleak vision, thinkers such as Leibniz and Jean-Jacques Rousseau emphasised the goods of life, and the power we have to seek out the good in all things, for if we learned to adjust our vision we would see that life is in fact very good: that ‘there is incomparably more good than evil in the life of men, as there are incomparably more houses than prisons,’ Leibniz writes, and that the world ‘will serve us if we use it for our service; we shall be happy in it if we wish to be.’ Just as the pessimists believed the optimists were deceived in their insistence on the goods of life, so too the optimists thought the pessimists’ eyes were skewed towards the bad: each side accused the other of not having the right vision.
Both strands of thought have the same aim, but they plot different routes to get there: the pessimists offer consolation by emphasising our fragility, by recognising that no matter how hard we try, we may fail to achieve happiness, for no fault of our own. Meanwhile, the optimists seek to unfold hope by emphasising our capacity, by insisting that no matter how dark, how bleak our circumstances, we can always change our vision and direction, we can always aim for better,” Van der Lugt writes.
“The thing to avoid is not so much pessimism, but hopelessness or fatalism or giving up. Even despair need not be completely avoided, since it too can energise and encourage us to strive for change, but we should avoid the kind of despair that causes us to collapse. These things are not the same as pessimism, which is simply the assumption of a dark view of the present as well as the future and does not imply the loss of courage or insistence to strive for better: on the contrary, often these are the very gifts that pessimism can bestow.
One can be deeply, darkly pessimistic, one can find oneself in the cold hard clutches of despair, and yet not be depleted of the possibility (and it could just be a possibility) that better may yet arrive. This is a kind of hope that is dearly bought, that does not come lightly but is carved out of a painful vision which may just be the acknowledgment of all the suffering that life can and does hold. If anything, the pessimists have taught me this: that with eyes full of that darkness there can still be this strange shattering openness, like a door cracked open, for the good to make its entry into life. Since all things are uncertain, so too is the future, and so there is always the possibility of change for better as there is for worse,” Van der Lugt writes.
“As Jonathan Lear has written in his book Radical Hope (2006), one common phenomenon at times of cultural devastation is that old values lose their meaning. If they are to survive the collapse of the moral horizon, they need new meanings, new concepts to breathe life into them. The most difficult thing of all is to negotiate this change, to start inhabiting new virtues while the old are still among us. And this, I believe, is one way in which pessimism might serve us — as a virtue in itself, but also as a way of giving new meaning to virtues that are changing as part of this changing world. To behold with open eyes the reality before us requires courage, and not to turn away from it, forbearance, and yet not to decide that it ends there: this is hope.
Hope — not that everything will be all right in the end, but that nothing has ever truly ended; that there is this ‘crack in everything’ of which Leonard Cohen once sang, in the good as well as the bad, so that neither is ever entirely shut away from us. This is not the steadfast conviction that things are bound to get better — not the crude optimism that can no longer be a virtue in a breaking world, and might prove to be our besetting vice. It may be easier to lend our efforts under such a banner of assured success, but this ease is a deceptive one, for while it is possible to be dispirited by passivity or fatalism, it is possible to be depleted by continued disappointment also. What hopeful pessimism asks instead is that we strive for change without certainties, without expecting anything from our efforts other than the knowledge that we have done what we are called upon to do as moral agents in a time of change. This may just be the thinnest hope, the bleakest consolation — but it may also be the very thing that will serve us best in times to come, as a value, and yes, an exercise of moral fervour: a fragile virtue for a fragile age.”
Why your ‘true self’ is an illusion
“Most people believe they have a ‘true self’ deep down that is fundamentally morally good. They don’t, but the belief affects the way everyone behaves and sees the world,” Shayla Love writes in Why Your ‘True Self’ Is An Illusion.
“The true self,” Love says, “is different from the self, which is made up of a blurry combination of your physical appearance, your intelligence, your memories, and your habits, all which change through time. The true self is what people believe is their essence. It’s the core of what makes you you; if it was taken away, you would no longer be you anymore.
What parts of yourself do you consider to be your true self? When you act in certain ways, which actions are in alignment with your true self, and which contradict your true self? Remarkably, not only do most people believe in a true self, they answer these questions in the same way. They consistently say that their true self is the parts of them that are fundamentally morally good.
But though this finding has been repeated many times, the true self is an example of a ‘folk intuition.’ It almost certainly doesn’t exist. What we know from neuroscience and psychology doesn’t provide evidence for a separate and persisting morally good true self buried deep within. Yet that makes the true self, and the fact that so many of us have this belief or bias, all the more intriguing, [Nina Strohminger, an assistant professor at the Wharton School, who, together with her colleague Shaun Nichols, has done research into the essential moral self] said.”
Why do we see ourselves as morally good, deep down?
Besides it being beneficial for well-being and helping us to cooperate with and trust others, there is also another explanation, Love writes. It’s just how we think about everything.
“When you boil down the essence of anything, we have a tendency to reflect on its positive traits; this is called psychological essentialism. When we’re asked to describe the essence of something, whether it’s a person, a band, a country, or even a piece of furniture, we tend to say that the essence of all of these entities are good. When describing the essence of a table, we say it has four legs, and a surface to eat on — the traits of a good table. We don’t describe a broken table. Our notion of the true self may be in line with this essentialist thinking.”
But if we believe that, deep down, we’re morally good, does it push us to act accordingly?
According to the moral philosopher Matt Stichter, there are some potential ethical downsides of people walking around with the belief that they have a morally good true self.
“This is because the goodness of the true self seems to be assumed, rather than earned, he said. Having a morally good true self isn’t dependent on how you act. If you behave immorally, you’re deviating from your good true self, which remains unchanged despite those actions.
“‘Part of my worry is that people go on autopilot just assuming their moral goodness, and thinking they’ve just got it, they don’t need to do anything about it,’ Stichter said. ‘And it’s only when a moral failure rears its head that suddenly you get a red flag and then you’re motivated just to do something in the short term to try to reestablish your certainty that you’re good.’
A solution to this potential moral quandary isn’t to try and convince people that they don’t have a morally good true self. It seems to be such a widespread cognitive tendency that it would be difficult to dissuade people from; also, telling people they’re not actually morally good won’t entice a very captive audience. Instead, Stichter said, we can start with the idea that people ‘have some essential drive to be morally good, while emphasizing that work needs to be done to realize that with some reliability in practice.’ Stichter thinks that acknowledging our belief in a good true self can be a way to appreciate our capacity for goodness. Then, we can focus on ‘exercising it on a regular basis,’ he [told Love].”
“A belief in the morally good self can give a person hope to keep trying. It is a powerful idea that even if your actions or your life circumstances aren’t ideal, that deep down, at your core, is something intrinsically good that you might be able to express one day.
Alternatively, though, it could be fuel for a kind of existential crisis if your life doesn’t match up to your ‘true self.’ Everyone can relate to those moments of doubt if you’re on the right path or living a life that matches who you ‘really’ are,” Love writes. “More pressure to ‘be yourself’ or ‘find yourself’ can add to that stress — especially in the self-help realm, where the existence of a ‘true self,’ is a given, not regarded as a cognitive tendency or bias.
The idea that, ‘Of course there is a true self to be found deep down if you search in the right way, and, you know, do self-care,’ Strohminger said. ‘And that self-actualization is taken quite literally to mean there is a real you to be found and discovered and there is happiness and fulfillment in so doing.’ Instead, [Rebecca Schlegel, a social personality psychologist at Texas A&M University] recommends holding onto a more flexible notion of the true self. As Strohminger wrote, ‘The true self is posited rather than observed. It is a hopeful phantasm.”’
That doesn’t mean believing in your morally good true self is good or bad in itself — especially not if it gives you meaning and helps align you to living a life you’re proud of and fulfilled by. But it’s good to be aware of it as a bias, in case the hopeful phantasm morphs into more of a poltergeist.”
Elon Musk’s Twitter saga
Last week, Twitter accepted Elon Musk’s acquisition bid. The media response was intense. For a few days, it was seemingly the biggest story in the world. Here’s a handful of the many comments, starting with Schumpeter in The Economist:
“Ida Tarbell, author of an exposé of the Standard Oil Company in 1904, described its founder, John D. Rockefeller, as ‘the most successful man in the world.’ By that she meant ‘the man who has got the most of what men most want.’ These days Elon Musk fits that description to a tee. Not only is he worth more than God. He invents things that are changing the world, from electric cars to space rockets. A word from him — on anything from crypto to meme stocks — turns retail investors into slobbering Pavlovians. With millions of adoring fans, he is an idol of modern capitalism.
He is also a shaper of capitalist trends, and that is where the problem lies. His fetish for Twitter — first as a megaphone to promote himself and his companies and now as a plaything that he has offered $43bn to buy — is taking the world of business in a reckless new direction. Call it GameStop for gazillionaires. Like last year’s craze for the American games retailer […], he promotes the idea that the normal rules of investment do not apply. He paints stewards of fair play — regulators and boards — as pettifogging enemies of progress. And he idealises surreal narratives over economic facts. Such mischief-making has hitherto mostly been confined to the fringes of finance. In his pursuit of Twitter, Mr Musk is taking it into the mainstream.
The impression that if you are the world’s richest man you can have fun with the rules of the game is one thing. As problematic is the idea that Mr Musk might end up controlling one of the world’s most powerful means of communication at a time when fortunes are won and lost on ‘story stocks’ — those driven by narratives discussed on forums like Twitter.”
“Musk said last week that he doesn’t care about the economics of the deal and is pursuing it because it is ‘extremely important to the future of civilization.’ Fine, but who anointed Musk to decide the future of civilization?
Musk’s real goal has nothing to do with the freedom of others. His goal is his own unconstrained freedom — the freedom to wield enormous power without having to be accountable to laws and regulations, to shareholders, or to market competition — which is why he’s dead set on owning Twitter.
Unlike his ambitions to upend transportation and interstellar flight, this one is dangerous. It might well upend democracy.”
“The plutocrats have already rigged the economy. That’s just the first step. Then you take some of the spoils and reinvest it in buying even more political influence, so that political inequality can help keep economic inequality yawning. You buy up media or social media platforms and thus can help rig the discourse in your favor, taking control of the tools used by regular people to fight back. You venture, as Mr. Musk did, to a TED conference and, without much pushback, brand yourself as a kind of public intellectual, a thought leader, a visionary, and thereby in many people’s minds you became a sage, not a robber baron.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have nice things. But we’re going to have to learn to see through the fraudulent stories that elevate figures like Mr. Musk into heroes. We’re going to have to legislate real guardrails — perhaps like those created by the European Union’s Digital Services Act — on social media platforms that are too big to entrust democracy to. We’re going to have to build nonprofit alternatives to the platforms and see if they can become meaningful venues.
Because a society that outsources the tending of its social interactions to people who behave like sociopaths is a society asking not for freedom but for tyranny.”
Andrew Marantz in Elon Musk Thinks Social Media Isn’t Rocket Science (The New Yorker):
“In his 1989 book Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis famously referred to greed-is-good Wall Street bankers as ‘Big Swinging Dicks.’ Elsewhere, I’ve argued that today’s tech titans — who privilege the cerebral over the corporeal, who claim to disdain hedonism in favor of intellectual hubris, who think of themselves as epochal figures with civilization-bestriding legacies — should instead be called Big Swinging Brains. Musk, in many ways, is the biggest of them all — so big that he apparently can’t be bothered to read a Wikipedia article on free speech before mansplaining the concept to the world. It’s one thing to magnanimously promise that you won’t silence your critics; it’s another thing to have enough humility to listen to them.
Musk is what people sometimes call ‘good at Twitter,’ a phrase that uses ‘good’ descriptively, not normatively. In a word, he’s a troll. Most of what he tweets isn’t defamation or hate speech, but a lot of it is stuff that, in a better world, probably wouldn’t command so much of our attention. Another speaker at this year’s ted conference was Bill Gates, a former richest man in the world, who apparently texted Musk suggesting that, while both men were in town, they should get together and discuss philanthropic approaches to ameliorating climate change. Musk refused, citing Gates’s shorting of Tesla’s stock, and then proceeded to heighten the spat on Twitter, culminating in a tweet that is, if nothing else, a rich semiotic text: an unflattering photo of Gates, a ‘pregnant man’ emoji, and the words ‘in case u need to lose a boner fast.’ As of this writing, the tweet has more than a million likes, and it has yet to be deleted. Another victory for free speech.”
And ‘finally,’ Adam Serwer in Elon Musk Isn’t Buying Twitter to Defend Free Speech (The Atlantic):
“Media outlets have curiously described Musk as a ‘free-speech defender,’ a term Musk enthusiasts have interpreted as a euphemism for someone with a high tolerance for bigotry against historically marginalized communities. But Musk has been perfectly willing to countenance the punishment of those engaging in speech he opposes. Tesla, for example, was disciplined by the National Labor Relations Board for firing a worker who wasattempting to organize a union. Similarly, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos owns TheWashington Post, but his commitment to free speech falters when it comes tounionizing the warehouse workers who are essential to his business.
Business moguls tend to be big on ‘freedom of speech’ in this more colloquial sense, when it comes to the kind of speech that doesn’t hurt their bottom line. When it comes to organizing their workforces, however, a form of speech that could act as a check against their power and influence, that tolerance for free speech melts away. Workers fearful of how their wealthy bosses intend to use that power should take that reality into consideration.”
In the margins
“In the Western world, nearly all of what we think of today as the fine arts were once the opposite, vulgares to the ancient Romans and ‘mechanical’ to the scholars of the Middle Ages. Painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, the making of clothes, cooking: These were considered physical, not cerebral, pursuits, alongside medicine and agriculture — utilitarian matters of expertise. Music was exempted as a subset of mathematics, while poetry, [the Polish philosopher and art historian Władysław Tatarkiewicz writes in A History of Six Ideas,] was treated as ‘a kind of philosophy or prophecy, a prayer or confession.’ Artisans apprenticed and trained in adherence to standards set by guilds, an early form of consumer protection and quality control. (Similar systems developed in Asia and throughout the Islamic world.) They earned respect as masters of codified craft, not as innovators with unique insight and vision.
Even in the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, when painting was elevated to the liberal arts, the polymathic Leonardo da Vinci continued to dismiss sculpture as merely manual, mimetic rather than inventive, recreating without thought what already exists in the world — although Michelangelo, a generation younger, disagreed. By this time, however, the character of the artist had become a subject of interest, the more so as members of a newly prosperous mercantile class sought to telegraph their ascendance by commissioning portraits and acquiring art. The 16th-century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Armenini wrote disdainfully of audiences who presumed artists to be creatures of vice and capriciousness (and were perhaps secretly titillated at the thought) but also of the ‘many ignorant artists’ who promoted this caricature, believing themselves ‘to be very exceptional by affecting melancholy and eccentricity.’
Tatarkiewicz points out that the shift in thinking about artists started around the same time as a downturn in the European economy, which made art an appealing alternative investment. But for art to confer status, the people who made it had to be distinguished from common laborers. Cleaving artist from artisan was an assignment of value, both aesthetic and monetary. By the 18th century in Europe, this transformation was complete: from an industrious and sometimes anonymous plier of a trade to an individual with a singular perspective — a genius with privileged access to the sublime, pledged to bring the world higher truths. (Other cultures, resistant to the Western narrative of individualism, have not always embraced this definition.) Not that this new loftiness necessarily translated into material reward. Indeed, the less reward, the better: Part of the myth of the artist’s life was that artists fed off and even required poverty and torment in order to create, like the Spaniard Pablo Picasso in the early 1900s in Paris, as yet unknown, living in squalor and burning his drawings to keep from freezing to death.”
“We often conflate wonder with curiosity. They are not the same. Wonder is personal in a way curiosity is not. You can be curious dispassionately. You can question dispassionately. You cannot wonder dispassionately. Curiosity is restive, always threatening to chase the next shiny object that pops into view. Not wonder. Wonder is curiosity reclined, feet up, drink in hand. Wonder never chased a shiny object. Wonder never killed a cat.
Curiosity evaporates with knowledge. Not wonder. Like Einstein, we can know and still wonder. Wonder takes time. Like a good meal or good sex, it can’t be rushed. That’s why Socrates never hurried his conversations. He persevered in his philosophical conversations even when his conversers grew weary and exasperated.
I’d like to say wonder is in its prime, but sadly that is not true. Many of us don’t make room for wonder in our lives. We fear that ‘indulging’ in wonder will divert us from more important, ‘adult’ tasks, as if there is anything more important than this most sublime, most human, of emotions.
The good news is that wonder isn’t something you’re either born with or not, like blond hair or freckles. Wonder is a skill, one we’re all capable of learning — or, more accurately, relearning. A sense of wonder is deeply embedded in our humanity. We may mute it, for a while, but we never fully extinguish it. Wonder lies dormant, waiting for us to unmute ourselves, and begin again.”
From: Wonder Is a Skill We Are All Capable of Relearning, by Eric Weiner (Medium)
“When Benito Mussolini founded, on March 23, 1919, the organization that would become the National Fascist Party, Italy’s top newspaper relegated the news to a blurb, roughly the same space devoted to the theft of 64 cases of soap. That’s where Antonio Scurati’s novel M: Son of the Century starts. It ends on January 3, 1925, the date commonly considered the beginning of Mussolini’s authoritarian reign, when he claimed responsibility for the murder of the Socialist lawmaker Giacomo Matteotti. By then, Il Duce had already been the prime minister of Italy for two years, and violent repression of the opposition was rampant, but it was the first time he owned up to it as the head of government, throwing off the mask. ‘If fascism has been a band of criminals, I am the leader of this criminal band,’ he boasted to Parliament. The lawmakers cheered.
M: Son of the Century is the tale of how democracy can die to the sound of such thunderous applause. And, among its insights, it points to an unlikely enabler for Mussolini’s rise: the liberal establishment, the educated urban elite who assumed that they could control the rabble-rousing leader for their own ends.
‘Liberals sided with Mussolini because they saw fascism as an antidote against mass parties,’ Giovanni Dessì, a professor of the history of political thought at Tor Vergata University of Rome, told me. ‘They were a political class of intellectual elites; the last thing they wanted was that the masses could start participating in the res publica.’
The ‘borghesia liberale’ [liberal bourgeoisie] of 1920s Italy was, of course, very different from the liberal elites of contemporary democracies. But the group’s grievances echoed the lamentations that still resurface, in some circles, whenever popular elections produce what today’s elites consider nefarious outcomes. Think of the reactions to Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, which prompted commentators such as Andrew Sullivan to wonder, as the headline of his article on the latter’s campaign put it, whether ‘democracies end when they are too democratic,’ and popularized theses like that of the philosopher Jason Brennan, who advocated granting more political representation to the knowledgeable (his book Against Democracy came out after Brexit but before Trump).
As Scurati dramatizes, Liberals thought they could use Mussolini to restore order but ended up fostering even more chaos. They thought they could incorporate Mussolini into the liberal order, but they found themselves incorporated into fascism instead. As Mussolini said in both real life and Scurati’s novel, ‘We will absorb liberals and liberalism because by the use of violence we have buried all previous methods.’”
Mussolini Speaks, and Tells Us How Democracy Dies
When Benito Mussolini founded, on March 23, 1919, the organization that would become the National Fascist Party…
The term ‘third place’ was coined in the 1980s by the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg. It refers to a physical location other than work or home where there’s little to no financial barrier to entry and where conversation is the primary activity. The historical examples that Oldenburg cites in his book The Great Good Place include French cafés, German American beer gardens, and English pubs, all of which appeal to people from various walks of life.
“But these days, the art of hanging out seems to be waning in cities. The American Community Life Survey reported last year that only 25 percent of people living in areas with ‘very high’ amenity access — close to grocery stores, gyms, bowling alleys, and other ideal sites of chance encounters — actually socialize with strangers at least once a week. In 2019, about two-thirds of Americans said they had a favorite local place they went to regularly. That two-thirds has since dropped to a little more than half, according to the survey. Clearly, COVID-19’s arrival accelerated the problem — making small talk with strangers scaled back, because of infection risk, while some bars and restaurants became to-go establishments, discouraging loitering. When I caught up with Oldenburg, the third-place sociologist, over the phone in the summer of 2020, he told me that he was socializing in his Florida garage, which he’d converted into a pseudo dive bar for him and his friend to use — no more venturing out in search of serendipity. If the world’s foremost scholar on the importance of mingling with strangers had all but given up on doing so himself, what hope was there for the rest of us?
So what’s replaced hangouts in the city? In many cases, I’d consider them ersatz third places: establishments that are either too expensive for the average American or apparently designed to disincentivize lingering. Think carefully curated faux dive bars that serve $15 beer-and-shot specials, or parks like New York’s High Line that are built to be moved through in a linear fashion. Meanwhile, the ground between the third place and the office — what Oldenburg called the “second place” — is murky. Co-working spaces and corporate amenities such as employee-only coffee shops tap the aesthetics and function of a café — plush seating, the availability of caffeine — to insidiously extract more productivity from workers. In these privatized third places, there is an expectation that all conversation will be centered on work. There is the underlying anxiety of being on the clock — the antithesis of just hanging out. And the possibility of a wildly unexpected encounter is slim given that most people in attendance will be in roughly the same socioeconomic stratum because they work in similar jobs.
The ersatz third place is a consequence of a culture obsessed with productivity and status, whose subjects might have decent incomes but little recreational time. Urban-dwelling Americans, however, tend to place work at the center of life in part because cities are so expensive to live in. They might work 50-hour weeks to survive, leaving little to no time for leisure and community engagement. Unstructured quality time with friends is replaced with a scheduled series of continuous catch-ups. Subsequently, these overscheduled people lack meaningful ties with their neighbors, and so they patronize spaces to make those connections even less frequently.”
“At BXBstudio Boguslaw Barnas we design buildings that are both, modern and routed in tradition,” the architects write. “The design philosophy with regards to The Polish Farmhouse project places great emphasis on the relationship between man and nature with reference to place, history and tradition. This relationship stems from exploring the cultural context, and as well involving contemporary structure and design,” the architects write.
“[A]ppreciating small things can make life feel more meaningful. But applying that insight can be difficult. Our modern, fast-paced, project-oriented lifestyles fill the day with targets and goals. We are on the go, and we attempt to maximize output both at work and at leisure. This focus on future outcomes makes it all too easy to miss what is happening right now. Yet life happens in the present moment. We should slow down, let life surprise us and embrace the significance in the everyday.’’ — From A New Dimension to a Meaningful Life, by Joshua Hicks and Frank Martela