Reading notes (2021, week 13) — On the (un)freedom to work flexibly, phantasia, and four ways to learn and practice virtue ethics

Mark Storm
28 min readMar 27, 2021
“After 20 years of frantic city-building, rustic China is in a death spiral. Now architects are helping to reverse the exodus — with inspirational tofu factories, rice wine distilleries and lotus tea plants,” Oliver Wainwright writes in China’s rural revolution: the architects rescuing its villages from oblivion. (Photograph: DnA’s Tofu Factory in Caizhai Village, China, is operated by a “villager union […] to engage family workshops as shareholders of this collective economic entity.” Photography by Ziling Wang)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s edition: The fragility of the gig economy’s promise to ‘work flexibly’; imagination is a powerful tool, a sixth sense, a weapon; if your goal is to become a better person, and to help others do likewise, virtue ethics is the name of the game; Petrarch and the virtues of the quiet life; Diogenes and the difficulty for social critics; the latest must-have among US billionaires; why we must do everything differently to ensure the planet’s survival; Theo van Doesburg and the Aubette building; and, finally, Wendell Berry on what’s absent from the industrial economy and industrial culture.

The (un)freedom to work flexibly

“Just as all instances of social evolution bring forth numerous questions of particular interest to social scientists, the transformation of work [from workers as ‘employees’ to workers as ‘independent contractors’; 1] carries particular social significance,” writes Robert Donoghue, a PhD student in Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath, in The Gig Economy, Flexibility, and Workplace Freedom (Epoché, Issue #38 March 202).

“To wit, it is clear that the transformation of work is pushing to the fore a robust conversation about what legislative or regulatory actions be taken to address the enlarging gig economy. The nature of this discussion, unsurprisingly, seems to be molded by the perennial double movement inherent to market societies: a dialectical process identified by Karl Polanyi defined by a push and pull motion of marketization and freedom to contract on the one hand, and a countermovement to inoculate individuals from the harms of marketization, on the other [2]. Thus, the debate over labour law’s legitimacy and purpose generally involves a competition for ideological supremacy between two broad camps: those in favor of liberalising labour law (or even reducing labour to mere law of contract) and those in favor of extending some measure of industrial rights to those who labour for money. The historical record indicates the existence of critical moments at which these two camps have clashed to become the hegemonic ideal motivating the development of policy — and whichever camp is victorious will herald a lasting dispensation of labour law tilted toward their aims,” Donoghue argues.

“[A] substantial number of what might fairly be called ‘David versus Goliath’ legal cases are pending across several nations, at the center of which are difficult questions regarding the application of predominantly twentieth century labour laws to increasingly prevalent non-standard employment relationships. So called ‘gig workers’ are bringing forth suits challenging their employment status, arguing that they have been misclassified as (self-employed) independent contracts when they are, in fact, employees and entitled to a range of labour rights,” Robert Donoghue writes in The Gig Economy, Flexibility, and Workplace Freedom. (Photograph: Uber drivers Yaseen Aslam (left) and James Farrar outside the Supreme Court, London, which concluded that drivers should be classed as workers; by Ian West/PA)

“Much is made of the flexibility that independent contractors enjoy whilst working for companies like Uber and Lyft. Indeed, this cherished aspect of ‘gig work’ has been incessantly proclaimed by those who reject legislative efforts or court rulings that would force companies to (re)classify gig workers as employees,” Donoghue writes.

But according to him, the flexibility argument “critically overlooks that the value of a privilege-right — including the right to work on a flexible basis — is seriously weakened by the existence of an arbitrary power that could easily undermine or, in this case, revoke such a right.”

Although Uber drivers, for example, are ‘free’ to work on a flexible basis, this freedom is entirely dependent on the whims of Uber. Their contracts can be terminated at any time for any reason, and drivers have no immunity-right preventing such a possibility.

“Naturally, some might point out that the nature of this relationship embodies some sense of equality because [an Uber driver] also has the opportunity to terminate the agreement whenever he sees fit. Notice that such equality is entirely de jure, as workers almost always tend to be more reliant on a contract of employment than the party that hired them [3].

To conceive of flexible work in the gig economy as a privilege-right raises an important question: are app-based workers truly free then to work on a flexible basis? Perhaps most people would be inclined to answer in the affirmative and they would point to the fact that no social actor will try to forcefully obstruct workers from attempting to exercise that right. Such an answer demonstrates the hegemonic status of the negative view of freedom central to (neo)liberal thought. In short, on the negative view, freedom is demarcated by the absence of interference, which means that so long as one can act without (unjustified) forceful interference by others, they are said to be a free person. According to this account of freedom, workers certainly appear to be free to work on a flexible basis.

But this is only one approach for deciphering whether an individual is free in a social context. The recent revival of Roman republican thought, what is often referred to as neo-republicanism, indicates that freedom requires not the absence of forceful interference but the absence of domination [4].”

“What is often overlooked, and even suppressed, is that this ‘opportunity of flexible work’ is highly fragile. By this I mean that while the opportunity does in fact exist, its existence is incredibly delicate and can easily be destroyed. Simply put, app-based workers […] can be ‘deactivated’ from the digital labour platform (Uber, Lyft, etc.) at any moment on an entirely arbitrary basis. This is because those who work as independent contractors are engaged in a contract for services as opposed to a contract of service — and labour law only provides (some) protections against termination of a contract for the latter (i.e. employees),” Robert Donoghue writes in The Gig Economy, Flexibility, and Workplace Freedom. (Photograph: Demonstrators in front of Los Angeles City Hall urging voters to vote no on Proposition 22 that that would classify app-based drivers as independent contractors and not employees or agents; by Al Seib for the Los Angeles Times)

At first, these antitheses may sound as nothing more than synonyms. They are, however, entirely different concepts. “[I]nterference in the liberal tradition is generally understood to be forceful obstruction. Thus, if Alpha physically prevents Beta from walking on the road, then Beta has been made unfree by Alpha. Domination, on the other hand, is the condition of being subject to the arbitrary whim of another — that is, domination occurs when one is coerced to satisfy the private whims of an alien power.

The critical divide between the liberal and neo-republican antitheses of freedom is that domination can be perpetrated by means other than force. Alpha could certainly subject Beta to his own arbitrary preferences by using force, as in the case of physically preventing Beta from walking on the road. However, Alpha could also employ other techniques to subject Beta to his own will, such as by exploiting Beta’s dependency. Let us imagine, for example, that Alpha is Beta’s landlord and that, because Beta currently lives paycheck-to-pay check, he would have trouble putting down a deposit if forced to live somewhere else. In this arrangement, Beta is clearly dependent upon Alpha’s good will — especially if Beta has no legal protections against arbitrary eviction. We can easily imagine, then, circumstances where Alpha could exploit Beta’s dependency to Alpha’s personal and private gain. Simply, the mere hinting of an eviction could be used to coerce Beta into doing something he otherwise may not have wanted to do.

The neo-republican tradition thus emphasizes that unfreedom arises with the conjunction of two attributes in a social relationship: dependency and arbitrary power. In our devised hypothetical, Beta is dependent upon Alpha since his right to continue living in the apartment depends upon Alpha’s private disposition. Additionally, Alpha has the power to interfere with Beta’s ability to live in the apartment on an arbitrary basis. That is, Alpha could decide to evict Beta for any reason, random or otherwise, at any time. When these two attributes exist in a social relationship, unfreedom is the necessary result. Clearly, in a state of dependency, one can easily be subjected to the arbitrary whim of another: and insofar as this possibility hangs over someone, they cannot truly act sui juris (on their own terms). Instead, such an individual is forced to act according to the interests of a dominus. If Alpha hints at eviction when Beta requests that needed repairs be made, Alpha is able to dominate Beta into no longer asking for the repairs by exploiting Beta’s dependency.

Is it not the case that app-based drivers, who seek to work on a flexible basis, are in a social relationship with the ‘technology companies’ for whom they work that embodies the ingredients of dependency and arbitrary power? On the one hand, it could be argued that drivers are not truly dependent on these companies because (a) they could always work for competing apps or (b) they can find other jobs outside the gig economy to satisfy their needs. These points may or may not be true [5]. But, if we take [individual drivers] at their word, as we should, it seems undeniable that [they] are, indeed, dependent upon these technology companies for the chance to exercise the right to work flexibly. Furthemore, it is undeniable that the second attribute of arbitrary power is certainly inherent to the relationship. As we have noted above, the status of drivers as independent contractors means their employment contract can be terminated at any time for any reason.

It therefore appears that a driver’s cherished opportunity to work flexibly is entirely dependent on the arbitrary will of the companies to whom they contract their services. Thus, from a neo-republican point of view, to suggest that the status quo […] secure the ‘liberty’ of individuals to work flexibly is misguided if not outright fallacious. It is evident that under current conditions [Uber drivers] exercise the privilege-right to flexible work in a dominated position in relation to firms like Uber. Uber, as we have seen, could exercise its power-right to revoke [a driver’s] privilege-right to flexible work at any moment — and drivers must merely hope that Uber chooses not to do so. Can we really say that working under such conditions connotes any type of real ‘freedom’? If your opportunity to exercise a right is entirely dependent on the arbitrary whims of an alien power, is that right truly meaningful?

It seems unlikely that any kind of right that can arbitrarily be ripped away is worth coveting, no less one worth fighting for. Merely one hour of casework for unions that organize gig workers will reveal the wide-ranging negative experiences that result from the right to work flexibly being incredibly fragile. Every day drivers are deactivated from these platforms for reasons that appear to them as opaque or objectionable, and there is nothing they can do about it. In many cases, an abrupt termination is extremely painful for those who rely on these jobs to make ends meet. So whilst it may be formally true that gig workers enjoy flexibility in their work, it is a benefit that is completely fragile and can disappear at a moment’s notice. Whether it is possible to have a workplace model that guarantees both flexibility and security is a debate that is currently taking place (as it isn’t obvious that they cannot) [6].”

Notes provided by the author

[1] Gerald Friedman, Workers without Employers: Shadow Corporations and the Rise of the Gig Economy, Review of Keynesian Economics 2, no. 2 (April 1, 2014): 171–88.
[2] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Beacon Press, 1971).
[3] Robert Donoghue, ‘Emancipationism’: An Attempt to Synthesize Neo-Republican and Socialist Thought, Ethics, Politics & Society 3 (July 10, 2020): 73–104.
[4] Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford University Press, 1997).
[5] James Manyika et al., Independent Work: Choice, Necessity, and the Gig Economy (McKinsey Global institute, 2016).
[6] Benjamin Sachs, Enough with the Flexibility Trope, OnLabor (blog), May 15, 2018.


“The Imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty he unites former images and ideas, , independently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results. […] Dreaming gives us the best notion of this power; as Jean Paul [Richter] says, ‘The dream is an involuntary art of poetry.’” — Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)

“Like other artists, the actor is a kind of shaman,” Stephen T Asma writes in Phantasia, an essay interwoven with anecdotes and experiences from the American actor and producer, Paul Giamatti.

“If the audience is lucky, we go with this emotional magician to other worlds and other versions of ourselves. Our enchantment or immersion into another world is not just theoretical, but sensory and emotional.” This shared ritual draws upon a kind of sixth sense, the imaginative power that Aristotle called ‘phantasia.’

“We might mistakenly think that phantasia is just for artists and entertainers, a rare and special talent, but it’s actually a cognitive faculty that functions in all human beings. The actor might guide us, but it’s our imagination that enables us to immerse fully into the story. If we activate our power of phantasia, we voluntarily summon up the real emotions we see on stage: fear, anxiety, rage, love and more,” Asma writes.

“[The] capacity to get inside the emotional landscape of another person draws on a deep, evolutionary cognitive ability, a way of absorbing or reading what the psychologist James J Gibson called ‘affordances.’ Gibson’s affordances can be understood as all the things that surround an organism in their environment, with potential to be understood, grasped and exploited. An affordance is relational: it depends on the ecological relationship between the animal and its lifeworld, rather than having an objective value. A freshly baked baguette is to a baker a proud symbol of her art; to the hungry child, it’s a meal; to the assistant at the boulangerie, an object to be arranged in the window. An affordance has meaning depending where you stand, and much of our grasp of affordances runs beneath conscious analysis. For social mammals, including humans, many of the affordances in our environment are social in nature, and thus we spend a huge amount of perceptual energy in processing signals of behaviour, demeanour and emotion from our fellows, much of which never surfaces to our conscious mind.”

To expand these affordances and create alternative behaviours — alternative realities — in the real-time present, as well as in the future, we use phantasia. “We take social affordances from our existing lifeworlds and spin new worlds out of them. That is the power of phantasia, but also […] its danger.”

There’s a lot of subtle embodied communication going on,” the American actor and producers, Paul Giamatti, tells. “There’s an intense awareness between the actors themselves, and between the audience and actors — especially in theatre. The most obvious feedback happens in comedies of course, because you can hear the laughs or the lack of them. But much more subtle stuff is happening too. Once, when I was playing Hamlet, there was an early scene with the Player King. His prop beard was slowly falling off his face — unbeknown to him­ — just as I was saying a line about beards. And there was this amazing energy in the whole place from the collective recognition that we were all playing in a play, but also a play that knows it’s a play. And sometimes when something goes wrong on stage — like a mistake, or a prop thing — it actually brings in a fresh energy by breaking the normal patterns, and everyone becomes more present in the room.” (Photograph: Paul Giamatti as Hamlet in Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of 2013, by Joan Marcus)

Some people may think that imagination is merely a frivolous fantasy-making ability — Plato, for example, believed it only produces illusion, which distracts from reality, itself apprehended by reason — but for Aristotle, imagination is a necessary ingredient to knowledge. “Memory is a repository of images and events, but imagination calls up, unites and combines those memories into tools for judgment and decision-making. Imagination constructs alternative scenarios from the raw data of empirical senses, and then our rational faculties can evaluate them and use them to make moral choices, or predict social behaviours, or even build better scientific theories. For Aristotle, phantasia, which comes from the Greek word for ‘light,’ is as important to knowledge as light is to seeing.”

Today, science sides with Aristotle. “Phantasia is adaptive and helps us know others and ourselves better. Art is not just great for therapeutic emotional management and catharsis, but also produces knowledge, generating new ways of understanding and manipulating the world. Contemporary neuro-cognitive theory argues that the mind is a ‘prediction processor.’ It builds mental models of the world, and tests predictions, always updating the model to reduce future errors. These cognitive processes are not possible without the imaginative faculty. The imagination helps us create possible futures (new architecture, medical breakthroughs, new political possibilities) but also helps us model other minds.”

“When art is good — when the acting and the script are on point, or a character in a novel is nuanced — the audience actually learns more about human behaviour than real-life observation provides. This is because the interior of the character is articulated in art, whereas it remains submerged in real social interaction,” Stephen T Asma writes in Phantasia. (Photograph: Jarlath Conroy and Paul Giamatti in Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of Hamlet, 2013, by Joan Marcus)

“We are, then, running a constant ‘simulator’ in our own minds […]. Yet the vivid, and often unconscious, nature of this cognitive process isn’t always enriching. If imagination is an involuntary creative act of cognition before downstream rationality uses it, it can also be dangerous. Without properly understanding imagination’s role in cognition, our views can present themselves to us as straightforward, accurate assessments of the world. People who disagree with us seem just ‘irrational’ (bad at weighing evidence and logic) or crazy. But once we take account of the imaginative layer of mind (the filtering and modelling we do between the raw data and the reasoned conclusions or beliefs), we see that the world itself really is different for the Republican as opposed to the Democrat; the rationalist versus the QAnon devotee; the atheist as opposed to the Christian,” writes Asma.

“In our current climate of partisan paranoia, we’ve all ramped up imaginative demonisation of the other. This leaves us vulnerable to dark imaginings. The Chinese American philosophical geographer Yi-Fu Tuan states it plainly in his book Landscapes of Fear (2013): ‘If we had less imagination, we would feel more secure.’

Yes, there are real threats and enemies out there, but not as many as our active imagination produces. Alas, we can’t stop fantasticating if it’s the root of human cognition, and we wouldn’t want to give it up if we could. But can we turn that awesome power of imagination toward humanising ourselves and others?

Imagination recruits our natural empathy system and can amplify it. We see fear or joy in another person’s face, and we catch it like an emotional contagion. The actor has made a career of this natural human ability to recreate another’s feelings and perspectives within one’s self. Properly cultivated, this emotional mimicry can become ethical care, and art and artists play a crucial role in this cultivation.”

Four ways to learn and practice virtue ethics

In Reading notes (2021, week 11), I referred to Martin Butler’s Why We Need Virtue Ethics, in which he argues that a knowledge of virtue ethics can help young people navigate the complex and often frightening world that they face.

“Virtue ethics is a holistic approach in that it takes as its starting point human beings with emotions and reason who have to make concrete decisions in their life, and it provides a convincing framework for making sense of this. Rather than a private self that makes either morally right or morally wrong decisions, the focus for virtue ethics is on character and character is something that can be developed,” Butler writes.

According to Massimo Pigliucci, the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at The City College of New York and author of, amongst others, How To Be A Stoic (Rider, 2017), there are four ways to learn and practice virtue ethics, “which are made explicitly clear in the writings of the Stoics, but are present in pretty much every version of virtue ethics, from Aristotelianism to Confucianism.”

The first is role models or, as Seneca puts it in his moral letter XI.10 to Lucilius:

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.”

“The two role models Seneca mentions are Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar, and Gaius Laelius Sapiens, a Roman statesman and consul from the second century BCE. There are two fundamental concepts expressed in this quote: the last sentence provides us with a reason to choose role models for our ethical improvement, that reason being, as Seneca colorfully puts it, that there is no way to tell how crooked you are unless you compare yourself to a straight ruler. The role model is the (more or less, nobody’s perfect!) ruler, and you use it to measure your own behavior in comparison to that of the role model. ‘What Would Epictetus Do?,’ ask yourself whenever you face an ethical dilemma in life. Then act accordingly, as much as you are able to,” Pigliucci writes.

“The second point is expressed at the very beginning of the quote: not everyone will do as a role model, you’ll have to pick your own, someone who genuinely inspires you and who you think you can reasonably emulate. That’s why Cato isn’t for everyone: most people might think that disemboweling yourself so that you cannot be manipulated for political purposes is going a bit too far. In that case, choose the gentler Laelius over the stern Cato.

The Stoics also thought that imaginary figures may do as role models. Two of their favorites were the demigod Heracles and the Homeric hero Odysseus. The latter, for instance, twice turned down the opportunity to become immortal and forever make love to beautiful goddesses, because he felt a sense of duty toward his comrades to bring them home safely (he failed in that), and because he wanted to come back to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus.”

The possibilities for picking a role mode are vast, according to Massimo Pigliucci in The four ways to learn and practice virtue ethics. “[W]e can pick from both ancient and modern potential role models. Among my favorites are my adoptive grandfather, Tino, who was one of the best and kindest people I’ve ever known; Nelson Mandela, whose reading of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations helped him turn away from his understandable anger during South Africa’s Apartheid; Susan Fowler, for whom the Stoics were instrumental in overcoming a series of difficulties early on in her life; and everyone’s favorite neighborhood superhero, Spider-Man, whose famous motto is ‘with great powers come great responsibilities.’” (Photograph: Then-President Nelson Mandela revisits his South African prison cell on Robben Island, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, in 1994. Courtesy of Jurgen Schadeberg / Getty Images)

The second way is good counsel.

“Role models can only counsel you indirectly, by remembering what they have done in their lives, or by reading their memoirs or biographies. But sometimes we need direct, interactive counsel from a living human being. That’s where the concept of friendship becomes fundamental, both in Stoicism and in other approaches to virtue ethics.

As Aristotle put it, a friend of virtue — the highest level of friendship he recognized — should be a mirror to your soul, i.e., someone you can talk to about anything, and who is honest and courageous enough to give you the sort of advice you don’t wish to hear, if need be. As Seneca says:

‘If you consider anyone a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means.’ (Letter III.2)

That is why Epictetus warns us to be choosy with the company we keep:

‘Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.’ (Enchiridion 33.6)

‘Non-philosophers’ here doesn’t mean people without a PhD in philosophy or an academic position. It means people who do not earnestly try to improve themselves and live their life according to philosophical precepts. It sounds elitist, but, really, it’s the same sort of advice your mom probably gave you in kindergarten,” Pigliucci writes.

Thirdly, trial and error.

“Philosophical theory is fine, but life is lived in the field, so to speak, so there is no substitute for good old-fashioned trial and error. This is how Epictetus’s teacher, Musonius Rufus, puts it:

‘Theory which teaches how one must act assists action and logically precedes practice, for it is not possible for something good to be accomplished unless it is accomplished in accordance with theory. But as a matter of fact, practice is more important than theory because it more effectively leads humans to actions than theory does.’ (Lectures 5.4)

Practice without theory is blind, but theory without practice reduces to sterile navel-gazing. This means that we all need to stumble through life the best way we can, ready to make mistakes, acknowledge them, learn from them, and move on, trying to do better the next time around. What, then, is the good of a philosophy of life? Philosophy does not, and cannot, provide you with ready-made answers to every situation […]. But it does equip you with a framework to orient yourself in life, to prioritize what is meaningful and important, and to evaluate your own actions.”

Critical self-reflection is the fourthe and final way to learn and practice virtue ethics.

“One of the most important tools in the Stoic arsenal of techniques is the philosophical diary, of which the entire Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is an excellent example. Both Seneca (On Anger, III.36) and Epictetus actually give us instructions on how to do it. Here is the sage from Hierapolis:

‘We should have each judgement ready at the moment when it is needed: judgements on dinner at dinner-time, on the bath at bathing-time, on bed at bedtime. Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids Till you have reckoned up each deed of the day — How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad.’ (Discourses III, 10)

The idea is not to indulge in an emotionally-laden reliving of your daily experiences. That would defeat the purpose. Instead, you want to write into your philosophical journal in the second person, as if you were addressing a friend, and you want to describe things and events in the most objective and detached way possible. The reason for this is that the goal is to put yourself in the position to critically analyze (and eventually improve) your own behavior, and modern psychology tells us that objective descriptions that are not couched in the first person are most efficient for this goal.”

In short, “pick your role model(s) and regularly ask yourself what they would do in your position; cultivate the most virtuous friendship you can; don’t be afraid to try things out and make mistakes, [but] keep your philosophical compass handy; and regularly write to yourself in your philosophical diary.”

And also this…

In the first book of De Vita Solitaria, the Renaissance poet and humanist Petrarch extols the virtues of the quiet life. He writes (in a translation by Jacob Zeitlin, 1924):

“It seems to me that I can demonstrate the blessedness of solitude by exhibiting the troubles and afflictions of a populous environment, reviewing the actions of men whom one kind of life preserves in peace and tranquility and the other kind keeps agitated and careworn and breathless. For there is a single idea underlying all these observations, that one kind of life is attended with happy leisure and the other with grievous worry.

The busy man, a hapless dweller of the city, awakes in the middle of the night, his sleep interrupted by his cares or the cries of his clients, often even by fear of the light and by terror of nightly visions. No sooner is he up than he settles his body to the miserable bench and applies his mind to falsehood. On treachery his heart is wholly fixed — whether he meditates driving a corrupt bargain, betraying his friend or his ward, assailing with his seductions his neighbour’s wife whose only refuge is her chastity, spreading the veil of justice over a litigious quarrel, or whatever other mischief of a public or private character he intends. Now eager with passion and aflame with desire, and now frozen with desperation, like a very bad workman, he begins before dawn the web of the daily toil in which he shall involve others with himself.”

[Petrach continues after the illustration.]

This tapestry is one of a six-part series with depictions after the allegorical poem I Trionfi (The Triumphs) by Petrarch (1304–1374). In the end, it is eternity that triumphs over love, chastity, death, fame and time. Here, fame triumphs over death. The winged figure of Fame is accompanied by famous statesmen, poets and philosophers, among them Plato, Alexander, Homer, Cicero and Charlemagne. (Illustration: The Triumph of Fame over Death, French, early 16th century; tapestry, wool, silk, 424 × 587 cm; inscription: “De terre vient la haulte renommee/Pour atropos et ses deux seurs renger/Car chastete elle a voulu venger/Par son pouvoir comme dame exstimee.” Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.)

“The retired man — the man of leisure — awakes in a happy mood, refreshed by moderate rest and a short sleep, unbroken unless he is aroused at intervals by the songs of night-haunting Philomel. When he has shaken himself lightly from his couch, and banishing thoughts of his body, begun to intone in the calm hours, he summons the Lord to strengthen his heart. No pleasures of the busy man, no luxury of city life, no pomp of kingdoms can match his state. Looking up from his place to the starry heaven […] he turns immediately to the study of some honest and agreeable lesson, and so nourished with the most delightful food, he awaits the coming of light with great composure of mind.

The longed-for light has now arrived to their differing prayers, and the busy man’s doorway is beset by enemies and friends. He is greeted, solicited, pulled in one direction, jostled in another, assailed with arguments, and rent asunder. The retired man finds a free doorway, and he has the choice of remaining where he is or going whithersoever his mind disposes him.

The busy man, loaded with complaints and affairs, goes in troubled spirits to the courts, and the beginning of his cruel day is marked by lawsuits. The retired man, with store of leisure and of calm, goes blithely into a nearby wood and enters joyfully upon the propitious threshold of a serene day.”

“Philosophical Cynicism is widely hailed as a critical voice from the margins. There are good grounds for this assessment. The Cynic confronts dominant culture and exposes its illusions. Diogenes famously walked the streets with a lit lantern, looking for an anthropos (a true human), thereby implying that those around him are not proper humans. He and his father were exiled from Sinope for adulterating the coinage, but his take on the story was that his job was, under direction from the Delphic Oracle, to alter the political norms. And so, as an exile, Diogenes harshly criticized whatever community he found himself in. Whatever their dominant norms were, he was against them,” Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse write in Diogenes And A Puzzle Of Social Critique.

“In order to have an edge, social critique must be identifiable as criticism by those to whom it is addressed. This means that criticism must be legible to those criticized. Otherwise, it is simply noise. This condition constrains the radicality of social critique. The more sweeping the criticism of one element of the dominant culture, the more the critic one must hew to its other elements.

To formulate this puzzle, recall the basic stance of the Cynic. The point of cynicism is to invert the critical eye, to make it that it is the outsider who gets to judge the insider. Consider Diogenes’s famous exchange with Alexander the Great. Upon his arrival in Corinth, Alexander comes upon Diogenes relaxing in a sunlit grove. Alexander asks Diogenes if he had need of anything, and Diogenes replied, ‘Yes, you can stand out of my light.’ Diogenes not only spurns the goods that Alexander could give him, but he does not scrape and flatter when in the presence of the great conqueror,” Aikin and Talisse write.

“The target of much of Diogenes’s humor is the over-groomed and all-too-civilized persons city life has made. The phony sophistication of the well-heeled is a favorite.” His scorn is, however, also directed at people on the margins of society, including women.

“As Peter Sloterdijk notes in his Critique of Cynical Reason, Diogenes is a ‘negative profile’ of the city. The Cynic confronts a society run on shame, one that, with this binding emotion, robs its denizens of their sexual autonomy, forces them to trade their health and time for pointless luxury, and demands conformity to rules that are simply arbitrary,” Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse write in Diogenes And A Puzzle Of Social Critique. (Painting: Diogène, 1877, by Jules Bastien-Lepage; oil on canvas, 92 x 117 cm. Collection of Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)

“Still, Cynicism need not be misogynistic. The generation of Cynics following Diogenes — Krates, Metrocles, and Hipparchia — all argued that women could be philosophers, and even proper Cynics. Hipparchia herself took a leading role in contentious debates. And the later Cynic-influenced Stoics continued the proto-feminist program of arguing for women’s equality. […]

The lesson, [the authors] think, has to do with the audience to whom social critique is addressed. When philosophers formulate criticisms of cultural norms, they must attempt to render their critique legible as criticism to those in control of the culture. Otherwise, their criticism will be dismissed as mere eccentricity, inscrutability, or madness.

This reveals a difficulty for social critics, especially those at the margins. If criticism is to be accessible to its targets, it must embed and appeal to evaluative categories that are in part constitutive of the arrangements being critiqued. The more radical the critique, the less accessible it will be by those who must hear it the most. We have previously noted a parallel version of this puzzle. Why doesn’t Diogenes simply leave the city? The answer is that he sees himself as a messenger. And so, Diogenes, because he is a messenger to those in his community, must work within the moral perspective he critiques. One might call it the double-bind of critique — the more accessible, the less radical; the more radical, the less accessible. And the irony is that for as radical as Cynicism portrays itself, it nevertheless recapitulates much of the society’s vices it was purportedly overturning.”

“The latest must-have for America’s ultra-rich isn’t another mega yacht or space program — it’s a plan to save the world from the climate crisis,” Oliver Milman and Dominic Rushe write in the Guardian.

“‘What excites these folks is technology and innovation,’ said the executive director of Climate Voice, Bill Weihl, who previously led clean energy and sustainability divisions at both Google and Facebook. ‘They compete with each other, if only subconsciously. The mindset is to invest funds in a bunch of things and hope a few will really succeed.’

Fresh thinking will be needed to eliminate emissions from certain areas with few current alternatives, such as steel-making and aviation, as well as to suck up CO2 we have already emitted. But, as Weihl points out, scientists have made clear humanity must urgently slash emissions in half within the next decade to avoid disastrous global heating.

‘There’s a natural tendency to find the single silver bullet to a problem, but with climate change it’s more like silver buckshot,’ he said. ‘We need to deploy the heck out of renewables and electric cars and heat pumps and everything else today, like crazy. We don’t have time to only develop longer-term options.”’

“Together, [Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos] have an estimated wealth of $466bn and some of the biggest personal carbon footprints on the planet. They are also emblematic of a Davos-centric worldview that sees free markets and technological advancements as the answer to an existential emergency already upending the lives of millions of people,” Oliver Milman and Dominic Rushe write in the Guardian. (Composite: AFP, Reuters, The Guardian)

In We’re Hurtling Toward Global Suicide, Ben Ehrenreich writes:

“Even with the grim opportunity presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, which slowed the economy so much that growth in fossil fuel production dropped an almost unprecedented 7 percent last year, governments […] have so far dumped much more stimulus spending into high-carbon industries than into renewable energy. It’s as if our economic system, and the politics it breeds, will not allow us to diverge from the straight path to self-obliteration.

The faith nonetheless persists: The market will provide. It has not done so yet, but renewables are perhaps finally cheap enough — cheaper at last than conventional energy sources — that the transition is now inevitable. So the credo goes. The change that is coming will be largely technological: a bold new era of ‘green growth.’ Modern societies erected on dirty coal and oil can be jacked up and shifted to cleaner forms of energy like an old house in need of a new foundation. Government may have a larger role in this transition than neoliberal dogma has recently allowed, but its primary task will still be to encourage innovation and feed the markets by shepherding the resulting growth.

It is no coincidence that some version of this faith, so all-pervasive now that it does not register as a piety, has been reshaping the planet for almost precisely as long as fossil energy — first coal, then oil — has been altering the atmosphere. Capitalism is guided by a carbon creed, an ecstatic vision of a market that chugs along eternally, needing only new inputs — the earth itself, commodified as minerals, or water, housing, health care, or almost any living thing — to spew out wealth that can be shoveled back into the machine, converting more and more of the biosphere into zeros in a digital account: more fleshless, magical money that can be invested once again. If appetites are bottomless, and apparently they are, shouldn’t growth be endless too?”

“If there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear,” Amitav Ghosh wrote in 2016, “it is that to think about the world as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide.” (Illustration by Jon Han for The New Republic)

“As innocuous as it may sound, ‘growth’ should be understood to describe the frenzied ruination of nearly every ecosystem on the planet so that its richest human inhabitants can hold on to their privileges for another generation or two. Rejecting the idolatry of growth means tilting the organization of our societies toward other social goods — health, for instance, and the freedom to exist on a planet that is not on fire. This should not be unimaginable. There are infinite other ways to organize a society, and the fact that we are not widely and urgently discussing them is at this point nothing short of criminal. There are voluminous literatures on degrowth, on circular economies, on mutual aid, and, yes, on socialism, too. There is the 99.999 percent of human history during which we managed to not significantly alter the atmosphere or wipe out such an enormous portion of the species with whom we share the planet. There is the living experience of every indigenous community in the United States, and of others around the globe that have been forced to invent ways to resist and survive a system determined to erase them.”

Het Nieuwe Instituut (The New Institute) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, has acquired a model of an interior by the Dutch artist and co-founder of the De Stijl art movement, Theo van Doesburg for the National Collection for Dutch Architecture and Urban Planning.

“It is a design for one of the most important architectural projects of De Stijl: the cinema-cum-dance hall in the Aubette building in Strasbourg (1928). The acquired work is a unique hybrid of a gouache and a model, which expresses Van Doesburg’s intended synthesis of painting and architecture. It is also the only model by Van Doesburg to survive,” according to Het Nieuwe Instituut.

“The acquired work is a provisional design for the cinema-cum-dance hall from 1926. At first sight, it looks like a one-dimensional work, but it is in fact a model: the walls can fold up. With the exception of this work, all of Van Doesburg’s models have been lost. That makes this object unique in a material sense,” Het Nieuwe Instituut writes. (Photograph by Johannes Schwartz, courtesy of Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam)

“The Aubette’s interior […] is one of the great avant-garde artworks of the 20th century. The design transformed the 18th-century barracks building in Strasbourg into an entertainment complex with cafés, bars, restaurants, a cinema and dance halls. For the most important space in the Aubette, the cinema-cum-dance hall, Theo van Doesburg made a dynamic design with diagonals for the walls and ceiling. It represents a milestone in his oeuvre and in the development of De Stijl. It had no precedent, nor was it ever matched on this scale.

In addition to Van Doesburg, the team for the redesign of the Aubette was made up of the artists Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Hans Arp. They all approached colour, form and architecture as a unity that enters into an interaction with the public. This project gave Van Doesburg his first opportunity to put his theories on abstract interior design into practice. He employed diagonal shapes and lines to create a dynamic whole with the intention of seducing visitors to move from one space to another, thus rejecting the common, more static concept of space. In the Aubette, he also first expressed his ideas about Elementarism: ‘This oblique dimension not only destroys the earlier means of rectangular expression […] but also provides new optics and phonetics.’ Central to Van Doesburg’s theory of Elementarism was the idea that you must liberate the human mind in order to raise the individual and the community to a higher level,” Het Nieuwe Instituut writes.

“[Van Doesburg’s] original intention was to use exclusively durable materials, but because of expense he was obliged to restrict myself and use instead illusionist materials, such as color, as a means of expression,” José Juan Barba writes in Cafe Aubette or how to inhabit a painting. (Photography, above and below, by Claude Truong-Ngoc, courtesy of METALOCUS)

“The Aubette was conceived to be a work of total art applying the esthetic theories of De Stijl,” José Juan Barba notes in Cafe Aubette or how to inhabit a painting. “Too avant-garde for the public’s taste, most of the Aubette decors were modified, and later destroyed in the latter part of the 30’s.

The radical interiors of the Café l’Aubette, while now lauded as a masterpiece of De Stijl architecture, were not met with great acclaim by the café’s patrons. After less than a decade, the interior style was altered once again; it was not until the 1960s that restoration of Van Doesburg’s design was even considered. The ciné-dancing hall was restored between 1985 and 1994 based on period photographs and architectural drawings; the rest of the interior followed later, with the emphasis being on conservation of the original materials wherever possible. Meticulous care was taken to reproduce exactly the colors chosen by Van Doesburg and the Arps, and by 2006, the Aubette was restored to its 1920s appearance. Now designated a historic landmark, the Café l’Aubette remains a monument to the marriage of graphic design and architecture facilitated by De Stijl’s principles of bold geometry.”

“The thing that worries me very much is how much language we’re using now that is so abstract as to require no thought at all. I mean very important words. Justice, for instance. I had a list, I think, of eleven kinds of justice. Restorative justice, climate justice, economic justice, social justice, and so on,” Wendell Berry tells Amanda Petrusich (from Going Home with Wendell Berry, The New Yorker, July 14, 2009) (Photograph: Wendell Berry, 85, on his farm in Port Royal, Kentucky; by Guy Mendes Photography — Lexington, KY Photographer, courtesy of Vox)

“If we believed that the existence of the world is rooted in mystery and in sanctity, then we would have a different economy. It would still be an economy of use, necessarily, but it would be an economy also of return. The economy would have to accommodate the need to be worthy of the gifts we receive and use, and this would involve a return of propitiation, praise, gratitude, responsibility, good use, good care, and a proper regard for the unborn. What is most conspicuously absent from the industrial economy and industrial culture is this idea of return. Industrial humans relate themselves to the world and its creatures by fairly direct acts of violence. Mostly we take without asking, use without respect or gratitude, and give nothing in return.” — Wendell Berry in The Agrarian Standard (Orion Magazine, July 1, 2002)

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought