Hunting in a Wood Full of Bears

“Creating the future is a frightening enterprise, especially when we do it without any awareness of the past. I am amazed how little we actually care to examine past human experience. It’s like hunting in a wood full of bears, ignoring all the disarticulated skeletons of dead hunters, and confidently proclaiming that bears don’t really exist. They belong to the past!”—Joseph Gresham Miller

tumblr_lsd6id825f1qedb29o1_500Does this person believe in a Golden Age? And if so, where is it? I ask these two questions of every interesting person I meet, sooner or later. The answers are, in my experience, quite revealing. For instance, political conservatives invariably locate it somewhere in the not-too-distant past (e.g., the 1950s), whilst religious fundamentalists locate it somewhere in the unsullied early history of their movement (e.g., the Early Church). Progressives and starry-eyed idealists locate it somewhere in a future purged of the sins of the present, whilst Romantics locate it in a past purged of modernity—a place that looks, I hasten to add, a whole lot like The Shire described by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. Most environmentalists seem to locate it in some eco-friendly pre-modern past wherein we all lived in happy harmony with sweet Mother Earth. Computer geeks locate it in a shiny future replete with flying cars, robots, and killer apps, whilst defenders of the status quo—apologists of the present-day like Steven Pinker—insist that we’re living in a Golden Age right now. The outliers, of course, are the pessimists, like Arthur Schopenhauer and St. Augustine, who insist that life in The City of Man has always more or less sucked, and that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a Golden Age.

St. Augustine argues in The City of God that Original Sin has so corrupted human nature and the natural world—with sin, disease, and death—that the reformation of the individual and of society will always, of necessity, have to be a highly circumscribed exercise. All is not possible, insists the Bishop, because the freedom to do good is habitually hemmed in by this-worldly corruption. “The choice of the will,” avers Augustine, “is genuinely free only when it is not subservient to faults and sins.” St. Paul the Apostle likewise believes that decisive victory in the war against sin is not possible in a fallen world; the battle is, instead, fated to rage on and on, even within his body: “I know,” he once lamented, “that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:18-19). Like Paul, Augustine maintains that there are some intractable human problems which the individual and society will have to grapple with again and again, until the end of time. Perfection can be nothing more than a noble goal in The City of Man. Always before us, yet perpetually out of reach. A beacon on the horizon of a fallen world.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Prosecuting Professor Prick

4m39dravm9g5ehgrtv9i9hlwljt8rxjq65axuypiskh1py3fwmc1e7wvs6g5bgma_large_2A hard-core feminist friend of mine was once faced with a moral dilemma: her mom, a hard-core traditionalist, insisted that her wedding invitation be addressed to Mr. & Mrs. Dad’s Full Name. Needless to say, this offended her feminist sensibilities: “It’s like she wants to erase her own identity!” Of course she caved. Because she’s a decent person who realizes that you’ve gotta call people what they want to be called (even if you think it’s silly). This is a simple truth of social life that’s lost on Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto professor who has, rather ridiculously, decided that he’s going to heroically stand up for the right to be a prick to trans students. That being said, prosecuting Peterson for being a prick is equally ridiculously. Indeed, probably more so. As my friend Matt Talley puts it: “just because it’s decent, doesn’t mean it should be legally mandated behavior.” Being a prick’s bad, but outlawing pricks is worse.

Many of the criticisms of The Open Society that I hear from the far left and the far right come down to the same thing: The Open Society is, like a big city, far too loud, rude, uncouth, hectic, smelly, stinky, disgusting, profane, disorderly, gross. They say that if The Open Society is going to survive and thrive, if it’s to have a future, it must become The Respectful Society. I know it sounds like a good idea, maybe even a noble idea, but The Respectful Society people on the far left and the far right long for is little more than a mirage, a misleading myth. There have always been but two choices available to us: We can live in The Open Society, which is a messy, chaotic place where nobody gets their way all the time, a place where everybody has to put up with shit they don’t like. Or we can live in The Closed Society, which is, in practice, usually just one big fat “safe space” for the ruling majority. Every time we allow a piece of public space to be seized and transformed into someone’s private little safe space, every time we allow touchiness to trump tolerance, we become a little less free. Our thin-skinned age needs to remember that The Open Society isn’t a safe space; it’s a tolerant space. And tolerance isn’t tolerance unless it hurts. The Respectful Society isn’t a new and improved version of The Open Society; it’s a new and improved version of The Closed Society.

Although I find some of his ideas maddening, I’m glad that we live, for now, in the kind of Open Society that makes it possible for Jordan Peterson to voice his opposition. He’s not my enemy. But if you’re one of those people who wants to silence him, or get him fired, you are.

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2016)


On Political Philosophies and “What Works”

This is mostly in response to John’s fine piece titled “Why Libertarians Are Like Judgy Know-It-Alls Who Don’t Have Kids”, which can be found here

The problem with arguments against normative theories that appeal to “what works” is that in them is already built a normative theory. As a result, they beg the question.

This took me a long time to realize, though Aaron Haspel clearly knew about this for awhile now. When I first met Aaron at John’s place and this topic came up, Aaron nonchalantly rattled off the above observation as though it were a matter of course. It was humbling and, to be honest, mildly embarrassing.

At any rate, in this fine piece, John writes that “Much in America works. And works very well.” But to libertarians (and Marxists, etc.), violating people’s rights doesn’t count as “working”, even if the overall arrangement is generally desirable or pleasant. This point is brought out especially well by Ursula Le Guin’s award-winning short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In this story, Le Guin writes of a utopian city known as Omelas.

Omelas is shimmering, bright and beautiful. Everyone is happy, has food to eat and there is no social strife. Everything works wonderfully. However, Omelas has a dark secret. It turns out that the city’s splendor depends on the infliction of suffering and misery on a single child who is locked away in a basement.

When they come of age, each Omelian citizen is taken to see the child. The story is about the ones who, after seeing the child, decide in the dead of night when everyone’s asleep to walk away from Omelas.

The point is this: To those who walk away from Omelas, the city doesn’t “work.” For before we can do or judge what “works”, we need to know what counts as working. As normative theories, Marxism, libertarianism and (insert political philosophy here) try to provide the criteria for what counts as working.

Now, this does not take anything away from John’s insight that libertarians are very wrong—and indeed, childish—when they complain that the government does nothing well. The government undoubtedly provides many valuable services, and sometimes does so well and efficiently. To categorically say otherwise is false and, worse, dogmatic.

But on political philosophy more generally, I agree with Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen that our principles of justice (which are delivered by our particular political philosophies) ought to be fact-insensitive. That is, I don’t think facts about a principle’s feasibility (in terms of people’s willingness to comply with it) should count as evidence for or against the principle. More concretely, “But, in the real world, people will always rape!” is not a valid objection to “Rape is wrong.”

As the saying goes, Marxism may not work “in practice” because we are too selfish and greedy to be good Marxists, but most people agree that it’s morally the right way. That is enough to concede that Marxism is true. (Libertarians, of course, disagree.) Indeed, Marxism is just a normative thesis, and normative claims do not entail anything about what descriptively is or will be the case. Their truth stands independently of it.

Appeals to “what works”, then, either don’t count as any evidence against Marxism or libertarianism, or beg the question against them.

—Chris Nguyen

This is why China’s kicking your ass in business

It is a common conceit that China is winning in business because of (insert one of):

  1. Cheap (subsidized, the claim often goes) labour is making everything else uncompetitive.
  2. The Chinese government is manipulating currency to make everything else uncompetitive.
  3. The Chinese are stealing technology and replicating it cheaply to make everything else uncompetitive.
  4. <…some other conspiracy theory…> to make everything else uncompetitive.

While there is some truth to these theories (and more!), these are not the whole story, nor are they the main story.  #1, for example, is behind the times.  Chinese labour is nowhere near as cheap as it used to be (and indeed this is making Chinese companies and the Chinese government try to set Africa up as China’s China).  #2 is just silly.  First, all countries (even the sainted home of purest greed capitalism: the USA) manipulate currency.  Second, there’d be far better manipulations the Chinese government could make if they were trying to win that way.  #3 is true to a point, but this is changing and, again, it’s hardly unique to China.

my6rxzyThere is a far more important reason why China is kicking your ass in business and you can get a taste of it in the picture to the right.  This picture is a perfect visual summary of the situation; why China went from a mostly-agrarian society to the #2 economy in the world in the time I’ve lived here (15 years).

What you see here is a screenshot from my phone. It shows nine packages in transit. Each package comes from a different seller (9 sources). 7 different logistics services are involved in delivery. (Two sources happened to choose the same courier company.)  It breaks down the deliveries into “not yet picked up” (1 entry), “in transit” (5 entries), and “final delivery” (3 entries). For the latter category it tells me the name and the phone number of the courier (the person, not the company!) delivering the shipment to its final destination.

This app amalgamates purchases, shipments, and deliveries from a wide variety of online shopping places and logistics services. It gives me a lot more information than I’m showing in this map too. If I click on an item, it shows me both the route taken thus far and the projected route of the item to its destination, for example. I can scale right down to street maps to see where the warehouse that last had the shipment is should it come down to needing to trace the delivery.

I’m only barely scratching the surface of this one, single app too.  There’s a lot of other tools, both seller-oriented and buyer-oriented, packed into this app.  As a seller, for example, I can use it to help choose the best logistics company for a given shipment, to track my own outbound shipments, and to do a whole bunch of other stuff I haven’t managed to decode yet.  (My Chinese skills aren’t up to the task, unfortunately.)

Keep this in mind next time you wonder why, say, Apple, an American company, gets all of its products manufactured in China.  Because this is why China is kicking your ass, and not cheap labour or currency manipulation or whatever other conspiracy theory you want to dream up.  What really gives China an edge in business these days is the highly-efficient, tightly-integrated logistics systems that are omnipresent: B2B, B2C, and even C2C. Keep that in mind when you want to know why production is being outsourced.

“Cheap Chinese junk” made by “low-paid, unskilled labourers” is a thing of the past. “High quality goods” (assuming you pay for that quality of course!) with phenomenal customer service is the new China.

Adapt or die.



Being bilingual should be enough to get you past the OQLF bouncers at CLUB NOUS, the pure laine nightclub, frequented by the likes of Jean-François Lisée, Bernard Landry, and Mathieu Bock-Côté. But it’s not. Because SPEAKING FRENCH will never be enough for people like Lisée. You have to BE FRENCH if you wanna be a part of their NOUS. Membership has its privileges. But people like you and people like me—people who live in what Mathieu Bock-Côté derisively refers to as “Le Québec de Sugar Sammy”—need not apply. Because this really isn’t about language. Maybe it never was.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

The Future of Politics in a Surveillance State Society

rtsimg6Frankly I’m surprised by the outrage. It’s not that Donald Trump’s leaked 2005 conversation with Access Hollywood’s Bill Bush isn’t outrageous (it is); it’s just that we didn’t learn anything new about The Donald that we didn’t already know. If someone leaked a tape of Obama talking about women like this, that would be news, because it would mean that we were completely wrong about him. But this isn’t news. Because we already knew Trump was a pig. That being said, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the proverbial locker room, and I’ve never heard a guy (even a drunk guy) say anything like this: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” These aren’t the words of a player. They’re not even the words of a guy talking shit. These are the words of an entitled little asshole, a straight-up misogynist, and a sexual predator.

trumpMuch as I loathe Trump, I must confess that it’s getting sorta suspicious the way that new skeletons keep falling out of Trump’s closet, at regular intervals, in the month before Election Day. Tax returns leaked one day, and then a few days later we get this Access Hollywood video. What’s next? My guess: next Wednesday, The Washington Post is going to post a leaked video of Donald Trump shooting Biggie Smalls on March 9, 1997. But seriously, we need to think long and hard about the implications of all of this. Is Trump a douche? Sure. Does he deserve to go down in flames? Sure. But that won’t solve the problem made manifest by this election campaign.

Texting, email, digital photography, social media, and the proliferation of high-quality video equipment have radically transformed 21st-century communication. There’s a record of pretty much everything now. In practice, this means that there’s a great deal of dirt, or stuff that can be construed as dirt, on pretty much everyone under the age of 30, and many of those above it. What does that mean for the future of our democracies? Are we to be governed by elected officials who can be publicly disgraced and taken down at a moment’s notice whenever they challenge the powers that be? Or are we to be governed by the exceptionally virtuous few? Historically, that hasn’t always worked out so well. Maximilien “The Incorruptible” Robespierre was a disaster. Same is true of famously upright and uptight Hitler.

Do we really want to limit public office to the careful and calculating, to the single-minded, to the lifelong valedictorians, who’ve been building their CVs, and grooming their public and private personas, since the fifth grade? I can think of a lot of great politicians who’d fail to make that cut. Churchill and Lincoln spring to mind. Can’t believe I’m saying this, but on this issue, I really couldn’t agree with Scott Adams more: “Before you start sobbing at the fact that Clinton and Trump are the best this country has to offer, I predict that all future presidential elections will be this nasty. Thanks to whistleblowers, hackers, and hot mics, we now have the means to see/read/hear the actual inner thoughts of candidates in ways that were never before possible. . . . Expect future candidates to rival Clinton and Trump for unpopularity. That’s the new world we live in. We have the means to know too much about people. To prepare for this new world of too-much-disclosure, I suggest we abandon the idea that presidents should be role models for our kids. Let’s treat the election like we are hiring for any other type of job. A candidate either has the right skills and motivation or doesn’t. Their rotten inner souls aren’t necessarily an indication of future job performance. Clinton and Trump are in the so-called basket of deplorables along with 100% of American voters. We’re all flawed. I suggest voters pick the job applicant they think can best do the work of President and leave the role-modeling to mom and dad.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Moms Who Wish They’d Never Had Kids

sad-mom-bad-mom-mom-guiltJust read an article in Marie-Claire magazine about moms who wish they’d never had kids. I’m not surprised that many mothers feel this way, I’m surprised that we think it matters. The world is filled with people who regret big life decisions (where they live, what they do for a living, who they married), and it probably doesn’t amount to much. Your life is shaped primarily by what you do, not by what you intend to do or regret doing. And my guess is that when it comes to doing, the vast majority of these regretful moms are doing fine. I’ll bet they’re great moms. History will, I suspect, laugh at our culture’s obsession with the inner life. My God, we’re hard on ourselves! It’s like you’ve gotta have your heart in everything you do or it doesn’t count. We need to get comfortable, again, with the idea of people doing the right thing, and fulfilling their familial duties, even when they don’t feel like it. Maybe then we could give a regretful mom a hug, and buy her a drink, rather than judging the fuck out of her.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)


An Open Letter to Pit Bull Owners

Dogs have been in a deeply significant symbiotic relationship with our species for at least 50,000 years. They’ve selflessly defended our settlements from large predators like lions and bears, helped us on hunts, served as sentries, kept us warm on cold winter nights, and much else. They’re sort of like family at this point. And they’ve earned the right to special consideration. This is precisely why, incidentally, I’ve often argued that eating dog meat ought to be taboo the world over. Eating a dog isn’t as bad as eating your cousin, but it’s close. The emotional bonds people form with their dogs are deeply meaningful and surprisingly strong. People who don’t have dogs often fail to realize this: the family dog is in fact a member of the family. Hardcore dog lovers don’t care about animals more than people, they just care about family more than strangers (like the rest of us).

1bpx0oJust as gun control takes guns out of good people’s hands, pit bull control takes good dogs out of good people’s hands. Like eminent domain, it’s not pretty. But neither is the permanently disfigured face of a kid who’s been mauled by a pit bull. Look, I get it. I know how easily dogs can become beloved denizens of our hearts and homes. But we all have to make sacrifices if we’re gonna make this whole city living thing work. I have loved snakes my whole life and would love to get a pair of pet cobras. But I can’t because it’s against the law. Because pet cobras would be potentially dangerous to my neighbors.

I once met a woman in Verdun who’d undergone three operations and a whole lot of plastic surgery to repair the damage done to her face by a house cat. But nobody’s calling for a ban on house cats. Why? Because attacks of this kind are rare. Pit bull attacks aren’t nearly so rare. Can other kinds of dogs become violent? Sure. But, once again, nobody’s calling for a ban on all domestic dogs. Because all domestic dogs aren’t created equal. Some breeds are, statistically speaking, more likely to become dangerous. As my friend Sara Coodin put it: “It’s wishful ignorance to say that all breeds are equally susceptible to violence. No evidence bears this out. As an owner of two very large dogs, I can confidently say that nature/breed is highly determinative with dogs. Yes, there are sweet pit bulls, but they also have a proclivity towards aggression and a bite strength that makes them incredibly dangerous when they’re raised to fight.”

As Dmitry Belyaev demonstrated with his famous fox experiments, you can transform a wild animal into a docile pet in as little as ten generations by selecting for docility. Does it not stand to reason that you can create a dangerous breed of dog by selecting for aggressiveness? My students from way up North tell me that if a husky bites, it’s shot. They’ll even, at times, kill any of its offspring. In this way, apparently, they’ve been selecting for docility in huskies for a very long time. What was done to the various breeds known as pit bulls is precisely the opposite kind of selection.

Just as the NRA maintains that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, there are those who maintain that “pit bulls don’t kill people, shitty dog owners kill people”. I must confess that I’m highly sympathetic to this argument. But it’s ultimately besides the point. Because we can’t regulate the human heart. We can, however, regulate guns and pit bulls. This is, at bottom, a public health issue, and it needs to be seen as such. But pit bull owners refuse to see it as such. Because, as Shakespeare rightly observed, “love is blind, and lovers cannot see.” Pit bull owners love their dogs. I get that. And I’m genuinely touched by it, truth be told. But love can cloud your judgment.

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2016)

Notes for My Unwritten Book

652_sacred_textsWhile I was losing and finding myself in grad school, I stumbled into a little Buddhist sangha where I met the editor of a small press interested in doing books about the relationship between Eastern and Western philosophies. After listening to me babble informally for a while (about philosophy in general, my dissertation in ancient Greek philosophy, Buddhism, etc.), she asked if I would do a book for them. I said I would, and I have been diligently (but only too slowly) pounding away since.

As inspiration for my project, she gave me a very nice little book about the experience of a Western academic philosopher (from Virginia) who went over to India to teach Tibetan monks a course in ‘our philosophy’ while attempting to learn for his own part more about theirs. What struck me about the book was how classroom-bound we appear to be. The monks were still building a βίος (in the Greek sense) after the fashion of (say) Diogenes of Sinope, but the university professor was not (and found that aspect of their experience and training a bit strange, particularly when it led them to value an end of rational discussion, a disavowal of ‘the life of the mind’ that obsessed him). I wondered where we (‘the West’ in my editor’s formulation) lost the sense of building life as a philosophical endeavor: the professor offered a line about the independence of the individual in Western life which seemed to address this concern a bit, but my own historical research (and experience working in the university) made his idea—that Western philosophy equips us to live as autonomous individuals maximally independent of irrational notions—too naive to take very seriously. So I started (or rather continued) reading as much ancient material on philosophy as I could find—philosophical literature, history, and interpretation (including many exceedingly boring books by interpreters of Aristotle).

Beginning with the Ionians (pre-Socratics), I find the ancient notion of philosophy (in the West) perfectly congruent with Buddhist and earlier Eastern notions of living skillfully (knowing one’s environment and responding intelligently to it, managing internal and external phenomena with intention in the manner of an ancient sage, yogi, or shaman). Of course there are windbags who affect expertise they don’t possess to make money or fame (the pretenders Plato casts as sophists). And many regard the alchemy of the philosophical bios as a questionable use of time (to put it kindly: witness Aristophanes’ satire of Socrates in the Clouds). But the concept of philosophy as something lived remains (and philosophers share a kind of cult, a religion that includes gods, offerings, taboos, and rituals that prepare philosophers for actions trivial and serious on the stage of human drama set by the cities and countryside they frequent). It remains right down to late antiquity (when the schools close under Justinian?).

At this point, things become hazy (for me). As near as I can tell, many philosophers continue to practice recognizable ancient forms of their vocation—without formal organization, or with some adjustment (converting to Christianity or moving to Persian territory in search of more lenient political regimes). When philosophy re-emerges in the West (in the courts of Byzantine emperors, the notes of learned monks, the lectures of medieval cathedral schools), it is pedantic commentary on what has become an alien experience (the old religion that was ancient philosophy). People who live dedicated lives in the manner of the old philosophers are often unlearned friars or hermits (whose primary intellectual stimulus, where it exists, is more likely to come from Christian prayers and liturgy than from ancient relics of paganism). Meanwhile, people who study those relics, right up until the Renaissance, are motivated mostly by ‘idle’ (in the pejorative medieval sense) curiosity, which they attempt to redeem by inventing theology (the first modern science! and quite dismal, though it has some funny consequences, like Ramon Llull trying to convert Muslim philosophers to Christianity with logic: at least he recognized the futility of violence).

Hunting proof that God really exists in a particular and predictable way, Western theologians stumble into the Enlightenment (with absurd hopes of understanding all things, hopes that many ancient Greek philosophers would have joined generations of Indians and Chinese—Ajivikas, Carvakas, Buddhists, Daoists—in deploring). From the Enlightenment, the Western theologian emerges transformed into the professor, a pedant in love with this unique idol of Reason, an image (Greek εἴδωλον) that exists without any obvious grounding in historical experience or culture (since he inherits it reading from old texts whose practical historical circumstances have vanished: he is reading the liturgy for rites he has never seen, let alone participated in). And so today, we find a strange disjunction between philosophy in the West, such as it is (a rational mind cut off from irrational passions), and philosophy in the East (which has never lost the sense that humanities we cultivate must cohere to inform some kind of human life good in its entirety, its rational and irrational parts: the mind is an expression of the passions, a tool of the passions, something we develop not to overwhelm but to guide and enjoy them safely).

That is, more or less, the territory I see my project covering (with a great many detours to discuss ideas and practices that we have forgotten in the West). I freely confess that I am rather crazy, that some of my passion for this vision of Western philosophy comes from a personal perspective that involves me playing a role in my own society not altogether unlike that of the ancient Cynic. I seek a simpler life, closer to nature than history places me—and my best position in society appears to involve more ridicule or indifference than plaudits. I have no great track record in publications, little interest or money for academic conferences, and much of what I think about philosophy and humanities flies directly in the face of the modern American university. Like Diogenes, I deface the currency.

—Joseph Gresham Miller

Bridging History’s Grand Canyon

“Will any one of you who has a slave plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the slave because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”—Luke 17:7-10

Social Justice Warrior

Like all great communicators, Jesus uses examples drawn from the lived experience of the people he’s talking to. If he’s talking to fishermen, he uses fishing metaphors. If he’s talking to farmers, he uses farming metaphors. If you’re a city boy like me, with little or no experience of farming and fishing, you might have trouble understanding these passages. But it’s doable. It’s much harder to make sense of passages like Luke 17, which draw upon the lived experience of people living in a slave society. Because the institution of slavery isn’t just foreign to us; it’s repellent.

The Bible is a fascinating fusion of foreign and familiar. This is what makes it at once comforting and confounding. There are times, when you’re reading The Bible, that you stumble upon a passage that’s so timeless, or topical, that you shake your head in amazement and mumble: “My God, that could’ve been written yesterday!” But there are other passages, like Luke 17, which have precisely the opposite effect, passages which force you to remember that the past really is a foreign country. Reading them is like witnessing the birth of a canyon. The earth shakes and splits and a mighty chasm opens up between you and the author. This ancient, long-dead man, who seemed, just a moment ago, so close, and but a whisper away, now stares at us from a distance; this man, suddenly small and strange, now stands on the other side of History’s Grand Canyon.

Like most of you, I imagine, I grew up in a world without servants, a world without masters and slaves, a world devoted, at least in theory, to egalitarian principles, a world that’s largely transcended the Game of Thrones world the author of Luke’s Gospel lived in. Whenever Luke starts talking about servants or slaves, I feel History’s Grand Canyon spreading out between us. To bridge the gap with understanding, and make sense of this passage, we must first translate it into terms that make sense in the twenty-first century West. To that end, I think it’s good to recast the servant and master as an employer and employee. Because we all know how tedious it can be to work with someone who needs constant praise for work they’re paid to do, but few of us realize that this problem’s origins are to be found in our self-esteem obsessed child-rearing methods.

In “The Perils of Praise,” Andrew Miller maintains that “constant praise does bad things to human beings. It’s much like any other drug that affects our dopamine levels: provided sparingly, it induces brief sensations of warmth and happiness, but provided constantly, it induces dependency. Just like the cocaine addict requires constant bumps just to get to ‘normal’, so too does the praise addict require constant reassurance just to function. If the praise ever dries up, the recipient goes into withdrawal. This is talked about most often in regards to rearing young children, but it applies just as well to older children and youths in high school and university. Deprived of praise, the addict becomes anxious and emotionally fragile. Rather than try new things or practice new skills, she prefers to retreat into fantasies of power and control. Unfortunately for them, while the school system is a great place to get constant praise from one’s superiors, outside of school it’s much harder to come by. Employees receive much less feedback from their employers in general, especially for those working entry-level jobs. Often, the only time an employee gets feedback is when she screws up; good work isn’t singled out for praise, but rather is expected and taken without comment.” Employees are paid to do their job. It’s their duty. And this is precisely why we find it more or less obnoxious when they expect extra credit for it.

In one of the funniest parts of Bring the Pain (1996), comedian Chris Rock chides: “Niggers always want some credit for some shit they supposed to do. For some shit they just supposed to do. A nigger will brag about some shit a normal man just does. A nigger will say some shit like, ‘I take care of my kids!’ You supposed to, ya dumb motherfucker!” What Jesus is saying in Luke 17 is of a similar stamp. There are times when Jesus sounds like a thoroughly Roman guy. And Luke 17 is one of them. What Jesus says about duty here was a Roman Stoic commonplace. Like Chris Rock, the Romans had very little patience for people who wanted extra brownie points and a gold star for doing stuff they were supposed to do. For instance, in The Enchiridion, the Roman Stoic Epictetus admonishes: “Look for and come to understand your connections to other people. We properly locate ourselves within the divine order by recognizing our natural relations to one another and thereby identifying our duties. Our duties naturally emerge from such fundamental relations as our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, our state or nation. Make it your regular habit to consider your roles—parent, child, neighbor, citizen, leader—and the natural duties that arise from them. Once you know who you are and to whom you are linked, you will know what to do.”

What’s the lesson of Luke 17? What’s our Christian duty? What does Jesus expect of us? Well, he expects us to care for the people around us, and to do so without the need for constant credit and praise.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)