“Every trade distorts. Look at our childhood friends, after they have grown up and settled into their chosen professions . . . . Are they not constantly obsessed and possessed by their work! Have they not been crumpled and crushed by it . . . into something almost unrecognizable, something constrained, deprived of equilibrium, balance . . . . Every profession, even those with a golden floor, has also a leaden ceiling above it, which presses and presses upon the soul, till it is pressed into a strange and distorted shape. This is a sad but inevitable part of growing up: and there’s no way to get around it. . . . Every kind of perfection is purchased at a high price on earth, where everything, it seems, costs us far too much. One becomes an expert in one’s chosen profession only at the price of being also a victim of it.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1887)
Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s sad: watching a job consume an old friend’s personality, bit by bit, like a cancer, or a B-movie body-snatcher. Those who go into medicine seem to forget that we have souls, whilst those who do computer stuff seem to forget that we have bodies. The technocrats develop a kind of messianic faith in the ability of technology to right every wrong. What’s more, these dudes (they’re almost always dudes) invariably lose faith in the competence of the common man over time; and, as they do, their disdain for democracy can become, at times, downright disturbing. Get a few glasses of wine into these guys and you’ll discover that they long for a world ruled by experts: experts who seem to look a whole lot like them.
The bureaucrats suffer from a rather generic disorder that manifests amongst experts in pretty much any field. Hallmark symptoms include a pretentious desire to use abstruse terminology when common language would suffice (e.g., saying “H2O” instead of “water”), and a concomitant inability to communicate with intelligent people outside of your own little world. The therapists and social workers vastly overestimate the power of talk, and vastly underestimate the power of silence. The NGO missionaries can’t seem to see the enduring power (and intractability) of enmity. As for those who go into sales: well, eventually, many of them don’t know how to stop selling. They just can’t seem to turn it off; and this can, at times, make trivial interactions with them (such as choosing a restaurant or a movie) feel vaguely icky and gross in retrospect. But of course teachers (like me) are the worst.
Teachers tend to become tedious and long-winded with age. What’s more, since they’re used to lecturing at students (as opposed to talking with peers), they’re often, by late middle age, preachy, precious, and pedantic: great at monologue but terrible at dialogue. Also, as you’ve surely noticed, the prof at the party always seems to be far too loud. It’s like the volume is busted on his face or something. Truth be told, sometimes he’s so loud that people assume (wrongly, they later on discover) that he’s recently experienced some substantial hearing loss. As Nietzsche observed in The Gay Science, many of these professional deformities are inevitable. We get a “hunchback” sooner or later, whether we like it or not. But there are some limitations which need not exist. The sorry state of academic writing is a case in point.
I was recently castigated by a colleague, in a review of Blue Notes, for referring to Nassim Nicholas Taleb as a “philosopher”; he took issue, as well, with my numerous references to popular culture, and with my failure to write the book in a sufficiently academic fashion. As my friend Kaï Matthews quite rightly observed, these three seemingly disparate criticisms are, in fact, all of a piece. At some point in the mid-20th century, people with PhDs in Philosophy decided that “philosophers” were really just people with PhDs in Philosophy. What’s worse, they seem to have concluded, at more or less the same time, that the only truly legitimate form of philosophical writing is the jargon-laden article—written by and for the specialist, and published in an obscure academic journal. Everything else that a philosopher writes is, at best, a clumsy attempt at outreach or a watered-down version of the real thing.
Thinkers who traffic in serious ideas are probably freer now, in the 21st-century West, than ever before. And yet there’s a playfulness in the genre-defying writings of philosophers like Plato, Nietzsche and Rousseau, a playfulness that’s noticeably missing from the intellectual life of our day and age. We love to make fun of Kant for being so unbelievably uptight; but, stylistically speaking, he was far freer than we. Expressing a serious idea in a poem, a song, a dialogue, or an op-ed in the New York Times wouldn’t seem shockingly unorthodox to him, nor would the notion that straightforward, jargon-free prose can communicate profound philosophical truths to curious citizens who know how to read.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)