All posts by kalekotxakur

About kalekotxakur

Joseph Gresham Miller grew up in the southern United States, where his parents provided a well-stocked library and a large garden in lieu of school. As a young man, he left the States for two years to live in northern Spain, where he worked as an LDS Mormon missionary (basically an unpaid intern in corporate sales). After this adventure he went to school for more than a decade to acquire a doctorate in classical studies. Along the way, he met a very nice girl in Latin class, and they had two boys. Today, he and his family live in the mountain West. While his wife works full-time in academia, he adjuncts at local universities, writes, and takes care of the kids. He is interested in finding practical applications for more or less defunct ancient philosophies (especially Cynicism, Skepticism, and Stoicism) in modern life.

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


Rider_elephantModern society requires two things. First, you must expect lies. Second, you must not presume that all liars have it in for you (or even that they are aware of how they lie: some are aware; some are not; some lie with good intent; some do not).

The wrong solution to these modern problems is to demand truth, since society has only ever functioned by lies. The best society lives by noble lies (as Plato recognizes); the worst by ignoble. There is no such thing as truth as a foundation for collective human endeavor. Truth may emerge accidentally, usually destructively, but it is never the foundation. The real foundation of society is not an idea, let alone a rational platform or tissue of ideas. It is pre-rational, emotional connection with other people. The ancient world recognized this by making human association into religion, which was always more about behavior (specifically behavior in groups) than ideas (which came later, after the behavior, as reflections of and upon it). Historically, we are charitable (and just and loving and the rest of it) to a fault before we invent some particular dogma of charity (e.g. referring it to some rational perspective or mythical-historical personage).

It is a grave mistake to suppose that the modern ‘Social Contract’ (in American terms, the US Constitution) has done away with the irrational religion at the root of human society. We don’t create societies upon simply rational foundations. When we pretend to do this, to legislate rationally about matters fundamentally irrational, we set ourselves up for problems (when powerful emotions fail to yield to weak reasons, whose weakness is endemic and intrinsic: unconquerable even by the most powerful reason we might invent, because emotion is prior to reason). The appropriate role of reason in modern society is to react to emotion, not to prevent or mask it. To use the old metaphor, the rider cannot ever perfectly dominate the elephant–certainly never to the point of guaranteeing that musth cannot occur. Society is built by containing and channeling emotion, not legislating against it. Behavior is prior to language, and while we can use language to shape behavior, the relationship between the two is asymmetric: behavior shapes language more than language shapes behavior.

My Position in the Great Debate

My academic life revolves around posing answers to a family of related questions: how does education inform life? does it improve outcomes or cause unnecessary harm? how? when? what is the role of the sciences, and other forms of culture involving human concepts and percepts, in human life?

In my experience, the significant break in answers given comes down to different ways of structuring knowledge. Some people (who might be scientists, humanists, or artists) believe that knowledge should be universal, at the very least in theory, and that education consists in generalizing the particular to some kind of universal (e.g. “the scientific method” writ large across all historical sciences in their various fields of endeavor). Other people (as diverse as the first group in their education) believe that there is no such thing as universal knowledge, that knowledge is a particular byproduct of living mindfully in certain environments (physics labs, biology labs, the jungle, the desert, the artist’s studio, the university, the marketplace, the courtroom, etc.). For these folks, the quest for perfecting universal conceptual systems (e.g. creating a universal map of Platonic forms or Aristotelian categories) is hopeless–and a waste of time, definitely not the point of any education worth having.

For better or worse, I am a member of the second camp. I have more in common with physicists who denigrate universals than with humanists or philosophers who embrace them, even though I am accidentally a member of the humanist faction (with more serious reading logged in philosophy than in physics). I don’t think there is any solution to our conflict in sight: people who believe in universals will always struggle for them, as we who disbelieve will always struggle to escape the kind of thinking we regard as fundamentally imprisoning, stultifying, and illiberal (unfree, requiring definitive universal answers to questions that are beyond universal definition).

Mens Rea

A crime is committed.  Society perceives that something is wrong, somebody has done wrong, some reaction must occur.  What should we do?  How do we confront crime, including not just those crimes that have already occurred, but also the fear and expectation of future crimes?

At the end of the day, the problem we confront here must be one of action, not intention. The intentions of other people are always in some sense inscrutable, impossible to know in some particulars–even when we have the kind of intimate insight provided by good novelists or historians (who are more similar than different, generically speaking).

The mens rea is secondary, something we look for after a crime has already been committed. We don’t look for it primarily, before a crime has been committed, because crime occurs for many reasons, in situations that involve many mental states (too many to know, let alone understand, even when the action is over, let alone before it happens).

The worst kind of police-work involves flipping the process around, looking for guilty thoughts (mens rea) before guilty actions (crimes). Because anyone, nay everyone, is always having thoughts that are problematic (at least potentially). The parent’s love for a child, the child’s love for a sibling, the human’s love for affection, etc., all become criminal at some point (i.e. mens rea). My thoughts–my loves, hatreds, passions–are not magically good because as yet they are associated with no crimes (that I am aware of, that society has noticed). The same is true of yours, and of all people. We have different thoughts, of course, different iterations of the dangerous process that manifests somewhere as mens rea–which we will have differently. Your mens rea will not be mine, but that does not make either of us categorically less guilty than the other.

The only viable filter for separating acceptable human psychology from mens rea is action. What did you do? I don’t punish people for thinking, even when they think bad thoughts (in my judgment), until I find them acting badly (and then I try to make my reaction match the level of evil in their action: a sin is not necessarily a crime, and not all crimes or sins are created equal; sometimes a slap on the wrist is appropriate, other times you need something stronger). Having ambivalent thoughts about sex, or religion, or any such thing is not the same as beating, killing, or otherwise criminally damaging other people. Some of the best people I know have ambivalent thoughts about the human condition; they turn those thoughts into good actions (avoiding harm, helping where possible, cultivating compassion that does not overwhelm its object with unwanted attention). Others use the same kind of thoughts to become criminals. When the Dalai Lama suggests that sexual or political or even human identity is unreal or in some sense unimportant, is he committing a crime, stirring the fire of human passion in an attempt to cause mayhem? Not in my book. I am still Christian enough to believe the dictum “by their fruits ye shall know them”–and I identify those fruits with actions, particular actions of motivated individuals, not nebulous social trends (“cultures” like Christianity or Buddhism or Islam) that lack coherent moral agency (everything under the sun is historically Christian or Buddhist or Muslim, including murder and mayhem, naturally, as these are permanent parts of the human condition).

Am I a horrible person for this stance I take, that action must matter primarily in judging and responding to crime? I don’t think so, obviously, but that does not mean that I am right (particularly right, unable to go wrong as I make individual judgments about how to behave in specific circumstances). My reason for refraining from criminalizing thoughts is fundamentally about compassion: I want to believe that you have the best motivations for whatever choices you make, and I will not interfere with those choices or judge them (in a particular sense) harshly, until you make that necessary by some action (e.g. walking into my neighborhood with drawn weapons). Even then, my most severe judgment is of your behavior, not your thoughts. I don’t condemn Christian culture, Buddhist culture, Muslim culture, etc. I don’t condemn Christian rape, Buddhist rape, Muslim rape, etc. I condemn rape, and I fight against rapists (individuals with agency that they use to become rapists). The broader social trends that criminals draw from to inform and color their criminality, the broader social trends that we draw from to explain it–these to me are always secondary (and doubtful). When I sit on a jury to determine guilt, I don’t want to judge the culture of the criminal. I want to know what s/he did, and only then to consider how the particular culture or circumstances might mitigate (or not) whatever reaction I make.

Make America Small

A great problem with America these days is the fact that we are not one nation (even as the Romans, in late antiquity, were not). We do different things, in different places, with different culture, and when we do meet one another, our public square is virtual, dominated by the worst kind of entertainment and entertainers–the kind necessarily divorced from the particular circumstances of everyone and anyone as it attempts to bridge incredible geographic and cultural gaps (urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, majority vs. minority, educated vs. uneducated, etc.).

Some of our differences are intractable: I cannot know what it is to live in Miami, and I have no interest in finding out. Making me vote on the problems of Miami is a disservice to me and the people of Miami (who actually live there: they are invested in their city as I am not). Even if I am ‘educated’ (as it happens I am), this will not magically make me aware of Miami in the same way as though I were a citizen. Until I live in Miami, I don’t really deserve a stake in its fate (positive or negative: I should be divorced from praise and blame, tax hikes and tax breaks, etc., that signal for an environment where I do not exist).

Modern America is like a gigantic dysfunctional city in which the garbagemen, the policemen, the administration, the schools, and the rest of us live so far removed from the consequences our actions that we cannot behave well, even when we mean to. Education has not lived up to its promise as capable of making me understand how my behavior affects stuff I cannot perceive: witness the wars in the Middle East, the collapse of Wall Street, the death of Eric Garner. Did any of these events arise because citizens understood risks and acted intelligently? No. Has society learned anything from these events (about the consequences of outsourcing the military to mercenaries, the market to pirates, or the making of law to morons with no police experience)? No. The same stupid incentives remain in place, incentives for me to take an advantage for which you pay the penalty–and I don’t care, because I cannot see you. I don’t even know you exist, more often than not. We have become the living embodiment of everything Plato hated about democracy: a bunch of idiots voting on shit that most don’t remotely understand. They don’t even misunderstand it: that requires an expert, somebody competent to sit down and spin a rational narrative about politics, economics, and the various kinds of culture we use to make our lives. They are completely clueless, hanging upon the latest word of someone else. Here Plato steps in and says that we might hope for education to provide us with infallible experts. Unfortunately, that hope has proven historically naive. Most of our experts are wrong quite often, more often as they attempt to work with larger groups of people spread over more geography. Academic worship of Socrates just makes more of us live like Alcibiades.

Where to go from here? I don’t know, but I suspect the solution lies in becoming smaller rather than bigger, in building alternative politics and economics that don’t attempt to solve all problems with alliances “too big to fail” (since such alliances are also too big to be accountable, too big to render individuals capable of becoming cognizant of the consequences of their actions). Make America small, ungreat, fractured, disjointed, again! (One nation, disunited under God? E pluribus plures!)

Freedom and Dependence

It is hard to discuss anything but rent with an absentee landlord. Every problem is a matter of paying rent sufficient to induce some third party to fix problems that you can never directly address, because fixing things is not a tenant’s place.

In his Politics, Aristotle says that some people are naturally slaves. This is certainly wrong when people read his natural slavery as early modern plantation slavery (no one is naturally bound to be kidnapped and tortured as part of an incorrigibly brutal regime for growing cotton or sugarcane), but he is right that there are inevitably in every civilized society a significant body of people without freedom, and that some of us are more content with this arrangement than others.

As a member of the American dependent class myself, I see this clearly. Aristotle would say that we call slaves ’employees’ today, and we have devised much better ways (more ethical, less punitive, offering dependents more latitude in choosing masters and the manner of their dependence) of being masters than were used on many plantations in the recent past. But the fundamental truth is that America is largely unfree, more so as it negotiates with its landlords over the conditions of its dependence, which cannot help but increase as said landlords respond to negotiations by extending their power. At some point, the employees must simply walk away, to freedom that will not always be pleasant (or for some of us possible: maybe Aristotle is right that we cannot all be free, at least not the same way). The economy might shrink. We might buy less (afford less, have less hygienic housing, use fewer expensive medical technologies, rely less on infrastructure which we risk nothing to use). This is a very difficult problem: people don’t want the same freedom, and freedom is never safe. Neither is dependence, of course. Both courses exist in ‘bad’ forms, historically (outlaw freedom or piracy; plantation slavery); both also exist in ‘good’ forms (the medieval artisan, the independent farmer or rancher; the happy employee at a decent company). People don’t want the same thing (freedom, dependence), and they don’t want it in the same form (the same freedom, the same dependence). We are different, with different needs and different tastes (for freedom and dependence).

On Art

Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?  (David Chalmer, Hard Problem of Consciousness).

I have always thought that too much interest in why certain things happen leads only to frustration (which occasionally produces a book or two, and maybe tenure for the really lucky among us, but at what cost to the soul?). The prime objective of a beautiful life, to my mind, has never been to take all our aesthetic relationships and reduce them universally to one rational narrative (however elegant); the best theory of art (say that of Schopenhauer), lovely as it is, pales in comparison to art itself (especially when one discovers some art that one really loves doing).

I do not say this as someone who hates theory. On the contrary, I love it (and Schopenhauer’s theory of art) a great deal, akin to the way some people love painting or music. But it is only partial, a single piece in a puzzle too large to be finished (or fit together too neatly). To focus too hard upon finishing the puzzle once and for all is to neglect other things: Schopenhauer himself made time to enjoy art, not just to reflect on it, and I am not persuaded that he wouldn’t have done better to practice it more (to get out and make something, even something ‘inferior’ to the greatest of which his generation was capable).

In the final analysis, I don’t really care why physical processing should give rise to a rich inner life. I am more about cultivating that life. The theory I accumulate for myself is a series of notes to my own inner life: it becomes richer and more meaningful to me and others who appreciate me as I populate my experience with art that I do, that I embody (poorly sometimes) for myself. Part of that experience is necessarily enjoying the art of others, the community of humans I find out there (in the places where I live and move and have my being). But I should not let my appreciation for their art displace the need I have to produce my own, and I should never be so tangled in the need to explain art that I forget to enjoy and produce it.

I don’t think there is such a thing possible as a universally satisfying explanation for art. (But if that is what you are looking for, you could do worse than to read Schopenhauer.)