Category Archives: philosophy

Montaigne the bodhisattva?

Several influential philosophical traditions assert that everyone is equally important. Since other people outnumber each of us–by billions–we should count ourselves and our interests for almost nothing.

That is a direct implication of classical utilitarianism. Sam Bankman-Fried endorsed it in an interview with Adam Fisher, conducted while he was actually stealing money for himself. (But hypocrisy does not invalidate a moral principle.) Another crisp statement comes in Shantideva’s classical summary of Buddhist ethics, probably written in the 700s CE. Shantideva recommends that we

meditate intently on the equality of oneself and others as follows: ‘All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself. … When happiness is liked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I strive after happiness only for myself … Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any limitation placed on this? If one asks why suffering should be prevented, no one disputes that! If it must be prevented, then all of it must be. If not, this goes for oneself as for anyone … This is why Supushpacandra, although undergoing torture at the hands of the king, did nothing to prevent his own suffering out of sacrifice for many sufferers. … Those who have developed the continuum of their mind in this way, to whom the suffering of others is as important as the things they themselves hold dear, plunge down into the Avici hell as geese into a cluster of lotus blossoms [to save the souls condemned there.]

Shantideva, 8.90, 8.95, 8.102-3, 8.106-7.

Michel de Montaigne acknowledges that “most of the world’s rules and precepts do adopt such an attitude, driving us outside ourselves and hounding us into the forum in the interests of the public weal.” These philosophies advise “that one should forget oneself on behalf of one’s neighbour and that, compared to the general, the individual is of no importance” (Montaigne, “On Restraining Your Will,” 1580, III, 10, p. 1137). Montaigne even says that his father held this view, and it motivated the elder Montaigne to be a devoted public servant.

Nevertheless, Montaigne dissents. He acknowledges one good thing about trying to treat every other person as just as important as ourselves. It teaches us not to be overly attached to our private interests, just as a “bowman, … to hit his target, raises his sights way above it”–or just as “to straighten a piece of bent wood we bend it right over backwards” (p. 1138).

In other words, striving to count ourselves for almost nothing counters the fault of caring for ourselves alone. But our real target should lie between the extremes of self-negation and self-love. For …

the true degree of love which each man owes to himself is … not false love which makes us embrace glory, knowledge, riches and such-like with an immoderate primary passion, as though they were members of our being, nor a love which is easy-going and random, acting like ivy which cracks and destroys the wall which it clings to, but a healthy, measured love, as useful as it is pleasant. Whoever knows its duties and practises them is truly in the treasure-house of the Muses: he has reached the pinnacle of human happiness and of man’s joy. Such a man, knowing precisely what is due to himself, finds that his role includes frequenting men and the world; to do this he must contribute to society the offices and duties which concern him. [C] He who does not live a little for others hardly lives at all for himself: ‘Qui sibi amicus est, scito hunc amicum omnibus esse.’ [Know that a man who feels loving-friendship for himself does so for all men – Seneca] The chief charge laid upon each one of us is his own conduct: that is why we are here. For example, any man who forgot to live a good and holy life himself, but who thought that he had fulfilled his duties by guiding and training others to do so, would be stupid: in exactly the same way, any man who gives up a sane and happy life in order to provide one for others makes (in my opinion) a bad and unnatural decision.

Montaigne 1580, p. 1138.

Montaigne’s position requires a defense. After all, every person is equally valuable, in an objective sense, so why shouldn’t we act accordingly?

First, Montaigne argues that to promote everyone else’s welfare requires ambition. It means climbing the ladder of authority in order to influence the social order. Montaigne is highly skeptical of ambition, seeing it as a snare. Most people who attain high office are actually unable to accomplish much, yet they are quick to take themselves far too seriously:

Most of our occupations are farcical: ‘Mundus universus exercet histrionem.’ [Everybody in the entire world is acting a part — Petronius]. We should play our role properly, but as the role of a character which we have adopted. … I know some who transubstantiate and metamorphose themselves into as many new beings and forms as the dignities which they assume: they are prelates down to their guts and livers and uphold their offices on their lavatory-seat.

Montaigne, 1580, pp. 1143-4.

Those who enter the fray to improve the world also become partisans for particular positions. They take views about how things should be and are prone to disparage their opponents. Montaigne, on the other hand, strives for intellectual humility and uncertainty, and he looks for value in all views. “I am firmly attached to the sanest of the parties but I do not desire to be particularly known as an enemy of the others beyond what is generally reasonable” (p. 1145). After all, “A good book does not lose its beauty because it argues against my cause” (p. 1144).

But why do we need authority or ideology to improve the world? Why not humbly give away most of what we possess? Perhaps Montaigne should have done that–and perhaps I should now. Although he doesn’t directly address this issue, he does argue that wealth is unrelated to happiness. “Metrodorus lived on twelve ounces a day, Epicurus on less; Metrocles slept among his sheep in the winter and, in summer, in the temple porticos; ‘Sufficit ad id natura, quod poscit.’ [What nature demands, she supplies –Seneca.] (p. 1141).

Montaigne acknowledges that people want more than the bare minimum of worldly goods, but that is because we have become habituated to surplus and are averse to losing it to other people. “If I lack anything which I have become used to, I [foolishly] hold that I truly lack it” (p. 1142). Better not to obtain it in the first place. That implies that sharing one’s surplus with others would do them little good.

But Montaigne’s main point–throughout his work–is that happiness is hard to accomplish. Fear of death and other human frailties beset us, regardless of our social circumstances. “We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more” (Montaigne, I:3, p, 11). We can address such faults, but to do so requires introspection and self-care. If everyone devoted themselves to helping everyone else, no one would accomplish happiness.

Since I began this post with Shantideva, I should present his probable rejoinder. He would agree with Montaigne that suffering is universal, and the only solution is inward. “Since I cannot control external events, I will control my own mind” (5.14). However, this Buddhist monk would recommend a different path from Montaigne’s. The more we fully grasp the suffering of the vast number of other sentient beings, the less space we have left to care about our own private interests. Caring about our interests–experiencing desire or craving–is the source of all unhappiness. Therefore, setting one’s aim, like an archer, at the good of all sentient beings is actually the best way to liberate oneself from suffering. “Whosoever longs to rescue quickly both himself and others should practice the supreme mystery: exchange of self and other” (8:120)

This doesn’t sound exactly like Montaigne. As I have noted, he rejects the advice to “forget oneself on behalf of one’s neighbour.” He famously retreated from the world’s struggle to read and write in his private tower, making himself his only topic. “My business, my art, is to live my life” (p. 425, from “On Practice”). Also, Montaigne claims modestly that he has not achieved “noble Stoic impassibility” (p. 1153), because he hasn’t accomplished his inner peace by exercising any kind of discipline. Instead, he just happens to be easy-going by temperament.

Still, Montaigne’s writing radiates curiosity and empathy for the vast variety of human beings whom he has encountered in books and life. He abhors cruelty. He offers gentle advice aimed at liberating us from attachment. For instance: “There are so many awkward passages that the surest way is to glide rather lightly over the surface of this world. We should slide over it, not get bogged down in it. Pleasure itself is painful in its deeper reaches” (p. 1136).

And perhaps his essays are a gift. “Here you have not my teaching but my study: the lesson is not for others; it is for me. Yet, for all of that, you should not be ungrateful to me for publishing it. What helps me can perhaps help somebody else” (p. 423, from “On Practice”). This is Montaigne’s way of plunging into hell as a cluster of lotus blossoms.

Sources: Michel Montaigne, The Complete Essays (1580), translated by M.A. Screech (Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition); Shantideva, The Bodhiicaryacatara, trans. by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford University Press, 1995). See also: compassion, not sympathy; two criticisms of Effective Altruism; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; was Montaigne a relativist?; John Stuart Mill, Stoic; introspect to reenchant the inner life; Emerson’s mistake; the sublime is social; Buddhism as philosophy; etc.

The Kural

The Tirukkural (or Kural, for short) by Thiruvalluvar is one of the acknowledged highlights of the Tamil literary tradition, which spans 25 centuries. The new English translation by Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma has been highly praised, and I recommend it.

I usually find “wisdom literature” (didactic, aphoristic poetry) hard going, regardless of its background or main teachings. But The Kural is widely reported to be subtle, paradoxical, allusive, and lovely in Tamil, and Pruiksma’s English has those virtues. For instance, here is a paradoxical verse about renunciation:

Hold to the hold of one who holds nothing—to hold nothing
Hold to that hold [350]

And here is an example of a memorable metaphor:

Riches attained by those without kindness—like milk
Soured by its jug [1000]

I don’t know another unified poem that encompasses ethical directives (part 1), advice for monarchs (part 2), and erotic verse (part 3). The whole poem concludes with a section on “Sulking and Bliss,” which recommends playing hard-to-get. The narrator is never identified, but part 3 seems to weave together the voices of two lovers, their friends, and other characters, almost like a drama:

Though he’s done no wrong pulling back 
Brings him closer [1321]
Even free of wrong there is something in keeping 
From my love’s soft arms [1325]

Sweeter than eating—having eaten—sweeter than loving—
Sulking in love [1326]
Sulk my bright jewel—and may our night
Of pleading be long [1330]

The text was probably complete by 600 CE. There’s a long tradition of identifying Thiruvalluvar as a Jain, although many other religious traditions (including, implausibly, Christianity) have claimed him. David Shulman reminds us that we know nothing about the author, even whether a single person wrote The Kural. (Almost certainly, the text incorporates numerous quotations.) Shulman writes, however, that the milieu is the “mobile world of the [South Indian] city, with its face turned toward international seaborne trade and also toward heterodox religions, like Buddhism and Jainism, carried throughout South Asia and beyond by wandering monks and holy men.” Furthermore, the text largely avoids the kinds of claims that typically divide religious traditions, such as the identities and roles of deities or the origins and end of the world. A Buddhist, a Shaivite, or a Stoic could embrace The Kural, and that may be intentional. After all:

Delivering the complex simply and discerning
What others say—that is knowledge [424]
Those who can’t speak a few faultless words
Love to speak many words [649]

In the sections on personal ethics and the good life for regular people, The Kural advocates what Owen Flanagan has called (writing about Buddhism) “equanimity-in-community.” We should cultivate inner peace by restraining desire and craving. But we should use everyday ethical interactions to fill the space that might otherwise be occupied by those vices. The Kural emphasizes hospitality, generosity, friendship, forgiveness, nonviolence (ahimsa), “husbandry” (in the sense of cultivating one’s land and animals), and family. I didn’t pick up anything about yoga, meditation, or ceremony and ritual. Instead, passages like this evoke sociable, generous members of communities who are not overly concerned about their individual desires:

A well of abundant water—the wealth of the wise
Who love the world 

A tree bearing fruit at the heart of town—wealth
In the hands of good people [215-6]

The implied reader is generally male, and the division of roles is patriarchal, but we can modify the advice to be more egalitarian. The text charts a middle way between pleasure and renunciation. An adherent to a Hellenistic philosophical school, such as Stoicism or Skepticism, could endorse much of The Kural, except that nonviolence is more explicit and prominent here than in late Greek philosophy.

The long middle portion of the book–on leaders, politics, and governments–belongs to the “mirror of kings” tradition: encouraging rulers to be responsible and moderate. Although The Kural strongly urges nonviolence and vegetarianism as components of personal ethics, it depicts good leaders as honorable and effective warriors. Some of the advice here is about how to win wars and retain power.

The third part comes as a surprise, because it is suddenly about ardent sexual desire, which had been criticized earlier. The style is more lyrical now, and the speaker is sometimes female.

Apparently, in classical Tamil love poetry, the lovers wake up under separate roofs, spend the day together (perhaps illicitly), and part unwillingly at twilight, which is a confusing time of shadows and dimness. In this verse, the “it” is passionate desire:

At dawn it buds—all day it swells—and at dusk
It blossoms—this disease [1227]

And here the (presumably female) lover resents the evening but tries to summon some empathy for it:

Is your husband hard-hearted like mine—bless you
You wretched bewildering evening [1222]

Although love is a “disease” that causes much sighing and suffering, surely the conclusion of The Kural celebrates it.

See also all that matters is equanimity, community, and truth; Buddhism as philosophy; on philosophy as a way of life; Odin on the tree.

two criticisms of Effective Altruism

In the week after Sam Bankman-Fried (known as “SBF”) lost his whole $16 billion fortune, I’m sure that everyone who was already skeptical about crypto, Silicon Valley, boy geniuses, billionaires of all ages, political donors, and Effective Altruists is now piling on. Schadenfreude flows palpably through the world’s social networks–flawed as they may be.

I don’t know whether personal attacks are merited. SBF had explicitly committed to making high-risk bets with relatively low odds of success, because he thought that was his moral duty. Even if he deserves to be denounced, I’m not interested in celebrating anyone’s failure or reinforcing my prior assumptions.

But Adam Fisher’s beautifully written pre-collapse profile of SBF supplies quotations that illustrate why I have always resisted Effective Altruism, as a matter of principle.

I believe:

  1. The world gets better when people have the capacity to define, analyze, and address their own problems.
  2. Being happy, in a worthy sense of that word (“eudaimonic,” if you prefer), is hard and rare. Most of us live lives of quiet desperation. Material conditions help but are insufficient. We must accomplish worthwhile happiness ourselves. To the extent that we can help others to flourish, it’s by sharing insights and developing relationships.

These two points are distinct, but they intersect because working with others to shape our world is a path to inner happiness. It is not the only path, and it’s often a fraught one, but it must be kept open. By exchanging proposals and then acting together with people whom we view as equals, we can broaden our thinking and enrich our inner lives.

In contrast, utilitarianism “in its purest—Benthamite—form” (Fisher’s description of SBF’s philosophy) presumes that we can and must make other people happy by acting on or for them at a distance. We can calculate the best decision privately and then just do it.

SBF asks Fisher to imagine a world in which many people resemble his description of himself. They take risks to make money that they then give away to assist the world’s poorest. Some succeed and some fail, but whether you are one of the successful shouldn’t matter much to you, because you are just one person among billions. “The starving child doesn’t give a shit about which person it is who does that good. So why are you concerned about this little term in the equation?”

“This little term” is a way of expressing altruism: each of us counts for almost nothing. But note that SBF’s mind goes to a child who is starving. Children only gradually develop agency. Babies cannot analyze or affect the larger social world. They cannot do better than receiving benevolence, although they need loving relationships as well as nutrients.

To treat adults like needy infants is paternalism, in the root sense of that word. If you recognize adults as fellow human beings, then you must not affect them without asking them what they think, making yourself accountable to them, and allowing them to affect you back.

Unless they are at death’s door, adults typically do care about who is claiming to help them, and why. That is because we want to choose and shape our relationships. We do not want someone else to have a purely discretionary choice about whether and how to affect us, even if that person happens to be benign. Discretionary power is domination, and domination is a basic evil.

Frank Lovett summarizes the classical republican argument (which is as old as Cicero): “to have a master with an exceptionally benevolent disposition is to be reasonably secure in one’s expectation that one will not often be adversely interfered with—but it is to have a master nonetheless. The republican idea of freedom specifically instructs us not to make our master a better person (the goal of the old ‘mirror for princes’ literature), but to render him less of a master.”

Can a financial donor dominate people? I would say absolutely, if the money affects people and the choice of whether and how to give is the donor’s alone. Effective Altruism seeks to make rich people better, much like renaissance books with titles like A Mirror for Princes that aimed to improve monarchs. The point, however, should be to do without masters.

My second concern involves the difficulty of achieving happiness. SBF devotes no evident attention to his inner life. Fisher reports, “SBF spends nothing, it would seem, pursuing his own pleasure. It’s not just that great books aren’t worthwhile. The great movies aren’t worth watching. Food gets the same treatment. … SBF’s rejection of pleasure is so profound it got me wondering if that absence of pleasure—as opposed to his philosophy—was the key to understanding him. Is he so deep in his head that he’s incapable of feeling pleasure?”

SBF says, “I would never read a book. … I’m very skeptical of books.” Although he is entitled to his preference in media, there’s one book that he should definitely read now that he has some time on his hands: The Autobiography of John Stewart Mill.

SBF would recognize the author’s situation. Mill was a famous young prodigy raised by utilitarians. His father arranged a powerful position for him as an administrator of British India. Thus Mill had “what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.” Likewise, SBF was raised by utilitarian law professors and accumulated billions with which to affect countries like India.

I don’t know SBF’s current mental state, but in the India Office, Mill fell into a deep depression. He asked himself :

“Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

SBF presents himself, like the young Mill, as someone who ignored his personal well-being to enhance others’. That verdict may be complicated by SBF’s 1,500 square-foot condo in the Bahamas, “with six bedrooms and spectacular views out every window,” and the possibility that he diverted his investors’ money. But even if SBF was sincere, he was making a fundamental mistake if happiness depends on wisdom, because then we must each learn to be wise. Mill wrote:

the important change which my opinions at this time underwent, was that I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual. I ceased to attach almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances. …

Mill became a great proponent of the arts, of liberty as a personal accomplishment as well as a lack of censorship, and of representative government. He continued to make utilitarian arguments, but now refracted through an understanding that people must have power over their own lives, individually and collectively.

See also Mill’s question: If you achieved justice, would you be happy?; qualms about Effective Altruism; how we use Kant today; wicked problems, and excuses; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; introducing republicanism; citizens against domination; etc.

Mapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas

Newly published (behind a firewall): Peter Levine (2022) Mapping ideologies as networks of ideas, Journal of Political Ideologies, DOI: 10.1080/13569317.2022.2138293.

This is an early publication from my main current scholarly project. I am concerned that several streams of research and intellectual conversations are converging on the same conclusion: people just aren’t very thoughtful or rational about politics. This stance discourages efforts to enhance democracy and the public sphere. However, the most prevalent measurement tools–standard opinion surveys–are systematically biased against detecting the complexity and individuality of individuals’ political views. Various colleagues and I are experimenting with alternative quantitative methods that involve directly asking people about the connections among their distinct beliefs and analyzing the results as networks. This sole-authored article is a pilot study aimed at validating the method.


Individuals in a non-representative sample of 93 US progressives were asked which social outcomes they valued and then asked about the relationships among these opinions. Did each outcome provide a reason for a different one? Would each outcome cause a different one? If each outcome came to pass, would it make them more likely to support another outcome? Network diagrams derived from these responses represent portions of these individuals’ ideologies, understood as structures of political thought. Scrutiny of the network diagrams and analysis of the aggregate data suggest that most respondents carefully and reasonably identified relationships among their own ideas. Features of their networks predicted their assessments of five prominent politicians. This exploratory study paints a strikingly different picture of the sample than what would emerge from more conventional methods, such as factor analysis. Instead of a group that looks ideologically homogeneous on a unidimensional scale or that exhibits a low level of ideological coherence (because very few of their ideas are correlated), this method displays a collection of people who hold diverse and complex structures of thought. The method should be replicated with representative samples to explore the variation and significance of such structures.

See also: what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?;  individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuonideologies and complex systemsdon’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic, etc.

who are today’s republicans (in the classic sense of the word)?

In our Introduction to Civic Studies course, we are briefly discussing both the classical tradition of republican thought (from Cicero to John Adams) and the contributions of Black American republican thinkers of the 19th century, as described by Melvin Rogers (2020). In this brief introductory video, I identify the following components of traditional republicanism:

  • Opposition to domination (which republicanism defines as the basic problem)
  • Rule of law
  • Separation of powers
  • Deliberation
  • The common good
  • Popular participation (going beyond voting, which by itself can allow domination by the majority)
  • Anti-elitism
  • Civic virtues and an expectation of sacrifice for the common good

One of our US political parties happens to be called “Republican,” and I think that is not merely coincidental. The GOP has roots in antebellum abolitionist movements that, in turn, explicitly invoked republican ideas.

But that doesn’t mean that either of our major parties today is necessarily more republican (in the classical sense) than the other. The recent Civic Language Perceptions Project from Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) offers a chance to see how partisanship–as well as demographics–relate to classical republican ideals. Not all of the components of republicanism are tested, but some are. The data come from a nationally representative random sample of 5,000 registered voters conducted in 2021.

One component of traditional republicanism was an orientation to the common good. That phrase might seem like empty rhetoric, but classical republican authors placed the common good ahead of individual negative freedom, material prosperity, and pluralism, which they often decried as “factionalism.”

PACE asked respondents to react to the phrase “common good,” and it performed best among people who identified as “very liberal.” (See the graph above.)

Patriotism is not on my list of components of republicanism, but often the civic virtues have been defined in patriotic terms. Although some today may see patriotic rhetoric as conservative, it was fundamental to left-wing revolutionary republican movements, from France in 1789 to Mexico in 1910 to Russia in 1917. According to the PACE data, patriotism polls far better among Republicans than among Democrats: a 36-point gap. (See below.)

“Liberty” was the great principle for classical republicanism, and it polls better among Republicans than Democrats. However, some Americans may think of liberty as non-interference (simply being left alone), whereas for classical republicans, it meant non-domination (freedom from arbitrary will). This semantic ambiguity makes the result hard to interpret.

Both parties like “unity,” which was a classical republican value, but Democrats like “diversity” much more than Republicans do. Classical republicans tended to be skeptical of diversity. Therefore, either Democrats dissent from classical republicanism on this issue, or else the word “diversity” is being used in a new way–basically to mean racial equity, which Democrats like much more than Republican do: a 22-point gap. Classical republicans should have embraced racial equity, even though few actually did.

Republics require participation, also known as civic engagement, and that phrase is more popular among Democrats than Republicans.

Democracy is compatible with republicanism, although proponents of democracy tend to emphasize majority rule and responsiveness to mass opinion, whereas republicans want voting to play the limited role of checking elite domination. Madison writes, “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views, by regular vote” (Federalist 10). In this passage and many others, he’s defining “republican” as majoritarian, but his own overall view is more complex. Democrats are more favorable to the word “democracy” than Republicans are, according to the PACE data, although a majority of Republicans do support it.

On balance, one might conclude that today’s Democrats are more republican than Republicans are; but perhaps it’s more accurate to regard the classical republican tradition as marginal all across our spectrum.

PACE infographic

Source: Melvin Rogers, “Race, Domination, and Republicanism,” in Difference without Domination: Pursuing Justice in Diverse Democracies, edited by Danielle Allen and Rohini Somanathan (University of Chicago Press 2020). See also introducing republicanism; James Madison in favor of majority rule; every Republican president [until Trump] insisted that the US is a democracy; a Democratic Republican Federalist; what defines conservatism?; liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution etc.