Dao Du Jour: Day 48

Chapter 48

“In the pursuit of knowledge,

every day something is added.

In the practice of the Tao,

Every day something is dropped.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

In the Christian tradition, Jesus is the “Christ”—the savior—because he empties himself. The Greek word used to describe this action is kenosis. We would do well to let more of the kenotic spirit into our modern lives.

Increasingly today, the upper middle class preoccupation with lifestyle design, from influencer culture to self-help books, has taken on an ascetic character. From Headspace to the Four-Hour Workweek, from Minimalism to Marie Kondo, the last decade was dominated by the desire to optimize, eliminate, simplify, automate, and reduce “friction.” Andrew Taggart brilliantly profiles the demigods that populate our social imaginary, what he calls “secular monks”:

Secular monks inherit from Calvinism the veiling of the transcendent—in their case, the veiling of the very possibility that the transcendent could ever disclose itself. They inhabit an epistemically uncertain world and suffer existential anxiety and loneliness. Above all, they commit to work—to working on themselves and on the world—as the key to salvation. Practitioners submit themselves to ever more rigorous, monitored forms of ascetic self-control: among them, cold showers, intermittent fasting, data-driven health optimization, and meditation boot camps.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that a knowledge economy is suffused with a gnostic ethos. The cliché that our consumer society is plagued by something called “materialism” is wrong. Consumerism expresses a profound contempt for the body, for physical objects, for the earth, preferring the frictionless realm of cyberspace or the promised land of Martian colonies to the filthy business of life on earth. It chases “less” with the mindset of “more,” driven by an escapist ethos built on an extractive economy. The knowledge economy—or the gnostic economy—rests on a dangerous dualism between spirit and matter. Cyberspace depends on servers, servers depend on electricity, and electricity depends on matter, energy, and earth.

The ascetic only superficially resembles the kenotic, though both are characterized by spiritual ambition.

Where the ascetic is moved by desire, the kenotic is moved by compassion.

Where the ascetic wants to escape reality, the kenotic revels in it.

Where the ascetic ascends, the kenotic descends.

Where the ascetic is all discipline, the kenotic is abandon.

Where the ascetic is Apollonian, the kenotic is Dionysian.

Where the ascetic saves, the kenotic spends.

Where the ascetic clings, the kenotic lets go.

Where the ascetic wants control, the kenotic says yes to chaos.

Where the ascetic sees a logic of scarcity, the kenotic sees one of abundance.

Where the ascetic says let’s move to Mars, the kenotic says earth is enough.

If the ascetic spirit drives the knowledge economy, what would an economy of the kenotic spirit look like?

Perhaps a wisdom economy?

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 47

Chapter 47

“Without opening your door,

you can open your heart to the world.

Without looking out your window,

you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,

the less you understand.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

The pandemic has made amateur monks of us all. We’ve had to close all sorts of doors—our social circles, our schools, our businesses. And in many cases, that’s felt like closing our hearts. Social distancing has made us feel socially distant. Our world have narrowed. And we have lots of time to just stare out the window.

But as with normal retreats, this long strange journey is also an opportunity to withdraw from the world to see it more clearly. In meditation, you do not look out your window, but at your window. We gain knowledge by looking out our window, and wisdom by looking at it. The more you look at your window, the more and better you will see when you look out of it.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 46

Chapter 46

“When a country is in harmony with the Tao,

the factories make trucks and tractors.

When a country goes counter to the Tao,

warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.

There is no greater illusion than fear,

no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,

no greater misfortune than having an enemy.

Whoever can see through all fear

will always be safe.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

This week I taught Machiavelli’s The Prince, which offers the opposite advice: the ruler should always keep his focus on war and readiness for war, and the key to keeping power is to be afraid of foreign invasions and domestic uprisings. To prevent both, you must make people fear you. Fear is not an illusion to “see through.” It is the truth that stands behind all illusions.

But your main enemy is not people, but Nature. Nature is not the Dao, but “Fortuna,” which Machiavelli casts in feminine terms as a force the ruler must try to master, to, if necessary, “beat and strike her.” Only the prince equipped with virtú—the root of which is Latin for “man”—has a chance of outfoxing and overpowering Fortuna to wrest power and glory from her clutches. But Fortuna is much more Kali or Tiamat than Providence or Gaia. Harmony with her is impossible; the best that can be hoped for is defensive rearguard actions that temporarily fend off her swallowing us whole. Or tearing us to pieces.

Machiavelli would have been fascinated by Trump—someone should write a Machiavellian assessment of his reign—but he arguably never could have predicted what Fortuna would throw at the United States: a cold civil war based on illusions that are both cause and effect of fear. The chief “enemy” is no longer foreign, but domestic. Machiavelli works well for the world of realpolitik, the geopolitics of the world of the 20th century. But our situation is becoming increasingly characterized by what Ross Douthat calls “dreampolitik”: large segments of the population captured by alternative realities split off from the broader body politic, convinced their fellow citizens are their enemies.

In this world, FDR and the Dao are more useful than Machiavelli. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—and the illusions it fosters and is fueled by. Just as we pulled ourselves out of the Great Depression through muscular government action and wartime mobilization—“the factories make trucks and tractors”—we must pull ourselves out of this perilous moment by making America make again, and leading the 30 year project to decarbonize the global economy and avert catastrophic climate change.

If we do that with speed, at scale, and with solidarity—and with a lot of Fortuna on our side—then we just may help humanity attain harmony with the Dao.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 45

Chapter 45

“True perfection seems imperfect,

yet it is perfectly itself.

True fullness seems empty,

Yet it is fully present.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

For the Daoist, the proverbial glass is neither half-full nor half-empty. The conventional binary of “optimism” and “pessimism” is a product of an impoverished way of seeing. Optimism is too fixated on the future, pessimism too preoccupied with the past. Both are caught in what Tai Chi calls the “floating position.” Vaclav Havel agreed:

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

This reflects a deep trust—a kind of faith—not in a set of dogmas, but in the basic order of things. As Alan Watts put it, where belief clings, faith lets go.

For the Daoist, the glass is empty, however “full” it might appear. It may be relatively full or relatively empty, but ultimately it is fully empty. This seems contradictory to the logical mind—“true wisdom seems foolish,” we also read in this chapter—but as Pascal noted, “the heart has reasons that reason cannot fathom.” The heart-mind, according to Chinese philosophy, is that part of us that can intuit things felt but not seen…the hidden logos, the Force, the Dao.

In the modern age, we have lost the faith that, in the final analysis, things hang together, that we are part of a “cosmos”–literally, a well-ordered state of affairs. We don’t have to fall back on belief in the bearded man in the sky; that was never much faith to begin with. We have to fall forward into the world as it is, trusting that the emptiness of space is less an abyss and more an ocean that will buoy us up, the fount of all forms.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 44

Chapter 44

“Success or failure: which is more destructive?”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

It was not enough for us to enshrine “success” as the meaningless and therefore unattainable goal of the game of late capitalism. We also had to go ahead and fetishize “failure.” George Carlin quipped that in America, you never have to die; you get to just “pass away.” In the same vein, “failure” just brings you closer to “success,” so we—or rather, the Silicon Valley influencers who were the few lucky winners who despite their brilliance and heroic industry are either monstrously deluded due to their success or cynically gaslighting those less fortunate and whose products and platforms are causing the psychological and political equivalent of climate change—tell young people to fail early and often. Fail up! Fail forward! Marx had a powerful image for how ideology works: a “camera obscura,” in which the true world is turned upside down.

I don’t mean to knock the value of grit, hard work, and risk-taking. These are essential virtues, and we almost always need more of them. I don’t mean to knock capitalism. In its healthiest form, it is both the most moral and the most effective and efficient way to organize our economic lives.

But at some point, cultural scripts about success and failure start to mess with people’s minds. This semester I am teaching a seminar for seniors on work and leisure. They are about to start their adult lives with, theoretically, greater advantages than most people their age in history: coming out of an elite university in the richest country in the history of the world. And they’re terrified. Yes, there’s the pandemic, climate change, the fracturing and fragilizing of democracy, the vertiginous inequalities of late capitalism. But I suspect they’d be feeling this way regardless of these swirling storm systems.

Cleansed of ideological distortions, though, the gospel of failure carries a grain of truth. Perhaps the best advice I’ve ever heard about success was that true success would be to succeed yourself. If you are not dying and being reborn every five or ten years, you’re probably doing something wrong. This is a more psycho-spiritual view of success. Failure is “not an option,” it is a necessity. Not because complete success is possible, but because everything is built to fail. Rather than embrace this truth, the American mind chases a fantasy of perfect, permanent success, and when reality does not bend to its influential wishes and the soul or body breaks down, it calls that failure success in disguise. It tries to make the whole world yang, and when yin asserts itself, it says white is the new black.

Today’s chapter closes: “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” The serpent gets a bad rap in Genesis, but in the ancient near East, the serpent was a sacred animal and a symbol of eternity. The snake regularly sheds its skin. As Joseph Campbell puts it, the serpent represents the power of eternity in time, the force of life continually casting off dead weight, regenerating itself, being reborn. The snake’s skin fails, and it succeeds itself. The snake is not how it appears to others. The snake is not its skin. It is the sinuous line slithering across and around the yin/yang symbol.

Don’t follow the snakes advice and try to be like God. Try to be like the snake.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 43

Chapter 43

“The gentlest thing in the world

overcomes the hardest thing in the world.

Teaching without words,

Performing without actions:

That is the Master’s way.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

What is the hardest thing in the world?

The images this passage summons are the gentle river patiently wearing down the hard mountain, or the martial artist deftly deflecting a rushing attacker. The hard is found in the heavy and the dense, the crude and the brutal. But these are not the hardest thing in the world.

The hardest thing in the world is a human mind that believes it knows the world. Words are futile volleys of arrows glancing off its proud façade. Actions aimed at prying it open only tighten its grip. How to teach without words and perform without actions? Look to the true Master.

The true Master is nature. “The gentlest thing in the world” is a mountain. Precisely by not moving—through its supreme silence and inimitable inaction—it forces the human mind and body to yield to it. In return, it reveals the view from above, helping us let go of the view from below. And as we descend, it makes us let go of that view too.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 42

Chapter 42

“Ordinary men hate solitude.

But the master makes use of it,

embracing his aloneness, realizing

he is one with the whole universe.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

In 2014, a social psychologist conducted an experiment in which people had the choice of either doing nothing for a short period of around 15 minutes, or shocking themselves. The results were, well…you can fill in the blank. The experiment appeared to support Pascal’s famous aphorism, “All of mankind’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” More specifically, perhaps the problems stem from men’s inability to do so; more precisely, the masculine power’s revulsion at solitude sows chaos.

The lines above today’s selection read this way: “All things have their backs to the female and stand facing the male. When male and female combine, all things achieve harmony.”

If the male turns its back on the female, he will only see her shadow. He will, that is, only see Kali. And Kali makes you fight, flee, fawn, or freeze. Kali provokes furious action, frenetic motion, reactive energy, rash behavior—anything but sitting still.

But to turn toward Kali—to “embrace his aloneness”—the male has to fall backward into the black. The little shocks he distracts himself with to feel alive and accomplished are so much pornography filling in for the real thing; if he really wants to give birth to something, he has to turn toward Kali. He has to go, as Plotinus put it, from the alone to the Alone. He has to say yes to solitude.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 41

Chapter 41

“The path into the light seems dark,

the path forward seems to go back,

the direct path seems long….”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Psychoanalysis, it has been said, is expensive, inconclusive, and interminable. In contrast to modern therapeutic approaches like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy that tend to focus more on problem solving—on the future—psychoanalysis presents as a long, leisurely walkabout through the wilds of the psyche, a spelunking sojourn through the vast caverns of one’s past. Who has the time these days?

But however inefficient this continental method may sound to American ears, it had a practical purpose: what Freud called “regression in service of the ego.” The logic is that the unconscious is governed by its own peculiar logic; it “seems dark,” but its threshold is a “path into the light.” The gamble is that by treating with the monsters dwelling in the darkness of the psyche, we will unsnarl the knots in the net that binds us back up top; and that without this descent and return, all our efforts on the surface will only ensnare us more tightly in a matrix of our own making. In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman wrote, “out of the dimness, opposite equals advance.” Or as development psychologist Robert Kegan likes to put it, “Either we feast on our shadows, or starve on our egos.”

Sometimes, the only way forward is downward.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 40

Chapter 40

“Return is the movement of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.

All things are born of being.

Being is born of non-being.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

It follows from this that “being” is not a thing. What, then, is being?

Existentialism is one of the most perilous parts of our march up the mountain because it’s easy to get stuck there. Hamlet’s indecision is the classic example, the soul circling about on a rocky promontory, unable to see the point in either pressing on to the summit or coming back down the mountain.

Without yoga—some form of mental and physical practice to jolt the soul awake from its stupor of abstraction—the existential engine stalls. The word yoga is related to the word for “yoke,” and its goal is to align the movements of our being with the order of things.

If we are stuck to “being,” we will be cut off from things, because being is not an idea or a concept of a kind of super-being like God floating in some ether. If we yield to non-being, we will see being for what it is: nothing else than what Daoism calls “the 10,000 things.” The 10,000 things just are the play of being and non-being, form and emptiness, time and eternity.

In Biblical terms, creation is not an event in the distant past, but a process taking place right now. To paraphrase Hamlet, there is nothing past or future, but thinking makes it so.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 39

Chapter 39

“When man interferes with the Tao,

the sky becomes filthy,

the earth becomes depleted,

the equilibrium crumbles,

creatures become extinct.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

When The Matrix came out in 1999, no one considered it to be an environmental allegory. Instead, we cast it as Frankenstein for the digital age: the hubris of humanity playing god, our creations turning on us and threatening the survival of our species. Climate change had not yet slid into the Overton window, but now that it has, watching The Matrix in light of it makes sense. What folks in the “existential risk” space refer to as the “control problem” of artificial intelligence is likely to become more and more entangled with the climate problem.

This week, one of the leading science journalists of our time, Elizabeth Kolbert—author of The Sixth Extinction—came out with a new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, reporting on the state of play around the climate problem. Among the many controversial cutting-edge technologies she profiles is geo-engineering, the main form of which involves injecting sulfate particles into the atmosphere to deflect solar radiation in order to cool the planet. As one of her sources bluntly remarks, we are at the point where we are seriously talking about “dimming the fucking sun.”

When Morpheus explains to Neo how the machines took over—“some time in the early 21st century”—he says that as a last ditch effort to win the war, humanity darkened the sky in order to cut off the machine’s power source—the sun. Yet this turned out to seal humanity’s fate, since the machines realized they could use human bodies as batteries by growing them in fields, sucking their life force energy away as they sleepwalked through a virtual reality simulation. 

Few paid attention, however, to the deeper meaning of The Matrix sequels—partly because of wooden acting and stilted scripts, partly because they contained a spiritual teaching far too high for popular culture. In the second and third films, we learn that the simple morality play of the first film—“humanity good, machines bad”—is yet another illusion. The machines themselves turn out to be incarnations of spirit. In Hegelian terms, the machines are humanity’s alienated essence, and the war is the “cunning of reason” conspiring to reconcile them to each other. Neo is the Christ-like mediator between the two.

A form of this Manichean morality tale characterizes much of the environmental movement—“ humanity/technology/capitalism bad, nature good”—and colors Western appropriations of Daoism. The rhetoric of balance, harmony, and equilibrium conjures the idea that humanity is, as Agent Smith puts it, a “cancer on this planet.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that nature created a species that interferes with nature. To regard humanity as the problem is, paradoxically, to interfere with the Dao. As Stewart Brand famously put it, “We are as gods. We may as well get good at it.” Our destiny is not what we have tacitly been trying to do for millennia: leave this planet. It is to make it our home for the first time; to restore the balance we began to disrupt with the advent of agriculture; to run the industrial revolution in reverse; and, as energy scientist Amory Lovins puts it, to “reinvent fire,” switching from scarce “fuels from hell” to unlimited “fuels from heaven.” Like the machines, carbon dioxide is our alienated essence, the shadow of our civilization. We must confront it, take responsibility for it, bury it, and refrain from projecting it.

If we interfere with the Dao—if we not grow our consciousness to develop technologies to adapt to the world we have wrought—the sky will become filthy, the earth will be depleted, and creatures will go extinct. Few figures seem more at odds with both Daoism and environmentalism than Francis Bacon. Yet Bacon said that to be commanded, nature must be obeyed. It is earth (geothermal), fire (solar and nuclear), wind, and water power—and the fifth element, the spark of intelligence within us—that will lead us to energy heaven.

Only then will we have true “energy independence.” Only when our civilization is fueled by heaven will we give up trying to get there. Only then will we finally be earthlings.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 38

Chapter 38

“When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.

When goodness is lost, there is morality.

When morality is lost, there is ritual.

Ritual is the husk of true faith,

The beginning of chaos.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

This chapter is a surgical strike against Confucius, for whom li, ritual propriety, was the key ingredient to a successful society. The Confucian saw the ideal society as a carefully choreographed play aimed at maximizing order. The Taoist saw this as a social straightjacket snuffing out spontaneity, sure to court the very thing it tried to control. Lao-tzu is the trickster in the garden Confucius cultivated, telling you to live a little, bite the apple, and see what happens. 

For the traditionalist, rituals are sacred and separate from the profane. 

For the modernist, rituals are silly because nothing is sacred and therefore nothing is profane. 

For the postmodernist, rituals are sacred but found in the profane–and the mundane. 

Growing up in a modern culture, it’s hard not to encounter a religious ritual like the Catholic mass as pointless, inefficient, hollow. There is no room for individual thought or action, since the participant is purely passive. Of course, in truth, the idea is for the soul to be active in prayer. But since modernity, afflicted by what Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world,” doesn’t quite believe in souls, a mass seems like a big waste of time—and boring as all hell.

Yet after a while, everything on the modern plane seems like a big waste of time, because nothing really matters. Since nothing is sacred, time isn’t really worth saving, so it can’t really be wasted. The distractions designed to fend off the existential ennui evoked by an entropic universe start to lose their luster, and rituals once again become interesting.

For the postmodern “spiritual but not religious” set, there is no ritual more popular than the morning coffee. That caffeine has become the de facto sacrament of the information age, slavishly imbibed before we cross the threshold into the temple of productivity, speaks volumes about our culture’s priorities. Caffeine may be one of the “old gods,” but in the wasteland any god will do. But apart from that, the re-enchantment of the world has, for many of us, taken the form of simply being more present in the most mundane activities. These little sips of quiet we steal away before being sucked into the maelstrom of the marketplace—the coffee, the meditation, the yoga, the gratitude journals—certainly contain notes of Daoism. But this nibbling at the margins will not quite satisfy. It is as though we know we have to hold our breath all day, and inhale as many big gulps of air as we can before plunging into the fray.

Contra conventional wisdom, though, the traditional attitude has much to recommend it. The Sabbath is not the “end” of the week, a kind of bonus-round tacked on to the main event, a chance to get some R and R to be productive the week after; but it is the “end” of the week in the sense of the purpose of the week, the answer to the question of why the work, why the week—why time—matters at all. As Josh Cohen explains in his gem of a book Not Working, “The Sabbath, explicitly sanctifying non-work, encourages us to imitate this divine lassitude; its disappearance from contemporary life may have as much to do with the sacralization of work as it does with the secularization of society.” The truth is that modernity tells a noble lie about religion; as David Foster Wallace put it, there’s no such thing as atheism–everybody worships. And modernity worships the false idol of work.

The only way to recover the “true faith”–to ascend from chaos back to up to the Dao–is with what John Lewis called “good trouble.” A little chaos now is like a vaccine that inoculates us against a lot of chaos later. It’s true that we need order as an “antidote to chaos,” as Jordan Peterson puts it, but after a while order becomes boring and unbearable. The routines that streamline our lives, the habits that William James called the great flywheel of society, over time congeal into ruts that stifle the spirit. Chaos can be an antidote to order. Rituals are great, as long as we aren’t too religious about them. A little chaos in the morning, a little chaos at work, a little chaos on the Sabbath.

A little chaos, not too much.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 37

Chapter 37

“If powerful men and women

could center themselves in [the Dao],

the whole world would be transformed by itself….

People would be content

with their simple, everyday lives,

in harmony, and free of desire.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Few passages in the Daodejing sound more utopian than this. Yet few ages, arguably, are more cynical than ours. Sure, the elimination of desire and world peace are impossible and, in the case of the former, economically disastrous.

But if we adopt the hermeneutic of Trump apologists and take the passage “seriously, but not literally,” it has something important to tell us.

One of the many lessons of the Trump years was that who is in charge matters. For a long time, many Americans—call them casual centrists—didn’t think or worry much about politics, naively assuming that the system would take care of itself, or cynically believing that they’re all crooks anyway, so why bother?

The very idea that the character of the leader doesn’t matter was foreign to the ancients. For Plato, the ideal leader was the philosopher. The philosopher was not a professor of philosophy, but a person who had attained self-mastery, possessed the virtues, and was driven above all toward the truth and the common good.

The idea that character doesn’t matter in politics flows from the political atomism of our cultural DNA: classical liberalism. As Patrick Dineen has pointed out, the idea that we are first and foremost individuals, islands unto ourselves, isn’t just corrosive to the flourishing of human society; it’s false. You don’t even need to ask Aristotle; just consult your local evolutionary biologist.

People instinctively look to the leader—even if they’re disgusted, even if they can’t look away. And even if they are repulsed and don’t follow his example, it makes them just a little bit more cynical, a little bit more jaded. It’s precisely that fatalism that is fatal to a free society. Without leaders centered in—or at least orbiting—the Dao, it’s harder for people to be center themselves.

But what follows from this is that we are all powerful men and women, caught, as King put it, in a seamless garment of destiny. We are part of the same social fabric that produced Trump. We must then take responsibility for ten thousand tiny ways we “transform the world” every day. We must center ourselves precisely by remembering that we are not the center of things.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 36

Chapter 36

“If you want to shrink something,

you must first allow it to expand.

If you want to get rid of something,

You must first allow it to flourish.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan relays one of the key “flight instructions” given by veteran “psychonauts” to people embarking on their first psychedelic trip: if you see a monster, go toward it.

As with all monsters, this requires defying our most powerful guardians—our desires and fears—as well as the conventional wisdom around monsters. At root, the word “monster” means a “showing.” He is always trying to show you something, even if he can’t articulate it—especially if he can’t articulate it. And he will not retreat from the stage until you get the message.

The monster’s medium—raging, roaring, rearing up—is his message. All he really craves is attention. It is hardly surprising that our contemporary culture is so monstrous: we live in an attention economy, where the latest form of manufactured scarcity is consciousness itself.

The art of monster-whispering requires not just courage and patience, but a heroic dose of imagination. Here, Lao-tzu calls it “the subtle perception of the way things are.” The way things are is not how they seem. The monster is not as he appears; or rather, he is precisely as he appears, if we look carefully enough: afraid.

So seen, he disappears.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 35

Chapter 35

“She who is centered in the Tao

can go where she wishes, without danger.

She perceives the universal harmony,

Even amid great pain,

Because she has found peace in her heart.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

There is little we would like more right now than to “go where we wish, without danger” and little more we desire than to feel centered. You can tell how long we’ve been in the underworld when memories from the before-times seem strange; I was recently recalling my first time meeting a colleague years ago, and it struck me as strange that we weren’t wearing masks. We can’t go anywhere without danger, and if anything, we feel too centered—because we’re always home. You can’t really go home if you’re always there.

What’s incongruous about this chapter is that it decouples danger and great pain. Modern Buddhists like to say that “pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional.” Physical, emotional, and mental pain is going to happen—hence the first Noble Truth, “Life is suffering”—but what we control is how we respond to it. Today’s suffering is tomorrow’s pain.

But pain conducted produces harmony. It reminds us that we are caught in a labyrinth, and gives us an Ariadne’s thread to fumble our way out so that we can see its brilliant design. The pandemic has been a tragedy, but the crisis, as the cliché goes, is also an opportunity to appreciate the reality and fragility of the world we have inherited and innovated: politically, culturally, economically, and ecologically entwined. Society is largely a conspiracy to protect its members from the truth, but the truth is just a broader, more concrete, and less nefarious conspiracy—that of life.

Life is the business of human beings and life forms breathing together in the same space, the background against which our religious and political stories appear childish things. The pandemic has laid bare the truth of our 21st century civilization, which is really the truth of civilization itself: our destiny is not to leave this plane or planet for heaven or space, but to learn how to live on it, how to breathe together with all of its inhabitants.

The great danger is that we cocoon ourselves with comforts inside the cave of conventional wisdom, which largely consists of conspiracy theories, some more benign than others. The pandemic must be the “great pain” that breaks this spell, and helps enough of us perceive the “universal harmony” that we can begin to face the music: climate change. Like our democracy, our home is not a given, but a goal.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 34

Chapter 34

“Since [the great Tao] is merged with all things

and hidden in their hearts,

it can be called humble.

Since all things vanish into it

and it alone endures,

it can be called great.

It isn’t aware of its greatness;

Thus it is truly great.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Mother Theresa (allegedly) said we cannot do great things, only small things with great love.

St. Valentine was not, in fact, the patron saint of lovers. He was a 3rd century Christian cleric and martyr who ministered to persecuted Christians. The legend of St. Valentine was created in the 14th century, and the industry of Valentine’s Day developed centuries after that. But both the legend and what little we know of the reality of the saint tell us a great deal about the hidden meaning of perhaps our most light-hearted holiday.

What yokes the life and legend of St. Valentine is devotion. Our modern conception of romantic love—that marriage should be based on personal passion rather than economic necessity and social status—derives in large part from the tradition of courtly love from the Middle Ages. But this idea was profoundly moral and religious: the knight errant does not simply devote himself to a noble lady because of her beauty and purity, but because she embodies qualities that reflect the divine. Put another way, he is not attracted to her, but through her, to something that transcends her. The danger of this, of course, is obsession: to idealize her and put her on a pedestal. That is the dark side of passion.

But the other side of passion is captured, to the best of our knowledge, by the real St. Valentine: selfless, sacrificial love. David Foster Wallace put it well:

“there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

To do small things with great love is precisely to do great things.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 33

Day 33

“Knowing others is intelligence;

knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Mastering others is strength;

Mastering yourself is true power.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

One of the many fascinating findings in analyses of Trump supporters is that men who identify as “completely masculine” were more likely to vote for him and approve of his policies. Hardly a shocker.

But it gets at something elemental, something too easily dismissed as simple misogyny or, in cutting-edge cultural parlance, “toxic masculinity.” Like “racism,” “transphobia”, and “nativism,” misogyny is a term referring to a real thing whose power declines in proportion to how commonly it is deployed.

It’s true that Trump and Trumpism are suffused by a brutal and basic form of masculinity. It’s true that this lines up perfectly with findings from social psychology that conservatives are less tolerant of ambiguity and less open to experience than liberals, and hence drawn to black and white views of morality and gender identity; indeed, for conservatives generally, the very idea of a differentiation between sex and gender, between biological reality and social construction, seems confused and confusing.

But it’s also true that this is a deep stratum in our body-minds, a foundational piece of our evolutionary inheritance. We ignore it—or attempt to exorcise it—at our individual and collective peril. The Daodejing nudges us to “know the male, but keep to the female,” not to cling to the female and castrate—or cancel—the male.

One way to understand Trumpism is to see it as a symptom of a deeper cultural problem: a lack of respect for traditional masculinity, and the collapse of the socioeconomic stage that allows it to flourish. Put another way, if you do away with traditional masculinity, toxic masculinity will take its place; one of the blind spots of many progressives is that they cannot distinguish between the two, and hence dismiss both. And that, of course, is cause and effect of toxic femininity.

Beneath all of this is an elemental truth: the masculine and feminine powers are not merely social constructs. In fact, social constructs are not merely social constructs or, alternatively put, the idea of “social constructs” is a social construct; they are a part of an integral whole in the world that we separate in analysis in order to better understand the complexity of reality. For human beings, it is natural to construct social reality. The reason we have trouble seeing this is that we have inherited the idea that nature and nurture are separate—that our nature is merely our genetic priors. For Aristotle, however, our nature included “nature” and nurture because we are social, political, meaning-making animals; our nature is to create culture.

And when it comes to sexuality and gender, the culture we create is bounded by biological forces. The sexual forces of male and female are like relatively fixed biological anchors, and the psychological forces of masculine and feminine are like ships tied to them but relatively free to move depending on the currents of culture. Gender is distinct from, but cannot be completely detached from, sex. Otherwise, the entire idea of a distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine—that is, the very ideas of sex and gender—become meaningless.

The obvious form of “mastering others is strength” is the alpha male monster bullying people into submission. But the opposite form of this is the dark female power—Tiamat or Kali—that, unconscious of her own masculinity, captive to her shadow, tries to destroy the other, all in the name of respect for otherness.

“Mastering yourself” means, in part, recognizing and expressing the masculine and feminine within—and not necessarily in equal proportions. At its best, traditional masculinity is one of the most successful formulas for doing this. The code of chivalry, traditional virtues like humility and moderation, and the ideal of the “gentle-man” all sublimate the will to dominate to a higher purpose and connect with the “taming of testosterone” that, as Ken Wilber puts it, is one of the primary tasks and fruits of civilization. That formula may be incomplete, has certainly been applied incorrectly, and needs to be supplemented; but it is a mistake to abandon it as a mere cypher for misogyny, patriarchy, and/or white supremacy.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 32

Chapter 32

The Tao can’t be perceived,

smaller than an electron,

it contains uncountable galaxies.


When you have name and forms,

know that they are provisional.

When you have institutions,

know where their functions should end.

Knowing when to stop,

you can avoid any danger.

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

The use of the modern word “electron” is obviously a liberty taken by the translator, but it also reflects one of the most influential modern appropriations of Daoism: the identification of quantum physics with Eastern mysticism more broadly. Popular New Age or New Age-adjacent books like the Tao of Physics and the The Dancing Wu Li Masters posited a parallel between the new physics and Eastern conceptions of impermanence and interdependence. Beyond this, they helped to spread the idea that science and spirituality are not incompatible, and that physics somehow “proves” the Tao.

In Quantum Questions, Ken Wilber convincingly argued that this line of thinking is misguided. But his intention was not to dismiss spirituality as “woo woo,” as the Defenders of Science commonly do. His approach was similar to evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s view of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria”—a clunky phrase for a simple idea: do not, so to speak, try to join what God has separated.

But a problem with the way this idea is spun is that science gets seen as “objective” and “rational” and “empirical,” while religion is “subjective” and “emotional” and based on “faith.” Science is the realm of the known and knowable, religion that of mystery.

Without for a minute dismissing the legitimacy and sophistication of contemporary physics, perusing the work of popular writers like Brian Greene or Neal DeGrasse Tyson, it’s hard to come away without thinking that the universe if fundamentally weird. It is as though physics and philosophy have switched places: the hard science is now in the business of positing abstract entities—superstrings and god particles and dark matter. Physics is the new metaphysics. At some point, you feel compelled to ask whether we are just bumping up against the limitations of our knowing.

And here, the medievals’ approach may be of use, without adopting their theology. Their idea was that faith and reason were not incompatible, but mutually entailing. We have to know the limits of our reason (“knowing when to stop”) in order to make room for what transcends it. What transcends it may be mysterious, but that is no excuse for pretending it doesn’t exist, or asserting that someday science will “explain it.” When science does that, it stops being science and turns into scientism.

Likewise, when religions claim to have the Total Explanation for Everything, they stop being religions and become cults.

Only be stopping can we start to see the mystery.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 31

Chapter 31

“Weapons are the tools of violence;

all decent men detest them.

Weapons are the tools of fear;

a decent man will avoid them

except in the direct necessity

and, if compelled, will use them

Only with the utmost restraint.


His enemies are not demons,

But human beings like himself.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

One of my favorite book titles is Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. One of the reasons we moderns are meaning-poor, I suspect, is that we are insulated from war. War or the threat of war was a near constant for most of our species’ history, so much so that the ancients generally regarded it as natural and inescapable.

The basic idea of modernity is that we should stop fighting and start fucking—exchanging goods in the physiosphere (economics), bodies in the biosphere (immigration), and ideas in what Tielhard de Chardin called the “noosphere” (culture). The logic of the post-World War II “liberal international order” was based on the idea that economic interdependence would make the large-scale national conflicts intolerable and unlikely. The hope was that classical liberalism would act as a sort of booster rocket to help humanity achieve the escape velocity from Thucydides’ trap and attain Kant’s “perpetual peace.”

It’s true that this rocket ship was built on the backs of slaves, the exploitation of colonies, and the degradation of the environment. But it’s also true, as Steven Pinker demonstrates in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that despite the cataclysmic conflicts of the 20th century, the modern world is far more peaceful than prior eras in history. Within the gates of civilization, at least, we live in a historically anomalous garden of peace and prosperity.

And it turns out that’s kind of boring.

At the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama famously warned that the “end of history”—the victory of democratic capitalism in the multi-millennial contest of ideologies—was the beginning of a new threat: the “last man,” a phrase he took from Nietzsche. The last man is what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests” and T.S. Eliot termed “hollow men”—all reason and appetite, no heart. With a political system telling him to respect others’ rights, an economic system telling him to be a good producer and consumer, and a biology telling him that his only purpose is to survive and reproduce, the last man’s only goal is to…last. Tyler Durden distills the plight of the last man in Fight Club: “We’re the middle children of history, with no purpose or place. We have no great war, or great depression. The great war is a spiritual war. The great depression is our lives.”

True peace is not just the absence of war. Rather than exorcise the warrior energies that are part of our evolutionary inheritance, modernity denies their existence, and is confused when they erupt into the public square. It is hard to imagine a better example of this than the QAnon shaman howling in the heart of the Capitol.

Eliminate nature wars, and you’re going to get culture wars. The converse of Bismarck’s adage that “war is the continuation of politics by other means is also true.” For the vast majority of us in the so-called developed world, the weapons we wield are words. Most of us—particularly those in UMPMC (upper middle professional managerial class)—fancy ourselves decent, reasonable people free from ideology, far more civilized than the “great unwashed” idiocrats from the sticks attending Trump rallies, spellbound by the delusion that they are foot soldiers in some world-historical struggle re-enacting 1776. And of course it is horrible that, as Ross Douthat put it, the “dreampolitik” of today’s Republican party—the fake news, the conspiracy theories, the live-action role playing game ethos—tore the veil between the virtual and the real on January 6th.

But this move is a mistake, and a subtle form of violence. We other the others because they other. We “them” them “theming” us. David Frum put it well in “Against Revenge,” the final chapter of his recent book on Trump:

“comparatively few of Trump’s voters were intentionally bad actors. Most of them were fallible human beings like everybody else. They were deceived by people they trusted. Fox News and Facebook penned them like farmed salmon inside a lagoon of ignorance. Irresponsible politicians them hauled them flopping into their nets. These Trump voters were not victims, exactly. They could have struggled to overcome their prejudices. They could have sought out better information. They could have made wiser choices. They did grave harm to American democracy. Yet if you are going to hold them accountable for their bad choices, you should also hold yourself accountable for the choices you will make after the political pendulum swings. These are your countrymen. They are not going anywhere.”

For if we recognize that we are caught in and, however minutely, contributing to a world-historical conflict—if we awaken from the dream that history has “ended,” and realize that the fate of democracy, capitalism, and the climate is bound up with the culture wars in the United States—we might come to see our struggle in quite different terms. As Nietzsche put, “in times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself.”

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 30

Chapter 30

“The Master does his job

and then stops.

He understand that the universe

is forever out of control,

and that trying to dominate events

goes against the current of the Tao.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

When it comes to Fortune, Machiavelli is the Western yin to Lao-tzu’s yang.

“I certainly believe this: that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down. It is clear that she more often allows herself to be won over by impetuous men than by those who proceed coldly.

“Fortune is a…raging river, which floods the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil; everyone flees before it; all yield to its violence, and no one can resist it…”

For Machiavelli, Fortune is tantamount to Tiamat.

What separates the two thinkers is the desire to dominate it. Machiavelli believed that the will to conquer the world is part of human nature; Lao-tzu believed that the ability to conquer desire is the key to harmony with nature.

The great leader aims not to be feared or loved, but to be ignored. There is a reason the Biden presidency has come as a relief to so many: boring is a blessing.

But it would be a mistake to cast Trump as a Machiavellian success story. His great masterstroke was to seize to perceive and mercilessly exploit the GOP’s hollowness, rural America’s anger, and Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity in 2016. His great mistake was that he tried to Tweet his way around Tiamat in 2020. Fortune, in the form of the pandemic, carried him out to sea.

If he had done his job and stopped Tweeting, he would be president. And we would not be bored.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 29

Chapter 29

“Do you want to improve the world?

I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.

It can’t be improved.

If you temper with it, you’ll ruin it.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

This is blasphemy to modern ears. The whole idea of modernity is progress, particularly material progress. As the old Dow slogan put it, “better living through chemistry.”

The Daodejing tends to mix with progressive spirituality in American culture, so it may be surprising to consider that here, it embraces two core conservative ideas: one, that the world cannot be fixed, and two, that the attempt to fix it often messes it up even more. As the British conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it, “Those who in Elysian fields would dwell, do but extend the bounds of hell.” Yang is not a problem to solved or managed.

At first glance, this appears to counsel pessimism; and indeed, it certainly recognizes the tragic side of life. But seen rightly, it spells relief. Thomas Merton understood this:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

That doesn’t mean we should quit our moral striving and slouch into cynicism. As Pope John XXIII put it, “See everything, overlook a lot, correct a little.”

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Episode #18: Ask a Philosopher with Ian Olasov

Ian Olasov is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a public philosopher at large. In his new book, Ask a Philosopher: Answer to Your Most Important and Most Unexpected Questions, Ian weighs in on the results of a social experiment he has run for years: philosophers travel to public places like parks, street fairs, and farmers markets, set up a booth, and invite people to talk about whatever is on their mind. He has written for Slate, Vox, and other publications.

In this episode, Ian regales us with tales from the popular Brooklyn Night of Philosophy, considers what speech act theory can tell us about the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement, and shares what he has learned running the “Ask a Philosopher” booth–from the funky to the weird, provocative, and profound.

Continue reading “Episode #18: Ask a Philosopher with Ian Olasov”

Dao Du Jour: Day 28

Chapter 28

The world is formed from the void,

Like utensils from a block of wood.

The Master knows the utensils,

yet keeps to the block:

Thus she can use all things.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

In the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, the “villain” is the goddess Tiamat, a dragon-like monster of the deep who represents chaos, winter, death. In the story, essentially an agricultural allegory for the changing of the season, the “hero” Marduk slays Tiamat to thwart her destructive rampage and rebuilds the world with her body.

In Genesis, God calls forth the cosmos out of the watery chaos, or “the deep.” The Hebrew word used here is tehom, which is etymologically related to the name Tiamat; hence it is widely believed that the Biblical creation myth is an adaptation of an older story. But notice the differences: Chaos or nothingness doesn’t get a starring role, and there is no living female principle at the creation. In fact, in mythologies of the ancient Near East, the Bible is the odd ball in having no goddesses.

The vision of God drawing order out of the watery chaos later gets worked up into the theological idea of creation “ex nihilo,” out of nothing, but in the text, God does no such thing. The void is there first. The general effect of the Genesis narrative is to repress—to negate—the negative principle, and it haunts the Western tradition in various forms:  the problem of hell, the fear of death, punishment in hell and, of course, garbage.

When Jesus warns his followers about a place called “hell,” the word used is Gehenna. This was not an underground cavern filled with fire and fiends. It was a place in Jerusalem that was seen as cursed, formerly a site of child sacrifice, where the carcasses of animals sacrificed at the temple would be piled up and burned. Hell, in other words, was the town dump.

Architect Bill McDonough has a simple formula to explain his eco-friendly design philosophy: “waste equals food.” Just as the new world order is built out of Tiamat’s body, in the natural world there is no such thing as waste. Whether something is waste or food to you depends on your place in the food chain.

In this chapter, we find three couplets:  the male and the female, the white and the black, and the personal and the impersonal. In each, we are told to “know” the former, and “keep to” the latter.

Mind the gap.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 27

Chapter 27

“A good traveler has no fixed plans,

and is not intent on arriving.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Mike Tyson put the point more crudely: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

The text does not say to not make any plans—just to not hold onto them too tightly. Every moment, every situation, every day is the same: we come to it with a cluster of ideas, expectations, goals, plans, etc., but reality ultimately dictates the terms and tempo of battle. The art of entering the battle well is to strike just the right balance between narrowing our focus to master the moment and opening our awareness to welcome what it has to show us.

Our productivity-driven culture is great at goals—at doing the right things (effectiveness) and doing them the right way (efficiency)—and poor at dancing with things (efficacy).

If we don’t dance with things, we are doing to get punched in the face.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 26

Chapter 26

“The heavy is the root of the light.

The unmoved is the source of all movement.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

When I was learning Tai Chi in graduate school many moons ago, this insight was made visceral.

I was paired up with a twitchy freshman to practice a simple drill: you take a straddle stance about three feet away from the other person, they kick straight at you, and you shift your weight to the side, dodge the kick, and clasp their foot.

Keep in mind that a) this is a practice drill, and b) Tai Chi is slow. Like, really slow. Slow like, yes, the way you see elderly Asian people practicing it in the park slow. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Once we had taken our positions, the instructor, Sifu, gave the go ahead, and my partner, impatient as a greyhound about to be loosed from the starting gate, proceeds to wind up and swing his leg toward my groin.

Luckily, we had just completed the warmup exercises. I mentioned slowness. The warmup has the effect not only of getting your body ready for a workout, but calming the mind and focusing the attention—Sifu likened it to be naturally stoned.

A long leg hurtling toward my groin, I pivoted instantly, effortlessly, like Neo dodging bullets, and seized his foot in one crisp, sure, snapping motion.

I turned my face to see Sifu next to me, a knowing grin resting on his face: “You see how quickly you can react when you’re relaxed?” The lesson didn’t just save me from a half hour or so of excruciating pain. It proved to be transferrable to pretty much everything.

The reason I was able to react so quickly, Sifu later explained, was that I was in the “grounded position.” The idea is Tai Chi is to draw power from your surroundings, particularly from the ground; gravity is not an obstacle to defy, but an energy source to harness. The more rooted we are, the more quickly and correctly we can respond to whatever comes our way.

The opposite—the posture we hold most of the time—is the “floating position.” We are easily knocked off balance or dragged away by distraction.

How often are you in the floating position?

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 25

Chapter 25

“There was something formless and perfect

before the universe was born.

It is serene. Empty.

Solitary. Unchanging.

Infinite. Eternally present.

It is the mother of the universe.

For lack of a better name,

I call it the Tao.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

In this chapter Lao-tzu comes the closest to violating the precept he lays down in chapter one: “the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” It’s probably the most concerted attempt to describe the Dao in the entire text.

So stated, it sounds similar to the monotheistic idea of a God hanging out in the eternal void before creating the universe—except for two things: it is empty, and it is female.

Modern thinking is allergic to seeing the universe anthropomorphically. Postmodern thinking is allergic to seeing it patriarchally. It’s easy to see how ancient societies’ views of the cosmos were refracted through the structure of their societies, with a despotic God being depicted as king of the universe. It’s easy—and kind of fun—to debunk those mythic stories.

But Daoism offers a subtler way of thinking about the cosmos and our place in it. The masculine and the feminine are not simply features of human sexuality and gender identity, but basic principles of the cosmos. Put another way, the polarity between male and female in the human drama is just one iteration of the play of primal energies that suffuses the cosmos.

This is not the same as magical thinking and childish superstition, in which we project our wishes and imaginations onto the world. It’s the recognition that we should fully expect the basic elements of our being to reflect and cohere with the order of things that gave birth to us. The existentialist notion that we are “strangers in a strange world” is a strange doctrine, the sign of an age that has forgotten where it came from.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 24

Chapter 24

“He who clings to his work

will create nothing that endures.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Paradoxically, the worry, stress, and anxiety we experience around work is a function of not paying attention to our work.

When we “cling” to our work, we are fixated not on what we have to do, but our opinions and feelings about what we have to do—on our selves. Our attention is pulled out of the present—the task at hand—and inward toward concerns over the results and how they’ll be perceived by others.

But the clinging also takes our focus off of others as recipients and beneficiaries of the fruits or our labor. We dwell on how we will judged.

By taking work too seriously, we diminish its quality, and stymie the condition for its excellence: serious play.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 23

Chapter 23

“Express yourself completely,

then keep quiet.”

A psychological formula I quite like goes something like this: “what you do not express you will repress, and what you repress will cause distress.” Not just in you, but in others—in small, subtle, osmotic ways.

If we do not express ourselves, we may keep quiet on the outside, but we will face the blowback of noise on the inside. A silenced signal breeds noise that gnaws on us until we explode. Better to express on our own terms, rather than the terms of our repressed feelings.

The chapter casts this in terms of trust and openness: “Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place.” It means trusting—both that our thoughts and feelings are legitimate and deserve to be, and that however much we might fear letting them out into the world, they belong there.

An exchange between the dancers Agnes DeMille and Martha Graham illustrates this:

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Express yourself completely, so that you may find quiet within.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 22

Chapter 22

“When the ancient Masters said,

‘If you want to be given everything,

give everything up,’

they weren’t using empty phrases.

Only in being lived by the Tao

Can you be truly yourself.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

How much this last line sounds like St. Paul’s “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”! In chapter 19 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is asked by a young rich man how to enter the kingdom of heaven. “Do you follow the commandments?” Jesus asks him. Check! But then Jesus makes a more exacting demand, asking the man to sell all of his possessions. Exit young rich man stage right.

This story—combined with the phrase that it will be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel passing through the eye of a needle—Is typically invoked to illustrate the idea that wealth if frowned upon in Christian teaching and, more generally, that it is incompatible with the moral and religious life. God or Mammon. But that is not the sense of the story.

Jesus is testing the young man to see how attached he is to his possessions. The story is not about the man’s net worth—it’s about the state of his soul. Put another way, the way to read the first beatitude—blessed are the poor in spirit—is that it calls for spiritual, not material, poverty: an empty, open, free soul unattached to power, property, profit, and prestige.

Jesus is calling the young man to “empty” himself, not to empty his coffers.

This is the same emptying to which the Daodejing is calling us. The demand sounds extreme only because, like the young man, we imagine it requires some dramatic change in our life circumstances. But what it mainly requires is a shift of perspective, to relate to our life circumstances in a different way. It’s a different kind of hard.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 21

Chapter 21

“Before time and space were,

the Tao is.

It is beyond is and is-not.

How do I know this is true?

I look inside myself and see.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

A theme that runs through the Daodejing—and Zen Buddhism—is that the path to the knowledge of the self and the knowledge of reality is one and the same. But it is not confined to these traditions. Even St. Augustine’s formula can be cast as “going within takes me beyond,” or as one of his interpreters put it, to move “from the exterior to the interior, and from the interior to the superior.”

To our modern ears, this sounds odd. Why? Because we live in a secular age, which philosopher Charles Taylor suggests is bound by an “immanent frame.” The immanent frame is the idea that there is no transcendent spiritual reality, no unseen order, nothing really mysterious or spooky going on in the universe. The vision was perfectly encapsulated by Alfred North Whitehead’s definition of “scientific materialism”: “Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endless and meaningless.”

In this frame, the self is what Taylor calls “the buffered self,” or what Alan Watts famously called a “skin-encapsulated ego.”

In this kind of a universe, if I withdraw into myself, I am eventually going to just hit a wall somewhere in the dark crannies of my unconscious or, worse, I’ll get lost and descend into madness. Also, I’m going to realize that wow, I’m really kind of crazy and weird. Maybe better to not make the trip?

In Taylor’s story, the “buffered self” came to replace the “porous self.” The porous self is that of the Biblical world, where God speaks to his people in dreams, of the Greek world, where gods and goddesses possess mortals, of the medieval world, where spirits and devils circle and penetrate the soul. Arguably, the internet has reactivated this “porous self,” but now our minds are vulnerable to hijack by spectral forces from the cloud—algorithms, influencers, bots, trolls, software engineers.

None of this is to say that that old enchanted world of magic and myth is true. But it does suggest that we ought to push the immanent frame and test the boundaries of the buffered self, not based on faith in some invisible order, but by being good skeptics in the original sense of the term:

To look for ourselves.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 20

Chapter 20

“Stop thinking, and end your problems.

What difference between yes and no?

What difference between success and failure?”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

One of the bestsellers of the aughts was The Purpose-Driven Life, by pastor Rick Warren. The term “purpose” functions in our cultural lexicon somewhat like the term “meaning”: a nebulous, semi-spiritual cypher that contains multitudes, that can be put to any purpose and carry any meaning. And the pursuit of purpose has much to recommend it.

But for Lao-tzu, purpose is a trap. Before she was secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice was a gifted pianist. Her teacher told her biographer that while Rice was technically proficient, she lacked the “disciplined abandon” needed to become a great concert pianist.

Where Confucianism pushes us to be disciplined, Daoism calls us to abandon. We need both.

The idea that what we decide (“yes or no”) and whether our efforts bear fruit (“success or failure”) doesn’t really matter sounds nihilistic. Nothing matters, so why bother?

But the Daoist receives this “nothing matters” as gospel. It is the good news that we are not on trial, that we are not being tested, and that the weight of the world is not on our shoulders. That means that we are free—to play, to create, to fail—to build sandcastles with the intensity and abandon of a child.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 19

Chapter 19

“Throw away holiness and wisdom,

and people will be a hundred times happier.

Throw away morality and justice,

and people will do the right thing.

Throw away industry and profit,

and there won’t be any thieves.

If these three aren’t enough,

just stay at the center of the circle,

And let all things take their course.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Here again we see conventionally valuable qualities cast as obstacles to human flourishing.

In one of his most potent and penetrating books, The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts claims that, paradoxically, we can only become secure by accepting that we will never be secure. Insecurity is not a problem to be solved, but a condition to be embraced. Put another way, we do not simply have problems, we are a problem to ourselves. The gnawing feeling of insecurity–that there are loose threads poking out the back of the carefully woven tapestry of our egos—is produced by denying and trying to cover up our natural insecurity.

It is only when we are “off center” that we feel the need to think and talk about what is good and true. Lao-tzu’s idea here is that often our attempts to restore balance often throw us even more off center. It is only when we stop struggling to “fix” ourselves, others, and the world—when we “let all things take their course”—and when we stop imagining that the center is somewhere else “out there”—that we can finally relax.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 18

Chapter 18

“When the great Tao is forgotten,

goodness and piety appear.

When the body’s intelligence declines,

cleverness and knowledge step forth.

When there is no peace in the family,

filial piety begins.

When the country falls into chaos,

patriotism is born.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

This is the first chapter we encounter that is a direct attack against the rival tradition in Chinese culture at the time: Confucianism. We’ll come back to the quarrel between Lao-tzu and Confucius later.

But apart from that, what is confusing about the chapter is that it presents six good things—things we generally aspire to cultivate—as signs of regression.

Think of the self-styled “patriots” on the right storming the capitol, or Woke virtue-signaling on the left. When the country falls into chaos, what is good becomes contested, and people compete to be—and be seen as—better than others.

If we are truly living out and secure in our beliefs and values, we don’t feel the need to talk about them so much.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 17

Chapter 17

“When the Master governs, the people

are hardly aware that he exists.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.

When his work is done,

The people say, ‘Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

I’ve been watching the press briefings this first week of the Biden administration, and ten or fifteen minutes into them, a feeling starts to settle in: boredom. Big glorious bureaucratic boredom. Who thought watching a White House press briefing could be as soothing as listening to that British guy in the Headspace app lulling you into samadhi? I usually continue watching, but I don’t have to, because every moment is not packaged to be damn good television.

Perhaps the defining feature of the Trump presidency, in terms of the experience of the average person, was his omnipresence. Like a supermassive black hole warping the galaxy surrounding it and sucking the light and life out of everything that approached it, Trump consumed our attention, relentlessly, from start to finish. Boring the last five years were not.

When the Master does not govern, the people forget they exist. They forget they exist as a people—bound together by a shared history, core values, and a common fate. They lose the willingness to trust each other. They lose their sense of agency. They lose the capacity to govern themselves.

The great irony of the end of the 40-year Reagan era—of which Trump is not the repudiation, but the last dying gasp—is that it has become clear that the real problem is the idea that government is the problem. The attempt to “deconstruct the administrative state” has made us realize how much we love bureaucracy—and the ability to turn off the television and get on with our lives.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 16

Chapter 16

“Empty your mind of all thoughts.

Let your heart be at peace.

Watch the turmoil of beings,

but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe

Returns to the common source.

Returning to the source is serenity.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Every year I teach Genesis to college students. One thing that often puzzles them is the lists of names; why take a whole page to list all of Noah’s descendants?

I tell them a story about when I worked at the Grand Canyon for a summer when I was their age. During orientation, a park ranger was giving a talk about the Native American cultures indigenous to the region. He started by asking how many of us know who our grandparents were?

Everyone raised their hand.

Next, he asked how many of us know who their parents were?

Almost everyone raised their hand.

Finally, he asked how many of us know who their great grandparents’ great grandparents were? One man in the back—who revealed himself to be of Navajo descent—raised his hand. Imagine, Ranger Roger said, knowing your precise place in a family history reaching back hundreds or thousands of years. For the Jews, the Biblical narratives reminded them who they were and where they came from. What we moderns may deride as “ancestor worship” in primitive cultures serves a vital purpose.

The word “religion” is related, etymologically, to the word “ligament.” To remember where we came from is to literally re-member ourselves—to restore the connection that the emergence of self-consciousness severs. The term sin tends to be loaded with moral weight, as a personal failing for which we feel guilty, a red balance sheet we are forever trying to clear. But a better way to understand the term is “separation.” Religion, in this sense, means healing the rifts that rise up within our minds, between our minds and bodies, between each other, and with the world.

We are great at watching the turmoil of beings, but terrible at contemplating their return. “If you don’t realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow.” Religion, at its best, reverses this existential entropy.

But what does it mean to be religious?

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 15

Chapter 15

“Do you have the patience to wait

till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

From the moment we wake up, the mud starts to seep in—meetings, appointments, deadlines, dogs to walk, groceries to buy, meals to cook, commutes to bear. The cocoon of the covers beckons.

But these things are not the true mud. The true mud is how our minds relate to them. As stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, “It is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things.” If we don’t find a way to let our mud settle, we are going to try and offload it onto others throughout the day—consciously or unconsciously, crudely or subtly. If we don’t clean our minds up, they’re going to pollute, and that, in turn, will lead others to pollute. All told, we’ll just wake up tomorrow with more mud on our minds.

The call of the covers, of course, is a siren song. They lead us not to escape from the mud, but to wallow in it, precisely because the mud is not in the world outside of them, but in our own minds. Marcus Aurelius, another stoic thinker, had a considered view of the matter:

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm? So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?”

The opposite mistake of wallowing in the mud is the wish to rid the world of it. As Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh likes to say, “No mud, no lotus.” Rather than pushing the mud away, we must allow it to settle, for it is ultimately the soil that nurtures and reveals the flowers we seek.

And once the mud has settled, we can finally play in it.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 14

Chapter 14

“Look, and it can’t be seen.

Listen, and it can’t be heard.

Reach, and it can’t be grasped.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

As the saying goes, we do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.

Our seeing is always from an angle, refracted through our perspective. All seeing is seeing as. Our perspective binds us to reality, but also blinds us from it. That doesn’t mean our perspective should—or could!—be abandoned; as C.S. Lewis put it, “to see through everything is the same as not to see.” That way madness lies. What it means is that our perspective is not fixed, but fluid. And a facility to “take subject as object,” in the words of psychologist Robert Kegan, is the royal road to reality and the guarantor of growth.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 13

Chapter 13

“Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?

Hope and fear are both phantoms

That arise from thinking of the self.

See the world as your self.

Have faith in the way things are.

Love the world as your self;

Then you can care for all things.”

Two of the three theological virtues in the Christian tradition are invoked here by the translator—hope and faith—yet to convey an apparently un-Christian message. The notion that hope is a hindrance may strike Western ears the way the first noble truth of Buddhism—“life is suffering”—often does: as a world-weary pessimism. Yet it is hard to read the last lines of the chapter and not detect notes of Jesus’ “love your neighbor as yourself.”

All is not as it seems. The key to this passage is the connection between hope and fear. Both are understood here in terms of desire for a future outcome that is the flipside of a rejection of the way things are. Of course we “hope” and “desire” for some things to happen and others not to; the key is to see things going our way as “bonuses” on top of a fundamentally good deal. In Christian terms, this means seeing existence itself—all of it—as an unmerited grace. How often does Jesus encourage his followers to not worry, to not be afraid?

The recipe for overcoming fear is not to hope for a future, better life—here or the hereafter—but to turn completely toward the moment.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 12

Chapter 12

“Colors blind the eye.

Sounds deafen the ear.

Flavors numb the taste.

Thoughts weaken the mind.

Desires wither the heart.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

All five of these statements seem not only false, but the opposite of the truth: thinking quickens the mind, desire inflames the heart, colors excite the eye, and so on. But this is so only if we take them at face value.

Many believe this chapter to be a set of rough meditation instructions aimed at thwarting the power of distractions to pull us out of the moment. The mind, the heart, and the senses are typically distracted and disintegrated in our daily lives. Instead, the text encourages us to “trust our inner vision.” But this doesn’t mean retreating to a mountaintop cave, closing our eyes, and plugging our ears. The Master “observes the world” and his “heart is open as the sky.”

When we focus on colors, sounds, flavors, thought, or desires, we fixate on a part of the whole, and unconsciously close ourselves off from the world.

To really see and hear and taste and know and feel, we have to let go of colors, sounds, flavors, thought, or desires.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

Dao Du Jour: Day 11

Chapter 11

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.

We work with being, but non-being is what we use.”

One way to think of the Daodejing is a critique of our modern way of thinking about space. Our thinking about space is dominated by impoverished notions of utility, efficiency, productivity rooted in a mashup of perverted forms of Christianity and capitalism. Francis Bacon and John Locke construed the Biblical mandate for humanity to “have dominion over” and “subdue” the earth as a license to conquer nature through science and technology and maximize yield of the land. For Locke, the great sin was waste; one’s very right to property was premised on efficiently using the land. Extractive and consumer capitalism drives us not just to use, but to use up, scarce resources as quickly as possible in order to meet the multiplication of desires it produces.

But in the natural world, waste is food and trash is treasure. Daoism embraces a very different kind of efficiency—one that is basically conservative. For the Daoist, efficacy (de) is the supreme virtue. It is “making the most of your ingredients.” And the most important ingredients—the real “value-add”—is not our own manual or mental labor, or the materials from which we fashion our wares, but the empty space that allows the making to take place.

Take speech. All the words we perceive and receiver ride on complex currents of structured air projected through space. If we were more mindful of our breath—and the “conspiracy” (literally, “breathing together”) of life in which we are complicit—how much more often and easily would we speak true?

We shape sounds into words, but it is breath that holds whatever we think.

We work with speech, but breath is what we use.

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Dao Du Jour: Day 10

Chapter 10

“Can you coax your mind from its wandering

and keep to the original oneness?

Can you let your body become

supple as a newborn child’s?”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Meditation and politics would seem to have nothing to do with each other. But as I noted a couple of days ago, the Daodejing is not just ancient self-help, and does not think we can seriously separate the personal from the political, character from the collective, de—a key term we will come back to—from the doing of the people’s business. If the last four years have taught us anything, it is how powerfully—how viscerally—the character of a leader and the climate of our politics can affect our consciousness—even our nervous systems.

In his inauguration speech yesterday, President Biden called us away from the toxic culture of negative partisanship that has consumed us these last four years. We have wandered so long and so far from the good, the true, and the beautiful—hell, even the decent and the factual—that many have begun to wonder whether our country is hopelessly lost, whether Biden’s call for unity is just an old man shouting into a hurricane.

For those wondering whether it is possible for us to “keep to the original oneness”—whether we can, in Franklin’s words, “keep” our Republic—the recitation of Amanda Gorman, poet laureate of the United States, was a definitive answer. Her movements were graceful as her words were wise, coaxing the attention of a nation toward the unity—the feeling of home, belonging, and “original oneness”—that even those who deny our new President’s legitimacy deep down so desperately desire. If our body politic can become just a little more supple—if each of us can find just a bit more space between stimulus and response—we can climb whatever hills we face. Without a little wuwei, there will be no exit from the vicious cycle of polarization.

What the Daodejing calls us to, above all, is trust: to trust in our own minds, in others, and in the nature of things. What do we do each day but try to form a more perfect union in our psyches, in our relationships, in our world?

Dao Du Jour: Day 9

Chapter 9

“Do your work, then step back.

The only path to serenity.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

One reason it is hard for us to “step back” these days is that we are always, at some level, plugged in. We carry in our pocket a portable Pandora’s box, perpetually propagating portents of end of the world, a taskmaster reminding us of all we have to do, and a tether keeping us “on call” to our employers.

Our attempts at achieving “work/life balance” are so many sad huts built on a beach in the face of an oncoming tsunami. The current of our culture of “total work” is a furious haste and busyness always sweeping us up and carrying us out of the moment.

The Daoist response is not, however, to fight the current, but to yield to it. In yielding to it, it slows; in rising to meet it, it becomes smaller; in working with it, it becomes more workable. Only in yielding to it can we be present to it, only in being present to it can we step back from it, and only in stepping back from it can we enter into it.

Only from a place of serenity can we truly do our work.

Chapter 8: The Low Place

Chapter 8

“The supreme good is like water,

which nourishes all things without trying to.

It is content with the low places that people disdain.

Thus it Is like the Tao.”

Find the “low place” that you “disdain”—right now—and rest your mind and body there for a moment.

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Dao Du Jour: Day 7

Chapter 7

“The Master stays behind;

that is why she is ahead.

She is detached from all things;

that is why she is one with them.

Because she has let go of herself,

she is perfectly fulfilled.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

The Daodejing is commonly cast as an ancient collection of cryptic fortune cookie sayings most relevant, if at all, for spiritual inspiration, the stuff of self-help. But it actually has a great deal to say about politics.

Consider the Dao of Obama.

The 44th president was maligned for “leading from behind” (stays behind), being “aloof” and “professorial” (detached), “arrogant,” “smug” and “condescending” (full of himself).

These were all the judgments of lesser men with lesser minds.

Whenever someone is criticized from both sides of a polarity, pay attention. There’s typically a lot of ignorance, hypocrisy, and projection going on from those who, unlike the “Master,” “take sides.” Because they have taken sides, they can’t see the whole, and they actually don’t see the other side as a side; hence they harbor the delusion that it can be defeated. This is a branch confusing itself for the root.

The phrase leading from behind was popularized by Nelson Mandela:

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

The allegedly aloof, professorial president followed a monkish regimen:

Almost every night that he is in the White House, Mr. Obama has dinner at 6:30 with his wife and daughters and then withdraws to the Treaty Room, his private office down the hall from his bedroom on the second floor of the White House residence.

There, his closest aides say, he spends four or five hours largely by himself.

“He is thoroughly predictable in having gone through every piece of paper that he gets,” said Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2013. “You’ll come in in the morning, it will be there: questions, notes, decisions.”

To stay awake, the president does not turn to caffeine. He rarely drinks coffee or tea, and more often has a bottle of water next to him than a soda. His friends say his only snack at night is seven lightly salted almonds.

Finally, David Brooks made an insightful observation a month before Obama’s election in 2008:

We’ve been watching Barack Obama for two years now, and in all that time there hasn’t been a moment in which he has publicly lost his self-control. This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis. And yet there hasn’t been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.

Some candidates are motivated by something they lack. For L.B.J., it was respect. For Bill Clinton, it was adoration. These politicians are motivated to fill that void. Their challenge once in office is self-regulation. How will they control the demons, insecurities and longings that fired their ambitions?

But other candidates are propelled by what some psychologists call self-efficacy, the placid assumption that they can handle whatever the future throws at them. Candidates in this mold, most heroically F.D.R. and Ronald Reagan, are driven upward by a desire to realize some capacity in their nature. They rise with an unshakable serenity that is inexplicable to their critics and infuriating to their foes.

Obama has the biography of the first group but the personality of the second. He grew up with an absent father and a peripatetic mother. “I learned long ago to distrust my childhood,” he wrote in “Dreams From My Father.” This is supposed to produce a politician with gaping personal needs and hidden wounds.

But over the past two years, Obama has never shown evidence of that. Instead, he has shown the same untroubled self-confidence day after day.

There has never been a moment when, at least in public, he seems gripped by inner turmoil. It’s not willpower or self-discipline he shows as much as an organized unconscious.

While statecraft and soulcraft are not the same thing, they overlap more than conventional wisdom suggests. If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that character matters. Having an “organized unconscious” helps us see our own “dark side”—and thus able to see the light in those who oppose us.

What could be more practical in our polarized age?

Dao Du Jour: Day 6

Chapter 6

“The Tao is called the Great Mother:

empty yet inexhaustible,

it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always within you.

You can use it in any way you want.”

Kierkegaard called anxiety “the dizziness of freedom.” Sartre claimed that we are “condemned to be free.” This is blasphemy to American ears! Freedom is our transcendent value, and we shalt not take its name in vein.

It is easy to read the final line of the chapter as saying the Dao is like a genie who can grant all of your wishes. This reflects the bastardization of Eastern religions common in New Age thinking. The disturbingly but revealingly popular The Secret is the perfect example: if you just want it hard enough, the power of your intention will bend the cosmos, quantum foam and all, to align with your will!

But the message here is the opposite. The intent is not to help you get what you want, but to help you let go of what you want. True freedom is not the power to do or get what we want; it is realizing we already have everything we need. Put another way, once you realize that the pearl of great price is “always within you,” then you can play, free from the fear that you will lose it or the desire to gain it.

If we fail to make that distinction, the Great Mother transforms into Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. If life is a slow-moving conveyor belt, Kali is the black monster eyeing us the whole time, always hungry, ravenous, gobbling us each all as we plummet like lemmings to our demise. The Big Bloom becomes the Big Bang, an aimless, entropic universe whose direction and default is death. Our reactions to the face of freedom are familiar: fight, flight, fawn, freeze. Death provokes defiance, distraction, delusion, and depression.

But according to the Daodejing, the angst and ennui of the European existentialists—and the pep pathological positivity of the American New Agers—are misguided. If we do not rage against the dying of the light, but rest in the “darkness within darkness,” we will give birth to something new. If we embrace Kali, she will embrace us back. And then, we are free to play again. What Zen calls the “Great Death” and what the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross described as the “dark night of the soul” is the portal through which we must pass to enter what Jesus called “the kingdom of heaven”—and to do so, we must become “childlike.”

But the kingdom of heaven is not some place or plane beyond earth or after death. Jesus tells us that, like the Dao, it is “within you.” (Luke 17:21)

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Dao Du Jour: Day 5

Chapter 5

“The Tao doesn’t take sides;

it gives birth to both good and evil.

The Master doesn’t take sides;

She welcomes both saints and sinner.”

Is Lao-tzu preaching moral relativism?

To paraphrase David Foster Wallace writing about atheism, in the day to day trenches of adult life, there’s no such thing as moral relativism. “Moral relativism” only exists as a theory that academic philosophers haggle about, and as a bogeyman in the imaginations of cultural conservatives. In real life, no one actually does—or could—live that way.

Just as Nietzsche’s call for us to go “beyond good and evil” was not sanctioning venery or violence, Lao-tzu is nudging us to consider that the moral categories we cut the world with are mere conventions—useful some of the time, dangerous when taken as absolute. We all cut the world with different dyads:  saints and sinners, winners and losers, oppressors and oppressed. But when we do this, we cut others and, unconsciously, ourselves, in two.

Indeed, the real “relativist” is the moral absolutist, the fundamentalist who is blind to how what he calls “good” generates—and is thus related to—what he calls evil. And the true absolutist, the “Master,” is the one who sees the folly of trying to be “right” and “winning” the game of morality, the one, as we saw in chapter 3, who “leads by emptying people’s minds.”

Such a message might seem opposed to Christianity, since God only creates good, not evil. But is Jesus not like “the Master,” always going toward the sinners? Like Lao-tzu, Jesus is hell bent (!) on scrambling people’s dualistic moral matrices in order to lead them toward unitive consciousness, so precisely captured in St. Paul’s “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Yet as Father Richard Rohr likes to point out, “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name. The “mystical body of Christ” is not Jesus’ resurrected body floating around in some parallel dimension, but what Daoism calls the “10,000 things,” a term of art for the cosmos. Or put another way, it is the person Jesus’ resurrected body—but that is the same body, of which we are all a part, that we call the universe. “Salvation” is not about believing in Jesus, but becoming like Jesus.

Not without reason does Jesus rebuke his disciples for misunderstanding him. Like a Zen master striking a stiff student, Jesus upbraids them for failing to grasp his parables and metaphors. Warning them to beware the “yeast of the Pharisees,” he asks with exasperation, “How could you fail to see that I was not speaking about bread?” (Matthew 16:11)

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Dao Du Jour: Day 4

Chapter 4

“The Tao is like a well:

used but never used up.

It is like the eternal void:

Filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.

I don’t know who gave birth to it.

It is older than God.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Alan Watts liked to tell the story of the astronaut who, upon returning to earth, was asked if he saw God in the heavens. He replied, “Yes. And she is black.”

One thing this chapter does is disabuse us of the idea that Dao is “God.” Many of the early translators imposed their own Western, Christian assumptions onto the text, supposing the Dao to be some transcendent super-being separate from nature, distorting a very different tradition with very different priors.

But not entirely different. While it would be wrong to regard the Dao as a cypher for a monotheistic God, it would be just as wrong to put it in the camp of atheism. One reason for this is that atheism is a Western phenomenon that emerged precisely as the rejection of a kind of God that Eastern cultures never embraced in the first place. It would be like addressing a man who never played baseball as a “non-baseball player,” only to receive the puzzled reply, “What is baseball?”

Nonetheless, as I’ll discuss later, the Daodejing—and Zen, the child it bore with Buddhism—is closer to Western spirituality than you might expect. My students are often surprised to learn that St. Thomas Aquinas, the Philosopher in Chief of the Catholic Church, wrote: “We cannot know what God is. We can only know what God is not.” Despite the magnificent cathedral of the mind he constructed—the Summa Theologica, a veritable Theory of Everything—here he gives voice to the mystics, what came to be called the tradition of “negative theology.” For the Hindus, this is the practice of neti, neti, “not this, not that.” We move closer to true reality not by addition, but by subtraction, eventually even letting go of the very idea of “true” reality. As legend has it, just before his death, Aquinas was reported to have uttered, “All I have written is so much straw.” Was this Aquinas’ realization, or perhaps confession, of the Zen formula that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form?”

Watts’ little parable, and this chapter, tell us three related things about the Daodejing.

First, while we Westerners tend to value the positive—I can think of no book title more representative of our “toxic positivity” than The Power of Positive Thinking, whose author’s church Donald Trump attended as a child—this tradition recognizes the power and potential of the negative. When Pascal, gazing up at the night sky, wrote “these eternal spaces fill me with dread,” he was voicing the idea that unfilled space is an abomination, neutral at best, negative at worst. The empty is the dead.

The alternative brings us to the second point: recognition and respect for the feminine principle. Arguably no major religion gives greater priority of place to the feminine principle than Daoism. Accordingly, the nothing is not a terrifying void which should lead us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” but a creative matrix pregnant with possibilities. Empty space is less a tomb, more a womb. As Martin Luther King wrote, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

Lastly, we don’t just find empty space scary, but empty time. Pascal also wrote: “The problem with man is that he cannot sit quietly in a room.” If we are not doing something, we are “wasting” our time, not “making use” of it. Here, time is taken as a kind of raw material that has no value in itself. It only becomes valuable when we “mix our labor” with it. I take that phrase deliberately from John Locke, who laid the philosophical foundations for our understanding of private property and the “labor theory of value.” In this view, nature is not enough. For the Daoist, though, this attitude is premised on an un-useful understanding of what is truly useful.

Dao Du Jour: Day 3

Chapter 3

“The Master leads

by emptying people’s minds….

He helps people lose everything

they know, everything they desire,

and creates confusion

in those who think that they know.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial) 2006.

For the Daoist, a mind is not a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to lose.

Something can only be truly filled when it is fully emptied. How often can we say that our minds are empty? For most of us, each day is bookended by checking our phones, which deliver a steady stream of information—emails, texts, app notifications, social media posts, and calendar appointments—and in the time between we check compulsively, whether due to FOMO, work anxiety, or the craving for dopamine hits. We are rather like the “hungry ghosts” from Tibetan Buddhism, with tiny mouths and distended bellies, doomed to forever gobble without satisfaction. They don’t call it “doom-scrolling” for nothing.

We cannot be satisfied because we are never really hungry—never really empty. Just as we are surrounded by cheap, abundant calories, we are inundated with cheap, abundant information. And just as fasting can help us feel lighter and become leaner—and help us appreciate a good meal—digital detoxing can help clear our minds and ground us in our bodies.

T.S. Eliot asked—around a century ago!—that “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” By collapsing the three into “information,” and believing that the more information the better, we delude ourselves into thinking that we can move closer to certainty and further from confusion by amassing more information. But as we have learned, this often merely reinforces our imprisonment in echo chambers and filter bubbles, as our attention and greedy desire for “comfort news” is invisibly monetized while we click, tap, and scroll.

Reading this chapter, it is tempting to picture the “Master” as a guru, a sage, a monk, or even a great political leader. But the chapter also says “If you overesteem great men, people become powerless.” The Master is really your own inner sage—what Buddhists call not-knowing, that part of us that is always free, open, and empty, of which we are usually unconscious, and which our culture tends to regard as “useless.” Lead from there, the text suggests, and you will empty your mind.

And if you empty your mind, what would you let back in?

Dao Du Jour: Day 2

Chapter 2

“When people see some things as beautiful,

other things become ugly.

When people see some things as good,

other things become bad.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.)

Two thousand years after Lao-tzu, Hamlet would echo this idea: “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Think about the last political conversation you had with someone you disagreed with. Did you make any progress? I suspect not. In our post-truth informational ecology, the conflict is not merely over what is good, but over what is true. There is nothing true or false, but Facebook makes it so.

A paradox arises: isn’t it then “good” to realize that all things are both good and bad, depending on your perspective? That strikes the mind as a contradiction only if we confuse thoughts with things. Daoism invites you to consider that contradiction, ambiguity, and paradox—put more positively, mystery—are not just bugs of bad thinking, but features of reality. And beyond this, the more we cling to one perspective, one half of a dichotomy, the more we strengthen its opposite.

Lao-tzu is not pushing nihilism and nudging us toward Hamlet’s existential despair. He is doing what Jesus does in the Gospel of Matthew when he says “You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” The word hypocrite is related to the word for “actor.” We are all hypocrites in a sense—actors in the play of society, characters with unique desires, preferences, and histories with our own ideas about what is beautiful, good, and true. Wisdom is realizing our hypocrisy, which is also to realize that we are more than that character—we are caught in the broader cosmic drama. As Wittgenstein put it, “to draw a line to thought is to think both sides.” Practical wisdom is skillfully holding those two perspectives together while acting in the world.

We can hold our masks lightly. We can, that is, play our roles with a view to the script as a whole–especially the part that is unwritten–rather than see ourselves as the center and the script as fixed. When we do so, we create space—for ourselves to realize what is “bad” in what we consider “good,” and for our fellow actors to see the same—and to breathe.

Dao Du Jour: Day 1

“The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

This is the first line in the first chapter of the text. One implication you might draw is: read no further, you’re done! The end—in the sense of the goal, purpose, or “takeway”—is contained in the beginning. The text begins by telling us to let go of text itself—of words, ideas, concepts. As you’ll see throughout, the Daodejing is intent on disrupting our conventional view of the relationship between mind, word, and world. Our minds create and cling to our words, we come to confuse our words with the world, and this cuts our minds off from the world itself.

Lao-tzu would agree with Emerson: “Every word was once a poem.”

What words are you stuck to today?

Dao du Jour: Day Zero

Welcome to the launch of the Daodujour!

This project has been incubating for almost exactly one year. For one of my new year’s resolutions last year, I decided to start each day reading a chapter on the Daodejing. My reasons were both personal and professional: I was looking for a source of inspiration to start my mornings off, and I was scheduled to teach Daoism for the first time in the Fall for a course called “Philosophy as a Way of Life.” The text seemed like the perfect blend of poetry, spirituality, and philosophy to help me being the day with a clear, calm mind primed to create. And I figured it was a feasible goal, since the chapters are essentially poems, no longer than a page and often just a few lines. It ended up being one of the few resolutions I kept.

I was already familiar with Daoist philosophy, had practiced Tai Chi, a martial art it inspired, for an extended period of time, and felt confident I could do justice to it in the classroom. But I wanted more. As a saying from the Asaro tribe of Papua New Guinea puts it, “knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.” In their commentary on the Daodejing, Roger Ames and David Hall put it more prosaically: “For it is affective feeling itself rather than simply cognitive ‘knowledge’ that is the site of knowing…. The Daodejing recommends cultivating those habits of awareness that allow us to appreciate the magic of the ordinary and everyday” (Daodejing: A Philosophical Translation (188). I wanted to soak up the elusive essence of the text, to steep in it—if I wanted to really learn how Daoism can infuse our so-called everyday lives, I reasoned, I need to make it a part of my life—every day.

The next question was what translation to use. The Daodejing is one of the most translated texts in world literature, and classical Chinese is notoriously difficult to translate. Beyond this, in Daoism, as you’ll see, obscurity is a feature, not a bug. At some level, the very idea of a “correct” translation is a misunderstanding of the tradition, a product of the very mindset from which it tries to release us. The Western mind, so preoccupied with clarity, precision, logical consistency, and analytical acumen, is at a disadvantage approaching the Daoist tradition, rather like a man trying to eat soup with a fork.  

The text has 81 chapters, which meant I could move through it in a little less than three months, which meant I could digest around four translations by the time I had to teach it. I dared not delude myself into thinking I would by then have anywhere near a comprehensive, or even well-rounded, understanding and appreciation for the variety of interpretations and nuances of meaning they draw out of the text. But I figured that if I looked at translations coming from discernibly different perspectives, I would be moving in the right direction—or at least a good one.

I decided to, as it were, triangulate between the philosophical, the Sinological (the study of ancient Chinese language, culture, and history), and the spiritual. One way of thinking about these three perspectives is, respectively, an emphasis on the true, the correct, and the useful. Another, overlapping schema is :

  • moral (how does the text suggest we ought to behave?)
  • metaphysical (what picture of the world does it paint?), and
  • mystical (how does it aim to, in Aldous Huxley’s phrase, cleanse “the doors of perception,” and dilate our awareness to open to a deeper dimension of ourselves and the world?).

And, of course, there is the classical big three of the Beautiful, the Good, and the True from the Platonic tradition, or what Ken Wilber distills into Art, Morals, and Science. It is a mistake—especially with a text like the Daodejing—to cling too tightly to any scheme of categories, and better to approach it with what Zen calls “beginner’s mind.” But I figured cognitive flexibility and porousness of perspectives is the right way to circle around and sidle up to its inner sanctum. I wager that the reason certain texts stand the test of time is that they address all of these basic domains of our existence.

I decided to start where I was and with what I already had—a beat up old copy of the text I had gotten at a used bookstore in college—and got to work. Over time, as I entrained the habit and moved from one translation to the other, I found myself folding my reading into my morning walk and journaling routine, and the three actions began to constellate into one. I found the morning ritual grounding and therapeutic, and began to see just how practical and powerful such a gnomic little text could be. And being thus filled to the brim with daily doses of Daoist wisdom, I felt the urge to return the favor, and empty out the results of the reaction it catalyzed in me. I decided that my daily reading should be paired with daily writing.

For 2021, I would write about the Daodejing, share it with people, and see what happened.

The one thing most people know about Daoism is the yin-yang symbol. Indeed, it’s likely one of the things that draws people to Daoism in the first place. The symbol is directed at the subconscious—or, better, the superconscious (about which more later…). Like the Cross, or the Star of David, the symbol is arresting and archetypal, hinting at a simplicity beyond complexity. Like a Rorschach blot, it seductively lures you to pour and project, spill and splatter the contents of your psyche onto its façade.

The problem—as with all religious symbols—is that people often get stuck to the façade, turning an icon into an idol. Scholar Edward Slingerland explains:

“The yin-yang symbol is looked upon nowadays as a positive image of mystical wisdom, happily slapped on surfboards and tattooed on twenty-year-old butts. In fact, it actually symbolizes a dark and pessimistic vision, akin to the Buddhist teaching of dukkha or impermanence: all striving leads to disappointment in the end because there is no permanence in the world. The cycle of yin-yang is not to be celebrated but escaped.”

~ Trying Not to Try: Ancinent China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity (94)

How, then, do we escape? We’ll get to that.

I’ll be exploring the many meanings of yin and yang as we go, but I realized that it had a keen bearing on my little experiment. One of the most obvious features of the symbol is that dualities are interconnected and mutually interpenetrate each other; there is black in all white and white in all black. Reading is predominantly passive (yin-ish), writing mainly active (yang-ish). When you read, you’re reading something someone wrote, and when you write, you’re writing something someone else will (hopefully) read. Nevertheless, reading only works if the reader is bringing something to the table, and writing only sings if it’s open to the inspiration of the moment and mindful of the reader to whom it’s addressed. To read, you have to grapple with the writer, and to write, you have to listen, not just to the muse, but to the reader. You have to do something like dance.

How right and proper it seemed, given my subject, that my daily reading of the text be paired with daily writing. But I realized this was just a microcosm of a larger problem I had struggled with for years: creative constipation. I’ve identified as a writer ever since my ego congealed around 15, and while I’ve kept a serious journal since college and did lots of academic writing in and after graduate school to break into academia, over the last few years I kind of lost the habit. If a writer is a person who feels like a waste of planetary space on days when they don’t write, then by this point part of my psyche must resemble the garbage planet in Wall-E.

The flipside of this is that, as a reader, another part of my psyche resembles the rapacious consumer that produced all that garbage. Of course, I tell myself that it’s all “research,” fodder for future writing projects—books, blogposts, op-eds, long essays. As an Enneagram 5—the “observer”—I’m driven by the need to feel resourced. At best, this manifests as being well-informed about a topic; at worst, an obsessive-completism that snuffs out the creative spirit.

On top of this was another disordered desire: perfection. Despite knowing all too well, at an intellectual level, the paralyzing follies of perfectionism, I was nevertheless caught a state of perpetual conception, conjuring book outlines, chapter and essay titles, topics, but rarely converting any of it into finished products. I would return from a run burdened with insights and hastily record them in my journal before they stole away, the sweat smearing my chicken scrawl. And then the next day I would go on another run, and repeat the process. Over time, what felt like an albatross of debt—as though I owed the muse for her investment in me—began to accrue and, like a millennial cowed by an unscaleable mountain of student loans, I felt the urge to give up. The form this took was Netflix, video games and, of course, more reading. Reading, intended as either an end in itself (pleasure) or as a means to procure raw material for writing (research), tumbled into its opposite: drudgerous duty and procrastination from writing.

A marriage of obsessive-completism about reading and perfectionism about writing, needless to say, does not spirit children bear.

While I am unusually bookish, in some ways it’s a modern pathology: the desire—if not the perceived duty—to be well-informed about the world and in the know and have opinions about everything, cultivated by a 24-hour news cycle, a historically unprecedented abundance of information, and ready access to all of it in the palm of our hand almost every moment of every day.

Already in the 19th century, Nietzsche warned that modern man had begun to be weighed down by “knowledge stones” that blocked access to our creative, meaning-making power, that trap us in the cave of the present and suffocate the will to the future. Emerson, writing across an ocean at around the same time, began his great essay, “Nature,” with a similar thought: “Our age is retrospective.” Today, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has diagnosed ours as a decadent age—exhausted, complacent, fat, full, feeding on the cultural products of generations past.

All of which is to say: I have long found it instructive to consider the ways in which my own karmic knots are caught in and caused by a wider web of social pathologies. As Nietzsche also said, “Madness is something rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.” To find your bearings in the labyrinth of your own psyche, you need to discover the ways in which your culture is mad. To find your Ariadne’s thread, you need a lifeline from a culture not your own. And after spending a good year with the Daodejing, I’m convinced that the Dao is strong, needed medicine for our culture—precisely because we lack one—and our souls—precisely because we doubt they exist. It’s not the answer—as with the meaning of life, there’s no such thing, and to think so is folly—but it’s a damn good one.

So each day, I’ll select a quote from a chapter of the text, and offer you a short response to it. It may be only a sentence or a question; it may be a personal reflection along the lines of a journal entry; it may take the form of metaphysical musing, or maybe even mild moralizing; it may come off as clichéd, banal self-help or cultural appropriation; it may be social or political commentary; it may even, heaven forfend, get a little “woo-woo.” My hope is that it will give you a tiny dose of Dao to start your day off right—or at least better than it would be doom-scrolling Twitter.

If I ask myself about what I make of Daoism, or whether I “believe” in it, after my extended experiment, I smile and recall what one of my Zen teachers, Robert Kennedy (no, not that one), said upon first meeting the man who would become his Zen master. I paraphrase from memory: “I had no idea what Zen stuff was, but I knew right away…whatever it is, this is it!”

Episode #17: Cameron Keys–Philosophy at the Pentagon

Cameron Keys is a Financial Specialist at the Army Research Laboratory, but his intellectual journey started with philosophy. After studying the intersection of science, policy, and philosophy at ASU, Cameron was awarded a Presidential Management Fellowship that eventually brought him to work at the Department of Defense. In this episode, we talk about his work researching emerging technologies like nanotech and synthetic biology, laboratory ethnography, and what it’s like working at the largest organization at the world–as well as baseball, Buddhism, and how he accidentally ended up working as a production assistant on the film, Tropic Thunder in Hawaii.

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Episode #16: Marci Baranski

Marci Baranski destroys greenhouse gases for a living. After getting her PhD in biology and society, Marci became a Presidential Management Fellow and pursued a career as public servant, working for the US Department of Agriculture as a climate change specialist. Due in part to the Trump administration’s systematic rollback of climate policies, Marci transitioned into the private sector. Today, she works as a Research Asssociate at Tradewater, a new company that tracks down CFCs around the globe, destroys them, and sells the carbon credits on carbon markets.

At a time when understanding the interaction of biology and society has never been more important, Marci and I explore the epistemic and ethical issues around science and technology policy; the controversies over GMOs; the challenges of working on climate under the Trump administration; and more.

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Episode #15: Zachary Pirtle

Conventional wisdom regards the “STEM” disciplines as diametrically opposed to the humanities in general, and philosophy in particular. But Zachary Pirtle is living proof that this view is wrong headed. After studying philosophy and engineering as an undergraduate, Zach went on to receive an MS in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Arizona State University and his PhD in Systems Engineering from George Washington University. His training and research in engineering was deeply informed by science policy and the philosophy of science.

During his graduate studies, Zach became a Presidential Management Fellow and a civil servant in the federal government. In addition to his day job, Zach has continued publishing his research, and has helped organize the Forum on Philosophy, Engineering, and Technology (fPET).

In this episode, he explains what philosophy–particularly ethics and epistemology–can contribute to engineering. We explore what engineering is; how the philosophy of science helped him stick with the study of engineering; and how to think about the obligations engineers have in and to a democratic society. At a time of waning public confidence in the federal government, on the one hand, and big tech, on the other, Zach helps us reflect on how science and technology policy might be intelligently designed to better serve the public and improve society.

We also talk about the power of science fiction to offer inspiring visions of the future…and his experience helping to organize a citizens forum on asteroids!

 (Note: Pirtle’s views are his own and do not represent his employer)

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Episode #14: Amy Reed-Sandoval

What can philosophy tell us about immigration and identity?

Amy Reed-Sandoval, assistant professor of philosophy at UNLV, is the founder of two Philosophy for Children (P4C) initiatives: one in Oaxaca, Mexico, and one at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso. She is the author of the new book, Socially Undocumented: Identity and Immigration Justice.

Amy was recently awarded the Public Engagement Fellowship from the Whiting Foundation to expand her P4C work. In this episode, she shares her experience working in the conceptual and geographical borderlands between American and Mexican culture, between teaching children and college students, between philosophy and everyday life.

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Episode #13: Tim Richardson (Part 2)

Tim Richardson is a Washington, DC based multi-client government affairs and media
consultant. After extensive political and business publishing and two congressional aide
stints, Richardson has become the nation’s only private sector consultant that has worked
on Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spill restoration. In addition, he has served
as Wildlife Forever’s Washington, DC representative since 1995.

In our conversation, Tim sings the praises of what he calls “normative careers,” and explains why studying the humanities and philosophy can not only lead to a fulfilling life, but a successful career. Tim has worn many hats throughout his career–journalist, speechwriter, fundraiser, consultant, lobbyist–and worked for a number of politicians, including Lloyd Bentsen. But what unites his efforts is his grounding in philosophy.

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Episode #12: Tim Richardson (Part 1)

Tim Richardson is a Washington, DC, based multi-client government affairs and media
consultant. After extensive political and business publishing and two congressional aide
stints, Richardson has become the nation’s only private sector consultant that has worked
on Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spill restoration. In addition, he has served
as Wildlife Forever’s Washington, DC representative since 1995.

In our conversation, Tim sings the praises of what he calls “normative careers,” and explains why studying the humanities and philosophy can not only lead to a fulfilling life, but a successful career. Tim has worn many hats throughout his career–journalist, speechwriter, fundraiser, consultant, lobbyist–and worked for a number of politicians, including Lloyd Bentsen. But what unites his efforts is his grounding in philosophy.

Continue reading “Episode #12: Tim Richardson (Part 1)”

Episode #11: Andrew Light (Part 1)

With the possible exception of William Bennett, Andrew Light is the first philosopher to work in a presidential administration.

Andrew has two interrelated careers.

One is as an academic. He is University Professor of Philosophy, Public Policy, and Atmospheric Sciences, and Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. In his academic work, Andrew is the author of over 100 articles and book chapters on climate change, restoration ecology, and urban sustainability, and has authored, co-authored, and edited 19 books.

The other is as a policy expert and advocate where he works on the front lines of international climate and science policy. From 2013-2016 he served as Senior Adviser and India Counselor to the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, and as a Staff Climate Adviser in Secretary of State John Kerry’s Office of Policy Planning in the U.S. Department of State. In this capacity he was Co-Chair of the U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Combating Climate Change, Chair of the Climate Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals across all agencies for the U.S. government, and served on the senior strategy team for the UN climate negotiations. He is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

In short: Andrew helped to negotiate the Paris Agreement.

In our conversation, Andrew tells the story of how he created a parallel professional identity: by first breaking into the think tank and policy community in D.C., and second landing a job in the U.S. government. In Part 1, he gives a report on the state of climate policy in the Trump era, how he got involved in interdisciplinary work, and what he thinks philosophers can contribute in the policy arena.

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Episode #10: Greg Sadler (Part 2)

Over the last decade, Greg Sadler has emerged as the “YouTube philosopher.” Someone was inevitably going to fill that role, but the title is well deserved: Greg has produced around 1400 videos, has 84,000 subscribers and, at this writing, has received almost 8,000,000 views.

After leaving a conventional academic career as a philosophy professor, Greg struck out on his own and built a consulting business geared toward putting philosophy into practice. Through his company, ReasonIO, he offers a suite of services–consulting for organizations, counseling and coaching for individuals, curricular design for educational institutions, and more. Greg also edits the popular blog, Stoicism Today, is a prominent voice in the modern Stoic revival, a frequent public speaker, and is involved in oodles of cool philosophy projects.

In Part 2 (Part 1 here), we dive into how Greg developed a presence on YouTube, the simple power of making distinctions in business , and his advice for young philosophers considering leaving academia.

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Episode #9: Greg Sadler (Part 1)

Over the last decade, Greg Sadler has emerged as the “YouTube philosopher.” Someone was inevitably going to fill that role, but the title is well deserved: Greg has produced around 1400 videos, has 84,000 subscribers and, at this writing, has received almost 8,000,000 views.

After leaving a conventional academic career as a philosophy professor, Greg struck out on his own and built a consulting business geared toward putting philosophy into practice. Through his company, ReasonIO, he offers a suite of services–consulting for organizations, counseling and coaching for individuals, curricular design for educational institutions, and more. Greg also edits the popular blog, Stoicism Today, is a prominent voice in the modern Stoic revival, a frequent public speaker, and is involved in oodles of cool philosophy projects.

Join us as Greg walks us through his reasons for leaving academia, the struggles he faced in the wild building a new professional identity, and how he became the YouTube Philosopher.

Continue reading “Episode #9: Greg Sadler (Part 1)”

Episode #8: Dan Fincke (Part 2)

Dan Fincke is a “Rogue” par excellence. An expert in ethics and the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, he runs an online teaching business and offers philosophical counseling from his home in France.

In the second part of our conversation (Part 1 here), Dan walks us through his period of experimentation in starting an online teaching business, and how he learned to think like an entrepreneur and business person. We end by diving into his brilliant interpretation of the Star Wars saga, and how Nietzsche can help us make sense of The Last Jedi.

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Episode #7: Dan Fincke (Part 1)

Dan Fincke is a “Rogue” par excellence. An expert in ethics and the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, he runs an online teaching business and offers philosophical counseling from his home in France.

Of all the people I met in graduate school–including myself–Dan Fincke is the one who most deserves the title “real philosopher.” His personal story is good proof of concept for the power of philosophy to alter the course of a life: after growing up a devout Christian, his encounter with Nietzsche led him to leave the faith.

At Fordham, Dan had a reputation for being a captivating teacher, and knowing him well, it was easy to see why: his default setting is what David Foster Wallace described as “that special kind of intensity that happens after about the fourth beer.” I remember having an intuition early on that like his favorite philosopher, Nietzsche, Dan’s raw energy would not be contained by the academy, and that he would eventually leave. And he did. After completing his PhD, Dan adjuncted aggressively in the New York City area–at one time teaching a mind-bending 9 courses in a semester at 5 schools across 3 states–all while becoming a luminary in the atheist blogger community.

Join us as Dan shares how upon leaving academia he not only built a sustainable online teaching business, but unexpectedly met the love of his life.

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Episode #6: Matthew Stewart

One night, after completing a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford University and wondering what he was going to do with his life, Matthew Stewart was shooting pool with a group of graduating seniors. They were going on about the jobs they were about to begin in something called “management consulting.” For lack of a better idea of what to do, he applied to ten jobs and, yada yada yada, found himself plunged into a strange new world that, to his surprise, bore a striking resemblance to the academic one he had just left.

After a short but successful career as a management consultant, Matthew returned to his true passion: writing. He spun his memories in the business world into a rich and riveting book that is not only a history of the very idea of “management” in the 20th century, but a penetrating philosophical analysis and critique of the ideas and values that dominate in the business world.

More recently, Matthew has turned to writing about economic inequality, including what became the most widely read essay in The Atlantic magazine in 2018.

Join us for Matthew’s story, his advice for students interested in entering the business world…and some laughs as we lampoon all those self-help business books you see at the airport!

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Episode #5: David Brendel

David Brendel wears many hats–philosophical counselor, executive coach, and psychiatrist. After catching the philosophy bug reading the Great Books at Yale, David pursued a medical career at Harvard Medical School. Refusing to choose between medicine and philosophy, he enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Chicago, where he did pioneering work in the philosophy of mental health. Armed with his medical and philosophical knowledge, today David is a counselor to individuals and a consultant to businesses.

Join us as we chart David’s unusual intellectual trajectory, probe the fine line between a medical and an existential approach to mental health and wellness, and explore the challenges and opportunities of equipping executives with philosophical tools to help their businesses thrive.

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Episode #4: Ryan Stelzer (Part 2)

A “philosophy company” might sound like an oxymoron, but Ryan Stelzer had the audacity to found one.

After studying philosophy at the University of Chicago, Ryan landed a Presidential Management Fellowship, and went to Washington to work in the White House as a management consultant. Torn between returning to the academy to complete his PhD and staying in the business world, he created a third option: starting a philosophy company, Strategy of Mind, an executive coaching firm that helps companies solve problems using the tools of philosophy. When he and his business partner co-wrote an article for LinkedIn, within 48 hours, the article had 300,000 views and they received 70 job applications.

Ryan walks us through his journey from academia to government to the private sector, and talks through the challenges of importing and translating philosophy into the world of business.

Continue reading “Episode #4: Ryan Stelzer (Part 2)”

Introducing Lyceum

I’m thrilled to announce that Wisdom at Work is officially a member of Lyceum! Lyceum is a new app whose hand-curation cuts through the noise of a million podcasts to help people find great educational shows and have great conversations about them, right in the app.

Download the app at lyceum.fm and then check out Wisdom at Work’s Discussion Room to hang out with me and other listeners.

Listen and Subscribe:

Episode #3: Ryan Stelzer (Part 1)

A “philosophy company” might sound like an oxymoron, but Ryan Stelzer had the audacity to found one.

After studying philosophy at the University of Chicago, Ryan landed a Presidential Management Fellowship, and went to Washington to work in the White House as a management consultant. Torn between returning to the academy to complete his PhD and staying in the business world, he created a third option: starting a philosophy company called Strategy of Mind, an executive coaching firm that helps companies solve problems using the tools of philosophy. When he and his business partner co-wrote an article for LinkedIn outlining the idea, within 48 hours, the article had 300,000 views and they received 70 job applications.

Ryan walks us through his journey from academia to government to the private sector, and talks through the challenges of importing and translating philosophy into the world of business.

Continue reading “Episode #3: Ryan Stelzer (Part 1)”

Episode #2: Sal Giambanco (Part 2)

After studying philosophy and training to become a Jesuit at Fordham in the early ’90s, Sal moved to San Francisco. Here, he served as a hospital chaplain for the dying, at the veritable ground zero of the AIDS plague. Years later, he left the Jesuits and academia, and went on to a successful career in human resources, working for companies such as PayPal, eBay, and the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm. Sal is an expert in human capital and an executive coach.

In the second part of our conversation (Part 1 here), Sal and I dig into what he learned from the dying during his time serving as a hospital chaplain in the trenches of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco; why he had to leave the Jesuits to truly love (and truly experience poverty!); how he transitioned into the business world; why the liberal arts have everything to do with today’s global economy; and much more.

Continue reading “Episode #2: Sal Giambanco (Part 2)”

Episode #1: Sal Giambanco (Part 1)

If I had to pick the most interesting person I’ve ever met, it would probably be my friend and mentor Sal Giambanco. When we first met over ten years ago at our common alma mater, Fordham University, he described what he did for a living as “philosophical counseling for CEOs.” Needless to say, he had me at “transferrable skills.” It was Sal that first planted the idea for this podcast in my head–that philosophers can succeed beyond the ivory tower–so he is the ideal guest for its inaugural episode.

After studying philosophy and training to become a Jesuit at Fordham in the early ’90s, Sal moved to San Francisco. Here, he served as a hospital chaplain for the dying, at the veritable ground zero of the AIDS plague. Years later, he left the Jesuits and academia, and went on to a successful career in human resources, working for companies such as PayPal, eBay, and the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm. Sal is an expert in human capital and an executive coach.

Join us as we explore his fascinating life, his extraordinary career, and his personal encounters with Elon Musk, Pope Francis, and the Dalai Lama…

Continue reading “Episode #1: Sal Giambanco (Part 1)”

The Jaime Lannister of Climate Politics

Bjorn Lomborg is like the Jaime Lannister of climate change politics:  a square-jawed, towheaded, smooth-talking semi-villain who never seems to go away.  Unlike the “Circes” of climate denial, he concedes that climate change is anthropogenic and poses a serious threat.  But he thinks devoting substantial resources to dealing with it is a miscalculation based on mistaken priorities.  He is a skeptic–not of the science, but of the policy.  His latest, an Op-Ed in last week’s Wall Street Journal, “The Charade of the Paris Treaty” (paywall), rehashes the argument he’s been making for years.

You might be surprised to hear that Lomborg’s position on climate passes as liberal for the WSJ Op-Ed page.  Despite being the most widely distributed newspaper in the world, and one of the most widely respected, and a bastion of center-right thought, count the Journal a skeptic when it comes to climate change.

Lomborg’s was the article that tipped me over the edge and led me to spend a morning penning a letter to the editor that, as it turned out, got published a week later (albeit substantially trimmed):


Arguments like Lomborg’s are actually more dangerous than those of climate skeptics or deniers because they threaten to sow doubt among those who are already on board with climate science.

Below, I re-print my original letter to the Journal.  As you’ll see, its length is probably not the only reason they didn’t print the whole thing:

“Unlike the Journal, Bjorn Lomborg (“The Charade of the Paris Treaty,” June 17-18) laudably acknowledges the reality and gravity of anthropogenic climate change.  However, his piece contains several fallacies.

First, Lomborg correctly notes that the first round of pledges will fall far short of the stated goal of 2 degrees Celsius, and cites the failed Kyoto protocol as evidence for Paris’ likely failure, but he misconstrues the long-term logic of the agreement, as well as the way in which Paris is importantly different from Kyoto.  For one, every five years pledges are reviewed and ratcheted up, which aims to foster trust, cooperation, and peer pressure between parties and gradually build toward more ambitious targets.  For another, Kyoto had binding emissions cuts, whereas Paris has voluntary commitments in order to allow flexibility to account for countries’ political and economic feasibility constraints.

Second, Lomborg erects a straw man:  no one serious is claiming that we’re sailing into the solar paradise tomorrow.  The global energy economy is an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat.  The point of Paris is to create a sea change in how countries think about climate:  to see it as deeply tied to their economic and geopolitical interests so that they begin to invest more in renewables and put a price on carbon.  Lomborg ignores the geopolitical dimension of Paris.  The Obama administrations’ most important strategic diplomatic achievement was to elevate climate to the same status as core issues in international cooperation, such as trade and security.

Take it from philosopher and policy analyst Andrew Light, who worked in the Obama Administration to craft and negotiate the Paris agreement:

Trump’s decision will damage U.S. integrity at the negotiating table and impede the ability of this White House to effectively pursue other international issues that require multilateral support. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, put it bluntly: “I can’t think of anything more destructive to our credibility” than leaving the Paris Agreement. It will also make it difficult for other leaders to justify to their citizens sitting down with this White House to negotiate anything the U.S. wants, given the broad and deep recognition of the need for cooperative action on climate change among other major powers.

In the new reality, if you’re a bad actor on climate, countries can leverage this against you and make it harder for you to get what you want on a range of issues.  Or punish you—France, e.g., has floated the idea of slapping a carbon tax on US imports.

Third, Lomborg descries subsidies for renewables.  What he fails to mention is that fossil fuel subsidies far exceed the former.  This should bother conservatives, since subsidies distort markets—the price of fossil fuels does not reflect their true cost, which leads to an inefficient use of resources.  This is basic, uncontroversial, conservative economics.   And he should know, from reading energy historian Vaclav Smil, whom he cites, that no major energy transition has ever happened without massive government support.  Bizarrely, he concedes this toward the end of his piece, calling for increased spending on R and D; and indeed, one of the main goals of Paris is to stimulate such investment—hence billionaires such a Bill Gates rallying around the agreement and launching the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

Fourth, Lomborg clings to the canard that action of climate is bad for the economy.  However, in his work he relies on a morally and economically dubious value for the social discount rate.  Even William Nordhaus, the dean of climate economics and a long time conservative on climate action, has conceded that he was wrong about the value he ascribed to the social cost of carbon.  And others, such as economist Nicholas Stern, claim that the cost should be much higher, which makes the price tag of eventual climate change much, much higher than the investments needed to decarbonize the global economy.  Again, the social cost of carbon is a fundamentally conservative idea:  individuals and firms ought to pay the full costs of the byproducts of their economic activity.  Economic growth is just one value among others, and it is unclear whether it is best fostered by weak climate policy.  Prudent investors hedge against risk.

Lomborg is right to claim that we must approach action on climate in the context of global issues such as education, health care, poverty, etc., and that, in the short term, investments in these areas would have a greater impact on welfare.  But he seems to assume that if we don’t direct resources to climate, they will indeed be devoted to these areas, which seems unlikely.  Moreover, a number of these issues are entangled with and may be exacerbated by climate change.  One reason e.g. that China and India are investing heavily in solar and decreasing their coal dependence is the costs of pollution to public health and their economies.

All told, Lomborg’s position—like the Journal’s editorial stance on climate in general and Paris in particular—is unserious, unconservative, and untenable.”

It seems to me that the winning strategy for climate advocacy is to craft arguments to appeal to 1) social conservatives and 2) economic conservatives.  How, in other words, to explain why Christianity and Capitalism logically lead to action on climate?

Don’t talk about the “environment,” talk about “creation.”

Don’t talk about “ecological balance,” talk about “economic growth.”

Don’t talk about “ecological destruction,” talk about “job creation.”

The language is jobs, infrastructure, investment, insurance, energy independence.

More later on the psychology, culture, and communication challenges of climate politics.

The Great Grad School Debate

Over at onlinecolleges.net, a sort of fun interactive infographic with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” decision tree to help you decide whether or not you should go to graduate school:

The question of graduate school isn’t really one question, since grad school is said in many ways:  there are worlds of difference between grad school in the humanities, in law, and in business, for instance.  In contrast to the infographic, I am going to talk here exclusively about grad school in the humanities.

Continue reading “The Great Grad School Debate”

If Businessmen Became Bodhisattvas: “Selling In”


Young people who go into lucrative professions scorned as bereft of moral scruples rather than choosing a noble profession helping others are often regarded as “selling out.”  But Jason Trigg, a recent MIT graduate, “sells in“:

Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn….  he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary…

Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.

He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.

His inspiration?  The moral philosophy of Peter Singer:

While some of his peers have shunned Wall Street as the land of the morally bankrupt, Trigg’s moral code steered him there. And he’s not alone. To an emerging class of young professionals in America and Britain, making gobs of money is the surest way to save the world. When you ask Trigg where he got the idea, his answer is a common refrain among this crowd: “I feel like I’d read stuff by Peter Singer.”

Singer’s influence notwithstanding, we can also see Trigg as trodding the path of the Bodhisattva…

Continue reading “If Businessmen Became Bodhisattvas: “Selling In””

“Caged Wisdom,” Part One: Value Theory, Value Added

Should philosophers focus less on Value Theory, and more on Value Added?

Over at Salon, a plea for philosophers to swallow their pride and get on with selling themselves and their profession:

if philosophy is so important, then selling itself to the culture at large is important too. So it’s time for philosophers to put their clothespins on their noses, wade into the stench of real-world commerce, and ask some of those tanned and toned marketing majors who skipped out on Philosophy 101 for some help.

Philosophy, in short, needs a Marketing Makeover.

Continue reading ““Caged Wisdom,” Part One: Value Theory, Value Added”

Rage Against the Machine


Over at Adjunct Rebellion, a scathing assessment of MOOCs:

While the last 20 years of academia have seen these two destructive practices aimed at the professoriate, it hasn’t been until lately that the threat is driven by the internet — in the case of academia, in the form of MOOCs that are now looming enormous, casting monstrous shadows over the college campus. The MOOC model, from the standpoint of the professoriate, is an entirely exploitative one.  The professor designs a class, has lectures and other media support shot and “canned” — and then the university, or the MOOC itself owns that material.  It OWNS the intellectual property of a professor who has trained for, on average, a decade for advanced degrees, who has taught for years and developed skills and abilities.  And, once that particular area of scholarship is canned — who needs the professor, ANY professor, anymore?

This is an example of the rhetoric of crisis I discussed earlier, and let me be clear that I don’t always think that’s a bad or un-useful thing–it just depends on what your goals are.  If your goal is to wallow, then it works great.  If your goal is to get tenure, you’re barking up the wrong tree (these two goals, incidentally, are espoused by the folks over at the Philosophy Smoker Blog, a nest of nattering nabobs of negativism, which openly admits that its focus is to “bitch about” trying to make it in academic philosophy).  If your goal is to make a living, then just quit and do something else (and you CAN do something else).

Continue reading “Rage Against the Machine”

One Meta-MOOC to Rule Them All

Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke, has a great idea:

In January 2014, I will offer a six-week Coursera class, “The History and Future of Higher Education,” free and open to anyone. I’d like to turn the class’ weekly forums into an opportunity for a massive, global, collaborative, constructive, peer dialogue about how higher education got to its current dilemma. And from there, I hope we can come up with some creative, innovative, and workable ideas to make a better future.

A MOOC about MOOCs seems to make a great deal of sense for a few reasons.

For one, it provides a forum for investigating just what a MOOC is, what it can and cannot be, whether and to what extent it does indeed enhance learning, and whether and to what extent and in what ways this can be measured.  If it turns out that such an experiment yields a more nuanced and useful picture of the ontology and application of the MOOC, then this itself would be evidence that the MOOC is a sound design and delivery mechanism.

Second, as Cathy notes,

In the present mood of high polemic, hyperbolic promise, and hysterical panic, it is almost impossible to sort out the questions, let alone the answers to these questions, on either a national or international level: Is now the time to reject or embrace massive online learning? Do MOOCs yield improved learning and free and open access to those who have been excluded from higher education—or are they yet another cynical attempt to defund the public and extract profits from tax payers and diminish the value of what virtually all universally claim to be the public good of higher education?

Crisis rhetoric is seductive but does not have a great signal-to-noise ratio.  A MOOC that took a, well, academic approach to MOOCs might help to dispel the fervor over the MOOC-ment and help people think clearly about just what it is and what it means.

Third and related, much of the chatter about MOOCs is so focused on the “disruption” of the status quo, but sometimes the storied history of that status quo is not sufficiently excavated.  An inquiry into MOOCs in the context of the history of higher ed might help us see that the notion of Higher Education enshrined in our social imaginary is a historical anomaly made possible by a set of specific events, notably World War II and the G.I. Bill.  The Chronicle of Higher Ed just ran a piece along these lines (though it is paywalled).

I have finally decided to take the plunge:  I have signed up for Coursera’s “Internet History, Technology, and Security” course.  It’s not quite Christopher Hitchens voluntary trying out water boarding in order to do his subject justice, but I figure it only makes sense to walk the walk.  Reports forthcoming.

A Balanced Approach to MOOCs (Ctd.)


Robert Maguire has profiled a math MOOC funded by the Gates Foundation and launched at the University of Wisconsin LaCrosse that had an unexpected effect:  though it was offered worldwide, it was widely embraced around the state by high schools and led to deeper coordination between high school and college students, teachers, and administrators in order to avoid the “redemial math trap and close what we might call the “Preparation Gap.”  From McGuire’s interview with two representatives from the college:


The way MOOCs are growing I imagine a lot of graduating high school seniors are thinking about using them this summer, whether they’re being driven to it by the necessity of a placement exam or for enrichment or to stay sharp for college. What would you advise a graduating high school senior who’s thinking about taking a MOOC?


A MOOC can be helpful to show what a college course actually looks like, how it’s done and what to expect in their first year of college.


Over summer, taking a MOOC is going to help them learn how to be an independent learner, how to study, how to find that internal motivation, how to seek out resources, recognizing that they do have multiple ways they learn, and they need to find that strategy within themselves.

Students might look at what’s aligned with their discipline of study. If someone’s looking at going into a history major, then they might look for some different history MOOCs. They can use the MOOC as a way to find out, “Is this something I am really passionate about and want to study for the next several years of my life.”

This is proof positive of an idea Noel B. Jackson floated which I mentioned yesterday:  MOOCs not only expand open access to what, for convenience sake, I’ll call the Third World (Globalization), but they can strengthen local and regional communities in the (f/c/s, again) First World.  They not only expand the net to wire more nodes, but they deepen the connections around each node.  MOOCs can potentially have “glocal” impact.  In the case of the MathMOOC at UWL, the connections are spanning vertically across the different levels of the education system.  This might take the teeth out of the objections of MOOC skeptics, who dismiss MOOCs as trojan horses for neoliberalism or digital colonialism.

This “localizing” side-effect of MOOCs targets a serious problem that so many college teachers face:  beset with near illiteracy and/or innumeracy in their students, they find themselves asking, “How did these kids get into college?”  This often happens with writing skills. The college teacher faces a dilemma: should I teach them the content, or teach them how to write? If you just teach the content, then a) they aren’t likely to grasp it as roundly, since you can’t cleanly separate the ability to write clearly and the ability to think clearly, and b) you shirk your responsibility as the “last line of defense” before the students get out into the real world bereft of solid writing skills. If you teach them how to write, you’re not teaching the content. And if you try to split the difference, well, as Lao Tzu says, “if you chase two rabbits, both get away.”

Better coordination between high school and college teachers and administrators could help close the “preparation gap” that frustrates so many teachers and short-changes many students.

By the way, MOOC News and Reviews is a treasure trove of information about the cluster of issues orbiting the MOOC-ment.

(image courtesy of http://www.apartmenttherapy.com)

A Balanced Approach to MOOCs


Noel B. Jackson, a professor of literature at MIT, has a thoughtful and balanced take on MOOCS over at “Sustained Inattentions”–he has the advantage of proximity, since he is essentially at one of the two ground-zero’s of the MOOC movement (Silicon Valley and Cambridge).  He testifies that, in his time at MIT, no issue has arrested the attention of folks in higher ed as much as the MOOC.  His view on the place of MOOCs in current discourse about higher ed is insightful:

“The MOOC has become a repository for utopian and dystopian narratives about the present and future directions of higher ed.”

The rhetoric of crisis and disruption can inhibit us from thinking clearly and carefully about how best to surf this strange new wave.  The utopian and dystopian narratives are, as Noel points out, the views that MOOCs are either democratizing or corporatizing:  that they are either making the highest quality education available to the world’s poor, or they are merely the latest step in the corporatization of the university that has been underway for decades.

Confessing his ambivalence about MOOCs, he points to a possible benefit of MOOCs that I hadn’t heard of before:

“My interest in MOOCs extends to how the format can be imagined to provide access to a university curriculum to populations that may not have had this kind of access, as this is the population that stands to gain most from them. But in addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?”

This is certainly a pressing need at the university I teach at.  Fordham University’s main campus is an oasic bubble plopped in the middle of one of the poorest counties in the country, and few of the students venture past the perimeter of security-saturated environs.  Anything that could facilitate a deeper engagement–heck, any engagement–with the world beyond the walls would be a very good thing; and perhaps MOOCs and other online approaches might facilitate that, though I’m not sure how.

(image courtesy of http://www.apartmenttherapy.com)

Scumbag Philosophers


Genius. (Analytic)

My favorite:

“Is fictional construct designed to make you feel superior.”

“Will still do better than you on the job market.”

Not quite as funny, but also kind of genius. (Continental)

(image courtesy of memegenerator.net)

Reality Bites, Philosophy Bites Back


In a recent interview over at The Philosopher’s Magazine, Nigel Warburton, co-presenter of Philosophy Bites, the wildly successful philosophy podcast, riffs on his experiments in public philosophy, the problems plaguing philosophical research, and his recent decision to leave academia.  The success of his podcast is proof positive that there is a hunger for philosophy in the publicyber space.  Excerpts below.

The surprising success of the podcast:

The initial thought was that mainly philosophy students and lecturers might take an interest, but he’s heard from American listeners with time to kill on long drives, people waiting out wildfires in Australia, and soldiers in Afghanistan concerned about ethics. When I ask for details over email, Warburton sends me a list of 40 countries, all with more than 10,000 downloads each, some with vastly many more, millions more in some cases. Just after the usual English-speaking suspects, China checks in at number five. The United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Taiwan, Iran and Indonesia make the list. Several spin off series, two books (and a third in the pipeline), more than 250 interviews and an alarming 16.7 million downloads later, and Philosophy Bites is an international philosophy phenomenon.

Warburton explains that he is leaving his secure position at Open University largely because of the dominance in academia of what he calls “crossword puzzle philosophy” (essentially, what Daniel Dennett has deemed “chmess“):

“Philosophers today have mostly got their heads down. They’re concerned with writing for a journal which will publish work that takes them two or three years, and only five people will read it. These are people who could be contributing to something that’s incredibly important. Gay marriage is just one example of many. I don’t think philosophers responded particularly well to 9/11. Issues about free expression, all over the world, are not just academic. They’re matters of life and death. There are exceptions, but philosophers are by and large more interested in getting a paper in Mind or Analysis than they are in commenting on the major political events of our time.”

On philosophical “research”:

I’m not even sure what research means in philosophy. Philosophers are struggling to find ways of describing what they do as having impact as defined by people who don’t seem to appreciate what sort of things they do. This is absurd. Why are you wasting your time? Why aren’t you standing up and saying philosophy’s not like that?…  It’s not the kind of thing that Socrates did or that Hume did or that John Locke did…  Why are you doing this? I’m getting out. For those of you left in, how can you call yourselves philosophers? This isn’t what philosophy’s about.”

One is hard-pressed to disagree with a straight face.  As someone who has been on the job market for a couple of years, I always inwardly cringe when I am asked to explain my “research” to a search committee or a dean.  In a formal sense, research is something that a scientist does in a lab or in the field:  designing and conducting experiments, collecting and interpreting data, and the like.  In an informal sense, it means doing your homework–gathering relevant information–before a meeting, an interview, etc.  Philosophical writing, for the most part, is not research:  it is reading articles and books, thinking about them and the subjects concerned, and then writing what one thinks about them.  Exceptions could arguably be made for “experimental philosophy” and branches of philosophy in dialogue with the sciences, such as philosophy of mind or biology, but for the most part, I think it’s a category mistake to think of the reading and writing of philosophy as “research.”  We might view today’s philosophical “research,” largely a consequence of the rise of analytic philosophy and “science envy,” as a new form of scholasticism, a defensive, conservative crouch destined to be consumed by the coming Avalanche (more on this, Higher Education’s equivalent of the Singularity, later…) (I hasten to add, however, that analytic thought, at its best, provides a needed check against the scholastic excesses, verbosity, and sheer fictioneering of much Continental thought.).

Despite the coming storm, Warburton is ultimately optimistic about the fate of philosophy:

“Because of changes in online teaching, in the next ten years, the university system will be turned on its head. If Philosophy Bites can make such an impact with two guys with a hard disk recorder and a couple of laptops, think what people who fully understand the new technology, who can write code, who can employ the best philosophical communicators around, think what they could produce. It’s only just starting. We’re going to see dramatic changes to how we learn, teach, do research and share ideas. I think philosophy’s future’s very bright.”

I asked two days ago what, in light of Leon Wieseltier’s view that philosophy these days only “tweaks and tinkers,” an alternative might look like.  Philosophy Bites seems to be a solid step in the right direction.

(image courtesy of Philosophy Bites)

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: a Sorry Sort of Idealism


I came across a letter I wrote to a friend last year who inquired about the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and thought I’d repost excerpts of the philosophical content below:

[I had to laugh when I got your message–I was in church of all places.  Next question: what was I doing looking at my phone in church and committing digital blasphemy? Answer: obnoxiously long Catholic ceremony. The supreme irony is that Rand’s most recent notoriety in American culture is Paul Ryan–a, well, “severe” Catholic–a big Rand fan.


About Rand. Let me take your questions one at a time, but let me be blunt: I think Rand’s philosophy is ludicrous–it is an attractive and interesting philosophy embraced with zeal by adolescents (including high-school me!) first starting to think for themselves, but when touted as a philosophy of life, or as a serious platform for political economy, it is dangerous, historically uninformed, and morally abhorrent. Hopefully my responses to your questions will convey why I think this.

Continue reading “Ayn Rand’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: a Sorry Sort of Idealism”

Technology and the Fate of the Humanities

Leon Wieseltier, editor of the New Republic, added another entry to the growing genre of commencement speeches targeting technology.  He worries about the shrinking of the humanities in higher education and the culture at large, as technology colonizes more and more corners of our lives.  His piece reminded me of T.S. Eliot:

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?  Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Leon is taking aim at the values and worldview of Silicon Valley, an ideology that Evgeny Morozov has dubbed “technological solutionism”, the reduction of all problems to technical problems, the notion that technology can fix all things, and the reduction of knowledge to information:

There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

He is referring, of course, to Ray Kurzweil, the scientist, inventor, and anointed Philosopher Prophet of Silicon Valley who has just been hired by Google.  Leon’s piece is aimed squarely at Kurzweil’s scientism:  the extension of science from a method to a metaphysics, with claims based not on data but on dogma.  There are some who consider Kurzweil the Most Dangerous Man in America.  While Steve Jobs has been raised up as the Great Man of our age, he may end up being overshadowed by Kurzweil, who is on track to become the Father of AI.  I will be addressing Kurzweil’s worldview–essentially, that technology is the continuation of evolution by other means–in future posts.  For now, see Michael E. Zimmerman’s recent reflection on AI from the perspective of Integral philosophy.

Leon’s is exactly the argument that C.S. Lewis made over half a century ago in The Abolition of Man:  man’s modern conquest of nature is really nature’s conquest of man.  Why?  Because when reason is turned into a tool to satisfy our desires, our desires are running the show–but our desires or instincts largely come from nature.  I will return to Lewis’ argument and its connection to modern nihilism in future posts.

One noteworthy thing Leon mentions is the place of philosophy in all of this:

Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness — and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

What would it mean to not just “tinker and tweak”?  What would that look like?  Why is it so difficult, not only to do, but to even imagine?

I think philosophy has been assigned one of its great tasks for the present age.   If Hegel said philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought, then the great challenge for thought in our time is that one of the most important matters, technology, is largely about our future, and its grip on our present makes it so hard to reflect on it.

Gamification, Part Two


[Reposted from the following discussion thread]

Thinking about this and reading your posts, I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which is emerging as sort of the Big Novel of our era. The story takes place in the not too distant future, and the title refers to a film that is so addictive that it kills the people who watch it; and the film, unsurprisingly, is wildly popular.

Wallace was concerned that, in the words of sociologist Neil Postman, we are “amusing ourselves to death”–not literally, of course, but psychologically or spiritually. I find this narrative seductive, but I resist it for that very reason. Part of the problem, I think, is that people just have different dispositions. Humanist folks tend to have a European part of their soul, a melancholic affect, a deep suspicion of the popular, the common, the fashionable, the masses, a reverence for some distant past, a disdain for the practical. But a lot of Americans don’t share this affect or this outlook: they just want to do their work, make their money, and have some fun, however the culture is currently defining and delivering it–”what’s the harm in that? Lighten up?” The Euro-humanist, of course, looks at these people and just cries “false consciousness”–they either don’t know, or won’t admit, their true condition. The Euro-humanist sees most people as trapped in and bespelled by some kind of Cave, and tends to see The Next Big Thing (MOOCs, gamification, Facebook, etc.) as just more distraction, illusion, ideology, etc.  As the inimitable Roger Sterling puts it:

So what I think we’re dealing with here, at some level, is just different sensibilities: the can-do, practical, pragmatic, American happiness pursuer just NEVER WILL see the world quite like the intellectual, Europeanish, theory-minded soul will; for that reason, the gamified world is a blast (“awesome!”). This person does not have a problem with just doing their work, whatever it is, and going home and living their life. They don’t see, and they don’t care, that the compulsion to be entertained does any kind of damage to the soul, or makes us less of a human being. Maybe some people can just handle entertainment in a more moderate way. Wallace himself, for instance, had a highly addictive personality, and couldn’t handle fun things because he just found them to be, well, too much fun.

I have grown suspicious over the years of what I’ll call the Office Space Ideology that lots of intellectuals and humanists and liberals adopt: that corporations are evil, that office workers are drones, that it all really is as stupid and wretched and soul-rending as films like Office Space portray it to be. Why? Because most of those people have probably never worked in an office! And yes, they probably would find it to be drudgery. But maybe for people of a different sensibility, that’s not what it is. Maybe they are just better at accepting things for what they are–that, as Matthew Crawford puts it in his thoughtful and important meditation on the value of work, work is necessarily toil and serves someone else’s interests.  And so rather than futilely try to fuse work and play, erect a separation of powers:  work is the realm of necessity, play is the realm of freedom.  And that reminds me of something Wallace said in a different context, when he was interviewing a pro tennis player: “I am almost in awe of his ability to shut down neural pathways that are not to his advantage.”  People who are well adjusted are better at adapting to the reality of American life, which in some important ways overlaps with reality itself.

And let’s face it, the American Pragmatist is sometimes spot on about the EuroHumanist’s posturing, pedantry, and pretentiousness:

Maybe one reason that Euro-humanists disdain things like gamification is that their attachments to an idyllic past and an ideal future create such a sense of loss, longing, disappointment, and frustration that the escape and pleasure provided by games et al. is an irresistible narcotic. The crucial question is, whose sense of reality is more warped?

Gamification, Part One


[Reposted from the following discussion thread]

Discussions about education these days often reference something called “gamification”:  the use of games or game-like structures to enhance learning.

On the one hand, I see the appeal: rather than fight the forces affecting students’ behavior outside the classroom, harness them and integrate them into the learning process. “Badges” will replace “grades,” and “competence-based learning” will replace degrees, etc. Now earlier iterations of online learning may well fall prey to the diploma mill problem (a piece of paper saying you can now do what you could already do), but it sounds as though the next generation of online learning tools will be more sophisticated: they will be able to empirically demonstrate that student x has learned skill y to do job z. And they achieve that result through an engaging learning process that motivates them through gamified learning modules (like a video game) that take less time (more efficient) than the traditional course/degree model.

But what unsettles me about this, from something like a sociological perspective, is that it turns everything into a “game”–the game of professional advancement and money-making that people will be playing for most of their lives, of competing and achieving and winning, will become seamless with the educational sphere. It feeds into the hyper-competitive culture we are becoming more and more each year.

Moreover, the shift from text to image based learning seems to be a kind of surrender to our culture, which has been image-based for a long time. In my view one of the chief functions is to give students the tools to RESIST and challenge and criticize the present culture–to give them a chance to be an individual. And so gamification seems like another stage in the subsumption of education by corporate values: “fun” on the outside (infotainment), soul-eroding on the inside. All to equip students with 21st century skills so that we can “beat China”, or whatever.

But to challenge THAT–video games aren’t what they used to be. Many involve sophisticated cognitive tasks. So part of the gamification craze is a challenge to the highbrow, elitist prejudice that only book smarts and book learning are real smarts and real learning. There is a parallel here to the time-lag in critiques of capitalism. I wonder whether Marxist, or Marxish, intellectuals are ragging on a form of capitalism that was, well, creatively destroyed, ages ago, and not that capitalism is perfect, but 21st century capitalism is an importantly different animal. They might retort that it is still the same SPECIES–inherently, structurally unjust and exploitative and dehumanzing, and so on…which is an essential debate to have.

“What Does it Really Take to Succeed in Academia?”

Paige Harris has an informative piece over at Online PhD Programs on some best practices for landing an academic job.  Despite one factual error–Paige claims that academia has long been “unscathed” by the vicissitudes of the economy, when in fact the job market, at least in the humanities, has been abysmal since the 1980s–I think it is all sensible advice, though I would say that the understated tone of the piece may be misleading to those in or aspiring to graduate school.

Paige writes:  “There’s no doubt that building a career in academia is a challenge these days, but it can be done.”  There are challenges, and then there are challenges.  Running a 6-minute mile is a challenge for many, but pretty much anyone can do it if they discipline themselves.  Running a 4-minute mile is nearly impossible; it depends not just on an unusual degree of hard work and determination, but on winning a genetic lottery.  As someone who has just hazarded the punishing fire of the academic job market and lived to tell the tale, while I would not equate landing a tenure-track or secure position in academia with running a 4-minute mile, it’s not far off.  I will recount my harrowing tale–which, I can assure you, has a most happy ending–in a future post, “There and Back Again.”

A couple of things that Paige does not mention (and, to be fair, need not mention, as her subject is simply HOW to get a job) are how “success” is measured in academia, and whether “success” is really as desirable as wide-eyed graduate students tend to believe.  First, reading her post, you might be wondering how, with all of the energy that goes into “packaging” yourself, you ever find time to focus on the ACTUAL job:  teaching, thinking, reading, and writing.  As I recently told a group of young graduate students, the first rule of the job market is also the first point in Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life:  “it’s not about you.”  It’s about a persona that you will create that will, hopefully, be selected in the lottery that we call the academic job market.  This is essential not just for marketing purposes, but for maintaining mental health.

But this marketing does not end once you get a job.  As you will see–through attending conferences and publishing papers and getting your nose dirty in department politics–academia is a game–everything is not as it seems.  This is partly why Frank Donoghue claims, in his book The Last Professors, that today’s academic is less an intellectual than a kind of salesman.  I will be blogging on Frank’s book–and, hopefully, interviewing him via podcast–in the coming months.

Second, as Paige rightly emphasizes, people need to think very, very carefully about whether they really want it–and what they’re really signing on for, financially, geographically, socially, and professionally.  To paraphrase Ian Malcolm, the eccentric mathematician from Jurassic Park:  “Academics are so focused on whether or not they can get a job, they never stop to think if they should.”

I will be posting about these and related issues in the coming weeks.

David Brooks’ Practical University


David Brooks has, I think, made progress in the discussion about MOOCs and online education.  His central idea is that given the increasing sophistication and decreasing cost of online learning as a delivery mechanism for technical knowledge and skills, universities can no longer cling to a business model in which they charge a small fortune to impart technical skills.  As Brooks flatly states, “There will be no such thing as a MOOC university.”  One thing they can do–perhaps with a somewhat lower price tag–is specialize in the acquisition and development of practical knowledge and skills–the “Practical University”:

So far, most of the talk about online education has been on technology and lectures, but the important challenge is technology and seminars. So far, the discussion is mostly about technical knowledge, but the future of the universities is in practical knowledge.

Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it. It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.

While Brooks’ notion of “practical knowledge” is a bit thin (column-sized), the point is important.  What makes all of this possible is the “flipped classroom.”  While humanities teachers have generally shaken their heads at and pooh-poohed EdTech, the flipped classroom is a game-changer.  Lectures on Plato, colonialism, and Melville can now be placed online (and software can check to make sure students are watching them), while class time can be used exclusively for seminar-style interactions in which students can develop prized social skills.  As Brooks notes,

Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

Let’s face it:  where and when do we deliberately try to develop these “soft”, “people” skills?  One might carp at Brooks using an example of a corporate environment–a critic might say that this just makes university seminars into a lab for “behavior modification”–but we can view his point more expansively:  that universities taking this approach are helping to develop the whole person; in that sense, they could become more congruent with the original liberal arts ideal.

Whereas before professors had to (often awkwardly) balance lecture and discussion, now they can have a clearer division of labor.  I can testify to the challenge of “getting through” lecture–transmitting the ideas, interpretations, facts, etc., that you want to highlight from the reading–to get to what, in my heart, I consider the real business of teaching:  the conversations that you foster and facilitate in the classroom.

Brooks explains how technology might be used to enhance the classroom environment:

The goal should be to use technology to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar (I’m borrowing Anders Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice). Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.

In this way, technology can create the space in which a stronger sense of community can take root in the classroom.  Moreover, in reviewing their performance on video, they would be able to see how they appear in public.  This would make students uncomfortable in the very way that we want them to feel uncomfortable.

The general sense in these sorts of discussions is that all of this EdTech stuff is bad news for humanists.  However, notice that the technical knowledge sounds like stuff that robots can do; as Kevin Drum details, the long imagined future of the robot worker is not too distant at all.  This might lead to a cruel irony:  online learning is maturing–through gamification, analytics, adaptive learning mechanisms, and so on–at around the same time as automation.  What is the sense in equipping the masses with all of these technical skills if robots are just going to perform the jobs to which they are suited?  Then, you might say, people should be trained how to build the robots and do the programming and engineering, etc.  But the reality is that there are only so many people who will be needed for this kind of work.  All of which begs the question:  just what the hell are all of these people going to do for a living?

But this might put humanists in a surprisingly good position.  Daniel Pink, one of the new darlings of the business self-help industry, has argued that Right Brainers will rule the future.  And indeed, Forbes recently listed the Top 10 In Demand Skills in 2013–check out the top four.  What is driving this?  I think it’s the fact that life in our new Technopolis is creating problems and raising questions that are not scientific and technical problems and questions.

My chief concern with Brooks’ proposal is not about substance, but about scale.  It’s easy to imagine something like this going on at Harvard et al.  But at Wannabe University?

(image courtesy of marketingzen.com)

Profit, Prophecy, and the Case of the Hybrid University (Ctd.)

One more point about the Bloomberg article raises pertains to the plight of adjuncts.  Though SNHU’s online program was initially supported by adjuncts getting paid the usual pittance, it has generated enough revenue to hire full-timers to do more (and, hopefully, eventually, most) of the teaching.  This may be a way to break the fatal logic of the adjunct dilemma as it exists at (solely) brick-and-mortar universities.  Not only would schools have the resources to ensure that many, most, or all of their on-site teachers are full time, but now adjuncts could still teach part-time, but do so more comfortably, without having to shuttle from campus to campus, which is a major drain on time, money, and mental health.

Of course, the true adjunct dilemma is faced by the teachers themselves, not the administrators.  My fellow blogger Dan Mullin recently shared his ambivalence about going back to adjuncting after a hiatus.

Profit, Prophecy, and the Case of the Hybrid University (Southern New Hampshire University)

Looks like Southern New Hampshire University has devised a nimble business plan.

This is just the kind of “disruptive innovation” that Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has predicted:  this refers to, in John Hechinger’s words, “the process by which companies at the bottom of the market use new technologies to displace more established competitors.”  The attack comes, not from the front, but from the side:  from the other two raptors you didn’t even know were there.  It is exactly the kind of thing that universities that wish to survive will need to do if anything like Christensen’s Prophecy–that in 15 years, HALF–that is right, half–of the institutions of higher learning in the United States will be gone.  (More on Christensen’s Prophecy–and the coming Avalanche–later…)

This may well be a viable pathway–and the only pathway–for middling universities attempting to surf and survive the volatile seas of the EdTech Era.  Frank Donoghue, whose essential book I’ll be plumbing in upcoming posts, thinks that the lasting mark on higher education left by the first generation of online for-profits will not be the companies themselves, but the selection pressure they exert on traditional institutions of higher learning:

“The real legacy of this industry, I believe, is its lasting and widespread influence on traditional universities.  Whatever the fate of specific campuses of the University of Phoenix, Career Education, or DeVry, these companies have demonstrated that it is possible to operate a university as a business….  The business model for higher education devised by the for-profits has tremendous appeal to administrators and lawmakers in an era of steadily declining public funding and tuition increases that are quickly becoming prohibitive.”

Donoghue thinks that the majority of non-profits will be torn asunder by the cross pressures of vocational for-profits, which lead to jobs, and elite nonprofits, which leverage prestige.  Large state research universities, he thinks, have largely lost their way, unable to decide what their mission and role in society really is, and thus plagued by “mission creep.”  This is the arms race that Christensen terms the “bigger and better” virus that has infected academic administrative culture.  However, the model of SNHU may well offer them a middle way:  the profits from an online apparatus that offers primarily vocational training can be funneled back to the leafy host campus in order to boost its prestige.  The challenge facing universities that take this path is, in part, one of perception, as Hechinger relays:

“Even some of the beneficiaries of Southern New Hampshire’s online push are uneasy. John Wescott, a 19-year-old sophomore at the physical campus, expects to graduate with only $15,000 in student debt thanks to financial aid. Yet he recalls a spirited discussion at a student-government meeting: ‘There was a sense that we were turning into the University of Phoenix and the value of our degree was going down.'”

Thus the “threat to Harvard” I discussed yesterday comes not just from the for-profits themselves, but from the effects they are likely to have–and are already having–on the non-elite, traditional universities.  But, again, let’s be clear:  Harvard feeling “threatened” is like the prom queen who is insecure about her appearance.

The Dark Side of MOOCs

Check out this infographic on MOOCs posted over at http://www.onlinecolleges.net:

The Dark Side of MOOCs

I will have more to say about the developing debate over MOOCs later, but at first blink, I have two impressions based on everything I have read:

The Good News:  MOOCs will disseminate the highest quality education to the poorest people.  As I noted in a previous post, and as Thomas Friedman has pointed out, whatever the fate of MOOCs in higher ed in the developed world, one unadulterated good they provide is giving people in the developing world a chance to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to have a fighting chance in the 21st century economy.

The Bad News:  The new strains of premium MOOCs being devised and piloted by the elite universities–the Big Three players listed in the graphic above–threaten the other players in the higher ed ecosystem:  for-profits, non-profit, 2nd and 3rd tier private schools, and non-profit state universities.  Harvard et al., fueled by virtually unlimited coffers, can BOTH kick butt in the arms race for prestige, and leverage that prestige to dominate the online landscape, thus furthering weakening the hand of mainstream, “middle class” universities.  Indeed, (ironically) Harvard economist David J. Collis predicted as much; in The Last Professors:  The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donogue explains Collis’ prescient speculation:

“[Collis] speculates that these top universities, made all the richer by capitalizing on their brand names to market “basic lectures and course”s online, could then ‘shift back to the tutorial system to differentiate their on-campus education’ experience.  They will, in other words, offer convenience to one market of students and prestige to another.”

They will, in other words, corner the markets for both the Technical University and what David Brooks has recently called the Practical University.  I will treat Brooks’ proposal–which seems correct but salutary in a depressingly restricted sense–in a separate post.

But one thing to notice is the story behind how Harvard made the decision to MOOC forward.  As Nathan Heller recently reported in the New Yorker,

One day in February, 2012, a social scientist named Gary King visited a gray stone administrative building in Harvard Yard to give a presentation to the Board of Overseers and Harvard administrators. King, though only in his fifties, is a “university professor”—Harvard’s highest academic ranking, letting him work in any school across the university. He directs the university’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and he spoke that day about his specialty, which is gathering and analyzing data.

“What’s Harvard’s biggest threat?” King began. He was wearing a black suit with a diagonally striped tie, and he stood a little gawkily, in a room trimmed with oil paintings and the busts of great men. “I think the biggest threat to Harvard by far is the rise of for-profit universities.” The University of Phoenix, he explained, spent a hundred million dollars on research and development for teaching. Meanwhile, seventy per cent of Americans don’t get a college degree. “You might say, ‘Oh, that’s really bad.’ Or you might say, ‘Oh, that’s a different clientele.’ But what it really is is a revenue source. It’s an enormous revenue source for these private corporations.”

HARVARD feels threatened?  Are you serious?  One is reminded of the bizarre phenomenon in recent American politics, in which the RICH plead that they are under attack by the “takers.”  Whereas under “normal market conditions,” the only class reasonably contemplating any kind of protest and revolt would be the lower and working classes, in today’s bizarro world of Gilded Age income inequality, the people at the top are so out of touch with reality, so insecure about their position at the top–perhaps haunted by a kind of “thriver’s guilt” fueled by the deep down knowledge that they did not really earn it, but won a cruel lottery–that they deceive themselves that they are under attack.  It is not enough that Harvard win the prestige game, it is not enough that they be the richest (with an endowment of–take a deep breathe, because i guarantee you are not ready for this figure–over $30 billion)–no, they must one-up the “1.0” for-profits (University of Phoenix, et al.) by leveraging their brand name, with one hand, and undermine the strapped middle class state universities and struggling 2nd and 3rd tier private universities, with the other.

This is a seriously incomplete and somewhat ranty account, and there is much more to the story–and, I think, more Good News that what I noted above–but it’s a perspective that needs to be laid out on the table and reckoned with.



After a prolonged hiatus–due almost exclusively to the interminable demands of the mad campaign of the academic job market–I am finally returning to blogging.  Over the next several weeks, I’ll be exploring the supercluster of issues orbiting education, technology, and the rapidly evolving relationship between them (so-called “EdTech”).

Along the lines of education, I’ve been working my way through several of the most recent screeds on and exposes of higher education.  I’ll be trying to sort through issues such as the following:

  • Corporatization of the university
  • Adjuncts
  • The future of tenure and the nature of academic freedom
  • The very idea of a public intellectual in the 21st century
  • The so-called “skills gap”
  • For-profit universities
  • online education and “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses)
  • The role of Big Data in higher ed
  • Student loans and the prospect of a higher ed “bubble”
  • Changing student demographics
  • The psychology and culture of academia

One of the most fascinating things I’m coming up against in this research, again and again, is how ignorant many academics, particularly humanists, tend to be about the conditions of their labor (as well as their reluctance to recognize what they do as labor), about how the university works, about the macroeconomic forces operating, as Hegel might say, “behind the back of consciousness.”  Our reflexes dictate that we bemoan the corporatization of the university, and scoff at the conservative critiques of tenure, intellectuals, and academia in general, yet we often fail to consider whether these positions have a kernel of truth.  What the research suggests–what students and the public suspect, and what more self-aware academics know–is that the university is not what it seems to be.

In much the same way that we continue to refer to something called “the middle class” in America, despite the radically changed and changing economic landscape of the last few decades, and especially the last five years, we continue to cling to a conception of the university that arose in a very different era; it is part of our “social imaginary” and is deeply bound up with our understanding of what it means to be a successful, middle class American; which, for many of us, sadly, is more or less equal to what it means to be a full citizen and, like, an actual human being.

On the technology front, I will be exploring recent critiques of the micro- and macro- roles and effects of technology:  in our personal lives, and in our political economy and culture.  Jaron Lanier, a founding father of virtual reality and early web, has emerged as one of the most perceptive and, given his tech chops, authoritative, critic of digital culture.  Lanier’s most troubling claim is that Web 2.0 and what he calls the worldview of “cybernetic totalism” is not only making it more difficult to be an actual person, but is accelerating the erosion of the middle class set in motion decades ago.

The great danger, he thinks, is that cultural creatives–musicians, journalists, and the like–are canaries in the “data mine”, but the first wave of middle class professions that will be rendered “redundancies” as more and more jobs are made obsolete by robots, computers, etc.  To this list, we can add professors.  As Lanier has it, a democracy is not possible without a middle class, but a middle class is not possible unless a society is structured to provide sufficient opportunities for most of the people to amass more wealth than the infinitesimally small number of people at the top.  The symbolic numbers of Occupy Wall Street point toward what Lanier considers the barely distant future:  In our new technopolis, there are the Lords of the Cloud, and the digital peasants.  Digital technology, the child of a democratic society in which prosperity was widely shared, is coming to undermine the bulwarks of the society that spawned it.

While Lanier focuses more on the political, economic, and social dimensions of tech, Sherry Turkle, MIT sociologist, zeroes in on how tech might be harming our psyches and our relationships.  Her central concept–that in the new, hyperconnected world we are always and everywhere “alone, together”–points to the dark side effects of technology, and the ways in which we have become addicted–like the incubants in the Matrix, or the prisoners in Plato’s Cave.

And that, it seems to me, is what connects these two great themes of education and technology:  they so pervasively define the contours of life in today’s world, yet their recent pasts are so unknown, their present effects are so hard to pinpoint, and their likely futures are so difficult to predict.  They constitute such a crucial part of our contemporary Cave.    The great task, then, is to patiently, persistently grapple with them.

(Image courtesy of gasparandmichelle.com)

Socrates Café #3: “Education: What is it Good For?”


In his famous Allegory of the Cave, Plato inquires into “our nature as it concerns education.”  These days, education is a hot-button issue, and with good reason:  from concerns over “teaching to the test” in elementary school, to deficits in basic reading and writing skills, to skyrocketing tuition and crushing student loans, to the corporatizing of the university, to the rise of online education–education is in a state of dysfunction, disrepair, and decline. Indeed, the title of the most popular recent documentary on education is apt:  “Waiting for Superman.”

These problems raise questions about precisely what education is for, what it means, and in what it consists.  Why is education such a difficult problem in American life?  In modern life?  In life itself?

Please join us as we delve into these and other thorny questions!


Socrates Café #2: Minutes

A belated thanks to all those who took part in our second Socrates Café a couple weekends ago.  This time we had a smaller group and a somewhat more intimate discussion that centered on the effects technology is having on our everyday lives and innermost minds.  Our conversation ranged over a swath of issues:  the positives and negatives of social media, the incentives for children to approach relationships transactionally, digital reflexes, boredom, distraction, online dating, and more.

We also got a couple suggestions for how to improve the event:

-Distribute a short reading to the group beforehand that touches on the topic at hand, so that everyone has a common base to launch from

-Tilt more toward divisive or at least controversial issues in order to spark more spirited debate and avoid a bland consensus

-Recommend some additional philosophical literature on the subject

I will keep these in mind in planning for the next event, but per the last suggestion, I want to post a few readings for those who’d like to learn more:

1)  Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”.  Heidegger’s classic essay on technology is noteworthy for his (at first) strange thesis that the question concerning technology is not technological.  That is, technology is not really “the stuff”–the computers, iPhones, planes, trains, and automobiles–but rather a way of seeing, knowing, disclosing the world:  it is a way the world is presented to us.  It is not a purely human artifice, but one-dimension of the world that, in the modern age, has been blown out of proportion such that it crowds out and obscures other modes of appearance.  While not intrinsically an evil or a negative force in our lives, the danger with technology is that we will come to see ourselves in terms of it; that, as Emerson put it, “things are in the saddle, and ride us,” such that we forfeit our freedom and humanity in our attempt to gain control over our lives.

2) C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man”.  Following up on the last point, Lewis questions the long-term goal of modern secular humanism and the modern scientific research project–which, he argues, is to gain total control not just over nature, but over human nature.  The danger is that, in such a world, our only polestars for what counts as progress are our desires–our instincts–rather than some transcendent moral order, such as the Tao, Natural Law, God.  As such, Lewis concludes that, in our attempt to use technology as, in Freud’s phrase, a “prosthetic God,” our victories over nature are really nature’s victories over us.

3)  Ray Kurzweil, “The Singularity is Near”.  Kurzweil is the intellectual prophet of Silicon Valley.  A distinguished and brilliant scientist, his radical views on the telos of technology can be roughly distilled into the following equation:  Hegel + evolution + technology + the Matrix = the cosmos.  Put differently, technology is the continuation of evolution by other means, and technology is developing at an accelerating rate.  Soon, with the birth of AI, evolution will reach a new stage, and the changes that will be wrought not just in human life but in the universe are so disruptive and unimaginable that this singularity is like an eschaton, a point of no return, the edge of a black hole–what lies on the other side is inconceivable from our present standpoint.  But Kurzweil insists it is good.

4)  Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget”.  A scion of Silicon Valley , Lanier, plays the puckish trickster to the pantheon of Gates, Jobs, and Zuck.  In this polemical text, he argues that the internet and digital technology is gradually corroding the human spirit and dealing away our dignity, one click at a time.  Like Heidegger, he fears the ways that technology warps our minds and constricts our engagement with others and the world around us, offering up a form of false consciousness in which he imagine we are free and following our heart’s desire, a state he calls “digital Maoism.”

Finally, I encourage everyone to visit TED.com (Technology, Entertainment, and Design), which contains a cornucopia of short talks on tech.

If you have any recommendations, please post them here and/or on MeetUp!

I will be in touch soon about our next MeetUp, which will be in late February.  I plan to lock down a more commodious venue.



MOOCs, Globalization, and Geist

originalThomas Friedman, ever the technological optimist, heralds the coming revolution in online education.

There is a kind of Hegelian strain in Friedman’s boosterism for neo-liberalism and globalization; not the state, but the free market is the march of spirit on Earth.  Any nasty consequences are just the acceptable side-effects and bugs of the beta version of something that will be surely perfected in the next iteration or soft-ware update.  Though Friedman’s natural optimism sometimes gets the better of him, his point about the potential impact of online learning in so-called developing countries is hard to deny.  This, coupled with increasing access to nimble tools like micro-finance, may well give people in the poorer countries and forgotten places of the world more opportunity to improve their lives.

We often discuss the merits and demerits of online education in the context of life in the developed world.  While this is surely an important discussion to be having, it may blind us to the prospect that the most far reaching, world-historical effect of online education may be felt not by us, but by those still struggling to secure basic needs.

What Courage Looks Like

My friend and colleague Dan Fincke just posted a reflection on his own journey through the twisted funhouse of the academic employment market.  Dan’s energy and passion–as a teacher and a blogger–has for years simply dumbfounded those of us who know him; his efforts are über-human, and in this way he is true to the ideal of his favorite philosopher, Nietzsche.

Dan’s situation is a symbol for what is wrong with professional philosophy.  In much the same way that Andrew Sullivan–one of Dan’s role models as a blogger–has led the charge in upsetting the conventions and exposing the limitations of traditional print journalism, Dan is leveraging the new medium of the blog to do philosophy in way that is accessible, interesting, relevant, and important for a broader audience.  I don’t say “popular” audience because that carries the whiff of “pop culture,” which spells “dumb.”  But today’s popular audience, in some parts of the country and the world, at least, no longer spells dumb.  When academics turn their nose up at “popular” writing and venues, I think they have this 19th century vision of a semi-literate hoi polloi a world removed from the elite bastions of oak-adorned studies and sophisticated salons.  But Dan, like an increasing number of younger academics, smells the rot and decadence that infects this way of thinking and this way of doing philosophy.  Again, like his intellectual hero, Nietzsche, Dan is finding a way to do philosophy outside the confines of academic scholarship.  And it should concern us that the 20th century was the first in which almost all the major philosophers were academics.  I heard a talk recently where a scholar argued that philosophy has always done better as a parasite (gadfly?)–when it uses something else as fodder for reflection, be it new developments in science, culture, technology, or politics.  Whenever it tries, or pretends, to become it’s own thing, it retreats into a sorry sort of solipsistic solitude, a cloud of self-important knowingness; a retreat fueled by fear and insecurity.  Voltaire’s Candide is precisely a mockery of this tendency–Dr. Pangloss (literally, “all words”) is the caricature of this mindset.

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The Law of Subtraction


Not to be confused with the “Law of Attraction,” the concept peddled by the best-selling self-help New Age book and film, The Secret:  the idea that, if you just want something hard enough—“I think I can, I think I can”–it will eventually come into your life.  Taken at a literal level, of course, this is plainly stupid and easy to mock.  But the book wouldn’t be so successful if it didn’t contain a kernel of truth.  The message resonates with people because it taps into a brute and basic psychological truth:  that people who are generally open and optimistic will generally attract other people and opportunities that will generally get them what they want and where they want to go.  It’s not a law of gravity, but a pragmatic strategy to help us navigate life.

One other such strategy is what we might call the Law of Subtraction.  We can come at this concept by defining it in terms of what it’s not:  the Law of Addition, which rules our lives more often than not.  What is the Law of Addition?

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Socrates Café #2: “What is Technology Doing to Us?”

Please join us for our second MeetUp!  RVSP

Our topic:  “What is technology doing to our society?”  Digital technology is rapidly and radically changing just about everything we do.  As Emerson said, “things are in the saddle, and ride us.”  Whether we see this spreading as a wildfire, a disease, or a wave of freedom–or as just really cool–I think we can all agree that its simply a fascinating phenomenon.  How are different technologies–medical, transportation, communication, information–changing our lives, for better or worse?

Please come join us for a Sunday afternoon of collective inquiry!

If you’d like to learn more, check out my website at http://www.davidestorey.com



*If you plan to attend, please be sure to patronize our generous host, Sit and Wonder Café.

**If you would like to suggest discussion topics, please let me know.

***Space is limited.  I am exploring an alternative venue that can accommodate more members of our growing group.  Stay tuned!

Socrates Café Meeting #1: Minutes

Thanks to all those who attended our first Socrates Café Brooklyn, “What is Success?”  It was a real pleasure meeting all of you, hearing your stories and struggles, and peeling back the veneer of our conventional views on success to try and approach the heart of the matter.  I think we often fail to realize the power and importance of throwing ourselves into dialogue with people from different walks of life and suspending, if only for a few minutes or a couple of hours, our basic assumptions about ourselves, our trajectory in life, and our view of the world.  It is not easy–indeed, in our discussion, we hit a few bumps in the road and the engine stalled a few times; but confusion is the crucible of a higher, deeper, rounder form of consciousness.  And we had some unpleasant exchanges; it became clear pretty quickly that the philosophical is the personal.  But overall, I think we had a good first showing and I look forward to our next meeting in January.

Some highlights from our discussion:

Continue reading “Socrates Café Meeting #1: Minutes”