Little Bit ‘o Philosophy: The Centrality of Friendship

Something to keep in mind: The foundation of Greek philosophy, that unsurpassed shining moment of human brilliance that was essential to the establishment of Western Culture and still permeates our lives, is –

Greeks. Hanging with friends. Having a drink. Yakking about something. 


The importance of friendship as the basis of philosophy can hardly be overemphasized. Because philosophy took place in discussions among friends, certain decadent tendencies of modern philosophy were avoided.  While there are very few material issues and problems in modern philosophy that the Greeks were not aware of, the simple fact that I would be discussing them among friends put a limit on any non-crank seriously holding positions that, if true, made it impossible or unreal to believe that you could talk over the such ideas with your friends.

A solipsist has no friends by definition – out. A radical materialist can’t give an account of what, exactly, is going on in a discussion between friends. Same goes for a determinist, Oh, sure, you could bat those ideas around – the pre-Socratics did that and worse –  but, at the end of the day, the friendship of the men gathered was of higher importance and more basic than any positions held. The immediate, tangible reality of a good friend was more real than any speculation.

Scholars mention an oddity: that, due to the vagaries of chance and the biases of copyists, the texts we have had handed down to us may give a much too cool and analytic view of the Greeks. The philosophical and mathematical works are comparatively plentiful and held in high esteem – only Homer, the two great historians Thucydides and Herodotus and the great playwrights seem to be held in as much honor as Plato and Aristotle and Euclid. For the centuries that Westerners have studied the ancient Greeks, it was traditional to start with Homer and the playwrights, to keep things balanced. Homer in particular, builds the bulk of the Iliad around the great friendship between Achilles and Patroclus. In a way, right below glory, what a Greek wanted most of all was friends. Even a cad like Callicles includes in his formulation of virtue the power to reward one’s friends (along with the power to punish enemies and indulge in every whim). Not much good if you don’t have any friends.

The second great flowering of Western Philosophy in the medieval universities, was built on the Greeks – and on friendship, again. At university, every student was part of a college, which was a sort of combination eating club, dorm and fraternity (similar to how its still done at Oxford). Your college was you home and family while at University. Classes more resembled Greek symposia than modern lectures – small numbers of students meeting with a master to work through questions. Many famous friendships were formed in medieval universities. Philosophizing, and learning in general, were activities by and among friends.*

This all began to change in the early 16th century. Philosophy became completely partisan. What side you were on determined what philosophy you learned. I’ve commented before on the contemptuous, near total silence with which the post medieval/early modern philosophers treat the scholastics. The almost never address any challenges directly at the school men straight on, but merely assume that their readers know Thomas was wrong, and that we’re here to clean up the (papist) mess. This has carried on to the modern day so much so, that if a person knows anything at all about medieval philosophizing, it’s that those benighted rubes worried about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

So it can be said that modern philosophy is built on antagonism, and not just antagonism to the past. A sort of fierce insecurity characterizes many modern professors in my experience. There’s often no real reason they have their job instead of somebody else (once had a comp lit professor at an uber-elite school admit he had his job because the department wanted at least one straight male), and if it weren’t for the solidarity – I don’t say friendship – between other academics in the same boat, they might not get any positive reinforcement at all. Who, outside the faculty and students, ever tells the philosophy teacher, or faculty in any of the ‘studies’ department, that  he’s doing anything important? Nope, college professors for the most part don’t really know in their hearts why they have their job or why it is that anyone would pay them to do it. Thus, the characteristic defensiveness whenever a non-academic places a toe on their turf.

True philosophy must start with the solid reality of love. You must know love of friend and family before you are able to know what it means to love wisdom.

* Then as now,. great friendships are opportunities for great hatreds as well, and enemies were almost as likely to be acquired as friends.The point is that the normal operation of education was not one of animosity but would have been impossible without a substrate of friendship.

Faith in Humanity Restored

At least a little:

Picked up my lovely and talented oldest daughter at the airport, where she flew in from Benedictine College for an aunt’s wedding over the weekend, and we talked about what she’s doing. She’s a drama/music major, so she just got around to taking a philosophy 101 type class this year.

Dad’s heart skips a beat: the concept of a philosophy survey class as opposed to just reading philosophers to see what they have to say in their own (translated, but still) words – near occasion of intellectual sin, at the very least; tiptoeing on the precipice of Hell in the wrong hands.

But: she said that the text for the class was the complete works of Aristotle, and that the first half of the class consisted of learning a bunch of key Aristotelian concepts right out of that test. Well, how novel! Introducing students to philosophy via real philosophy!

But it gets better: the second half of the class consisted of reading later philosophers, pointing out how they went wrong when the rejected the Aristotelian principles learned in the first half of the class. Locke, Hume – that crowd.

It almost literally brought a tear to my eye. Yes! That’s it! (how do you make the font bigger – oh, here)


Sure, it’s not St. John’s or Thomas Aquinas, but – YES! That’s how you should do it.


On Money: Part 2 – Value

We concluded Part 1 by saying that, in this advanced age, money works as a medium of exchange because we all pretend agree that it works – we agree that it has value. How money has value at all and how much value it has is what we will discuss next.

Going back again to barter, the type and foundation of commerce, we see that economic value – trade value – depends entirely upon what people are willing to exchange for something. I may value my horse or X-34 Landspeeder as the apple of my eye, but if I want to trade it, it’s worth exactly how much someone will give me for it.

And that’s the trick: in a free market, speaking strictly economically, *everything* is worth exactly whatever the buyer is willing to give up for it.  Doesn’t matter how much we love it or hate it, doesn’t matter what we think is ‘fair’ (a prohibitively elastic term) – if I can’t find someone to pay me what I think my precious X-34 is worth, then it’s not worth that much. Nothing personal, it’s just business.

X-35 Landspeeder
Since the XP-38 came out, they’re just not in demand.

Back to value. As the medium of exchange, money gets its value based on the comparative values of the things traded with something of standard value. The mechanism is so refined at this point that it is invisible to the naked eye, but it is there even when we pick up a pack of gum at the QuickStop. In free markets, a naturally occurring ‘gold standard’ soon arose (or a silver or copper or cigarettes or sea shell standard – it just has to be something people trading value). Then, as a matter of convenience and tradition, things for sale have their prices denominated in the agreed-upon standard. Next, following the process described in Part 1, that value represented by the standard gets transferred to paper money and electronic ledger accounts.

Horse Value

Bottom line, as we finance types like to say, paper money is valuable based ultimately as a pricing mechanism dependent on the value of goods established in a free market, through the intermediary steps of currency creation outlined previously.

Pigs Value

And now, it has to be noted that there is one other way currency can have value – by governmental fiat. The government can simply set prices based on some perceived need, often some notion of ‘fair’. This governmental price-setting by fiat can take place in two ways. The first is straight-forward in effect, if often byzantine in implementation: passing laws or making regulations that set prices on some items that are more or less than what the market price would otherwise be. Sugar, for example, has been consistently about twice as expensive in America than anywhere else in the world, due to a 250 year and running series of bills and regulations made to win the political support of sugar producers and refiners.*

But the main price setting by fiat that the government enacts is the price of government itself. Projects are bought and taxes levied and debt incurred with little if any market involvement, meaning that the buyer and seller are not simply looking for economic value and are not really free to turn deals down. Governments can do a better or worse job of managing this process, but it is unlikely in this vale of tears that they will do as good a job as a free market. Just as the temptation to fraud afflicts those in the open market, the temptation to use government money to buy or pay off political favors besets those spending government money. Well talk a little about why this is so  later.

To sum up: money has value due to its implicit historic relationship to standards of value (e.g., the gold standard), and our more or less conscious decisions to act as if those standards still existed. Standards allow for a consistent valuation across many different types of goods and services, and have sprung up everywhere a material number of people want to buy and sell stuff.

Next up: where money comes from. Hint: probably not from where you think.

*Consumers pay for this twice, both in higher sugar prices and in the taxes and debt that fund the government subsidies and the bureaucracies that manage them.

Of Lizards, Monkeys and Men

Lizard not to scale.

The other day, was buying a couple live mice for the Caboose’s corn snake at the local house of reptiles. One of the clerks had a largish iguana-style lizard on the counter, and we chatted while waiting for the the snake’s take-out to arrive.

The clerk was picking bits of skin out of the crannies of this lizard, and commented that he (the lizard) had recently shed and hadn’t quite got all the old skin off. I observed that the lizard was remarkably calm, and the clerk said that, yes, you needed to handle this kind a lot from birth to get them this tame, otherwise they could be a bit dangerous. As it was, this lizard was so used to being with people that he would jump up on his (the clerk’s) shoulder at the first opportunity.

On cue, the lizard leapt up onto the clerks shoulder. He (the lizard) was a cool pet. Jumping up on people’s shoulders is a very survival-promoting behavior – in a lizard-friendly pet shop. People will tend to keep such a lizard away from predators and feed it. Outside such a pet shop environment, I doubt it would work so well.

There have been a few stories in the press over the last few years about people raising chimps or bonobos or whatever in their homes. Such animals are not safe to be around once they become adults, as they can tear your face off, and yet are also unfit for release into the wild, as they lack all the social and foraging skills they would have learned being raised by other members of their species. The cute and cuddly behaviors that promoted the survival of a young chimp in the home have vanished, and been replaced with adult drives and behaviors humans can’t control.

This seems to be a problem across the board with more sophisticated animals: they learn their survival skills from the other members of their species in their native environments. Raise outside that environment by humans, and they no longer can cope with what a wild animal faces everyday. For the chimp or lizard to obtain the behaviors needed to survive, they need to grow up in that environment.

The lizard will likely live a long, well-fed, predator-free life, often perched on the shoulder of some human; the chimp raised by people, with its innately more sophisticated social life and behaviors, is likely condemned to misery once it matures, as it will be either caged or released – either way, it will be stuck into an environment to which it is poorly adapted.

On the other extreme, developing embryos seem to need precise environmental triggers at just the right moment of development, in order to grow properly. When cells are removed and placed in a petri dish, they will not continue to develop normally, since the proteins triggers are missing or mistimed. Even before birth, animals need the right environment in order to develop properly.

People are much more than animals, but we are at least animals, and need at least the level of care animals receive. We don’t develop in a vacuum, but grow physically, emotionally and socially in response to our environment. Continue reading “Of Lizards, Monkeys and Men”

Review: Sci Phi Journal, Issue #2, pt 1 – Fiction

SPJ2_256The second issue of the Sci Phi journal, wherein philosophy and science fiction meet, have a beer and argue into the wee hours about such conundrums as the ethics of creating wildly implausible backstories to explain various flavors of Klingon brow ridges*, features another fine set of stories and essays and is available now for your reading and musing pleasure, here and here.

Here I’ll look at a couple of the stories, Later, I’ll review an essay or 2.**

Ghosts, by Peter Sean Bradley, is the kind of twisted and darkly humorous story that’s right up my alley. To tell much of it would be to give away the punchline, as it were. The story starts by describing a scene wherein certain people are doing their best to enjoy the ambient social and moral chaos: the narrator is attending the wedding of a dear aunt of his, and runs through a brief history of their relationship which is depressingly realistic:

After my mother and her father had split up, Jennie and I remained good friends throughout the nightmare years of Junior and Senior high school.

And they had been nightmare years as both of our fathers and mothers moved in and out of relationships and marriages and our custody schedules and homes were constantly changing.

Yea, this is reality for many of the kids I know. The determination and force used by the putative adults involved to deny the emotional reality of their behaviors on their children knows few bounds.

Anyway, this is a happy time, despite his son showing up with a foot growing out of his forehead: Jennie is getting married – to a strip mall. It’s all downhill, uphill and all around from there. Good, well-written story.

Another couple stories address the possible downsides of submitting to our AI overlords once the Singularity has come to pass. In the First Step, Emmanuel A. Mateo-Morales tells of a transhuman who has created heaven on earth – all that remains is to hand it over to the AI and ‘people’ it. There are some narrow minded primitives that object – imagine! And a friend, after a fashion, who would warn him. The chief philosophical issue here is gravity: do ideas tend to play themselves out over time, despite how our temperament might irrationally oppose them? We may not feel like being hopeless mass murderers for reasons of taste – but are we inexorably driven there by our nihilism?

The Quantum Process by David Hallquist tackles a different question – when we obtain immortality by duplicating our consciousness, what does that look like from the now-redundant backup’s point of view?

All in all, a fun read and a noble project. I’m even now putting together a list of friends who might be interested in a little mental exercise that’s none-the-less fun. Go, make disciples!

* I just made that up. I think.

** In case any of my three regular readers are wondering: the implicitly promised second half of the review of issue #1 turned into an interminable and stiffly-worded essay full of excruciating detail on what the Matrix trilogy is really trying to tell us that I submitted for publication in a moment of foolishness. I’ll post it here once it’s clear whatever tiny chance it may have had is most sincerely dead.

Lying in Twisty Ways

Here is a image via Mark Shea’s blog:

Now, if this had been titled “4 Things to Think About in Regards to Food Stamps” I would have just let it slide. But it makes a claim so ludicrous and condescending that I once again ignored my “just stay out of it” instincts and commented:

This image above has crossed the line: lying so that good may come of it.

No, this is not all you need to know. 1 and 2 are emotional irrelevancies meant to put a stop to rational discussion; 3 is an out and out lie, meant to make us believe that not only do food stamps not cost anything, but are rather a regular gold-egg-laying goose! Throw a dollar in, get *$2* back! How does it work? It’s magic! And only a poor-hating doody-head would dare question it. 4 is true – and?

Food stamps may or may not be a great good – I personally don’t have any major issues with them – but attempting to lie and manipulate emotions so as to put a stop to rational public discourse? That’s evil, and remains evil no matter how good food stamps may be.

This of course lead to a bunch of fundamentally irrational comments, as well as a couple OK ones. Oh, well, some things I never learn.

So, as a public service, let me show the form an actual argument might take. This isn’t a particularly good argument – ok, is sucks – but at least it allows us to see what is being asserted as a premise and how the logic leads to the conclusion. Rational arguments will have this form, the more explicitly the better:

1. According to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, public action should be taken at the lowest possible political level given the nature of the action.

2. Like making war and printing money, feeding the hungry is something best done at a national level.

3. Therefore, food stamps, as a national program to feed the poor, represents a proper Catholic approach to feeding the hungry.

See? Anyone can see the premise, the logic, and the conclusion. Then, we can have a rational argument! We can dispute the premises and the logic without any name calling or appeals to emotion. How cool would that be? And we don’t limit what you need to know to 4 points on the one hand, or need to fill in a bunch of ellipses on the other. It doesn’t makes the baby Thomas Aquinas cry.

Any time people substitute emotional appeals, unsubstantiated claims and assertions that ALL the facts are in in place of a nice clean little syllogism, it is at least true that they are behaving irrationally and, sadly, often true that they are lying. Current events supply many, many examples of exactly this substitution. This is not a hypothetical exercise.

On Money: Part 1

Fort Knox
One of several vaults at Ft Knox. There’s more gold at the depository in New York, though.

(Will mention Hegel here once then stop – so don’t give up!) Hegel proposes that gaining worthy philosophical knowledge is in some sense a top down process: only by understanding how the Spirit has unfolded through History can any deep sense be made out of the more fleeting and mundane – less ‘concrete’ – features of reality.  Whatever Hegel may have meant to do, when applied by less exalted intellects this approach has been the curse of modern thinking.

Thus, we are afflicted with any number of ‘leaders’ who hold passionate positions about how taxes should be levied and the moneys thus collected spent who could not tell you what, exactly, money *is* to save their lives. This combination of passion and ignorance springs from two related causes: outrage over injustices that cry for vengeance, and belief in an overarching theory that obviates the need for any actual information or understanding.  Examples abound: any who ask how the Affordable Care Act is supposed to work out financially from a simple mathematical basis are not challenged on the basis of the math or the logic of money, but on the basis of holding Wrong Positions. Same goes for questioning attempts to raise the minimum wage – if you point out the logical repercussions of such an increase based, again, on math and the logic of money, you’re not being practical and realistic, you just hate poor people.  And on and sadly on.

So here is a simple, basic explanation of money and value, in several parts. These basic facts remain true regardless of whether you are Midas or St. Francis himself. All the good intentions in the world will not change them. Ignoring them leads to inevitable undesirable consequences.  There is no overarching theory that magically changes the basic nature of money and value. Continue reading “On Money: Part 1”