Category Archives: Philosophy

Sarah Bakewell – How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Sarah Bakewell – How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Despite the title, this delightful volume is no self-help book. It is mostly a biography of Montaigne, the 16th century Frenchman who invented the modern essay, which means “to try” or “to attempt”.

The very word captures Montaigne’s basic humility. He did not intend his essays to be definitive, or the last word on the subject. His writing style and his philosophy were thoughtful, gentle, playful, scattershot, introspective, and curious. Montaigne conspicuously lacked certainty and dogmatism, which occasionally got him in trouble. Above all else, he seemed to value peace and quiet, and seemed to view his time as Bordeaux’s mayor as a burden, not an honor. Readers who know me personally can understand why Montaigne has long been one of my favorite thinkers.

Bakewell expertly captures his spirit. Rather than a straight biography, she mimics Montaigne’s literary approach in the Essays. She tells the story of both Montaigne and his writings in bits and pieces, going on frequent tangents while staying mindful of larger themes, such as humility and taking joy in little things.


Aristotle – The Poetics

Aristotle – The Poetics

A shorter work with useful insights for appreciating storytelling in general, and Greek drama and poetry in particular. Aristotle offers a key insight for making a character believable: a character’s every action and every word should be based on either necessity or probability.

The plot necessitates some actions on the character’s part. What the audience knows about the character’s personality dictates the probability that his reactions are believable. To use a lowbrow example, the reason it’s so funny when Homer says something intelligent on The Simpsons is that is so out of character.

Some of Aristotle’s other ideas about what makes good drama or good poetry seems to be his personal taste. This being subjective, it need not be taken as gospel.

Aristotle – On Rhetoric

Aristotle – On Rhetoric

Rhetoric is a morally neutral tool that can equally be used for good or bad purposes. It is important to use it wisely and only towards good ends. Athens having no professional lawyers, On Rhetoric was Aristotle’s guide to pleading one’s case in court, and to persuasion in general.

Aristotle first goes over the different elements of rhetoric, than turns his attention to the structure of an effective persuasive speech. Aristotle’s main concepts are the three pisteis of logos (logic and truth; basically the facts of the case), ethos (audience emotions about the orator as a person) and pathos (audience emotions about the orator’s arguments).

Another key Aristotelian concept of argumentative structure is the enthymeme, which has many forms, but always leaves at least one of its premises unstated. This is both a strength and a weakness. It can hide vulnerabilities, if only by failing to mention them. But to hide a weakness, it must have one in the first place.

The most famous example of an enthymeme is Hegel’s structure of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—with the unstated premise being that the synthesis is, in fact, plausible. This is often not the case.

This is the first place a skilled rhetorician should attack such an argument. But few people can identify such an argument on the fly when it is being made, let alone know where that weak spot is.

So in many cases, especially in ancient Athens’ non-professional legal system, enthymemes can be used on offense with little fear of having to play defense. Again, Aristotle stresses, rhetoric by itself is morally neutral. Its powers can be used for good or for evil, depending on who wields it. Use it wisely.

Aristotle – The Politics

Aristotle – The Politics

Another fundamental work in its discipline. Despite never having read it until now, it still felt like review. This may be because it has influenced every major work since. Aristotle goes through the positives and negatives of the three major forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

Drawing from The Nicomachean Ethics and its emphasis on moderation, Aristotle prefers the mean version of each type of government to its extreme versions. Ever the taxonomist, Aristotle spends a good chunk of the book discussing weak, medium, and strong variants of all three forms of government.

Aristotle also takes a stab at constructing his ideal state, though not to the same level of detail as his teacher Plato did in The Republic. In line with the times, Aristotle has only a grudging acceptance of trade and commerce, arguing for ports to be built at a distance from the polis to keep moral degradation away, and to trade only for things the polis cannot produce for itself.

Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle’s major work on ethics. It was named for either Aristotle’s son or father, who were both named Nicomachus. Basically lecture notes from his classes, this later work supersedes the earlier Eudemian Ethics. The major theme here is the golden mean. Courage lies between cowardice and rashness; liberality lies between being a cheapskate and a spendthrift; moderation in all things.

Aristotle’s views on slavery, women, and a few other topics show this work’s age. But the overall impression is one of human decency, if with a somewhat stiff and formal demeanor. Closely connected with The Politics, which was written later, The Nicomachean Ethics focuses mostly on the individual and those close to him. The Politics applies similar thinking outward to larger social and political life. Unlike many modern political combatants, Aristotle thought ethics and politics to be related.

Rhetoric and Emotion

The beginning of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric has a lesson for staying informed despite today’s dominant political strategy:

Appeals to the emotions warp the judgment.

One of Aristotle’s main points is that rhetoric by itself is morally and ideologically neutral. A skilled rhetorician can use this weakness in human cognition for either good or evil. To do sound policy analysis, one must be aware when the emotional appeal strategy is being used, especially towards illiberal ends.

Regulatory Discretion: Both Good and Bad

From p. 137 of Cornell political scientist Theodore Lowi’s 1969 book The End of Liberalism: Ideology, Policy, and the Crisis of Public Authority:

The move from concreteness to abstractness in the definition of public policy was probably the most important single change in the entire history of public control in the United States.

Lowi’s point concerns the separation of powers. In theory, Congress passes a law directing a regulatory agency to regulate something in a specific way, then the agency does so. The executive branch executes legislation; hence its name.

This is not how things work in practice. More and more, Congress delegates its legislative powers away to the executive branch. On issues ranging from health insurance subsidies to power plants to Internet infrastructure, executive branch agencies act unilaterally. And when they cite congressional statutes, they do so abstractly, not concretely, just as Lowi said nearly 50 years ago.

An example: the text of the Clean Air Act says nothing about CO2 emissions. But a few years ago, the EPA issued a cap-and-trade regulation for CO2 emissions, even though Congress explicitly rejected a bill to do so. The EPA justified its decision on the abstract principles on which the Clean Air Act is based. The fact that the text of bill, as amended over the years, does not mention CO2 emissions as a pollutant, did not matter to the EPA.

There is a role for discretion in regulatory matters. Discretion makes it possible to avoid regulatory abuses, clear needless bureaucratic hurdles, and avoid obvious stupidities such as suspending children from school for wielding Pop-Tart “guns” in cafeterias.

But Lowi makes a good point: discretion is a double-edged sword. Without a clear separation of powers, its outer edge can spill blood by executive order just as easily as the inner edge can cut innocents loose from government-mandated ropes.