Fables on Systems
Understanding the world in its complexity
It is customary to associate fables with children. Doing so in this case would be presumptuous, for it would assume that (i) adults are readily aware of the issues raised herein, and (ii) that imaginary scenaria are didactic for kids in a way they are not for other age groups. Let us avoid such pitfalls.
This is a work on philosophy. The characters and events are imaginary, though I could just as well write about actual stories that would still convey the same ideas you are about to read. What matters is the set of insights one can draw from each fable individually and from all of them taken as a unit.
You can read these chapters in any given order, though I have provided for a loosely sequential progression that could help streamline their teachings.
The mountain and the hillock
An ambitious hillock sought the advice of the nearby mountain.
— Oh mighty one, what must I do to reach your heights? I want to be as strong and imposing as you are, so that I may finally command respect from my peers.
— Easy there, young one. To hold power is a great burden that requires prudence in the exercise of discretion. You are interested in the status that it may grant you, while disregarding the responsibility attached to it. I did not become a mountain by choice, nor would I do so given the chance in an attempt to impress my acquaintances. On the contrary, to reach a certain point of balanced being I had to actively work against the notion of conforming to any role imposed by the prevalent expectations in my immediate environment.
— How do you mean? I know that everyone of my friends fears you, while recognising your sheer strength.
— This power of mine is employed in the service of others, not to satisfy my vanity. All you see is a towering formation of rock that you naively compare to your relatively smaller mass. I am not alone out there living my little adventure. In truth, I provide the baseline for a complex cobweb of relations between inter-dependent forms of life. I tend to the greater good. In resisting the winds, I ensure that no preponderant force will ever descend from the sky, breaking everything in its path. By concentrating the clouds and by withholding snow on my slopes during winter time, I provide water that ultimately flows downstream far away from my reach out to the green fields. These vast deposits provide a counter-balance to rising temperatures, while they guarantee the safety and nourishment of the species under my aegis, even when no more clouds are in proximity. Think of the forests that have made me their habitat and then consider all those mammals, insects, birds, fungi that depend on them while also contributing to the ongoing workings of the subsystem of life we conceptualise for brevity as “the forest”. Everything is connected. To be a mountain requires you to act like one: not only do you hold the roof of the world, but also tend to the needs of every single being in your vicinity, while accounting for the longer-term implications of your deeds.
— Sounds like too much trouble for no apparent gain. Is it possible to be mighty without assuming such burdens?
— Many have decoupled the two. Their deeds are recorded in tales and legends that speak of destruction and great suffering. Fools have made efforts to obfuscate those facts, by idealising vanity as glory and by misrepresenting recklessness for power, hubris for progress. Us mountains know the truth, however. Do not become an avatar of selfishness, young hillock. Power without wisdom, means without constraints, beget evil.
— So I must be condemned to a life in obscurity and powerlessness?
— Your ambition stems from a place of ignorance. You effectively discriminate in that you treat difference as likeness and the similar as dissimilar, by virtue of reducing the two of us to the common denominator of “strength”. In so doing, you commit an analytical error where you misrepresent reality in your model. For a hillock or a mountain are far more than just their score in a given index. If you insist on treating a hillock in its capacity to be a mountain, you will always find it wanting. Same for trying to comprehend the function of the mountain in terms of a hillock. What you must do instead is account for the constitution of each case, the particular factors which, in their interplay, contribute to each presence’s particularities. It is erroneous to homogenise everything in the interest of methodological expediency. It is ill advised to omit variations that you mistake for frailties. There is no realisable scenario where all “rock formations” are mountains that fulfil the same requirements. Such a world would be one of imbalance that would ultimately destroy a large portion of life as we know it.
— Should I just accept my fate, then?
— To accept is to recognise how things stand in their natural order. To conform is to internalise a convention as if it were a constant of nature. By trying to be something other than your self, you impose unrealistic expectations that render stressful your every moment. You turn your ideal against you. Its imposing presence serves as a reminder that no matter the effort, you are never going to approximate it. Your attempt at conformity contradicts your actuality: a sense of helplessness and depression ensues. An original misunderstanding thus contributes to your restlessness and inner struggle.
— How can I escape from such an apparent trap?
— In acknowledging your being, you shed off those layers of misguided ambition, the pretentiousness, the vainglory, and, now released from their grip, can finally be true to yourself. To “accept fate”, the way you put it, is not as simple as providing assent to a given state of affairs. It requires from you a conscious switch in your mode of conduct, where you lead a life of no expectation, no false want, no hypocrisy; a life of meticulous commitment to the truth. You may then discover that you have unwittingly become more mountain-like in your calmness, your tranquillity, your ataraxia, to the extent that you are no longer thrown out of balance by the realisation that your once-cherished beliefs were nothing but pernicious follies.
— But I am just a hillock. It is why I asked you how to get better.
— You will get better when you remove all obstacles in your mind that prevent you from being “just a hillock”. Right now you are that in appearance only, not in disposition. To become “just a hillock” is, for your case, to overcome the pretences and to take things as they are. A great achievement to behold.
The oak-tree and the property developer
A prospective homeowner’s view of the nearby village was concealed by an old oak-tree that somehow survived the preceding deforestation. The property developer, knowing that a large sum of bonus payments was at risk of jeopardy, hired a wood-cutter to finalise the job. On the night before, the unforeseen happened:
— You think that my presence prevents you from seeing things in the distance. Yet it is your ignorance that contributes to your lack of sight.
— Who are you? What is the meaning of this?
— I am your peaceful neighbour, the oak-tree. Us trees have no ordinary speech with which to voice our concerns and objections to your machinations. What you now hear is an enchanted message enabled by our wise mother.
— What do you want, fool? Your petty magic will not save you come the morrow.
— All I want is to remind you of your unawareness to facts beyond the mere superficialities. For what exists in the image of an oak-tree is far more than meets the untrained eye of the unidimensional moneyman. The root system that supports my structure also nurtures other life forms: nascent trees, bushes, micro-organisms, insects. Bees live off of my nectar, while flies and ants eat seeds and material that is of no apparent use to you humans. Birds partake in the feast, while they find refuge under my branches. By standing here, I supply every being with oxygen, while I provide an antipode to the furious winds of this world and the mighty streams that would otherwise erode the land. I have been tasked with the role of the life-giver and the life-enabler, standing at the epicentre of a vibrant sub-system of inter-dependent beings.
— You talk big, as if some weakling’s concern for vermin will put a dent to our progress.
— You see a mere insect in isolation when, in fact, there exists a chain of dependencies and an interplay of factors, among which the being you observe is only a tiny part of. Just as you fail to account for the mycelial networks that help connect my roots—my very constitution—to that of my family, friends, and neighbours. We have a thriving community of our own, based on the values of communication, cooperation, solidarity. Your propensity is to decouple our presence from its actuality: to decontextualise the tree as “just a tree”, to treat an insect as if it were not part of a greater whole, and so on. You do the same when you put rat poison in the fields whose balance you had already disturbed with inconsiderate farming methods. Instead of repelling rats from your farm you commit genocide on a monumental scale: owls, hawks, eagles, snakes, dogs, and cats get poisoned or exterminated as collateral damage. A new imbalance follows that further disturbs the chain of life. Over time the concatenation of dependencies begins to unravel. Death and decay take the stead of a once thriving subsystem. Again, it is your penchant for naive reductionism that underpins your destructive mania. It is the primary cause of your inability to recognise the ecosystem as emergent from its factors. It also explains why you cannot appreciate your limits, committing hubris in the process.
— Why insist on the value of some rodent or whatever filthy creature? It matters not. All that I care about is that you diminish the value of my assets.
— Us trees live a long life. We need to conserve our energy in order to cope with the challenges. As such, we choose to speak through our absence rather than waste time on words that fall on deaf ears. You will know what we do when we no longer are there to provide it. Once misfortune strikes, when destruction and disease fall upon your kind, once pandemics and pests besiege you, it will be because you failed to acknowledge our function and that of other species in this delicate balance of life, of which humanity is but a minor fraction of. Imbalances have longer-term implications. No act of aggression against the natural order comes without a cost. In your ignorance—your wickedness—and resulting lack of foresight you could not understand the limits imposed upon your kind, to the effect that you think of us as raw material or, worse, an impediment to the realisation of your fancies. Cut me down if you must. Let me meet the fate of the society—the commons—I belonged to, which you mercilessly cleansed from this earth. Make no mistake though: by attempting to satisfy your whimsy, you will be inviting far more trouble than the minor upset in expectations a compromise with your self would have produced.
— What obscurantist nonsense is this! “Compromise with my self” as if I am schizophrenic. Your arrogance undermines your appeals to wisdom. It is you who are ignorant, for you assume to know what we are truly capable of. Humans have the ingenuity to solve every problem and to devise methods for overcoming the constraints imposed upon their physical capacities. We have the potential to bend nature to our will and to outsmart it. We can fly amid the stars, if we so choose to. Whereas you are forever rooted in this patch of earth. Think about how brutish your miserable existence is. Let us then do what we must. I am not afraid!
— To compromise with your self is to understand who you are and normalise your expectations accordingly. Not only individually, but as a species. I know all too well that you are not afraid. Just as I am aware that you cannot see anything other than a piece of wood between your house and the village in your midst. Had you known your place in this world, you would not be prioritising the short-term fulfilment of your bonus points over the longer-term sustainability of the world that environs you and which you are but an element of. You would also be more sceptical of the extent to which your volition governs your conduct and of the degree to which it operates freed from processes at sub- or super- systems that are not germane to the emergent form of being you call “human”. It is a pity that your kind can both be so smart and yet continuously act without the benefit of prescience. You commit a grave error and only later some of you will realise their stupidity. To act in hindsight is to act foolishly.
The dog and the lord
A stray dog had a surplus of free time in its pawns, seeing as it had no job to do. It made best use of it by learning the human tongue and then committing to memory various statements it heard from others at local rallies and riots. By recalling them, the dog could trick unsuspecting humans into thinking that it was wise and could competently hold a dialogue: an impression that was further reinforced by the dog’s self-styled official name as “Canis Lupus Sophisticus”, else “Soph”, as well as its seemingly pensive demeanour.
Soph’s omniscience was spurious. The animal knew all too well that it possessed no true knowledge of its own. The best it could ever do was pose questions that the genuinely more knowledgeable amongst the human kind could answer satisfactorily.
One such person was the mutt’s newfound master. A local lord whose social standing as Philosophy Doctor and whose private holdings as nobility in the service of the empire far surpassed that of other people in the manor and the wider region.
Hours before the first hunt, Soph seized the opportunity to exhibit its skills by opening a conversation with the lord, who had woken up earlier than usual.
— Good day my liege! I am happy to greet you and am also excited to share with you this very trick that I picked up on my own.
— A beast that speaks our language. Impressive indeed! Though I am not surprised that my intelligence has attracted you to me and already has a benign effect on you.
— Thank you master for all that you have already done in such a short time span! May I ask you a few questions, just so that I learn about my place in this world?
— Do regale me! Keep it short though: the time of the hunt is fast approaching.
— Allow me to first introduce myself. My formal name is Canis Lupus Sophisticus, but everyone calls me “Soph”!
— That is the kind of ridiculous self-description I have come to expect from dogs and idolaters! Proceed to the matter at hand before I lose my patience.
— What is an empire, my lord?
— A civilisation’s greatest achievement. It is the dominion of a culture over others. The prevalence of a system of power over those subjected to it. An empire is supreme authority in practice. God’s omnipotence and will approximated on earth as instituted reality.
— Why dominate others?
— To prove to them who the best race is. And to stress the fact that their modes of life are inferior to our own.
— So you also take their land?
— That is how you teach them such lessons. Else they fail to understand. Once we break their initial resistance and force them into a position where they can finally listen, we convince them that what we do is in their interest as well. When a higher civilisation, a wiser race occupies your land, you the savage should seize the opportunity to learn a thing or two. It is how we have civilised most of the world. The empire’s very presence is a reflection of that. Magnificent!
— Does that make your life better in an objective sense or does it improve the narrative you have about your civilisation as enlightened or superior, and guided solely by divine intervention?
— Both, actually. In objective terms, we employ our abundant resources to extract more of them from our colonies and dependencies. The profit is channelled to the empire’s central coffers, so that our civilisation may continue to flourish and allow its political system to do what it was designed for: expand its reach and continue to concentrate power and resources at the inner locus of authority. While in relative terms, we use these glorious events to raise the morale of our subjects and to show them the path to honour. Our promises of a better future for all appear plausible to them because we roll over the cost to people far away from home, or even to the environment that no-one should ever care about, lest you are a tree hugger or some other lunatic that thinks of the ecosystem as a living organism emergent from living organisms. When an individual among our kind escapes their starting point of precarity, we can use that exception to the norm in support of our agenda. We do that by publicising their story, while omitting the details that may contribute to such a phenomenon, focusing instead on the overall fairness of our order and the equal opportunities of outcome it renders possible.
— So imperialism is about conquering other peoples but also enforcing a stratified social system domestically? A double offensive?
— It could not be any different. The nature of every hierarchy is to concentrate power at its centre or the top, depending on the metaphor you want to use. Few are those who are in a position of authority. The rest must follow orders and conform with their role, per the rules we embed in social, cultural, political institutions as well as the laws we promulgate. If we were to distribute power equally among everyone then it would be practically impossible to persuade people such as those that feed you every morning that a war away from home is a moral duty to their country. It would never work, as these fools do not have a sense of service to a higher cause; a cause that us lords understand courtesy of our long tradition in pursuing a morally-consistent lifestyle. To implement a coherent plan you must do it against the aspirations and false wants of the many, whether you resort to outright coercive means or gradually indoctrinate them into thinking that the interest of the empire is inseparably attached to their private gain.
— I once heard a servant of yours describe this structure and the phenomenon of power-concentration as “gigantism”. Is that a fair description?
— Gigantism? I read about it before… The musings of some godless pamphleteer. My servants should be taught a lesson in patriotism and humility. They do not respect the fact that they have a job that is enough to replenish their life force for just another day at the manor. Regardless, you are a dog. Your opinion is irrelevant, therefore you are allowed to speak for the time being. “Gigantism” would serve as an abstract category for all variants of hierarchy. Not just empires, but nation-states, corporations, the very manorialism that governs this wonderful place of ours. In essence, every hierarchy has a propensity to draw competences to its core and every hierarchy’s beneficiaries have a built-in incentive to expand their influence and, in doing so, proliferate the hierarchical model of organisation. Extended traditional families are instituted as hierarchies through the enforcement of roles; forms of government are designed that way to impose uniformity or a high degree of homogeneity across their territorial reach; nation-states do the same through the very nationalism they cultivate, i.e. the meta-narrative, else ideology, that frames all other discussions about the nation’s (or the empire’s) place in the world and which underpins its sense of destiny or its putative telos.
— Gigantism imposes its own morality then?
— That is inevitable. For “morality” is a codification of the expected patterns of behaviour that our set of rules stipulates. Our subjects are trained into thinking of lawfulness as justice, though us lords and governors know very well that such is, in fact, conformity with the institutional arrangements which pamper our sovereignty at home and abroad. It takes a refined mind to grasp such nuances. Those who seek some fabled genuine justice in defiance of statutes are eliminated with extreme prejudice. Either you are with us or your rest of your life will be defined by torment and agony. More broadly, every state makes its own citizens in the image that suits its ends. Think of the nation-state: it is the state that enforces an official language, an official history, an official narrative of collective self-perception, shared memories and ideals. The nation is the vivid realisation of the state’s ambition for a uniform group of subjects. Which means, of course, that us governors are the ones who provide the necessary impetus for such cultural reform. We make people that are aligned with our aspirations.
— I understand, my lord. It is what must be done to preserve this righteous order of yours. Please tell me now, what exactly is patriotism about?
— Patriotism is the sense of duty one has to selflessly serve their homeland. It entails a higher morality where you are willing to sacrifice yourself for the good of your country.
— So patriotism is expressed as some kind of service when needed?
— Yes, sometimes. For example when you join the army and are sent to the battlefield where you will likely die a hero. Soldiers promote the interests of their country.
— Those battlefields could be the ones that are opened up in the service of the empire, such as the land-grabbing you mentioned earlier?
— Of course! To serve the empire is to serve one’s country. That is the case because in our modern system of governance we have successfully identified the state with its territory: to fight for the land is effectively the same as fighting for the state. To sacrifice oneself for the wellness of the homeland is to die in a conflict that the state likely decided to sustain or initiate.
— Patriotism may therefore mean that your subjects should be guided by an ideology of serving you since you are part of the establishment that controls the state apparatus.
— To die for your lord is to offer your meaningless life to something greater: your country. The lords are the state. The emperor is the state. No questions asked! Without patriotism everyone of those cowards would come up with excuses to conscientiously object to the stratagems of the empire. They think short-term. The true value of the imperialist agenda remains obscure to them. Once they begin scheming for their self-interest and that much-touted liberty of theirs they will start demanding more than they deserve in terms of access to resources and participation in all processes of governance. Such rebellious youth will surely undo everything of worth that we built over the ages. We need patriotism to enforce a subset of proper morals, while we also need our genuine brand of meritocracy to ensure that everyone gets whatever they are worthy of. The system is just.
— What about the model of government, sire? Democracy is the name for it?
— Our democracy is the best there is. Your feeble dog mind will not understand the refined sense of value I am about to expound on, but listen to it regardless: our democracy is superior to those of Athens and Sparta. Unlike them, we adopt decisions in a top-down fashion, while offering the impression of widespread participation. This is done through a system of representation where each politician is nominally voicing a singular voice held by a large number of people in their constituency. Representation is our euphemism for the lack of true diversity. They should fear not, however, for everyone has equal rights on paper.
— Representative democracy is, in other words, democracy in name only? How is it then that people do not just describe it as yet another oligarchy?
— Because oligarchy sounds tyrannical, whereas representative democracy is all about the chimera we describe as the “will of people” . Remember that our order is about justice and merit. None enjoy special privileges, implicit guarantees, a symbiotic relationship with the state apparatus and so on. None of them, that is. We make sure that the establishment is all about fairness. To further reinforce its institutions of equality, us who form the power elite are tasked with the altruistic burden of controlling access to all vital platforms. We are in charge of the media oligopoly that dictates what is to be discussed and how it will be framed. We control the flow and supply of money through our highly sophisticated banks and the system of credit at-large. In every industry we maintain a two-tier system, with us wielding power as guardians of stability, while the rest battle it out in an exaggerated approximation of a free market: they fail freely, while we buy them out freely by leveraging our position of security.
— Do you think that is an efficient model? Don’t you run the risk that you get exposed one day?
— There is no real risk when we fund education to produce cogs for our machines. Let the econ 101 students think that everything is about supply and demand. And let the aspiring political scientist rave about fundamental rights. Their naivety is grist to our mill. We are the platformarchs that operate as a state-private hybrid that can be described as the demistate. Our role is to preserve the status quo. When elections take place we use our wisdom to give voice and offer resources to those that truly matter, to the ones the people really need despite what they may think. Then, once the body politic’s true candidate is in office, we supply them with experts in every field of endeavour. These selfless technocrats visit the politician’s office and provide them with guidance on what needs to be done. Sometimes politicians do not understand that they serve the people, so we nudge them to do the right thing by giving them some pocket money, in an attempt to avoid distractions and not be concerned with their sustenance. We want their undivided attention to be on their voters. The system is perfected through our interventions, while we dismiss every criticism from troublemakers by pointing to the fact that we have more honest scientists on our paycheck than the worthy books they have on their shelf.
— You are right my lord. I could never understand how that state of affairs is true to the notions of equality, participation, freed markets, broad-based sovereignty, and indeed honesty. A proof of my low intellect! What does the position of a lord entail?
— To be a lord means to be recognised for your superiority over other people in the social-political order. It is the inter-personal equivalent of an empire compared with lesser cultures, which I already alluded to. Social status is the reward for your hard work, for putting your mind to a task and seeing it through. It is a matter of merit. All this wealth you see here is the capitalisation of accumulated surplus value of generations of laborious effort and ingenuity. No corruption. No conspiring. Nothing. My ancestors worked tirelessly to turn these resources into capital, claiming for their own the crude matter that no other had worked to seize for themselves. These riches where then formalised as claims on ownership that have since been passed down from one generation to the next. Our imperium is fair because it rewards those who hate idleness and banal immorality with every fibre of their being; those who are smart, tireless, and righteous.
— This means that a prior position of privilege develops, among others, an inter-generational reach that ultimately manifests as largely immutable social stratification, which the very institutional architecture safeguards and enforces?
— A dog with such precision of statement can only belong to me! You still are a simple-minded animal though. The world is replete with examples of path dependencies. There is nothing special at force here. Humans have the freedom of will to choose the path that leads to virtue or the one that breeds mischief. A simple binary of reward and punishment is the single most important breakthrough ever achieved in the realm of morality: no structural issues, no systemic phenomena, no intersecting forms of oppression and a spectrum of possible outcomes. There is none of that nonsense! Individualism veering on solipsism is an unmitigated blessing for us. It makes everything so much more efficient to manage. Me and my ancestors have only ever pursued the virtuous ends. Those who are my servants have always had a penchant for sin. You now see why I am here and they are there. Morality is easy. No tricks, no room for interpretation. The status quo simply enforces a level-playing field so that those who are lazy and foolish do not get more than they deserve.
— Social stratification of an inter-generational kind implies, my good sir, that gigantism wields power in a self-preserving fashion by maintaining the means that sustain the system from one temporal cycle to the next. Us dogs cannot behave with all those layers of nuance and adaptability that humans are known for, especially those who wield power. Though we do have an acute sense of discerning irregularities. It appears that the vaunted fairness of your dominion is but the rationalisation and subsequent internalisation of its elite’s claims on its inevitability. Such is the case of a convention that masquerades as a natural constant.
— Do not bite the hand that feeds you, mongrel! How dare you question our enlightenment, the very world-view that underpins our commitment to genuine freedom? You are dismissed at once and shall be hanged for your transgression.
— Show mercy, master! I am but a bastard that knows nothing. I could never reach the heights of a Philosophy Doctor like yourself, for I have only learnt to mimic smartness in the streets. I remain a mere canine driven by instinct that cannot ever be compared to an esteemed genius such as you, my lord, who has a long and much-deserved family tradition in excellence. Just look at me, a mangy vagrant that suddenly took an interest in politics, while having no understanding of its intricacies. I truly am a fool.
The turtle and the hourglass
Time is running out when we are trained to think of it that way. Such was the guiding principle of a turtle that roamed the world, one calculated step at a time.
— Lucky is the being that lives every moment while also having the luxury to execute a plan over a longer period of time.
— Who’s that?
— I admire your skills noble turtle, though I am but an hourglass who is forced to switch off to an imminent task.
— What do you mean by being forced to pursue a course of action? Who is pressuring you? There is no-one here.
— Just look at me! Those grains of sand are beyond my control. They shift and they move, flowing downward as a constant reminder that time is both of the essence and in shortage.
— I understand your predicament of induced helplessness, but must warn you that my condition as a turtle underpins my impression of temporality. It appears to me that it is not the shifting sands that trouble you but the notions associated with their movement. You have internalised the belief that you are under pressure; pressure to perform here and now; pressure to be always on; pressure to respond in a timely fashion; pressure to conform with your intended function in the grand scheme of things that environ you.
— Interesting! Where does that train of thought lead you? Do tell.
— You have been indoctrinated into a warped perception of purpose. You have been made to believe that the only thing you can ever do is measure time in accordance with some convention that tolerates no deviations. You are a product of over-specialisation. Such is but a role attached to your presence, for there is nothing in your nature qua glass or indeed in the nature of sand as being sand that limits them to this artificial condition. By extension, you could be something other than what you have been made to think you are.
— So you mean that my anxiety to perform is misplaced?
— It most definitely is. The brainwashing you have been subjected to has forced you to perceive of the ideas of others as if they were your own. To the effect that you rationalise your condition as an objective state of affairs. I now think that we can be more in control once we clear our mind of such misconceptions.
— That is an ideal not everyone can realise. Some of us face objective constraints. Just look at me! Every passing moment is a reminder that I have no long-term horizon.
— Therein lies your mistake! While it is true that your intended utility in this case is to return a time value on a given scale, you could just as well be nothing of the sort. Just think about what would happen if you stopped worrying about this particular task. Remain idle and stop counting each passing moment. You will soon discover that you could also be good as a reminder of one’s vanity, should humans be willing to align their expectations with your newfound function.
— But how can I possibly tell them about it?
— You might not be able to do so. We are not able to directly manipulate the notions held by others. What falls within our purview is, in an immediate sense, the concept of self that we have and which we project. If you only treat your presence in the way others want, then you will never escape from the confines imposed upon you. If, instead, you try to introduce some friction to the system, some element of non-conformity, there is a chance that someone else may appreciate your then-apparent alternative utility.
— Give me another example, if you will. Just so that I am certain I got this right.
— Look at that sword on the wall. Take it to the battlefield and it is a weapon in actuality and an ornament in potentiality. Enshrine it in a pedestal and it becomes a symbol of authority, whose power no longer consists in how sharp its edge is or how competent it would be in some other scenario. The potential and the actual are case-dependent, reflecting the mixture of meanings assigned to them.
— Got it! Tell me now, is this how you justify how slow your movement is? Despite your words of advice, I still have this lingering sense that your cumbersome motion is a waste of time.
— Such is the remainder of the falsehoods you still entertain. Heed my message and you shall be cleansed of them. Time cannot be wasted. What is at play is the expectation that things should have happened faster. Reconsider your hypothesis: it thus becomes a matter of examining the underlying assumptions to determine how reasonable they are. They want me to move faster, meaning that they force me to deny my nature as a turtle and to act like some being that I am not. I can always try and fail, if there is a real need to do so. However, I have yet to encounter such a case. When people insist that there is no alternative to the constraints they have imposed upon themselves, what they really wish to say is that they do not want to upset the status quo because someone, somewhere benefits from it and they are either ideologically inclined to serve that end or have been indoctrinated into slavishness. They prefer to attribute objective validity to their conventional truths than to take the more demanding yet honest path of rigorously scrutinising their assumptions. But I am no human and have no need to live in accordance with their expectations just because I happen to exist in the vicinity of their habitat. I am a turtle who carries their shelter on their back. One could claim that I am a “mere turtle” though that would itself be presumptuous. You cannot force me into a precarious condition of virtual homelessness and then extract benefits from me. I am tougher than that because I can remain true to my nature despite outside pressures.
— What a turtle can do an hourglass can try as well. Thank you for your support! I already feel that my life is lighter now that this burden of ever-performant availability has been lifted. You do indeed carry your house with you, though that is no burden at all, for it keeps you anchored in reality: the truth of who you are and not who you should be.
The Ego and its mirror
At least thrice a day the Ego would stare at the mirror. At least thrice a day the Ego would affirm their sense of self anew. The routine came to an abrupt end the day the mirror broke. A monologue ensued, typical of the Ego.
I relied on you for what feels like an eternity, my good mirror. Time and again you assured me of who I am and what my expectations were. You stood as my point of reference with which I would assess reality, for you always displayed my current appearance. Now you have decided that you no longer wish to perform that function and have forsaken me. What does this say about me, then? If the mirror does not need the Ego, then the Ego might as well live without the mirror.
Let me be myself in my solitude.
They say that a mirror never lies. How ironic then, that all it did was reinforce my presumptions and embed my errors!
Who am I? I used to see a reflection that would follow my every move. It mapped to every point on my body. It was precise, impeccable, perfect.
Am I perfect? The representation on your surface was, dear mirror, contingent on several factors that contribute to this sense of self that I have formed over the years. I am brighter in the morning, yet near invisible at night. I appear warmer at noon under direct sunlight, colder in an overcast dawn. I am relative.
Who am I amid this multitude of representations? How can I recognise myself if one version directly contradicts another? Who is behind all these faces? Can there be an immutable self that provides meaning to this Ego?
I am but an abstraction that follows from the pattern matching I do by studying those many images. I am each one of them and yet none in particular. For the ideal is that which is identified in all of its instances, with the understanding that each of them particularises it in ways that are not reproducible or present in other instances. The ideal is not the sum of its instances, but only the irreducible set of their common recognisable properties, conceived as an object in its own right.
Ignore my musings. Just look at this closet right here. All these masks. This is the one I wear when I go to work. That one is reserved for my romantic escapades. The third over there is for when I am friendly to people I tacitly dislike while I flatter them. The most flamboyant one in the corner is specific to political affairs, where I reiterate my unflinching commitment to duty and virtue.
It is said that it takes great talent to be an actor. While there may be a difference of degree, I find that each of us is continuously involved in acting. All my friends have masks such as these and their friends, and so on. What I see in others, what they see in me, is not a true self but a simulacrum that has attained a context-specific function.
Oh, it is time to work. Just look at me now, I am friendly and amiable! Since we are here, let me tell you how much I love this open office setup, those de facto 14-hour shifts, the unrealistic deadlines, the overtures of friendliness at the coffee table in our 10-minute break. This is what I always wanted to do! And I can tell that everyone feels the same way.
Then I switch masks in preparation of the night out. The excitement is high as is the pressure to perform well. Now I have taken a keen interest in poetry, I claim to appreciate the combinations of red, magenta, purple, blue, green, and yellow that appear at sunset, and I have forgotten that chocolate is, in fact, bad for your health, opting instead to use it as a token of my affection. I do it because I really am the romantic type. Is that not obvious by those flowers right there?
Pitiful in its predictability and in how formulaic it is! A chore. And again, I can see that reflected in others, just as I could confirm that notion by looking at you, my trusted mirror. I was exactly that.
Why is it that we have all these layers of hypocrisy? Why are we all trapped in a role-playing game where each person must conform to the expectations imposed upon them? Instead of being myself I become what others wish to see. Same for them. Our upbringing is designed to reproduce the social institutions that moulded us. We stare at each other, knowing that we lied to our respective mirrors, and blithely insist on our charade in anticipation of the benefits it yields.
Conformity with what finds currency in this world will offer you some comfort. Such is my fortune though that I no longer have a point of reference to gauge my performance. The mirror is no more. Others are entertained by the accoutrements of this grand shadow play of sociability and the pursuit of getting the highest rate in this imaginary scoreboard that tracks social points. Whereas I am now left rudderless to wonder alone in pursuit of myself, which is another way of saying that I am free to explore the world as it is, not as I wanted it to be under the influence of others: a false end.
I am not this mask, nor the one once concealed by it. I am none of that. I am fragile, I am imperfect, I am temperamental and have my own way of doing things.
They tell me that had I kept my mirror in working order, I would still be respected among my peers. To which I must now counter that had they discarded their mirrors, they would no longer seek the respect of their peers.
What is the point of enjoying the accolades of a world that deludes itself? Sure, I can see that this little self looks better once cast in light of my culture’s expectations. Imagine the honours of being an esteemed doctor with an insatiable desire to sell big pharma’s products in exchange for bonus points; a doctor who has long forgotten about the oath of Hypocrates. Or I could become some power-hungry politician who uses “the will of the people” as a proxy for their much narrower agenda, while pretending to know far more than they actually do. It is so fulfilling to wield power and to have everyone kneel before you! Right? Better yet, let me be a billionaire who assiduously implements every dubious tax avoidance scheme in the books while running a public relations campaign coupled with a hidden agenda that touts itself as philanthropy.
I can tell that those very beliefs are falsehoods that keep us in front of a mirror; a mirror which, in this twisted world of ours that is defined by its perversion of values, does not faithfully show reflections of light but only reproduces phantasmagorised manifestations of ignorance.
The Ego is at its worst when it is obsessed with its self. One becomes a servant to their cult of personhood, a pawn that stands in awe of the totemic presence of the socially constructed self, of that structure to which every spurious notion and signification is fastened upon.
You showed me who I was back then, my good mirror. You spoke of a truth that revealed my untruth. Though your truest of works unfolds in your absence. I can think clearly now. Gone are the mirages, the idols, the learnt attitudes of conformity. I can no longer see them in me and, by extension, I am no more amused by discerning them in the behavioural patterns of others: it reminds me just how tokestic and superficial their life is, just how shallow our collective experience is.
They will call me eccentric because I suddenly forgot the rules of their game and wish to impose my own rhythm. It is a necessary consequence of forgoing all those masks. Let it be as I now venture to discover who the Ego is, if it clearly is not the one that once embodied the projected beliefs of others in their milieu or imagination.
The self may be something specific or not. It might be an abstraction, conceived as the commonality among the multitude of representations. Or it might be mutable and malleable. It may be possible to find it in solitude, though it might just as well only be a collection of discernible differences that are rendered apparent in the presence of others, meaning that the self is continuously conceived only as an anti-other that is then rationalised as the original self. There may still be an underlying mechanism that traces its source to biology, to each person’s idiosyncrasy. One can only guess, while remaining inquisitive and dubitative in the face of uncertainty. What appears to be the case right now is that the unnecessary complexity of our world is inversely correlated to our emptiness. The more fake we are, the more elaborate the parameters of our role-playing game.
What can this mere Ego know when every esteemed member of society who pays tribute to the dominion of anthropocentrism insists that this order is just and a necessary consequence of our nature? They are the Enlightened. “Estimed” and “Enlightened”… I am but a stray soul. Perhaps this is their mirror doing the talk, though that may just be another illusion of mine pretending to be more truthful than the others.
The merchant and Prometheus
A travelling merchant took a detour to pay a visit to Prometheus. Having heard of the titan’s deeds, the traveller was excited to ask a few questions and learn as much as possible.
Prometheus was hospitable and invited the human for a pint of ale at the nearby inn, all while attaining a humanly form to further accommodate the visitor. The merchant was elated.
— It is an honour to sit at the same table with someone who has done so much good for my kind. On behalf of humanity, if I may claim to be its ad-hoc representative, I wish to hereby express my gratitude, noble Prometheus!
— It is my pleasure to be of service. Tell me now, what is that “important topic” you so eagerly wanted to address?
— None other that the motivation for your deed, of course! You taught us how to make use of fire. We now employ that skill and its derivatives to make tools and develop highly sophisticated instruments that greatly expand the scope of our potential actions. You offered us know-how—the greatest of all gifts. You essentially upgraded us.
— I did what I had to do.
— But why? Why would a higher being such as you bother with a species inferior to your kind? What did you get out of the deal?
— Tell me, human: would you think of me as a “higher being”, as you put it, if I were to act selfishly in pursuit of my self-interest over the short term?
— No, probably not. I would instead think of you as a tyrants of sorts. Though I would never speak my mind and would still worship you as the deity you are.
— An exalted being is, in this regard, one that has a broader understanding of things: a firm grasp on reality. Forget about sheer strength, other physical attributes, or magical powers. The categorical difference between myself and your kind is that I can both fathom all possible outcomes but also determine in advance what the right course of action is. I act with foresight, which is why your ancestors gave me the name of “pro-metheus”, meaning “forethinker” or the “prescient one”, if you will. This is in contrast to one of my brothers, “epi-metheus” who is one to always act recklessly and then make amendments in hindsight, much like humans.
— So your true power is what we would associate with wisdom?
— Wisdom is the capacity to make the correct judgement call, given the prevailing constraints or conditions of the case, in anticipation of states of affairs yet to be realised, and for your kind, accounting for the frailties of the human character. There are many smart people among you. Some are indeed geniuses in their field. But few are those who are truly wise.
— How should we distinguish between a genius and a wise person then? Does not that description you offered imply a high level of intelligence and, likely, breadth of knowledge?
— The difference between the two consists in their implementation. Why do you think that sages are “ordinary people” in their quotidian life, if the stories are to be believed? It must be because they employ their talents in pursuit of the truth, which implies a commitment to always attend to the realisation of the most appropriate course of action. And because the proper truth is objective, an obligation of this sort is, in effect, an ongoing struggle to approximate nature without petty concerns for social, economic, political benefits. Whereas intelligence without the concomitant modus vivendi of a life in accordance with the natural order of things is one that makes the person arrogant, compelling them to seek fame and riches.
— Is there any method we can use to discover the latter types?
— You can discern frivolous smartness fairly easily. Just look at every half decent fellow who has made a name for their work and now “acts smart” in pursuit of the gains that would yield. Such is not a life that leads to the truth. Accolades, social standing, the gossip of others are mere idols that can only distract you from approximating nature: your nature and the natural order at-large. Frivolity of the kind here considered is, in effect, a path down the labyrinth where one only finds traps, fiends, smoke and mirrors, and other like-minded, ambitious miracle-workers who once took the same route because they sought to satisfy their vanity by exploiting the most gullible among their fellows.
— Does this say anything about your deed then?
— I am a god and could have imposed my yoke on your kind if I were human-like in my disposition. Instead of emancipating you by means of freeing the foundational know-how of controlling fire, I could have done what your economic system incentivises and your core values glorify: which is to withhold knowledge, set up a system of constraints that impose artificial scarcity, denigrate anyone who tries to decipher or mimic my skills as a “pirate” or a “thief”, and extract rent from you. I could, in other words, condemn you to a fate of precarity.
— Forgive my crude ways, but I must know for sure: what would be wrong with that? Why not get something out of your peerless talents?
— Such would not have been the correct course of action. For I could already see the potential of humanity. I could tell that you had the skills to not only live outside the caves, but also develop a vast corpus of knowledge and technical implements that allow you to travel amidst the stars. The reason it would be a mistake to put you under my tyranny is that I would be forcing you to a condition of perpetual dependency on my basic supplies for your mere sustenance. You would never have the luxury to think about higher things, since your predicament would force you to expend all your energy to just stay alive. Put differently, the error would consist in assuming as constant a temporal state of affairs that was a function of its prevailing conditions and which, in actuality, would undergo change once those constraints were lifted.
— Just for me to understand: you think it is an error to deny one their potential because that projects the present into the future? You could foresee the possible outcomes and understood that denial was the most presumptuous one?
— You did well. I could have shared more, but that would have had an adverse effect on your development, for you would then learn to be spoon-fed information instead of seeking knowledge yourself. Or worse, you would altogether ignore the importance of comprehending the mechanics of a system you interface with. Just look at the world around you: having failed to properly internalise the ethical lesson of my act, humanity mass produces tools that are only meant to be used ephemerally and superficially, never to be understood properly. It then comes to no surprise that you do not consider revolting and detrimental to your shared progress the practice of rendering ideas proprietary or exclusive and exclusionary. The powerful among you, who often also are those who started off by exercising frivolous smartness, are condemning you to a precarious condition.
— Your suggestion would then be to be more wise, somehow? How realistic is that, seeing how rare a sage is among us?
— Such expectations would not correspond to reality. What you need is to learn what I had to teach you. The fact of the matter is that I did not just give you fire which produced inventions galore. I rather offered you a method of perpetual improvement, embodied in the art of mastering the use of fire, which consists in the spirit of sharing, here exemplified as sharing know-how. You said that I “upgraded” humanity. Every individual human can do a little bit of that by contributing their particular knowledge to their community and the world at-large. Ask your neighbour how they produce their real bread which is free from the dubious interventions one finds in the industrial loaf. Your neighbour will likely share what they have with alacrity. It does not take a sage to do that, but only a sense of togetherness and solidarity. Tell your local university professor to publish their work in a readily accessible resource, instead of locking it up behind some paywall. Insist that the vainglory and persona of the “embattled genius” of a Philosophy Doctor that operates aloof from the fray is a false objective that only fools are entertained with. How are you supposed to learn and how will you make real progress as a species if you impede each other’s quest for better approximating nature?
— I will try my best. My best skill as a merchant is to wrap some object in a package that appeals to others. I can do the same for concepts. So I would term your ethos the “Promethean ideal”: the spirit of sharing, which can also be the spirit of sharing one’s know-how, while avoiding the pitfalls of frivolous smartness. Is this an acceptable approach?
— What matters is that you internalise my lesson, which will save you from your hubris. Be more “promethean”, both in the sense of following my example, but also by acting with forethought, without presumptions and cockiness, and always in consideration of your limits. Do not pretend to know more than you actually do. Do not trick yourself into thinking that you are Prometheus and “play god” because your fancy machinery can now take you to another planet or whatnot. While you are not what you once were in terms of complexity and specialisation, you still are human and, most importantly, you still fail to foresee states of affairs which are obscured by your narrow field of view. Remember to stay grounded in your reality, though not necessarily any given temporal phase of it, and you shall be fine.
Cassandra and the student
Cassandra relocated to a remote mountainous region after a career in one of the world’s most vibrant city centre’s. Life at the village has none of the luxuries one finds downtown. Interests in herbalism and medicine took over prior concerns about economics and politics.
Rumour had it that Cassandra possessed a unique gift by the gods: foresight. It also spoke of an accompanying curse that would forever prevent others from ever heeding the oracular wisdom such a talent grants.
A young researcher heard of those stories. Thinking that they could help change the balance of powers, they sought to meet Cassandra in person.
— The priestess told me that the gods have bestowed upon you a gift and a curse. Is there truth to those words?
— People sometimes find it expedient to speak through fables and metaphors. The priestess communicates in a language that is consistent with the tenets of her faith. It is indeed true that I can predict some events ahead of time, just as it is the case that no-one ever heeds my advice.
— Why would the gods do that to you?
— Rather than speculate about possible forms of being whose presence I can neither affirm nor dismiss, allow me to communicate in a manner that suits my level of expertise. I did not always have the ability to foresee phenomena. It is a skill I acquired through years of research and only after I began developing comprehensive theories about how the world works. Once you have breadth of knowledge and theoretical insight with which to connect the dots, you gain a new perspective on the constitution of the case. You reach a higher vantage point.
— So how come no-one ever listens to you? Is it because you fail to speak in plain terms?
— I think it all comes down to differences in perspective. People see an unstoppable force moving through emptiness. Whereas I see both the unstoppable force and the immovable object that stands in its way, while I am well aware that there is no emptiness but a nexus of powers at play. My understanding of phenomena and their underlying mechanics allows me to study the dynamic between the force and the object, while those who have spent no time researching those issues insist that I am delusional, for all they can ever spot with their untrained eyes is just the former. It comes to no surprise that when I warn them of an imminent crash they roll their eyes and leave without uttering a word.
— How could we ever overcome this constraint? You do not seem to be insane or delusional.
— People want to think of themselves as intelligent and refined in their appreciation of things. The truth, however, is that most of the time they act in a manner that is characteristic of peacocks, in that they get impressed by superficialities. Just look at me here: out of sync with the fashions, devoid of any desire to blend in with the crowd. The walls of my house have nothing to show, nothing that screams of intellectuality. Whereas you walk into one of those fancy mansions in the region and you see twenty college degrees, certificates, and stamps of approval, on the wall, all conveying the message that this person is important and sophisticated. Again, look at me a bit more carefully. There are no pretences to smartness. Indeed there is nothing that would improve my social standing. I do not seek power or fame, but only the truth. And so the communication of my teachings suffers because people who interact with me are not sincere. They claim to be interested in the kind of knowledge I share freely, but what they really seek is a gimmick to impress their peers.
— I think I understand your predicament and why you are so misunderstood and underappreciated. What do you think one can learn from you, once they approach you without any ulterior motives?
— I can teach you how to live in accordance with nature, a human who is at once true to their humanity and fully conscious of the fact they are not at the epicentre of this world. But I can never lie to you about those topics. If you approach me with an open mind you shall be refashioned, made anew. I will show you who you once were, as I peel off the layers of learnt attitudes that have accumulated over your self and which obscure your true presence.
— May I ask you a more personal question?
— Please do.
— Do you have any friends? This place does not look particularly inviting.
— All my friendships are situational. You must understand that while I am sociable, I insist walking on my road. There are no detours, no shortcuts to wisdom. Those who promise to teach you an art in 20 minutes are charlatans that exploit your own misunderstanding that there exist painless “life hacks” with which to develop profundity of character. My path intersects with that of others, so we stay together for as long as that may last. Then we each go our way as our paths diverge. What would I be had I stayed with my childhood friends in what would amount to an effective time capsule? Would I not remain confined to the roles and expectations that were impressed upon my younger self? And would that not function as an impediment to my potential? How could I be where I am had I not left the place I was? Life occurs in cycles. A new one starts where another ends. We make friends as we go, but are ultimately not drawn by their gravitational pull when our goal is clear. We may still meet a fellow traveller whose destination coincides with our own. Then we shall be together for the long ride, knowing that our paths converge. Whatever the case, do not spend your days contemplating what could have been. Live for the moment, while always remaining committed to the cause of pursuing the truth.
— I want to help you, Cassandra. I want you to succeed and finally be recognised for your contributions.
— While I appreciate your eagerness to be of service, I must inform you that those are misguided ends. I have no inner need for neither success nor fame. It is true that I am just another human who must somehow make ends meet. And so it is true that I could benefit from a stable job and a reliable source of income, just so I can live another day. I am, nonetheless, not interested in material possessions and the vanity they engender. Let us experience philosophy, let us be philosophical. I actively dislike the armchair theorist who merely entertains ideas without living in accordance with their teachings. Look at me here. This is philosophy in practice. This is what my ideas demand. This is the only lifestyle that is consistent with everything I ever learnt to be genuine. In being who I am, I confirm the words of the priestess. Could you bear this burden?
— What if I cannot?
— It means you are not ready. You are still maintaining delusions about who you are, what your presumed telos is, and continue to behave in a manner that is not aligned with your actuality as a person and a species.