Tag: Politics

Four Reasons Why Plato Matters

Plato devoted his life to one goal: helping people reach a state of fulfillment. To this day, his ideas remain deeply relevant, provocative, and fascinating. Philosophy, to Plato, was a tool to help us change the world.

In this short video, Alain de Botton reminds us of the four big ideas that Plato had for making life more fulfilled.

Transcribed highlights below.

 

1. Think More

We rarely give ourselves time to think carefully and logically about our lives and how to lead them. Sometimes we just go along with what the Greeks called Doxa, or common sense. In the thirty-six books he wrote, Plato showed this common sense to be riddled with errors, prejudice, and superstition. … The problem is that popular opinions edge us toward the wrong values. … Plato’s answer is know yourself. (This) means doing a special kind of therapy: Philosophy. This means subjecting your ideas to examination rather than acting on impulse. … This kind of examination is called a Socratic discussion.

2. Let Your Lover Change You

That sounds weird if you think that love means finding someone who wants you just the way you are. In his play, the symposium, … Plato says true love is admiration. In other words, the person you need to get together with should have very good qualities, which you yourself lack. … By getting close to this person you can become a little like they are. The right person for us helps us grow to our full potential. … For Plato ‘a couple shouldn’t love each other exactly as they are right now,’ rather they should be committed to educating each other and enduring the stormy passages that inevitably involves. Each person should want to seduce the other into becoming a better version of themselves.

3. Decode the Message of Beauty

Everyone pretty much likes beautiful things but Plato was the first to ask why do we like them? He found a fascinating reason: beautiful objects are whispering important truths to us about the good life. We find things beautiful when we sense qualities in them that we need but are constantly missing in our lives: gentleness; harmony; balance; peace; (and) strength. Beautiful objects therefore have a really important function: they help to educate our souls.

4. Reform Society

Plato spent a lot of time thinking about how the government and society should ideally be. He was the world’s first utopian thinker.

In this, he was inspired by Athens’s great rival: Sparta. This was a city-sized machine for turning out great soldiers. Everything the Spartans did – how they raised their children, how their economy was organised, whom they admired, how they had sex, what they ate – was tailored to that one goal. And Sparta was hugely successful, from a military point of view.

But that wasn’t Plato’s concern. He wanted to know: how could a society get better at producing not military power but eudaimonia? How could it reliably help people towards fulfillment?

In his book, The Republic, Plato identifies several changes that should be made:

We need new heroes
Athenian society was very focused on the rich, like the louche aristocrat Alcibiades, and sports celebrities, like the boxer Milo of Croton. Plato wasn’t impressed: it really matters who we admire, for celebrities influence our outlook, ideas and conduct. And bad heroes give glamour to flaws of character.

Plato therefore wanted to give Athens new celebrities, replacing the current crop with ideally wise and good people he called Guardians: models for everyone’s good development. These people would be distinguished by their record of public service, their modesty and simple habits, their dislike of the limelight and their wide and deep experience. They would be the most honoured and admired people in society.

End Democracy
He also wanted to end democracy in Athens. He wasn’t crazy he just observed how few people think properly before they vote. Therefore we get very substandard rulers. He didn’t want to replace democracy with a dictatorship, but he wanted to prevent people from voting until they’d started to think rationally. That is, until they became philosophers. … To help the process Plato started a school: The Academy.

Still curious? So where do you go from here? The Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis recommends this edition of Plato’s Complete Works. Another place to start is with this, slightly more detailed introduction to Plato.

Maya Angelou on Haters, Life, Reading, and Love

I’ve been slowly working my way through some of Maya Angelou’s material. Notably, Conversations with Maya Angelou, Letters to my Daughter, and What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self. Through that I’ve pulled out these 25 quotes that resonated with me. They offer timeless wisdom and advice on everything from what to do with haters to the importance of reading and love.

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

Continue to be bold, courageous. Try to choose the wisest thing and once you’ve chosen the wisest thing go out and try to achieve it. Be it.

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s) he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

Those of us who submitted or surrendered our ideas and dreams and identities to the ‘leaders’ must take back our rights, our identities, our responsibilities.

For a person who grew up in the ’30s and ’40s in the segregated South, with so many doors closed without explanation to me, libraries and books said, ‘Here I am, read me.’ Over time I have learned I am at my best around books.

I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you. When a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.

All men are prepared to accomplish the incredible if their ideals are threatened.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

A cynical young person is almost the saddest sight to see, because it means that he or she has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.

I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being— what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.

If a human being dreams a great dream, dares to love somebody; if a human being dares to be Martin King, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or Malcolm X; if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which she or he was born—it means so can you. And so you can try to stretch, stretch, stretch yourself so you can internalize, ‘Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto. I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’ That’s one thing I’m learning.

When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on. I would teach her to laugh a lot. Laugh a lot at the — and the silliest things and be very, very serious. I’d teach her to love life, I can bet you that.

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

Remember, people will judge you by your actions not your intentions. You may have a heart of gold but so does a hard-boiled egg.

It is sad but true that sometimes we need the tragedy to help us to see how human we are and how we are more alike than we are different.

My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring still.

Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art.

Although nature has proven season in and season out that if the thing that is planted bears at all, it will yield more of itself, there are those who seem certain that if they plant tomato seeds, at harvesttime they can reap onions. – Too many times for comfort I have expected to reap good when I know I have sown evil. My lame excuse is that I have not always known that actions can only reproduce themselves, or rather, I have not always allowed myself to be aware of that knowledge. Now, after years of observation and enough courage to admit what I have observed, I try to plant peace if I do not want discord; to plant loyalty and honesty if I want to avoid betrayal and lies. – Of course, there is no absolute assurance that those things I plant will always fall upon arable land and will take root and grow, nor can I know if another cultivator did not leave contrary seeds before I arrived. I do know, however, that if I leave little to chance, if I am careful about the kinds of seeds I plant, about their potency and nature, I can, within reason, trust my expectations.

The problem I have with haters is that they see my glory, but they don’t know my story…

I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold—that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind. Love says, ‘I love you. I love you if you’re in China. I love you if you’re across town. I love you if you’re in Harlem. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to hear your voice in my ear. But that’s not possible now, so I love you. Go.

To get a better sense of Angelou’s genius, you don’t have to read her Collected Poems.

The Deliberative President

Here are some excerpts from Robert Gates’ Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War that look at some of the decision making aspects under Bush and Obama.

Obama was the most deliberative president I worked for. His approach to problem solving reminded me of Lincoln’s comment on his approach to decision making: “I am never easy when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it north, and bounded it south, and bounded it east, and bounded it west.” As Obama would tell me on more than one occasion, “I can’t defend it unless I understand it.” I rarely saw him rush to a decision when circumstances allowed him time to gather information , analyze, and reflect. He would sometimes be criticized for his “dilatory” decision making, but I found it refreshing and reassuring, especially since so many pundits and critics seem to think a problem discovered in the morning should be solved by evening. As a participant in that decision-making process, I always felt more confident about the outcome after thorough deliberation. When the occasion demanded it, though, Obama could make a big decision— a life-and-death decision— very fast.

Keep in mind that Gates worked for 8 different presidents. So when he says Obama was the most deliberative president he worked for, he’s coming from a place of experience. But how do you foster deliberation? Obama made some decisions that were controversial with his top senior appointments. Here’s an example,

The president wanted Jim Steinberg, who had been deputy national security adviser under President Clinton, to become deputy secretary of state. Having been a deputy twice myself, I suspect Jim did not want to return to government as a deputy anything. In order to persuade Steinberg to accept the offer, Obama agreed to his request that he be made a member of the Principals Committee and have a seat in National Security Council meetings as well as one on the Deputies Committee. As far as I know, no deputy had ever been given an independent chair at the principals’ table.

Steinberg’s presence on the Principals Committee gave State two voices at the table— two voices that often disagreed. Steinberg would often stake out a position in the Deputies Committee that was at odds with what Hillary believed, then express that position in meetings of the principals and even with the president. Let’s just say that having two State Department positions on an issue was an unnecessary complication in the decision-making process …

Obama also took a “team of rivals” approach, (a play on Lincoln selecting 3 key rivals for Cabinet appointments) for example, by appointing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

Obama also actively encouraged bad news and disagreement.

Less than two weeks after the inaugural, at the end of his weekly meeting with Mullen and me, the president asked me to remain behind for a private conversation. He asked me whether everything was going okay. I told him I thought the team was off to a good start, the chemistry was good, and the principals were working well together. … As Obama had done before on several occasions with all the principals, he encouraged me always to speak up and to be sure to give him bad news or to express disagreement. He concluded with what I thought was a very insightful observation twelve days into his presidency: “What I know concerns me. What I don’t know concerns me even more. What people aren’t telling me worries me the most.” It takes many officials in Washington years to figure that out; some never do.

While Gates isn’t as explicit on the decision process under Bush, we get some insights. At one point, talking about the U.S. role of the Israeli attack on the reactor in Syria (under Bush), he writes:

On our side, a very sensitive and difficult security challenge had been debated openly with no pulled punches. The president heard directly from his senior advisers on a number of occasions and had made a tough decision based on what he heard and on his own instincts. And there had been no leaks. Although I was unhappy with the path we had taken, I told Hadley the episode had been a model of national security decision making. In the end, a big problem was solved and none of my fears were realized. It is hard to criticize success. But we had condoned reaching for a gun before diplomacy could be brought to bear, and we had condoned another preventive act of war. This made me all the more nervous about an even bigger looming national security problem.

Charlie Munger: Energy Independence is a Terribly Stupid Idea

Everyone wants energy independence. Everyone—from politicians and business people to academics—says that our reliance on foreign energy is bad.

But have we really thought about this? Does it make sense?

I’ve never really shared the opinion that energy independence today is a good idea (when it comes to oil, coal, and other non-renewables). Neither has Charlie Munger, the billionaire buisness partner of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathway.

As you’ll see from the excerpts below, Munger is a clear thinker. His talk on the psychology of human misjudgment could be the most profitable hour you ever spend.

At a recent conference he explains (lightly edited):

If energy independence was such a good thing, let’s just imagine that we go back to 1930 or something like that and we were hell bent to have total energy independence from all the foreigners. And we just drill and use every technique we can and we produce our hydrocarbon reserves which are absolutely certain to be limited.

Well, by now have way less in reserve and are way less energy independent. In trying to get energy independence we would have destroyed our safety stock of oil within our own borders.

Oil and gas are absolutely certain to become incredibly short and very high priced. And of course the United States has a problem and China has a worse problem.

And China has the correct solution. Imported oil is not your enemy it’s your friend.

Every barrel that you use up that comes from somebody else is (one less) barrel of your precious oil which you’re going to need to feed your people and maintain your civilization.

And what responsible people do with a Confucius ethos is they suffer now to benefit themselves, their families, and their countrymen later. And the way to do that is to go very slow on producing your own (domestic) oil. You want to produce just enough so that you keep up on all of the technology. And don’t mind at all paying prices that look ruinous for foreign oil. It’s going to get way worse later.

Every barrel of foreign oil that you use up instead of using up your own — you’re going to eventually realize you were doing the right thing.

Economists are Part of the Problem

Why are the policy makers in both countries so stupid on this single issue because they are not stupid generally?

I think that it’s partly the economists who have caused the problem. Because they have this theory that if people react in a free market that it’s much better than any type of government planning but there is a small class of problems where it’s better to think the things through in terms of the basic science and ignore these signals from the market.

Now if I’m right in this, there are a whole lot of lessons that logically follow: (1) Foreign oil is your friend not your enemy; (2) You want to produce your own assets slow; … (3) The oil in the ground you’re not producing is a national treasure;

… running out of hydrocarbons is like running out of civilization. All this trade, all these drugs, fertilizers, fungicides, etc. … which China needs to eat with a population so much, they all come from hydrocarbons. And it is not at all clear that there is any substitute.

When the hydrocarbons are gone, I don’t think the chemists will be able to simply mix up a vat and there will be more hydrocarbons. It’s conceivable, of course, that they could but it’s not the way to bet. I think we should all be quite conservative and we should pay no attention to these silly economics and politicians that tell us to become energy independent.

A Question

It’s 1930. Oil in the United States is in glut. We have cartel’s to get the price up to 50 cents a barrel in some places. Everywhere we drill we find more oil in our own country. Everywhere we drill in Arabia we find even more.

And what would the correct policy of the United States have been in that time?

Well the correct policy would have been to issue $150 billion in long term bonds and cart 150 billion worth of Middle eastern Oil into the United States and throw it into our salt caverns and leave it there untouched until the current age.

It’s easy to see that in retrospect. But who do you see ever points this out? Zero.

What Should We Do?

We have a brain block on this issue. We should behave now to do on purpose what we did by accident. We conserved some of our oil because we were not aggressive enough and smart enough to get it out faster, that was accidentally doing the right thing. Now we should do on purpose what we formerly did by accident. We should conserve and subsidize new forms of energy … we should suppose these big national grids.

 

America’s Food Crisis: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

As a follow up to the Michael Pollan food as culture post (on his new book Cooked), a reader passed along a link to this video on Pollan’s 2006 classic The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma was deservedly called one of the most important food politics books of all time. In the video below, Pollan and other prominent chefs and foodies weigh in on the current state of the American food industry.

The Omnivores’s Dilemma came from Pollan’s realization that Americans didn’t know where their food came from. Pollan wanted to do “a kind of detective story following the food back to the source.” The book explores the state of food in America by examining three different food chains: corn, grass, and the forest.

This book, along with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, changed my relationship with food.

The Revenge of Geography

In The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, author Robert Kaplan offers a new way in which to view the global upheavals and to understand what lies ahead for continents and countries around the world.

Here are some interesting excerpts:

Democracy and morality are not synonymous

Democracy and morality are simply not synonymous. “All nations are tempted—and few have been willing to resist the temptation for long—to clothe their own particular aspirations and actions in the moral purposes of the universe. To know that nations are subject to the moral law,” he (Hans J. Morgenthau) goes on, “is one thing, while to pretend to know with certainty what is good and evil in the relations among nations is quite another.”

The world’s most feeble economies

Check the list of the world’s most feeble economies and note the high proportion that are landlocked. Note how tropical countries (those located between 23.45 degrees north and south latitudes) are generally poor, even as most high-income countries are in the middle and high latitudes. Note how temperate zone, east–west oriented Eurasia is better off than north–south oriented sub-Saharan Africa, because technological diffusion works much better across a common latitude, where climatic conditions are similar, thus allowing for innovations in the tending of plants and the domestication of animals to spread rapidly. It is no accident that the world’s poorest regions tend to be where geography, by way of soil suitability, supports high population densities, but not economic growth—because of distance from ports and railheads. Central India and inland Africa are prime examples of this.

Champions of Freedom?
The historian John Keegan explains that America and Britain could champion freedom only because the sea protected them “from the landbound enemies of liberty.”

Geography Informs

Geography informs, rather than determines. Geography, therefore, is not synonymous with fatalism. But it is, like the distribution of economic and military power themselves, a major constraint on—and instigator of—the actions of states.

The most interesting part of the book for me was surprisingly not on geography but rather on disruptive technologies. Quoting Paul Braken’s Fire in the East, Kaplan writes:

As Asian industrial power becomes aligned with Asian military power, (Paul) Bracken writes, the continent is literally running out of room for mistakes and miscalculations, becoming, in effect, “the shrinking Eurasian chessboard.”

To this shrinking chessboard, Bracken adds the destabilizing factor of “disruptive technologies”: technologies that, rather than help sustain leadership and the current global power structure, “undermine it by disrupting the status quo.” Such technologies include computer viruses and weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear and biological bombs.

Bracken writes:

Disruptive technology changes the game. By upsetting existing advantages, it nurtures new skills and fosters different strategies. The resulting uncertainty shakes up the established order and changes the standards by which leadership is measured.

The book, however, has been criticized for its historical generalizations as well as the lack of geographic logic applied to China and Iran.

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