The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Andrew Taggart. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: On this Current’s episode, my guest is Andrew Taggart. We’re going to start our conversation around his medium post, The Uninvited Confession, The New Confessional. Great to have you here, Andrew.
Andrew: It’s wonderful to be here, Jim.
Jim: I love these conversations. We start with a starting point in the current series and then we go where it goes. It’ll be fun to see where it goes. Andrew calls himself a practical philosopher, a non-duelist and an entrepreneur. Now, I wonder what the hell is a non-duelist? I was in one duel in my life and I survived to live to see the other day. I suspect that’s not it. I’m also definitely a non-duelist in the Cartesian sense and I suspect that’s not at either. In your lingo, what’s a non-duelist?
Andrew: Oh, we’re going pretty deep early. A non-duelist refers to a number of Eastern traditions, such as Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta that suggests essentially that there is one reality and we are that one reality. We have begun in the right place.
Jim: All right. That’s a good place. I guess it’s a good place to be. Still sounds a little mystical to me but we’ll dig into it a little bit, a little bit more about Andrew and this is from his website, “I ask and seek to answer the most basic questions of human existence with others around the world. In 2009, I finished a Ph.D., left the academic life, and moved to New York City because I thought the most basic question of how to live needed to be brought back into our everyday lives. Each day I philosophize with executives, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists, those living at Silicon Valley and Wall Street, Scandinavia and South America, about the nature of the good life.” Wow, that’s damn interesting. You know what who that reminded me of?
Andrew: Yeah, he [inaudible 00:01:52] venture capitalists, but.
Jim: He did, but he just told him to get that gift thyself to a nunnery or whatever, right? I hope you don’t end up like him, right?
Jim: Anyway, it sounds like an interesting life choice to be a worldly philosopher.
Andrew: Yeah, well, it’s precisely what philosophy used to be. You’re right to mention Socrates. There are other figures we know of philosophical tradition. All of them thought that the most fundamental questions need to be asked with other people with whom one was living in order to help them clarify their basic understandings of what a good life is or what reality is or why we’re here.
Jim: Yeah, indeed.
Andrew: It’s only… I saw a tweet you had some months back about your misgivings about, I think it was analytic philosophy in particular, and I have some of my own misgivings. I don’t think that a current understanding of philosophy as it’s been institutionalized is a very accurate conception of what the philosophical life was and really ought to be.
Jim: Yeah, in fact, I paraphrase Wittgenstein, the original, early Wittgenstein who I basically say, modern philosophy is a long journey to nowhere, right?
Andrew: Yeah. I’m sure there’s some exceptions to that rule but generally speaking, both continental and analytic philosophy, that is those undertaken in Europe and in Anglo America, both seem to be involved in the kinds of discourses that don’t often appeal to ordinary persons who are really grappling with questions of meaning and purpose and value. That’s the great trouble with the institutionalization of philosophy as it comes about in the 18th and 19th centuries in Germany and afterward the United States.
Andrew: Suffice it to say what I’m up to is a fairly obvious thing to do to it. We need to ask those questions and we need to answer them, particularly at this moment in time and philosophy has just been one of the deepest activities involved in those kinds of inquiries.
Jim: Yup and even when I find it goes nowhere, I nonetheless find it interesting, right? In the last few weeks, I’ve been digging into Heidegger, for instance.
Andrew: Oh wow.
Jim: Yeah, and Heidegger’s a little different because he also talks about having to ground it in everyday life and all but he goes off to the wild blue yonder and all kinds of crazy ass shit but nonetheless, it’s stimulating, stimulating to think about. I do encourage people to read modern philosophy even at the end of the day you believe it’s fireworks and jerking off basically, because it will make you think a little bit and that’s not a bad thing.
Andrew: No, they’re there. I’m enjoying this conversation already and there are philosophers who might be able to help you to more than jerk off. There are people like [inaudible 00:05:01] who died in 2010. He did argue very convincingly, I think, that ancient Greek philosophy was involved with the questions of the good life. There are others like him as well, even JM Cooper wrote a wonderful book called the Pursuits of Wisdom, where he discusses epicureanism, and stoicism, and platonism, and so on, in ways that I think would be very helpful for people living today.
Jim: Yeah and certainly, there’s been this very interesting Neostoicism that’s arisen of late. I know a couple of the figures in that field. It doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest. I can see why people would find it helpful. It seems to be a good thing, not a bad thing, just a matter of taste that it doesn’t appeal to my particular personality. I’m much more of an Epicurean than I am a stoicism, I would say.
Andrew: No. How so?
Jim: I like the good life, right?
Andrew: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jim: I don’t feel like sort of being quiet and modest or whatever. I’d like to get out there and knock it around and do little this and that and have good time with my friends and think deeply. In short, I would call it stylistically a more of an Epicurean than a stoic. Philosophically, I can find useful things in both traditions. Again, those who listen to the show know that my one watch word, which I applied everything, the lens, is, is it useful, right? I don’t believe anything a priori. I tend to be skeptical of ideologies and certainly revealed religions, but I can use the lens, is it useful on almost anything?
Andrew: Yeah, well, we’re talking about philosophy as the loving pursuit of wisdom or loving pursuit of living a wise life, then I would argue that it couldn’t be any more useful.
Andrew: It’s just that we forgot the more basic or all-encompassing use of the word usefulness.
Jim: That’s a good point. Well, let’s dive into the focus of this current episode, which is the medium article you wrote, The Uninvited Confession, The New Confessional. I’m going to just start off with a brief quote, “Over the years, and most especially during the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve noticed an unsettling trend, people I barely know or do not know at all will send me letters written in the mode of a confession, completely out of the blue. The writer will not ask after me or mine, nor will he or she in any way include me in what, time was, used to be termed a conversation. Instead, the writer, spilling guts onto the page, will speak at me.” Then you go on to talk about how this is, in your view, very much related to, I guess, you might call it the psychotherapeutic culture. What do you have to say about that?
Andrew: Yeah, it’s a very important and big question. I want to say something first, by way of background. In 2017, I began to notice that people were talking at great length about work and I think you’ve read a couple of my pieces about the nature of work today. I did have a kind of Gestalt shift or moment where things clicked. I began to realize that Josef Pieper, who was a German philosopher writing in the 20th century, was on to something when he spoke about the nature of total work and the ways in which human beings become workers. I would call that the homo economicus conception.
Andrew: Now, more recently, I’ve been thinking about homo psychologicus, that is, how it was possible also for human beings to come to think of themselves a deeply psychological terms. That’s more or less the backdrop to this particular piece. I mean, there are a number of sociologists writing in the 20th century, many of whom have begun to point to this particular topic I’m discussing today.
Andrew: Philip Rieff wrote a book in 1965 or so called The Triumph of the Therapeutic and began to point to the fact that a lot of people I noticed are starting to become interested in feeling good. That was the good life, you might say, was the life of feeling good. But more recently, I think what’s really quite astonishing about homo psychologicus is that we’re seeing a ramping up of this interior psychological dispensation or dimension in life.
Andrew: I’ll just give you one particular understanding. There’s something I called secular spirituality. That refers to going north of what Ken Wilber calls the flatland of our current culture, but it’s a well south of transcendence. In that particular no man’s land, you begin to notice people talking at great length about their interior states, about certain sets of experiences they have, about certain growth experiences and things like that. I’m beginning to pick up on the ways in which there is no such ideas. There’s a very little sense of a common good or publicness and there’s a great turn toward interior states that are then going to be discussed at a considerable length on Instagram, via Twitter and for me, via-
Jim: Yeah, I certainly resonate what you’re talking about there. I grew up in a working class area where nobody went to therapy, unless they were by court order or a case of a real tragedy. I remember a mother whose young child died in a swimming accident drowned. I think she went to therapy, but therapy was not a thing, right. I went to college in Massachusetts, in Cambridge and then I also then move back to Cambridge later and started two companies.
Jim: I came to realize there was this huge industry of what I came to call recreational therapy and I go, “What the fuck?” What are all these people doing? I will say to this day, it has kind of astounded me and it’s not something I’ve ever really got involved with. It’s just struck me as an oddity of the modern world but as you point out, the discourse of what you might call the depth psychologists, in some ways permeates our culture, especially our certainly our literary fiction, a lot of our movies, a lot of our sitcoms, et cetera. It really is quite a fundamental part of the mimetic landscape.
Jim: In fact, I had a really interesting cognitive scientists on this show a couple of weeks ago, EP 75, it was Nick Chater, whose book, The Mind is Flat, does a really interesting scientific demolition of depth psychology and the idea that there really is some true depth to our personalities, rather what we’re doing is reacting to a combination of perception and memory and confabulating on the fly, right?
Jim: It seems relatively convincing. Certainly, we know that Freud and his heirs and assigns, like Young, et cetera, aren’t really scientists. I would call them closer to literalist, literary people. They write some things that we resonate with, but kind of strike us as, “Yes, that’s about what being a human’s like, in some sense,” but when I actually put that a scientific test, not so much. Anyway, that’s my reaction to this psychotherapeutic culture. Yeah, it is a really big part of the current landscape.
Andrew: Yeah, maybe I can provide a different way of contextualizing why I actually care about it. Now, I think two things tend to be lost or foreclosed at this moment in time. One is a deep conception of the vita contemplativa, that is the contemplative life. The life of contemplation was extraordinarily important in ancient Greece, going all the way through the end of the early modern period in Europe, it was really a holding sway. The life of contemplating ultimate goods or ultimate things was of fundamental importance. That’s not even remotely part of the current landscape that we see today but I think it’s a fundamental part of what it is to be human. That’s the first one I see that has been gone by the wayside largely.
Andrew: The second one, though, was really pointed out by a number of sociologists throughout the course of the 20th century. They were trying to draw our attention to the fact that notions of the common good to use Aristotelian-Thomistic language were dissolving. If we ask ourselves what has happened instead to fill this void, the void of lack of contemplation and the lack of genuine public spiritedness, a genuine sense of the common good, I would suggest this very strange notion of interiority, the long micro inspection of certain interior states that will then be put in the form of stories and shared as if they were open secrets. They’re open secrets on Instagram, but then they become slightly more secretive, when it’s actually in the confessional mode in a one on one sense. I can probably try to ground what I’m saying in a very specific example that I only allude to in that particular article.
Andrew: A couple months ago, I was introduced to a man with whom I might philosophize and I just said, let’s call the man, John. I said, “Let’s just have a chat, John,” and this is what I typically do. I’ll just have an ordinary conversation without any kind of expectations, just to get a feel for him and for him to get a feel for me. It was a very striking about this, I guess, monologue really, was precisely that, that he was monologuing. He began really by telling me that he had all these things going on and I felt as though I was the therapist.
Andrew: I was put in the position of the therapist and he was the one who was the client or [inaudible 00:15:43] and he was telling me three topics. Above all, he was suggesting that what really mattered to him is that he didn’t feel understood or recognized. I got the sense that this is a very well groomed story. He told it over and over again. Over many years, I’d say the man is probably, based on the tone of his voice, only maybe in his mid-50s, early 60s and it was just extraordinarily uncanny to me.
Andrew: When I asked him, “Well, what would you like to know about me since this is a sense of a bit of conversation?” He said, “Well, the only thing I’d really like to know is whether or not you heard what I had to say.” That’s what therapy would call mirroring. I mirrored it back to him, given what was going on in that particular tête-à-tête but not without feeling a great sense of dis-ease about the whole thing. It was a kind of click moment when things clicked. I saw this person was not alone. I’ve had conversations like this before or I’ve had exchanges like this before in the past. I’ve wanted to see whether there’s more to seeing these as particular signs of the state of culture today, at least among those who are, let’s say, elites living in the East Coast of the United States, but I think also in other places like San Francisco and beyond.
Jim: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting insight, actually. I would say, definitely, that people, as you say, they’re looking at these what they think are depths. They’re dwelling on neurological phenomena, which there certainly are interesting neurological phenomena, and they’re mistaking them for something where they’re real, to say that they’re not real is not true but the claim that they have deep metaphysical significance and this is what people like John Vervaeke talked about the meaning crisis when Nietzsche and the Enlightenment overthrew the traditional gods. Rather than just dealing with that and moving on, an awful lot of people continue to be searching for surrogates and various shallow forms of spirituality, as people call it, seem to be filling that space. The psychotherapeutic hobby seems similar.
Andrew: Yeah, but let’s even investigate what seems to be missing here. Those who have gotten very much involved in this hobby are missing a lot about what it is to be involved in a good human life. They’re not cultivating the virtues that Aristotle would associate with friendship or what he called philia, that is caring for another person for his or her own sake. That’s an extraordinarily important feature of a good life, I would say, but nor are they involved in, let’s say, volunteer activities or what Christians have called Caritas, which is forms of charity, ways of engaging other people who are less off than we are, that’s another one that’s been part of the American tradition, at least during the 19th century, surely.
Andrew: Most important for me, since I am a Zen Buddhist, they’re not or as well as a philosopher. That kind of loop that they’re involved in is not enabling them to go beyond the circle of their own consciousness.
Andrew: A Zen Buddhist doesn’t care too much about the content of mentation. That is, whatever comes to mind is whatever comes to mind but the suggestion is that there actually are forms of life or ways of being that are beyond the contents of your thoughts and feelings. If you particularly devote your life to looking at the contents of thoughts and feelings over and over again, then you’re really missing, what do we say, you’re missing the forest from trees.
Jim: I like that a lot. The other thing I liked a lot in your essay is that you connected that perspective to narcissism. There’s been quite some time that people have been pointing out that we are developing a culture of narcissism at an exceptionally high level. This phenomena that you’re talking about strikes me as an almost pure form of narcissism, my little internal thingies are more important than my relationships with my family or my friends or my community or doing good works. One that I noticed has fallen off tremendously is conviviality, the idea of really having deep, live, personal entertainment with friends rather than going out to some canned concert or what have you. Yeah, I would love to hear your thoughts on how the culture of narcissism is interacting with these phenomena.
Andrew: Right, I think it would be helpful to put in context the therapeutic culture. I’m still in the early stages of my investigation. This is going to be free willing here but let’s consider, let’s say Karl Polanyi, writes in his book, The Great Transformation as it pertains to the movement over the course of capitalism from the countryside to the city. We can’t deny that urbanization has been a remarkable force at this moment in time as mega cities have been created, as young people continue to flock to mega cities for the purposes of career development and making their way in the world and such. That’s at least one strand in the argument.
Andrew: You have deracinated individuals moving from small town Wisconsin, where I grew up to New York City. It happens also in Denmark, where I’ve spoken to people over the years as it does in England as people are moving to London. The fact that you have the self-possessive individual on his or her own in the so called alienated modern landscape, is already suggestive of someone who has broken ties to family and to local communities as part of the bargain for trying to make his or her way in the world. That’s one strand that can help us see how narcissism could have arisen.
Andrew: Then, I think we also have, what Aristotle would have called, friends of utility becoming more and more prominent today and keeping with that which I just said, that is friends of utility are those who are only useful to you in that narrow sense, useful to you in a professional sense, useful to you insofar as it allows you to advance in the world. I joke and say that LinkedIn is the place where you’d find friendships of utility and nothing more, nothing less.
Andrew: Friendships are more and more not understood as the deep ties that bind us over the course of decades but rather as the kinds of incidental relationships we have with a view to our getting on in the world, at least if we are white collar professionals or knowledge workers in the Bay Area or in New York City.
Andrew: Then, David Brooks wrote, I’m really citing articles for your listeners, but then David Brooks wrote a really nice piece in Atlantic a few months ago and he’s talking about the erosion of the family or the nuclear family, which he says was really only prominent from after World War II to the 1980s or so. If you’ve been to actually look at any number of families today, you’ll see that some people are incarcerated to be sure but in other cases, you just have young individuals trying to aspire to be somebody and more or less thinking of family in the way that Rousseau would have thought about family, namely, as those who are involved in kind of a voluntary association that no longer carries the kind of deep, long standing obligations and duties.
Andrew: You start to notice the ways in which narcissism could arose. I’m telling something like right now, subtraction story, take away the sorts of fundamental connections we have with others and see what you’re left with. Well, you’re left with someone who more and more is involved in beginning to in a fairly neurotic way, look at or examine the contents of his or her own consciousness. Then, I would argue that the workplace has also begun to reveal a lot of these marks as well. It’s only in recent years that we’ve heard talk about vulnerabilities being shared and facilitation workshops being undertaken at various tech firms. That’s also being encouraged for one to be engaged in the kind of looping around inquiry into one’s own states of consciousness. It’s not surprising then that I don’t think I have all strands of the story woven together yet that you begin to see more and more narcissistic people emerging in this context.
Jim: Yeah, indeed. I’m involved with something called the Game B movement, which is an attempt to build a more authentic way of being. One of the things we’ve talked about and like we put the date about 1925, is that the amount of personal investment we have in family and face-to-face community has declined since 1925, more or less continuously and what’s taken its place has been the market and government. Both of those are essentially abstract, cold interfaces, while the family and the face-to-face community are warm and complex and very high dimensional and it’s just a very different way to live.
Jim: A part of our prescription of the way forward is we call [proto Bs 00:25:47], which is to develop communities that take good care of families, because families are basis of everything. When we let our families go to hell, starting in World War II, but really accelerating in the late ’60s and early ’70s, people now become fractionated and no longer connected in a matrix of biological and emotional obligation. The way forward seems to us to be to rebuild communities such that the families at the base and then the face-to-face community supports and helps the family create the next generation of humans, who helped make it even better community, which do an even better job of helping support the family. That’s really what comes next should be about, not even more fractionation and more alienation of the radically displaced individuals.
Andrew: I agree. It’s funny is that what you’re describing, in some ways, tracks what Alasdair MacIntyre calls Revolutionary Aristotelianism, which might strike some of your listeners as a bit amusing because he’s really just referring to more or less what you’re talking about, face-to-face communities centered on the cultivation of moral, intellectual virtues. His point and purpose is, A, human flourishing and B, the common good we share together. It’s just a small scale community. You can find it in certain eco villages or in certain tension communities, at least in principle, if not in practice.
Jim: Yeah, and it’s one of the reasons I live in very remote Virginia. The nearest grocery store is an hour’s drive over three mountain ranges but we have an intact community here, real people you can really rely upon and you can really get to know over a period of years. I frankly can’t even imagine being that nomad that I used to be who lived in this city for a while and that city for a while. That person was a strangely shallow person.
Jim: Fortunately, I have an upbeat and optimistic personality. I think I haven’t really suffered from it in the sense of feeling bad but I think back at it, it was why there were lots of experiences on offer, but it was only an inch deep. There wasn’t any real substance to it.
Andrew: Yeah. I’d like to come back to something we were saying just a moment ago and this is that what also might be lacking as an understanding of psycho, moral development from let’s say, age 0 to 18, just to put some arbitrary numbers on it. Time was that I’m probably closer to your age than I am to some of your listing, I’m 41 years old, when we still had chores to do when we were children. Age 12 was not the age at which you become dexterous at the piano. Age 12 was the age at which you had a fair number of chores to do around the house.
Andrew: I didn’t particularly love these nor am I going to sing their praises but being able to be embedded in a household and household oikos, the household economy, the way in which the household is maintained, is part of the cultivation of characters, Aristotle would say. Even in the 19th century, as American families were much larger, we had a number of younger people obviously working on the farm. Was it hard work, to be sure? I’m sure, it was quite painstaking work but there was at least the intergenerational understanding of being able to fulfill obligations to others and the ability to actually cultivate certain salient virtues, such as generosity or patience, or even indeed conviviality.
Andrew: When you begin to create a different kind of human being, that is human being oriented toward being the worker who’s going to be successful in the Bay Area or in New York City, in the form of venture capitalism or perhaps in the guys at start up, you’re not actually getting that fundamental period of time, the kind of human being that is born and bred to engage in acts of friendship and in community engagements of the kind that we’re describing. More or less, the suggestion here is that narcissism of the kind we’re seeing is a residue arising out of a series of unacknowledged failures that have occurred behind the scenes.
Jim: Your failures are moves. I mean, I would call them failures, but society itself might not. We seem to be very happy with the breakdown of the traditional family. People seem to feel at some level, they’re liberated. Is that a failure? I would say it’s a failure, but broader society doesn’t seem to think so, which is interesting. Where does one get the perspective to realize that having a society where 50% of kids are living in single parent households, which is not true quite yet for the whole country but for some sub communities, it’s true. I mean, that just is nuts from my perspective and yet the world seems to think that’s fine and dandy.
Andrew: I think we need to distinguish. I’m sympathetic to what you’re saying. I think we need to distinguish between subjective polling and some more robust conceptions of living and faring well or udemy, the good life. If you, I’ll give you one example, a number of people will get asked via a Pew poll whether or not their work is fulfilling or some such and it depends on the poll and some will say no, others will say yes, but by my lights, this is a really poor question on the whole, because I’m more or less skeptical of the whole system of gainful employment that arises at the end of the 19th century and really picks up steam throughout the course of the 20th century.
Andrew: I provide this as one example just to illustrate the limitations of polling when you have people with the same level of consciousness, as Ken Wilber might say. Instead, I would suggest that sure, people are, let’s say, subjectively content with the status quo only insofar as in a fundamental way they know no other. I mean, the key to living today is, in fact, the proliferation of options in terms of a marketplace to be sure. That’s true, but the lack of genuine options as it pertains to how to live in a broader sense.
Andrew: We’ve basically agreed that the modern liberal state is hegemonic. We’ve agreed that the market is allegedly autonomous. We have agreed that human beings are disencumbered or deracinated individuals pursuing their own forms of success and subjective forms of utility or happiness. I’m skeptical the entire model, as I think you are when it comes to Game B as well.
Andrew: Polling is simply not going to do much, I think, when it comes to actually interrogating what the nature of good life is, because of the extent to which people have already, for generations on end, bought into the current systems and basically no other.
Jim: We call that in the Game B context Game A malware. Frankly, most of us were utterly saturated with it in our growings up, right?
Jim: I’m quite a bit older than you. I’ll be 67 days this year. I still had the traditional working class, fairly solid family upbringing, which did me well, but I was also saturated in TV and one of those guys, one of those network TV era people where this sort of dream world was projected into our brains two or three hours a day and it produced a different kind of market being programmed to work hard so you can buy a fancy car and pick up chicks, right?
Andrew: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jim: It was psychologically well informed, though, not as psychologically well informed as current internet advertising and but it knew how to press our buttons and it knew how to build this mass man. Unfortunately, that malware is just one variety of it.
Jim: The current kind, I don’t understand as well since I did not come up in that world, but this world that is no longer mass. Remember, people, younger people, even folks your age probably have a hard time remembering a world where there were basically three TV networks. On any given night, 70% of American families were tuned to one of the three. Now, we have an even more interesting phenomena of a crazy ubiquity of choice. Roll your own reality, essentially but unfortunately, as we both been talking about and certainly Game B underlines that, I believe your work does to, all the energy there is towards fragmentation and individuals not in the context of the social. That may be damn close to the root of the problem.
Andrew: Yes, and I do think that if you could administer a truth serum to a number of people who exhibit certain narcissistic tendencies and you begin to engage them in a philosophical conversation, the kind that I tend to have daily, such that they would play the role of the answer and I would play the role of the questioner. I think it wouldn’t be hard to see something more basic at play here, something we haven’t touched upon yet. That would be something like the following. I actually am feeling dis-ease in the Buddhist sense, some sense of life being rather off or disconcerting or not quite what it’s supposed to be or as I like to gloss the Pali term Duhkha, meaning things aren’t spot on, really. That’s what I think the person would say as much. Now, the person wouldn’t confess as much the person who would actually be involved in speaking the truth.
Andrew: I think the other important point that person would make is effectively this, I’m actually quite lonely, existentially. If you could begin from that starting point, namely, I’m actually discontent notwithstanding the ways in which I proclaim in the public that I am content and I’m actually quite lonely or lonesome notwithstanding the fact that I pure for all intents and purposes among my cohort to be gregarious and otherwise, then you can begin to get some purchase on how that person might be different and how collective life might be different.
Jim: Yeah, I think that’s correct. I mean, certainly we know from even from tracking polls that perceived loneliness is definitely on the upswing and the number of actual deep friendships that people have, a surprising number of people now have zero, which is to my mind, staggering and disastrous. People being a friend that you could have a truly deep conversation about something of great sensitivity, right? I like the old saying, a friend will help you move, a good friend will help you move a body, right? How many good friends do you have? I got about 10? I think I’m damn lucky to have that many, but there are people who have zero. That would have to be a very strange way to live.
Jim: Then, another form of what you’re talking about that does come through from the polling is the famous question, is the country on the right track or the wrong track? I just pulled it up the consensus on Real Clear Politics and this has been consistent for years. It’s about 65% of people believe the country is on the wrong track and that’s kind of reification a lot of these things. Deep down inside, people know, this ain’t the right way to live. This is not the right way to raise children. You go to a restaurant, you see parents shutting the children up by handing them an iPad when they’re five years old. What the hell? This is an opportunity to socialize children to bring them into the conversation, to show them how to live and instead the parents want to chat about their own little affairs. They want to shut the kid up by sticking their face in a screen. At some level, people know this is wrong, even if they can’t articulate it.
Andrew: I agree. What could also be said is that we can now provide a charitable interpretation of why a fair number of people, let’s say, the East Coast tend to go to therapy. That is because if they don’t have close friendships or what Aristotle called friendships of virtue, if they don’t have the kinds of relationships with their parents and siblings that enabled them to talk about matters of great importance, if they are living in Brooklyn or in Oakland, and if they are only working in ways that allow them to progress in their careers, then there are these big gaps and those big gaps are the ones being filled by the kind of purveyors of surrogacy, that is those who are able to be substitutes for what culture often or sane culture would provide. Sane culture wouldn’t need stopgap measures in the form of a professional class of people we call therapists.
Jim: Yeah, I think that’s interesting. It would be actually… I don’t where we get the data but do a calculation of therapists per capita by county or something, probably the Labor Department’s statistics might actually have at least some rough and crude things and see what that shows.
Jim: I bet that would be interesting and then correlate it with things like population, density, number of people who are still working the land, et cetera. I might want to do that just for fun.
Andrew: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think you have the poet Wendell Berry living in rural Kentucky going once weekly to a therapist nearby.
Jim: I don’t think so. Yeah. Wendell Berry, I mean, he’s an amazing exemplar. He actually was the commencement speaker when my wife graduated from college at a small liberal arts college in Kentucky. We got the chance to chat with him afterwards. Quite a fine human being. That was zillion years ago.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah, he’s lovely, so I’ve heard.
Jim: Interesting. What do we do, God dammit? The Game B answer is to literally start building on the ground communities that exemplify some of these ideas but of course, at least in the short run, they don’t really scale. If we did a great job, maybe we can build 100 of them in the next 10 years, that would be home for maybe 15,000 people. That, of course, is like spitting in the ocean. What ideas do you have to help people live more authentic, more grounded, more real, just better lives, the good life? How can we do that at scale?
Andrew: Yeah, I don’t have great proposals here but I have a starting point. The starting point would be a joke that would be never let a good crisis go to waste. I think you’d need to begin with a certain kind of collective crisis. You find it a number of different traditions that and I found in my own time of philosophizing with individuals that it’s usually at a point at which a current way of life no longer makes sense and that’s understood very intuitively, very investedly, then you have the beginning of a new possibility.
Andrew: If you could begin to imagine a number of people who have been living according to the dictates of certain narcissistic tendencies and more and more of them, aren’t just living through COVID but something, dare I say, more existentially potent than COVID, then you have the beginning of the possibility of what I call a collective existential opening.
Andrew: I think that’s the first step. You really can’t pull people out of systems as they are and expect that they will be ready because they’re not actually ripe for it. You don’t just, for example, have someone come and sit at a sesshin, which is a Zen Buddhist intensive meditation retreat for seven days. It’s a very bad idea. You only begin with someone who has been, as Zen Buddhist would say, open to the great matter of life and death. That’s the first part. The joke might be no scale without collective existential thing.
Jim: Well, certainly we have that. In the Game B world what we say is that we need ears to hear and our hypothesis is the current accelerated metacrises of 2020 have at least increased the number of ears to hear by a factor of 10X, as opposed to January 1st. We do intend to take advantage of that. I think that’s a good insight.
Andrew: Yeah. The second point I would make is that, in keeping with what you were just pointing to, is that there’s a kairos or timing issue. I’ve noticed that people only tend to open up at a particular moment and the aperture, so to speak, is only open so long before they tend to return to the ways that they had been living. It’s not just that you need to have, as Jesus said, ears to hear. You also need for people to be encountered right at the point at which things don’t make sense to them.
Andrew: Socrates calls it aporia, the sense of confusion, sense of being turned about. If you can get those right, then you can have the beginning of a genuine movement or a genuine shift in consciousness.
Jim: Yeah, I think that’s right. Just thinking about this out loud as you’re talking, one that strikes me as where the rubber meets the road for millions of people is the amazingly chaotic state of public school education right now. I mean, this is kind of like business travel. It strikes me that business travel will never return anything like it used to be. I mean, the opportunity to do it a different way people realized, “Do I really need to spend $3,000 to go out to California for two days for one meeting?” Hell no, right?
Andrew: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jim: I think this crisis of public school education is making clear to people that the whole idea of the current public school education is a fairly much a nightmare of large proportions and opening around a better way to raise your children, including organic education built right into the way of life may be an opening to millions of people right now who really are in crisis and even the ones that don’t yet realize they are in crisis are going to realize it in a year when they realize that most of their kids didn’t learn jack shit in the last 12 months, at least not what they thought they were supposed to learn.
Andrew: It’s a good point of leverage. As you’ve already gathered, I’ve been interested in our notions of work, because I think that’s another very low hanging fruit. COVID certainly has brought mass unemployment to millions of Americans.
Andrew: Now, a number of them are receiving unemployment benefits right now and a number of them will be funneled back into the system but it doesn’t have to be that way. Moreover, a number of people are learning neologisms such as work from home or working remotely.
Andrew: For a while, their attention is going to be sequestered. They’ll learn that they don’t have to live in the Bay Area. They can live in Denver or they can live somewhere out in the country. They’re starting to inquire but the inquiry hasn’t gone very deep yet. If it were possible actually to show that the ways we have working are fundamentally untenable, I would argue, then, we also have another leverage point because our gainful employment system is already hooked up to our public education system, right? As it is and as it’s linked up to other systems too. You really just need to put pressure on one system so that through a level of thoughtfulness, you can begin to show people that actually these are concatenated. They’re linked to each other.
Andrew: A number of parents, for example, I hear from are annoyed by the fact that they’re tired of having Johnny or Susie at home because it’s a dual income household. Then, now they need to do babysitting and as you well know, public schooling, apart from other things is a way of having babysitting for eight hours a day or so. They’re starting to feel the pinch but they haven’t really analyzed yet the fact that it’s also the gainful employment system of which they have been willing participants that’s allowing them to actually not acknowledge the extent to which they’re feeling the pinch.
Jim: Yup. I think the other key part, which take the next step from that is most people can’t synthesize a solution, but if they see one, they can recognize it.
Jim: For instance, in our Game B, proto B concept, the idea of babysitting is actually fully organic, right? It’s part of the society. One of the areas that I’ve been researching, in particular, for ideas for proto B’s are the Israeli kibbutz right. The Israeli kibbutz there was no arrangement you had to make for daycare. It was built into the social operating system that there were a group of folks whose job it was to take care of kids while their parents did other things, whether it was arts or make love or what have you. There was no hassle, didn’t cost anything and it was just part of the social operating system.
Jim: Now, there’s other parts of how the kibbutz operated that I would disagree with, but I thought that was something that would very much resonate particularly with young millennial parents today is that the nightmarish difficulty of having your kids watched over by the whole community, basically, which no longer exists, would be a tremendous liberating phenomena for the person themselves and would be amazingly good for the children as well. If we could build a social operating system, even at a small scale and be able to show people, come visit. See how the kids are just there are essentially supervised by all the adults together. There are a few professionals who make sure things don’t spin out of control but you don’t have to spend 30% of your income on childcare. That’s nuts, right? Which then allows you not to have such an intense pursuit of the almighty dollar but I think showing is going to be real important.
Andrew: Yes. On the other end of life, the hope would be that we begin to examine what it is to die and to die the beautiful death. For if nothing else in this country, we have no sense of what it is to actually die a beautiful death to die well. In the kind of community you’re describing, presumably there would also be various understandings and ritualistic practices that would enable us to actually see that, yes, that so and so is coming to the end of his life. Let us find ways of honoring that end and let us not cling to that one. Let us not use massive amounts of resources to ensure that this one continues to live a greater and greater impoverished last phase of life, because we can’t bear the possibility that this one is going to go.
Jim: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I did happen to stumble across your essay today, the Uncomfortable Truths About the Aged in Modern Society. As someone is getting at the lower end of aged, it definitely resonates. Our society is so fucked up on the topic of death. We don’t want to talk about it. This horrendous extension of life, I will say, I’ll get my home family credit, we’re all goddamn fatalist. When the time comes, pull that fucking plug. We all have advanced directives, et cetera. We actually executed it with respect to my father after he had our weird accident at the age of 80. The whole family got around and basically kept him doped up and told jokes for two days and then he was gone. We did it with a will and we had a good time about it. We still talk about what a good time it was as our father died, right?
Jim: That’s unusual in our society. He could have easily been stuck on a ventilator for years, certainly for months, what the hell, right? We don’t think clearly about this. In fact, one of my, not entirely joking ideas, but a little intentionally over the top is that the Social Security Administration ought to authorize anybody 75 or over to throw a going away party for themselves and spend $25,000 doing so provided that at midnight, they take the black pill.
Andrew: Stop joking. Well, there is a beautiful story, as I told you, I live in the southwest in Albuquerque, about Edward Abbey. Edward Abbey was a staunch critic of industrial capitalism.
Jim: Monkey Wrench Gang.
Andrew: Yeah, Monkey Wrench Gang.
Jim: I read that book a long time ago.
Andrew: Yeah. It’s a wild book as well as Desert Solitaire, which your listeners are probably more familiar with. In any case, when he was terminally ill, he was in the hospital and this is the last place he really want to be. He was a very cantankerous fellow, very risible fellow. His friends, in true Edward Abbey’s spirit, came to the hospital and sprung him from the hospital and took him to some unmarked location out in the desert where he would have found it quite beautiful and there he died and they celebrated his death.
Jim: Excellent. I hope some of my friends will do that when I need it, though. Hopefully, I’ll have the will and the foresight to do it myself.
Andrew: I don’t know. He probably wasn’t as quite as responsible as you would know that.
Jim: On the other hand, one of the problems is, of course, is if you let it go too far, particularly with dementia, you no longer have the capability. That’s why we have to confront this stuff and be honest about it right. As I kid my daughter, I say, “Well, if I can’t answer the question, what’s the square root of 169, take me out back and shoot me.” I sort of mean it but obviously we need a cleaner and better way to do it.
Jim: Let me throw out a billion dollar opportunity for any of you young entrepreneurs out there, Kevorkian clinics, right? You’re going to have to spend the first 10 years in litigation in politics, but eventually, it’ll be one of the biggest businesses in America where people can go away with style and with their friends around and throwing the black pill party and the whole deal. Death is a service, not a bad idea.
Andrew: The reason I brought the topic up in keeping with how to raise children is that in the philosophical tradition, these have all been questions of the good life. I just look around for the areas in modern life where we are not yet open to examining things and in virtue of not yet being open to examining them. It turns out that we are held fast by our delusions and by our unthoughtful illnesses. This is why it’s so remarkable, to me, that people will raise children so that they can become workers and consumers and on the back end, take care of their grandparents in such a way that suggests that they couldn’t possibly let go of someone who is deteriorating in myriad ways. We can’t let go because we have no idea what a good life was. We only know how to extend, one philosopher calls it bear life.
Jim: Of course, unfortunately, in the United States, there’s also just a lot of superstition around things like Christianity that, “Oh, every life is sacred. We have to fight for every minute of every life, that suicide is a mortal sin.” We’re also polluted with a lot of that kind of thinking.
Andrew: Well, I mean, I think you’re probably a card carrying secularists but what can be said about secularism is that it actually imports a lot of the assumptions from Christianity without actually owning up to those assumptions. It’s certainly possible we have a number of secular people who can’t let go of their grandparents, but they have no idea why they can’t let go of their grandparents.
Jim: Yeah, there’s obviously our whole tradition is deeply infiltrated by threat. As they say, Jerusalem and Athens. Plato and Judaeo Christianity, both of them are foundational to who we are and both of them have some good points and both of them have some bad points. Whoever want to read a nightmare, read Plato’s Republic, right? Personally, I love Socrates but in that one, not so much where essentially, he’s describing something not too far from the Chinese Panopticon as the way to run a society.
Andrew: Yeah. By contrast, Socrates of what are referred to as the early Socratic dialogues. I find in my own idealization to be someone who is really neat and appropriate for our time. I think John Vervaeke is interested in Socrates as well. I mean, to say that, here’s someone who is open to inquiring with someone, whether that person be a statesman or a craftsman about the fundamental matters of existence, without claiming that he knows what wisdom is or that the way he knows what knowledge is, he knows what piety is, or he knows what virtue is, or what have you. They go on together, possibly with a view to converging on mutual understanding, but often with a view to actually come into their state of confusion together.
Andrew: If Socrates were alive today, he’d be continually pointing to the ways in which we’re obfuscatory when it comes to our own sorts of confusions. We keep masking our basic confusions from ourselves. That would be another way of coming back to the point you’re asking about how to change things. This is a third point that as you start to help people to unmask the ways in which they are involved in fundamental forms of misunderstanding.
Jim: I think that’s bang on. Well, I’m going to end it right there. I think we’ve gone a little over our normal time on these current episodes, but this conversation was so interesting and rich. I think it was great. Great to have you on, Andrew.
Andrew: Thanks very much, Jim.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.