|This is going to be a rather philosophical issue, but it concerns a crucially important idea in slightly evil philosophy: being "unreasonable." I hope to build a lot on this in the coming months.
But before we get into that, an announcement. Next Monday (May 2) I am starting a major road-trip across the US and Canada, mainly to promote Tempo, but also to refill the hopper with fresh ideas for ribbonfarm and this list. The trip is going to have a Slightly Evil subtext to it, and I am hoping to find inspiration for the next couple of issues on my travels. The route winds its way, zig-zag, from Washington, DC to Las Vegas over 3 weeks (approximately May 2 - 24) where I pause for a few weeks. The second leg, in June, is a loop that starts and ends in Las Vegas, and goes up the West Coast up to Vancouver and back. If you'd like to meet up or participate in the road trip in other ways, the full details are here: The Tempo Road Trip.
On to the subject of the day.
The Idealist-Tragedian Paradox
A key schism in the universe of ideas concerning the question of how humans should live their lives is the one between idealist and tragic views. Let's call the two associated types of people Idealists and Tragedians (a safe overload of the term in theater).
Idealism is based on a belief in the perfectability of humans. There are innumerable philosophies, religions and self-improvement theories that derive from the idealist stance. In fact the very term self improvement reveals the core idealist assumption that improvement is possible. The more recent term, personal growth, conveys that assumption even more clearly.
Idealist views (and strains of religion) represent mainstream thinking today, especially in America.
The tragic stance on the other hand, is based on the assumption that human beings are unchanging. That they have constant natures that are deeply limited and flawed, that cause them to fail in predictable ways (hence the connotation of tragedy). Historically, it has been been at least as popular as the idealist stance except during one very exceptional century: the twentieth. Thanks largely due to the global influence of American culture, and the dominance of idealism in America during the twentieth century, the tragic stance has been a minority stance.
"Slightly Evil" of course, like all vaguely pop-Machiavellian philosophies, belongs in the tragic camp.
The common belief in America that Democrats are idealists while Republicans are tragedians, is a fundamental mistake. In America, all politics and religion has been idealist for the last century. Hippies and evangelical christians alike, have been idealists. Main street middle class types and hipsters alike tend to believe in some variant of the American dream, though they often won't admit it.
Now here is the paradox: Idealism believes in change and creates unchanging human beings. Tragidism (to coin a word) believes humans cannot change their fundamental natures, yet believing in it actually transforms humans far more radically than the idealist view.
This isn't a deep metaphysical paradox. It is a superficial semantic and social paradox. While Idealism at its best can be very deep indeed, in practice it mostly loses its way in its pursuit of deep "growth" and ends up as superficial adaptation. A group of disenchanted cubicle dwellers may discard their suits and laptops and go form a commune based on vague New Age values, but they will almost certainly take their psychological baggage with them. I am constantly amazed by how such Idealists are able to ignore the obvious similarities between the corporate politicking that they have nominally left behind, and the internal dynamics of their own "New" groups with supposedly healthier cultures.
That is why I call it adaptation. Idealist models of human change merely help believers conform (often via cosmetic rebellion or deep socialization) to their environment. Nothing changes around them, and deep down, neither do they. Hence the commonly-observed irony: believers in "progress" (of both Republican and Democrat varieties in America) often help maintain the status quo by occuping stable marginal positions. The revolution never comes.
I am biased of course, but I find the tragic end of the paradox far more interesting.
The Unreasonable Man Effect
The Tragic stance on the other hand, brings about deep change in a roundabout way. If you stubbornly stick to the idea that humans cannot change, then improving your life means changing your environment. As Shaw noted, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
The best illustration of this "Unreasonable Man" effect is William Whyte's portrait of the sociopath-executive who refuses to conform to the Organization Man mold. I have quoted this passage elsewhere before:
Of all organization men, the true executive is the one who remains most suspicious of The Organization. If there is one thing that characterizes him, it is a fierce desire to control his own destiny and, deep down, he resents yielding that control to The Organization, no matter how velvety its grip… he wants to dominate, not be dominated…
But consider what hapens if you behave like this: you trigger deep processes of creative destruction in the environment that turn around and transform you. Unwittingly, you end up being transformed by attempting to transform the world. Unlike the conformal adaptations of the idealists, tragedian change involves real self-destruction in the sense of Nietzsche, before resurrection can happen. You know this if you've ever taken on a major, challenging project. Finishing it doesn't just create the output you had planned on, it transforms you.
Among the major pop-psychology/self-improvement classics, the only one that hints at this process is Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, which has at its core a gem of an idea: that seeking the Philosopher's stone to transform base metals into gold ends up transforming you. The protagonist of the book isn't an angsty, tortured soul looking for personal growth, he is on a mundane quest for literal treasure, like your average entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. The transformation is a side effect.
Resolving the Paradox
So can human beings change or not? I like to think about this question in terms of Lego blocks. We are, each of us, particular accidental constructions made up of a set of blocks. The whole thing can be torn down and rebuilt into a different design, but you can't really do anything to change the building blocks. The building blocks of personality are abstract consequences of the more literal building blocks at the biological level, genes. They constrain, but do not define, who we are or can be.
So yes and no. We can change, and we cannot. The Idealist-Tragedian dichotomy has the same contours as the Nurture-Nature dichotomy. Both are false, both can be dissolved through reframing in terms of constrained design spaces, building blocks and path-dependent expression of the possibilities of that space.
So why do I consider Tragedian change to be deeper? To continue the Lego metaphor. I often find that Idealists are reluctant to tear themselves down. They prefer to only build up. Which means growth must build on what already exists.
Idealists trap themselves into these cul-de-sacs of incremental change partly through life choices and partly through a metaphysical own-goal.
The life choice is simply the act of focusing directly on change rather than challenging external projects. The idealist goes off on a Zen retreat looking directly for change. The tragedian starts a business or writes a book and then resists and ulitmately accepts the change as an inevitable consequence. Good or bad, it is a rebirth. That is why you cannot call it "self improvement." Tragedian patterns of deeper creative-destructive change are fundamentally risky. A successful book or business may end up sending you into a spiral of drugs and depression, while utter failure may end up getting you to a moment of enlightenment far faster than the earnestly meditating Zen students.
The metaphysical own-goal is much simpler: Idealists often elaborate the idea of perfectability into a doctrine of continuously evolving perfection, which declares that you are perfect as you are, at every point on your path. You can only become more perfect (it is revealing that the words "more perfect" occur in the American constitution). This has the effect of making it impossible for you to backtrack from a given path or admit that something was a "deep" mistake capable of causing real regret, damage or death.
In fact the concept of "mistake" is rendered toothless in idealism through conflation with safe learning in the sense of schooling. "It's a learning process" is a fine way to view mistakes until a mistake bankrupts, kills or psychologically destroys you.
The Importance of the Tragedian/Unreasonable Man Stance
This issue of BSE is a sort of Slightly Evil summary and extrapolation of several themes that I develop more carefully in the the book. But there's a lot here that remains to be said. Adopting the tragedian stance has several consequences (many of them rather harsh). I'll explore some of these in future issues. But just to get you started on your own, here are a couple of such ideas to mull:
And don't forget, check out the Tempo Road trip link at the top of this issue and get in touch if you are interested.
Idealists revere non-zero-sum "win win" thinking over zero-sum "win-lose" thinking. Tragedians are neutral and objective about both, and pick the framing the suits the situation.
Idealists revere long-term thinking over short-term. Tragedians focus on the appropriate time horizon for a given situation.
Idealists seek "sustainability" or worse, "sustainable growth." Tragedians believe both concepts to be fundamentally vacuous.
Idealists often seek to be kind and end up being unwittingly cruel. Tragedians are often low-empathy sociopaths, but paradoxically end up doing good without meaning to. A recent Scientific American article about heroes and villains sheds some fascinating light on this phenomenon.