Ye gods!

I’m really enjoying Terence Green’s ‘Philosophical Haikus’ in Philosophy Now… Bitesized chunks of wit and wisdom which make you think. This month’s is on the controversial economist Friedrich Hayek.

The full text is down below (and I’m hoping Terence and Philosophy Now will forgive me as I do recommend a subscription to what one of my favourite reads).

But the bits which got me thinking are these:

…humankind is possessed of a singular desire to control: to control our environment, to control society, to control other people (cf Nietzsche’s will-to-power). Control is hoped to be a way of ridding ourselves of uncertainty; and more than anything else, human beings are troubled by uncertainty.

This speaks to the worries and anxieties we all endlessly lock onto: the Existentialist ‘lack’, Buddhist ‘clinging’ and the endless ‘control dramas’ of interpersonal relations. We are both bored by and possessive about what we have, fear what we don’t know and worry constantly about other people and the future.

We’re all about control.. are we beyond help?

But, said Hayek, this belief [in control] is just hubris – the sort of arrogant over-confidence for which the Greek gods were always punishing people. In the absence of the gods, we’re punished by the circumstances we create.

Maybe the answer is, mentally, to bring back those Greek gods – capricious, mercurial, tempters and temptresses, spiteful and unpredictable; but ultimately (kind of) on our side.

If life was unavoidably a rollercoaster ride of being tossed about by Zeus and the others, perhaps we might enjoy it more. Let go of the illusion of control and it’s unalloyed fun when it’s going well and less painful when things go badly; it’s all in the lap of the gods.

After all, chance seems to be beating control hands down in 2020.

Amor fati as Nietzsche said.

Philosophical Haiku

Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992)
by Terence Green

“Reason’s poverty,
Man’s desire to control –
This road walks the serf.”

Hayek’s reputation as an economist and political philosopher has suffered on account of his popular but vitriolic and unbalanced rant against state power, The Road to Serfdom (1944). In it he argued that even mild, well-intentioned attempts at central planning will inevitably slide towards authoritarianism. The book was appropriated by the worst zealots of neoliberalism. But there remains much wisdom in the fundamental points he returned to time and again.

The Enlightenment bequeathed to us a seemingly unshakable confidence in the capacity of human reason. Reason sets us apart from the beasts and gives us the power to shape our world after our own designs. It matters not that history is littered with the burnt-out wrecks of infallible schemes for the creation of the ideal society: we still cling to the belief that by the application of reason we can diagnose the illness and prescribe the cure for the human condition. Indeed, this belief is the very foundation of modern government. Every policy a government introduces is predicated on rational analysis, with the assumption that the policy will produce the desired effects. Along with this faith in reason, Hayek claims, humankind is possessed of a singular desire to control: to control our environment, to control society, to control other people (cf Nietzsche’s will-to-power). Control is hoped to be a way of ridding ourselves of uncertainty; and more than anything else, human beings are troubled by uncertainty. We wish to alleviate the pain of not knowing, and believe we have the ability to do so. But, said Hayek, this belief is just hubris – the sort of arrogant over-confidence for which the Greek gods were always punishing people. In the absence of the gods, we’re punished by the circumstances we create.

For Hayek in 1944 there was a broader context – of fascist and communist totalitarian regimes, that justified their murderous actions on the basis that they knew how to create the perfect society. Even if you start out with impeccably admirable intentions, any government that seeks to reshape society on the basis of some ideal blueprint will risk turning its citizens into slaves in order to realise that ideal. There cannot be a single right way to live or to organise society; and even if there were, we can never know enough or be wise enough to bring it into existence. It’s a thought worth pondering.

© Terence Green 2020

William of Ockham

A nice piece I read this morning in Philosophy Now, contains a quote which largely summarises my endeavours at work this week:

It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.

Ascribed to William of Ockham, who lived from c1285 to 1348 – it is as true in the modern world of work as it no doubt was in a medieval monastery.

Here’s a little of what writer Terence Green has to say about Ockham in Philosophy Now [which at just £17 for a year’s subscription would comfortably pass Green’s excise the excess Ockham test]:

William from Ockham (or Occam), an otherwise obscure village in Surrey, England, was the greatest philosopher of the fourteenth century. Known as the Doctor Invincibilis, he didn’t care whom he offended, and with his rough and ready style of argument, he offended plenty of people – which eventually got him into big trouble.

He became a Franciscan monk, an order famous for its commitment to poverty. But this meant he was at risk of having idle hands (one of poverty’s unacknowledged benefits), and so doing the Devil’s work. To avoid this calamity, he wrote widely on logic, physics, and theology.

Today he is most often associated with ‘Ockham’s Razor’, his idea that explanations should be as simple as possible; alternative formulations of this principle include ‘Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity’ and ‘It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer’. Frankly, this is a good rule of thumb whatever you’re thinking about.

Having already been condemned as a heretic in 1326 for having unorthodox views, since he argued against Aquinas’s philosophy, he didn’t help himself when in 1328 he sided with those who argued against the Pope that Jesus and his disciples didn’t own any property. This was obviously a matter of considerable importance to the Pope, who owned a lot of property.

Seeing what was coming (imprisonment and execution), William took refuge with the Holy Roman Emperor in Bavaria. Excommunicated, but feeling a bit safer, he wrote polemics against the Pope’s claim to temporal power, thus emulating Dante.

The invincible teacher was finally beaten around 1347/48, probably by the Black Death. The Pope had died earlier, in 1334, still owning lots of property.

© Terence Green 2019