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Review of “Tragedy in Performance” – Michael R. Halleran

pages 198-214 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

For everyone who’s wondered how the stage and physical spaces of the ancient Greek theatre were set up, Halleran’s essay is a great place to start. His essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into five sections: “Theatrical Space,” “Actors and Chorus,” “Conventions,” “Stage Properties,” and “Gestures and Silence.” Here is a summary of the main points from each of the sections.

Theatrical Space

Moderns are used to reading ancient Greek tragedies. Texts of tragedies, in the ancient world, however, were rare: ancient were more used to watching drama in performance. Drama itself means “something done.” To understand ancient tragedy, it follows that we should understand how and when it was staged.

Ancient tragedy was performed at the City Dionysia, a springtime festival that honoured Dionysus. Each year, three dramatists would be selected to stage four plays: a tragic trilogy connected by mythological elements or three separate, unconnected tragedies followed by a boisterous satyr play. Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia, for example, was followed by a satyr play called Proteus that dramatized Menelaus’ homecoming after the Trojan War and spoofed his brother Agamemnon’s tragic return.

Plays were staged at the Theatre of Dionysus, an outdoor theatre that sat between 15-20,000 on seats carved into the south face of the Athenian acropolis. The semicircular “theatron” or seating area carved into the Acropolis encompassed another space, the “orchestra,” a circular space in front of the seating 70′ in diameter where the chorus would sing and dance. Behind the orchestra was the “skene” or stage building. Since most tragedies revolved around royal families, the skene would often represent a palace. The stage building was a rectangular structure elevated 3′ from the ground and rising 12′ high. It was 35′ in length and 15′ deep.

Two long ramps on either side of the skene called “eisodoi” led to the stage building. Here, actors could make their way to the stage by walking on the ramp between the stage and the theatron. Since the eisodoi were close to 60′ long, grandiose entrances from stage left or stage right were possible.

Finally, there were two additional stage devices for special effects: the “ekkyklema” and the “mechane.” “The ekkyklema,” writes Halleran, “was a wheeled platform that could be brought forth from the opened doors of the skene to reveal an interior scene.” The mechane was a crane that carried characters aloft. Plays employing deus ex machina ending would use the mechane to stage the sudden arrival of the god.

Actors and Chorus

Greek tragedy employed three actors who would (primarily) speak their lines on the skene. The actors would wear a full-length robe (chiton), an outer garment (himation), a linen mask, and flat-soled shoes or boots. Doubling, or the use of one actor to play multiple parts, was common, and could lead to intriguing possibilities: for example, in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, the male actor who plays Deianira (Heracles’ wife) could poison Heracles, and then come back in the next scene as the poisoned and dying Heracles.

In counterpoint to the actors on the skene, Greek tragedy also employed a chorus, who would sing their lines in the orchestra. Halleran disagrees with those who see the chorus as a superdramatic entity commenting on the action, citing plays such as Aeschylus’ Suppliants where the chorus of suppliants takes part in the action. For Halleran, the distinction between actor and chorus is that actors used the language of “declamation, explanation, debate and argument, while the sung verse of the chorus was the language of evocation, imagination, fractured narrative, and highly charged images.” In the interplay and tension between the actors on the skene and the chorus in the orchestra Greek tragedy generates its particular excitement.

Conventions

Enjoying the show involves a willing suspension of disbelief. Many elements of theatre are highly artificial, from men playing womens’ roles to characters speaking in verse. While comedy likes to poke fun at its artifices, tragedy prefers to maintain the “fourth wall” of drama. When tragedy does break the fourth wall, however, the affect can be profound. At line 896 of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, when it seems as though the oracles of the gods were failing, the chorus asks “Why should I dance?” This metatheatrical line breaking the fourth wall is astounding, as the chorus at the moment is, in real life, performing a dance in a religious festival. Their threat to quit the dance unless the oracles of the gods ring true reminds the audience that they are watching a chorus who are both actors and fellow citizens. If Dionysus is not real in real life, there is no reason to dance, either on stage or in life.

Stage Properties

The stage of Greek tragedy–by today’s standards–has an uncluttered, sparse, and open aesthetic. The simple qualities of the ancient stage allowed ancient playwrights to powerfully focus the audience’s attention on whatever happened to be on the stage. Common stage properties were: corpses (Ajax in Sophocles’ Ajax, Alcestis in Euripides’ Alcestis, and Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus), a weapon (Heracles’ bow in Sophocles’ Philoctetes), altars (the various suppliant plays), and buildings (a palace in Aeschylus’ Oresteia or a house in Euripides’ Alcestis).

The ancient stage gave an incredible concentrated power to the drama. Halleran, for example, discusses how Ajax’ corpse (Ajax impales himself on his sword midway through the play) stays on stage the whole play. Thus, while the other characters argue over the good and bad qualities of Ajax, his corpse is in plain view. In the end of the play, it is predicted that the death of Ajax will lead to the creation of a hero cult. But, seeing that Tecmessa and Eurysaces, during the play, already take refuge at his corpse, the play intimates powerfully that the hero cult of Ajax is already begun. There is power in the archaic simplicity of the stage properties of Greek tragedy.

Gestures and Silence

Halleran concludes his study of tragedy in performance by examining two extra-textual elements of performance: gestures and silence. The gesture of supplication–touching the supplicated’s knee and chin from an inferior position–often provided an impetus for a dramatic turn of events. Euripides writes memorable supplication scenes in both Medea (when Medea supplicates Creon to delay exile a day) and Hippolytus (when the Nurse supplicates Phaedra to reveal her secret).

“Characters on the stage but not speaking,” says Halleran, “can be lost on the page but not in the theater.” Aeschylus was so fond of this technique that he was satirized for it: Cassandra, the prophetess of Troy, is plainly visible but silent as Agamemnon comes home to Clytemnestra. Cassandra’s presence is a foreboding presence, since she knows (being a prophetess) the tragedy that will shortly unfold. Sophocles too uses this technique to great effect in Oedipus rex: Jocasta is silent while the Shepherd and the Messenger unravel Oedipus’ identity. While they uncover the truth, Jocasta figures is out as well, and her silence testifies to just how bad the situation has become.

Thoughts

Sometimes, with all the talk of the connections between ancient Greece and modernity, it’s easy to forget about how much has changed in the two-and-a-half millennia between then and now. Halleran’s essay on tragedy in performance is a good reminder that those were different times. Yesterday: open-air theatre, masks, choruses dancing in the orchestra, theatre as a religious service, simple sets, limited special effects, dying (usually) not dramatized on stage, concentrated focus on singular stage properties, theatre for all citizens, frequent doubling of actors, maximum three actors on stage. Today: indoor theatre, theatre as entertainment, elaborate sets, many special effects and lighting, dramatic dying scenes, theatre for elites, many characters on stage, busy stages, (usually) no chorus.

Halleran mentions a peculiar convention of Greek tragedy: death is usually not dramatized on stage. It usually takes place offstage. I wonder if this convention arose because Greek tragedy, as part of the ancient liturgy, was conceived of as a show that is put on for the gods? That is to say, they imagined that they gods would also be watching (Halleran notes that the Temple of Dionysus would have been in plain view beyond the skene) and, since the gods (at least the Olympian gods) distanced themselves from death, they, as a gesture of goodwill to the gods, spared them the sight of death? I’ll leave you with this conjecture. It is an interesting conjecture since the dying scene, as we know from modern drama, is quite dramatic. There must have been a reason why they did not take advantage of it.

Author Blurb

Michael R. Halleran is Professor of Classics and Divisional Dean of Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Washington. He is the author of Stagecraft in Euripides (1985), Euripides: Hippolytus, with Translation and Commentary (1995), and numerous articles and reviews on ancient Greek literature and culture.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of “Tragedy and Epic” – Ruth Scodel

pages 181-179 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This insightful essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into five sections: “Epic Stories and Allusions,” “Epic Thematics,” “Epic Style and Decorum,” “Epic Narrative,” and “Tragedy and Epic.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with epic. Here is a summary of the main points from each of its sections.

Epic Stories and Allusions

Although epic and tragedy arose from different political and social backgrounds (epic from a monarchical and fragmented world and tragedy from a democratic world of city-states), tragedy borrowed much from the older art of epic. From the epic recitations of the legends of Thebes, Heracles, and the creation of the cosmos, the tragic poets got many of their stories. From the technique of Homer–who favoured more dialogue and more developed plots than the simple narration of the other epicists and rhapsodes–the tragic poets got their chops.

Epic Thematics

Tragedy got two of its major themes from epic. The first theme is that of fate, free will, human causality, and divine meddling. The second theme is related to the first: the recognition scene when the human recognizes that there is a higher power at play, whether it is fate or the will of the gods. Chance and fate, for example, come together in the Odyssey when, just as Odysseus happens to return, Penelope challenges the suitors to string Odysseus’ bow. This gives Odysseus the opportunity to fulfil the fated ending of killing the suitors: disguised as a beggar, he strings his bow and starts firing. So too, in tragedy, fate seems to happen by chance. In Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, although all the attackers and defenders are assigned their gate assignations by chance, it just so happens that the two brothers are assigned the seventh gate where they will kill each other as fate wills.

The tragic recognition scene is also borrowed from epic. In epic, the best characters are often given an insight into the grand workings of the cosmos. Achilles recognizes in the Iliad that his time will come when Hector, unexpectedly, kills his friend Patroclus. So, too, in tragedy, a hero such as Oedipus in Sophocles’ play has a moment of recognition where he realizes that all is not what it seems.

The difference between epic and tragedy, notes Scodel, is that tragedy is much more concentrated in its presentation of fate, free will, and recognition. The reason is that tragedy is much shorter than epic, which is recited over many days.

Epic Style and Decorum

Tragedy also gets its style and decorum from epic. Early tragedy modelled its speech in the ornamental dactylic rhythms commonplace in epic. Tragedy’s sense of decorum is borrowed from and perhaps even more stringent than epic: weeping and bleeding are permitted, farting not; horses are preferred to mules; heroes may forget to pray to the right god, but they never forget their helmet when arming; epic infrequently allows joking amidst discussions of gods and war but tragedy allows for even less ribaldry.

Epic Narrative

In a memorable phrase, Scodel says that tragedians used the epic as a “repertory of the possible.” In epic, prophecy is always correct (if sometimes misleading); so too in tragedy prophecy is ultimately correct, if initially misleading. In epic, messengers enjoy quasi-omniscience; so too, in tragedy, messengers can oversee the entire battlefield and yet hear individual conversations. Epic draws together two adversaries (think Achilles and Hector in the Iliad); so, too, tragedy often draws together two adversaries (think the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes).

Tragedy and Epic

Scodel closes her essay by reminding readers that tragedy’s debt to epic was not all one way. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and other fifth century tragedians who took Homer as their model became in turn the model for future writers of epic such as Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, and Ovid. “Epic, having created tragedy,” says Scodel, “recreated itself on the model of its creation.” Art is alive, constantly making and remaking itself anew in all the images of the human imagination.

Thoughts

This has been a fascinating essay because I can now see plainly how tragedy must have arisen from epic. In Homer’s epics, Homer, or the voice of the rhapsode, would sing the tale of the anger of Achilles or the return of Odysseus. In singing the tale, the singer would give life to all the different characters within the tale. But there were so many characters that we would only learn a little bit about each character–the minimum that was required to keep the story going. In a way, the better the singer is at drawing out the characters, the more the characters grow larger to demand a voice of their own, and not simply be recited by the rhapsode-singer. The transition from epic to tragedy is the tension of the characters wanting their own voice by a dedicated actor instead of one Homer telling the whole tale. The transition from epic to tragedy is the path of going from one Homer-rhapsode who narrates the tale to many Homer-actors who act out the tale. In epic there is one Homer, in tragedy there are many Homers, who are now playing individual roles. For this insight I have Scodel to thank. It is reverberating in my head and someday I will do something with it. The idea is quite powerful. The path from epic to tragedy is the path from one Homer to many Homers. Each character in Homer was seeking to break free of the oral tradition, to become themselves a Homer. When tragedy arose, this happened.

Another point Scodel touches upon–and one that can’t be stressed enough–is that fate in epic and tragedy is, in a way, synonymous with “what has to happen.” Since epic and tragedy drew from the same myths the audiences learned as toddlers, the outcome from beginning to end was well known. The audience’s knowledge could have been a spoiler. But what the rhapsodes reciting epic and the tragedians did was amazing: instead of myth being a detriment to the suspense, they used myth to augment the suspense by turning the known story into a “fate” that hung over all the characters. Two decades ago, I wrote an article for Antichthon that explored how “fate” is nothing more than a dramatic device which guides the narrative towards resolution. You can read the article here. That was a fun piece to write.

You know what I’d be interested in seeing?–that would be so cool if someone did a genealogy of fate. I think fate is ultimately an example of art shaping life. Could it have been that, prior to the rhapsodes–the singers of tales–and the tragedians inventing fate as a narrative device to make the narrative end where everyone knew the stories ended, there was no conception of fate in real life? For example, it was only after watching an Achilles or an Oedipus struggle with fate in epic and drama that people in real life started wondering if some majestic fate stood watch over them. Then, these people in real life, their imaginations fired from the magic of tragedy and epic and always on the lookout for fate, when some low-probability, high-consequence event happened in their life by chance, they would ascribe what chance had wrought as evidence of fate in actual life? It is an interesting hypothesis: that what people call fate in real life is actually just chance misunderstood. And chance is misunderstood because there is a fundamental difference between narrative (where nothing happens by chance since everything happens by the design of the writer) and real life (where chance is quite active). They talk of mimesis, of how art imitates life. But when it comes to chance, art imitates life very poorly, since for a narrative to make sense, what was really chance in real life has to be “explained” to have taken place for a reason, even if that reason ends up being fate.

This essay has also been fascinating as, many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Ruth. It was a lifetime ago, years before she even wrote this essay. Back in those days, I was being courted by different grad schools, the University of Michigan Classics program being one of them. In preparation for meeting her, I had read her book Credible Impossibilities. If you are interested in how ancient writers generate credibility, this book would be an excellent read. To this day, I remember some of her colourful examples. One rule of creating credible impossibilities is to go into great detail. I think in Polyphemus’ cave in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus escapes by clinging under one of the Cyclops’ rams. This is impossible for a grown man. What Homer does to make it believable, writes Scodel, is that he goes into great detail over how Odysseus does this. Voila: the impossible becomes, in the unsuspecting reader’s mind, possible.

It’s funny what I remember. I don’t recall that much of the trip. But I do remember where all the offices were of the profs I chatted with. Richard Janko had his office slightly across the hall from Scodel’s. Of all things, I remembered that he wore his wool socks over his pant cuffs. And James Porter’s office was at the end of the hall. It was fascinating to meet him as well–one of his research interests is Nietzsche and the reception of Classical studies, that is to say, how each generation of classicists is remembered by future classicists. The tiles on the floor were those old square ones, an off-white hue. The university itself was majestic, on a hill overlooking the city, which was in bad shape. But the university was gated, and had security. The air was crisp, and the people walked with a fierce determination. Those were the days.

Author Blurb

Ruth Scodel was educated at Berkeley and Harvard, and has been on the faculty at the University of Michigan since 1984. She is the author of The Trojan Trilogy of Euripides (1980), Sophocles (1984), Credible Impossibilities: Conventions and Strategies of Verisimilitude in Homer and Greek Tragedy (1999), Listening to Homer (2002), and articles on Greek Literature.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of “Tragedy and Myth” – Alan H. Sommerstein

pages 163-180 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This well-organized essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into six sections: “Myth, History, and Poetry,” “How to Make a New Myth,” “Innovation within Existing Myths,” “Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation,” “Etiology,” and “Secondary Mythical Allusions.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with myth. Here is a summary of its main points.

Myth, History, and Poetry

Athenian tragedy–with a few exceptions–dramatized myth. Myth to the ancients, however, overlapped with actual history. As well, myth itself was fluid, malleable, and alive. As a result, although Athenian tragedy is based on myth, many different reconstructions and interpretations were available to the tragedians. To draw on myth is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Myth is far from a straitjacket.

How to Make a New Myth

There are interstitial spaces between the received events of myth in which the poet-tragedian may create new stories. Myth has a start point and end point that is set; the space in between is free. Take the myth of the Seven against Thebes. In the start point of the myth, Polyneices attacks his hometown of Thebes. In the end point of the myth, Polyneices kills and is killed by his brother. Creon, whose son is dead, rules Thebes as regent. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister is also dead. In the space between the start point and end points Sophocles’ creates his play Antigone: Antigone’s defiance of Creon, her love interest with Creon’s son, and the suicide of Antigone and Haemon are all Sophoclean innovations, a “new myth” that fills up the interstitial spaces between the canonical beginning and end points. These interstitial spaces are fertile grounds for the poetic imagination.

Another way to rewrite myth is by using the deus ex machina device: here, the plot can turn whichever way, even in defiance of myth, and the god appears at the last second to set the record straight. Euripides was especially fond of the deus ex machina device.

Innovation within Existing Myths

Sommerstein lays down a law that dictates how far poets could go in reshaping myths: “In a telling of any given story, any element may be altered, so long as the alteration does not impact severely on other stories which are not, on that occasion, being told.” Thus, in retellings of the myth of the Danaids, Hypermestra must always marry Lynceus because they give birth to descendants who will produce Perseus, Heracles, and many other heroes. Beyond this, however, much innovation is possible and Sommerstein provides many examples.

Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation

This is the longest section and the most far-reaching. In it, Sommerstein talks about how ancient audiences must have understood and watched tragedies differently than modern audiences. In Euripides’ tragedy Medea, ancient audiences will have known that Jason is playing with fire in crossing Medea, a powerful magic-user. They will have known that their children die, though not by Medea’s hand–their death by their mother’s hand was, according to Sommerstein, Euripides’ innovation. Ancient audiences would have been expecting Medea to harm Jason–or his new girlfriend. Modern audiences, on the other hand, know, most of the time, that Medea is the play in which the mother kills her children: the fame of the play precedes the play. This is a powerful, and little known distinction between ancient and modern viewings of the play: we know what happens; ancients, even though better-versed in myth, did not.

Myth, far from being a straitjacket, gave ancient playwrights a valuable tool that is underappreciated today: the ability to mislead and misdirect audience expectations. When they bring about the unanticipated outcome, the ancient audience is shocked, and amused.

Etiology

In this short section, Sommerstein talks about how Athenian poet-dramatists dramatized the creation of real-world rites, customs, and institutions through myth. Euripides was quite fond of drama as etiology: in Suppliants, for example, Euripides “explains” the real-world friendship between Athens and Argos through the action. Aeschylus, too, in the Oresteia, dramatizes the creation of homicide court at the Areopagus.

Secondary Mythical Allusions

Secondary mythical allusions occur, says Sommerstein, when characters (or the chorus) in a drama refer to other myths that are not being dramatized. By comparing their own situations to other well-known myths, characters are able to shine a different light, as it were, on the action of the play they are in. Of Sommerstein’s many examples, one from Aeschylus’ Oresteia stands out. In the Oresteia, Orestes has killed his mother at Apollo’s behest. The Furies, ancient spirits who punish blood crimes, pursue him to the Areopagus, where Orestes is being tried. He is defended by Apollo and persecuted by the Furies. Apollo suggests to the Furies that, just as Zeus had pardoned Ixion, they should pardon Orestes. But his argument is lame: the audience would have known from the Ixion myth that Ixion was a very bad person and Zeus was, in fact, wrong to pardon him (because after his pardon Ixion tries to seduce Zeus’ wife Hera!). These secondary mythical allusions, writes Sommerstein, enrich the textual density of the play. While in the Oresteia, Orestes is innocent, the remark from Apollo would suggests otherwise. By connecting different myths through secondary allusions, dramatists challenged their audiences.

Thoughts

I enjoyed this well-organized and concise essay. Sommerstein’s arguments fit together perfectly: after reading a few sentences, I could see where he was going, and his examples were spot on. This was very welcome after finishing a rambling book yesterday that, even after reading many pages, I was never sure where the author was going, if anywhere. The straightforwardness of Sommerstein’s essay is a sign that he has been thinking about myth and tragedy for a long time. The lack of direction in that other book I finished yesterday, I think, is a sign that the author–who is a famous world-expert–and the editors were working under too tight a timeline.

The thing that I am most grateful to learn from Sommerstein’s essay is that modern audiences do not watch Greek tragedies in the same way that the ancients did. Modern audiences, in most cases, already know the endings. Ancient audiences, while they knew the myths, would not know how the dramatist would write or rewrite the myth: a great amount of freedom is possible. Sommerstein’s example of this was from Euripides’ Medea, where he argued that Medea’s killing of her children would have caught the ancient audience off-guard. I can see from his examples how Euripides has, indeed, crafted his play to make the audience think what happens is not going to happen until the last second. There is more of a gulf between the ancients and the moderns than what we like to believe. A musical analogy would be moderns listening to J.S. Bach. Bach wrote a contrapuntal style of music where different voices would play off each other. Listeners in Bach’s time would have followed the distinct voices or lines. Many listeners today hear the harmonies generated by the voices rather than the voices themselves. The experience is different than what the composer was trying to achieve. But still enjoyable. It is a difference we should be aware of.

This got me thinking: today’s famous plays will be understood very, very differently two hundred, five hundred, and two thousand years from now. Hard to believe, but, if Sommerstein’s arguments are correct, it will be inevitable that, as audiences, cultures, and education changes, so too the thrill we get out of watching theatre. One way, I think, that playwrights can ensure that their plays will be “correctly” understood, is to adhere to a theory or model of drama. A model serves as an anchor of interpretation. There are many options. Today one can be an Aristotelian, a Hegelian, a Nietzschean, or one can try Brecht’s epic theatre or Miller’s Tragedy of the Common Man. There too is my burgeoning theory of tragedy called risk theatre, where risk is become the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Though Sommerstein’s comments are directed to myths and plays in ancient Athens, the myths did not stop with ancient Athens. The old Attic myths are still alive today. I curate an international theatre competition called the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, now in its fourth year. Last year’s winner, Madison Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, was a retelling of the Prometheus legend. I wrote a review of this fantastic play here. Even today, the myths are alive, changing, expanding, growing, being retold. Imagine that.

Author Blurb

Allan H. Sommerstein is Professor of Greek at the University of Nottingham. His publications include Aeschylean Tragedy (1996), Greek Drama and Dramatists (2002), and editions of the plays and fragments of Aeschylus (2008) and of Aristophanes’ eleven comedies (1980-2002). In a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, he is preparing, with five collaborators, a two-volume study of The Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of ON RISK – Mark Kingwell

2020, Biblioasis, 154 pages

In May 2021, Canadian Cycling magazine interviewed University of Toronto philosophy professor and cyclist Mark Kingwell. Kingwell’s book On Risk, Or, If You Play You Pay: The Politics of Chance in a Plague Year had recently come out. In the book, Kingwell draws on popular culture and personal anecdotes–including a close call where his bicycle was struck by a car and crushed–to illuminate the hidden workings of risk and chance. As a cyclist who also writes on risk, I was intrigued. In fact, I read the article at a newsstand during a break on my 122-kilometre cycling trek that day–my longest day in the saddle so far. I resolved to remember the title and read it at the first opportunity. Risk was in the news daily. Covid was in the air. A new book by a philosopher-cyclist explaining what risk means to us today: what could be a more fascinating read? Or so I thought.

On Risk is a small book. Fast readers can finish it in one sitting. The book is divided into four chapters: “The Game of Risk,” “Luck,” “Politics,” “Death and Taxes.” They can be read individually as discrete essays, but, read together, they build up to Kingwell’s progressive vision of government stepping in to equalize risk and reward for the haves and the have-nots. The slender volume has no index. Here is my summary, beginning with the preface.

Preface: The Plague Years

The coronavirus distributes risks across North American societies asymmetrically, with greater risks to Indigenous, Black, Latino, aged, and poor populations. This asymmetrical distribution of risk is further exacerbated by the poor choices of conservatives and conservative politicians who downplay the dangers of the pandemic. Risk is political because risk is the expression of who lives, who dies, and who decides.

Chapter 1: The Game of Risk

The board game Risk, card games, dicing, roulette, betting, poker, and other games of chance illustrate how difficult it is for people to understand risk: many bets are simply illogical. Risk is hard to understand because risk is for all time, eternal, and hardly possible for short-lived mortals to model. In fact, our reality may be part of a multiverse where many types of risk exist which we may not even be aware of: if the nuclear force (one of the fundamental forces of nature) were stronger, life would not exist. But even though risk is so multi-faceted and our knowledge so limited, it is good to try to understand the odds and play the game of life.

Chapter 2: Luck

Kingwell uses luck as a springboard to talk about gambling and risk. That conversation shifts into Einstein’s comment that “God does not play dice” which leads into a conversation about fate and free will with some obligatory comments on Oedipus. A discussion of how poorly people evaluate and understand risk follows (this is a recurring theme). For society as a whole to benefit, the “greed is good” mantra of capitalism must be overcome; in an egalitarian society risk and reward must be shared. Many examples of how people misunderstand risk (or chance). A discussion of insurance, individual, and communal risks with the conclusion that risk, in the final examination, is societal and political.

Chapter 3: Politics

Risk is always political. Three examples of political risk: order-one risk, order-two risk, and order-three risk. Order-one risk is living in impoverished areas without access to clean water and food. Order-two risk is also known as birthright risk, or the idea that some win the lottery in terms of whether they are born in a rich or poor country to rich or poor parents (this seems to me to also be true of order-one risk, not sure why Kingwell classifies them in separate categories). Order-three risk is one’s penchant for taking risks, which may be biological rather than due to free will. Society tends to reward (or bail out) risk takers, so this is unfair to those who do not take risks. Government should get involved to even out the “bonuses” that big risk takers get from making big bets. This involves increasing the inheritance tax and making loans available to poor people.

Chapter 4: Death and Taxes

In the universe, or even in all the multiverses, “The horizon of all risk is death,” says Kingwell. Death is the final risk event. There is personal death. Then, there may be death for whole peoples. At the far end, there is the possibility of an extinction event for the sapiens. Risks that happen are metaphysically different than near misses that almost happened. Statistics, sadly, do not incorporate the data from near misses, skewing our perception of risk. But despite all the existential and collective risks, we still must play the game. In playing the game, we benefit as a species by balancing the possibility of risk and reward for all the players: many players in the game are disadvantaged. We can balance the game by reforming the tax system to make the rich pay more, introducing a guaranteed basic income, and ending corporate bailouts.

A More Concentrated Focus, Please

I wish this book were more concentrated. It is diffuse. In two paragraphs, Kingwell covers the question of suffering. Then, in a few pages, he blazes through fate, free will, and risk. Another couple of paragraphs, and his critique of neoliberal economics is concluded. Each of these topics, by itself, could have been a book. I almost fell out of my chair at one point when I read: “Marketing and advertising follow in wake of these [e.g. actuarial science and economics], but I lack the space to address them.” Really? If you could cover Foucault in one paragraph, couldn’t you cover marketing and advertising in a few sentences?

I felt that Kingwell attempted to cram too much into this slender volume. I had a hard time following his train of thought as he jumped from Homer Simpson to the question of suffering to theodicy to Covid to politics and so on. The Kirkus review speaks kindly when it says that On Risk is “sometimes meandering.”

Who is the Audience?

The back cover (quoted below) presents this book as a primer for all the people who want to learn more about risk because the pandemic has made risk the “it” word. While much of the book is conversational, parts of it I found hard to follow. Take this explanation of consciousness in the multiverse:

To be precise [Daniel] Dennett holds to a “multiple drafts” model of consciousness, without a central homuncular observer in the “Cartesian theatre” notion of singular consciousness. This view makes room, therefore, for modular distribution of mindedness.

I felt that, for me to have a chance of understanding any of this, these three sentences would have needed to be expanded into three pages (or more!) of concise writing. It is the same with the Kolmogorov zero-or-one law of probability theory. Kingwell mentions the law that seems to imply there are no odds in between zero (impossible) and one (absolute certainty) but before he explains how it works, he is already onto the next topic. I would have been fascinated to learn more about the Kolmogorov law.

Chance or Risk?

I was confused about how he uses the term risk. Much of the time, when Kingwell refers to risk, I thought he ought to be talking about chance. Take this example. At one point he says that “Risk is theoretically neutral and indifferent.” Is risk neutral and indifferent? If you take a risk, say, by taking a corner at 100kph instead of 40kph or by standing up to a bully, it is not going to be “neutral and indifferent”–something will happen, either in your favour or not. If he had said “Chance is theoretically neutral and indifferent” I would have understood better. Many of his anecdotes I’ve found in books on chance and probability, where they’re classified under chance. Certainly chance and risk overlap, but I found myself thinking “chance” many times when he wrote “risk.” Despite several pages on etymology, I found myself wishing that Kingwell would have clearly defined what he meant by “risk,” a word that can mean many things including danger, the exposure to danger, fate, destiny, and more.

I Learned More About Kingwell than I did on Risk

Reading this book, I learned more about Kingwell’s likes and dislikes than I did on risk. Kingwell likes: Gillian Anderson, liberal thought, Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Paul Krugman, and Stanley Kubrick. Kingwell does not like: George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Donald Trump, Ayn Rand, Kenny Rogers, Napoleon, neo-liberal capitalism, and Midwestern voters. If your tastes line up with his, you may find this book enjoyable. Some of his vitriolic struck me as unnecessary sidetracks that detracted from the points he was making. Take this comment on one of his colleagues at the University of Toronto: “This [e.g. that the university is a privileged environment] is one of the few points on which I agree with the world view of my polemical and lately deranged University of Toronto colleague, Jordan Peterson, who made this very point during a panel discussion on student mental health on which we both appeared.” Kingwell, I thought, could have made his point quite equally well without bringing up Peterson. Elsewhere, Kingwell celebrates “four hundred-plus years of liberal thought” that “has been about creating community through the inclusion of the Other.” In word he celebrates the inclusion of the Other but, in deed, he calls out his colleague for being “deranged” at a symposium on mental health?

If you’re looking for a primer of risk, there are others out there. One of my favourites is Peter L. Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. Bernstein goes into depth and he is a great storyteller. A lighter read on risk would be Chances Are… Adventures in Probability by Michael and Ellen Kaplan. On risk and catastrophe, there is Mark Buchanan’s enjoyable Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen. On simulating risk on the stage of theatre, there is my own The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Kingwell’s book, despite its title, really isn’t a primer on risk. It could have been more usefully called On Risk and Social Justice or something along those lines.

Finally, there was, to me, a contradiction within the book. One of Kingwell’s strategies to equalize opportunity in society is by implementing higher taxes, in particular, the estate or inheritance tax. That position itself is not controversial. But on every other page of his book, he lambasts the government. The response of the American government, for example, to the Covid crisis was like flying an airliner straight into the side of a mountain face in plain sight. Presidents of the United States are corrupt, lying, war-mongers. The electorate cannot tell up from down, voting for policies that harm everyone. Government relief programs are inefficient and nepotistic. The question I asked myself as I read his book was: if government is as bad as he claims, how could giving them more money help society?

Book Blurb

“Risk is theoretically neutral and indifferent,” writes Mark Kingwell, “an exercise of pure randomness. But as the 2020 pandemic has shown us, when natural forces meet social and cultural conditions, risk can get redistributed very fast.” With the new Covid-era focus on the risks of even leaving the safety of our homes, now is the time for deeper consideration. How should a society manage and distribute risk? If it can never be eliminated, can it be controlled? At the heart of these questions–which govern everything from waking up each day to the abstract mathematics of actuarial science–lie philosophical issues of life, death, and personal safety. Mortality is the event-horizon of daily risk. How should we conceive of it?

Arthur Blurb

Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, and has written for publications ranging from Adbusters and the New York Times to the Journal of Philosophy and Auto Racing Digest. Among his twenty books of political and cultural theory are the national best-sellers Better LivingThe World We Want, and Glenn Gould. In order to secure financing for their continued indulgence he has written about his various hobbies, including fishing, baseball, cocktails, and contemporary art. His most recent book is Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), which won the 2020 Erving Goffman Award for scholarship in media ecology.

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of THINKING, FAST AND SLOW – Daniel Kahneman

2011, Anchor, 499 pages

I predict time will be unkind to psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking, important, and misguided book. Having heard so many positive reviews of Thinking, Fast and Slow, I had expected to enjoy reading it. But it turns out I am quite allergic this book. Not since reviewing Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values has a book frustrated me to this degree. Do you remember doing math quizzes in grade school? Sometimes you would have some diabolical teacher that would put trick questions on the exams. Invariably, you would get some of these wrong. Then, when reviewing the error, at first you would wonder whether the marker was incorrect. Then, looking closer, you would see that it was a trick question, designed to fool. In many cases, you could have done the math. But you were fooled by a diabolical question designed to trip up your brain in the heat of the moment. Well, Kahneman’s book is filled up with trick questions him and fellow accomplice Amos Tversky dreamt up over the years. He presents leading questions that point you towards the incorrect answer. When you get the answer wrong, then he tells you your brain is not reacting rationally.

That the brain is irrational is an argument I accept. E. O. Wilson makes that claim in On Human Nature, a most excellent book. But the way Kahneman demonstrates the fallibility of the brain I absolutely disagree with in the same way as I disagreed with math teachers who set snares for students with trick questions. Who likes being fooled?

Less is More

Take this example that asks volunteers to price out two dinnerware sets. Set A has:

8 plates, good condition
8 soup bowls, good condition
8 desert plates, good condition
8 cups (6 in good condition and 2 broken)
8 saucers (1 in good condition and 7 broken)

Set B has:

8 plates, good condition
8 soup bowls, good condition
8 desert plates, good condition

When participants could see both sets, they valued, on average, Set A at $32 and Set B at $30. When participants were only shown one set–either Set A or Set B–they priced Set A, on average at $33 and Set B at $23. Kahneman (and Christopher Hsee, who came up with this experiment) call this the less is more effect, and, to them, it shows how the brain fails to handle probability. Their explanation is that, when participants could see both sets, they could see that Set A contains more good condition pieces than Set B. Therefore, they made the correct call and valued Set A at $32 and Set B at $30. However, when participants could only see one set, they would determine the price of the set by what the average price of the pieces. The set with intact pieces, therefore nets $33 while the set with the broken pieces nets $23, because the average value of the dishes, some of which are broken, is perceived to be lower.

To Kahneman and Hsee, the less is more effect illustrates the fallibility of the brain: if the eight cups and saucers (which include 7 pieces that are in good condition) are removed from Set A, Set A becomes worth more. To me, however, if I were shown Set A only, I would have also valued it at around $23 and if I were shown Set B only, I would have also valued it at around $33, and not because my brain is fallible (which it is), but because if I am shown in isolation a set of dinnerware with broken pieces, it makes me doubt the quality of the intact pieces! If, however, I can examine both sets, I can quickly see what the researchers are asking, which, to me, is: how much extra would I pay for 6 cups and 1 saucer. So, to me, this is not a case of the less is more effect, but rather the effect of the purchaser having less confidence in the quality of Set A because, out of 40 pieces, 9 are broken! This to me is a rather rational way of looking at Set A.

The Linda Problem

Imagine you are told this description of Linda:

Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.

After hearing the description, you are then asked:

Which alternative is more likely?
a) Linda is a bank teller, or
b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement

When asked this question, 90% of undergraduates chose “b,” although by the laws of probability, it is more likely that Linda is a bank teller rather than a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement. The reason for this is that there are more bank tellers than bank tellers who are also feminists. Kahneman takes this as conclusive evidence of “of the role of heuristics in judgment and of their incompatibility with logic. I have a problem with this.

I get that there must be more bank tellers than bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement: bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement are a subset of the total number of bank tellers, which must be greater. But if, in the description of Linda, you tell me that she is “deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice,” I am–if I were a participant in this study–going to try to cooperate with the questioners in anticipating what answer they want me to give. In this case, I would, even though I know that there are more bank tellers than feminist bank tellers, answer “a.” That I answered “a” is not, to me, conclusive evidence that my heuristics are incompatible with logic, as Kahneman argues. I was merely trying to be “helpful” by anticipating how the questioner wanted me to respond. And I was right: the questioner was trying to get me to say, “a.” Only, the questioner was not on my side and was deliberately trying to deceive me. No fair.

As Kahneman himself writes, without the questioner’s diabolical deception, participants could get this question right. Take this question:

Which alternative is more probable?
a) Mark has hair
b) Mark has blond hair

Participants have no problem getting the answer right. The answer is “a.” What I find insulting about the Linda Problem is that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The participant is trying to be helpful, not knowing the diabolical intentions of the questioner. And when the questioner deceives the participant, the questioner takes this to be proof of an impaired logical system in the brain. This adds insult to injury.

Consider also this scenario. Let’s say I am the questioner and that I am twenty-five pounds overweight. I go up to the questioner and ask: “Do you think I should lose some weight?” Let’s say the participant says: “You look great. No need for diet.” Would a smarty-pants psychologist look at this answer as proof that there is something wrong with the participant’s eyesight? I think, if the psychologist thought along the lines of Kahneman, the psychologist would say say yes, clearly there is an issue with the participant’s eyesight. But what I would say is that the participant is trying to be a nice person by anticipating the socially correct answer. There is something rational about saying the socially correct rather than the objectively correct answer as well, and I think Kahneman gives this point less consideration than I would have had.

The Hot Hand in Sports

On basketball, Kahneman debunks the idea of the hot hand:

Some years later, Amos and his students Tom Gilovich and Robert Vallone caused a stir with their study of misperceptions of randomness in basketball. The “fact” that players occasionally acquire a hot hand is generally accepted by players, coaches, and fans. The inference is irresistible: a player sinks three or four baskets in a row and you cannot help forming the causal judgment that this player is now hot, with a temporarily increased propensity to score. Players on both teams adapt to this judgment–teammates are more likely to pass to the hot scorer and the defense is more likely to double-team. Analysis of thousands of sequences of shots led to a disappointing conclusion: there is no such thing as a hot hand in professional basketball.

Kahneman explains the fallacy of the hot hand by a belief in what he calls the “law of small numbers,” the error that ascribes the law of large numbers to small numbers as well.” What that means is that three or four shots is too small a sampling size to demonstrate the presence of the hot hand.

Famed Boston Celtics coach, when he heard of the study, said: “Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I could care less.” I agree with him. Suppose you are coach of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. You are down two points with ten seconds on the clock. Michael Jordan has been on fire. Or at least he seems like he has the hot hand, having sunk his last five shots (some of which are high-percentage dunks). Dennis Rodman, on the other hand, is ice cold, having bricked his last five shots. Let’s say, to make this though experiment work, that Jordan and Rodman have the same field goal percentage. Who would you pass the ball to? Maybe “Team Psychology” would pass the ball to Rodman: he does not have the cold hand because such a thing does not exist. But the real-world team would pass the ball to Jordan. I think any coach who does not want to be fired or have the players revolt would pass the ball to Jordan. As they say, in theory there is nothing different between theory and practise, but in practise, there is.

Again, I understand what Kahneman is saying about small sample sizes. Small sample sizes can lead you awry. But what I have to say is this: in the absence of further data or more samples, you have to go with the data you have. That is the real world. In sports, you don’t have the luxury of looking at the player’s ten next shots to see if the player really has a hot hand. If the player seems to have a hot hand, you go with it.

Another objection I have to Kahneman’s debunking of the hot hand is that basketball players do, in real life, increase their field goal percentage. In his fourth year in the NBA, Shawne Williams, a player for the New York Knicks improved his 3-point field goal shooting percentage from 6 percent to 51 percent. If you knew him as a 6 percent shooter, and he hit three or four three-pointers in a row, and you dismissed his hot hand, well, you would be wrong: his field goal shooting percentage did actually move up from 6 percent to 51 percent! That year, he will seem to have had the hot hand and that hot hand is, statistically, real! As players hire shooting coaches and sports psychologists and move their shooting percentages higher, their hot hand will have been a real phenomenon. I don’t see how Kahneman and his friends could argue from a probabilistic and mathematical basis that sometimes players improve and, in the process of improvement, will have the hot hand.

Regression to the Mean

Air force cadets who do well one day will generally do worse the next day and cadets who do poorly one day will generally do better the next day. It is the same with golfers, claims Kahneman. This phenomenon is called the reversion or regression to the mean. Good performances will be balanced by poor performances so that, in the long term, the average is maintained.

Kahneman extends the phenomenon of the regression to the mean to companies: a business which did poorly last year, he claims, because of the regression to the mean, can be expected to do better the next year by the action of probability. Now, this idea can be tested in the stock market. There is a strategy called the “Dogs of the Dow” that works by arbitraging the regression to the mean. Each year, an investor buys the ten “dogs” or poorest performers in the thirty stock Dow Jones Industrials Index. At the beginning of each year, the investor sells the previous dogs and buys the dogs from the previous calendar year. If, as Kahneman claims, businesses obey the regression to the mean, by buying the poor performers, an investor should be able to do better than a buy-and-hold investor who holds all the stocks in the index.

This is not the case. With dividends reinvested, the twenty-year return in 2020 of the Dogs of the Dow strategy has returned 10.8%. Buying and holding all the Dow stocks for the same twenty year period would have also returned 10.8%. If Kahneman is correct about the regression to the mean, one would expect the Dogs of the Dow strategy to have produced a return in excess of 10.8%. It did not. There may be momentum effects at play where winners continue, despite probability, in producing outsized returns and losers, despite probability, produce diminished returns.

The regression to the mean is a real phenomenon. That I don’t doubt. But if Kahneman says it applies to businesses, it must be investable in real life. If it isn’t, then it’s just a fancy sounding term. You know, Kahneman might be right, that businesses revert to the mean. But he talks as though he is sure of the phenomenon without giving a real-world proof. Take the entire Japanese stock market, the Nikkei 225. It had a bad year in 1990. A very bad year. If I had listened to Kahneman, I would have backed up the truck to buy Japanese stocks in 1991. Now, almost thirty years later, the Nikkei is still below its 1991 levels. Regression to the mean?

Regression to the mean may be real, but not as easy as Kahneman puts it. There is a certain momentum in businesses and countries that defy regression to the mean for years, decades, and centuries. It strikes me that regression to the man works if you are looking backwards at the data. Say, after a century, you already know what the average is. You already have the data. Of course regression to the mean will work. But if you are looking forwards and do not have the data already, things change, trends emerge, industries fail: for example, when digital photography came into style, a company like Kodak is not going to revert to the mean! It will go bankrupt.

Prospect Theory

Prospect Theory is Kahneman’s feather in the cap. He won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory looks at how behaviour changes under the psychological loads of loss or gain. For example:

-In mixed gambles, where both a gain and a loss are possible, loss aversion causes extremely risk-averse choices.
-In bad choices, where a sure loss is compared to a larger loss that is merely probable, diminishing sensitivity causes risk seeking.

Prospect Theory explains why people buy insurance (even though it is an irrational practise that is money losing, in aggregate and in the long run), why people buy lottery tickets, why people pay lawyers too much to settle instead of fight it out in court (the large “structured settlements” industry), and the psychology that drove a con man like Bernie Madoff to seek more and more risk to avoid loss. To draw its conclusions, Kahneman would ask test participants questions such as:

Problem 1: Which do you choose?
Get $900 for sure OR 90% chance to get $1,000

Problem 2: Which do you choose?
Lose $900 for sure OR 90% chance to lose $1,000

His questions are designed to “tell us about the limits of human rationality. For one thing, it helps us see the logical consistency of Human preferences for what it is–a hopeless mirage.” I agree with Kahneman that human rationality is severely limited. Even free will, in my view, could be an illusion. E. O. Wilson, in a series of books including On Human Nature, has laid out an argument that convinces me of the limitations of the mind, which, Wilson argues, is a product of evolution conditioned to Stone Age rather than Space Age environments. Kahneman’s arguments fail to persuade me because his arguments presuppose that, should the participant confront the question in real life the participant would react in the same way as the participant answered the question, which, in the experiment, the participant knows is not real, is only a question in a study. That is a big jump that has been demonstrated conclusively to be false. There are, for example, ongoing litigations involving the “Know Your Client” (KYC) form that investment banks use. Financial advisors gauge their clients’ appetite or aversion to risk by asking them questions such as the ones Kahneman asks the participants in his studies. As it turns out, some clients said, on paper, that they had great appetite for risk. But when loss happened, they found that, in real life, this was not true. So they sued. Others said, on paper, that they had little risk tolerance. When, however, in real life, they saw how they missed the boat on outsized investment returns, they found out that they actually have a propensity for risk. And they sued. The Achilles’ heel of Prospect Theory is that Kahneman asks participants questions on paper and draws far-reaching conclusions on the assumption that this transfers over to real life. People do not behave the same way in real life as they do on paper. You cannot ask people paper questions and construct a real-world theory from their paper responses. No, no, no!

His method, in my eyes, would be like an anthropologist who polls different tribes. So, instead of observing what a tribe actually does, this anthropologist would give the tribespeople a poll. For example, the anthropologist would ask:

Problem 1: One year, your crop yield goes down 25% Would you:
a) attack the neighbouring tribe or
b) increase hunting activities

Then, if the participants answer “a,” this anthropologist would conclude that “the tribe is aggressive” or some other far reaching conclusion. But if the participants answer “b,” the anthropologist would conclude that the tribe is pacifist. This would be ludicrous. But this seems to be what Prospect Theory is based upon.

As they say, in theory, there is no difference between theory and practise but in practise, there is.

Government Spending

During the year that we spent working together in Vancouver, Richard Thaler, Jack Knetsch, and I were drawn into a study of fairness in economic transactions, partly because we were interested in the topic but also because we had an opportunity as well as an obligation to make up a new questionnaire every week. The Canadian government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans had a program for unemployed professionals in Toronto, who were paid to administer telephone surveys. The large team of interviewers worked every night and new questions were constantly needed to keep operations going. Though Jack Knetsch, we agreed to generate a questionnaire every week, in four color-labeled versions. We could ask about anything; the only constraint was that the questionnaire should include at least one mention of fish, to make it pertinent to the mission of the department. This went on for many months, and we treated ourselves to an orgy of data collection.

That Kahneman mentions this I find disturbing. From what I gather, times are tough. There are many unemployed. So then the Canadian government hires three top-gun economists (because purse strings must be tight), two of which are American (because Canadian economists do not need the work) to conduct surveys which are meaningless to the participants, the government, and Canadian citizens. The government, however, markets this program as being relevant to Canada’s fishing industry: after all, each question must involve the mention of a fish. Of course, after the brilliant economists get the data they want for their pet experiments, they publish this in a book and throw the Canadian government under the bus: the survey, they say, really helped them and had nothing to do with fisheries and oceans. They had gamed the taxpayer money for their own benefit. This so smacks of elitism. It also strikes me as being deeply ironic: the study they were working on was “fairness in economic transactions.” Yikes.

That he printed this makes me wonder if he understands the real world. He talks of Davos, the party place of the billionaires. He goes through his book like some hero-psychologist, looking at everyone else’s blind spots. He talk about how he mentions one story at Davos, and someone overhearing says “it was worth the whole trip to Davos just to hear that,” and that this person who said this “was a major CEO.” Wow. It would have been good if someone in another book had said that about Kahneman. But for him to say this about himself in his own book?

Spider-sense Tingles “Danger”

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book I had wanted very much to like. I had hoped to learn more about mental biases that would have been of use in the new book I’m writing on a theory of comedy. The more I read Thinking, Fast and Slow, however, the more my spider-sense was tingling “danger.” I voiced my disapproval of the book to friends and to my book club. People said: “You don’t like the book because you probably weren’t smart enough to answer his questions.” Other people said: “But he has won a Nobel Prize. Who are you to disagree?” It makes me laugh a little bit that people will say that I am irrational while themselves using ad hominem attacks, the rationality of which itself is doubtful.

I remember a story about two other Nobel Prize winners, also, like Kahneman, in the economics category. In 1997, Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton won the Nobel Prize in Economics. A few years prior, they had started up one of the largest hedge funds in the world, Long-Term Capital Management. While they were winning the Nobel Prize, a journalist looked into the workings of their hedge fund. He called them out for being overleveraged: with 4 billion in their own and investors’ capital, they had borrowed in excess of 120 billion. The journalist called them out for “picking up pennies in front of a bulldozer.” Scholes and Merton shot back: “Who are you to question us, lowly journalist? We are Nobel Prize winners.” A year later, Long-Term Capital Management collapsed, taking the global economic system itself to the brink of collapse. How the mighty are fallen.

Kahneman comes across as the hero-psychologist pointing out others’ errors. But I wonder if he ever looked at the beam in his own eyes? I did a quick search on Google for the robustness of psychological experiments, the sort that are published in respected peer-reviewed journals. I found that less than half of such studies can be replicated. What sort of “science” is this? It’s like if you had a theory of gravitation that was published in a leading journal such as Science that predicted the moon would be at this place on this time. You “proved” it once and published it. But no one else can replicate it. And your theory is still accepted as canon, not to be questioned? I wonder, down the road, how robust many of Kahneman’s findings will be. Time will tell.

2015 Reproducibility Project study finds only 39 out of 100 psychology experiments able to be replicated, even after extensive consultation with original authors:

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/science/many-social-science-findings-not-as-strong-as-claimed-study-says.html

2018 Reproducibility Project study finds that only 14 out of 28 classic psychology experiments are able to be replicated, even under ideal condition:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07474-y

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT – Erich Maria Remarque

1928, 2013, Random House, translated by A. W. Wheen, 222 pages

One of the duties of Nobel Prize winners is to write a Nobel Lecture. When singer-songwriter Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel in literature, he was on the road, on the “Never Ending Tour,” as he calls it. Musician and friend Patti Smith accepted the prize on his behalf in Stockholm where she also and sang his “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” It was not until June 2017 that Dylan had a chance to record his Nobel Lecture in a LA Studio accompanied by a piano in the distance. The recording is available on YouTube.

In his lecture, he talks about his songs and their relation to literature. He specifically brings up three pieces of literature: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Homer’s Odyssey, and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I’ve read Moby Dick and the Odyssey. I had heard of All Quiet on the Western Front, but had never read it. Dylan’s endorsement piqued my curiosity. There is so much to read, however, and sometimes decades pass before books on the reading list get attended to. A few months ago, however, it was my turn for book club suggestions. I presented three choices, one of which was All Quiet on the Western Front. Book club went for Remarque’s book. Now was my chance to read it. I’m glad I did.

Remarque’s book stands out for its directness. A bunch of kids are in a war where the world they love is getting blown apart. The strange thing, to them, is that they are doing the blowing up. Now, in between things and people getting blown up, you see human nature at work. Officers may abuse soldiers in training, but on the front lines, the jungle rules. The soldiers and officers who have the most miserable jobs in civilian life are the most power hungry in military life. Childhood friend Kemmerich is dying: who will get his boots? The poplar trees and the butterflies are always beautiful, especially when viewed from the trenches. Nature seems to keep going without any sense of loss from all the mounting casualties in the trenches. War is very body oriented: the dead make gurgling sounds, soldiers learn to go to the washroom together, bombs blow body parts everywhere. In today’s saccharine world, this book stands out. The veil of hope has been lifted. While reading this book, I thought I could understand, for a moment, why a soldier would want leave to end so that he could go back to the front, go into the trenches, and dive on that grenade to save his friends. The book gives you flashes of another way of living, flashes of how adaptable the will is. It is eye opening. Remarque himself fought in WWI and spent a year in a military hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds.

Dylan mentions All Quiet on the Western Front because it has influenced his writing, and the writings of others. He finds a link between the world of Remarque’s novel and some of the songs of Charlie Poole (1892-1931), one of which has this refrain:

I saw a sign in a window walking up town one day.
Join the army, see the world is what it had to say.
You’ll see exciting places with a jolly crew,
You’ll meet interesting people, and learn to kill them too.
Oh you ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talking to me.
I may be crazy and all that, but I got good sense you see.
You ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talkin’ to me.
Killin’ with a gun don’t sound like fun.
You ain’t talkin’ to me.

On the novel itself, Dylan has this to say. To him, All Quiet on the Western Front has worked his way into many of his songs because:

All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.

To Dylan, it was not so much the message of All Quiet on the Western Front–he doesn’t believe that literature, or his songs, for that matter have a “message”–but the vernacular and the language that appeals to him. In other words, Remarque has put together the story and the words in a convincing way. It sounds good. And because it sounds, good, it has influenced Dylan and made its way into his songs.

Dylan concludes that art is alive. Books were meant to be read. Plays were meant to be seen. His songs were meant to be heard. Though good books, plays, and songs sound good, they don’t mean anything, not in the sense that a psychoanalytic or structuralist critic would have them mean. There is a rift between the naive power of the artist and the analytic power of the interpreter. The artist is not looking for meaning, the interpreter is. The artist, to Dylan, hears, reads, and sees artistic stimuli everywhere. Without knowing why, the artist incorporates these stimuli into art, not for the sake of meaning, but for the sake that it has a good jingle, is a good story, provokes a memorable impression. Like Plato’s investigation of art (through his character Socrates), artists find it hard to explain their works because, in great art, there’s nothing to explain.

While there’s nothing to explain, there is something to experience in art. Art tells a story that impacts us in powerful ways. How All Quiet on the Western Front impacted Dylan was that it made him never again want to pick up another war novel. And he hasn’t. Art must be experienced, otherwise it loses its vigour. Art studied and analyzed isn’t real art anymore, according to Dylan. It’s like that violin that sits in a glass case in a museum. Sad. Or, in another analogy that comes to mind, art interpreted rather than experienced is like a martial arts form that is no longer used for combat. Tai Chi used to be a system of self-defence. But nowadays, it’s an exercise or meditation. It cannot be used for self-defence anymore because it has separated from its roots. Theatre read or lyrics spoken outside of the bars, concert halls, and live venues becomes to audiences what Tai Chi has become to its practitioners: form divorced from practise. To Dylan, that would be a shame.

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of ON HUMAN NATURE – Edward O. Wilson

1978, 2004 (with new preface), Harvard University Press, 282 pages

This book fills me with awe. Reading it gives me the sense that everything is possible, not just in science, but in my own field of dramatic literary theory. All that it takes for success is an idea, the conviction to pursue the idea, and the daring to continue when the world misinterprets and turns against you. In the 1950s, Wilson discovered how the social insects communicate with one another with (through pheromones or smell). In the 1970s, Wilson took what he had learned from insect behaviour, and applied it to vertebrate animals, including humans. Behaviour, he argued, is genetically determined. He created a new field called sociobiology, sometimes known as evolutionary psychology. For this endeavour, he was called out in many quarters. In the 1990s, he attempted to unite science with the humanities through the concept of consilience. In 2021, he is 91 years old and still active. His life and work inspire me. He has the fire.

On Human Nature inspired two book chapters that are coming out later this year. Wilson’s work on tribalism directly informed my essay: “Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes: A Patriot’s View of Patriotism.” Wilson’s work also indirectly influenced another essay: “Tragedy, Comedy, and Chance in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.” In this second essay, it was Wilson’s beautiful image of anastomosing paths and forks that inspired me. Wilson is as much a scientist as he is an artist. He writes with beauty.

Wilson’s book has also solved a long-standing mystery. I’ve been a fan of Nietzsche for a long time. One of the core ideas in his thinking is the “will to power.” To Nietzsche, the will to power is an unconscious drive that seeks to survive, and not only survive, but to assert control and dominion in the process of surviving. It is a life force. The feeling of strength. The fuse of life. In this post, I described it as a form of “appetite.” Jaspers, in his book-length critique of Nietzsche, threw me a sidewinder, however. Jaspers said that Nietzsche knew that he could not prove the will to power, and consequently abandoned his attempts to make it the centrepiece of a philosophical doctrine. Nietzsche had hypothesized that the will to power was the base human drive. Like other base human drives driving the other human drives, he could not demonstrate its existence. I was perplexed. After reading Wilson, I understood why: to demonstrate the will to power, Nietzsche needed a theory of sociobiology, a theory that said that human behaviours originated from something material such as the genes. The will to power, as a human behaviour, can, in the centuries to come, be demonstrated or falsified by science. It exists as a genetic imperative, or does not.

This insight filled me with tremendous awe. Even in my middle age, there are so many rudimentary ideas on things I have been thinking about my whole life I am only beginning to grasp. Amazing. This feeling of wonder and awe is what makes it all worthwhile.

Preface, 2004

On Human Nature offers a naturalistic view of human nature to compete with two views prevalent in the 1970s. The first competing view was from religion, which saw human nature as a creation of God, to be understood through the words of the prophets. The second competing view was from the behaviorists, who saw the mind as a blank slate to be molded by culture. Culture in turn is the learned response to environment. Wilson creates the field of sociobiology–also called evolutionary psychology–to test the hypothesis that the brain is biological in origin and structured by evolution through natural selection.

If Wilson is correct, human nature, instinct, and social behaviour have a biological basis grounded on thousands of millennia of evolution. Genetics and evolutionary theory, rather than learning, can explain behaviour:

In spite of the phylogenetic remoteness of vertebrates and insects and the basic distinction between their respective personal and impersonal systems of communication, these two groups of animals have evolved social behaviors that are similar in degree of complexity and convergent in many important details.

Sociobiology looks at how human behaviour is related to the social behaviours of all known social organisms, from bacteria and coelenterates through insects and vertebrates.

Preface

The point of this book is to demonstrate, writes Wilson, that the same principles that govern social insects can govern vertebrate animals. One theory can govern animal behaviour from termite colonies to troops of rhesus monkeys and human beings.

Chapter 1: Dilemma

To philosopher David Hume, the question of how the mind works, why it works one way and not another, and, from these considerations, the question of man’s ultimate nature is the question of questions. If mind is a biological device, then it is the process of natural selection that drives us to select religious or esthetic choices. Our ultimate nature is to promote the survival of our genes. First dilemma is that our biological nature directs our goals, dreams, and ambitions. Religions and secular religions such as Marxism are enabling mechanisms for survival. They are a legislated escape from the consequences of human nature but are energized by the will to self-aggrandizement. Result of the first dilemma: once we solve the problems of our age, then what? Ennui follows.

Second dilemma is that our ethical premises are based on innate censors and motivators in our brain. Morality evolved as an instinct. Philosophers make definitive statements without this evolutionary perspective: this is a mistake. Science can encroach on the humanities. Take John Rawls and A Theory of Justice. He understands that the liberties of equal citizenship are settled. The function of the state is to ensure the equal distribution of resources. Then look at Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He begins as well by asserting human liberties. But then he suggests a meritocracy: the function of the state is minimal, only to enforce law and order. Unequal distribution is alright. Who is right? Without an understanding of the biological basis of human nature, it is hard to decide. Philosophy must be combined with biology.

Each discipline is antidiscipline to another discipline. Chemistry is antidiscipline to biology. Chemists view that biology must be reducible to the laws of chemistry while biologists view their investigations as too complex to be reduced to an atomic viewpoint. In the struggle for supremacy between discipline and antidiscipline, scientific materialism progresses.

The scientific viewpoint is not completely reductionist, however. In more complex interactions, emergent phenomena take place that cannot be explained by the underlying antidiscipline. Take haplodiploidy. In haplodiploidy, females choose the sex of the offspring. Because of this selection process, the insects which engage in haplodiploidy–wasps, bees, and ants–evolved the emergent phenomenon of complex social structures. Science, therefore, is not a danger to the humanities, but another tool to be used by the humanities in grappling with the question of human nature.

Chapter 2: Heredity

To develop and justify ways to structure human life, philosophers and social scientists have conducted thought experiments to see how man behaved without the trappings of culture. Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have all developed social models based on their mental reconstructions of hunter-gatherer life. Their models are mistaken because they did not take science into account.

Take incest taboos, for example. Anthropologists have built theories that find incest taboos exist because, without them, the integrity of the family unit would be broken. Other anthropologists, following Claude Lévi-Strauss, find that incest taboos facilitate the exchange of women between social groups. Sociobiology, grounded on science, finds that incest taboos exist because it is a behaviour bred into the genes of human behaviour. Incest produces inferior offspring. Humans who did not have the incest taboo were less successful at passing on their genes as humans who did have the incest taboo. That the incest taboo is an inherited behaviour can be seen in the kibbutz arrangement of living: despite a lack of pressure from parents, children who have grown up together up to the age of six will not marry one another.

Sociobiology is defined by Wilson as a meeting between ethology, psychology, and biology. It considers behaviour to be encoded into the genes. As a result, humans, in the building of culture, are not unique. We are much like colony forming invertebrates (e.g. coral, bryozoans), social insects (termites, wasps, bees, ants), and social fish, birds, and mammals. Sociobiologists look at humanity as through a telescope and consider behaviour to arise from the interaction between genes and the environment. Human behaviour is shaped by natural selection and is not unique. It is no longer possible to say only human behaviour is symbolic behaviour; chimpanzees can also use symbolic language.

While proponents of culture argue that, for the last 5000 years (since the rise of civilization), culture rather than genetics has determined human behaviour, Wilson points out culture can only bend biology so far. Things would go badly quickly, for example, if culture prescribed that humans lived like apes or ants. Humans, for example, have the following characteristics that are irrevocable: “Age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, etc.,” while ants exhibit the following behaviours: “Age-grading, antennal rites, body licking, calendar, cannibalism, caste determination, caste laws, colony-foundation rules, communal nurseries, etc.,” Wilson’s bottom line is that culture moves between the parameters set by genetics. Culture can prescribe unhuman behaviour, but it will be short lived. Biology is destiny.

Chapter 3: Development

In the debunked theory of humorism, human nature is seen as the outcome of the balance between the four humours of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. In sociobiology, human nature is seen as the outcome of the balance between more than 250 thousand pairs of genes. Genetic determinism is the new phrase of sociobiology.

Geneticist Conrad H. Waddington has an image of how genes develop into behavior. Each human trait, whether mental or physical, is like a boulder rolling down from the highlands to the sea. On the way down are many anastomosing channels that fork. Genes make some of the channels deeper, others narrower. Some channels are available, others are not. The final outcome of where the boulder or ball lands is only statistically predictable.

We like to think of human learning as infinite. Biology, however, tells us that our learning potential is programmed by the structure of the brain: we are allowed to learn some things, but not other things. An example: when a chick is given an electric shock on the beak and shown a flash of light, the chick will avoid the flash of light in the future. When a chick, however, is given an electric shock on the beak and hears a clicking sound at the same time, the chick will not avoid the clicking sound in the future. This same chick, if given an electric shock on the foot and a clicking sound, will avoid the clicking sound in the future. But, if given an electric shock on the foot and a flash of light, will not avoid the flash of light in the future. The chick’s brain tells the chick: learn the things that you can see that affect your head and the things that you can hear that affect your feet. Humans are more advanced than chicks, but our ability is not limitless.

Chapter 4: Emergence

Free will may be delusion. A honeybee, in a life of 50 days, thinks it has free will by learning the time of day, the location of the hive, the location of up to five fields, and the odour of its nestmates. But in doing all these things, it is only carrying out its genetic imperative. The human brain, even though “an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern,” can only do what it has been programmed to do. In future years, the paradox of freedom and free will will be solved as an empirical problem by biologists and physicists.

Wilson uses the failure of slavery to demonstrate the triumph of human biology. In insect societies–such as the red Polyergus ants–slavery is a permanent fixture. Humans, however, resist slavery so that slave societies always come to an end. Unlike the ants, humans lack a biological basis for slavery. Slavery is imposed on human beings as part of culture. Culture, however, can only overcome biology for so long before biology reasserts itself.

Further evidence of a biological basis for culture can be seen in the rise of the different civilizations: Rome, Sumer, Mesoamerica, etc., All civilizations follow a template of development from ad hoc ritual, and local group autonomy through to craft specialization and elite endogamy to codified law and taxation. Wilson suggests the template of development is due to culture and civilization refining biology through a process of an intense hypertrophy biologically meaningful institutions of hunter-gatherer bands.

Chapter 5: Aggression

This is the first of four chapters looking at a human behaviour through a sociobiological lens. Wilson finds that theoreticians who find that culture–and not the genes–is to blame for aggression are mistaken. By looking at human beings through the principles of animal ecology, a form of studies usually reserved for lower animals, it appears that the best way to human aggression as a mix of chemicals preexisting in the human mind that, mixed with the appropriate spark, will burn. This sociobiological view of aggression differs from other models of aggression such as the “drive-discharge” model of Freud and Lorenz or the “learned anger” model of blank-slate behaviourists.

Just because a trait fails to develop in a specific environment does not mean the trait is not intrinsic to a species. In other words, that a handful of tribes are pacifist does not mean that human beings are not innately aggressive. The right environmental trigger must be present to activate human aggression, which can take many forms. Wilson uses the simpler example of the rattlesnake to demonstrate different types of rattlesnake aggression that only occur when triggered by the environment. Rattlesnakes, when going after prey, will bite them and kill them. But when male rattlesnakes compete with one another over a female, they will wrestle, but not bite one another, even though their venom would be lethal. At other times, when the rattlesnake may be in danger, it will take on a different form of aggression by moving its head to the centre of the coil in striking position, and shaking its rattle. Then again, when a rattlesnake encounters a king snake or another predator that specializes in killing snakes, the rattlesnake will coil, cover its head, and bat the intruder with one of its coils. Human beings are the same, writes Wilson. They will become aggressive when confronted with the appropriate situation.

Wilson goes on to examine a particular aspect of human aggression associated with territorial behaviour. He finds that, if humans inhabit an arid land where game and plant food are poor, society will remain nomadic. No bands or villages form. No concept of land ownership develops. Territorial aggression is absent. The Western Shoshoni living in the Great Basin is an example of this. In contrast, however, the Owens Valley Paiute occupied a fertile land full of game and plant food. Here, the territory is worth defending, and the people living here organized into villages and bands. Social and religious sanctions rose up to justify territorial aggression.

Wilson finds that, although the genes encode aggression, the conscious mind never experiences the raw biological process. In territorial aggression, for example, the conscious mind does not process interference competition, density dependence, or human and animal demography. The raw biological process, however, manifests itself through the creation of social and religious customs which justify the raw biological drive of aggression.

Chapter 6: Sex

This is the second of four chapters looking at a human behaviour through a sociobiological lens.  Why has sex evolved if it can be made private, direct, safe, energetically cheap, and selfish? Nature’s point of sex, argues Wilson, is to create diversity and a division of labour. Diversity is achieved through sex because each offspring only shares half of the genes of each of the creating organisms. Division of labour is achieved when one of the sexes specializes in producing sperm and the other the egg. Wilson speculates that, from this primal division of labour, secondary traits emerged such as sexual bonding and family stability which gave homo sapiens a Darwinian advantage. Secondary or tertiary divisions of labour may be seen in both modern societies and living hunter-gatherer societies. As typical, Wilson emphasizes the biological and evolutionary differences in sex over cultural differences: in sociobiological theory, culture may only move between the imperatives laid down by biology.

Wilson cites evidence of genetic differences in male and female behaviour in contemporary society while admitting that such differences (though he believes unlikely) may be cultural. His strongest argument is the evidence from the accidental birth of hormone-induced hermaphrodites in the 1950s. In the 1950s, women were often given progestins, a substance that mimics male hormones, to prevent miscarriage. The hermaphrodites born to some of these women are genetically female with female internal sex organs. These hermaphrodites were also raised in the normal manner that girls were raised. Subsequent studies of these progestin-altered girls reveal that they often displayed dissatisfaction with being assigned a female role and preferred toy guns to dolls. Wilson takes this as the best evidence he can find that male and female behaviour have a biological rather than a cultural origin.

Wilson finds that human beings are connoisseurs of sexual pleasure not for the sake of reproduction, but for the sake of bonding. Bonding, to Wilson, is a trait that gives humans an evolutionary leg up. Natural-law theory and the church, which see sex as strictly a tool of procreation, is incorrect. To argue that sex is for the sake of bonding, Wilson presents a “kin-selection” hypothesis to explain homosexuality in the context of sociobiology. He postulates that the behaviour of homosexuality has a biological basis as it is practised by insects to mammals, with 4 percent of men identifying as exclusively homosexual and 13 percent of men being predominantly homosexual for a portion of their lives. Homosexuality, argues Wilson, is a type of bonding that favours the surrounding kin. Homosexuals expend their energies supporting their kin group. Shamans, seers, artists, and similar have been observed to perform this role. Kin groups, therefore, with homosexual individuals had an evolutionary advantage over kin groups without homosexual specialists. Wilson notes that this kin-selection hypothesis is quite radical.

Chapter 7: Altruism

Altruism or compassion is Wilson’s third chapter on the sociobiological basis of human emotions. Robins, chimpanzees, and other animals display the behaviour of altruism that is the glue of society. Only insects, however, will perform heroic feats of altruistic suicide that is often performed by soldiers in war. While the form and content of human altruism is largely determined by culture, the underlying emotion is evolved through genes. Wilson proposes two types of altruism: “hard-core” altruism which is irrational, directed towards the kin group, and expects nothing in return and “soft-core” altruism which is calculating, expects a return, and, ultimately, selfish.

In honey bees and termites, hard-core altruism prevails. But, if hard-core altruism were to prevail in human societies, civilization could not develop: people would favour kin and tribe to too large a degree. Hard-core altruism is inimical to larger society. For social harmony and homeostasis, soft-core altruism is required. Wilson argues that the closest we can come to a controlled experiment on where human altruism lies on the spectrum between hard- and soft-core is by observing immigrating ethnic groups under stress. Studies of Chinese and Jewish immigrations suggest that: 1) when historical circumstances bring race, class, and ethnic membership into conflict, the individual manoeuvres to achieve the least amount of conflict, 2) during these conflicts, an individual considers his own interests over others, and 3) kin, racial, or ethnic interests may prevail temporarily, but in the long run it is socioeconomic interests that dictate action.

The behaviour of altruism, concludes Wilson, though linked to morality and inscribed into moral codes, is a genetic phenomenon. Though culture can prescribe higher ethical values, culture is on the long rein of biology. Altruism, at bottom, is part of a circuitous process created by evolution to keep genetic material intact and to pass genetic material on to new generations. “Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function,” says Wilson as he ends the chapter.

Chapter 8: Religion

Religion is Wilson’s fourth chapter on the sociological basis of human behaviours. Religion to Wilson is an ineradicable part of human behaviour. Even though religion loses out in its confrontations with the enlightenment and scientific materialism, it offers a hope in immortality and an everlasting kingdom that nothing else can offer. From at least 60,000 years ago to the first Neanderthal burial rites, humans have created in the order of 100,000 different religions.

That religion is a sociobiological phenomenon may be seen in Nietzsche’s quote that people would rather believe in the void than be void of purpose. Groups predisposed to religious belief may have a better chance of survival as religion is the process whereby an individual is persuaded to subordinate self for group interest. Religious ceremonies such as the potlatch are conspicuous displays in which leaders can advertise wealth and mobilize kin groups.

Humans today are still ruled by myth. The three primary myths in conflict in this day and age, writes Wilson are: traditional religion, scientific materialism, and Marxism. Although Marxism sees itself as a branch of scientific materialism, sociobiology would disagree. The Marxist perception of history as a class struggle whereby lightly governed workers would control the means of production is supposed to be based on a subtle understanding of the pure economic process. It is incorrect. It is based on a mistaken view of human nature. Wilson declares that Marxism is sociobiology without the biology. Although Marxism was founded to combat ignorance and superstition, in denying the biological basis of human nature and asserting too much credit to culture, Marxism is itself, in the end, a form of superstition. Wilson finds that, on account of this, traditional religion will outlast Marxism.

Chapter 9: Hope

Biology, neurobiology, and sociobiology are the antidisciplines to the social sciences. The failure of social sciences great models (Marxism, rationalist economics, etc.,) is because they had an insufficient knowledge of human nature. The way to understand human nature is through biology. The great myth of scientific materialism is evolution and the pinnacle of evolution is the human brain.

Human values must be understood through their phylogenetic development through evolution.  What we may value as our highest ideals may not be the ideals of other organisms: ants, for example, would view individual freedom as a great evil.

Since behaviour is based in genetics, with the unlocking of genetics, it will be possible one day to change human nature itself. We will be able to become more or less smart, more or less caring, more or less artistic, more or less selfish. So far, natural evolution keeps human nature in a homeostasis. Soon we can evolve our own human natures. Will we continue to build space age cultures from stone age behavious? Or will we give ourselves new space age behaviours to suit space age society? These are all the worthwhile questions to ask.

Book Blurb

In his new preface, E. O. Wilson reflects on how he came to write this book, how The Insect Societies led him to write Sociobiology, and how the political and religious uproar that engulfed that book persuaded him to write another book that would better explain the relevance of biology to the understanding of human behavior.

Author Blurb

Edward O. Wilson is Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard University. In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes (one of which he shares with Bert Hölldobler), Wilson has won many scientific awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He is the author of many books, including Pheidole in the New World: A Dominant, Hyperdiverse Ant Genus.

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Review of Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity – Karl Jaspers

1936, English translation 1965, Johns Hopkins UP, trans. Charles F. Wallraff and Frederick J. Schmitz, 509 pages
Originally published as Nietzsche: Einführung in das Verständnis seines Philosophierens

Reading this book is a serious undertaking. It’s a book about a philosopher (Nietzsche) by a philosopher (Jaspers, one of the founders of existentialism). It is well-researched, covering Nietzsche’s published materials, unpublished fragments, and letters. In this work, Jaspers reveals the ties between Nietzsche the man and Nietzsche the philosopher. From Nietzsche’s correspondences with musician Peter Gast, theologian Franz Overbeck, classicist Erwin Rohde, his mother, his sister, and others, Jaspers paints a portrait of a lonely individual, somewhat timid, a social misfit, yet extraordinarily polite, and, above all, one bound by the consuming idea of his task: the revaluation of all values.

To Jaspers, Nietzsche’s solitude was a function of the importance Nietzsche attributed to his task of revaluing values, and how his contemporaries could not come along with him: for them, to succeed in the world, they had to also subscribe to morality, Christianity, the idea of Germany, marriage, political correctness, having the right friends, and holding the right views–even if all these notions were based on false values. Some could watch Nietzsche railing against these false values. But it was painful watching him destroy his career. Even though some could watch, no one could come with him. He had to go it alone. Perhaps his friends who watched from a distance were right. When Nietzsche collapsed in 1889, he was nobody and many of his friends were important somebodies. As Jaspers recounts, Nietzsche was self-publishing his books. There were no readers. He was admitted to the Basel asylum as a civilian, denied access to any special treatment or services. The tables have turned now, as many of the somebodies of Nietzsche’s time are only today remembered in their connection with Nietzsche.

In the revaluation of all values, Nietzsche turns the world on its head, much like how Christianity turned the Roman world and values on its head with its “first shall be the last and the last shall be the first” credo. In place of the soul, Nietzsche gives us the will to power. In place of God, Nietzsche gives us the superman. And in place of metaphysics, Nietzsche gives us the eternal recurrence. The will to power is the will to live dangerously, the will that yes “Yes.” The eternal recurrence is the sense of déjà vu, except with a much more badass name. And the superman is the individual who, with the highest form of the will to power, can say yes and affirm all of existence, both its best moments and its darkest. The superman is the individual with an appetite for life. Here I wrote a piece in an honest jest of Freddie Mercury as a modern-day superman.

Jasper’s book, lovingly written, but not to the point of worship–for example, while extolling Nietzsche’s breathtaking insights, singles him out for the crudity of his logical forms and method–is easier to read than Nietzsche himself. But it can be a tough slog for lay readers. The nice thing, however, is that Jaspers quotes so much of Nietzsche that it is a pleasure to read. Nietzsche–as Nietzsche himself described–is, along with Heinrich Heine, the best of the German stylists. His turns of phrases–whether one understands them or not–are beautiful to read. Take for example this turn of words where he talks about his process of overcoming: “Shake me together with all the tears and all the misery of mankind, and I must always rise to the top, like oil on water.” His images are powerful because they are full of action. What is more, his images and aphorisms are fascinating because they’re the sort of things I wish that I could write but know I can’t. There’s something uncanny in how he sees the world. Like how he describes his favourite philosopher (the pre-Socratic Heraclitus), there is, too, in Nietzsche, “a gap in his nature.”

For All His Power, Nietzsche Could Not Foresee His Own Demise

In 1881, while walking through the forest by Lake Silvaplana, the idea of the eternal recurrence came to Nietzsche. In 1883, the idea of the superman and the will to power dawned on him, and he recorded the discovery in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In 1888, he was overjoyed, feeling the task of merging these three concepts into a grand unified philosophy close at hand. By merging metaphysics with mysticism, he would overcome nihilism. God is dead; long live the superman. But there was a problem: Nietzsche realized the eternal recurrence may be indefensible and the will to power unprovable. To put the plug in nihilism, he would have to demonstrate the mechanism through which the eternal recurrence recurred and establish why nature would will to power.

Jaspers recounts some of Nietzsche’s joyous letters of 1888, that great year, but not great in the sense that Nietzsche foresaw. Nietzsche felt himself close to that secret of the grand unification. Glimpses of the solution were coming to him. Soon, he would grasp the whole:

But the decisive symptom of the new condition is a euphoria which appears only occasionally in the course of the year but is constant during the last months. This tone is softly heard first in letters to Seydlitz (Febr. 12, ’88): “The days here come along with an impudent beauty; there never was a more perfect winter.” To Gast he writes (Sept. 27, ’88): “Marvelous clarity, autumnal colors, an exquisite feeling of well-being on all things.” Later on: “I am now the most grateful person in the world–of an autumnal mood in every good sense of the word: this is my great harvest time. Everything is easy for me, everything turns out well for me.” “I am now of the absolute conviction that all has turned out well, from the very beginning; all is one and has one purpose” (to Gast, Dec. 22, ’88).

For all his powers of insight, little did he know, he would come to harvest his sorrows. Less than two weeks after his December 22nd letter to Gast, he would collapse into an insanity from which he would never emerge, dying of pneumonia twelve years later.

It fills me with wonder, how faraway so close he was. And I wonder how many of us too will be struck down, faraway so close to fulfilling our task.

What Nietzsche Can Do for You

There’s so much to read these days. Why should you read Nietzsche, or, for that matter, read Jaspers reading Nietzsche? Like no other writer, Nietzsche inspires. One of the best things about Jaspers’ book are the glimpses of how Nietzsche’s contemporaries saw him through their correspondences. From the letters and correspondences, you can see how Nietzsche inspires even the greatest minds. In Nietzsche, they see the traveler, going it alone, ascending the most dangerous peaks. In that moment, how could they not be filled with awe and wonder? Here, for example, is Erwin Rohde, one of the preeminent classicists (or Altphilologen as they are called in Germany) of the nineteenth century, and author of Psyche (still in print today) writing to Nietzsche. They became acquainted while studying under Friedrich Ritschl, one of the gods of philology:

“To me it seems at times like a defection that I am unable to join you in fishing for pearls in those ocean depths and must instead amuse myself and take a childish delight in gudgeons and other philological vermin” (Dec. 22, ’71). “And so I feel again as I always did when I was together with you: for a while I am elevated into a higher rank, as though I were spiritually ennobled” (Dec. 22, ’79).

When one reads Nietzsche, one is filled with the radiance of life and possibility. Perhaps it is because Nietzsche was constantly striving to rise out of the pit of nihilism that one descends into once God is dead that he charges his writing with an infectious purpose and drive that touches all his readers. It was the case with me. Nietzsche was that distant star that I have followed for so long. If you are looking for your calling, read Nietzsche. Your destiny will beckon. Whether you can follow is another question.

I first encountered Nietzsche in my early teens through his book: The Birth of Tragedy. In that book, he said things like: “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world can be eternally justified.” Imagine the effect of this on a teen who was used to reading Hardy Boys novels and watching He-Man cartoons. Nietzsche, compared with everyone else, spoke with such immortal purpose. I was hooked. I decided that I too, would write a theory of tragedy, which, after reading Nietzsche, seemed the highest of all human endeavours.

To prepare myself for the task, I enrolled in Greek and Roman Studies: Nietzsche, before the classicists threw him out and the philosophers welcomed him, had started out as a classicist. At UVic I studied under Laurel Bowman, and at Brown, under Charles Fornara and David Konstan. Because Nietzsche was also published in a peer-reviewed journal as an undergraduate, I thought I would do the same, and wrote an article on fate and free will in Homer’s Iliad. Then, later, after two failed attempts, I succeeded in combining probability theory with literary theory and produced a new theory of tragedy based on risk as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Finally, to take my theory from page to stage, I inaugurated the world’s largest playwriting competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year.

All this from a spark that shot off the embers of Nietzsche’s thought. It has been a whole life of inspiration. I promise you too, that you will be inspired if you read Nietzsche. Is that a good enough reason to pick up Nietzsche over some other writer?

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Author Blurb

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), a founder of existentialism, studied law and medicine at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and received his M.D. degree in 1909. He taught psychiatry and philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, and philosophy at the University of Switzerland. His books include General Psychopathology, also available in paperback from Johns Hopkins.

Book Blurb

Nietzsche claimed to be a philosopher of the future, but he was appropriated as a philosopher of Nazism. His work inspired a long study by Martin Heidegger and essays by a host of lesser disciples attached to the Third Reich. In 1935, however, Karl Jaspers set out to “marshall against the National Socialists the world of thought of the man they had proclaimed as their own philosopher.” The year after Nietzsche was published, Jaspers was discharged from his professorship at Heidelberg University by order of the Nazi leadership. Unlike the ideologues, Jaspers does not selectively cite Nietzsche’s work to reinforce already held opinions. Instead, he presents Nietzsche as a complex, wide-ranging philosopher–extraordinary not only because he foresaw all the monstrosities of the twentieth century but also because he saw through them.

Review of THE ILIAD OR THE POEM OF FORCE – Simone Weil

pages 182-215 in Simone Weil: An Anthology, trans. Mary McCarthy, ed. Sian Miles, Penguin, 2005

The Classics

In the Greek and Roman studies, I had two loves: Homer’s Iliad and tragedy, particularly those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. I admired the Iliad for Homer’s look of distance. He tells the story of a great war. Each of the combatants realizes the war is a zero-sum game ending in death, yet they persevere. The point?–to exchange the commodity of honour on the battlefield by killing, or being killed. The purpose of such a life?–to become immortal, become an object of song for future generations of singers to sing. The funny thing is by dying they succeeded.  I admired Aeschylus and Sophocles’ tragedies for a similar reason. Though their protagonists suffer terribly, they understand suffering to be a natural part of existence. There was never a need to explain suffering away. We are not gods. Therefore, we suffer, and terribly. Attempts to justify suffering and evil seemed to me contrived. In Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, I found a beguiling theodicy: suffering and misery transform mortals into immortals. We are not remembered for our happiness.

In my student days up to the present day, I would read all the secondary material on epic and tragedy. In later years, I would be fortunate enough to add to the material myself: a new theory of tragedy based on risk and an article on fate and free will in epic. From time to time–not often, but often enough–the footnotes and bibliographies in this secondary material would mention an essay with a most curious name: L’Iliade ou le poème de la force (The Iliad or The Poem of Force). At the time, I never sought it out to read, but the name haunted me. What did Simone Weil mean by ‘poem of force’? So intriguing…

The idea of force fascinates me, and many others. Nietzsche turned force into a fundamental drive behind all other drives in his will to power. Bob Dylan devoted an album–Love and Theft–to examining force and power. Rush did the same in their album Power Windows. Last month, I ran into another article mentioning Weil’s The Iliad or The Poem of Force. It was time. I ordered a copy of a Penguin anthology of her works. I’m glad I did.

When Writing about Force, One Must Have Force

One of my complaints in the classics was that I’d read or hear so many people without force talking about some the most forceful personalities the world has known. I remember one time there was a presentation on Caesar. It was delivered in this monotone and uninterested voice, completely devoid of passion. I remember wondering why someone would study and research Caesar who was so devoid of the spirit of Caesar. The eye sees the sun because it has in it that spark that is the sun’s fire. How can one see Caesar who doesn’t have in their eye the gleam of fire lighting up Caesar’s eye? Reading Weil, there was no danger of this. From the first sentence, force permeates her essay. Her concentration of power is amazing. To read Weil is to be in the presence of greatness. Consider her opening paragraph:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as a historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very centre of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.

In a tripartite construction (hero…subject…centre), the first sentence boldly announces force is the protagonist in the Iliad. It is not Achilles. It is not war. It is not rage. It is force. There is no buildup to this discovery. It is stated point-blank in one sentence, and the opening sentence. The second sentence, in another tripartite structure, provides examples of force. The language is direct and ornate at the same time. Then the third sentence slips into the passive voice, a construction frowned upon by writing experts who prefer the active voice, the voice of doing rather than being done to. In the third sentence the human spirit is ‘shown to be modified’. But here too, there is a reason. The passive voice shows the overpowering force of force over the human spirit, which, in the passive construction, is being held in thrall. The passive construction highlights the helplessness of the human agent in the face of force. Brilliant. Then the concluding couplet: ‘For those dreamers…’ and ‘For others, who powers of recognition are more acute…’. In the closing couplet, Weil makes it plain that she is aware that there is another way to look at the work, an opposing reading. She also makes it clear, in most forceful language, where she stands. Force, for those with the eyes to see, is the eternal mover upon which a philosophy of history can be built. She died, I think, too young to fulfil her destiny. Who has the greatness to take her up where she left off? Do such people still exist today?

Her power blew me away. On my first reading of The Iliad or the Poem of Force, I had been working on a paper. Reading her essay made me throw my paper out and start anew. It was embarrassing how she could say in hundreds of characters what I needed hundreds of words to make clear. It is seldom that I encounter such a powerhouse. The last encounter I had with greatness of the highest level was five years ago reading Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience.

Force is Simplicity

Though the essay is short, Weil picks her examples for maximum effect. Her familiarity with the Iliad comes through in how effortlessly she comes up with the perfect example to describe each of the faces of force. To Weil, a religious-anarchist thinker, force is the motivating power shaping history. She once told Trotsky once that he was mistaken. It was not class struggle, but force that would decide the future. I’m also reading Karl Jasper’s critique of Nietzsche right now, and I can’t help but wonder if Weil was familiar with Nietzsche’s will to power. For Nietzsche, the will to power was the underlying drive. For Weil, however, force is something that comes and goes. It is with us one moment, and gone the next:

Still more poignant–so painful is the contrast–is the sudden evocation, as quickly rubbed out, of another world: the faraway, precarious, touching world of peace, of the family, the world in which each man counts more than anything else to those about him:

“She ordered her bright-haired maids in the palace
To place on the fire a large tripod, preparing
A hot bath for Hector, returning from battle.
Foolish woman! Already he lay, far from hot baths,
Slain by grey-eyed Athena, who guided Achilles’ arm.”

Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man. And not he alone. Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.

Weil accomplishes so much with so little. So too Homer. Andromache pour Hector a bath. We don’t know what’s going through her mind. Then the narrator interjects: Hector’s already dead. The effect is not unlike something Dylan pulled off more recently in ‘Cross the Green Mountain:

A letter to mother came today
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon he’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.

Both poets step back and let the readers weigh the human impact of death. Weil’s genius is in her short turn of phrase ‘then as now’. It is a poignant reminder that she is critiquing a poem of war during a time of war–the first year of the Second World War. When the world gives you force, it is a good time to examine force.

Why We Read the Greats

Weil doesn’t make for the easiest reading. So why read Weil? It’s worth it reading the greats because they can give you insight into unrelated problems you’re working on that you can’t think through. The greats have a different perspective. Whether you agree or not, to follow along their argument, your mind is working on a different pitch, sometimes just trying to keep up and other times contorting itself to unravel the strange intellectual knots. As the mind goes through these motions, sometimes it can catch a glimpse of something else that it’s been working on from this new angle, and from this new angle, find a breakthrough.

One of my interests has been the relation between fate and chance. In a paradoxical way, they seemed to me to be two sides of the same coin. Fate is chance with the benefit of hindsight (thank you AB for that catchy turn of phrase). I’ve been writing about how chance and fate are intertwined in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I hadn’t, however, figured out how chance and fate in the Iliad was intertwined. I had a feeling it might be, because, to me, chance and fate is invariably linked in tragedy, and, the Iliad, although classified as epic, is also understood by some–including Plato–to be the prototypical tragedy. But, the Iliad thus far had defeated my attempts to unify the two forces of chance and fate. They just seemed too far apart. In the Iliad it was like how Weil described: force is the ruling power, and determinate force could allow no room for chance to function. Even in Patroclus’ funeral games, where several of the contestants slip, the slip is shown not to be accidental (e.g. by chance) but is, to those in the know, caused by the gods.

While I was reading Weil, part of my brain must have been thinking about chance and fate. But her writing was making me think hard, and when she quoted this passage, the answer came to me:

Even to Achilles the moment comes; he too must shake and stammer with fear, though it is a river that has this effect on him, not a man. But, with the exception of Achilles, every man in the Iliad tastes a moment of defeat in battle. Victory is less a matter of valour than of blind destiny, which is symbolized in the poem by Zeus’s golden scales:

“Then Zeus the father took his golden scales,
In them he put the two fates of death that cuts down all men,
One for the Trojans, tamers of horses, one for the bronze-sheathed Greeks.
He seized the scales by the middle; it was the fatal day of Greece that sank.”

By its very blindness, destiny establishes a kind of justice.

In a flash it came to me: Zeus may have rolled dice to determine the fates of the Greeks and the Trojans. Chance and fate in the Iliad are intertwined as well. Even though I’ve known the passage with Zeus and his scales for a long time, I needed to read Weil to think it through. It must have been her words bringing together “blindness” and “destiny.” It’s moments like this that make reading the greats worthwhile.

The Loveliest of Mirrors

The Iliad is a poem of force. Force makes all those who fall under its dominion things. But the Iliad is beautiful because, in the process of becoming a thing, the people of the Iliad remember friendships, think of moms and dads faraway, and contemplate what life that could have been. Despite the go-fever of war, every so often, they recover the soul. There is a spattering of these precious moments, moments where the war-machine Achilles and Priam, the king of kings, come together to cry, Achilles for the father whose son he has slain and Priam for his son who Achilles has slain. And that, to Weil, is what makes the Iliad that poem the poems among.

In Weil’s own time, factories and war too would sap the soul and turn people into things. But Weil too in her own time would see souls, for an instant, break free of force. And in these moments, she would see again Andromache drawing a bath for Hector, already dead. And in these moments, I am sure, she was drawn back to all that is the Iliad, the loveliest of mirrors. We are the creatures of force, yet, in that great moment, for an instant, we rise above before force reasserts its crushing power. Weil’s mirror too, is also the loveliest in that she was writing on a poem of war during a time of war, and it may be, that we will never understand the Iliad like how she understood it, until we find ourselves looking at it, like Weil, from a time of war. Today, critics like myself living in Canada, are only peacetime critics.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Author Blurb

Simone Weil was one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century: a philosopher, theologian, critic, sociologist and political activist. This anthology spans the wide range of her thought, and includes an extract from her best-known work ‘The Need for Roots’, exploring the ways in which modern society fails the human soul; her thoughts on the misuse of language by those in power; and the essay ‘Human Personality’, a late, beautiful reflection on the rights and responsibilities of every individual. All are marked by the unique combination of literary eloquence and moral acuity that characterized Weil’s ideas and inspired a generation of thinkers and writers both in and outside her native France.

REVIEW of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Giridharadas

2019, Vintage, 288 pages

Giridharadas defines MarketWorld as “an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.” He has a beef with MarketWorld because of its inherent contradiction. In Winners Take All, Giridharadas points out the irony of how MarketWorlders donate money to rehab programs after raking in profits selling opioids (Purdue Pharma). Other examples include how MarketWorlders who own companies that target African Americans with more addictive menthol cigarettes give grants to help African Americans eat healthier in Harlem (Loews Corporation). Winners Take All is written as a tell-all exposé revealing the dark side of philanthropy all the way from Andrew Carnegie in the late nineteenth century to The Clinton Global Initiative and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation today.

The problem, according to Giridharadas, is that MarketWorlders become who they are by exploiting the masses. They harness the inequalities in the system to become the power brokers. And then they donate money to the causes that they support. They target a social and economic issue such as poverty, for example. But they never target the inequality itself that lies at the root of poverty. And that, writes, Giridharadas, is the heart of the contradiction: MarketWorlders create the problem, then ease their conscience by writing a cheque. Philanthropy in that guise is a sham. Today’s philanthropists donate, but they preserve the status quo that makes such donations necessary. Without the status quo, they wouldn’t have become rich. The rich have a blindspot when it comes to inequality. To illustrate his point, Giridharadas begins his book Winners Take All with a memorable epigram by Tolstoy:

I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible . . . except by getting off his back.

Solution One: Increase Taxes on the Wealthy

Because the rich will not address inequality, another group has to step up. Giridharadas proposes that the government is well suited for this task. The government, by increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, can fund a greater array of social programs to alleviate inequality.

Although not mentioned by Giridharadas, one such program that would have wide support from both sides of the political spectrum, from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang to economist Milton Friedman–the architect of Reaganomics–is a universal basic income program. Such a program would simplify government and do away with the stigma of receiving welfare, employment insurance, and many other government programs by doing away with income-tested benefits by providing an automated and perpetual income stream to each citizen irregardless of wealth or need. Universal basic income appeals to the right because it simplifies government, makes government smaller by rolling welfare, employment insurance, disability benefits, etc., into one program. And universal basic income appeals to the left because it satisfies the left’s mandate for government to look after people.

In Canada, many people during the Covid-19 pandemic have come to rely on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments. In the dialogue on what happens when the CERB program ends, some people have suggested instituting a universal basic income program. We will see.

Solution Two: Change Corporate Structures

Corporations exist for one purpose, and that purpose is to maximize shareholder value. “Greed is good,” runs the corporate mantra. If a company tries to place “doing good” ahead of “creating shareholder value,” shareholders will revolt and replace the board of directors. As Harvard business school professor Michael Porter and Mark Kramer wrote in a seminal 2011 essay: “Creating Shared Value,” companies overlook the long-term good by maximizing shareholder value in day to day and quarter to quarter operations. What if a new type of corporation could be created, one where “doing good” was built into its charter along with “maximizing shareholder value?”

After working years in private equity, this is what Andrew Kassoy did: he came up with and enacted a plan to reform corporate structure. He devised a framework to convert existing companies or for startups to structure themselves as “B corps” or “benefit corporations.” B corps would pursue a dual mandate to enrich shareholders and pursue good. Notable B corps today include Kickstarter, King Arthur Flour, Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Natura.

The largest B corp is the publicly traded education company Laureate Education with over 150 campuses in ten countries. It started trading on the Nasdaq in February 1, 2017 at $14 per share. Three and a half years later, it’s trading at $13.81, down 1.35%. I compared Laureate Education (LAUR) to other conventional (e.g. standard, not B corp) education companies trading on the Nasdaq. Perdoceo Education (PRDO) was at $9.78 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $11.81, up 20.76%. Lincoln Education (LINC) was at $1.96 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $5.34, up 176%. K12 (LRN) was at $19.53 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $28.93, up 48.13%. Finally, America Public Education (APEI) was at $24.40 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $28.84, up 18.2%. The difference in performance between the B corp Laureate Education and the others must be the inferred cost of “doing good.” The question, as always, is: “Do you invest in Laureate and let their board decide what is good or do you invest in the others and take the profit to use on what you yourself decide is good?” You cannot have your cake and eat it too: either you let Laureate do good at the cost of your return on investment or you invest in the other, more mercenary companies which will enrich you at others’ expense.

Solution Three: Ask the People You are Helping for Feedback

It’s ironic, writes Giridharadas, how the elites change the lives of those who need help without ever consulting them. The elites–who hail from the ivory towers and the gilded halls of private equity–look at social issues as corporate or academic issues: have a meeting, break down the problem into discrete quanta, insert each of these quanta into a PowerPoint presentation, put in into a chart, a graph, and connect the points. But, the greatest problems of our age are human concerns. Instead of turning the oppressed and the downtrodden and the unfortunate into a statistic and foisting your preconceived notion of what is good onto them, why not ask them what they want, ask them if they have ideas of how to better their world? If your goal is to help a village in Mongolia, it might be a good idea to do some ground reconnaissance in addition to your closed-door PowerPoint presentation.

This seems like a good point. Who knows the unintended consequences of bringing Western reforms to the far corners of the globe? I wish Giridharadas had taken his own advice in Winners Take All. He interviews many people and presents many points of view in the book. Unfortunately, all the critiques of capitalism he cites comes from CEOs, former presidents of the United States of America, private equity barons, and TED talks thought leaders. What does the street vendor in Vietnam think of inequality? What about the Mongolian miner working at the Rio Tinto copper mine? We don’t know. This not knowing the view from the ground brings me to my closing point: what are the roots of inequality?

The Roots of Inequality?

If you ask the power brokers in First World countries where poverty comes from, they will tell you that poverty arises from inequality. It started with Adam Smith’s economics. He told the butcher, the brewer, and the baker that self-interest makes the world go around. From Adam Smith to today’s corporations a line can be drawn: Smith’s self-interest has become the corporations “greed is good” mantra. As a result, some became rich and others became poor. The results are disastrous, they will say. And they will quote statistics that are hard to argue against, statistics such as how the top ten percent of people own ninety percent of the world’s wealth. Capitalism is the problem, the power brokers will say. And that is what they do say in Giridharadas’ book. Capitalism allows the few to get rich off the backs of the many.

Now, if you ask the less well to do folks in First World countries why they live in poverty, they might, to judge from movement such as Occupy Wall Street, say something similar. Capitalism favours the rich, who get rich by exploiting the poor. The rich, in turn, through lobbying and donations to political parties, fandangle new ways to avoid paying taxes and nurturing the society that made wealth possible.

Now, if you ask the less well to do folks in Third World countries why they live in poverty, they just might have something different to say than the folks in First World countries. Judging from the vitality, dynamism, and energy in the hustling and bustling markets emerging in Vietnam, China, Poland, and Hungary, less well to do folks in Third World countries may be welcoming capitalism’s market reforms. Their response may be the opposite to that of their counterparts in developed countries.

This is one of the reasons I was hoping that Giridharadas would have asked the people burdened by inequality all over the world for their feedback. I conjecture that First World folks are quick to blame inequality. And I conjecture that Third World folks are less likely to blame inequality. My question, and one that is valid, in my mind is this: is capitalism a First World problem? My gut tells me many folks outside the First World would actually welcome capitalism.  Why this divide?

What is Inequality?

My closing question is this, and I don’t think it’s a question that’s easy to answer. There are so many variables involved, the question is probably best thought of as a thought experiment. My question is this: is inequality an artifact of capitalism, or is inequality something else, a natural, sociological phenomenon?

For a second, let’s turn away from the financial marketplace. Let’s look at book sales, something that has attracted my attention since publishing a book last year. Each year, over three million books are released globally. Most of these three million books will sell a few hundred copies. Some will sell thousands and tens of thousands. But the book market, despite being made up of millions of books, will be dominated by a few best-sellers. Think Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Dan Brown. In fact, the top 10% of best-sellers will be responsible for 85% of all books sold. If we extend this slightly, the top 20% of best-sellers will have captured nearly the entire book market, being responsible for 95% of the world’s book sales. Talk about inequality! But does anyone complain about the inequality of the book market? I think most people accept this as the way things are.

Did the distribution of book sales–the top 10% of the sellers own 85% of the market–remind you of another distribution I mentioned earlier in this blog? Earlier, citing Giridharadas, I wrote that the wealthiest 10% own 90% of the world’s wealth. In the markets, it appears a few winners take all. So too, in the book market, it appears a few winners take all. Is there a relation between the book and stock markets?

The Power Law Distribution

Although consumers believe they exercise autonomy in purchasing books, an emergent phenomenon can be seen if you plot book sales on a double logarithmic graph with the x-axis representing the sales rank (with each unit increasing in powers of 10, e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.,) and the y-axis representing sales volume (again, with each vertical unit increasing in powers of 10, e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.,). When sales rank and sales volume are plotted on a double logarithmic graph, a straight lines forms, descending on roughly a 45-degree angle from the top left to the bottom right of the chart.

Emergent phenomena are some of the coolest things. They are phenomena that appear on large scales, but not on small scales. The flight of starlings or the motions of schooling fish are emergent phenomena: like book buyers, they make individual decisions but the sum of their individual decisions can be modelled. When we see emergent phenomena, we see in social, economic, and natural systems a greater power at work, an invisible hand creating order from chaos.

If you plot on a log-log graph the number of people against their wealth, you will find that the miraculous happens: the data points will form a straight line with a similar slope to the book sales graph. Wealth–or inequality–obeys a power law distribution. What this says is that inequality is a natural phenomenon like all the other distributions that obey a power law. Besides book sales and income, the size of cities, the power of earthquakes, and the frequency academic papers are cited all obey power law distributions.

The power law hints at powerful forces shaping the quantities it measures. To determine the hidden mechanisms guiding the power law’s invisible hand, we have to conjecture. With book sales, for example, we can conjecture that the winning authors take all because of the influence of big publishers, word of mouth, the action of book clubs, the ability of social media to scale sales, the concentrating effect of bestseller lists, and so on.

Something similar can be done for income. We can conjecture, for example, a base point where people start off at similar incomes and wealth. By the action of chance, some will make more than others. Then we can add more variables: the ones with more can invest more, increasing their wealth at a faster proportion than those with less wealth. And perhaps those with minor wealth will choose to invest their money with a handful of winners, increasing the wealth of the handful of winners in much the same way as book buyers congregate towards a few best-selling titles. Then sooner or later, in this thought experiment, you end up with an income distribution that approximates that of the real world. Note that in this thought experiment, capitalism and inequality are not necessary hypotheses. The only necessary hypothesis is that, by random chance some will become wealthier.

In this view, capitalism and the markets are not responsible for inequality. In any given society–socialist, capitalist, communist, and agrarian, from the Bronze Age through to ancient Rome, the Industrial Revolution, up to modern times–the action of chance and the snowballing effect of social networks will create a winner take all distribution in wealth. You can redistribute the wealth through revolution or taxation, but you only reset the system for a duration: inequality, like the force of earthquakes and the size of cities, is a natural law built into the structure of society, any society. The moment the system is reformed, it starts working itself back into a critical state in a new guise.

The elites ascribe their position and wealth to superior intelligence and work ethic. The poor ascribe their position to the erosive power of capitalism and inequality. They are both fooled by randomness. If we can observe, from ancient to modern times, the distribution of income following a power law, then inequality is nature’s will. And how do you rebel against natural law? In ancient Rome, the Gracchi thought they had the answers. In revolutionary France, Robespierre thought he had the answers. Today, Thomas Piketty proposes his answers. But what is the answer? The answer, Giridharadas, is blowing in the wind.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.