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The Aristotelian Golden Mean as Conducive to Good Health in the Pursuit of Life Extension – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The Aristotelian Golden Mean as Conducive to Good Health in the Pursuit of Life Extension – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
January 4, 2015
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By the mean of a thing I mean what is equally distant from either extreme, which is one and the same for everyone; by the mean relative to us what is neither too much nor too little, and this is not the same for everyone. For instance, if ten are many and two few, we take the mean of the thing if we take six; since it exceeds and is exceeded by the same amount; this then is the mean according to arithmetic proportion. But we cannot arrive thus at the mean relative to us. Let ten lbs. of food be a large portion for someone and two lbs. a small portion; it does not follow that a trainer will prescribe six lbs., for maybe even this amount will be a large portion, or a small one, for the particular athlete who is to receive it…. In the same way then one with understanding in any matter avoids excess and deficiency, and searches out and chooses the mean — the mean, that is, not of the thing itself but relative to us.

~ Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Nicomachean Ethics, 1106a29-b8

800px-Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575
Copy of Bust of Aristotle by Lysippus, circa 330 BCE
Portrait of Gennady Stolyarov II by Wendy Stolyarov for "Death is Wrong"
Portrait of Gennady Stolyarov II by Wendy Stolyarov for Death is Wrong

This is not medical advice, but rather a general synthesis of philosophical and common-sense lifestyle heuristics for those who are generally healthy and seek to stay that way for as long as possible. All of the ideas below are ones I endeavor to put into practice personally as part of my endeavor to survive long enough to benefit from humankind’s future attainment of longevity escape velocity and indefinite lifespans. As an educated layman, not a medical doctor, I accept contemporary “mainstream” medicine (i.e., evidence-based, scientific medicine) as the most reliable guidance for specific health matters that currently exists. I consider the discussion below to be sufficiently general and basic as to be consistent with common medical knowledge – though, in any particular person’s case, specific medical advice should prevail over anything to the contrary in this essay.

It is easier for humans to live by absolutes than by degrees. If a practice or pursuit is unambiguously harmful, it can readily be avoided. If it is unambiguously beneficial, then it can be pursued in any quantity permitted by one’s available time and other resources. The very fact of being alive is itself an unambiguous good, of which no amount is excessive. On the other hand, death of the individual is an unambiguous harm, as is any behavior that directly precipitates or hastens death due to harmful effects upon the human body.

But much of life is comprised of elements that are essential to human well-being in some quantity but could become harmful if pursued to excess. This is where Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” – of virtue as being neither a deficiency nor an excess of various necessary attributes – can be applied to the pursuit of health and longevity. Indeed, much of health consists of maintaining key bodily functions and metrics within favorable ranges of parameters. A healthy weight, healthy blood-sugar concentration, healthy blood pressure, and a healthy heart rate all exist as segments along spectra, bordered by other segments of deficiency and excess.

More is known today about what is harmful to longevity than what would extend it past today’s typical “old age”. For instance, smoking, consumption of most alcohol (apart, possibly, from modest quantities of red wine), and use of many recreational drugs are clearly known to increase mortality risk. As these habits provide no support for any essential life function while having the potential to cause great harm to health, it is best to eschew them altogether. Indeed, the mere avoidance of all tobacco use is statistically the single best way to increase one’s remaining life expectancy. Yet this is the easy part, as one can quite resolutely and immoderately reject all consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and recreational drugs with no harm to oneself and only benefits.

An Aristotelian “golden mean” approach is needed, on the other hand, for those elements which are indispensable to sustaining good health, but which can also damage health if indulged in imprudently and to excess. Aristotle recognized that the “golden mean” when it comes to individual behavior cannot be derived through a strict formula but is rather unique to each person. Still, its determination is based on objective attributes of physical reality and not on one’s wishes or on the path of least resistance. The realms of diet, exercise, and supplementation are of particular relevance to life extension. It would particularly benefit individuals who seek to extend their lives indefinitely to adopt “golden mean” heuristics in each of these realms, until medical science advances sufficiently to develop reliable techniques to reverse biological senescence and greatly increase maximum attainable lifespans.

Food

Food is sustenance for the organism, and its absence or deficiency lead to starvation and malnutrition. Its excess, on the other hand, can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a host of associated ills. It is clear that a moderate amount of food is desirable – one that is enough to sustain all the vital functions of the organism without precipitating chronic diseases of excess. Contrary to common prejudice, it is not too difficult to gain a reasonably good idea of the quantity of food one should consume. For most people, this is the quantity that enables an individual to maintain weight in the healthy range of body-mass index (BMI). (There are exceptions to this for certain athletes of extraordinary muscularity, but not for the majority of people. Contrary to common objections, while it is true that BMI is not the sole consideration for healthy body mass, it is a reasonably good heuristic for most, including many who are likely to object to its use.)

The comparison of “calories in” versus “calories out” – even though it must often rely on approximation due to the difficulty of exactly measuring metabolic activity – is nevertheless quite dependable. It is scientifically established that consuming a surplus of 3,500 calories (over and above one’s metabolic expenditures) results in gaining one pound (0.45 kilograms) of mass, whereas running a deficit of 3,500 calories results in the loss of one pound.

Consuming a moderate amount of food (relative to one’s exercise level) to maintain a moderate amount of weight is one of the most obvious applications of the principle of the golden mean to diet. Yet it is also the composition of one’s food that should exhibit moderation in the form of diversification of ingredients and food types.

Principle 1: There are no inherently bad or inherently good foods, but some foods are safer in large amounts than others. (For instance, eating a bowl full of vegetables is safer than eating a bowl full of butter.) Furthermore, one’s diet should not be dominated by any one type of food or any one ingredient.

Principle 2: In order to maintain a caloric balance at a healthy weight, consideration of calorie density of foods is key for portion sizes. More calorie-dense foods should be consumed in smaller portions, while less calorie-dense foods could be consumed in larger portions, provided that there is adequate diversification among the less calorie-dense foods as well.

Here my approach differs immensely from any fad diet – from veganism to the paleo diet to anything in between that prescribes a list of mandatory “good” foods and forbidden “evil” foods and attempts to rule human lives through minute regimens of cleaving to the mandatory and eschewing the forbidden. I acknowledge that virtually any fad diet is superior to unrestrained gluttony or the unconscious, stress-induced lapses into unhealthy eating that plague many in the Western world today. This, indeed, is the reason for such diets’ popularity and the availability of “success stories” from among practitioners of any such diet: virtually any conscious control over food intake and concern over food quality is superior to sheer abandon. However, all fad diets are also pseudo-scientific. Contradictory evidence regarding the health effects of almost any type of food – from meat to bread to chocolate to salt and even large quantities of fruits and vegetables – emerges in both scientific and popular publications every week. While some approaches to diet are clearly superior to others (e.g., most diets would be superior to a candy-only diet or a diet consisting solely of peas, as in Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck), no fad diet can claim to reliably extend human lifespans beyond average life expectancies in the Western world today.

In the absence of clear, scientific evidence as to the unambiguous benefits or harms of any particular widely consumed food, diversification and moderation offer one the best hope of maximizing one’s expected longevity prior to the era of rejuvenation therapies. This is because of two key, interrelated effects:

Effect 1: If some food types indeed convey particularly important health benefits, then diversification helps ensure that one is gaining these benefits as a result of consuming at least some foods of those types.

Effect 2: If some foods or food types indeed result in harms to the organism – either due to the inherent properties of these foods or due to dangers introduced by the specific ways in which they are cultivated, delivered, or improperly preserved – then diversification helps reduce the organism’s exposure to such harms arising from any one particular food or food type, therefore lessening the likelihood that these harms will accumulate to a critical level.

Diversification, coupled with consideration of calorie density of foods, has the additional advantage of flexibility. If one encounters a situation where dietary choice is inconvenient, one might still enjoy the occasion and accommodate it through judicious portion sizing or adjustments to other meals either beforehand or afterward. One does not need to condemn oneself for having committed the dietary sin of eating an “unhealthy food” – as it is not the food itself that is unhealthy, but rather the frequency and amounts in which it is consumed. The Aristotelian “golden mean” heuristic also implies that there is no fault with pursuing food for the purpose of enjoyment or sensory pleasure – again, in moderation, as long as no detriment to health results.

A final note on diet is that the approach of moderation does not favor caloric restriction – i.e., reduction in calorie intake far below typical diets that suffice for maintaining a healthy body mass. Caloric restriction has shown remarkable effects in increasing lifespans in simple organisms – yeast, roundworms, and rodents – but has not demonstrated significant longevity benefits for humans, at least as suggested by presently available research. It is possible that the positive effects which caloric restriction confers upon simpler organisms are already reaped by humans and higher animals to a great extent, such that any added benefits to these organisms’ already far longer lifespans would be slight at best. A calorie-restricted diet is an excellent option for those seeking to lose weight or transition from a diet of gluttony and reckless abandon. It is also likely superior to “average” dietary habits today in terms of forestalling diet-related chronic diseases. However, there is no compelling evidence at present that a calorie-restricted diet is superior to a moderate, diversified diet that maintains a caloric balance. Furthermore, extreme calorie restriction would either require activity restriction (to conserve energy) or would involve descending into an underweight range, which is associated with its own health risks.

Exercise

Exercise cannot be disentangled from considerations of dietary choice, since it is crucial to the expenditure side of the caloric equation (or inequality). It is, again, scientifically incontrovertible that regular exercise is superior to a sedentary lifestyle in enhancing virtually every metric of bodily health. On the other hand, moderation should be practiced in the degree of physical exertion at any given time, so as to prevent pushing one’s body to its breaking point – which will differ by individual. Exercising in such a manner that gradually pushes one’s sphere of abilities outward will help render the probability of reaching a breaking point – the failure of any bodily system – increasingly remote. For instance, gradually building up one’s running ability can eventually enable one to run an ultramarathon without adverse consequences. However, if an overweight and completely sedentary person were to attempt to run an ultramarathon without any prior running experience (and did not give up after a few miles), the results would be disastrous. Likewise, it is possible to lift large weights safely, but only if one begins with smaller weights and gradually works one’s way up.

For virtually all individuals in the Western world today, no harm can arise from the increase in the absolute amount of physical activity, as long as the exercise is performed in a safe environment and with safe form. Immoderate kinds of exercise would include extreme sports (those which entail a significant danger to life), any sports in extreme weather, or any exertion at the boundary of the current tolerance of one’s heart and other muscles. Most people, however, can easily find activities – ranging from simple walking to light lifting and body-weight exercises – that would pose no such risks and would unambiguously improve health.

Diversification in exercise, as with diet, is superior to exclusivist fad regimens. While any safe exercise is superior to none, it is completely unfounded to insist that only one particular type or genre of exercise is “good” while all the others are “bad”. The currently fashionable “no cardio” camp is a particularly glaring example of absurdity in this regard, eschewing some of the most effective ways possible for burning calories, maintaining cardiovascular and muscular health, and preventing diabetes and many types of cancer. But it would be similarly unreasonable to reject all weight lifting or all flexibility training due to some dogma regarding “ideal” kinds of exercise. It is best to perform a variety of exercises, each of which emphasize different facets of health. That being said, the exact mix would depend on the attributes and preferences of a given individual, and appropriate diversification could still involve a heavily emphasized preferred type of exercise, in addition to various auxiliary types that enable one to also improve in other areas.

Again, it is important to emphasize that, while regular exercise can improve one’s likelihood of surviving to current “old age”, it cannot, by itself, protect against the ravages of senescence beyond perhaps slightly deferring them. The best case for regular, moderate exercise is that it can raise one’s chances of surviving to an era when medical treatments that reverse biological senescence will become available and widespread.

Because exercise should be pursued with the intention of maximizing health and improving one’s likelihood of long-term survival, great care must be taken not to allow the competitive aspects of any exercise to overwhelm the health aspects. For instance, the taking of steroids and other “performance-enhancing” substances in order to set athletic records or beat one’s competitors is counterproductive to the maintenance of good health and is often worse than doing no exercise at all. Likewise, engaging in sports such as American football, rugby, boxing, or lacrosse, which involve a high degree of physical contact and therefore a great likelihood of injury, is counterproductive to the goal of health preservation.

Supplementation, or Lack Thereof

Overall, it is important for the human body to obtain adequate quantities of essential nutrients – such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids – in order for healthy function to be sustained. Because these nutrients are not automatically produced by the body in adequate amounts, they must be consumed from external sources. However, excessive amounts of many such nutrients can be toxic. Moreover, contemporary science has not discerned any regimen of extraordinary supplementation (over and above medically recommended daily values) to reliably result in longevity improvements for those who are already healthy. Worse yet, enough research exists to suggest that supplementation with vitamins and other common substances, significantly in excess of medically recommended daily values, could increase the risk of early death. Again, the evidence points to the desirability of a moderate intake of vitamins and other essential nutrients – but none of them becomes a panacea when consumed in doses significantly above the moderate ones found in foods routinely available to virtually everyone in the Western world. Mild vitamin and mineral supplements are probably not harmful and may be helpful if one’s diet indeed lacks some essential nutrients, but mega-doses of any substance should be approached with great caution.

Supplementation with drugs and hormones – absent the clear and medically determined need to treat a specific health problem – is even riskier for a healthy organism; the side effects could be great, and the benefits are dubious at present. No “magic pill” for life extension has yet been discovered, and rejuvenation therapies are decades away even if billions of dollars were poured into their research tomorrow. Even when they are necessary to treat an illness or injury, many commonly used prescription medicines can result in severe side effects, implying that they should be used with extreme caution and awareness of the risks, even when they are prescribed. The time has not yet arrived for individual self-medication with the aim of life extension. As the details of the human body’s metabolism and its effects on senescence are far from fully understood, there are no guarantees that introducing any particular substance into the immensely complex machinery of the human organism will not do more harm than good. Most people will be much safer by adopting the heuristic of not fixing that, which is not obviously broken, while avoiding harmful habits, obtaining regular medical checkups, and following the advice of evidence-based medical practitioners.

Someday, hopefully in our lifetimes, medical science might advance to the point where it might be possible to inexpensively develop a deeply personalized supplementation regimen for each individual – a more compact, precise, and targeted version of what Ray Kurzweil does today at the cost of immense time and effort. Until then, Aristotle’s golden mean is still the best heuristic to enable most of us to survive for as long as possible, which will hopefully be long enough for improvements in human knowledge and health-care delivery to usher in the era of longevity escape velocity.

Nathaniel Branden Remembered – Article by Edward Hudgins

Nathaniel Branden Remembered – Article by Edward Hudgins

The New Renaissance Hat
Edward Hudgins
December 7, 2014
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I first met Nathaniel Branden, who passed away on the morning of December 3, 2014, in fall 1983. I had successfully passed my Ph.D. oral defense of dissertation that morning, so except for shuffling paperwork, I was now “Doctor Hudgins.” I don’t know how others would mark such a milestone, but I was eager that evening to hear Branden’s talk on “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand [1].”

Discovering Ayn Rand [2] and Nathaniel Branden

 

I had discovered and loved the works of Rand a decade earlier. She presented a vision of a rational world of flourishing, self-actuated, self-confident, achievement-oriented individuals, in sharp contrast to the corrosive culture of whim-worshipping irrationality and self-abnegation of that time.

Nathaniel Branden, Edward Hudgins, and Barbara BrandenThe author with Nathaniel Branden (1930-2014) and Barbara Branden, 2007.
***

With Rand, of course, I encountered Nathaniel Branden. I knew he had been her philosophical heir-apparent, and that they had had an angry break. And I had heard rumors of their affair. But even though he was persona non grata in Objectivist circles, I eagerly read his post-Rand books, including The Psychology of Self-Esteem [3], Breaking Free, and The Disowned Self.

The latter two were especially important. The Objectivist world at the time had what some called cult-like qualities, which Branden himself later acknowledged he had helped create in his years with Rand. One simply was to assume that Ayn Rand [2] was right about everything, and as a “student of Objectivism [4]” your goal was simply to understand her philosophy. Ironically, independent thinking–a key Objectivist virtue–was frowned upon in practice.

Nathaniel Branden’s Breaking Free

 

While Branden in Breaking Free and The Disowned Self was not directly addressing the defects of the Objectivism [4] movement, he was dealing with self-alienation and other deep problems that held individuals back from being independent and flourishing. He was clearly drawing from the problems he had encountered in individuals who loved Rand’s vision but found the official Objectivist movement stifling.

So that evening in 1983 I listened to Branden address head-on the benefits and hazards of Rand’s philosophy. It was refreshing and liberating. Whether I agreed completely with his analysis or not, there was now a more open, adult conversation going on about the Rand and the philosophy.

Branden argued that Objectivism [4] indeed presented a radiant vision of, in Rand’s words, what the world can be and should be. But too many individuals who loved Rand’s vision saw themselves as so far removed from the heroes of her novels that they despaired. Too many would say “I’m no Roark or Galt, so I must be no good.”

Technology for Self-Esteem Pioneered by Nathaniel Branden

 

Branden defined his goal as creating the psychological technology to help individuals get from where they were to where they wanted to be.

Branden is often credited as being the father of the modern self-esteem movement. This is true, but misleading. Today, many see “self-esteem” as a lazy and vacuous glance in the mirror to say “I’m great!” Branden defined self-esteem as the recognition that one is worthy of happiness and capable of achieving it. But happiness and flourishing require effort.

In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem [5] he identified the necessary practices to reach those goals as living consciously, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully, and personal integrity. Branden was, in effect, operationalizing Rand’s dictum that “as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul.”

Over the decades that followed “Benefits and Hazards” I had many opportunities to attend and to host conferences with Branden, to discuss with him his insights about psychology and about Objectivism [4], and to see the benefits that his own work brought to many in this world.

To his wife, Leigh, and all his friends I pass along my condolences. Keep in your hearts and minds the good memories of him. He would have wanted it that way.

Links:

[1] http://nathanielbranden.com/the-benefits-and-hazards-of-the-philosophy-of-ayn-rand-mp3
[2] http://www.atlassociety.org/ayn_rand
[3] http://nathanielbranden.com/on-self-esteem/the-psychology-of-self-esteem/
[4] http://www.atlassociety.org/objectivism
[5] http://nathanielbranden.com/on-self-esteem/the-six-pillars-of-self-esteem-the-definitive-work-on-self-esteem-by-the-leading-pioneer-in-the-field/

***

Dr. Edward Hudgins directs advocacy and is a senior scholar for The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism in Washington, D.C.

Copyright, The Atlas Society. For more information, please visit www.atlassociety.org.

Second Interview of Gennady Stolyarov II and Wendy Stolyarov by Roen Horn of the Eternal Life Fan Club – November 27, 2014

Second Interview of Gennady Stolyarov II and Wendy Stolyarov by Roen Horn of the Eternal Life Fan Club – November 27, 2014

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II and Wendy Stolyarov II
November 27, 2014
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ELFC_DIW_Second_Interview
 

Today Wendy Stolyarov and I had an excellent second interview and conversation with Roen Horn of the Eternal Life Fan Club. We discussed our recent activities related to the life-extension movement, the impact of “Death is Wrong”, and many philosophical and practical ideas surrounding the pursuit of indefinite longevity.

Watch the recorded interview here.

Individual Empowerment through Emerging Technologies: Virtual Tools for a Better Physical World – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Individual Empowerment through Emerging Technologies: Virtual Tools for a Better Physical World – Video by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
November 23, 2014
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No realm of human activity in the past century has empowered and liberated the individual as efficaciously as technological advancement. Our personal, political, and economic freedoms – though limited in many respects – today allow us to achieve quality-of-life improvements and other objectives that were inconceivable even a few decades ago. Much libertarian, classical liberal, and Objectivist theory supports this insight, but in our era of increasing salience of advanced technology, this support needs to be made far more explicit and applied toward vocal advocacy of emerging, life-transforming breakthroughs that further raise the capacities of the individual. Gamification, augmented reality, and virtual worlds can play a significant role in enhancing and preserving our physical lives.

***

This video is based on Mr. Stolyarov’s essay “Individual Empowerment through Emerging Technologies: Virtual Tools for a Better Physical World“.

References

Playlist: The Musical Compositions of G. Stolyarov II
– “Ayn Rand, Individualism, and the Dangers of Communitarianism” (2012) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II
– “Carl Menger, Individualism, Marginal Utility, and the Revival of Economics” (2006) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II
– “Ludwig von Mises on Profit, Loss, the Entrepreneur, and Consumer Sovereignty” (2007) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II
– “Open Badges and Proficiency-Based Education: A Path to a New Age of Enlightenment” (2013) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II
Runkeeper
Fitocracy
Fitbit
– “Minecraft” – Wikipedia
– “Oculus Rift” – Wikipedia –
– YouTube Videos of Minecraft Computers (here and here)

Individual Empowerment through Emerging Technologies: Virtual Tools for a Better Physical World – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Individual Empowerment through Emerging Technologies: Virtual Tools for a Better Physical World – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
November 9, 2014
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No realm of human activity in the past century has empowered and liberated the individual as efficaciously as technological advancement. Our personal, political, and economic freedoms – though limited in many respects – today allow us to achieve quality-of-life improvements and other objectives that were inconceivable even a few decades ago. Much libertarian, classical liberal, and Objectivist theory supports this insight, but in our era of increasing salience of advanced technology, this support needs to be made far more explicit and applied toward vocal advocacy of emerging, life-transforming breakthroughs that further raise the capacities of the individual. Gamification, augmented reality, and virtual worlds can play a significant role in enhancing and preserving our physical lives.

I find a lot of support for technological progress, self-determination, and the triumph of the individual over the impositions of the collective in the works of Ayn Rand (as an example, see this 2012 essay of mine for a brief analysis of Randian individualism). The Austrian economists Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises were also great exponents of individualism, and their innovations in value-theory emphasized the importance of subjective preference in the determination of prices, the work of entrepreneurs, and the effects of policy. They grounded their economic work in a deep understanding of philosophy and offered a countervailing view of the world during a time when postmodernism was gaining popularity. They explained that universal laws of economics, derived from the basic fact of human action itself, are at the root of explaining whether societies facilitate flourishing and progress, or misery and stagnation.

Were these great thinkers alive today, it would have been fascinating to observe their insights regarding the power of technology to enable the personal creation of art which was not technically feasible for an individual in prior eras to create. They would surely recognize the amazing influence of the latest generation of technological entrepreneurs on our lives and well-being – not just in the emergence of computers, the Internet, and mobile devices – but also in less-emphasized applications, such as digital art, electronic music, increasingly sophisticated and graphically immersive computer games, and tools for the “quantified self” – an increasing array of metrics for vital bodily attributes and activities. The convergence of these tools is ushering in an era of augmented reality, which rational and determined creators can harness to achieve their goals more effectively and more enjoyably.

I have seen this vast technological improvement affect my ability, for example, to compose music. In a few hours I can create a composition and hear it played back flawlessly by an electronic orchestra, whereas even a decade ago I would have needed to spend weeks internalizing melodies and variations. In order to play my compositions, I would have had to spend months practicing, even then being quite vulnerable to human error. One of my current ongoing projects is to remaster as many of my older compositions (all preserved, thankfully) as I can using the tools now available to me – enabling their flawless playback via synthetic instruments. Today, they can sound exactly as I intended them to sound when I composed them years ago. Many works have already been remastered in this way (available within this video playlist), which has enabled me to hear and to share with the world pieces which have not been in my “finger memory” for over a decade.

Numerous life-improving applications of augmented reality are emerging now and can be expected to expand during the proximate future. Many of these technologies can have strong, immediate, practical benefits in enhancing human survival and functionality within the physical world. Already, mobile applications such as Runkeeper, scoring systems like that of Fitocracy, or devices like the Fitbit allow individuals to track physical activity in a granular but convenient manner and set measurable targets for improvement. Significant additional innovation in these areas would be welcome. For instance, it would be excellent to have access to live readings of one’s vital statistics, both as a way of catching diseases early and measuring progress toward health goals. This vision is familiar to those who have encountered such functionality in virtual worlds. Players track and improve these statistics for their characters in computer games, where it proves both interesting and addictive – so why not bring this feature to our own bodies and other aspects of our lives?

Computer games – one type of virtual world – expand the esthetic and experiential possibilities of millions of people. While not fully immersive, they are far more so than their predecessors of 20 years ago. They can extend the range of human experience by enabling people to engage in actions inaccessible during the course of their daily lives – such as making major strategic decisions in business, politics, or world-building, exploring outer space, or designing and interacting with a skyscraper without the hazards of being a construction worker. (Minecraft comes to mind here as an especially versatile virtual world, which can be shaped in unique ways by the creativity of the individual. I can readily imagine a future virtual-reality game which is a more immersive successor of Minecraft, and where people could create virtual abodes, meeting places, and even technological experiments. Minecraft already has mods that allow the creation of railroads, industrial facilities, and other interesting contraptions.)

One common and highly gratifying feature of computer games that has long fascinated me is the ability to make steady, immediately rewarding progress. Any rational, principled economic or societal arrangement that promotes human flourishing should do the same. Emerging efforts at the “gamification” of reality are precisely a project of imparting these rational, principled characteristics – hopefully remedying many of the wasteful, internally contradictory, corrupt, and fallacy-ridden practices that have pervaded the pre-electronic world.

Tremendous technological, cultural, and moral progress could be achieved if this addictive quality of games were translated into the communication of sophisticated technical concepts or philosophical ideas, such as those underpinning transhumanism and indefinite life extension. If there were a way to reliably impart the appeal of games to knowledge acquisition, it would be possible to trigger a new Age of Enlightenment and a phenomenon never seen before in history: that of the masses becoming intellectuals, or at least a marked rise in intellectualism among the more technologically inclined. This aspiration relates to my article from early 2013, “Open Badges and Proficiency-Based Education: A Path to a New Age of Enlightenment” – a discussion of an open-source standard for recognizing and displaying individual achievement, which could parlay the abundance of educational resources available online into justified reward and opportunities for those who pursue them.

While some critics have expressed concern about a future where immersion in virtual worlds might distract many from the pressing problems of the physical world, I do not see this as a major threat to any but a tiny minority of people. No matter how empowering, interesting, addictive, and broadening a virtual experience might be (and, indeed, it could someday be higher-resolution and more immersive than our experience of the physical world), it is ultimately dependent on a physical infrastructure. Whoever controls the physical infrastructure, controls all of the virtual worlds on which it depends. This has been the lesson, in another context, of the recent revelations regarding sweeping surveillance of individuals by the National Security Agency in the United States and its counterparts in other Western countries. This inextricable physical grounding is a key explanation for the unfortunate fact that the Internet has not yet succeeded as a tool for widespread individual liberation. Unfortunately, its technical “backbone” is controlled by national governments and the politically connected and dependent corporations whom they can easily co-opt, resulting in an infrastructure that can be easily deployed against its users.

A future in which a majority would choose to flee entirely into a virtual existence instead of attempting to fix the many problems with our current physical existence would certainly be a dystopia. Virtual reality could be great – for learning, entertainment, communication (especially as a substitute for dangerous and hassle-ridden physical travel), and experimentation. Some aspects of virtuality – such as the reception of live statistics about the external world – could also be maintained continually, as long as they do not substitute for the signals we get through our senses but instead merely add more to those signals. However, the ideal use of virtual reality should always involve frequent returns to the physical world in order to take care of the needs of the human body and the external physical environment on which it relies. To surrender that physicality would be to surrender control to whichever entity remains involved in it – and there is no guarantee that this remaining entity (whether a human organization or an artificial intelligence) would be benevolent or respectful of the rights of the people who decide to spend virtually all of their existences in a virtual realm (pun intended).

Fortunately, the pressures and constraints of physicality, so long as they affect human well-being, are not easily wished away. We live in an objective, material reality, and it is only by systematically following objective, external laws of nature that we can reliably improve our well-being. Many of us who play computer games, spend time on online social networks, or even put on virtual-reality headsets in the coming years, will not forget these elementary facts. We will still seek food, shelter, bodily comfort, physical health, longevity, and the freedom to act according to our preferences. The more prudent and foresighted among us will use virtual tools to aid us in these goals, or to draw additional refreshment and inspiration within a broad framework of lives where these goals remain dominant.

In a certain sense, virtual worlds can illustrate some imaginative possibilities that cannot be experienced within the non-electronic tangible world – as in the possibility of constructing “castles in the air” in a game such as Minecraft, where the force of gravity often does not apply (or applies in a modified fashion). There is a limit to this, though, in the sense that any virtual world must run on physical hardware (unless there is a virtual machine inside a virtual world – but this would only place one or more layers of virtuality until one reaches the physical hardware and its limitations). A virtual world can reveal essential insights which are obscured by the complexity of everyday life, but one would still remain limited by the raw computing power of the hardware that instantiates the virtual world. In a sense, the underlying physical hardware will always remain more powerful than anything possible within the virtual world, because part of the physical hardware’s resources are expended on creating the virtual world and maintaining it; only some fraction remains for experimentation. People have, for instance, even built functioning computers inside Minecraft (see examples here and here). However, these computers are nowhere close to as powerful or flexible as the computers on which they were designed. Still, they are interesting in other ways and may employ designs that would not work in the external physical world for various reasons.

Most importantly, the fruits of electronic technologies and virtual worlds can be harnessed to reduce the physical dangers to our lives. From telecommuting (which can reduce in frequency the risks involved with physical business travel) to autonomous vehicles (which can render any such travel devoid of the accidents caused by human error), the fruits of augmented reality can be deployed to fix the previously intractable perils of more “traditional” infrastructure and modes of interaction. Millions of lives can be saved in the coming decades because a few generations of bright minds have devoted themselves to tinkering with virtuality and its applications.

The great task in the coming years for libertarians, individualists, technoprogressives, transhumanists, and others who seek a brighter future will be to find increasingly creative and sophisticated applications for the emerging array of tools and possibilities that electronic technologies and virtual worlds make available. This new world of augmented reality is still very much a Mengerian and a Misesian one: human action is still at the core of all meaningful undertakings and accomplishments. Human will and human choice still need to be exerted – perhaps now more so than ever before – while being guided by human reason and intellect toward furthering longer, happier lives characterized by abundance, justice, peace, and progress.

The Emersonian Qualities of Lucas Jackson in the Film “Cool Hand Luke” (2003) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

The Emersonian Qualities of Lucas Jackson in the Film “Cool Hand Luke” (2003) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 28, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2003 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 1,000 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  
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~ G. Stolyarov II, July 28, 2014

**

Lucas Jackson, the protagonist of the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, displays the kind of conviction in his own worth that Ralph Waldo Emerson recommends in Self-Reliance. From cutting off the heads of parking meters to encouraging his friends in prison to tar a road at an impressive rate, Luke rebels and rises above the oppression imposed on him.

Within the opening scene of Cool Hand Luke, the parking meters are symbolic of societal restraint on individual freedom and choice. By arbitrary fiat of local government, the meters place a limit on the duration of time for which an individual can place his car at a particular location, thus limiting the amount of time an individual can spend going about his own business outside the car in the vicinity and diverting an individual’s funds into the stagnant coffers of bureaucracy.

Luke’s destruction of the parking meters is symbolic of the individualist’s attempt to defy societal restrictions. Though he is drunk and semi-conscious, he nevertheless directs his actions not toward some wanton spree of murder or theft but toward the elimination of a nuisance to individual liberty. In return, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance, society “whips him with its displeasure,” as he is apprehended, arrested, and locked in a facility where his own liberty becomes virtually nil.

Self-Reliance has further relevance to Luke’s demeanor in prison. Emerson writes, “I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.”

Luke epitomizes this philosophy when he neglects to degrade himself to the level of the standard “new meat” prison novice. He proudly asserts his name as “Lucas Jackson” during Carl’s declaration of the rules and refuses to submit his dignity to Dragline’s decision to recognize him as a significant member of the prison community. He realizes that he does not need the recognition of others in order to exhibit his self-worth or actualize his potential, but rather that those characteristics flow from within himself.

Later, when the prisoners are forced to tar an extensive stretch of road in oppressive heat, Luke encourages his comrades to labor to their fullest capacity and finish the tarring job at a far swifter pace than had been expected of them. He realizes that an intelligent approach that facilitates coordinated activity among the members of the group would both accomplish the task and frame it as a challenge to be aspired toward in the minds of the prisoners.

Luke transcends what has been assigned to him and transforms the dull routine into a search for his own objective, leisure time that is immensely difficult to acquire in a road prison. Once he establishes the tempo of work, all the other members of his gang gravitate toward his approach and undertake a lively, motivated effort. This is reminiscent of Emerson’s proposition that men will come to admire and uphold the man of intrinsic determination and self-reliance. Ultimately, not only is the ardor of the assignment alleviated by the workers’ internal drive, but they receive additional leisure afterward to use as they please.

Courageous Individualism in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and the Film “Cool Hand Luke” (2003) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

Courageous Individualism in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and the Film “Cool Hand Luke” (2003) – Essay by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 28, 2014
******************************
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2003 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 6,300 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  
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~ G. Stolyarov II, July 28, 2014

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“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson in his renowned treatise, Self-Reliance. For nonconformity, the world also forces you to pave roads in the scorching heat, dig ditches only to fill them again later, and, of course, spend nights in the box. Both Emerson and the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke emphasize the repression and intimidation that a man of greatness encounters in a regimented, entrenched society. Yet both Emerson’s vision of the self-reliant man and the integrity of Lucas Jackson persevere through any and all barriers imposed upon them by the dictates of others. The lessons of individual dignity and the autonomy of one’s mind can be applied to the creator man who seeks to triumph amid the atmosphere of today’s world as well.

Through cultural norms and stigmatization, as well as outright coercive actions, certain societies seek to shackle the men of creativity and initiative. Lucas Jackson is imprisoned in a “corrective road prison” for the grievous crime of cutting off the heads of several public parking meters. The parking meters themselves are symbolic of societal restraint on individual freedom and choice. By arbitrary fiat of local government, the meters place a cap on the duration of time for which an individual can place his car at a particular location, thus limiting the amount of time an individual can spend going about his own business in the vicinity and diverting an individual’s funds into the stagnant coffers of bureaucracy. Luke’s destruction of the parking meters reflects the individualist’s attempt to defy societal restrictions. Though he is drunk and semi-conscious, he nevertheless directs his actions not toward some wanton spree of murder or theft but toward the elimination of a nuisance to individual liberty. In return, society lashes at him with the fullest extent of its brute force, as he is apprehended, arrested, and locked in a facility where his own liberty becomes virtually nil. Even had he murdered, Luke’s ultimate punishment would likely not have been as severe, for the totalitarian environment of the prison will eventually kill him for his adamant individualism.

Luke’s genuine trials begin when he no longer faces the law as applied to free citizens, but the petty whims of his prison bosses. Emerson’s work analyzes the consequences of such a transformation of environment. “It is easy enough for a firm man who knows the world to brook the rage of the cultivated classes. But… when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity… to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.” Emerson’s statement was meant as a general social commentary. The dominant-paradigm-entrenched academic or big government advocate may treat the freethinker with aversion, stigma, and heated criticism, which amount to mere grumbling at the sidelines of the individualist’s path. But when the men who wallow and revel in ignorance, sloth, and brutality are invested with the capacity to direct a better man’s fate, the man of reason and initiative will encounter the most infernal conditions possible.

The prison bosses are the most uncultured and sadistic of men outside the Gestapo. Boss Godfrey’s hobby is, put plainly, to shoot things. After Luke’s first escape, Godfrey, with a grim equanimity, blows the head off a rattlesnake in the grass. In the final showdown of the bosses with Luke near the church, Godfrey will with a similarly unperturbed conscience launch a bullet through Luke’s chest. Boss Paul is a man who loves to bring about and witness the writhing and suffering of the prisoners; after Luke’s second escape, Paul orders him to dig a ditch only to conspire with another boss for the latter to periodically come by and inform Luke that forming the ditch is against prison rules. These frequent recurrences of contradictory instructions are accompanied by beatings intended to force Luke down on his knees in utter submission, pleading for mercy. They are ultimately aimed not at his body, but at his spirit, thrusting a rational, aspiring man into a realm of the chaotic, incompatible, unknowable, and savage. This is the lowest of the unintelligent brute force that Emerson addresses, worse than even the hollers and threats of the rabble that occasionally befall a free man.

The unlivable realm of the prison is rendered even more so by the Captain’s mocking friendliness, a façade, with the essence of despotism lying hidden not too deeply underneath. The Captain regularly speaks with a deliberately soothing voice, informing the prisoners that “We are trying to help you here. We are doing this for your own good.” Emerson, viewing the matter from the perspective of the individualist, realizes the gross fallacy of such a claim. He writes, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.” The Captain is such a man, who holds that the ultimate good is the blind obedience of a regimented automaton to his social engineers. But the Captain’s philosophy on its own is a wobbly construct that would crumble upon meeting the first wind of greatness, were it not reinforced by the fist, the rifle, and the sweat and blood of its prey. When Luke objects to the Captain’s mentality, stating, “You shouldn’t be so kind to me, Captain,” thereby rejecting the Captain’s idea of “help,” he is struck violently to the ground. Then the Captain resumes his tone of mocking kindness, pronouncing, “What we’ve had here is a failure to communicate.” According to the Captain, the man of independence must either renounce it willingly or renounce it through the imposition of societally legitimized brute force. In any case, renounce it he must, and if pseudo-polite paternalistic exhortations fail, the growl and lunge of the worst elements possible in man will bring about the social engineers’ aim.

Few men less deserving than Luke had ever been thrust into such hostile surroundings, from which physical escape will be met with pursuit and mental dissent with the box or the fist. Yet even there, Luke, and Emerson’s vision of the independent spirit, are able to persevere. From the beginning, when Carl lists all the innumerable infractions for which one can be put in the box, Luke is not intimidated. He responds with a relaxed shrug and presents his characteristic Luke smile, then anticipates that Carl’s next sentence will end with “a night in the box.” Carl notices that Luke is not the typical “new meat” prisoner and asks with an authoritative voice, “Well, what have we got here?” Unflinchingly, Luke responds, “We got a Lucas Jackson.” Luke possesses a firm pride in his identity and inherent human dignity, qualities that he will not permit a regimented environment to shatter. Emerson writes: “I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right. Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.” Luke epitomizes this philosophy when he neglects to degrade himself to the level of the standard “new meat” prison novice. He refuses to subordinate the fact of his existence to Dragline’s decision to recognize him as a significant member of the prison community. He realizes that he needs not the recognition of others in order to exhibit his self-worth or actualize his potential, but rather that those characteristics flow from within himself.

Initially, Luke’s open defiance of a long-standing prison tradition is met with great indignation and outright aggression on the part of his peers and Dragline. Luke adheres to the expression of the truth as observed by his mind, no matter how controversial, displeasing, or unconventional such honesty may be. Emerson writes, “I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways,” and Luke agrees. When Luke does not hesitate to assert his reason in regard to Dragline’s needless lust-filled commentary concerning a woman he had spotted during a round of work, he encounters the climax of Dragline’s rage. Luke is challenged to a fight, and repeatedly pummeled to the ground. Yet he remains adamant and continues to stand every time, not intending to devastate Dragline so much as to assert that such tactics of brute aggression will not conquer him. Luke recovers from every failure, ever-ready to recover and fight another round. Like the Emersonian man of all professions and opportunities, Luke “always like a cat falls on his feet. He has not once chance, but a hundred chances.” And, using one of those chances, Luke wins the fight in a far more meaningful way than would have been if Dragline were physically subdued. He is able to earn Dragline’s deepest respect through his resiliency, as Dragline realizes that this man of persistence, conviction, and integrity is not a cynical upstart, but rather a valuable potential friend.

Through the firm exercise of his creativity and autonomy, Luke is able to beautify the social conditions of his circle of fellow inmates and earn a general, profound, lasting respect. In order to do this, Luke implicitly recognizes another Emersonian insight: “Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.” If Luke had merely fallen in line with “the way things had always been done” in the prison, he would have encountered the same arduous, scorching, monotonous routine, a condition deliberately intended to stunt his ambitions and aspirations. When the prison bosses “reward” Luke’s gang for exemplary work by delegating to it a colossal road tarring job, Luke encourages his comrades to labor to their fullest capacity and finish the endeavor at a far swifter pace than had been expected of them. He realizes that an intelligent approach that facilitates coordinated activity among the members of the group would both accomplish the task and frame it as a challenge to be aspired toward in the minds of the prisoners. Luke transcends what has been assigned to him and transforms the dull routine into a search for his own objective, leisure time that is immensely difficult to acquire in a road prison. One he establishes the tempo of work, all the other members of his gang gravitate toward his approach and undertake a lively, motivated effort. This is reminiscent of Emerson’s proposition that men will come to admire and uphold the man of intrinsic determination and self-reliance, that, in the grand scheme of events, every institution is but “the lengthened shadow of one man,” the man who dared to introduce a radical change in the way a given matter was approached. Ultimately, not only is the ardor of the assignment alleviated by the workers’ internal drive, but they receive additional leisure afterward to use as they please.

Even as prison conditions become intolerable, Luke does not surrender his will to freedom up to the inevitable climax of the life-or-death struggle between him and his totalitarian overlords. Upon the death of Luke’s mother, the bosses seek to amplify his misery by sentencing him to three nights in the box, intended to decisively strike at his mind while it was still recovering from a blow. Luke realizes that no amount of ingenious coping, no invention of lively leisure activities of poker games, road tarring races, and egg-eating events will conceal the grim realities of the inhuman, whimsical, arbitrary condition imposed upon him. He must, and he will, liberate his body and his mind. After a failed escape attempt, he does not hesitate to stage another, despite the increased vigilance of the bosses. Man of reason that he is, he is able to spot the deficiencies of every one of his plans. The first escape, he is apprehended by a policeman due to the suspicious appearance of his prison clothes. During the second escape, he largely evades “civilized” roadways until he is able to remove his chains and mislead the prison dogs. Nevertheless, he is unable to fully disable his abusers’ means of pursuit. His third escape, co-orchestrated with Dragline, is a brilliantly executed theft of all the prison vehicles’ keys and use of one of the trucks to drive considerably far away from the prison prior to continuing the journey on foot. Every time, Luke is able to, through his autonomous thought, revise his errors and fall on his feet once more. Had he grasped but one more key Emersonian insight, he might have survived in body. “It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner.” Luke’s escape jointly with Dragline is his crucial mistake, for Dragline remains unable to fend for himself when necessity compels the two of them to split up. He lacks Luke’s tactical ingenuity and quickly falls into the hands of the search parties from the prison, leading them to Luke, misled into believing that Luke’s voluntary surrender, and the sparing of his life, could be achieved. Dragline, however well-intentioned, remains a follower, subject to the mercy of higher forces, be it the positive influence of Luke, or the soothing promises of the Captain. Dragline is not of the “class of great men,” in that his longings and hopes had all been derived from his admiration of Luke, not the products of his own mind.

Dragline does not expect his compliance to bring about Luke’s demise, but Luke, true to his nature, cannot bear to accept confinement once more. Instead of blindly subverting himself to the bosses, he proudly steps to the window of the church and announces, echoing the Captain’s one-time words, that “what we’ve had here is a failure to communicate.” Mr. Jackson recognizes that he is not to blame for not falling in line with prison impositions, but rather that the bosses had grossly misjudged his nature by seeking to stifle it “for his own good.” Yet the bosses come not in pursuit of communication, but of blood. Realizing that the individualist always shall overcome every form of degradation and every barrier, the bosses, with Godfrey as their agent, seek to render it impossible for Luke to ever rise again.

Thus ends the life of Lucas Jackson, but not the integrity that characterized it. Dragline realizes that no negotiation, no compromise, between freedom and submission are possible, and lunges at Godfrey, leading to the destruction of the boss’s grim and concealing sunglasses. Before he is imprisoned once more, Dragline at last rises to the level of grasping that, which is beyond persecution. “What the man acquires is living property, which does not wait the beck of rulers, or mobs, or revolutions, or fire, or storm, or bankruptcies, but perpetually renews itself wherever the man breathes.” The dauntless innovation and longing for liberty in the autonomous man cannot be dethroned by any physical means; it can only be diminished by a voluntary subordination of the individual’s mind to tyranny, which Luke had refused to accommodate. The legacy of Luke thus lingers on, as he remains, in Dragline’s words, “a natural born world shaker,” whose radiant smile and confident posture remain vivid in the prisoner’s minds. In its own characteristic way, Luke’s greatness has been released from the box and into eternity, as “the triumph of his principles” has at last granted him peace. What remains for the living prisoners is to discover on their own what Luke had known, and rely on his example as a steppingstone, but not a definitive standard, for their autonomous development.

The relevance of Luke’s example and Emerson’s message to the political situation today is of greater magnitude than it has ever been. Today, if parking meters were the only restriction placed on our autonomy, or if a mere widespread facetiousness in human interactions, of the manner that Emerson denounced, had afflicted our society, we would have been living in a comparatively promising and free world. Alas, the scope of our current confinement by far exceeds this.

The government of this country has usurped almost every sphere of human activity, shackling the creative entrepreneurial innovators through “antitrust” laws, restricting the amount of market share a business may through its owners’ skill and the quality of its product acquire. It has erected barriers to the advancement of thoughtful freethinkers by the imposition of affirmative action initiatives that prevent their attainment of education for faults not their own. It has presumed to dictate to businessmen and settlers what forms of land usage are permissible by standard of societal sanction, through laws of eminent domain and environmental preserves that force men to “absolve themselves in the reflex way” not only to their neighbors and the community, but the bureaucrats, the lobbyists, the endangered spotted slugs and numb lifeless rocks. It has imposed a quasi-prison environment on the young people of this country through the encouragement of forced volunteerism, in menial tasks similar to road tarring, within the schools, and the impending fear of the military draft that will make Godfreys of our officers and “new meat” of our boys, which the politicians implicitly advocate by maintaining draft registration. And all disagreement is reduced to virtually naught, since the freethinkers (often prosperous, industrious men) are extorted for gargantuan sums of their income to fund this socialist behemoth. Some of this income is expended in false philanthropy, becoming the “wicked dollar” that Emerson did not wish to give, that is used to uphold in a state of prison-like dependency hordes of welfare recipients who can be counted on to vote in their overlord incumbents and by the sheer volume of their holler overrule all dissent in the passage of the next statist subversion of liberty. And if any of these intelligent voices dissents by refusing to sacrifice his money for causes that will do him harm, the full weight of government retaliation is borne upon him. What can a man of independent convictions and self-reliant disposition do in such a setting, that grows more restrictive by the day?

Henry David Thoreau, Emerson’s friend and fellow thinker, tried the tactic of civil disobedience in defiance of a tax that was used to fund what was in his opinion an unjustified Mexican War. Thoreau was thrown in prison and, though he demonstrated considerable fortitude of conviction, he did not defeat the tax. Emerson’s fellow abolitionist and friend John Brown attempted to, through an armed raid on Harper’s Ferry, unseat an institution of slavery, which was backed by the coercive hand of big government, with only a handful of arms and supporters. He was executed for the attempt, and, though he became a martyr for the abolitionist cause, he did not defeat slavery. Lucas Jackson confronted the nuisance of parking meters with the saw and the cruelties of the prison with escapes. He, too, received a bullet in the chest in the end and failed to eradicate the root of his sufferings. Though all three of those men preserved their dignity intact through their punishments, they did not accomplish their aims, for they overlooked the fact that the complete triumph of individualism requires another approach.

Of the individualist, Emerson writes that “the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him, — and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history. It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.” Emerson advocates not an armed revolution, nor even overt disobedience of the law, but rather a mode of living that exemplifies a man who loves, and takes advantage of, the freedom to use his mind. Emerson did not go to prison for tax evasion; nor did he start a slave revolt; nor would he have decapitated parking meters today. Nevertheless, his ideas and influence have spread to the present day in precisely the manner that he intended. He did not wish to be worshipped as an idol or regarded as an unquestionable sage, but rather to give men a stimulus to more closely examine their habits and the capacities that only they can unleash from within. Rather, he is a thinker who should be analyzed with a critical intelligence, and whose views should serve as useful tools and steppingstones, but not finished products or ends-in-themselves.

Emerson’s key proposition in regard to self-reliance as a vehicle for reform is that voluntary persuasion and personal example can eliminate a societal peril. In a man’s every implicit gesture, he reveals a certain mode of function that is inextricably tied to his nature. “Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.”

A man who opposes the usurpations of government, or the spread of cultural decadence, or the increasing “faraway escapes” that many modern men seek from their lives, must speak firmly and act firmly for the establishment of a freer world where individual creativity is left unbridled. He should not cower for fear that the public will reject his claims simply because he does not hold two and half Ph. Ds in the subject that he addresses. The Ph. Ds themselves are too often handed out by the zealous guardians of the current political and cultural paradigm, the entrenched academic elites who endlessly cite Marx, Roosevelt, and Keynes, and preach “of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations.” If deference to authority and the miserable record of the ages in the political sphere is abandoned, and the clarity and logic of the advocates of freedom is exposed, then, as the fellow inmates reached toward Luke, the public will gravitate toward the new, original, promising thinkers who uphold as their highest value the individual’s intrinsic right to exist and to be let alone. The politicians will abandon their pragmatic give-and-take approach to matters where liberty is at stake, and will realize that only the triumph of solid, uncompromising principles within them will maintain them the support of a reformed constituency.

A Review of the Penny Marshall Film “Awakenings” (2004) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

A Review of the Penny Marshall Film “Awakenings” (2004) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 26, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2004 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 2,600 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  
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~ G. Stolyarov II, July 26, 2014

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Today, films about handicaps and diseases occur occasionally. One example is A Beautiful Mind, which features schizophrenia. Certainly, this is not a topic that is featured as often as the common themes of war/action, romance, and comedy, perhaps due to the greater subtlety involved in the dignity of characters who exhibit serious illnesses and the supreme mastery needed of film directors and actors who would wish to convey it. Too often a majority of individuals tend to be repulsed by the sight of individuals on screen whose bodily functions so evidently and so seriously deviate from health. A film about a disease would need to overcome this ingrained repulsion and portray the patients as genuinely attractive, important, and interesting individuals.

Penny Marshall does this with Awakenings (1990) through her depiction of Leonard as an eager connoisseur of books and toy models, as well as Leonard’s intellectual deliberations about the nature of life. Leonard’s mind is exposed in a manner that welcomes the audience to explore his personality, rather than be repelled by his defects.

The various plots of the film are integrated skillfully. For example, the conflict between Dr. Sayer and the hospital establishment constantly undermines his relationship with his patients, as the hospital always holds and often acts on its financial reservations, and, in the ultimate escalation of its insensitivity, denies Leonard’s harmless request to take a walk alone. This brings about Leonard’s deep spite and his orchestration of a rebellion of the patients against both the hospital and Dr. Sayer. Additionally, Leonard’s conversations with Dr. Sayer and his ultimate relapse into immobility convince Sayer to finally express his affections for Eleanor Costello and take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a caring relationship in full health. Another plot concerns Leonard’s relationship with his mother, who had been his principal caretaker, and who becomes dismayed by Leonard’s interest in and association with Paula. This tension is resolved when Leonard is incapacitated once again, as both his mother and Paula attend to his welfare.

My primary exposure to Robin Williams has been through comedy films such as Mrs. Doubtfire, while Robert De Niro is familiar from action films like The Untouchables. The roles played by both actors in this film are unusual for them, but this is necessitated by the very nature and content of the film. Nevertheless, De Niro did resemble his Al Capone role when, as Leonard, he orchestrated the uprising of patients in the hospital and recruited a ganglike following for himself, endangering and humiliating Dr. Sayer with it. This may have been a deliberate decision on Penny Marshall’s part, as De Niro is known to play well the roles of gang bosses, but that episode was without question an exception to Leonard’s personality rather than the rule. De Niro has been put into a role of an admirable, thoughtful individual, which he has shown to play as well as that of a detestable gangster.

The most memorable secondary character in the film is the female doctor on the hospital board who stated to Leonard when he sought permission to go for a walk, “Are you aware that you are expressing a subconscious disdain for us?” To this Leonard replied, in demonstration of his mental autonomy, “How can I be aware of it if it is subconscious?” This doctor, to me, symbolized a hospital establishment that did not view Leonard and other post-encephalitic patients as fully human and employed pseudo-intellectual sophisms to justify restrictions placed on the patients from some of the most rudimentary and innocent undertakings of human existence.

The visit to an earlier setting of the 1920s presents a stark contrast in appearance and lifestyles with the main setting of the film. The clothing and vehicle styles of Leonard’s childhood are far different from the era of his awakening, and bring about the need for Leonard to adapt to an entirely new world and “catch up” on forty years of change. The effect of this is the creation of an understanding within the audience of just how long Leonard had been incapacitated and how torturous this period had been for him. The historical setting of the 1960s is in itself expressed well through the screams of anti-war protesters near the hospital area, as well as the ragged and often suggestive fashions of people encountered on the streets. One particular scene, of Dr. Sayer and Leonard passing by a dazed bum on the street poses an intense contrast between Leonard, who, having been separated from life for so long, is eager to savor every moment of health and competence, and this apparently young hippie who is deliberately ruining his health and viewing life with a dull contempt.

Leonard awakens literally, from decades of immobility, but also intellectually, being able to reveal his insights and values to the world with immense expressive power which he had hitherto lacked. Dr. Sayer awakens to the idea of enjoying health and competence while they are still available and opening oneself to new opportunities rather than shying away from them. The hospital staff and the sponsors of the project to treat the patients are guided by Leonard and Dr. Sayer into understanding the patients’ full humanity and dignity, as well as appreciating the ability to perform rudimentary life-affirming tasks, such as taking walks or merely speaking, that patients such as Leonard have been deprived of and yearned for greatly. The lesson derived across the board, especially by the audience, is that living must be performed deliberately, without allowing boredom with mundane routine to overshadow an appreciation for and actualization of one’s fundamental ability to extract the most from one’s relationships and undertakings. The audience can awaken to the fact that life is far more colorful than it is often portrayed in a culture that stresses routine, and much more of it can be explored than is customarily taken advantage of.

Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Happiness (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Happiness (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published November 26, 2009
as Part of Issue CCXX of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXX of The Rational Argumentator on November 26, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
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 One of the most grievous errors made by most people in the Western world today can be found in the prevailing view of happiness as constant pleasure or euphoria. This vision of happiness is not only unattainable but destructive of genuine happiness. A much more realistic and satisfying understanding of happiness can be found by combining the insights of Classical Aristotelian and Enlightenment philosophers and applying them to the vast opportunities we have in our time.

The view of happiness as pleasure or euphoria fails in multiple ways. First, it is physiologically unattainable. It is simply impossible for the human body to experience euphoria except in short, fairly infrequent bursts – the body simply cannot produce enough of the pleasure-stimulating chemicals that lead to the desired sensations. Moreover, the body reacts in the same essential manner to pleasure deserved through effort – such as the pride in having completed a creative work or in having transformed an aspect of the world – and to pleasure brought about by the introduction of certain foreign substances, such as drugs, into the body. It is well-known that a drug user needs increasing doses of a drug to experience the same euphoria; the doses that could produce it originally no longer suffice, because the body becomes accustomed to them. However, a lack of the drug altogether results in feelings of active, often severe, displeasure, because the body has come to treat the presence of certain amounts of the drug as its default, neutral state.

The same can be said of any life dominated by pursuit of pleasurable feelings for their own sake – detached from the events and conditions of the external reality. If an individual does manage to experience feelings of heightened pleasure all the time, his body will eventually become desensitized to them – to the point of viewing them as the neutral state. Every pleasurable feeling has a cause – be it internal or external. The individual will therefore come to view the cause of the pleasurable feelings as needing to be present in order to maintain even a neutral state of mind. As it is virtually impossible to maintain the causes of unusual pleasure in operation all the time, this individual will be certain to experience emotional “withdrawal” more often than he experiences pleasure.

Furthermore, a life dominated by the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake becomes a trap for the individual – preventing him from exercising his agency in the external world and instead confining him to replication of biochemical patterns within his own body that are aimed at producing the sought-after feelings. Instead of reshaping the elements of the world outside him into increasingly favorable configurations, he will become a slave to the peculiar construction of his own organism – and he will short-circuit its mechanisms in such a manner as to deprive feelings of pleasure of the utility they would have for a person who is not obsessed with them. The external reality is often quite unaccommodating; the man who focuses on his own feelings instead of observing and responding to the outside world will quickly find the outside world wearing away at his life until there is nothing left.

The sensible function of pleasure is as a reward for objectively beneficial behaviors. If an individual feels good after performing an act that improves his chances of survival, then this gives him an incentive to perform that act in the future. This is why the human capacity to experience pleasure was favored by natural selection for thousands of generations. However, this capacity evolved in a very different environment from our current one – where feelings of pleasure were largely extremely difficult to earn; good food was scarce and only attainable after strenuous hunting and foraging, and even the comfort of a shelter secure from the elements was a rarity. In our era, human beings have become extremely adept at artificially stimulating their pleasure centers without doing anything beforehand to earn such stimulation. The coupling of humans’ new possibilities with their ancient biology can explain such bizarre phenomena as obesity, recreational drug use, promiscuity, and the teenage culture in the contemporary Western world.

Pleasure can still serve its more beneficial function as an incentive for accomplishment, and, by being framed in this manner, it can be limited to a reasonable presence. But it has become much easier to bypass this much more demanding route to pleasure. The solution, of course, is not to reject our life-improving modern conveniences, but rather to alter our thinking about what constitutes a happy life.

To gain a more sophisticated understanding of happiness, it is useful to refer to two sets of historical philosophers. The Classical Greek philosophers, beginning with Aristotle, developed a concept of happiness as being inextricably linked with virtue. The Aristotelian view of happiness, or eudaimonia, did not emphasize pleasure or emotional states. Rather, it saw the truly happy man as the man who has actualized his full potential and has thereby positively influenced the external reality to the entirety of his ability. Virtuous habits – including moderation in the pursuit of pleasure – enable the individual to devote his energies toward self-actualization, which produces a longer-lasting, sustainable happiness. The Enlightenment philosophers contributed to this view by emphasizing the tremendous potential of the human rational faculty in literally reshaping the world and taking humanity out of the muck of poverty, vulgarity, and violence that it had been immersed in for most of its history. Each individual’s use of reason is his means for cultivating his full potential and for attaining true happiness. When the American Founders talked about a natural right to “the pursuit of happiness,” it was this rational, virtue-driven happiness that they had in mind.

It is important to emphasize that this view of happiness does not advocate asceticism, either. A certain sustainable amount of pleasure is preferable to complete avoidance of enjoyment – because the latter cannot be maintained indefinitely and is likely to result in an eventual reaction toward the opposite extreme of hedonism. It is also important to recognize that what constitutes self-actualization will differ considerably among individuals, and the sustainable level of pleasure will also vary in accordance with an individual’s material circumstances and psychological inclinations.

Nowhere is the sharp distinction between the conventional, hedonistic view of happiness and the rational, virtue-based view more evident than in human relationships, particularly those of a romantic nature. Those who expect their romantic partners to continually inspire them with feelings of ecstasy or euphoria are sentencing themselves to a lifetime of frustrations, breakups, and serial attempts at happiness – which will all inevitably end in the same way. A genuinely fulfilling romantic relationship is not one that continually stimulates the pleasure centers of each party’s brains, but rather one that exhibits a lasting commitment on both sides and a continual cooperation for the purpose of making life better. Feelings of love and affection should be present, of course, but they are much more sustainable in a gentle, comforting, persistent form than they could be in the form of the rapture that so many people mistakenly imagine love to be. My essay, “A Rational View of Love“, offers a more thorough exposition of this idea.

Finally, it is important to recognize that no life – and particularly no productive life – will be free of negative feelings. Whenever we seek to overcome obstacles, we are likely to encounter difficulties we cannot immediately resolve. This may produce feelings of doubt, fear, anger, disappointment, and frustration, in various mixes and degrees. As the world is severely flawed in most ways, it would be unreasonable for us not to have a substantial amount of negative feelings about it. These feelings should not be banished from our brains; indeed, they can serve as useful indicators of the problems in our lives and can motivate us to resolve them. Many people today make the mistake of abandoning any aspect of life they may occasionally feel negatively about – be it a job, a relationship, an educational pursuit, an independent creative work, or a set of ideas. But a negative feeling should not be the equivalent of a mental off-switch or “Keep Out” sign. Instead, it should be seen as an invitation to explore, resolve, challenge, or resist. Turning away from anything that does not trigger immediate good feelings is the surest recipe for unhappiness.

If it is not through a constant feeling of pleasure, then how can one know if one is happy? I posit that this can be ascertained by asking a single question: “Am I pursuing an overall course in life with whose consequences I expect to be satisfied for as long as I live?” This question ignores the everyday fluctuations in emotional states and arrives at the core issue: how one’s choices and behaviors contribute to the actualization of one’s potential and the establishment of a sustainable, ever-improving life. It shifts the focus of one’s attention from one’s present feelings to the future effects of one’s actions. Incidentally, however, it also has the effect of making one feel better on average, since one’s present emotional state is heavily dependent on whether one has behaved in a life-affirming or a life-undermining manner in the past. The more one does now to benefit one’s future, the better one will feel in the future. But it is a good, flourishing life itself that constitutes happiness, and, as a byproduct, results in mild, sustainable, and profoundly rewarding pleasure.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXX.

Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Employment (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Employment (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published November 26, 2009
as Part of Issue CCXX of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXX of The Rational Argumentator on November 26, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
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The mistaken identification of wealth with money, which I refuted in an earlier installment of this series, results in yet another damaging fallacy: the idea that the only legitimate “employment” is work performed for somebody else in exchange for money. This cultural confusion has become so deep-rooted that even people who own their own businesses or function as independent contractors are classified as “self-employed” – which, despite the second component of that term, is somehow seen as distinct from being “employed,” which has become in the minds of many identical to working for a formal organization on a fixed schedule for largely fixed compensation. There is nothing wrong with the latter kind of employment; indeed, I am currently engaged in it, and it pays well. It is a practical and a tremendously useful way to earn a living for many. But the societal stigma against many individuals who choose not to pursue that path needs to end.

I am not here seeking to justify individuals who refuse to work out of sloth or rebelliousness – or individuals who choose to subsist off of the welfare system. Indeed, I am not at all seeking to justify individuals who refuse to work at all. Rather, I seek to effectuate a cultural re-identification of employment with doing actual useful work – physical or mental – irrespective of how much, or how little, money that work earns. If wealth is not money but rather useful goods and services, then useful employment is any activity that generates useful goods and services. Some such activities happen to be highly compensated with money, either because there is large market demand for them or because they are subsidized by private institutions or governments. But other such activities arise out of individuals’ volunteer efforts, hobbies and interests, and desires to improve their immediate environment. An individual who devotes himself or herself primarily to the latter sorts of activities can be as worthy of respect and just as productive as an individual who makes a six-figure monetary income.

First, it is essential to recognize that either market value or institutional advantages that result in monetary subsidies are not necessarily a reflection of genuine wealth creation or usefulness. For instance, numerous products of high culture – including philosophy, literature, and classical music – are not in high demand among the masses, who simply do not understand such products. The creators of high culture will not earn as great an income on the market as the creators of light magazines and popular music. However, these same creators will contribute a much longer-lasting value to human knowledge, refinement, and moral standards for generations to come, whereas the creators of more popular works are unlikely to remain in demand for more than two generations. There is nothing wrong with this differential in compensation, per se, as people who do not appreciate high culture are entitled to vote with their dollars however they please. But this state of affairs does invalidate any notion that the amount of money one receives from one’s work is in any manner connected with one’s worth as a human being or one’s contribution to improving one’s own life and the lives of others – both in the short term and in the long term. Many creators of more refined works have even decided that it is unwise to try to make a living from such works and depend on their approval by a mass audience; instead, they have decided to subsidize their own creations and the dissemination of these works by means of a monetary income they earn from another occupation. This allows for works of high culture to be created exactly as the author intended them to be; if the author is talented and has a consistent vision, such works will be much more likely to endure long into the future.

Another important recognition is that some work is either impossible to transfer to the market given present technology or is prohibitively expensive to transfer. For instance, if I wish to go into my kitchen and get myself a beverage, it would be highly impractical for me to hire another individual to do this for me. If I get the beverage myself, I do not either collect or spend any money – provided that I already own the beverage, the glass, and the living space. But it cannot be denied that the act of getting the beverage was desirable to me and improved the quality of my life. Likewise, numerous actions that an individual performs to improve his or her own skills – such as reading books, practicing musical instruments, and doing mathematical problems – cannot be outsourced to other individuals and retain their value for the individual, which arises from the act of learning new skills that the individual himself would be able to use in the future. Indeed, it is true that all of us, if we have even the slightest desire to live well, will perform a wide variety of work every day for which we receive no monetary compensation at all! If we did not perform this work, it is unlikely that we would be in any position to earn any money, either.

A popular source of contempt in contemporary culture is the individual who, instead of leaving the home to work for money, chooses to remain at home and maintain it in good working order. This is, in my judgment, the single most egregious consequence of the fallacy that employment is the same as working for money. Working within the home – especially when supported by the monetary income of another family member – is a tremendously useful and life-affirming occupation; it facilitates a division of labor where various family members can specialize in the tasks they are most skilled at performing, thereby making good use of the principle of comparative advantage. Moreover, it enables a greater degree of care for any children in the household and provides a source of relief for those individuals who simply do not like working outside the home on a fixed schedule.

I note that there is nothing in this implying that any particular gender of individual should choose to stay at home, or that a family cannot function well if all of its members choose to work outside the home. Rather, I argue that a productive family can exist irrespective of which of its members do or do not choose to work for money. Indeed, for a family which has accumulated sufficient money and physical goods, it is possible to maintain productivity and a high standard of living even if none of its members earns a regular monetary income. Even if an individual has never earned any money in his or her life and, say, lives off a vast inheritance, it is still possible for that individual to perform useful and productive work. Indeed, one of the arguments that the great Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek made for the right of inheritance can be summarized as follows. Even if the vast majority of people who inherit their money will spend it unwisely, it is enough for one out of a thousand inheritors to be a great thinker and innovator. This individual, through his inheritance, will have the time and leisure to bring his vision to fruition, without needing to worry about providing for his day-to-day subsistence. The result could be a tremendous philosophical, technological, or artistic breakthrough that improves the lives of millions for centuries to come – and this result is worth the wasteful spending any other heirs might engage in.

Of course, the manner of productive work one does is often constrained by one’s current material situation. Many people will work for money, even if they wish to do something else, because they need the money to maintain the standard of living they wish to have. Increases in monetary income can go a long way toward improving both one’s access to leisure and one’s level of security and comfort. On the other hand, the same goals can also be achieved in part by spending less of the money one already earns and by living within one’s means – never letting one’s expenses exceed one’s income, which is akin to deficit spending for individuals, and not taking out interest-bearing debt, unless there is no other option, and the good the debt would fund could be seen as a necessity – such as a house. Devoting some time to managing one’s spending and establishing less expensive lifestyle choices is just productive as working to earn a salary increase.

If you wish to work to earn money, by all means do so. If you would rather focus on working in the home or doing volunteer work of any sort, this is excellent as well. Provided that one works and has useful outcomes to show for it, there is no need to feel any inferiority in one’s own case or any disrespect for others.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXX.