We’re all hustlers now

The Cynic

In New York, you’re always in somebody’s way and somebody’s always in yours. If you manage to avoid one person, you’ve thereby become, as if by pre-established disharmony, the obstacle for the next. And no matter how flawless your plan of life, you’d do well to act as if each step were improvised, each word that of a travel writer. The social experiment that is New York never fails to elicit a mixture of wonder and horror: imagine scarce resources, an island measuring but 23 square miles, the wealthy bestride the poor, and 8 million Gatsbies and Barnums all out to hustle. The result is war by other means: an agon governed by banal theatricality. In order to improve, if only slightly, your scant chance at making it, I suggest you learn how and when to pardon, excuse, outflank, inveigle, network, apologize, give, inquire, exploit, thank, nudge, ignore. No flourishing, brother, without cunning.

The 3 figures of the philosopher

On a field trip to the museum, you see a few philosophical specimens. Not as interesting, of course, as the curiosities bobbing in wait for you just around the corner: the brains curing in vats, the elephant men whose feet are mercilessly swollen, the gnarled dwarfs preserved in jars. Still, worth a quick peek before lunchtime perhaps.

A quick turn of the head brings into your field of vision the magisterial master builder, the confabulator of ideal cities. You don’t think to point to him; you don’t see mothers whispering in PC language about how un-PC he looks. Next, ah ha!, the rakish provocateur. You press the button and hear a veritable word salad: “radicalism,” “resistance,” “status quo,” “hegemony,” and other gobbledygook. The label says “Kitsch.” Finally, the great consoler. How ridiculous, you think. We have therapists for that now.

The tedium makes you hungry.

Philosophical biography

Writing a philosophical biography could involve asking three related questions: 1. How did this philosopher live? 2. What did he believe (in particular, about human flourishing)? And 3. Did he live according to his beliefs?

Were we to undertake writing such a book, what might we find? That he lived well or poorly; that he believed the right or the wrong sorts of things; and that he failed to or succeeded in living with integrity.

In Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche (forthcoming), Jim Miller has sought to write such a book. Sarah Bakewell, who authored a fine book of her own on Montaigne, wrote a favorable review of Examined Lives in this past week‘s NYT. I’m hoping she’s right.

Update: Another favorable (and quite eloquent) review of Miller’s book.