Nullius in verba

One especially bewildering experience can serve as the reason for my writing Cultivating Discipline Lightly: A Guide for Philosophical Friends (2013). In 1660, the Royal Society takes as its motto a ‘creative mistake’; it shortens a line from Horace’s Epistles to read simply: nullius in verba. The line can be translated as ‘Take nobody’s word for it’ or ‘On the word of no one.’

Almost 400 years later, the line has become second nature, our lived common sense. We doubt intentions, motivations, interests, causes, consequences, each other. Yet how could it come to pass that a challenge to a certain kind of authority (namely, the authority shown in fiat rather than in empirical evidence) could become a challenge to all forms of legitimate authority? When, in our everyday lives, we begin by taking nobody’s word at face value, in the end we become suspicious of everyone, including ourselves.

The question for our unsettled time is thus:

Who, today, is to lead whom out into the clearing and on what basis?

In our time, we mustn’t shirk our history of skepticism and suspicion; instead, we must seek to transcend it. In spite of the crumbling spirals and burning outrage, in spite of our initial recoils before anyone who would invite us to pause and follow along, we will need to answer this question affirmatively, with lightness in our hearts. The experience of letting ourselves be led would feel–after the icy end of innocence and after centuries of estrangement–like coming upon a ‘second childhood’ or, what is the same thing, a ‘third adulthood.’

Fundraising in the Context of a Gift Economy

My friend Jonatan Spejlborg is currently raising funds for the artist residency and school he and his colleagues are creating. Specifically, they need to raise money in order to build the house where participants will live, work, and create. I offered a gift contribution earlier today, and I invite you to do the same.

You can view the Kickstarter campaign as well as make your gift contribution directly on the site:

This occasion also gave me reason to pause and reflect upon how one could do honest, direct fundraising in the context of a gift economy. The dangers evident in most styles of fundraising are either that one approaches potential gift-givers out of a spirit of apology (as if one were harming these others simply by asking them for help), or else one feels bound to participate in the genre of hustling (using these others, uncaringly, as a means for your own ends). In Manners and Mores (2013), I call this dilemma, more generally, the Freelancer’s Dilemma, and I believe it runs rampant these days.

I don’t believe that either path has to be taken, and I think a gift economy worksheet could give us a way out: could provide us with a more decent, considered, and humane way of seeing to each other by seeing each other.

Here’s my first attempt:

Section I. Preliminaries: Caring About What Matters Most

After presenting the idea to the potential gift-giver(s) with a view to getting him/her/them to understand why this matters and whether they care enough about it, one would then ask Q1 and Q2.

Q1. The Question of Significance. Can you see why completing this [house, project, school, entity, etc.] would contribute significantly to what matters most?

Q2. The Question of Caring. If you can see that this [idea, thing, etc.] contributes to what matters most, do you care enough about this [house, project, school, entity, etc.] to help bring it into being?

Remark: One may see that this project matters but not care enough that he help bring it being. Only if it matters and if he cares that he help make it possible would one invite him to continue onto Q3-5 below.

Section II. Cultivating Just Generosity

Q3. The Question of Generosity. How much would you be able to give in order to [e.g., help build this house, create this school, etc.]?

Q4. The Question of Burden. If you were to give this much, would it prove to be a financial burden for you, making it difficult, if not impossible, for you to care about what matters most? If it would, then let’s return to Q3 and try out a different answer. If it wouldn’t, then lovely: we’ve arrived at ‘just generosity.’ You’re offering just enough to me and to us without its calling into question your own way of life.

Section III. Coming to Wholeheartedness

We’d now need to figure out whether you can offer this amount with a Yes! in your heart or only with a pause, with some doubt and hesitation.

Q5. The Question of Wholehearted Assent. Could you give [say amount kindly, clearly, directly] out of a sense of praise for what you care about?

Remark: According to Aristotle, we only praise what is admirable. To praise someone is not just to value this person highly but also, and implicitly, to care that he persist in his excellent way of being. Suppose, then, that the gift-giver could give this much out of wholeheartedness. Then you’d say: ‘Thank you. I accept your gift wholeheartedly.’

If you wish to use the worksheet, it’d be kind to give the author credit: Andrew James Taggart

The decline of patronage and the rise of philanthropy

A patron is to a contemplative age what a philanthropist is to an action-oriented one. During the passage to modernity, we see a slow yet undeniable shift away from patronage as a way of displaying generosity and toward philanthropy as a ‘style’ of contributing to social change. Edward Craig’s well-researched book The Mind of God and the Works of Man provides us with the rich intellectual background underlying this significant epochal shift.

Before the modern age, Craig tells us that the most excellent form of life was a life of contemplation. One sought, by various means or routes, to approximate to the Mind of God. After the seventeenth century, however, it was assumed to be a life committed to the Agency Theory. A good life, it was thought, was one involved in demonstrating one’s agency, in making good on the Works of Man. I would conjecture that Marx’s ‘Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach’ helped to crystallize this change in worldview, memorializing it in the form of an aphorism. ‘Philosophers,’ he wrote there, ‘have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’ Thus was the philosopher, as the one who seeks to understand things by showing how humans can live in accordance with nature, supplanted by the change-maker, the agent who assumes that the world is ‘out-of-joint’ and thus in need of fixing.

In our time good and great wealth is still amassed, but now it is distributed according to a very different understanding of ethical life. Unlike the patron who seeks to honor the lives of excellent individuals such as poets, painters, and monks, the modern-day philanthropist sets his eyes on funding individuals, organizations, and entities which can demonstrate that they are making positive, measurable social impacts on improving health and education, furthering the cause of social justice, or diminishing the rate of poverty. He wants the world to be better than it is, he believes the world to be a ‘problem’ in search of ‘solutions,’ and he assumes that the way of making it better is by intervening. 

Let’s grant, without delay, that these sorts of things–and doubtless others like them–are worthy causes. Still, is it self-evidently the case that the idea of social betterment must necessarily come before, and be placed higher than, the project of self-cultivation? It is as though we had not only changed the First Question from ‘What counts as a good and beautiful life?’ to ‘How can the world be made less unjust?’ but also forgotten the original question entirely. But, were we to remember the former question, would we be willing to pause and consider whether the latter is the First Question to put to human life?

Repetition degrades

A good human life requires variety. By means of exercising properly a variety of modes of becoming (eating well, resting well, moving one’s body well, thinking clearly, etc.), a human being comes to greater vitality, becoming more alive to living, more in touch with what is beautiful, more beautiful himself.

Variety invites transitions as well as counterposes whereas repetition can only degrade. Repetition is not learning. One mode of becoming (e.g., working) cannot be performed excellently for 8-12 hours straight, only for a short while, a short energetic burst in which one wholeheartedly creates. For as long as one repeats, one’s powers of concentration are coarsened. One’s mind becomes wayward. One’s behaviors are patterned, one’s aesthetic sense dulled. One becomes, over time, a less vital human being.

Places of repetition: the office, the bar, the factory, the shopping mall.

Examples of degradation: fatigue, sickness, lethargy, mindlessness, skimming, glossing, hurrying, busying, confirming, apologizing, verbosity, overplanning.

Styles of ‘recoil’: fantasizing, daydreaming, wondering, wishing, imagining all manner of ecstasy, vacationing, going on retreats.

One cannot get out of repetition unless one ‘ruptures’ repetition. But the rupturing of repetition is a return to variety. To welcome variety would mean living very differently.

The most excellent kind of day for a human being

What is the most excellent kind of day for a human being? It is living in accordance with nature. What does this mean?

‘All that is in tune with you, O Universe, is in tune with me.’–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations


1. Following. A day touched by radiance follows the course of nature, coursing. As nature courses, becoming more alive to living, more in tune with itself, so I become more alive to living, more in tune with myself.

2. Modes of Becoming. A human life consists of basic modes of becoming. These are moving, resting, working, eating, speaking, thinking, and acting. Each mode of becoming can, with exercise and as a result of right discipline, become more excellent, thereby coursing. Or else it can become degraded, hence coarsened and coarsening.

3. Accordance. At its most excellent, each mode of becoming accords at one and the same time with itself and with nature.

4. Intensity and Duration. Each mode of becoming, at its most excellent, expresses the proper degree of energetic power coursing in and through the present activity. This proper intensity is called joy. Eating, for instance, is given no more and no less than its due.  So too with an energetic movement such as climbing. So too with philosophical conversations. Therefore, it is done slowly, attentively, unhurriedly, in time and step with itself. The proper duration, neither too long nor too short, is also a way of ‘releasing’ oneself easily onto the next activity.

5. Transitions. Each transition from one mode of becoming to the next is unhurried, carried out with timing and grace. Not only that, but each follows organically from the last, each coursing onto the next in due course. Just in this way does a good human being, always in the midst of becoming more excellent, follow nature’s phases, sequences, and seasons. (Otherwise, he fights himself and struggles with life and is considered ‘sick.’)

6. Beauty. When a mode of becoming reaches a certain state of excellence both in its intensity and in its manner of unfolding, then it can be said to be beautiful. But then goodness raised to beauty just is radiance.