2020-12-04 • 4 min read

Let Pallas live in the city that she founded.
Let me dwell here lamenting in the forest.[1]

– Virgil

In these great times, wherein every human on Earth can put down their deeply considered ideas and offer them, free of charge, with no thought to their career or reputation, aiming only to shoot up some added utility into the swollen groin of the species and, in so doing, gloriously trace the footsteps of our old and sadly dated heroes – wherein everybody can offer their ideas thusly to their fellow humans – in these great times, it takes a special kind of person, surely, to think they have something to add to the reserves of knowledge already mined by the writer class. But that is what I intend and will now proceed to do.

Because being in awe has served nobody. One of those hard-earned pieces of knowledge that settles as one grows older is that, no matter how superior or imposing they seem, no matter how famous or admired they are, no matter if they’re the King of Sweden or the Queen of Jamaica, no matter if they’re a pop star, a model, a scholar, an author, a doctor or even a journalist, everybody is, when it all comes down to it, no more and no less than a flabby, perspiring mammal. I think we’d all do well to dwell on that.

But of course we try to forget and overcome our mammal nature. That’s what civilisation is all about. It’s what culture is about. And so if we’re conscientious thinkers we read up on things like logic, biases, probability, statistics and so on, we survey the available research and we argue and write by the Principle of Charity. And I love that shit, don’t get me wrong. But it’s hard and I don’t want to promise too much. Peter Singer wrote in The Expanding Circle that “[b]eginning to reason is like stepping onto an escalator that leads upward and out of sight[: o]nce we take the first step, the distance to be traveled is independent of our will and we cannot know in advance where we shall end.”[2] That’s beautiful and all and true in a way, but for me reasoning is more like tumbling down into a labyrinth. I still don’t know in advance where I’ll end up, but I also have no idea where I’m going; and there are tempting sirens round every corner.

Many of the writers who are most important to me are or were relative outsiders, prime examples being Arthur Schopenhauer and Gerald Murnane. I don’t know if there’s a correlation between outsiderness and quality of thought. It seems that way, but that’s probably a product of Berkson’s paradox. Being a good thinker helps writers achieve fame, but a number of other qualities do too, like having connections or writing in a popular style. Any of those things will help a writer become famous, which means that the quality of thought will be lower on average among the insiders because there’ll be among them those who got by mostly with their connections or their popular style, whereas the outsider, having neither of those to their advantage, must become famous (or not) on the strength of thought alone.

That said, I think there is something special about outsiders, after all. Which brings me to the epitaph up there. Let me quote it again:

Let Pallas live in the city that she founded.
Let me dwell here lamenting in the forest.[3]

Two things favour the forest-dweller. The first is the freedom of not engaging in the ever-shifting trends and ideas of the city. Whether you want it or not those trends and ideas have a tendency to eat your mind. The second is the freedom of not having to compete. If you want to make it in a highly competitive environment, you will need to compromise; compromise usually involves a movement towards the mean. (Of course there’s a tension here in that Athens was the forge and founding place for much of the kind of intellectual pursuit that I enjoy. I don’t know how to resolve that though as so often it appears one must strike a balance.)

So much for the spirit of this blog and its reason for being. The introduction draws to an end. But before it comes to an end I want to leave you with an idea of what to expect in the future.

First, I’ve decided to make things simple for myself and so will simply write about whatever I’m interested in at any moment. “I learned to trust my obsessions.”[4] That may or may not include things like philosophy, poetry, literature, history, politics, science, programming and music. If those aren’t your thing, you can probably go back to reading The Guardian or whatever.

Second, I will try to write short pieces, 500 to 2000 words, which should make for two to eight minutes or so of reading time. That should make it easier for me to write them and easier for you to read them.

Third and final, I speak for no one but myself. Other people speak for other people, but I don’t know what gives them the right. No popular movement, no democratic process, no Quakerish consensus-making has put me here. I am alone in my forest and don’t expect anyone to hear my lamentations. But being a mammal I should of course not be displeased to learn that somebody does.

Footnotes #

  1. Virgil & Ferry, D. (2000). The eclogues of Virgil : a translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ↩︎

  2. Singer, P. (2011). The expanding circle : ethics, evolution, and moral progress. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ↩︎

  3. Virgil & Ferry, D. (2000). The eclogues of Virgil : a translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ↩︎

  4. That’s something Robert Bly once said or wrote, but I wasn’t able to find the exact source. ↩︎