My Intellectual History, Part III

2014-12-06

It seems that every once in a while on December 6th, I write a journal entry about the intellectual path I'm travelling in this all-too-short life. The previous installments in this series were written on December 6th, 1989 and December 6th, 1999. It's been fifteen years since the last post, so there's a lot of ground to cover! Like 1500 blog posts, 4 books, a bunch of meaningful friendships, and a big phase of my career. (And no, there isn't any particular significance to December 6th, it just happens to have worked out that way.)

One significant influence on my subsequent mental evolution has been my involvement with the open-source community, which began in earnest in November of 1999 when I started contributing to the Jabber instant messaging project. That influence has taken two primary forms. First, ever so slowly I became convinced that ideas cannot be owned and that the entire apparatus of copyright is misguided (see my essays Who's Afraid of the Public Domain? and What Is Copyright?). Second, I have experienced first-hand the effectiveness of decentralized and completely voluntary cooperation, which has greatly affected my outlook on social, economic, and political matters.

Related to my work with Jabber has been my experience with three amazing teams: the original jabber.org dev team (Jeremie, Temas, Dizzy, Eliot, Ryan, Justin, Julian, and of course our dear departed Peter Millard); the Jabber Inc. team, which went through so many trials and triumphs together in our 8 years as a startup company; and now the &yet team, from whom and with whom I have learned so much already (looking forward to many more years together!). Although perhaps once I thought that all achievement was purely individual, working in these teams has helped me realize every day that we can do so much more together than we can do apart. The insights of team-oriented thinkers such as Dee Hock have been an important influence on me in this domain of my life.

Another major thread that I pursued for about five years (roughly 2002-2007) was an in-depth investigation of two historical questions that have long puzzled me: (1) how did the modern world emerge? and (2) what is the nature of American culture? These are huge topics and I cannot claim to have scholarly knowledge about either of them. However, through a great deal of reading I learned enough about each one to understand that the traditional (and, especially, Randian) accounts of these phenomena are over-simplified. I presented the essence of my conclusions in two essays that I published through the Libertarian Alliance in the UK: Ayn Rand and the Ascent of Man and Ayn Rand and American Culture.

Those two essays also comprise part of my coming-to-terms with Ayn Rand, reflected more broadly in two books: Randian Reflections (33 essays written between 1993 and 2009) and The Tao of Roark (started much earlier but mostly written between 2008 and 2012). Having thus let go of the ladder upon which I had climbed to that point in my intellectual existence, I found myself liberated for much more wide-ranging explorations.

The first field I explored was the thought of Epicurus, whom I had read a bit back in college but then mostly forgotten. Inspired by a blog comment from my friend Manuel, I decided to translate the surviving quotations from Epicurus on ethics and happiness, which I did from 2008 to 2011. (I have yet to translate various ancient quotes about Epicurus from other writers, although I plan to do that too and publish the results under the title Epicurus on the Good Life.) Because Epicurus is so often misunderstood, and because I found myself more and more fascinated by him as I translated his thoughts from Greek into English, I decided to compose a brief dialogue about his ideas, entitled Letters on Happiness (written 2012-2013).

I now see The Tao of Roark and Letters on Happiness as two parts of a six-movement "eudaimonia suite" of short books on happiness, which together will comprise my lifelong philosophy project. The other four movements will be about Thoreau, Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Lao Tzu. Although I had been preparing to work on the Nietzsche book next (in the form of a cycle of philosophical poems), earlier this year I decided to change course and write the Thoreau book first, specifically in time for the Thoreau bicentennial on July 12, 2017. I am now deep into research on Thoreau, having read all of his published works except the massive Journal (which I am slowly working through in my usual manner).

As I absorb the insights of each of these thinkers and keep on living and growing, I find that my outlook on life changes in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I expect to have much more to share on that score between now and the next installment of this very occasional series...


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