One Small Voice

The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre


Justifying Anger

2020-07-08

In my last post, I extrapolated from the philosophy of Epicurus to indicate how to avoid unjustified anger and its less virulent siblings (annoyance, frustration, disappointment, etc.). Indeed, Epicurus seems to have been the first person to identity what centuries later became the seven deadly sins - one of which was anger.

Aristotle, by contrast, recognized that sometimes anger is the most appropriate reaction to what happens in your life - say, a reaction to blatant injustice. (No, Aristotle never said "moderation in everything"!) The key is differentiating between justified anger and unjustified anger.

The requirement for justification introduces considerations that philosophers call epistemic: how do you know that anger is the correct thing to feel and act on in this situation, with this person, to this extent, etc.? This is hard because it requires reflection, good judgment, the ability to formulate a true account of what's happened, awareness of the conceptual appraisals underlying your emotions, the ability to interpose thought between your immediate reactions and the actions you take, as well as long-term self-training and self-improvement in each of these activities. It's much easier to just go with your immediate feelings, isn't it? Unfortunately, that wouldn't be consistent with philosophy as a way of life.

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Philosophy and Anger

2020-06-19

The world is full of anger, both well-founded and ill-founded. In a future post I'll talk about well-founded anger, but this time I'll provide some reflections on ill-founded anger.

In Chapter 10 of my book Letters on Happiness, I perceived an insight from Epicurus into the nature of anger (although this is an extrapolation from what he says about other emotions):

The fear of being disappointed leads to anger - the desire that other people act as you want them to. Yet the ideal is not feeling that others must conform to your expectations, but accepting others as they are and maintaining your inner serenity.

There are so many examples:

And so on, nearly ad infinitum. Fear and loathing of The Other is a deep well that never runs dry.

Yet do you really know why someone is other than you along any particular dimension? More pointedly, do you really know why you are the way you are, why you think what you think, why you feel as you feel, why you act how you act? Did you really reflect on and choose your way of being? How much of your self-understanding is really just self-congratulation and in-group psychology?

The worst of it is that anger can feel so good, because it affirms your superiority over others. Yet difference is not superiority. Wisdom comes from working to truly understand others; but, as always, such wisdom is hard-won.

Oh, and if you've achieved such wisdom, don't be angry with those who haven't achieved it yet.

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Dialogue and Deliberation

2020-06-19

One of Aristotle’s characteristic methods for solving philosophical problems is dialectic: upon (i) reaching an impasse (aporia), he (ii) surveys existing explanations (logoi) and reputable opinions (endoxa), (iii) engages in analysis to remove paradoxes and draw distinctions, then (iv) formulates a synthesis that harmonizes the explanations and saves the appearances (phainomena).

As far as I know, this dialectical method has not been applied to the pursuit of practical truth, i.e., to the process of deliberation for the sake of taking action (praxis). Yet we can see similarities in its underlying structure: (i) deliberation is often triggered by reaching an impasse in the form of an ethical dilemma or personal crisis; (ii) there might exist many explanations for and opinions about the causes of such an impasse; an ethical agent, a person, needs to (iii) analyze the relevant explanations and opinions, then (iv) formulate a synthesis that is consistent with – or that challenges – her values and worldview. However, in the case of practical truth, a person also needs to (v) make a choice (prohairesis) and commit to a particular course of action or personal practice and, finally, to (vi) take action following up that commitment, for instance steering clear of akrasia by maintaining awareness (theoria) of that commitment.

Applying dialectical insights to deliberation is interesting not only for its inherent value to ethics and the philosophy of action, but also because it has serious implications for the domain of philosophical practice as developed over the last 40 years by theoretician-practioners like Gerd Achenbach, Elliot Cohen, Lou Marinoff, Shlomit Schuster, Peter Raabe, and Ran Lahav. Unfortunately, the field of philosophical practice has been riven by a split between those who favor unstructured Socratic dialogue and those who favor the structured identification and correction of critical thinking errors. Aristotelian dialectic might help to heal the rift by defining flexible method or “mason’s rule” that does justice to both epistemic norms and situational particulars. It is just such a middle way that I am actively working to define.

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Crisis Investing

2020-05-28

Exactly four years ago I wrote a post entitled "Investing for the Rest of Us", in which I discussed the permanent portfolio investing method, invented by Harry Browne. The permanent portfolio has two additional benefits that I've come to fully appreciate only this year: uncorrelated assets and forced rebalancing.

First, the four permanent portfolio assets - stocks, long-term bonds, gold, and cash - are not highly correlated. If one of them goes down, it's likely that one or two of the others will go up. For instance, if the stock market crashes as happened two months ago, bonds are likely to go up in price (because central banks have cut interest rates) and there's a strong possibility that gold will as well (because investors tend to flee to physical assets in times of uncertainty and volatility). This means that your portfolio doesn't experience wild swings in value; as a result, you're less likely to panic and sell everything.

Second, if one of the assets declines or advances far enough, the permanent portfolio method will force you to rebalance. This means that you tend to buy low and sell high. Specifically, when one of your assets goes above or below your rebalancing bands, you buy and sell enough of each asset to get back to 4x25%. (Harry Browne set the rebalancing bands at 15% and 35%, but Gobind Daryanani's paper "Opportunistic Rebalancing: A New Paradigm for Wealth Managers" indicates that 20% and 30% are more profitable.)

We can illustrate these principles with a simplified example. Let's say you have a portfolio of $400,000 with $100,000 each in stocks, bonds, gold, and cash. If stocks experience a 40% decline, the equities portion will be worth only $60,000; but it's quite likely that bonds and gold will go up, let's say by 10% each. If you'd been 100% invested in stocks your portfolio would be worth $240,000, but because you've spread your savings across four relatively uncorrelated assets your portfolio is worth $380,000. In addition, the rebalancing rule now kicks in: stocks are only 16% of your portfolio, so you'll sell a portion of your bonds and gold to buy stocks and get back to 4x25%. Reversion to the mean indicates that stocks are likely to increase in price again, and you've bought them on sale. (Sure, stocks might continue to go down or bonds and gold might continue to go up, but the future is uncertain and you're probably not smart enough to guess the tops and bottoms of these price trends.)

The permanent portfolio is like a self-correcting gyroscope, which removes the emotions of fear and greed from your financial decision-making. You might think you're wise or self-disciplined enough to do that all on your own, but it's much easier to follow a well-defined method like the permanent portfolio.

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Serenity

2020-02-09

Just as people used to ask me how I accomplish so much, recently a few people have asked me how I stay so serene. Although this question is harder to answer, I'll give it a try.

At root, I suspect that innately I am blessed with what theorists of the Five-Factor Model of personality call the trait of emotional stability. There might not be not much you can do to cultivate inner peace if you happen to be on the other end of the spectrum (typically labeled neuroticism).

That said, here are some speculations.

First, I'm convinced that having a balanced "life portfolio" helps keep me grounded. As I sketched in two blog posts a few years ago, I see the areas of life as health and vitality, work and achievement, love and caring, character and personality, wisdom and spirituality, and beauty and aesthetics. I'm extremely fortunate to be in good health, to be somewhat successful financially and in my career, to have a great partnership with my wife, to be emotionally stable, to benefit from deep study of many wisdom traditions, and to appreciate the many beautiful aspects of life all around me.

Second, I've discovered some practices that keep me calm in a world that seems increasingly agitated and angry: I avoid the news, I ignore politics, I dropped out of social media, I follow a low-volatility investment strategy, I read quite a bit of history (life was much harder 500 or 1000 or 2000 years ago!), etc.

Third, I consciously cultivate a philosophical perspective on life. This should come as no surprise, since I majored in philosophy. :-) However, I do find that immersing myself in a wide range of "Minerval arts" enables me to be more reflective, to trim the worst excesses of my actions and emotions, and to understand various outlooks on life so that I can more easily find common ground with other people. Furthermore, taking the long view on human existence and my own life promotes the realization that most of the things people get worked up about are ultimately insignificant.

Fourth, over time I have come to adopt a less dogmatic attitude about human affairs. Part of this is just having lived for some decades, and part of it comes from my study of Taoism, Buddhism, and Pyrrhonism. All of these schools of thought encourage you to let go of cravings and attachments and ambitions, which together contribute to avoiding cycles of hope and disappointment, possession and loss, and pride and deflation. I plan to explore these ideas in depth by writing a novel about the ancient Greek skeptic Pyrrho a few years from now (tentatively entitled Gods Among Men).

I'm not sure how well my personal experience with cultivating serenity applies to other people, but perhaps this post will point you in some fruitful directions.

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Zamyatin's WE

2020-01-14

In 1921, Yevgeny Zamyatin finished writing WE, the Ur-text for most dystopian novels since then (Anthem, 1984, Brave New World, etc.). In 1924, Zamyatin's novel, not yet (in fact never) published in the Soviet Union, was first brought to the world by E.P. Dutton and Company of New York in an English translation by Gregory Zilboorg. Because 95 years have passed since then, Dr. Zilboorg's translation is finally in the public domain - and I have just republished it online at my website for public-domain books, the Monadnock Valley Press.

Here is how Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin once described WE:

Philosophical as Plato's Republic, interesting as the best Utopias of H.G. Wells, cold as the muzzle of a loaded revolver, and sarcastic as Gulliver's Travels, WE is a powerful challenge to all Socialist Utopias.

Perhaps it is just as timely as ever.

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