Incomplete Enlightenment

by Peter Saint-Andre


The other day I glanced briefly at Ray Dalio's book Principles, which made something of a splash when it was published a few years ago. I decided not to read the book (for now) because I wasn't impressed by the few sections I looked at; in particular, he seems to reduce the art of living to two steps:

  1. Identify what you want.
  2. Figure out how to attain it.

Contrast that with classical philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle, whose fundamental counsel I would summarize as follows:

  1. Come to deeply understand what is true and good and beautifully right.
  2. Moderate your desires so that they harmonize with that wisdom.

Scholars such as Blaine Fowers often describe Dalio's two principles as "individualism" and "instrumentalism". Individualism (I might even call it "selfism") is the idea that the self is irreducible and unquestionable: all goods are purely individual (no shared goods or higher goods), and whatever you desire is plainly and simply the good as far as you are concerned. Instrumentalism is the idea that only reasoning about means really matters; reasoning about ends is unnecessary because the good is straightforwardly given by our desires.

Paradoxically, individualism and instrumentalism emerged from the Enlightenment, which led philosophers and eventually psychologists to focus above all else on what is empirically measurable. Not for these moderns the old immeasurables like the good life. For instance, in his post "Toward an Enlightened Centrism" a few months ago, blogger Richard Hanania expressed "skepticism of certain kinds of philosophy, particularly old philosophy"; he went on to doubt that there is any use in studying "ancient sages" because they don't "have much to tell us about the world today", preferring "empirical knowledge" to "theoretical constructs" of the kind one might find in Aristotle.

Yet if your idea of the good life is "identify what you want" and "figure out how to attain it", I'd say your level of enlightenment is woefully incomplete, to put it mildly. Sure, you might be able to measure the extent to which people are satisfying their desires, but you have no idea whether those desires were any good in the first place; like the fanatics of the French Revolution, you might have glorified Reason while losing all semblance of wisdom. This is precisely the fate that those old philosophers would have saved you from, if only you hadn't refused to read them.

Or, to use a phrase from a great American philosopher in a new context: "We're lost, but we're making good time!"

(Cross-posted at


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