Saturday, June 2, 2007 27 Comments

The generalist's stone: a stable mind

My header describes me as a "generalist."

Of course I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. It's not one of these words I'm always trying to define here at UR. If you're going to engage in the arcane and onanistic sport of coinage, you should at least have the common decency to always counterfeit and never redefine, and this is one of the few rhetorical rules I even try to respect. And all kinds of people use the word "generalist" to mean all kinds of weird-ass things.

For example, as a system software man I am a "generalist." All this means is that I'm not an expert in anything. I have failed at various tasks in OS research, 2D graphics, language design and runtime systems, kernel networking, standards crap, and the absolute, absolute worst - cell-phone browsers. The only thing I've really learned is that system software sucks, and I'm not at all sure why.

And I'm utterly unqualified for 99% of the programming jobs in the world. So if the word "generalist" is interpreted literally in any context, I am not a generalist at all. Not only do I not know Perl, Javascript or even Java, I have no knowledge at all of aerodynamics, zymurgy, or most of the things in between.

So clearly, since the word is useful and I've already started using it, I need another definition.

One way to be a generalist is to have - or at least asymptotically approach - what I call a "stable mind." A stable mind is one that need not revise itself on receiving new information, defined as anything anyone else has ever known. (This is as opposed to a closed mind, which may need to revise itself - but doesn't.)

For example, suppose some awful computer error granted me an infinite security clearance, and I could read all the secret files of the United States. Worse, suppose I had infinite time to do it in. Suppose I could even read George W. Bush's mind. Would my opinion of the entire circus that is Washington, DC change? I'm probably wrong, but I'd like to think not.

Or suppose, like Stendhal, I could join the Grand Army on the retreat from Moscow. Due perhaps to some ingenious time machine. Would this alter my opinion of the human condition? Suppose I then worked as a taxi driver in present-day Cairo, went straight from there to the Reichsbank in 1936 where I was private secretary to Hjalmar Schacht, hauled nets on a shrimp boat out of Galveston in the fifties, served as a district officer in the ICS under Lord Lytton, studied Byzantine law in Constantinople sometime in the late 1200s, ran the catering for Mansa Musa's hajj in 1324, apprenticed as a goldsmith in 18th-century Salonica, learned poetry from Yvor Winters in 1967, and fought as a captain in the Rhodesian SAS for most of the late '70s?

Obviously, I have not had any of these experiences and, barring some really impressive videogame technology, am unlikely to have anything like them. However, I'd like to think that if this were not the case, adding them to my present fund of experience would not change much (and need not change much) of how I see the world. Again, I'm probably wrong about this. But I feel it's at least worth trying to be right.

There is a feeling you sometimes get off people who, not at present but in the way past, used to be extremely heavy stoners. Serious connoisseurs of mind-altering everything. And who have since given it up for mere reality - but still, you feel, if they were walking down the street and a Triceratops suddenly materialized in front of them, they would remark, "oh, a Triceratops."

And do, I don't know, whatever you do when you have to deal with a Triceratops. Fend it off with a stick or something. But the point of being a generalist is this: that you're the kind of person who doesn't like being surprised. So you try and order your surprises in advance.

How many people were surprised, for example, when the Soviet Union collapsed? I would say this event and its aftermath changed a lot of peoples' minds in quite unexpected ways. Especially if said people lived in the Soviet Union.

I am going out on a long limb here, I know, but I think a lot of people in the West may one day be rather similarly surprised. Most people in the West don't think their entire system of government is fundamentally, irreparably corrupt. Nor did most people in the Soviet Union.

Or at least that's what I think. But then again, I never lived in the Soviet Union. I'm sure at least one or two readers did - and perhaps they'll be so kind as to contradict me.


Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...


I guess, this is invitation to tango for me. :-)

I won't argue with you much, because all my experience and observations point in the same general direction: big changes are brewing up in the world, challenging the very fundamentals of the established system of nation-state democracies in general and those of the U.S. in particular. The U.S. of today has more in common with the late USSR than most people are ready to acknowledge. Super-powers on the verge of financial, moral and cultural bankruptcy with globally deployed armed forces whose members are about to lose their jobs abroad and their social standing and respect at home, armed with huge amounts of hardware that is becoming more of a liability than an asset and which will ultimately end up sold either to self-motivated, irregular armed forces or as scrap metal and parts for the rest of the economy, have more than a passing semblance.

The huge army of workers with a wide range of qualifications that are currently employed to build and service the war-machine is caught up in the following process:
1. Government thinks up mega-giga project that, (it hopes) will result in endowing it with Fnargl-like powers.
2. Contractor demands X amount of resources to accomplish the project.
3. Government asks whether it could be accomplished for X/2.
4. Contractor, instead of admitting that even X was an excessively optimistic estimate, signals that it is worth a try.
5. Giga-mega project gets approved. Y0:=X/2, i:=0
6. When Yi is spent, the project is not even near to completion. Government is faced with the choice of either canceling the whole thing and cutting sum(j:=0 to i)(Yj) in losses or providing a "little more" funding, as asked by Contractor.
7. i:=i+1, Government and Contractor haggle a bit until they agree on the next value of Yi.
8. Until the costs become politically unjustifiable (or until an attempted half-baked deployment is proved totally ineffective in actual conflict), the process repeats with #6.
9. Project is canceled, people working on it lose their jobs and their loyalty to Government.

My only disagreement with you is that you seem to repeatedly dismiss the importance of secrets and lies that surround every conflict (violent or not) and the fundamental asymmetry of information that results.

You seem to think that it is possible to get rid of all (or even most of) the opacity and informality in relationships of power (including but not limited to employer/employee, master/servant, conqueror/tributary, shareholder/manager etc.). However, there are sound economic arguments to the contrary.

June 3, 2007 at 3:33 AM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 3, 2007 at 3:46 AM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

One interesting and slightly irregular (as in not perfectly matching the pattern) instance of mega-giga project aimed at becoming Fnargl is Missile Defense.

The difference between Missile Defense and most other Wunderwaffe projects that it itself is one huge bluff. Actually, all concerned parties do know it, but there are strong dis-incentives to call the bluff.

I have started writing a paper about it quite a while ago (with the aim of eventually publishing it in some journal, like Science), but always had more fun or more urgent things to do. Here's the most recent draft. I may put it up for public comments at some point in the future.

June 3, 2007 at 3:51 AM  
Blogger Victor said...


I was born and raised in USSR (in Ukraine to be precise), and I assure you, very few people on the inside had much illusion about the soviet order. True, not many were expecting the Perestroyka and the subsequent collapse, as we were expecting the soviet government to continue holding it together through brute power; but the fundamental corruption of the socioeconomic order? Yeah, we all knew that.

While you might appreciate such utter cynicism, given your posts here, most people in USA would have no idea just how ridiculous, corrupt, and laughable USSR was sees as being, from the inside; no idea just how cynical about the world people can become. It was the butt of every other joke.

On the other hand, we had a very idealized view of the west, and especially of USA. Given the paucity of information, we constructed an entire image of USA from the paltry scraps we had.

I remember listening to Voice of America on our old radio, barely able to hear the words through the soviet scrambling signal. We thought USA was the land of milk and honey. We simply took whatever the soviet propaganda fed us, and assumed the exact opposite, because the bastards would lie about everything.

June 3, 2007 at 6:41 AM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...


I think, you fell victim to two fallacies: first, you assume some nation-wide collective consciousness to exist (and, therefore, "its" feelings and thoughts to coincide with how you and your fellows felt and thought) and secondly -- which is not quite unrelated -- you assume that the sentiments endorsed by opinion-forming intellectuals (the Brahmins in Moldy's classification) at present are universal across the society and have always been.

The shock of political and socio-economic collapse, as Moldy notes, profoundly changed the way many people perceive the world. In some people, it works even retrospectively; they lost the very ability to think and feel the way they did before and even to admit this fact to themselves.

Stockholm syndrome is an evolutionary trait that cannot be discounted when analyzing the workings of public opinion. The rapid switch of loyalty from defeated masters to new ones is very sincere and honest in most cases. It happens several layers below critical thinking and even self-consciousness in the human mind.

The so-called "universal values" postulated as unquestionable truths by our progressive elite make only marginally more sense than the "bright idea(l)s of communism". After the financial collapse, there will be great many individuals who will "have always known" just how ridiculous the ancien regime has been and they, themselves will sincerely believe that.

It is difficult to escape the virtual reality projected by mass-media. But the internet provides us with cheap and straightforward means of doing so without cutting ourselves off from the world.

Now here's some emotional background:

As Soviet citizens living outside of the USSR, my family was among the fortunate few who could (and did) travel to the West when the Berlin Wall was still standing. I did play with western toys (I still hold LEGO responsible for my career in engineering and ZX Spectrum for my interest in computers and programming) as well as soviet ones (airplane model kits almost set me on a quite different career path). For me, the USSR is just the place where we went for vacation to visit other family members and is, therefore, associated with the mostly positive memories and feelings of a happy childhood. Since we never "emigrated" in the usual sense of the word, I have no reason to justify the high costs of cultural and social readjustment with the necessity to escape something unbearably dark and dangerous.

On the other hand, I have lived more than two thirds of my life in various countries of which I was not a citizen. Also, being a frequent traveler, the intimidation and sheer injustice of searches and checks on borders have instilled in me a deep-running disgust with the concepts of citizenship, state sovereignty and the like. I hate borders, visas, customs declarations, customs duties, immigration papers, work and study permits, passports and residence permits with a red-hot passion that even my rational self is ashamed of.

But at least, I am trying to be honest about it.

June 3, 2007 at 8:32 AM  
Blogger Victor said...


This is, frankly, insulting. I am very well aware of the fallibility of human memory, but I also very well remember the popular attitude before I left (and I left in 1990, before USSR collapsed). The government and the socialism were the butt of all jokes. It was taken as an indubitable truth that socialism sucks and America is the land of milk and honey. No, my opinions weren't formed by communicating only with the intellectual elite. I went to a regular school, my friends were kids of both engineers and plumbers, I participated in all the government-sponsored activities, etc.

If there was a selection bias on my part, it is much more likely to be a regional and ethnic one: I am a ukrainian, and Ukraine had always regarded Russia as the occupying empire.

I can regale you with dozens of anecdotes from all walks of life which show how total cynicism towards the soviet ideology was pervasive and expected. Sure, they are anecdotes -- there was no data to be had under USSR on this matter -- but they are very illustrative ones.

You write:

After the financial collapse, there will be great many individuals who will "have always known" just how ridiculous the ancien regime has been and they, themselves will sincerely believe that.

Well, dude, I had written a politically dissident essay in 1988, when I was 14, decrying soviet domestic and foreign policy, and I got threatened with government repercussions for it; I also went through the whole gauntlet of public excoriations by the Komsomol leaders, denunciations as a traitor to the socialist cause, the whole shebang. I still have that essay. That event was in fact a major reason for us leaving, so don't misapply your psychoanalysis to me.

In that essay, I had said what most adults were thinking, but were too wise to say out loud, except in kitchens during small private gatherings. My 'dissent' was a function of precocity. I was simply couple of years ahead of the age curve intellectually. By the time I was nearing 16, when I was about to leave, most of my highschool class shared the same attitude towards USSR as I had expressed only two years earlier.

Your imputations of dishonesty to me are, to say the least, bizarre. it's almost as if you are trying to attain in your own mind some status as a person who, unlike the rest of them delusional dolts, saw the truth clearly.

I betcha anything that you, as a visitor, never saw under the surface of soviet life. You never saw the roiling disgust and cynicism; it was pervasive, but kept close to heart, because you could get blacklisted very easily if the government got a whiff of it.

June 3, 2007 at 9:22 AM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...


First off, let me apologize if I have insulted you. Although I am sure that Moldy as well as others from the readership of UR would enjoy a hot, emotional debate, I am the wrong opponent for that.

Also, I might not have expressed myself clearly enough, but I did not (and do not) question your honesty for a moment. As for the "financial collapse", I did not mean any particular one. It refers as much to the coming collapse of our present-day international financial system (if it ever happens) as it does to the bankruptcy of the French monarchy in the late XVIIIth century.

Just a few facts, to put things in perspective:

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics existed from 1922 to 1991. The Eastern Block collapsed in 1989. I voluntarily left the pioneer organization (of People's Republic of Hungary) for reasons very similar to yours in 1987. Brezhnev (secretary general of CPSU since 1964) died in 1982.

Ukraine comprised about 20% of the Union's population (the Russian Federation accounted for approx. 50%). Also, your assertion that there has ever been a nation-wide consensus within Ukraine about Russia (or anything else, for that matter) is very difficult to believe in the light of current events in that country.

Anyhow, thank you for coming forward with an explanation of your emotional background. But please save us the statements about what I did and what I did not see ("as a visitor").

June 3, 2007 at 11:40 AM  
Blogger Victor said...

<shrug> Only if you save me your condescending pseudo-analysis of the state of political attitudes in USSR, as relating to their current state.

As to the current events -- disliking the status quo doesn't translate into liking the soviet regime. The old cynical consensus surely wouldn't have been universal, but it was definitely overwhelming. Being against everyone in power -- Против всех -- is an old tradition in that part of the world.

June 3, 2007 at 12:38 PM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

I think, I can tell an amusing (and very characteristic) story from the USSR myself.

1985, Leningrad, USSR. I am 8 years old. My grandparents send me to Malev (Hungarian Airlines) office right next to St. Isaac's Cathedral to confirm my return flight to Budapest. The office was actually even closer to Mariinski Palace, housing the city council (in that narrow street to the right). Now, the parking lot in front of it was a bit different those days: it was occupied by the black Volgas of all those important functionaries from the city council, guarded around the clock by a policeman.
I hitched my bike to one of the lamp-posts between those Volgas only to have the policeman give me a very angry look and ask if I though I could leave my bike there "just like that". There was, as any soviet citizen would tell you, an implied threat of god-knows-what. Which I didn't quite get, so I answered with an affirmative "yes" and while we were at it, asked the policeman to keep an eye on my bike so that it didn't get stolen.
The policeman was shocked speechless by such audacity. It turned out, he was standing at attention next to my bike for the entire time that I have spent at Malev's.
When I told the story at home, my grandparents told me that the policeman probably thought that I was the son of one of those bigwigs with black Volgas.

June 3, 2007 at 3:18 PM  
Anonymous nick said...

I really appreciate the reports of first-hand experiences behind the Iron Curtain, and I'd like to thank Victor for engaging in such a risky kind of activism of a kind that ended up improving the world for us all. Daniel beat me to talking about the Stockholm Syndrome in politics. I've long thought that this is a very important phenomenon that explains much about political beliefs. And it's not unrelated to religion, where the placation of powerful, jealous, and vengeful gods is a common theme.

I'll join the talk about life behind the Iron Curtain, but I'll just be trying to explain other people's first-hand observations. I never lived there, although I learned some aspects of this from my dad and others who did -- he in Hungary up to 1956, when he and many other (mostly young) people rebelled.

I suspect Victor's experience was common for young people in 1988, when the Soviet Union was starting to open up to the West (Perestroika), but that in an earlier era or at an older age, after a few more years of those Komsomol treatments, cynicism would retreat to the politically harmless forms. After a few years of being shouted down in school any criticism dangerous to the regime would be automatically silenced by the conscious mind: Stockholm Syndrome, but operating with a more stately learning curve. That tough guard following the orders of an 8-year-old kid of the nomenkletura is a good example. (It's also a good example of a phenomenon created by a non-economic preference of a political "owner": the obesiance of one's inferiors is a wonderfully pleasurable thing). Hungary, Czekoslovakia, and Poland had enough memory of and exposure to Western freedoms (far beyond mostly jammed Voice of America) that the desire of the kidnapees to escape could at rare times erupt at full boil.

I observe that we have 12+ years of government schools inculcating political beliefs and taboos here in the West too.

June 3, 2007 at 4:29 PM  
Anonymous nick said...

That should probably read "non-monetary preference" rather than "non-economic preference," which is an oxymoron under broad definitions of "economic".

June 3, 2007 at 4:34 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

daniel, victor, nick - all very interesting comments!

The evidence for my original thought was this book by Cathy Young (Ekaterina Jung). The author, who was a Jewish girl in a selective high school in Moscow, left in I believe the '70s, so her recollections certainly need not contradict those of anyone here.

I think I would have done better to specify the time period. If the US/EU and USSR are on the same general track, the analogy of 2007 is probably more to 1976 or even 1966 than to 1986.

And note that I am not suggesting the West today is anything like the Russia of Brezhnev. I am just suggesting that (a) the difference between where we are and where we should be is vaguely similar to the difference between the late USSR and the West (the difference, of course, is that the West has no West to measure itself by), and (b) if you project the general trend of sclerosis and bureaucratization forward, there is some time t at which Dilbert becomes full-on Brezhnev.

The writings of the former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky may interest some here. Bukovsky points out the rather striking resemblance between the governing institutions of the USSR and those of the EU, in particular the "toy parliament." He thinks this is more homologous than analogous, a contention I doubt, but he is certainly one who has earned the right to be heard.

June 3, 2007 at 7:23 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


BTW, the argument about information and power is very interesting - I'll try and address it.

June 3, 2007 at 7:25 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

Daniel A. Nagy, would you care to make a prediction about what nature these drastic changes will take and a date by which they should appear?

June 3, 2007 at 7:45 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

There is a feeling you sometimes get off people who, not at present but in the way past, used to be extremely heavy stoners. Serious connoisseurs of mind-altering everything. And who have since given it up for mere reality - but still, you feel, if they were walking down the street and a Triceratops suddenly materialized in front of them, they would remark, "oh, a Triceratops."

Whoa, it's almost creepy how this paragraph describes me so perfectly. Is it vain of me to believe that it takes one to know one?

June 4, 2007 at 1:53 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Comments on the EU prompt me to remark that its economic governance is really closer to that of a fascist than of a socialist state.

Business property is allowed to remain nominally private, but the majority of business profit is taken in taxes by the state and most business policies (e.g., as to hiring & firing of employees, prices and terms offered to customers, even hours of operation) are dictated by it. In this arranfgement, the state is a silent majority partner, with only the responsibility of keeping a business running, and the liabilities if it should fail, being left to its nominal owners. These owners speak to government effectively through trade associations rather than as individual proprietors or corporations.

On the other hand, labor is organized into unions, which also provide political representation for their members. There is no such thing as section 14(b) of the Taft Hartley act - if you want to work, you must belong to a union. The news media either are controlled by government (state broadcasting companies) or are funded by it (many European states subsidize their newspapers). Political dissent beyond certain bounds is suppressed by judicial action (e.g., Vlaams Blok in Beglium). Taken as a whole, the situation amounts to fascism without jackboots or overt Jew-baiting.

In an odd sort of way I suspect Francis Parker Yockey (author of the faux-Spenglerian "Imperium," "Europas Feind," etc.) would have been pleased with the EU. He disparaged the old nationalisms as the nostalgia of "yesterday-patriots" and advocated a pan-European state as a bulwark against both the "oriental" Soviet Union and the United States, which he thought was irredeemably in the thrall of "culture distorters" (his code word for Jews).

June 4, 2007 at 9:53 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


It is utterly vain! :-)

michael -

A fascinating comment as usual. I am tickled by the juxtaposition of Francis Parker Yockey and Jean Monnet. It is interesting how, though fascism and Eurocracy have very different cultural roots, they converge on the same kind of governmental mechanisms. Parallel evolution is always trying to tell you something.

I trust you're familiar with Richard North's EU Referendum blog. If not, I trust you will enjoy it. He is really one of the very, very few people on the net who are seriously concerned with writing about the reality of government as it actually is, and his experience makes his commentary all the more devastating.

June 4, 2007 at 1:08 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

Bit late to this one, but oh well. Your remarks on the 'stable mind' are very familiar to me. They seem a natural description of the modern ironic condition: of the desperate search for novelty, while more and more of reality grows passe. It is only the ironic mind, surely--the mind that has seen it all, or fancies it has--that would shrug, 'oh, a triceratops'. Hence hipsterism, which is only the ironic mind in consumerist and fashionable mode.

The significant note of difference in your account is that the 'stable mind' does not like being surprised, whereas this is the very savor of existence to the ironic mind, which finds it increasingly difficult to be surprised--for whom, as I recently put it, 'Discovery is the only thing of beauty in the whole world'.

June 5, 2007 at 5:30 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Thanks for the link to the EU Referendum blog. I was not familiar with it.

Further to the subject of the EU vis-a-vis fascism, from what little I know the Euro currency was a project of the Bundesbank, and from my admittedly jaundiced perspective, the German central bankers attempted by guileful manipulation to achieve what neither Bismarck nor Hitler were able to attain mit blut und eisen - namely, a German hegemony over continental Europe, at least in the economic sphere. This they did by converting European national currencies to the Euro at a considerable advantage to Germany and at a disadvantage to the other countries.

Historically, in the 19th century, the French franc was worth about US $0.20 and the German mark about $0.25. After the inflation and collapse of the Weimar period, this ratio was reinstated under Hitler, and after WWII it was reinstated under Bretton Woods. However, once the currencies were allowed to float, the mark ranged higher and the franc fell until at the time of conversion the deutschemark was worth about US $0.75 whereas the franc was worth about $0.15. I believe there was a great deal of Bundesbank trading activity to skew exchange rates in favor of the DM in the months preceding the conversion.

The Italians complained, but accepted the discipline of the German central bank because they had none themselves. Denmark and Britain declined to participate in the Euro, while Norway stayed out of the EU entirely. Possibly these countries remembered their previous encounters with German ambitions. On the other hand, despite the really bad deal they got, the French followed the advice given the Sabine women - if you can't do anything about it, lay back and enjoy it. Perhaps there is some clue here to the nature of la France (Vichy) eternelle!

As for the Germans, they threw away most of the advantage the Bundesbank had squeezed out of the other Euro countries by extending to the residents of the former East Germany the same generous welfare benefits that had been the norm in the West. This was a German master stroke of the same class as their following Napoleon's example and invading Russia. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Germany's wounds have never resulted from a stab in the back, but rather from a shot in the foot.

June 5, 2007 at 3:21 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


We have slightly different notions of "surprised" here.

As a classicist you'll know who said "nothing in human affairs is foreign to me," or the like. To be surprised, in the sense that a specialist or other Horatio type is surprised by something not in his philosophy, is to be confused, to not know how to assimilate some sense-impression.

Very different this from the flow of small novelties that is, given the size of the world and the smallness of our minds, infinite, and that we never cease from seeking. I am not endorsing jadedness. I am saying that I prefer my novelties largest-first, that I would rather ambush them than let them ambush me.

June 7, 2007 at 4:52 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael -

I suspect it will get ugly in the Eurozone. I was recently quite shocked to learn that the ECB has no procedure for bailing out national central banks, who are lenders of last resort but cannot print euros. See Evans-Pritchard.
Yikes! Who designed this system, and what on earth were they thinking? You cannot insure deposits without the power to print money. We may see the peseta again, and the euro could turn back into the DM. Just as there's no business like show business, there's no madness like forex madness...

June 7, 2007 at 4:58 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Re the comment on surprise: From Ralph Waldo Emerson

Texts : Essays: First Series : CIRCLES
A selection of Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings for searching and browsing

from Essays: First Series (1841)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nature centres into balls,
And her proud ephemerals,
Fast to surface and outside,
Scan the profile of the sphere;
Knew they what that signified,
A new genesis were here.

ESSAY X _Circles_

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced, in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace; that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

This fact, as far as it symbolizes the moral fact of the Unattainable, the flying Perfect, around which the hands of man can never meet, at once the inspirer and the condemner of every success, may conveniently serve us to connect many illustrations of human power in every department.

There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees. Our globe seen by God is a transparent law, not a mass of facts. The law dissolves the fact and holds it fluid. Our culture is the predominance of an idea which draws after it this train of cities and institutions. Let us rise into another idea: they will disappear. The Greek sculpture is all melted away, as if it had been statues of ice; here and there a solitary figure or fragment remaining, as we see flecks and scraps of snow left in cold dells and mountain clefts, in June and July. For the genius that created it creates now somewhat else. The Greek letters last a little longer, but are already passing under the same sentence, and tumbling into the inevitable pit which the creation of new thought opens for all that is old. The new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet; the new races fed out of the decomposition of the foregoing. New arts destroy the old. See the investment of capital in aqueducts made useless by hydraulics; fortifications, by gunpowder; roads and canals, by railways; sails, by steam; steam by electricity.

You admire this tower of granite, weathering the hurts of so many ages. Yet a little waving hand built this huge wall, and that which builds is better than that which is built. The hand that built can topple it down much faster. Better than the hand, and nimbler, was the invisible thought which wrought through it; and thus ever, behind the coarse effect, is a fine cause, which, being narrowly seen, is itself the effect of a finer cause. Every thing looks permanent until its secret is known. A rich estate appears to women a firm and lasting fact; to a merchant, one easily created out of any materials, and easily lost. An orchard, good tillage, good grounds, seem a fixture, like a gold mine, or a river, to a citizen; but to a large farmer, not much more fixed than the state of the crop. Nature looks provokingly stable and secular, but it has a cause like all the rest; and when once I comprehend that, will these fields stretch so immovably wide, these leaves hang so individually considerable? Permanence is a word of degrees. Every thing is medial. Moons are no more bounds to spiritual power than bat-balls.

The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own. The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force or truth of the individual soul. For it is the inert effort of each thought, having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance, — as, for instance, an empire, rules of an art, a local usage, a religious rite, — to heap itself on that ridge, and to solidify and hem in the life. But if the soul is quick and strong, it bursts over that boundary on all sides, and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.

Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series. Every general law only a particular fact of some more general law presently to disclose itself. There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us. The man finishes his story, — how good! how final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo! on the other side rises also a man, and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere. Then already is our first speaker not man, but only a first speaker. His only redress is forthwith to draw a circle outside of his antagonist. And so men do by themselves. The result of to-day, which haunts the mind and cannot be escaped, will presently be abridged into a word, and the principle that seemed to explain nature will itself be included as one example of a bolder generalization. In the thought of to-morrow there is a power to upheave all thy creed, all the creeds, all the literatures, of the nations, and marshal thee to a heaven which no epic dream has yet depicted. Every man is not so much a workman in the world, as he is a suggestion of that he should be. Men walk as prophecies of the next age.

Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder: the steps are actions; the new prospect is power. Every several result is threatened and judged by that which follows. Every one seems to be contradicted by the new; it is only limited by the new. The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism. But the eye soon gets wonted to it, for the eye and it are effects of one cause; then its innocency and benefit appear, and presently, all its energy spent, it pales and dwindles before the revelation of the new hour.

Fear not the new generalization. Does the fact look crass and material, threatening to degrade thy theory of spirit? Resist it not; it goes to refine and raise thy theory of matter just as much.

There are no fixtures to men, if we appeal to consciousness. Every man supposes himself not to be fully understood; and if there is any truth in him, if he rests at last on the divine soul, I see not how it can be otherwise. The last chamber, the last closet, he must feel, was never opened; there is always a residuum unknown, unanalyzable. That is, every man believes that he has a greater possibility.

Our moods do not believe in each other. To-day I am full of thoughts, and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.

The continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height, betrays itself in a man's relations. We thirst for approbation, yet cannot forgive the approver. The sweet of nature is love; yet, if I have a friend, I am tormented by my imperfections. The love of me accuses the other party. If he were high enough to slight me, then could I love him, and rise by my affection to new heights. A man's growth is seen in the successive choirs of his friends. For every friend whom he loses for truth, he gains a better. I thought, as I walked in the woods and mused on my friends, why should I play with them this game of idolatry? I know and see too well, when not voluntarily blind, the speedy limits of persons called high and worthy. Rich, noble, and great they are by the liberality of our speech, but truth is sad. O blessed Spirit, whom I forsake for these, they are not thou! Every personal consideration that we allow costs us heavenly state. We sell the thrones of angels for a short and turbulent pleasure.

How often must we learn this lesson? Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations. The only sin is limitation. As soon as you once come up with a man's limitations, it is all over with him. Has he talents? has he enterprise? has he knowledge? it boots not. Infinitely alluring and attractive was he to you yesterday, a great hope, a sea to swim in; now, you have found his shores, found it a pond, and you care not if you never see it again.

Each new step we take in thought reconciles twenty seemingly discordant facts, as expressions of one law. Aristotle and Plato are reckoned the respective heads of two schools. A wise man will see that Aristotle Platonizes. By going one step farther back in thought, discordant opinions are reconciled, by being seen to be two extremes of one principle, and we can never go so far back as to preclude a still higher vision.

Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end. There is not a piece of science, but its flank may be turned to-morrow; there is not any literary reputation, not the so-called eternal names of fame, that may not be revised and condemned. The very hopes of man, the thoughts of his heart, the religion of nations, the manners and morals of mankind, are all at the mercy of a new generalization. Generalization is always a new influx of the divinity into the mind. Hence the thrill that attends it.

Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that a man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his relations to society, his Christianity, his world, may at any time be superseded and decease.

There are degrees in idealism. We learn first to play with it academically, as the magnet was once a toy. Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments. Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true. It now shows itself ethical and practical. We learn that God IS that he is in me; and that all things are shadows of him. The idealism of Berkeley is only a crude statement of the idealism of Jesus, and that again is a crude statement of the fact, that all nature is the rapid efflux of goodness executing and organizing itself. Much more obviously is history and the state of the world at any one time directly dependent on the intellectual classification then existing in the minds of men. The things which are dear to men at this hour are so on account of the ideas which have emerged on their mental horizon, and which cause the present order of things as a tree bears its apples. A new degree of culture would instantly revolutionize the entire system of human pursuits.

Conversation is a game of circles. In conversation we pluck up the _termini_ which bound the common of silence on every side. The parties are not to be judged by the spirit they partake and even express under this Pentecost. To-morrow they will have receded from this high-water mark. To-morrow you shall find them stooping under the old pack-saddles. Yet let us enjoy the cloven flame whilst it glows on our walls. When each new speaker strikes a new light, emancipates us from the oppression of the last speaker, to oppress us with the greatness and exclusiveness of his own thought, then yields us to another redeemer, we seem to recover our rights, to become men. O, what truths profound and executable only in ages and orbs are supposed in the announcement of every truth! In common hours, society sits cold and statuesque. We all stand waiting, empty, — knowing, possibly, that we can be full, surrounded by mighty symbols which are not symbols to us, but prose and trivial toys. Then cometh the god, and converts the statues into fiery men, and by a flash of his eye burns up the veil which shrouded all things, and the meaning of the very furniture, of cup and saucer, of chair and clock and tester, is manifest. The facts which loomed so large in the fogs of yesterday, — property, climate, breeding, personal beauty, and the like, have strangely changed their proportions. All that we reckoned settled shakes and rattles; and literatures, cities, climates, religions, leave their foundations, and dance before our eyes. And yet here again see the swift circumspection! Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it. The length of the discourse indicates the distance of thought betwixt the speaker and the hearer. If they were at a perfect understanding in any part, no words would be necessary thereon. If at one in all parts, no words would be suffered.

Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle, through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it. We fill ourselves with ancient learning, install ourselves the best we can in Greek, in Punic, in Roman houses, only that we may wiselier see French, English, and American houses and modes of living. In like manner, we see literature best from the midst of wild nature, or from the din of affairs, or from a high religion. The field cannot be well seen from within the field. The astronomer must have his diameter of the earth's orbit as a base to find the parallax of any star.

Therefore we value the poet. All the argument and all the wisdom is not in the encyclopaedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, or the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play. In my daily work I incline to repeat my old steps, and do not believe in remedial force, in the power of change and reform. But some Petrarch or Ariosto, filled with the new wine of his imagination, writes me an ode or a brisk romance, full of daring thought and action. He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my own possibilities. He claps wings to the sides of all the solid old lumber of the world, and I am capable once more of choosing a straight path in theory and practice.

We have the same need to command a view of the religion of the world. We can never see Christianity from the catechism: — from the pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds, we possibly may. Cleansed by the elemental light and wind, steeped in the sea of beautiful forms which the field offers us, we may chance to cast a right glance back upon biography. Christianity is rightly dear to the best of mankind; yet was there never a young philosopher whose breeding had fallen into the Christian church, by whom that brave text of Paul's was not specially prized: — "Then shall also the Son be subject unto Him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all." Let the claims and virtues of persons be never so great and welcome, the instinct of man presses eagerly onward to the impersonal and illimitable, and gladly arms itself against the dogmatism of bigots with this generous word out of the book itself.

The natural world may be conceived of as a system of concentric circles, and we now and then detect in nature slight dislocations, which apprize us that this surface on which we now stand is not fixed, but sliding. These manifold tenacious qualities, this chemistry and vegetation, these metals and animals, which seem to stand there for their own sake, are means and methods only, — are words of God, and as fugitive as other words. Has the naturalist or chemist learned his craft, who has explored the gravity of atoms and the elective affinities, who has not yet discerned the deeper law whereof this is only a partial or approximate statement, namely, that like draws to like; and that the goods which belong to you gravitate to you, and need not be pursued with pains and cost? Yet is that statement approximate also, and not final. Omnipresence is a higher fact. Not through subtle, subterranean channels need friend and fact be drawn to their counterpart, but, rightly considered, these things proceed from the eternal generation of the soul. Cause and effect are two sides of one fact.

The same law of eternal procession ranges all that we call the virtues, and extinguishes each in the light of a better. The great man will not be prudent in the popular sense; all his prudence will be so much deduction from his grandeur. But it behooves each to see, when he sacrifices prudence, to what god he devotes it; if to ease and pleasure, he had better be prudent still; if to a great trust, he can well spare his mule and panniers who has a winged chariot instead. Geoffrey draws on his boots to go through the woods, that his feet may be safer from the bite of snakes; Aaron never thinks of such a peril. In many years neither is harmed by such an accident. Yet it seems to me, that, with every precaution you take against such an evil, you put yourself into the power of the evil. I suppose that the highest prudence is the lowest prudence. Is this too sudden a rushing from the centre to the verge of our orbit? Think how many times we shall fall back into pitiful calculations before we take up our rest in the great sentiment, or make the verge of to-day the new centre. Besides, your bravest sentiment is familiar to the humblest men. The poor and the low have their way of expressing the last facts of philosophy as well as you. "Blessed be nothing," and "the worse things are, the better they are," are proverbs which express the transcendentalism of common life.

One man's justice is another's injustice; one man's beauty, another's ugliness; one man's wisdom, another's folly; as one beholds the same objects from a higher point. One man thinks justice consists in paying debts, and has no measure in his abhorrence of another who is very remiss in this duty, and makes the creditor wait tediously. But that second man has his own way of looking at things; asks himself which debt must I pay first, the debt to the rich, or the debt to the poor? the debt of money, or the debt of thought to mankind, of genius to nature? For you, O broker! there is no other principle but arithmetic. For me, commerce is of trivial import; love, faith, truth of character, the aspiration of man, these are sacred; nor can I detach one duty, like you, from all other duties, and concentrate my forces mechanically on the payment of moneys. Let me live onward; you shall find that, though slower, the progress of my character will liquidate all these debts without injustice to higher claims. If a man should dedicate himself to the payment of notes, would not this be injustice? Does he owe no debt but money? And are all claims on him to be postponed to a landlord's or a banker's?

There is no virtue which is final; all are initial. The virtues of society are vices of the saint. The terror of reform is the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what we have always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.

"Forgive his crimes, forgive his virtues too,
Those smaller faults, half converts to the right."

It is the highest power of divine moments that they abolish our contritions also. I accuse myself of sloth and unprofitableness day by day; but when these waves of God flow into me, I no longer reckon lost time. I no longer poorly compute my possible achievement by what remains to me of the month or the year; for these moments confer a sort of omnipresence and omnipotence which asks nothing of duration, but sees that the energy of the mind is commensurate with the work to be done, without time.

And thus, O circular philosopher, I hear some reader exclaim, you have arrived at a fine Pyrrhonism, at an equivalence and indifferency of all actions, and would fain teach us that, _if we are true_, forsooth, our crimes may be lively stones out of which we shall construct the temple of the true God!

I am not careful to justify myself. I own I am gladdened by seeing the predominance of the saccharine principle throughout vegetable nature, and not less by beholding in morals that unrestrained inundation of the principle of good into every chink and hole that selfishness has left open, yea, into selfishness and sin itself; so that no evil is pure, nor hell itself without its extreme satisfactions. But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.

Yet this incessant movement and progression which all things partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. Whilst the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides. That central life is somewhat superior to creation, superior to knowledge and thought, and contains all its circles. For ever it labors to create a life and thought as large and excellent as itself; but in vain; for that which is made instructs how to make a better.

Thus there is no sleep, no pause, no preservation, but all things renew, germinate, and spring. Why should we import rags and relics into the new hour? Nature abhors the old, and old age seems the only disease; all others run into this one. We call it by many names, — fever, intemperance, insanity, stupidity, and crime; they are all forms of old age; they are rest, conservatism, appropriation, inertia, not newness, not the way onward. We grizzle every day. I see no need of it. Whilst we converse with what is above us, we do not grow old, but grow young. Infancy, youth, receptive, aspiring, with religious eye looking upward, counts itself nothing, and abandons itself to the instruction flowing from all sides. But the man and woman of seventy assume to know all, they have outlived their hope, they renounce aspiration, accept the actual for the necessary, and talk down to the young. Let them, then, become organs of the Holy Ghost; let them be lovers; let them behold truth; and their eyes are uplifted, their wrinkles smoothed, they are perfumed again with hope and power. This old age ought not to creep on a human mind. In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but it may be trivial to-morrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.

Life is a series of surprises....

June 20, 2007 at 12:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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January 31, 2009 at 11:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 2, 2009 at 7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! thanks a lot! ^^

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March 2, 2009 at 7:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


March 6, 2009 at 5:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


March 6, 2009 at 9:40 PM  

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