Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 134

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Barbara Ehrenreich’s radical critique of wellness and self-improvement.

What makes people distrust science? Surprisingly, not (only) politics.

Bullshit jobs and the myth of capitalist efficiency.

Sex, sport, and Track and Field’s new rules on intersex athletes: two contrasting views (here and here).

What can Aristotle teach us about the routes to happiness? (A lot, but the author needlessly gets the Stoics wrong.)

What’s the best way to avoid regrets?


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

74 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 134

  1. brodix

    Politics gets lots of attention, because as the executive and regulatory functions of society, it amounts to the collective central nervous system, but as discussions of free will, virtue, etc show, it is what goes on underneath that sets the stage and guides actions, while consciousness is often guided more by emotion than logic.

    After the Civil War, the Golden Age was a time of vast geographic and industrial growth. This crested and peaked with the speculative financial frenzy of the 20’s. Roosevelt came along with the New Deal and is credited with saving capitalism from itself. The assumption is he prevented a socialist revolution, but consider that he had to find ways to pay for these work programs. For which he borrowed a fair amount of money from those crashed financial markets. So ask yourself, if he hadn’t borrowed up this under-employed capital, to put under-employed workers to work, what would have happened to it. God only knows, given how financial markets find ways to work, but it seems possible that it would have lost considerable value, if it couldn’t find other ways to keep occupied.

    So then World War 2 came along and not only did it further charge the economy, but basically put it in the embrace of the military industrial complex, given its effectiveness in focusing and organizing this industrial energy around a common purpose and goal.

    So when Johnson initiated his Great Society, along with the Vietnam War, there wasn’t a lot of loose capital laying around to borrow up, so what amounted to loose money policies were used, setting the stage for inflation. Then the oil crises of the 70’s added to the problem, draining value out of the regular economy and since much of it flowed into the large banks, left them flush with cash, to be spent and invested at the behest of Opec countries.

    Carter appointed Volcker to try to solve inflation, but that was easier said than done, as the chosen instrument, higher interest rates, slowed the loose money flowing into the economy, but to the more productive sectors. Those wanting and willing to borrow, because they had productive uses for it, rather than those sitting on piles of excess wealth and enjoying the higher interest rates adding to their piles.

    Then Reagan was elected on the slogan of “Morning in America,” funded by what his running mate, GHW Bush, referred to as Voodoo Economics, during the primary. Lower taxes, less regulation and lots more spending on the military. Which actually put him in a situation somewhat similar to Roosevelt. Borrowing up a bunch of under-employed capital.

    It should be noted that Volcker felt comfortable enough to start lowering interest rates in 82, which was the first year that federal deficits crossed 200 billion, which was real money in those days. So it seems reasonable to argue that it wasn’t so much higher interest rates that cured inflation, i.e. excess money in the system, as government debt.

    If you take all this into account, the succeeding 35 years start to come into focus. Why we could never stop military spending, even after the Soviet Union collapsed. Why Federal deficits can only grow, even though much of the money gets thrown at the military, rather than things like education and infrastructure. Why both political parties cannot even think about questioning our foreign policy fiascos, as our vaunted military can’t seem to bomb Asian societies into submission and even supposedly liberal media as public radio march to the tune.

    This is why, unless the solution is nuclear holocaust, we need to reconsider the role of money as social contract, the medium holding the community together, not a commodity to be mined from it, will need to be considered, if we don’t want to slide much further into that vortex of wealth extraction and waste.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. SocraticGadfly

    The term is “mudsill,” like president Andrew Johnson.

    American working-class whites have long had a fair stream of racism right in their midst. American centrist unions like the AFL-CIO, with select exceptions like the UAW, were slow to embrace the civil rights movement. (The UAW’s Walter Reuther was at many civil rights marches; the AFL-CIO head George Meany was at nary a one.)

    Then, when King expanded his actions to target Vietnam as well as civil rights, he lost a fair chunk of the Democratic political establishment, which in turn gave that portion of working class rights that, at a minimum, weren’t really interested in civil rights, the “excuse” to move right.

    Let’s not forget the AFL-CIO was “centrist” on many other things. Things like working with the CIA to set up CIA front unions in the developing world in the 50s and 60s because, Communism! That, in turn, gets back to my previous comment about why I’m neither a Dem nor a Repub. Foreign policy, just as much as domestic policy.

    With rare exceptions, like the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, American unionism has remained largely centrist on many issues for nearly a century.


  3. wtc48

    Robin: “But the USA has also always had that rump of working class conservatives, just as Britain has had its working class Tories.”

    An often-overlooked side-effect of the British class system. The indigenous Brits, after the Norman Conquest, became a more or less permanent underclass, identifiable by their speech (cf. Shaw’s “Pygmalion”) rather than skin color. There appear to have been two parallel streams in the 20th century: socialism (basically inviting overthrow of class distinctions) and populism (assumption of ruling-class attitudes).

    Certainly an over-generalized account, but I think the same process is reflected in the US: the New Deal (top-down socialism) vs. Trumpism (populism a la Huey Long and George Wallace).


  4. wtc48

    Brodix: “If you take all this into account, the succeeding 35 years start to come into focus. Why we could never stop military spending, even after the Soviet Union collapsed. Why Federal deficits can only grow, even though much of the money gets thrown at the military, rather than things like education and infrastructure. Why both political parties cannot even think about questioning our foreign policy fiascos, as our vaunted military can’t seem to bomb Asian societies into submission and even supposedly liberal media as public radio march to the tune.”

    This is pretty close to the view put forth in the “Report from Iron Mountain” in 1967, which may have been a hoax, but is disturbingly close to the reality of a system that depends on endless expansion for self-preservation.


  5. synred

    Blacks in Alabama (and even California) still need a civil rights movement. Things are (or were) better, but there are still major injustices.


  6. wtc48

    Apart from her dismissive treatment of Stoicism, I liked Edith Hall’s article on Aristotle, especially after learning that she made her own translations. I don’t think we’ve made much progress in thinking since those times, although we certainly have more to think about. (I was going to pursue this with an analogy between fly-fishing and industrialized fishing, but I’ll leave it at that).


  7. Massimo Post author


    Apart from her dismissive treatment of Stoicism, I liked Edith Hall’s article on Aristotle

    Indeed, that was unnecessary. I have a response coming out tomorrow at my site.


  8. brodix


    Expanding for self preservation is fairly elemental to biology. It’s just that most systems are kept in check by competition, predation, cycles of resource depletion and expansion, etc. When systems are fairly stable, this tendency to grow is fulfilled by filling out every niche and taking advantage of every opportunity, thus selecting for specialization within the ecosystem.

    From the article on Aristotle; “To be happy, we need to sustain constructive activities that we believe are goal-directed.”

    We need to be able to grow, in order to prosper. Life is not static. It would be a flatline otherwise.

    Yet as the article also makes clear, a well thought out principle of balance is equally important.

    “An innovative Aristotelian idea is that supposedly reprehensible emotions – even anger and vengefulness – are indispensable to a healthy psyche. In this respect, Aristotle’s philosophy contrasts with the Stoic view that, for example, anger is irrational, and a form of temporary madness that should be eliminated. It’s just that such emotions need to be present in the right amount, the ‘middle’ or ‘mean’. Sexual desire, since humans are animals, is excellent in proportion. Either excessive or insufficient sexual appetite is conducive to unhappiness. Anger is also essential to a flourishing personality. An apathetic individual who never gets angry will not stand up for herself or her dependents when appropriate, and can’t achieve happiness. Yet anger in excess or with the wrong people is a vice.”

    There is an interesting contradiction presented in his views. He envisions a frictionless world:

    “Aristotle envisages a futuristic world in which technological advances would render human labour unnecessary.”

    Then acknowledges the importance of that very friction:

    “People look after things because they enjoy the sense of private ownership, and because the things have value for them; both these qualities are diluted if shared with others. Aristotle thinks that ‘everybody loves a thing more if it has cost him trouble’.”

    There is a deep contradiction and tension to life and reality. That we need to be goal oriented in order to live healthy lives and have sense, meaning and focus to them, but at the same time the process exists in a larger equilibrium, that we need to acknowledge, in order not to become obsessed with ever more focused and biased goals. The arrow and the circle.

    Which then gets to our particular situation in time and place and what goals should we seek, in order to give some larger focus and meaning to our lives. Given we are operating under a planet destroying economic model, that seeks to abstract and extract all value out of every possible resource and relationship, as ego gratification for those with the most power and influence, finding ways to defuse it seems a rather large target, considering its logical foundations are not that complicated, though deliberately obscured. There are plenty of other challenges as well. Sometimes its just unraveling those internal knots, but given they invariably extend to external knots, we come back around the circle….


  9. brodix

    A whole can of worms on the interplay between states and the global economy:

    “Unlike the European Central Bank, international agreements don’t directly replace any function of national governments; they don’t have their own staff or any tools to enforce themselves. It is better to think of them as compacts between national governments to support each other against the demands of their own peoples. In the words of GATT economist Tumlir, by subordinating themselves to international bodies, states are “salvaging their own sovereignty against internally grasping forces.””


  10. Daniel Kaufman


    Why not email her and engage with her characterization? Looking at her bio and publications record, she is a serious, heavy-hitting classicist, with books on Clarendon and Johns Hopkins presses. Her appointments have been at the top universities in the world. It’s unlikely that she simply “got Stoicism wrong.” Much more likely is that the texts are open to contrary interpretation — unsurprising, especially with ancient texts — and that it would be a lot more fruitful to engage with her rather than simply post a response on your blog. It’s an opportunity to speak with someone who is a real expert in ancient Greek literature and culture. Maybe you could even get her to do dueling pieces with you here at PF.


  11. Massimo Post author


    Because she has written a public piece, needlessly attacking a philosophy she didn’t even have to mention in the first place. So she gets a public rebuttal. The conversation can happen later, if she is interested.

    And yes, she is a serious classicist. So are the many people who have come down to a very different opinion about Stoicism, like Margaret Graver. Sometimes experts get things wrong too, as we all know, especially if they are biased by their own preconceptions, as it appears to be the case here.


  12. Robin Herbert

    I recall once that a senior professor in ancient history specialising in the classical era wrote that the ancient Greeks never tested any theory because they would have found it illogical to do so and believed that everything should be deduced from unquestioned axioms.

    That is pretty clearly wrong – sometimes you can be an expert in one area of a field and not in another.

    Liked by 1 person

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