TCS Daily

The Curse of Egoism

By Robert McHenry - January 26, 2006 12:00 AM

I've nearly finished reading Plutarch's Lives. It's even longer than it looks. Mine is the Modern Library Giant edition -- 1,300 unillustrated pages -- something like 700,000 words. I've owned this book for decades (the price printed on the dust jacket is $3.95) and I finally worked up the gumption to tackle it last spring, as a summer project.

Apart from the historical giants -- Solon, Cicero, Pericles, Alcibiades, Alexander, Pompey, Caesar and a few others -- the "noble Grecians and Roman" tend to run together after a while. The single most persistent impression I'm left with is of the fickleness of the citizenry of Athens and Sparta and Rome. How many times now have I read that this week's hero, whether soldier or statesman, is next week's exile, or executee? The most benevolent and self-effacing governor could have his term abruptly limited when the rumormongers or violently ambitious demagogues or frightened oligarchs decided to stir up a mob of ordinary citizens -- idiota in the Greek -- often against their own plain best interests.

In telling his tales Plutarch may be simply echoing Plato, whose doubts about the demos, the people, and disdain for government by them, democracy, are well known. Plato lived through some of the worst excesses of Athenian democracy and so knew whereof he disdained. Since those days we have learned to celebrate -- if not consistently to practice -- and often to romanticize democracy. It is de rigueur for politicians in the Western world to say nice things about the people: "You're beautiful, we love you, you're the ultimate source of legitimacy, and you're all above average." The more extreme democrats are sometimes hard to distinguish from anarchists in their declared belief that the essential good in mass man needs only the removal of various chains held by various sorts of evil (i.e. rich) persons in order to manifest itself in a paradise on Earth.

Democracy is not the only form of government to suffer at the hands of romanticists, of course. Tyranny has its celebrants as well, until they are sent to whatever version of the gulag is historically current or, if they have the good fortune to be outside observers and are more honest than many, until they learn better. Napoleon was the beau ideal of many an English and German romantic -- for a while. Hitler was the savior of his nation -- for a while. Mao was the "great helmsman" to more Western intellectuals than to Chinese, it sometimes seemed. And so on.

The core of romanticism is egoism, of a degree that threatens always to slide over into solipsism. It is a disease chiefly of the leisured young and first came to be identified and named when the Industrial Revolution had produced a critical mass of that class. That's because it is recognized by actual adults as a disease, that no one ever says to the romantic: "Why, yes, now you come to mention it, the cosmos does appear to be centered on you." Since the age to which they gave their collective name, romantics have been of two sorts: those who give it up after adolescence and those who don't. The former are irksome until they do, but the latter are a plague. The more intense among them are given to issuing manifestos. Karl Marx on Communism, Filippo Marinetti on Futurism, Ted Kaczynski on whatever it was he was selling -- romantics to a man, each utterly confident of his unique insight into the really true nature of things. Herewith McHenry's Third Law:

People who write manifestos are always wrong.

I don't read manifestos if I can help it, but the other day a series of links led me to a piece by John Perry Barlow, who confesses to having written one a decade ago. This new article demonstrates clearly that, while he may have no more manifestos to issue, he is still a card-carrying romantic. Only a romantic can produce such fluff as this: a living thing, an ecosystem of thought that, like any other ecosystem, thrives on diversity, hybridization, and free competition.

Whenever the pathetic fallacies are that inflated, we suspect we are in Cloud Cuckooland. We are confirmed in our suspicion when the list of defining and essential characteristics omits any mention of standards, principles, or discipline.

The fundamental error of romanticism is the failure to understand the importance of rules, of constraints, to creation. Here is a simple, non-highfaluting example: Imagine if the rules-committee of the NFL were to eliminate the rules concerning pass interference. What would the result be? Hockey. The rules, which have become more stringent in recent years, impose strong constraints on what receivers and especially defenders can do while running downfield for a pass, but the result is a higher level of athletic performance by both. Defenders are forced to be more agile because receivers must become more deceptive. The safety who can stay step-for-step with a wide receiver and at the last split second leap and reach around him to bat away the ball exhibits a degree of skill and grace possible only under constraint.

The same inexorable law applies to all such human endeavor. Science works because of the strong constraints that results must be published and be duplicable in order to be accepted. The arts, on the other hand, have declined deplorably in recent decades for no other reason than that the notion has taken hold that utter freedom leads to creativity (and, by the way, utterly trumps craft). It leads, rather, to the mindless posing as sensation: tin cans full of excrement, farm animals in formaldehyde, and smears of chewed soap.

Any idea of discipline is conspicuously absent as well from Barlow's characterization of the Internet:

The Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Even a casual user of the Internet will have a pretty good idea of what most of that free expression amounts to: pornography; juvenile blather on politics; and other manifestations of adolescent narcissism. Notice, too that business about "endowing billions," with its whiff of satisfied paternalism. It's almost as though the Internet were a huge welfare benefit, with no work requirement. What is inarguable is that it is to a remarkable degree a circus of unearned certainty, shallow and unmoored. No noble Greek or Roman would heed such promiscuous babble.

(On the other hand, a few people are managing to get real work done underneath the din. See Scott McLemee's recent column at Inside Higher Ed for an interesting example.)

Thomas Gray, reflecting upon the stunted lives of the hardworking country poor, tried to imagine what "mute inglorious Milton" might lie buried in that churchyard. No one would deny that the constraints that the 18th century imposed on the many were harsh, or that much human potential was lost to social and economic oppression. Yet wouldn't it be lovely if some of our 21st century Milton manqués had the taste to remain mute?

Now then, where was I? Ah, page 1221 -- Aratus of Sicyon. Hmmm....

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


The Latin Secretary
Considering the sucess of the foreign policy of the British Commonwealth during Milton's tenure as the man in charge of its diplomatic correspendance, one wishes more blind classicists could be persuded to take the Foreign service exam.

Now that Bob has brushed up on his Plutarch, maybe he'll turn to translating Paridise Lost into Arabic- it's high time some folks living in caves in Baluchistan and the Hindu Kush gave it a read.

Thank You
To begin the day reading this article is surely to set the stage for a great day! Thanks, Jerri

Physician, heal thyself!
Surely this essay itself qualifies as a manifesto.
owner of the same volume of Plutarch, read & deeply treasured

Egoism is not the only curse
With the Internet suite of technologies the cost (both monetary and nonmonetary) of transmitting and storing information has been lowered by orders of magnitude. Whenever you lop a few zeros of any cost, odd things happen. When the commodity being altered is as widespread and useful as information, the odd things that happen filter throughout society and have large impacts everywhere.

While it is true that the volume of traffic devoted to porn is quite high, this says more about the failure of moral guardians in our various societies than anything about the Internet. The only thing that the Internet is doing is lowering costs to transmit/store and increasing the ability to search out whatever you want in comfortable pseudonymity.

Radically reducing costs increases the amount of unimportant things committed to information systems. Past a certain point, it's more expensive to sort than to just store it all.

This virtual society of abundance leads to a quest for attention, influence, and re****tion, Things that are not affected by the lowered costs of the Internet. There are tens of millions of blogs but how many operate at the level of an Instapundit or Daily Kos? The long tail of blogs create the bulk of the traffic but they have no influence, no re****tion to speak of. They are generally unimportant unless they consistently offer good content at which point they rise in the standings and start to be widely read. The same power law phenomenon that affect blogs affect most other communities on the 'Net.

The writer sees unfamiliar rules presented in insider shorthand and imagines there are no rules at all. I recommend a decent course of ESR. Homesteading the Noosphere is especially apropos.

The Internet is an amalgam of the human mind
Do a pie chart of the Internet's total content, and you'll come up with an idea of the potential contents of any average human mind over some extended period of time.

Carl Jung believed in a collective human consciousness - some kind of spiritual/mental entity to which we've all got a high-speed connection in the back of our minds. I dearly wish he had lived to behold today's Internet just to see the look on his face as he encountered his collective mind.

Every individual's mind is physically isolated within his own skull and attached body. Or, conversely, the physical universe encapsulates and isolates every individual's mind. The physical universe imposes severe limitations on every individual's thoughts, choices, actions and time unless it doesn't.

When it doesn't, men become free to bend their minds to meet desires which, if unlimited, grow ever more bizarre. Hence, 60% of the Internet’s content regards sexuality, of which some 20% is anything but missionary-inspired. As data creating, storing and transmitting costs decrease, this 20% will increase.

Prosperity is not entirely a blessing. The above also explains why modern moral values look nothing like their forebears.

Plutarch; manifestos
1) I've read about 75% of Plutarch's Lives and I've been most struck by the difference in morality from that time to now. Not only were the standards of the most moral men higher, but the nature of morality was different.
2) What was the Declaration of Independence if not a manifesto?

Culture (capital C) is not unhindered or unconstrained
While generally in agreement with your essay, I think you need to review your own EB definition of culture which is:

"behaviour peculiar to Homo sapiens, together with material objects used as an integral part of this behaviour. Thus, culture includes language, ideas, beliefs, customs, codes, institutions, tools..."

These indicators, among others, define membership in a culture and includes recruitment and issues relating to a sustained society. Violation of 'customs', 'codes', 'institutional [behavior and rules] brings sanctions, just as do more formal laws in contemporary society.

I think that rather than attacking the solipsism spilled by Bryant (nearly a compliment in this case), the more emphatic approach may have been to point out the obvious in his writing. Such nonsense is much at the root of "cultural relativism", "multiculturalism" and other nonsense that passes for avante-guarde liberal manifesto (and law).

Thanks for a good article.

Timothy Farrell (pre- post-modern Anthropologist)

The Tyranny of Democracy
With the one and notable exception of his failure to understand what Romanticism truly is, the writer has given us a superior piece comprising some great and sorely needed insight.

RE: Commentary about the nature of the Internet - The great one, Carl Jung, would be thrilled by its potential energy but at once be disgusted by its current currents. He would look to the future.

TCS Daily Archives