We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

There is nothing new under the sun

“What has been will be again,” as it says in Ecclesiastes, “what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Yesterday – to my shame I did not spot it until today – the Times reprinted a letter to the editor that was a century old to the day. I wish I could say that it was merely of historical interest.

From The Times July 15, 1919

To the Editor of The Times

Sir, Will you permit an elderly man, who is not a politician nor a public character, but merely an individual among millions of honest, sober persons whose liberty is attacked by a moral tyranny, to state an opinion with regard to the crusade against moderate drinkers? It is not needed even in the cause of morality. When I was a child excess in drinking was patent in every class of society. Now, in my wide circle, I do not know of one man or woman who is ever seen “under the influence of liquor”. Why not leave the process of moderation, so marked within 60 years, to pursue its normal course? It is untrue to say that a reasonable use of alcohol is injurious to mind, body or morality. My father, whose life was one of intense intellectual application, and who died from an accident in his 79th year, was the most rigidly conscientious evangelical I have ever known. He would have been astonished to learn that his claret and water at his midday meal, and his glass of Constantia at bedtime, were either sinful in themselves or provocative to sin in others.

There is no blessing upon those who invent offences for the pleasure of giving pain and who lay burdens on the liberty of others. We have seen attempts by the fantastically righteous to condemn those who eat meat, who go to see plays, who take walks on Sundays. The campaign against the sober use of wine and beer is on a footing with these efforts, and should be treated as they have been. Already tobacco is being forbidden to the clergy! The fact that Americans are leading the campaign should be regarded with alarm. We do not express an opinion, much less organize propaganda, against “dryness” in the United States. It is not for us to interfere in their domestic business. If Englishmen went round America urging Americans to defy their own laws and revolt against their customs, we should be very properly indignant. Let crusading Americans be taught the same reticence.

The propagandist teetotaler is active and unscrupulous. He fights with all weapons, whether they are clean or no. We must resist, without fear of consequences, the cruel and ignorant fanaticism of these apostles.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,


66 comments to There is nothing new under the sun

  • Slartibartfarst

    Nicely spotted. Thanks for posting.
    Those of us who make the effort to read them may discover that biblical texts are often replete with wisdom.

  • Stonyground

    Biblical texts are rarely replete with wisdom. The vast majority of them are replete with ignorance, superstition and barbarism. There are flashes of wisdom but they are very few and far between.

  • Gene

    “There is no blessing upon those who invent offences for the pleasure of giving pain and who lay burdens on the liberty of others.”

    THAT, I will copy, keep, and use. A truly radical sentiment for the 21st century.

  • neonsnake

    I skipped the opening intro and jumped straight to the letter.

    I was halfway through before the use of language tipped me off that it wasn’t written yesterday and scrolled back up to find it was a century old.

  • CaptDMO

    Gee, I just read-“Dogs in the manger must be given a beat down, scarred or maimed such that they never forget the consequences of their actions. If they return and persist, they must be executed in front of their peers
    that there be no uncertainty in the value of their “new” ideas.”
    What? NO? Not exactly?
    I’m fairly certain there are similar sentiments put fourth by actual administrators, of actual civilized global subsets, throughout blips in the time line of history, certainly in practice if not by op-ed for “consideration” by public consumption.
    Oh, and be sure to take your kids to see The Lion King this weekend.
    (IMHO) Hard cover, leather bound, Aesop’s Fables and Brother’s Grimm make a fine Summer reading gift for students of all ages facing impending “free” educational administration.

  • Philip Scott Thomas

    This is definitely going up on Twitter this evening. 😎

  • Mr Ed


    Biblical texts are rarely replete with wisdom. The vast majority of them are replete with ignorance, superstition and barbarism.

    To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the Heaven.

  • Roué le Jour

    He that hath ears, let him hear.

  • Ellen

    “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” Not Biblical, but similar sentiments are therein expressed.

  • Snorri Godhi

    One of the most remarkable sentences is the last:

    I am, Sir, your obedient servant

    Not a sentiment that one would expect at the end of such a strongly worded letter. But i realize that those were different times.

  • Stonyground

    Ecclesiastes is a reasonable exception to my general statement, I particularly like the bit in, I think, chapter nine that says that you need to enjoy this life as best you can because you certainly don’t get another one. There is a proverb that states that a sharp axe cuts better than a blunt one so that’s good to know. Psalm 13 is short and completely baffling.

  • Mr Ed

    Stonyground has returned to the thread. So shall I, ‘As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.’ 🙂

  • Stonyground

    I have actually read the whole thing from cover to cover and certainly wouldn’t want to do so again. A page turner it certainly is not.

    I’m a little surprised that nobody has commented on my username yet.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Those of us who make the effort to read them may discover that biblical texts are often replete with wisdom.”

    Often they are, more often they’re not. For example, what wisdom does the following text contain upon Freedom of Belief? Why cows?

    “Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.”

    Deuteronomy 13:15.

    Most books contain quotable quotes that seem wise when cited selectively. The Bible is long, and has been long combed over, so there are many. But is the density of wise sayings specially high compared to many other books? ‘Atlas Shrugged’, say? Or Ramanujan’s notebooks?

    “Biblical texts are rarely replete with wisdom. The vast majority of them are replete with ignorance, superstition and barbarism.”

    And talking animals – frequently made by gluing together bits of other animals.

    “And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

    And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.”

    Numbers 22:28-29

    “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.

    And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.

    And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.

    And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?


    Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.”

    Revelation 13:1-4,18

    In all the years I’ve seen people speculating about the meaning and significance of that number, I’ve hardly ever seen anyone use Roman numerals – they all write it using Arabic numerals. Wisdom is where you look for it.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    NIV stated in connection with the 666 number: “… I’ve hardly ever seen anyone use Roman numerals …

    Why would someone writing in (ancient) Greek use Roman numerals?

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Why would someone writing in (ancient) Greek use Roman numerals?”

    They didn’t. But it’s not nearly as notable a number in Greek numerals as in Roman.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Snorri Godhi writes,

    One of the most remarkable sentences is the last:

    I am, Sir, your obedient servant

    That was the standard phrase for signing off letters well into the 1950s, and people were well aware of the ironies it generated. I’ve read of it being the last phrase of many a letter issuing a challenge to a duel and of ultimatums during the US Civil War. I remember one of the latter reading as something like “Unless you damn Yankees/Rebs vacate this fort by noon tomorrow we are going to kill you all. I remain, Sir, your obedient servant Capt XYZ”

  • Paul Marks

    It is true that all the arguments used today, by Prime Minister May and others, to justify government intervention were also used by the prohibitionists – and alcohol does indeed do terrible harm, ending or ruining vast numbers of lives.

    One has to be prepared to look the collectivist square in the face and say two things…..

    Your banning of X product will hot make the problems (the problems that most certainly exist – terrible things indeed) better, it will make the mess WORSE.


    Even if your coercion would make the mess less bad (which it will not – it will make the mess worse) – you do not have the MORAL RIGHT to do use the threat of violence in this matter.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Comment to the company,

    As so often the comments have turned out differently from what I expected when I wrote the post. Not that I’m complaining, but you might be interested to know I only threw in the Ecclesiastes quote at the last minute because the spooky level of applicability of Edmund Gosse’s letter of 1919 to 2019’s American-inspired movement of “those who invent offences for the pleasure of giving pain” really did lead me to start muttering “What has been done will be done again and there is nothing new under the sun”, which gave me my title for the post.

    But while I’m here, my pick for most Libertarian bit of the Bible is 1 Samuel 8 verses 10-20. I had that as QotD back in 2010. Some people liked it, others very much not.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Indeed, Natalie. It was a conventional formality of epistolary etiquette. Thanks for pointing that out, along with the fact that in that era people were no more dunces than we are today.


    More broadly:

    Traditions, conventions, formalities, and etiquette, like most sets of tools or rules, can be used for good or ill, and some of them really are evil in themselves, such as murder (pages of discussion omitted). But to throw them out only because they are conventions, etiquette, etc. is a great mistake.

    Nevertheless. Re manners, traditions, and conventions — as elsewhere — “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” is a good warning to keep in mind.

    (It is also, to my mind, the basic intuition of conservativism — in politics and just about any other area of human activity. So is “Look before you leap,” although there are times when doing so turns out to have been the best choice and when all the looking in the world presents no acceptable alternative.)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Natalie, instant response to your subsequent comment just above: Unreserved applause !!!! How right you are.

    As for the passage from Samuel, “Let him who hath eyes to see perceive the truth,” as the Bible might have put it. In short, “It is difficult to disagree” with your approval of the passage. (As to whether it’s the “most libertarian” in the Bible, I lack Bertie’s award for knowledge of Scripture, so cannot opine.) The passage is certainly de troof.

    Every time I hear some ninny going “but we are the only country in the developed world not to have [or to have] …” I want to yell and scream and beat my head against the floor.

    As mothers everywhere used to tell their kids, “So because ‘everbody’ is doing it you’re going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge too?”


    . . .


    Nail on the head. Especially the last sentence (typo removed):

    “Even if your coercion would make the mess less bad (which it will not – it will make the mess worse) – you do not have the MORAL RIGHT to use the threat of violence in this matter.”

  • Nullius in Verba

    “As so often the comments have turned out differently from what I expected when I wrote the post. Not that I’m complaining…”

    My apologies, anyway. I gave in to temptation. The OT has lots of authoritarian material, and while there are certainly some good bits, much of it ranges (IMO) from the evil to the bizarre, so I always find it jarring to see it’s ‘wisdom’ endorsed so broadly. However, I know others feel differently, and it’s exactly the sort of provocative, polarising, conflict-causing ‘political’ statement that I was saying earlier we should avoid. So my heartfelt apologies.

    Actually, I quite like Ecclesiastes, and have several times used the same quote for exactly the same purpose. Authoritarianism dates back into pre-history. (I’m not sure whether libertarianism does too, or if it’s purely a relatively modern invention – that might be an interesting question for debate too.)

    Authoritarians believe society has the right and duty to impose on people’s freedom for their own good and for the good of society. Their path is paved with good intentions. But whatever danger it is they fear and fight, it is not half so dangerous to society as their authoritarianism itself, as history has shown time and time again.

  • Ellen

    I quite like Ecclesiastes myself; but find more applicable wisdom in Kipling:

    As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
    There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
    That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
    And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire

    “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”

  • Fred Z

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

    Imaginary Hobgoblins of the past and present:
    -Global cooling
    -Nuclear winter
    -The Jews
    -Ozone holes
    -Acid rain
    et endless cetera.

    Most of the time cui bono applied to any hobgoblin leads us to politicians and/or civil servants.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    NIV: “Authoritarianism dates back into pre-history. (I’m not sure whether libertarianism does too …”

    I have wondered about that too. One might imagine that pre-historic hunter-gatherers might have tended towards a libertarian type of philosophy (if they could have had any more success than us in defining what libertarianism means in the real world) — but I tend to doubt it. The great apes in the wild move in packs. From what we can learn of primitive (Oops! Potentially RACIST badspeak there!) societies, they found that hunting in teams was generally more successful than hunting alone. And specialization/trading developed early between the guys who were good at making spears and the guys who were good at using them — which led to a need for a means to enforce agreements.

    An authoritarian society needs an individual or small group who want to order everyone else around. But it also needs a much larger group of people who are happy to be ordered around. We human beings are herd animals, and peer pressure to follow the leader is probably a much bigger influence than most of us would like to admit. Sadly, it seems that Authoritarian is the default.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    Ecclesiastes is, I think, all about reincarnation. All that talk about recycling is meant to lead you to think that souls are also not new under the sun. “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the Earth abidith forever.”
    As for 666, the number is first encountered when discussing the ‘talents’ of either gold or silver that were brought to King Solomon from his mines somewhere in Africa each year- so the number 666 could be linked to either excessive greed, or the name Solomon.
    Some people think that the number should be 616, because some of the earlier scrolls use this number, so maybe that’s how we’ve missed the Anti-Christ all these years. And wasn’t there a British singer openly claiming in a song, “I am an Anti-Christ”?

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    And for real mind-blowing, don’t go past all the verses in Revelation where Jesus urges you to ‘overcome the world’, and sit with him at the right hand of the Father. (Chapter 3, verse 12, and verse 21, and Chapter 21, verse 7.) There is even a bit about ‘going out no more’, which sounds like pre-existence, and souls choosing incarnations- a possibility that the Jewish sages spoke in favour of.

  • Fraser Orr

    I had that as QotD back in 2010.

    Those of you who have read my thoughts before will know that I am no advocate of the Bible. However, I think it is a gross mistake the dismiss it too lightly. The passage you quote Natalie, of course is talking about the consequences of getting a King. But of course, surely, the lesson here is that despite all the warnings the people still wanted one, got one, and then very soon got all the consequences and worse. Which is to say people just love having someone as the boss even though it rarely works out. A lesson we can surely learn today. (Though we won’t because the one lesson we can reliably learn from history is that nobody every learns anything from history.)

    Having said that a lot of the “Bible” we read is beautiful and wise more as a consequence of the input of the translators. For my sins I used to be able to read Koine Greek and (to a lesser extent) ancient Hebrew, and the smooth English you read in the Bible is a very poor presentation of the underlying texts (or certainly some of them — the quality is very variable). So many of the pithy soundbites are more a product of slick academics and translators molding the text to their will than any brilliance in the underlying text. And moreover, a lot of it has that whole John Lennon feel “Imagine all the people sharing all the world” kind of thing that sounds beautiful, the poeticism disengaging your mental faculties so that you don’t notice the banality, jejuneness or plain stupidity of the actual material.

    OK, maybe I did end up dissing the Bible after all. Heck, let’s just say that I think it is deeply important to western culture, in much the same way (and probably much more so) as Shakespeare is. There is wisdom in “As you like it” if you look hard enough, and, the both contribute massively to our language, cultural heritage and shared metaphors and thinking patterns.

    Which of course has nothing at all to do with the merits or demerits of drinking. I honestly am unfamiliar with whatever Mrs May has concocted to put y’alls dander up.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    The Jews were prepared to accept reincarnation as a possibility, since the afterlife is not explicitly discussed in the Pentateuch, the first five books attributed to Moses. How else to explain Deuteronomy from chapter 1, verse 1, through to Chapter 5, verse 5? God explicitly states that the carcasses of the generation at Mount Sinai would not be allowed into the Promised Land, and then Moses starts talking to the people who are finally about to enter Israel (the next Generation) as though they are the same people from 40 years ago! (“You, not your fathers, saw all this.” It had been their fathers’ bodies that had seen all this, so the expression ‘NOT your fathers’ could mean that Moses is senile, or that he is alluding to rebirth, and these are the same people with no memories and new bodies. You choose.
    Stonyground, I don’t worry much about monickers, though I might have thought it was a Tolkien reference to Gondor (Stone-land). Still, if you want to admit that you are barren soul in whom the words of truth and life will never sprout, have fun!

  • Natalie, in 2010, quoting Samuel from the bible:

    And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. […] He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.

    By modern standards, 10% sounds like the most excellent deal for the people with their ruler. Currently the UK is running at around 40%, and it’s been up around that most of the time since the end of WW2.

    Best regards

  • Natalie Solent (Essex), July 16, 2019 at 8:29 pm, when Churchill declared war on Japan in December 1941, he ended his letter with the customary diplomatic niceties. (From memory)

    I am, with high respect, your obedient servant

    Some people complained about this so-polite response to a treacherous attack. Churchill replied,

    When you decide to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.

    I deduce from Stonyground’s hint that Stonyground chose that moniker to indicate resistance to proselytising – including, presumably, to PC proselytising. As regards debates between Stonyground and others on this thread, the appropriate biblical proverb would seem to be that concerning “one man sharpens another”. We can all agree to disagree on who is so blunt they most need sharpening. 🙂 Perhaps we would be wise to, since, in English, one complains about the bluntness of someone’s pointed remark, ensuring opportunities for confusion and comedy.

    I am one of a group of people who read (aloud) right through the King James bible to celebrate its 400th anniversary a few years ago. It earned me an invite to a Westminster Abbey service with her majesty (and just a few others 🙂 ). The associated display included some of the early misprint copies – though not, alas, the (in)famous 1630s edition in which the rather important word ‘not’ had been omitted from the commandment on adultery.

    Fraser Orr (July 17, 2019 at 5:55 am) those King James translators tried really hard and with astonishing success to translate the true meaning. They certainly did make a few mistakes (“A modern translator has more erudition in his little finger than Coverdale had in his whole body” is a quote from C.S.Lewis) but by all reasonable standards, the King James does a good job of conveying the original. The poetry of the King James is good (it was a good time for English) but while your Greek exceeds mine, it is, I respectfully suspect, exceeded by that of some bible-readers I know. It is hard for a non-native-speaker to judge whether and where the poetry of the original has been significantly enhanced or reduced.

    Nullius in Verba (July 16, 2019 at 6:24 pm) do you perchance know the Arthur C Clarke story in which a rabbi, told off by the German commander to give a “destroy the enemy” sermon to the Jewish soldiers of his international force defending a planet better suited to the aliens attacking it than to humans, is suddenly told by his assistant (jokingly nicknamed “the ass” for his role in carrying the rabbi’s gear) that they should let the aliens win? The rabbi sees the biblical connection, decides his servant is inspired of the Lord, and acts accordingly – with the author’s approval. The story ends with the servant remembering that his rabbi knows all too well what happened next for his biblical equivalent – Balaam was slain along with his people by their enemy – but nothing is said of what happens to the ass. 🙂

    (I’m not much of a fan of Arthur C. Clarke in general but that story stayed with me.)

  • Roué le Jour

    If you don’t have a king, who are you going to complain to when the rains don’t come?

  • Natalie Solent (Essex) (July 16, 2019 at 8:57 pm), I like your Samuel “Samizdata Quote of the Day” and have only to regret that you did not take the opportunity to call it “Samizdata Quote of three millennia ago” or similar. I take this opportunity to suggest that minor variety (Samizdata Quote of Tuesday or whatever) would let the comments blogroll be more easily parsed on those occasions when samizdata’s latest is three ‘Samizdata Quote of the Day’ posts in succession.

    Having experienced the same in some of my posts, I sympathise with your surprise at the somewhat OT direction in which some of your post’s comments have gone. Hopefully this sympathy will excuse my indulgence of that in my comment above and in what follows.

    For my money, the most libertarian part of the bible is where it shows the son of God hanging in agony on the cross instead of asking his father to make us all tremblingly good via frequent recourse to judiciously-aimed lightening bolts (or through granting military victory to fanatical followers who would then attend to it) – and then suggesting we try to imitate this forbearing behaviour. It is unsurprising that it was in a Christian society that modern libertarian ideas arose – though, as I joked in another comment about “suffering death rather than submit to break eggs at the wrong end” this is in part due to its ability to inspire people to endure much rather than violate their beliefs, even when some details of those beliefs might be seen as in themselves not needing such devotion. Some of those people simultaneously practiced the Christian doctrine of passive obedience, rendering them particularly embarrassing to their persecutors.

  • Snorri Godhi

    About the “obedient servant” signing-off:
    I am old enough to remember that, at the time of the Falkland War, the letter sent by the leader of the British expedition to retake the Falklands from Argentina in **1833** was resurrected. An excerpt is in Wikipedia:

    I have to direct you that I have received directions from His Excellency and Commander-in-Chief of His Britannic Majesty’s ships and vessels of war, South America station, in the name of His Britannic Majesty, to exercise the rights of sovereignty over these Islands.

    It is my intention to hoist to-morrow the national flag of Great Britain on shore when I request you will be pleased to haul down your flag on shore and withdraw your force, taking all stores belonging to your Government.

    IIRC the signing-off was “I am, Sir, your most humble servant”. But it might have been “obedient servant”.

  • neonsnake

    NIV: “Authoritarianism dates back into pre-history. (I’m not sure whether libertarianism does too …”

    I have wondered about that too.

    Obviously not pre-history by any stretch, but here’s an early passage on pricing signals:

    Society obviously must have farmers before it can eat; foresters, fishermen, miners, etc., before it can make use of natural resources; craftsmen before it can have manufactured goods; and merchants before they can be distributed.
    But once these exist, what need is there for government directives, mobilizations of labour, or periodic assemblies?

    Each man has only to be left to utilize his own abilities and exert his strength to obtain what he wishes. Thus, when a commodity is very cheap, it invites a rise in price; when it is very expensive, it invites a reduction.

    When each person works away at his own business then, like water flowing downward, goods will naturally flow forth ceaselessly day and night without having been summoned, and the people will produce commodities without having been

    Does this not tally with reason? Is it not a natural result?

    (Sima Qian, 145 – 86BC)


  • Rich Rostrom

    Niall Kilmartin – July 17, 2019 at 10:24 am:

    I recall that story. It was by Anthony Boucher and called “Balaam”. It takes place on Mars, where human explorers encounter alien explorers, and a battle is imminent. Rabbi Acosta’s associate is a fellow chaplain, Father Aloysius Malloy. Father Malloy is nicknamed “Mule” from his football days; he was one of the “seven mules” who played with Notre Dame’s renowned “Four Horsemen” of 1924.

    Something speaks through Father Malloy, warning the Rabbi not to curse the enemy as requested by the commander. The Rabbi accepts this – though both he and Father Malloy share an unspoken recollection that the Israelites slew Balaam anyway. The last sentence is Father Malloy thinking “And there isn’t a word as to what became of the ass…”

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Neonsnake quoted Sima Qian: “When each person works away at his own business then, like water flowing downward, goods will naturally flow forth ceaselessly day and night without having been summoned, and the people will produce commodities without having been asked.”

    Alert the media! It seems that Adam Smith was a plagiarist! 🙂 Universities are going to have to cover up statues of that old white guy and rename buildings … again.

  • neonsnake

    It seems that Adam Smith was a plagiarist!

    You joke, but many years ago (so long ago it was in a magazine, although I don’t remember now which one), I read an article alleging exactly that. I don’t remember the precise details, but it was essentially that Adam Smith had met with either Chinese philosophers or students of Chinese philosophy (that bit was apparently true), ergo…he’d plagiarised Sima Qian (and others; that period of Chinese history was surprisingly replete with laissez-faire thinkers – who obviously lost the greater war, even if they won a few battles at the time!)

    I guess it just goes to show – making a mighty effort to get back on topic – that there truly is nothing new under the sun…

  • bobby b

    ” . . . that there truly is nothing new under the sun . . . “

    I note that it appears to me that Prof. Jordan Peterson stole most of his schtick from Confucius.

  • neonsnake

    I note that it appears to me that Prof. Jordan Peterson stole most of his schtick from Confucius

    Oh? Do tell!

    I know little about Jordan Peterson. My experience so far has been that he’s been painted as the kind of person I would naturally dislike (alt-right white supremacist), for want of a better phrase, and yet every time I read anything he says, I find nothing objectionable about it – most of it strikes me as truisms, but then I’m 42, not 22, so I’ve heard it all before.

    The over-riding impression I have is that he cribbed at being ordered to respect pronouns in the case of trans people. And yet, I’ve seen an interview where someone said “So if a trans woman asked you to call her ‘her’, what would you do?” and he looked at the interviewer like they were an idiot and said “I’d call her ‘her’, obviously.”

    I took from that that he’s a gentleman of decency and politeness, but he reacts at being ordered to do something that he would naturally do anyway, being an actual gentleman.

    But I could be wrong.

    Anyway – tell me about his links with Confucius!

  • bobby b

    ” . . . alt-right white supremacist . . . “

    Not at all. He got on people’s sh*t lists when he refused – as you noted – to follow orders regarding how he should speak (while noting that, out of decency, he would of course follow people’s requests re titles), and so of course he got labeled “alt-right white supremacist” because they label everyone they don’t like with those words, but he’s far from that.

    His entire philosophy really comes down to one nugget, which I think can be best outlined thusly:

    “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”

    (And you know where that comes from.)

    Peterson holds that we cannot address social ills until we address our personal attributes. “Clean your room!” lies at the heart of many of his messages – strengthen and repair yourself, make yourself a valuable and worthy person before you attempt to do the same to others. His message resonated with many young single men, I think, because he addresses what society tries to negate – the self.

    I have some problems with a few of his ideas, but this core idea of his is, I think, worthy.

  • neonsnake

    but he’s far from that.

    Yup. Agreed, as far as I can tell. I see nothing “alt-right white supremacist” about the guy, and plenty that refutes it.

    I have this thing about “correct labelling” and not mis-using terms, and this feeds into it.

    And you know where that comes from.


    Confucius was a very wise man, in many ways. There’s lots that we can learn from him, and his followers (Mencius and Xunzi in particular)

    I need to be careful here – I’m Daoist, not Confucian – but the wiser of the Daoists respected Confucius immensely.

    The difference, I think, is that the Daoists advocated for testing different modes of living, and Confucius was more conservative (his emphasis on rituals and traditional family arrangements, for example).

    The Daoist (me) would try to get to the bottom of “But why the ritual?” and shortcut the ritual to get to the underlying point. The Confucianist would say that the ritual is the point (clean the room) without getting to the reason why it’s important. Both approaches have merit, and Daoists such as Chuang Tze and Lieh Tze appreciated the Confucianist approach, even while they disagreed with some of the conclusions.

  • bobby b

    “The Daoist (me) would try to get to the bottom of “But why the ritual?” and shortcut the ritual to get to the underlying point. The Confucianist would say that the ritual is the point (clean the room) without getting to the reason why it’s important.”

    I am utterly unfamiliar with Daoism (a/k/a Taoism?) but this little blurb you wrote makes me wonder if I haven’t confused Confucian thought with Daoist thought – because your description of what the Daoist would do above is closer to Peterson’s writings than your description of how a Confucian would value the ritual qua ritual.

    It was mostly the confluence of Peterson’s writings and the one quoted Confucian passage above (plus a few others) that made me think he was Confucianist.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Govern a nation with the right principle,
    Fight a battle with the tactics of surprise,
    Rule over the world with peace and natural effort.
    How do I know that this so? By the following:
    The more prohibitions that are imposed on people,
    The poorer the people become.
    The more sharp weapons the people possess,
    The greater is the chaos in the country.
    The more clever and crafty the people become,
    The more unusual affairs occur.
    The more laws and regulations that exist,
    The more thieves and brigands appear.
    Hence, the saint declares:
    I act effortlessly with the Way of Tao,
    Thus, people transform themselves naturally.
    I love tranquility and peace,
    Thus, people naturally follow the right Way.
    I do not exhaust people with labor,
    Thus, people naturally are wealthy.
    I have no personal desires,
    Thus, people naturally are innocent and simple.

  • Nullius in Verba

    It’s very hard to ‘explain’ Taoism. If you can come up with an explanation of it, it’s never quite right. (The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way.) But my view of it is that it aims to “do without doing” – it achieves its goal, but without manipulating, interfering, planning, monkeying around with things. The world has its own order – infinitely complex like the flow of water. But people’s brains can’t cope with all that complexity, so they simplify, and then they say: “I want to achieve this effect. How can I prod things so as to bring that about?” But the world doesn’t work like that, and the result of trying is inevitably chaos and conflict and failure, like trying to push water uphill, as if it was a stone. But if you let things act according to their own natural order, the water will flow where it’s needed on its own.

    It’s a sort of freedom. Think of the free market. You want all the billions of people to get enough to eat, without wasted effort, so you sit down and plan out who needs what and who has to do what work to produce it and deliver it to all the billions of destinations, and you use up lots of paper writing out your plan, and ordering people around, and it doesn’t work. But if you leave people alone and let the water flow where it will, everyone gets fed and everyone only has to work the minimum needed to achieve it.

    Or there’s ideas and beliefs, which we want to be true. So we set up committees of experts and fact-checkers and experimentalists and this great bureaucratic machinery to churn out truth automatically. And it doesn’t work. Instead, we let people debate freely, inquire into whatever they choose, and the truth is gradually approached far faster and more reliably, with less wasted effort or risk of getting trapped in dogma.

    And so on. You let the natural flow of things find its own level, without interference – computing the billions of decisions in parallel, with no effort on your part. Stop interfering! Stop monkeying around with the machinery! Don’t try to achieve your aims directly. Instead, try to find a way for your aims to be the natural outcome of things flowing on their own, and then leave it alone to do its thing.

    It’s an excellent principle in theory, but very hard to do in practice! And as a result, most people you try to explain it to don’t believe it could ever possibly work. “Do without doing”? Contradictory nonsense! If you want something done, you have to use force to do it! And governments do.

  • APL

    NS: “Now politicians are taking an interest. ”

    Not just politicians, but Tom Watson!

    You’ve just been ripped off by some unscrupulous capitalist, using your children as the vehicle to do it. Who’s going to run to your rescue? Tom Watson, one of the scummiest of scum to float to the top of the Labour cesspool.

  • Rich Rostrom (July 17, 2019 at 2:48 pm), thanks for the correction. I’ll make a wild face-saving (and possibly wrong) guess that I encountered Anthony Boucher’s short story in an SF anthology edited by Arthur C. Clarke – but still, I should have remembered, or should indeed have realised since the story does not have Clarke’s (somewhat bland and uninspired, to my way of thinking) flavour.

    I did indeed have a vague memory that the associate’s nickname was like ‘ass’ not exactly ‘ass’ (at the age I read it, the notre dame justification was not something I understood), and that the planet was one closish to earth, but I skipped those details in the interests of summarising. But my memory raised no suspicion the story was not by Clarke – which was a surprising mis-memory since it was unlike him.

  • neonsnake

    it achieves its goal, but without manipulating, interfering, planning, monkeying around with things.

    That’s a good summary, especially the “monkeying around with things” – I mildly disagree with the inclusion of “planning”, but I agree with it as I think you meant it (central planning, I’m assuming)

    A Daoist (bobby b – yes, aka Taoist. I use Daoism because it’s commonly used to differentiate between the philosophy, and the religion) would “plan” but only in the sense that they’d plant their seeds in the right season – and then leave them be without tugging on them to make them grow faster – “monkeying around”.

    I’ll try to explain wu wei as I understand it (doing without doing) later…

  • Nullius in Verba (July 17, 2019 at 10:56 pm), your prose summary can indeed be mapped to libertarianism.

    try to find a way for your aims to be the natural outcome of things flowing on their own

    could perhaps be mapped to ‘incentives, not intentions’ (and not commands), and any government wanting its country to be powerful, rich and respected in the world (not just itself to be powerful, relatively rich and given the respect of fear within its own country) can usually achieve its aims better by ruling less, not ruling more.

    However the free-verse poem seems an interesting mix of libertarian ideas with ideas that in the west can lead to other conclusions.

    I do not exhaust people with labour, [i.e. government forced labour]
    Thus, people naturally are wealthy.

    makes perfect sense to a libertarian, but I find

    I have no personal desires,
    Thus, people naturally are innocent and simple.

    more interesting – or perhaps I mean more challenging. The left are great believers in rulers that “have no personal desires” – that just desire the common good – and in their own ability to find and promote them. They will also say they believe the people “naturally are innocent and simple”. Comparing approaches to crime, for example, Thomas Sowell notes that, to a typical believer in the left/optimistic vision of humanity, people are naturally good and corrupted by society: a criminal can be “restored to his natural state of not wanting to harm people” much as a broken limb can be restored to its natural state in large part by leaving it alone for its natural healing process to work. By contrast, to believers in the right/tragic vision of humanity, each new generation is an invasion of civilisation by little barbarians who must be civilised before it is too late, and if the process fails for a given individual during the malleable years of childhood – whether because of inadequate performance by parents/society or because that individual was particularly resistant – then healing it, or just dealing with it, later is no natural process.

  • neonsnake

    Niall, have a read of this for more.

    There is a lot of Libertarian thought in both Daoism (not just Lao Tze, who wrote the Tao de Ching from whence NiV quotes) and Confucianism.

    There is however plenty that is not strictly libertarian – the philosophical side, as opposed to the “advice to a good government official”. The Tao de Ching covers both, and whilst you’d likely agree with most of the advice on statecraft, there are other passages which would horrify you if I quoted them.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Neonsnake: are you sure that the Rothbard essay at the link gets it right?
    Rothbard was completely wrong, or rather, not even wrong, about Machiavelli. About Pareto, Rothbard wrote that he (Pareto) remained a classical liberal to the end, when in fact he encouraged Mussolini to march on Rome. It seems strange that he would understand Chinese political philosophy better than its Italian counterpart.

  • neonsnake

    Well, for one thing, the quote about oppressive government being worse than fierce tigers that he attributes to Lao Tze is actually from Confucius…so no, I’m not 😀

    I’m verrry cautious of the idea that one can lift a 2500 year old philosophy from a different culture and country, quote-mine it, and say “Ta-da! Libertarian!” and wholly mean it.

    There are bits that are, there are bits that aren’t. Similarly, Sima Qian whom I quoted earlier had lots of free market ideas – but he wasn’t wholly libertarian either (if memory serves, he was Confucian).

    Of course, I don’t expect similar philosophies to exactly match, nor do i see any reason to be bothered when they don’t.

  • neonsnake

    that “have no personal desires” – that just desire the common good – and in their own ability to find and promote them. They will also say they believe the people “naturally are innocent and simple”.

    The quote on its own doesn’t state this, but given that I have a broader knowledge of the subject, let me reassure you – the context around “desire” here is literally that he does not desire to direct the course of the people – he does not desire, nor work towards, the “common good”.

    That is for the people, who left alone to pursue their own goals (their own Tao) will naturally become Innocent and simple. In Daoism, innocent and simple stand as opposites to criminal and crafty.

    The point earlier:

    “The more laws and regulations that exist,
    The more thieves and brigands appear.”

    Is that the more that the leader makes laws and regulations, and tries to “direct” the state in a direction of his desire, the more he makes criminals of his own people – either unwittingly, because there are so many laws that they do things they didn’t know were unlawful, or wittingly because the laws and regulations are so onerous that they start having to circumvent them to prosper.

    The “appear” shouldn’t be taken to mean that thieves and brigands are attracted to the state from foreign lands, it’s about creating criminals of your own people.

    I have a few different translations of the text, which make it a bit clearer that the “no desire” is specifically about no desire to lead in a given direction.

    It’s also an underpinning of the whole of Daoism that one should not interfere with, nor try to direct, another person’s Tao (broadly meaning life-path, in this context), which would obviously include a whole state, in the case here of the governor. Again, no reason that you’d know that, nor would you necessarily be able to glean it from the quoted text.

  • neonsnake

    Do without doing

    NIV, it may not surprise you that this concept is oft-debated. This is therefore only my own view of it: wu wei can also be translated as “without effort”, and I take it to mean without undue effort. At a personal level, this means practicing a thing until one can do it without thinking, without overdoing it, without elaborating or exaggerating the effort needed unnecessarily, no matter the circumstances. There’s a parable about a near-master archer who loses his ability when standing on the precipice of a cliff, and has to use effort to hit his target.

    We drive a car in a state of wu wei, after enough time.

    At a statecraft level, it means similar – the bare minimum. “Governing a large state is like frying a small fish”

  • Nullius in Verba

    “but I find ‘I have no personal desires, Thus, people naturally are innocent and simple.’ more interesting – or perhaps I mean more challenging. The left are great believers in rulers that “have no personal desires” – that just desire the common good – and in their own ability to find and promote them.”

    The way I would interpret it, it’s about individualism versus collectivism. It’s about not desiring people to be a certain way.

    All the examples are about pushing something in a particular direction to achieve a desired goal, which fail because if it’s contrary to the thing’s natural motion it resists and finds ways round the barrier. If you try to force people to be ‘good’, they’ll react by finding ways to be bad, to hide what they’re doing, to feel guilty about it, and so on. Guilt only exists if there’s sin, and sin only exists when there are rules to break, and people naturally want to break them. Make no rules contrary to people’s nature, and people don’t have to be sneaky, or ashamed, or defiant, or any of the other consequences of inventing sins.

    I suspect it loses a lot in translation. And it is, as Lao Tse says, impossible to explain in words.

    “NIV, it may not surprise you that this concept is oft-debated.”

    Not surprisingly! 🙂 Many of the explanations I’ve seen are far more mystical than the one I proposed.

    I suspect the concept is intended to be far broader than that. I’m just proposing an approach to the idea that a libertarian might find intuitively plausible. The way some people explain it, it comes off sounding like magic, or (not coincidentally) Jedi mind powers.

  • Snorri Godhi

    WRT Niall’s comment that “leftists” ‘say they believe the people “naturally are innocent and simple”.’
    Not all collectivists would say that — most infamously, Hitler would not have said that, certainly not about Jewish people.
    And it is also important to remember that eugenics and Progressivism were closely related in the US (and also Canada, i believe).

    WRT “Do without doing”; it reminds me of Sun Tzu:

    For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.

    Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle.

    (Both quotes from chapter 3.)

    One corollary that i draw from that is that we should find ways to win our inner conflicts without using any willpower.

  • neonsnake

    The way I would interpret it, it’s about individualism versus collectivism. It’s about not desiring people to be a certain way.

    Spot on. An important point is that Daoists don’t desire other people to be a certain way (including not desiring them to be Daoist, if that’s not their path). Everyone has to choose their own path, and the role of a Governor is to facilitate that, nothing more. No pushing!

    I suspect the concept is intended to be far broader than that.

    Massively, and only truly makes sense within the whole context. Likewise, my “driving” example is woefully incomplete, but serves as an easily understandable example, I hope.

    Daoism and Confucianism, along with Legalism and Mohism, are incredibly difficult to approach with a western mind. They deal with big abstract concepts, and Daoism in particular delights in not getting caught up in the details, and teaches one to appreciate the big concept instead of trying to focus on individual details and yelling “gotcha!”. Once you understand the whole thing, it all makes sense, but individual portions might just seem weird.

    The downside is that in Western thought, it can lead to “woolly thinking” that is difficult to articulate well (which I fall prey to far too often).

    The other thing is that it doesn’t value knowledge for its own sake – only wisdom. So, presented with a fact, a piece of knowledge, the Daoist often says “Great! Well done! Now tell me why it’s important and what you plan to do with that? How does it mean that a person should act?” It views wisdom as coming after the knowledge, whereas Western thought values knowledge for its own sake.

    “In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
    In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.”

    You let go of knowledge, and improve wisdom, basically.

    It’s why sometimes when people say stuff, my initial reaction is “And? What’s your point? What do you expect me to do now, having presented me with that knowledge?”

  • neonsnake

    @Snorri –

    One corollary that i draw from that is that we should find ways to win our inner conflicts without using any willpower.

    Agreed. Good spot, and good addition to the concept, that.

    The way some people explain it, it comes off sounding like magic, or (not coincidentally) Jedi mind powers.

    Not coincidentally indeed. I considered using the Force as an analogy!

    The mystical stuff is very interesting. I don’t practice any of it, but there was a time I had a working knowledge of divination using the “I Ching” and also of Feng Shui.

    The I Ching (The Book Of Changes) is still worthwhile, as it has a lot of wisdom on how the different types of change in the world – cyclical change (“there is nothing new in the world”) vs linear change (“progress”) vs state of non-change (the point against which we measure change)

    Linear change isn’t, incidentally, historicism as I understand Karl Popper to have meant it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    The Great Foot’s article on Pareto is interesting:


  • neonsnake

    The Great Foot’s article on Pareto is interesting

    Indeed, Julie.

    I find myself in the odd position of applying the Pareto Principle several times a day (it’s one of my favourite things to teach my Young Turks, the look on their faces when the analysis I’ve told them to do always comes out at 80% of their sales comes from 20% of their products, the little tykes. Bless them), but knowing little about the chap who came up with it.

    Weekend homework, I feel!

  • steve lindsey

    He is the author of a book called Father and Son, not a page turner but interesting enough to get to the end.

  • Doug Jones

    According to the greek number converter, 666 = χξϛ, chi-xi-digamma. I don’t see any particular meaning to that, but it would make an amusing fraternity.


  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    How about 616, the other number of the Beast found in some manuscripts? 6+1+6=13 Spooky!

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray
    July 24, 2019 at 1:58 am

    How about 616, the other number of the Beast found in some manuscripts? 6+1+6=13 Spooky!

    If 616 gives 6+1+6=13, the job cries out to be finished. 1+3=4. But 4 is the ur-square, and who approves of squares? (Come to think, 6+6+6=18 and 1+8=9, yet another square.)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Ellen, that’s brilliant! Have you thought of a doctorate based on your dissertation “The Transformative Hermeneutics of Beastliness in Square Number Theory”?

    My own offering is much less interesting, noting only that the numbers probably came from a question in the National Merit exam, asking us to complete the series beginning, for instance,

    6 1 6

    No doubt the folks who concocted the test considered that the answers would be Revelatory.

    Still, I took that exam 60 years ago. The only other question I remember is about counting the blocks. :>)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh. Well, of course, one can’t complete an infinite series. The question would be, what number comes next?.

    We could, of course, observe that the answer has to be based on some assumption or other. (In fact, more than one.) But I’m not interested in going on at the moment. *bored yawn*