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Philosophers for Sale

This play was written by Lucian. I felt that all its existing English translations are boring as hell, so I translated the Russian version by Mikhail Gasparov, as presented in his book Занимательная Греция (not translated into English, unfortunately), which itself is quite a liberal translation of the original play.


Zeus is short of money. He takes famous philosophers from the afterlife and puts them up for sale as slaves:
“Great teachers of life are sold!”, Hermes is shouting, “If you want a good life, come forward and choose one for youself!”, the buyers approach the slaves and start to examine them.

Pythagoras is on the platform.
“Here’s a wonderful life, a heavenly life! Who wants to become a superhuman? Who wants to learn the harmony of the creation and come to life after death?”
“Can I question him?”
“Of course.”
“So, Pythagoras, if I buy you, what are you going to teach me?”
“To be silent.”
“Becoming a mute is not to my taste! What’s after this?”
“To count.”
“This I know already!”
“How do you count?”
“One, two, three, four.”
“See, but you don’t know that four is not just four but it’s also the body, the square, the perfection, and our oath.”
“Swear by your oath, I don’t know! What else can you say?”
“I will say that you consider yourself one, but in reality you are different.”
“How so? Is it somebody else and not me talking to you?”
“Well, now it is you, but before you were different and afterwards you’ll be different.”
“So, I don’t ever die? Not bad! Well, how should I feed you?”
“I don’t eat meat, I don’t eat beans.”
“Good enough! Hermes, I’ll take him.”

Diogenis is on the platform.
“Here’s a manly life, here’s a free life! Who will buy him?”
“Free? Will I not be taken to court for buying a free man?”
“Don’t be afraid, he says that he is free even as a slave.”
“Well, what crafts does he know?”
“Ask him!”
“I’m afraid he’ll bite me!”
“Don’t be afraid, he’s tame.”
“So, Diogenis, where are your from?”
“From everywhere!”
“What are you like?”
“I’m like Heracles!”
“Why?”
“I fight the pleasures, cleanse the life from excesses.”
“Well, how does one do that?”
“You throw the money into the sea, sleep on bare earth, eat garbage, cuss everyone, don’t be ashamed of anything, shake your beard, fight with your cane.”
“I already know how to cuss and fight, thank you very much. But you have strong hands, you’ll make a great digger; I’ll give two mites for you.”
“Take him!”

“And here’s two lifes at once, one wiser than the other! Who wants them?”
“What is it with them? One is constanly laughing, the other one is constantly crying. Why are you laughing?”
“I’m laughing at you: you think you’re buying a slave, while actually you’re just buying atoms, void, and infinity.”
“That you’re full of void, I can see that alright. And why are you crying?”
“I’m crying, because everything comes and goes, because there’s grief in every joy, and joy in every grief, because there’s no eternity in the eternity, and the eternity is only a child playing dice.”
“I can’t make sense of anything that you say!”
“I’m not saying it for you to make sense of it.”
“No one’s going to buy you if you keep acting like this.”
“Everyone’s worthy of tears, anyway: buyers and nonbuyers.”
“They’re both mad: I don’t want them!”
“Ah, Zeus, these two will remain unsold!”

“Show the Athenian.”
“A wonderful life, a sensible life, a sacred life–who wants it?”
“How, Plato, are you being sold into slavery again? So, if I buy you, what am I going to get?”
“The whole world.”
“Well, where is it?”
“It’s right before my eyes. Since everything that you see–and earth, and sky, and sea–is, in fact, not at all here.”
“Well, where is it?”
“Nowhere: if it existed anywhere, that wouldn’t be an existence.”
“Then why don’t I see it?”
“Because the eye of your soul is blind. I, on the other hand, not only see you, but also see me, and the true you, and the second me, and everything else I also see twice.”
“Well, buying the whole world in a single slave sound goods to me! I’ll take him, Hermes.”

“A valiant life, an all-perfect life is sold! Who wants to know everything?”
“How is it: everything?”
“He is the only wise man, thus he is the only king, and rich man, and general, and navigator.”
“And he is the only cook, and the only carpenter, and the only cattler?”
“Of course.”
“I’d be crazy not to buy such a slave. So, stoic, are you not offended that you’re a slave?”
“Not at all. This does not depend on me, thus I’m indifferent towards it.”
“What a nice fellow!”
“But be ware: if I wished, I could turn you into a stone.”
“How so? Are you Perseus with Medusa’s head?”
“Tell me: is a stone a body?”
“Yes.”
“And is a man a body?”
“Yes.”
“And are you a man?”
“Yes.”
“Then you are a stone.”
“I’m getting cold! Please turn me back into a man!”
“Easy. Is a stone animate?”
“No.”
“And is a man animate?”
“Yes.”
“And are you man?”
“Yes.”
“Then you are not a stone.”
“Oh, thanks for not killing me–I’ll take you.”

“We’re selling the most clever, the most skillful, the most adroit! Aristotle, come out!”
“And what does he know?”
“He knows how long the mosquito lives, how far the sun shines through the sea, and which kind of soul the oyster has.”
“Wow!”
“And he also knows that a man is a laughing animal, while a donkey is not, and that a donkey does not know how to build houses and vessels.”
“Enough, enough, I’m buying him; take however much you want from me, Hermes.”

“So, who else do whe have left? Skeptic? Come out skeptic, maybe someone’s going to buy you.”
“Tell me, skeptic, what can you do?”
“Nothing.”
“Why?”
“It seems to me that there isn’t anything at all.”
“And there’s no me?”
“I don’t know.”
“And there’s no you?”
“I don’t know, even more so.”
“Then what are you going to teach me?”
“Notknowledge.”
“This is indeed something one won’t learn anywhere else! How much do you want for him, Hermes?”
“For a knowledgeable slave we ask five minas, and for one like him, let’s say, one mina.”
“Here’s your mina. So, my dear, did I buy you?”
“That is not known.”
“How? I just paid for you!”
“Who knows?!”
“Hermes, money, and everybody who is present here.”
“Is there anybody here?”
“Once I send you to roll millstones, you’ll instantly feel who’s a slave here and who’s not!”
“Enough arguing!”, Hermes interrupts them, “You walk with your owner, and those who haven’t bought anything, come here tomorrow. Today we were selling philosophers, while tomorrow we’ll be selling artisans, peasants, and tradesmen. Maybe they’ll make better teachers of life?”

Against Basic Income

I used to think that basic income was a good idea. I no longer do. Here’s why:

  1. Basic income solves the wrong problem.
  2. Means-tested social programs are just better than basic income.
  3. Basic income is an exercise in the typical mind fallacy.

1. Basic income solves the wrong problem.

Key argument: in developed countries the main problem is the absence of meaning and cultural and status inequality. Basic income doesn’t address any of these problems and may only exacerbate them.

Chris Arnade’s tweetstorm:

  1. I know many think Universal Basic Income is the cool “hack” solution to our problems. But it is addressing the wrong problem

  2. Our problems not just about a inequality in wealth, although that is a problem[.] It is also inequality in social capital. In meaning

  3. Places that I go to, minority or white, have broken social structures. Have disintegrated networks. Communities have been destroyed.

  4. People in them feel very much “left behind”, & not just economically. The educated set the social agenda. From language allowed to style

  5. Almost all “valid social networks” these days are driven by education & the culture that follows. They are left with McDonald’s & Chili’s

  6. That loss of meaning, of being on the outside of what is cool, and NOT having a job that is also considered cool – that is humiliating

  7. Universal Basic Income does nothing to solve the issue of humiliation. In fact, for many, it will be MORE humiliating.

  8. I guarantee within X months of there being a UBI program there will be nasty & derogatory terms for those on it. UB-ees, or something […]

Rory’s The Redistribution of Humiliation:

One problem is inequality of wealth. In theory, this is simple to solve, we just give people money. If we don’t have enough money to give people, this is unfortunate, but long term growth, trade and neoliberalism will mean there is more to go round. This misses the bigger picture though. People are very poor at identifying disparities in wealth, their perceptions are very far from reality, and so addressing this is unlikely to allay frustrations. When people talk about inequality in society, they are really talking about the hierarchy of status.

[…]

Redistributing wealth does little to address inequality of status, and may even make the problem worse. While making money yourself confers status, being given it doesn’t. In fact, being able to afford to give a handout is a costly signal of your own strength, whereas accepting a handout incurs reputational costs. The hierarchy is reinforced. In the past, the government has managed to work around this by disguising the handouts. They use white lies like the contributory principle to justify tax credits and pensions, or more roundabout ways, like the Thatcher government’s subsidised sell off of council housing. […]

2. Means-tested social programs are just better than basic income.

Different people require different amount of assistance. A typical healthy adult doesn’t need any. A typical sick and old person needs a lot. It’s not clear why we would want to break this asymmetry. Here’s Vipul Naik elaborating this point:

It seems overall that the incentive structures of these programs [Food stamps, etc.] are reasonably okay – the bureaucratic structures around them help guard against both over fraud and a lot of people using the programs when they don’t really “need” it. And the programs meet specific use cases (like, if somebody is really bad at handling money, food stamps help the person buy food without blowing away the money; if somebody has started working and needs encouragement, EITC steps in. If a family is going through a hard time and has dependent children, TANF steps in. […]

3. Basic income is an exercise in the typical mind fallacy.

There’s a blog post (not mine) on this point which is currently offline and wasn’t archived anywhere, as far as I know. Below are several quotes from it. I’m not sure if I can publish the whole post, so message me if you want to see it.

This rigorous yet free life of the mind sounds extremely appealing to the intellectual 1%, and living in this utopia would be reason enough to favor the basic income guarantee, even leaving out all the selfless stuff about fixing the culture of poverty.

[…]

Even after the death of the old aristocracy, there was a pretty guaranteed way to live a low-key life of the mind; you could join academia.  Now academia today is a rat race like any other prestigious career track, and if you want to make it you have to apply your nose firmly to the grindstone and not spend too much time fooling around. But it’s really only quite recently that academia was so difficult and Darwinian to try to break into.  James Watson, as recently as the 1950s, was a mediocre college student until he read What is Life, got excited, and decided to go to grad school in Indiana to work on it.  Today he wouldn’t stand a chance against students who had spent undergrad getting good grades, working with the right mentors, and generally jumping through the right hoops.

I think the basic income folks are fundamentally reacting to this shift, this closing of the last sanctuary of aristocratic intellectual freedom.  The reason they have a low-resolution view of the poor[3] but portray an incredibly compelling portrait of what an aristocratic intellectual life could look like is exactly because that is the main driving force, a semiconscious cry of pain at the possibilities that were lost as the last academies closed their gates.  And whatever one may think of the policy proposal itself, I think this pain is perfectly real, not only for individuals but for a society’s intellectual health, and whatever else they do, the proponents have done a great service by articulating it.

[…]

[3] Of course it has to be pitched as reforming charity, because “creating a new lifestyle for the intellectual elites” would poll terribly.  This despite the fact that the basic income is a much better tool for the latter than the former.

Anki Intro / Tips / Strategies

I find myself recommending Anki quite often. It’s an app that helps you remember anything you want (words, formulas, maps, poems, etc). If you aren’t using it, you should. Actually remembering things is like a minor superpower! Unfortunately, Anki has a rather steep learning curve, which means that simply recommending is not enough – some introduction is necessary.

First, go to this page and read Introduction section up until The Basics section. It should have gotten super excited to actually try the app out :) So navigate to http://ankisrs.net/, download the program, and install it on your computer.

Then, watch this video, which is a very nice demonstration of the learning process itself. Just like on the video, instead of creating our own deck, I would recommend to start with a shared deck, for example, “Countries of the World”.

After you have studied for a bit, click Decks (to leave the studying mode) –> Browse. You’re gonna get overwhelmed by the window that has just opened, so simply click random things, derp around, maybe try to understand something. When you’re satisfied, go back to Anki’s site and read the instructions until you get too bored, which would probably be enough. The only thing to remember is that this page exists and whenever you’re confused about something, go read it.

Now, you’re capable of creating your own decks and notes. However, there’s a whole lot of implicit knowledge involved with using Anki, which is why if you google “anki tips”, you’ll see a lot of differet articles. I tried to assemble the best tips that I know and my strategies below.

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A Comment on Dalio

Alternatively titled, “Why you don’t want to reason about economics, without having actually studied economics”.

This is an explanation of faulty reasoning in “How The Economic Machine Works by Ray Dalio” video, attempted to be clear for people with no ready economic intuition.

The specific claim I have a problem with is “When interest rates are high, there’s less borrowing because it’s expensive” (time: 4:15).

This statement is important not mainly because it’s wrong, but because it’s a perfect example of something that sounds entirely uncontroversial, common-sense, and does not raise any red flags, unless you’re deliberately looking for them.

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Hierarchies of Status

Imagine a world where everybody plays a single videogame with a global ranking of players. Exactly one half of all people are above average and one half are below.

Now imagine a world where all the people play two games simultaneously. Assuming their skills at each game are independent, the situation is quite different:

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