Cynic simplicity: the courage to think

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Twenty years had taken their toll. I hadn’t seen Andy since our high school reunion. At first, I barely recognised him. There was more of him than I remembered. His face was broad, carved with crevasses of flesh. The hams and T-bar shoulders that had made him a star on the rugby field now hefted an imposing gut. His hand absorbed mine, pumping fiercely. He seemed to have swelled in size, as if his whole body were inflated with air.

If the suit didn’t give it away, you could tell from his manner that he’d done well for himself. Andy had done a bit of everything. Five years’ work in the WA mines had set him up to make some smart investments. Andy was a ‘self-made’ man, with a dozen businesses behind him and two failed marriages along the way. These days he worked as a consultant to the coal industry (‘Carbon budget, my ass’, he said. ‘The stuff’s in the ground, it’s coming out’). He liked how the Asians partied with a bottle of whiskey on the table. We bonded over shots at the bar, but the more we talked, the more the years yawned like a chasm between us.

He laughed when I told him that I was a philosopher. ‘So am I’, he said. ‘I’m a professional cynic’.

Cynicism used to be a dirty word. When Andy and I were kids, we wouldn’t have thought of affirming it. To be cynical means to be distrusting of people’s motives and dismissive of their good intentions. Only a fool would want to try to change the world. Cynics are convinced that everyone operates out of self-interest. Given this state of affairs, the only smart response is to take care of number one. In business life, cynics are distinguished by a ‘me first’ mentality. They don’t care much where they make their money. If the money’s easy, it’s good. Often, you’ll find them working for pariah industries like coal and tobacco. They are working for a broken system, and they know its going nowhere, but they’re riding the gravy train to the end.

I am troubled by the easy affirmation of cynicism in contemporary life. To my mind, the fact that successful people like Andy know that things are getting worse; also that aspects of their existence are helping things to get worse; yet think the matter is out of their hands, that it is beyond their power to do or change anything, so they may as well be cynical – this amazes and upsets me. ‘Pretty stupid not to be cynical, these days’, Andy laughed when I pressed him on the issue. ‘Take it from me, mate, it’s a pack of dogs out there’. He squared his shoulders and knocked my glass with his drink. ‘Chi-ching’. Same old Andy. Yet something had changed – I could see it in his eyes. It was a flicker of fear. Our conversation was taking him places that he rarely went. Difficult places. His cynical philosophy gave him license to live the way he wanted. But did it allow for journeys of the mind? Did the old school battler have the courage to think? [Read more…]

Promises to myself: ten philosophical resolutions

Dandelion Clock

Don’t you love the feeling when you realise that your work for the year is done and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t kick up your heels and relax? I woke up with that feeling this morning. I’m off to Vietnam at the end of the week and I can feel myself being drawn towards the plane.

Bon voyage, friends and fellow philosophers, wherever you may venture this holiday season! I’ll see you again in 2014 with more adventures of the cerebral kind.

I’ll leave you with a list of philosophical resolutions for 2014. I’ve lifted them from some of my favourite posts on this blog. I’ll be taking them with me on holiday. Promises to keep.

1. I will say ‘yes’ to life.

‘To complete Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses, the lion must become a child. ‎Maturity, for Nietzsche, means rediscovering the seriousness one had as a child at play.

A child-like spirit is vital to happiness, health, and well-being. “The child”, Nietzsche says, “is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a Sacred Yes”. The lion becomes a child when the individual who says “I will” ceases to affirm their values contrary to the law of “Thou Shalt”, and affirms them instead “for the sport of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, … its own world”. Life is no longer a reactive struggle to defeat other forces. Life is a celebration of one’s powers – a sustained act of pure affirmation. The child-like spirit knows the joy of life and the innocence of perpetual creation’.

From Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses (February 2010)

2. I will grow collective.

‘Love is a disruptive event that opens people to a new terrain of possibilities and a common vision of what they might be together. I find this aspect of Badiou’s argument tremendously interesting. When people find love, they realise life offers them more together than it does alone. They realise that they can do more together, and thereby discover a tremendous responsibility and risk. Can they be worthy of this common possibility? What level of dedication and trust is required to realise it? Love, Badiou claims, requires that we reinvent ourselves – together. It is a project of co-construction – the kind of event that we need to constantly work at in order to sustain’.

From Life changing love: Badiou and the birth of possibility (January 2013) [Read more…]

Question everything: scepticism as a way of life

Question-everythingIn 155BC, Carneades the Sceptic travelled to Rome to give an important speech to the Roman Senate. Carneades was the head of the Athenian Academy and the most dignified philosopher of his day. He was known as a brillant speaker with a whip-sharp mind and a mastery of sceptical techniques that was second to none. In Rome, there were mixed feelings about Carneades’ speech. Some people were concerned about Carneades’ brand of sceptical philosophy and the effect it might have on the Roman youth. Others, however, were curious to learn what Carnaedes had to offer. Greek scepticism was a mystery to the Romans, yet to immigrate across the Ionian Sea. Carnaedes was an ambassador from the land of skeptikos. Was this a land worth visiting?

Introducing Sceptic philosophy to the Romans was not Carneades’ main objective. Carneades came to Rome as a diplomat, tasked with convincing the Senate to reduce a fine that had been imposed on Athens for the invasion of Oropus. The Romans believed the fine was just, while the Athenians thought it was wildly inappropriate. Carneades had promised to take a sceptical approach to the debate, to see if it were possible to transform the way that both parties thought about things. To achieve this, he’d deliver two speeches in the course of two days, both on the topic of justice.

On the first day, Carneades wowed his audience with a stunning review of Platonic and Aristotelian arguments in favour of justice. Justice, Carneades declared, was the supreme virtue, the Archimedian point that should guide all thought and discussion. The Roman senators were impressed. That evening, there was much talk of Carneades’ oratorical power and persuasiveness. How would he top it on the second day, people wondered?

When Carneades turned up the next day, the Senate was packed with the best and brightest of Rome, ready to imbibe his wisdom. Carneades stood at the podium and calmly refuted everything that he’d said the day before. The senators listened aghast as the great philosopher enumerated the virtues of injustice, which Carneades presented as a natural law that any reasonable person should adhere to. He wound up with some practical advice for the senators. ‘Rome has won her empire by injustice both to gods and men’, Carneades declared. And such is the course that Rome should maintain. Heaven forbid that the capital should explore the virtues of justice. How foolish! Carnaedes claimed: ‘A policy of justice would make Rome again what she was originally – a miserable poverty-stricken village’.

To say that Carneades’ speech went down badly is an understatement. Carneades and his entourage were ejected from the city. Scepticism never set root in Rome and the Greeks, presumably, learned an important lesson: never enlist a philosopher in diplomatic work. [Read more…]

Stop talking about philosophy and do it


‘Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too is there no use in philosophy unless it casts out the sickness of the soul.’ ~Epicurus

I started studying philosophy because I thought it would answer my questions about life. I was young and confused and in a hurry to figure things out. Other people I knew took their parent’s advice and enrolled in practical subjects like law, engineering, or business and economics. I thought I was clever by diving in at the deep end. I figured that once I’d answered the big questions of life (like ‘What is goodness?’ What is truth?’ ‘How do I know I’m not living inside the Matrix?’), the other subjects would be easy. First things first, right? Aristotle would have been proud. My parents, who’d never read Aristotle, were not so impressed.

But I persisted. I soon realised that I’d been wrong about philosophy. Not that it didn’t tackle the big questions of life. It was just that it didn’t produce many answers. Philosophy offers lots of theories, but these only seem to create more questions. Semester by semester, year by year, I watched my philosophy buddies and fellow seekers give up in frustration. I kept on. After a while, I had an epiphany. I realised that philosophy isn’t about answers at all. Philosophy is about asking the right questions. It is unlike other disciplines, which focus on communicating knowledge about the world. Philosophy isn’t really about anything. Nonetheless, it is a practical discipline insofar as it teaches us to step back, zero in on this or that aspect of life, and ask: why? [Read more…]

Nietzsche’s demon: the eternal return

Arc De Triomphe @ FineArtAmerica

Arc De Triomphe @ FineArtAmerica

Alexis was in love with life. Fresh out of art school in Fremantle, Australia, she’d picked up a scholarship to study photography under a famous Parisian photographer. Her mother had urged caution but Alexis persisted – and thank goodness! The course – and Paris itself – was everything that she’d dreamed. Her French sponsor found her an apartment in the Latin Quarter, just a stone’s throw from the Place Saint-Michel. Alexis would stroll along the Seine in the evening, up the Champs Elysées to take pictures of the Arc de Triomphe in the flurry of lights.

After two months documenting daily life on the streets of Paris, she had enough material for an exhibition. Alexis felt like she was at the heart of life. Things could go anywhere from here.

One night Alexis was speaking to a friend in Australia. They were reminiscing about their student days, which her friend dearly missed.

‘Do you remember Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return?’ the friend asked. ‘If I had to choose one time of my life to live out again and again forever, it would be art school’.

Alexis, for her part, was ambivalent about the ‘good old days’. She realized then that if there were a time in her life that she would have again and again, it would be her time in Paris, not Fremantle. The more that she reflected on this, the more her life seemed to come into focus. Looking out the window at the bustling streets, Alexis imagined Nietzsche’s demon coming into her room and making her the offer of Eternal Return. Alexis could hear herself reply, like Nietzsche:

‘Yes. You are a god and I have never heard anything more divine’.


This post is excerpted from Chapter 3 of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide

What does it feel like to seriously confront death?

I answered a question on Quora: ‘What does it feel like to seriously consider the prospect of your own death?’ You’ll know if you’ve read Life Changing that I believe that confronting death is the best way to get in touch with who you are and what you think is important in life. Answering this question enabled me to go deep into intimate territory. Thanks to Seb Paquet for inviting me to take the plunge.


It’s the people who haven’t done what they came to do in life who are the most scared of death.

As an atheist, I don’t see any reason to suppose that there is an ultimate meaning to life. Human beings are a cosmic accident (an accident that was inevitable in the scope of eternity, which doesn’t make our existence any less random or arbitrary). Conceding there is no ultimate meaning to life, however, doesn’t stop us from wanting to know the meaning of our own life. As Albert Camus claims, human beings are remarkable for the fact that they can acknowledge the meaninglessness of existence and affirm life regardless.

The attitude of existential revolt defines the human condition. It’s a bleak teaching, but having reflected on it for 20 years, I’m ready to say that Camus was right. [Read more…]

What is philosophy? An expression of care for life

I was invited by Rev. John Queripel to speak on philosophy at the Bondi Chapel by the Sea. Rather than prepare a talk, I spoke off-the-cuff and from the heart about my own experience of philosophy, which I understand as an expression of care for life. Peter Dowson from Bondi Storytellers was there and captured the moment on film. Thanks Pete! I owe you hugs and beers.



‘The basic idea that I want to share with you tonight is that the philosophical disposition, the philosophical state of mind, is an expression of care for life, care for existence’.

‘We are creatures that have the capacity to create value. And the fact that we have the capacity to create value … is attested by the fact that our sense of the value of things grows and decreases, waxes and wanes, depending on how we are feeling. You know how it is, you wake up in the morning and you are feeling a bit blue and nothing seems to have any value, nothing seems to have any importance. But then on another day, you’ve had a few triumphs and all of sudden those things in the world that really seem important just come into relief for you, and you are reminded about what it is in life that you find so valuable… I think that what we are experiencing in these moments when value comes into relief for us is … our own power to care about life. And this ability to care is very very important. Without it we are sociopaths, essentially. We need to care … in order to be good human beings’. [Read more…]

What is philosophy and why should I care?

It happened again. This time in a public place. I was walking with the crowd into Central Station when I stopped to talk to one of the charity workers who hover like butterflies about the station entrance. These guys usually freak me out a bit – with their friendly handshake that holds you in place and their sales patter cloaked as bonhomie – but I was feeling playful on the day, and so I went along with it, waiting for my chance to explain how I was already donating to a handful of charities and would rather keep my credit card details to myself, thank you very much.

The spruiker must have picked me for a tough sell because he played the long game. Instead of diving straight into an account of his employer’s good works, he decided to inquire into mine.

‘That’s an interesting set of sideburns you’re sporting, mate’, he said. ‘I bet you have an interesting job. What do you do?’

Did I groan aloud? I’m pretty sure I swallowed it. But I knew what was coming.

‘Well, I write’, I said. My interlocutor beamed expectantly. ‘Philosophy’, I added, after a pause. ‘I am a philosopher’.

That killed it. It always does. I’ve never had a hostile reaction from anyone. But the response is rarely what I’d consider positive. Usually, you see a glazed look appear in the other’s eyes. I imagine cogs and wheels turning in their brain as they try to slot you into some recognizable social role. Philosophers don’t fit – that’s the problem. A philosophy academic passes muster because he or she has an office, working hours, a salary and tax bracket – all the things that go to comprise a recognizable social function. But philosophers per se have no function. It confuses people.

‘Philosophy’, the spuiker replied, recovering himself. ‘That’s great! So … what is your philosophy?’ [Read more…]

Socrates as social entrepreneur: a visit to the oracle


Chaerephon of Athens trudged up the Sacred Way toward the temple at Delphi. Soiled clouds hung across the face of Mount Parnassus and the limestone facing on the steps was slippery with rain. Chaerephon kept one hand on the balustrade, sounding out each step with the tip of his staff. He paused at the tier of Athena to catch his breath. Ah, Delphi! It was a splendid view from the spur of rock upon which the ancient temple sat across the flank of the mountain and the valley. One could imagine Apollo flying down that flinty slope to choose the location for his sacred temple. In the valley below, Dionysus and his nymphs had cavorted in the days when deities walked the earth, when the myths were as alive as the forests and the corn in the field.

Chaerephon the Elder rapped his staff resolutely on the ancient stone. He had to stop Socrates. Gathering his toga about him, he continued up the stair. The sun was breaking through the clouds and Chaerephon had a date with the oracle. [Read more…]

Camus, absurdity, and revolt

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French writer and existentialist philosopher. He was born in Algeria, then a colony of France, which gave him a unique perspective on life as an outsider. Camus is widely acknowledged as the greatest of the philosophers of ‘the absurd’. His idea is simple: Human beings are caught in a constant attempt to derive meaning from a meaningless world. This is the ‘paradox of the absurd’.

Camus’ novels The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956) are classics of existentialist fiction. His philosophical writings The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and The Rebel (1951) are profound statements of position. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Unlike fellow existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, he accepted it.

It is instructive to consider the differences between Sartre and Camus. The men were friends in the war years. Together, they edited the political journal Combat. But Sartre and Camus fell out on account of their views on Stalin and communism. In the 1950s, Sartre threw his support behind Stalin’s vision of the global communist struggle. Camus was unimpressed by the “ends justify the means” mentality of the communist revolutionaries, and would have no truck with Stalin’s mass production of a perfected humanity. In The Rebel, he made his criticisms plain. Sartre responded in anger and ended their friendship. [Read more…]