Ambition and Self-Knowledge

Knowing yourself is a matter of ambition and talent, & nothing else. If you lack either, you will settle ignominiously or self-destruct.

When men settle, they either make a moral principle out of it or become ugly. Making a moral principle is very tempting. You aren’t a coward; you are moderate. You aren’t weak; you are kind and charitable. I don’t say these are not real virtues, or that virtue is merely a convention—a tool of a ruling class to keep our minds addled and submissive. Only that people perform epicycles in their own thinking to hide themselves from themselves.

I once was speaking with a very beaten down lawyer who wanted to become an academic but was trapped in community colleges. He had recently gone back into law and said “man, I knew I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t know how unhappy I was.” He didn’t know because he didn’t want to know, or held out hope that his academic career would change. He settled back into law to avoid complete degeneration. He was physically quite ugly, and I don’t know if he had any choice in this matter.

Becoming ugly, instead of making a moral principle, is very close to self-destructing—slow decline. Men who self-destruct are bemused at the limits of pleasure, wealth, and honor. Sometimes they will accept the destruction of their life rather than admit its limits. They are not “stupid;” they are frustrated bulls.  

It isn’t enough to say what Richard Rorty said, that only sad or dissatisfied people read philosophy. Everyone is dissatisfied. It’s obvious from the way they act. People just think they will get satisfaction at a later date—they want rest and to bask in what or who they are. This is impossible because it is not life. Some men go after life and hit a limit that looses their limbs, or unbends their bow.

Life requires growth, or it goes into decline. The philosopher knows this and it isn’t that he is at “peace” with it, but he learns that this is good—he likes life.

What does it mean to like life? It means enjoying life through courage rather than fear. The philosopher is not held back by fear, nor does he rush into oblivion through fear. He has a part of himself that he likes best, that he calls himself, and builds a way of life around that part. The mind does not dominate without question. Men can be their stomachs, for example. And it isn’t even just “mind”—but a relation of the mind to the whole body. The philosopher isn’t a part, but all of the parts. That sounds gay, but it’s true. Think of the top-notch chess players and their regimens. These regimens are for the mind. But so what? Bobby Fischer died a bitter old fool, and lived the vast majority of his life as an isolated crank. Not every regimen is about living—too many regimens merely prepare a man for a task, not for the task of being himself.

Only through ambition and talent can a man find the right way–which is often very different in the details (see Nietzsche’s changing diets)–but always produces the same insight into life and feeds the same desire for life. The best regime is the same everywhere.

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