A Quick Guide to the Guaranteed Basic Income

Originally posted on Sarvodaya:

Although not a new idea, the concept of a guaranteed basic income — also known as a guaranteed minimum income or universal basic income — seems to be gaining a lot more traction lately. Amid concerns about rising poverty and inequality, as well as greater scrutiny on the failings and inefficiencies of current welfare programs, the allure of a more streamlined and equitable income for all seems obvious; hence why thinkers and activists across the political spectrum — from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Milton Friedman — have advocated one form of it or another.

If you would like a great breakdown on what this idea entails and how it would be implemented, check out this article on Vox.com. It does a pretty good job of introducing the subject in a balanced and holistic way, including analyzing the various arguments for and against a basic income by conservatives, liberals, and libertarians…

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Reasonings on the Book of Epistles

Epistles could be termed the Book of Good Manners, a book which completes one’s education within the Humanist Bible. It concerns itself mainly with the importance of wholesome association and of a good education in how to properly conduct oneself in the company of others, but it also accentuates the importance of education and of good philosophical hygiene (limiting one’s desires and analyzing things). It’s also the only book where I’ve found direct mention of Epicurus in the Humanist Bible.

Knowledge and Manners

One of the key points of the book is that we must balance wisdom with good manners, for “learning without good breeding is pedantry”. Good manners help dignify us as well as help us in the business world and cement our security. This requirement of wisdom is articulated in chapter 19 as “gentleness of manner, firmness of mind”, is given as an adage to remember.

It’s within this context that the book provides verses (4:1-7) which could be used as liturgy for coming of age ceremonies, perhaps humanist versions of Jewish bar/bat mitzvahs or Catholic confirmations. Verse 9 even mentions that the pivotal or recommended age for such rite of passage would be at 16-17 years old.

In general, the importance of education is accentuated in chapter 8, with an insistence (verses 7-8) on the need to have good mentors and wholesome educators.  In chapter 16, it is advised that a complete education requires that youth learn about being sociable, about manners, and about keeping company.

On Noble Expectations

A discussion of Philodemus’ work On Piety uncovers how ancients believed sages should have noble expectations of both the gods and of each other. Epistles begins with a discussion of how thinking highly of humanity promotes virtue, and how the virtuous don’t have contempt of people.

Along these lines, a very important subject within hedonism is treated: the accusation that love of others and self love are mutually exclusive and opposing forces. The author argues that kindness pleases us and that virtue produces pleasure (2:25-27), that virtue and pleasure are non-different. For if I love a friend, I will find pleasure in pleasing that friend and seeing him happy. This insight, however, comes from a place where we have noble expectations of others, where we do not suspect selfish designs behind the good-will of others.

Later, in Epistles 2:28-36, the author argues that love of the fame and glory acquired when we pursue virtue is PROOF of love of virtue itself. Unlike the Matthew 6 passage in the Gospels, where Jesus accuses of hypocrisy those who are ostentatious about their piety, and unlike Krishna’s instructions in the Bhagavad Gita to engage in pious acts with no regards to the results, here the author makes the case that a person who wishes to be known for performing virtuous deeds, clearly admires the virtues and wishes to celebrate them.

One could make a case for both sides. This is an interesting philosophical question which deserves further discussion: clearly there is a distinction between love of virtue and love of glory of virtue. But is the latter a symptom of the former?

The hedonic covenant is also discussed in Epistles in the following terms:

Mutual complaisances, attentions and sacrifices of little conveniences are as natural an implied compact between civilized people, as protection and obedience are between a state and its citizens; whoever, in either case, violates that compact, justly forfeits the advantages arising from it. – Epistles 11:20-21

Proper Thinking

I have not found treatises on logic proper in the Good Book, but Epistles 4:20-24 does advise that we use reason and not accept authority blindly, and 1:17 discusses the importance of making sure that we draw inferences by comparing things that are alike so that we won’t draw false inferences.

Chapter 3 delves into the realm of economics and argues that a “strong mind sees things in true proportion”.

The Value of Time Used Wisely

Like in many other wisdom traditions, we are told to value time and not waste it: one day is good enough for everything. The day should be used for work and study, the evening to enjoy the company of good friends. Similarly, business and pleasure are not opposed to each other, but assist each other. Both productivity and leisure are necessary.

Later, the author explains that when we rush to do something or hurry to present ourselves when called, this denotes the importance of the thing being done or the person being attended to, and diminishes our own importance. The value we place on our own time relates to our own sense of personal value

On Dignity and Association

In On the Natural Measure of Pride, I argued the distinctions between  arrogance, pride, humility and pusillanimity. These distinctions are addressed in Epistles 18:1-6, but here they are called by different names with virtuous pride being called dignity, and arrogance being called simply pride. In that piece, which was written for the Pride issue of Happy 20th! and inspired by Aristotelian discourse, the distinction between virtuous pride, arrogance and humility is based on an accurate sense of one’s worth. It’s within this context that we must frame our discussion of being dignified (rightfully proud) and behaving with decorum.

As a side note, I must mention that AC Grayling’s Good Book is not politically correct. There is a tension in the text concerning social and class distinctions, and perhaps an extreme amount of concern for rank which is probably more at home in Confucius than in contemporary Western thought–although Europe has preserved more of its status preservation culture than America and its ruling classes are more likely to be recognized as superior by the so-called peasantry. I believe this makes some verses seem inconsistent with the rest of the book. For instance, for all the air of superiority and condescension that emanates elsewhere from the plain recognition that not everyone is equal in rank and in wisdom, there is a passage that speaks strongly against having a superiority complex and against condescension, asking that we do unto others and avoid these qualities.

As part of this (extreme?) concern for rank, Epistles advises against too much familiarity  and informality with our inferiors. These are pieces of advise intended to remind inferiors of their place.

I leave it to other readers to decide for themselves whether this is an inconsistency. For someone like myself who lives in America and was raised with strong horizontal values, condescension and superiority complex generally seem in much worse taste than they seem for people from other cultures.

Having said that, I do believe there is a place in philosophy for discussing the importance of having an accurate sense of self-worth and of dignity based on good character and, most importantly, for discussing the need to avoid vulgar association. Having a wisdom tradition that teaches how to be dignified and that recognizes the added dignity of the virtuous is still, in my view, a good and wholesome thing. The author even recommends reading Cicero’s Offices, which gives advise on decorum and dignity.

It is impossible to separate this notion of how one must carry oneself in a dignified manner from the context of association, since wholesome or vile association invariably have an effect on character.

In the text (just as my mother has advised me, and many community elders have advised their youth also), we are invited to study human behavior (of ourselves and of others) and to be mindful of our character and expression and the characters and habits of those we associate with. The text specifically explains that we can judge people by the things that they take pleasure in: their activities and hobbies.

It’s important for youth to be able to identify bad company. People who are small minded, frivolous, and vulgar are described in detail and declared to be low and ill-bred company. Among the “things that lower and sink characters” we find vulgar language, and are advised to make good use of the instrument of language. Specific advise is given regarding trusting our friends who are young and inexperienced, telling them all our secrets, thinking these friendships to be founded on a solid foundation.

Another tension exists in the text concerning the advise which has been frequently given in many wisdom traditions against flatterers and regarding how to deal with them, and advise elsewhere on how to influence people by researching their dominant trait and prevailing passions and speaking to them, in order to gain influence over people. Would this not also make flatterers of us?

As to the dignified manner to deal with enemies, we are invited to (avoid making enemies, and whenever that’s not possible, to) disarm them with gentleness and to be easy and civil with them, even laughing with them if possible when they joke with insolence, rather than act shy and uncomfortable in their presence. Taking ourselves too seriously is socially bad, but it’s also bad for our own tranquility and happiness.

Epistles invites us to study human nature, and also gives us its own insights about human nature. We are told that men are more governed by appearance than by reality, that men aren’t rational, that nine times out of ten men don’t act on reason, that “man is a complex machine”, and finally that human nature is always the same: while customs vary, human nature remains. Humans were the same 300 years ago and will remain the same centuries into the future.

References to the Master

Thus far, there have been two passages in the Humanist Bible where Epicurus is mentioned. They are:

Epicurus wrote: ‘If you life according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.’ Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless … Natural desires are limited; but those that spring from false opinion typically have no stopping-point. – Epistle 24:1-2, 24:5

The following chapter speaks about the importance of joy, of keeping a cheerful mind, of having a purpose, a goal, so that we are the ones steering our boats. A case for the analysed, purposeful life is made.

… another saying by Epicurus: ‘They live ill who are always beginning to live.’ … To live at all is to live well. That is the burden of all that I have written ... – Epistle 25:17 and 19

I recommend the book of Epistles for a younger reader who is willing to profit from its teachings, as youth stand to benefit the most from it.

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Reasonings on The Good

Seek always the good that abides. – The Good 9:1

Of all the books in the Humanist Bible, The Good is the last one and brings the entire work to a close, interestingly, by making several references to core Epicurean doctrines. One familiar with Epicurus really gets the sense that the author closes this collection of Humanist wisdom traditions with Epicurus’ teachings and with an elaboration and celebration of abiding pleasure. I’d like to think that the author, in doing this, treats the conclusions of Epicurus as the crown of all wisdom. But let’s start from the beginning.

It is impossible to discuss the Good without discussing abiding pleasure. In Epicurus’ doctrine, there are two types of pleasure: dynamic (kinetic) and abiding (katastemic), which is that pleasure of being (not of doing or thinking) that is natural to us. The teaching says that those who cultivate abiding pleasure have a steadier, more stable happiness because they do not rely on externals for their pleasure, and ergo (insofar as that’s the case) they are liberated beings.

Sometimes we recapture the joy of savouring our being, not the material pleasure merely of eating and drinking, of seeing beautiful things or hearing beautiful sounds, of talking or resting; but the different, delicate, larger happiness of being part of the great whole, of being oneself with one’s life, one’s own impressions and thoughts. It is a wonderful and grand thing to be oneself and part of all, and to have the dignity of the capacity for thought. – The Good 3:6-10

The Good begins by discussing how it’s natural for child to abide in a state of pure safety, pleasure and well-being which is our natural, original state. It then goes on to speak against fears, which leads us to think that fears are the first signs of cultural corruption which interrupt this initial blessedness.

On Fear

The first step of the good life is to seek wisdom and give up fear. – The Good 1:14

Contrast this with the Proverbs 1:7 passage in the Jewish Bible, according to which The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. It is clear that the wisdom tradition of the Jews and Christians is quite distinct from that of the Hellenic Humanism from its very foundations.

The first two of Philodemus’ cures in our own tradition make of fear a taboo, particularly religious fear. There is, in The Good, an elaboration of katastemic pleasure, the pleasure of being, based first of all on absence of fear.

When we have driven away all that troubles or frightens us, there is tranquility and freedom. – The Good 1:7

Other Teachings on the Good

It then goes on to say that we must learn to endure difficulties and tackles fear of death specifically, explaining (in verses 17-22) the naturalist/atomist account of death. Because life is so precious and short, we are invited to “be worthy of this body”, and later (in a chapter reminiscent of Epicurean considerations on time and the limits of pleasure) we are told there is no time for superfluities (5:14-15).

Freedom is counted among the goods, but a distinction is made between the two freedoms: one from hindrances and pains, and another to choose and to act. Hedonic calculus will require us to consider toiling and going through difficulties in order to attain higher and/or necessary pleasures (stability, food, protection, etc.), so that we should consider the ways in which toil seasons delight.

As for further elucidation of the good, the author believes that it lies within our talents for good, so that there are many goods as there are talents. To each person, it will mean something different.

The Humanist Ten Commitments

There have been several secular attempts to reevaluate the Ten Commandments and purge them of superstition. The Good Book recognizes the need for rules for living together, and offers its own version of them. Prior to closing it ends up articulating these as part of a covenant where people stand together as free individuals to “help one another” and “build the city together”.

Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous; at lease, sincerely try. – The Good 8:11

These humanist commandments translate, to a hedonist, into a fairly balanced code of ethics.

  1. Love well, is a call to friendship (philos)
  2. Seek the good (pleasure) in all things accentuates the importance of setting a goal (telos), without which we are lost as if without a compass in the world
  3. Harm no others, the golden rule, sets the foundation not only for the social pact as it was taught by Epicurus, but also for a culture of what the East calls ahimsa (non-violence). It calls for civilized, non-violent conflict resolution
  4. Think for yourself invites us to live the analyzed life
  5. Take responsibility invites us to autarchy
  6. Respect nature, rather than control it, articulates environmental sensibilities
  7. Do your utmost accentuates the importance of effort and persistence
  8. Be informed accentuates the importance of an education
  9. Be kind accentuates the importance of good manners, which complete our education
  10. Be courageous accentuates the importance of fearlessness

 

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Depression Requires Treatment

The death of Robin Williams generated (rightfully) a tsunami of solidarity with people who suffer from chronic depression,. Because so many people with this health condition isolate themselves, the matter of personal responsibility to seek professional help has to be addressed as well.

If I were to dedicate a song in his memory, it would have to be Vai Vedrai, whose lyrics

Vai Vedrai che un sorriso
Nasconde spesso un gran’ dolore

translate as “Oh child, you’ll see that a smile often hides a great sorrow“. There’s an important lesson in the fact that one of the great comedians of our generation was himself going through hell. We ought to look around us and find our friends, and make sure (regardless of how jolly they seem) that they’re taking care of their existential health.

Some of the people I’ve known who are always smiling or who laugh at everything have been people who suffer from chronic depression. In a recent conversation with my mother, I even learned that my cousin (who died in 2009) suffered from depression for many years. Prior to this conversation, I had believed that she was one of the happiest people I had known. She always found the funny side of everything. It had all been a front.

I had another cousin who also laughed whenever she was nervous or confused, perhaps not sure how else to react; and once knew someone who smiled constantly, and had come to admire this, only to realize that it is not normal for a person to smile constantly. Confusion and dishonesty oftentimes lurk beneath habitual laughter and smile.

I’ve learned that people oftentimes hide their profound suffering behind masks of cheerfulness.

Comedy can be a great coping mechanism. It helps the release of endorphins, helps with pain management, and it’s even used in laughter yoga to treat cancer and other physical and mental conditions. But comedy should not be used to evade life, reality and real issues that require attention.

Robin, than you for the gift of your art, and for laughter. Vai Vedrai, Robin Williams.

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Review of The Painting

Most anime, except for maybe a handful (Kaeena, Princess Menonoke, Spirited Away), generally gets indifference from me. Unlike in the Japanese tradition (where animation is for adults), here in the West animated films tend to attract a younger audience and get indifference from most adults.

The Painting was different. I was invited in by the reviews, which mentioned that it was a highly philosophical movie. As I began watching, I realized it was in French with English subtitles (at least the version I saw, there is an English version out there also). I didn’t mind this at all: it was an opportunity for practicing the French language that I majored in during my college years, but be advised: the movie is FRENCH. VERY French.

By that I mean that it’s artsy, political, and that even a version of the French Revolution takes place inside the microcosmos of the painting.

Deep philosophical themes are explored via the metaphor of a painting, where characters have to contend with each other’s differences: some characters were beautifully and completely drawn, while others were mere sketches, or halfly depicted. These incomplete characters belong to the lower strata of the Painting’s society and are treated with contempt and hostility by the bourgeoisie, whose members live in the Castle (le Château).

Here is where Epicurean metaphors make their entrance. There is in Epicureanism a critique of cultural corruption that ties conventional mores to the polis (the city-state, the institutions) and opposes this form of civilization by idealizing the garden (where civilized people can live in their natural state). The Castle, in the film, is contrasted with the Garden, which is the world outside of it: a world full of greenery and nature, with huge flowres, flowing streams, where all the commoners live exiled forever from the Castle. Their entrance is forbidden, while pompous sermons are pronounced there about the natural superiority of Castle dwellers and how they were created by the Painter to rule over the rest.

The Painter is also painted in the hues of the characters’ projections in a way that is human, all too human. An interesting exploration of the theological and religious fantasies of mortals takes place in the film. The residents of the painting ask questions like: “Did the Painter abandon us? Will the Painter return?” The sketches and unfinished characters yearn for his return and even proclaim that he MUST return: “Will he finish us?

The notion of unfinished humans is prevalent in Christian redemptive theology: one hears sermons in Catholic Churches about the broken Christ and how we must put him back together, and how humanity is the body of Christ and it needs mending.

The popular references to the Painter are reminiscent of human longing for a god, for a savior to take care of us, to finish our natural limitations. Towards the end, someone has the idea that maybe we can find paint and finish ourselves and each other, with powerful redemptive effects–although a similar experiment in the human macrocosmos might sound like transhumanism and science, with their many (real or imaginary) dangers.

Besides all these considerations, the film is enjoyable and for the entire family. It has great didactic value, is critical of classism and racism, and a pleasure to watch.

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The Book of Acts

After watching the movie Agora, where the story of the life, passion, and death of philosopher Hypatia–who was murdered by a mob of Christian fanatics during the fourth century CE–is narrated, I became much more cognizant of the importance of the Library of Alexandria as a symbol of pre-Dark-Ages scientific advancement and of the importance of having humanist narratives of history.

The Good Book: a Humanist Bible, in addition to being a collection of philosophical wisdom, contains interesting portions of history. In particular, it narrates the lives of five secular personalities: the lawgivers Lycurgus (of Sparta) and Solon (from Athens), Pericles (also from Athens), Cato and Cicero (of Rome).

Of Lycurgus, I learned that although he enacted harsh discipline (chapter 10), he was no chauvinist: he advanced the equal treatment of women and enacted laws against jealousy and expanding the possible parental arrangements available to people. His progressive values also found expression in notions of free same-sex love which were entirely non-controversial in his day.

And though this sort of love was approved among them, yet rivalry did not exist, and if several men’s fancies met in one person, it was rather the beginning of an intimate friendship in which they all jointly conspired to render the object of their affection as accomplished as possible. – Acts 11:3-5

The Humanist Bible has been criticized, like the Jewish Bible, for being too provincial. It’s true that it’s a Westerner’s Bible and focuses on the Roman and Greek world almost exclusively, but not without due criticism of the Greek city-states. We find praise of Spartan discipline, but also criticism of its collectivism, avoidance of foreign ideas, xenophobia, and the mistreatment of helots–foreigners who worked in the polis.

Of Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, we learn that he was a trader, traveler, and poet. In the process of evaluating his legal prescriptions, Acts 16:28-33 raises questions as to whether laws serve to change human behavior. This is a quite interesting question, and one for which I do not yet have a clear answer. In my piece on the Public Tables, I discuss some of the other considerations presented regarding Solon.

An interesting insight into how lawyers and rhetors see the world is found on Acts 20:1-3, where we are advised by the philosophers of the state to rename things in order to to make evil things sound innocent: tributes can be called customs, a whore can be a mistress, and a jailed man can be put in a chamber. The philosophers of the polis, however, do not only and always work for the elite. They sometimes also work for the mobs: debt-relief is less menacing to the ruling classes than jubilee, although they both mean forgiveness of debts.

Another interesting feature about the Book of Acts is that it introduces the origins of the legend of Atlantis (24:11), which was originally related to Plato by Solon, who heard from it in Greece, as well as the origin of the the term draconian laws from the narrative about the tyranny of the ruler Draco (chapter 21).

Pericles is introduced as a big-headed (literally) Athenian ruler who learned music from Damon the Rhetor and studied under Anaxagoras. He also constructed great public buildings and a convicted member of the one percent. He hated very openly the idea of the rich and noble mingling with the commoners.

He utilized his power arbitrarily to his convenience: after most of his family died in the plague, he abolished laws that required Athenian citizens to have two Athenian parents. In this way, he was free to choose an heir of his preference to bestow his large estate upon.

During the reading of Acts, I realized that AC Grayling wrote the book as literature and as history, and not necessarily as moral guidance in all cases. I had difficulty, initially, understanding why he would choose someone as apparently prosaic as Pericles for this book, then I struggled even more with why he chose to include someone as ignoble as Cato. I hear that the book of Histories (which I haven’t yet read) is full of even more violent and immoral tales than this one which are reminiscent of the Game of Thrones series.

Was the author trying to mimic the indecency of the Old Testament? Did he deem slavery, genocide, violence, and abuse of one’s inferiors as having didactic value? Maybe he’s saying that philosophy and secularism have also committed attrocities, just as the peoples of the book have. In Acts 55:6, after discussing Cato’s diatribe against people who are fat and lazy, Grayling says that fools never profit from meeting sages but that wise people profit from meeting fools because they learn how not to behave. Perhaps by this exercise of exegesis, we can excuse his choice of personalities worthy of scripture.

Cato the Elder, aka Cato the Censor was known for his austerity and economy. He was a greedy slave-owner who even sold his old slaves once their productivity waned and abused them for serving food carelessly. He is praised in the book for being an idealized husband and (together with his son) for his military exploits, his occupation of Spain and conquest of Lacedonia, and some of his military strategy is discussed. Elsewhere, he banished a philosopher for getting youth to care less about war.

It is here that I attempted to imagine what the Epicurean elders would have made of the Humanist Bible, and in what ways the Humanist Bible is not of use to those of us committed to Epicureanism, as war is not considered a wholesome profession in our tradition and soldiers are not worthy of praise. Philodemus, for instance, in his work On Death spoke of how soldiers in battle die like cattle.

Cato implemented price controls as a frugal measure and would be abhored by lovers of the free markets. As Censor, he functioned as the Roman version of the Muslim religious police, meddling in people’s private affairs and ensuring that everyone followed societal rules of propriety. The highlights of Cato’s sayings were the Sheeple Meme and his “I’d rather be asked why I don’t have a monument than why I do“.

As for Cicero, he was a lawyer, orator, and philosopher who studied under Philo the Academic. He acted as praetor during the days when Catilene and his evil friends plotted revolt and had Lentulus arrested for wanting to kill all the senators. He was given to self-praise and frequently mocked others. As a result of the animosity that naturally results from living a public life and having public enemies, he was exiled and the narrative later has him returning triumphant to Rome. Unlike Cato, he favored a humane treatment of inferiors, but the Good Book never calls for the abolition of slavery or for any discussion that might be framed within the context of civil rights, as we understand them today.

His house had no porter, and from early in the morning he stood or walked before his door to receive those who came to offer salutations. He is said never once to have ordered any of those under his command to be beaten with rods, or to have their garments rent. He never used contumelious language in his anger, nor infliected punishment with reproach. – Acts 81:8-10

In his old age, the narrative goes on to explain that Cicero married a young rich woman to pay off his debts, and later divorced her after his daughter died. The murder of Julius Caesar by Cassius and Brutus is related and the book comes to a close.

This has been thus far the least philosophical of the books in the Humanist Bible. I’m generally not into reading history, however the Book of Acts was a much more enjoyable read than I expected and awakened interest in reading history, as long as it’s written by expert narrators who know how to weave gossip, intrigue, plot-twisters, and interesting historical side-notes and references like the Atlantis one, which I was familiar with but surprised to find here.

 Click here for the official Society of Epicurus review of the Good Book

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The Sheeple Meme

(Cato) had a saying … that the Roman people were like sheep; for they, when single, do not obey, but when all together in a flock, they follow their leaders: ‘So you’, said he, ‘when you have got together in a body, let yourselves be guided by those whom singly you would never think of being advised by.’ – Acts 54:19-20, The Good Book: a Humanist Bible

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