Echoes through time: whoever offers to another a bargain

Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.

Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

Too often, focus is on the [wicked] “self-love” rather than on the proper context.

 

Image: Shutterstock

Downtime: Marcus Aurelius – Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor by Frank McLynn

We talk a lot about Marcus Aurelius, but often know nothing beyond the 100-odd pages of Meditations, the published collection of his private notebooks.

Frank McLynn corrects this with a comprehensive biography of the famed philosopher-king. It’s a weighty read, but fascinating. I came away a much richer understanding of Roman history, economy, geography and military as well as some insight into the man and his beliefs.

I think it’s fair to say that McLynn is no Stoic himself, but it is interesting to understand the history of Stoicism and how it was understood in Marcus’ own time.

If I’m not too late, this would make a fantastic holiday read.

Thumos – relight the fire in your belly!

Lost values?

Sometimes, it feels as if our world is lacking in those old-fashioned qualities of responsibility, integrity and honour.

Instead, we have a culture of “rights”, entitlements and expectations. Of “alternative facts” and blatant, cynical lies. Too often, the spoils seem to go to those with the straightest faces and the brassiest necks.

In his recent series of insightful posts, What We Know About 2018, Nicholas Bate ventured (I suspect rather hopefully) that:

It will be World-Wide Year of Ownership

Human beings will re-discover the lost art of taking responsibility; accepting history as well, history; agreeing to disagree but staying civil and realising the ‘sound-bite’ lacks both width, depth and certainly any kind of length.

I’m not sure I see it, sadly.

As an aside, earlier this month I took a wicked pleasure in hearing the editor of GQ magazine, Dylan Jones, describing his experience of photographing and interviewing Jeremy Corbyn for the cover of his magazine. For a day or two, he was everywhere (for example here, here, here and here) delighting other editors and interviewers with his behind-the-scenes revelations. And, selling magazines.

It was funny, but also, I felt, a bit dishonourable to have invited the politician onto the cover of his magazine and then to tittle-tattle like an excited teenager about what went on.

The lost concept of thumos

Anyhow, back on track. If we feel we’re losing the ideals of honour and integrity, then we have certainly lost the very concept of “thumos”.

The Art of Manliness blog introduced me to the idea the other day with a post entitled: Jack London on how to live a life of thumos:

The philosopher Plato thought that the soul of man could be compared to a chariot and consisted of three parts: a dark horse which represented the appetites, a white horse that represented thumos, and the charioteer which symbolized reason, and worked to keep the two disparate steeds in balance.

Of the three parts of the soul, thumos is the hardest for us moderns to grasp. The ancient Greeks thought it essential to andreia, or manliness, but there’s no one word in contemporary language that is a real match for it. Even for the Greeks, it was a multi-faceted force that they saw as the “seat of life.” Thumos was the source of emotion – particularly a righteous anger that manifested itself not only towards one’s enemies, but also at oneself for failing to live up to one’s own principles and code of honor. Thumos was the juice to action and the energy of drive – particularly that which led a man to fight, preserve his honor, become the best of the best, and leave a legacy. It was also the location of a man’s philosophical code – a matrix of discernment through which he pondered possibilities and intuited decisions. Thumos was a man’s spiritedness, his fire in the belly.

The post is a great introduction to the concept, but I find it’s been a recurring theme of the blog (maybe unsurprisingly given the blog’s title). You can find more about the ideas, here:

Fire in the belly

The juice to action, the energy of drive, the fire in the belly. Now, there’s a concept to play with. It underpins all those other fading concepts of integrity, honour and responsibility and is, surely, essential to all sovereign professionals.

Re-light your fire.

 

Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

Ayn Rand – hero of the Sovereign Professional

So you think that money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by men who produce. Is that what you consider evil?

When you accept money in payment for your effort, you do so only on the conviction that you will exchange it for the product of the effort of others.

Thus opens an eloquent defence of capitalism by the character Francisco d’Anconia in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (Part II, Chapter II, pages 410-415 in the Penguin Modern Classics edition).

Ayn Rand and Objectivism

Ayn Rand has always been a divisive figure. Perhaps strangely in a world of increasing self-obsession, her philosophy of objectivism is denounced as selfish and amoral. But is this really the case?

To understand Rand’s philosophy, it helps to understand her background.

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1905, she was 12 when she saw her father’s business confiscated by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. The family fled to Crimea, later returning but suffering desperate privation. As an adult in the United States, Rand made several attempts to have her parents and sisters join her, but they could not obtain permission to emigrate. In a 1959 television interview, she said she didn’t know whether they had survived or not.

The Revolution opened universities to women, but Rand’s studies were interrupted  when she and other “bourgeois” students were expelled. Only complaints from visiting foreign scientists enabled the students to graduate.

Rand’s subsequent antipathy towards the power of any state to interfere with the rights of the individual is understandable.

But, what is Objectivism, the philosophy Rand developed?

The philosophy is grounded in reality, reason, capitalism and self-interest. It is the last of these that often causes controversy. However, the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) describes it like this:

Selfishness, in her philosophy, means:

  • Follow reason, not whims or faith.
  • Work hard to achieve a life of purpose and productiveness.
  • Earn genuine self-esteem.
  • Pursue your own happiness as your highest moral aim.
  • Prosper by treating others as individuals, trading value for value.

Rand herself, in various interviews fuelled the fire with assertions that seemed sometimes to be wilfully provocative. But, in reality, is it any more than a blend of Aristotle, Stoicism and Adam Smith?

Aristotle and reason

Rand believed that man should “hold reason as an absolute” and claimed that Aristotle was the only philosopher to have truly influenced her:

I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.

Stoicism

Stoicism, as summarised by the Daily Stoic holds that:

Stoicism has just a few central teachings. It sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be. How brief our moment of life is. How to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of yourself. And finally, that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.

Stoicism doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. It’s built for action, not endless debate.

Although the famous stoic Marcus Aurelius would place greater emphasis on duty and society than is apparent in Rand, he also believed in reason, reality and the self:

A little flesh, a little breath, and a Reason to rule all – that is myself.  (Meditations, 2.2)

Adam Smith

Adam Smith famously wrote of self-interest:

Every individual… neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

and…

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Although, he had no truck with “selfishness” in the common understanding of the term:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

So, perhaps we would be better served by understanding Rand’s philosophy as a blending of existing strands and by reading the novels for which she is most famous in that light.

Her most famous novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), are fables. A tad longer than the standard set by Aesop, but fables nonetheless; simplified and exaggerated to emphasise their point.

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged is 1,168 pages long. It opens, famously, with the question: “Who is John Galt?”

And, when the mysterious John Galt finally addresses his audience, the speech runs, non-stop, to 60 pages. In places, the book is turgid, laboured and leaden. The conservative author, and one-time associate of Rand, William Buckley said, “I had to flog myself to read it.”

But, it is an utterly memorable fable of strong characters driven by a deep integrity to do what is right in the face of a government seeking to stifle individual freedoms and harness its entrepreneurial talent, until that talent begins to disappear. It’s a fantastic tale, but not without lessons for today’s world.

In the UK, the top 1% pay 27.5% of all income tax (rising towards one third by the end of this parliament); the top 5% provide 47%. Just 1% of firms pay four fifths of all total corporation tax.

Recently, the Economist looking at a environment of Brexit-y uncertainty drew parallels with the business-hostile world described in Atlas Shrugged. And, just yesterday, the Sunday Times warned of the irony of leaving the EU only to suffocate in home-grown restraints: Don’t leave the EU just to become more European.

Atlas Shrugged is, just about, worth reading. If all else fails, you’ll have the gist of it in the first hundred pages, then read d’Anconia’s speech (as above) and resort to a synopsis for the rest.

 The Fountainhead

Rand described this as “an overture to Atlas Shrugged”. At just 727 pages, it’s an easier read than its successor.

The book centres on an idealistic young architect unwilling to compromise on his beliefs or fall in line with the accepted world of compromise, pastiche and mediocrity.

That said, I’m not sure it stands the test of time as well. There are a couple of scenes that definitely don’t play well and seem only to support the worst accusations against Rand.

Again though, strong characters playing out a fable that has relevance for the world today.

So, Hero of the Sovereign Professional? Yes, because here are strong characters preaching self-reliance, looking to no-one to support them in the face of mediocrity and an unrelenting pressure to conform for an “ill-conceived greater good”.

Here’s Rand’s first ever television interview (from 1959):

 

And, here’s William Buckley’s perspective:

 

Image: Wikimedia

Ronald Coase – hero of the Sovereign Professional

Eighty years ago, in The Nature of the Firm, Ronald Coase (1910 – 2013) explained why firms exist. His answer (transaction costs) both explains the recent rise in the number of sovereign professionals and highlights the challenge faced in building a high-value sovereign professional business.

Essentially, Coase argued that firms exist where the cost of contracting individual tasks becomes too burdensome. It is relatively cheap and easy to contract simple tasks in the open market, such as taking a taxi or paying a window cleaner. However, the myriad subtle responsibilities of, say, a personal admin assistant are more effectively met by hiring someone on a contract of employment.

The rise of technology, especially smartphones, the web and cloud computing, has dramatically reduced transaction costs on both sides. Size matters less and it is easy for an individual to market themselves, to be found, engaged and for all the requisite admin to take place. Those relatively concrete transaction costs are clearly lower as a result. One could imagine such relationships reaching a new equilibrium where it is now economical effective to contract out a larger set of “tasks” to sovereign professionals.

However, building on Coase’s work, Sanford Grossman and Oliver Hart described two types of rights over a firm’s assets: specific rights, which can be contracted out and residual rights which cannot. The more a sovereign professional works on a client’s strategic projects, the closer he or she comes to those residual rights. At that point, as The Economist describes in Coase’s Theory of the Firm “a merger would make more sense” – i.e., that work may be better done by an employee.

The challenge for the sovereign professional is to build the sort of “trusted adviser” relationship that gives access to strategically important (and therefore valuable) projects while maintaining independence.

Both papers are worth reading and digesting;

The Sanford and Hart paper, The Costs and Benefits of Ownership:
A Theory of Vertical and Lateral Integration, (which is on my “to read” pile) is here
.

 

Image: GNU

A maker of tea bowls

Raku Kichizaemon XV is the fifteenth grand master of the Raku family. He traces his line back 450 years to Chōjirō, founder of Raku, who made the original tea bowls for Sen no Rikyū, originator of Japan’s tea ceremony.

In a corner of his studio, in crumbling sacks is his raw material; clay, stored by his forefathers over 100 years ago.

Kichizaemon, in his turn, lays down clay for his descendants.

Eschewing the labels of “artist” or “potter”, Kichizaemon says he is simply a chawan’ya, a maker of tea bowls.

How’s that for a sovereign professional role-model? A clear and simple understanding of the value he adds, and the vision to plan generations into the future.

Here’s a clip from BBC Four’s excellent series, The Art of Japanese Life, describing the wabi-sabi of one of Chōjirō’s original, simple tea bowls. (I’m struggling to embed the video in any sensible, visible way, but the click-through seems to work.)

And, here’s a YouTube clip from Nippon.com in which Kichizaemon describes his work. It’s strangely compelling.

More here, from the Nippon.com website.

Conventional wisdom is a common language of sorts – something that helps us communicate. At the same time, it’s similar to stopping our thought processes. Everyone agrees this is the way things are; nobody questions it. And nobody peers into the depths behind those things to question them.

Raku Kichizaemon XV

 

Image: The Met Museum

Marcus Aurelius – hero of the Sovereign Professional

Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 – 180), philosopher-king and last of the “Five Good Emperors“, is best remembered today for his Meditations.

Meditations was probably never intended to be published. It consists of Marcus Aurelius’s private thoughts and reflections. Today, it’s regarded as a classic of Stoic thinking.

But, what does that mean for the Sovereign Professional?

I would argue that stoicism provides a solid philosophy that is wholly relevant to the inevitable turmoil of individual toil.

The Daily Stoic site offers this definition of stoicism:

The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.

That second sentence is key. We “cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.”

If you want to be sovereign, you recognise that your fate is in your own hands. Equally, you are no self-pitying victim. You don’t control external events, but you certainly control your response.

Marcus Aurelius, no passive, other-worldly sage in rags is a perfect role model. He was the most important and most powerful person in the known world. When he became emperor, Rome (as Republic and Empire) had stood for over 600 years. Sometimes, we talk of Ancient Rome like we do Victorian Britain or Soviet Russia; we forget it lasted a thousand years (in the west, and a further millennium, to 1453, in the east). Meditations tells us that Aurelius was a practising Stoic. His notes are not original philosophy. They are reflections and reminders, notes-to-self and admonitions. Indeed, the historian Mary Beard argues:

If a text like this were to be discovered today in the sands of Egypt, not tied to the name of an emperor, we would almost certainly interpret it as a set of fairly routine philosophical exercises – the kind of thing that a philosophically trained member of the Roman elite would compose to keep himself in good intellectual shape.

Meditations is Aurelius’ workbook, not his textbook. That’s where the value lies: practical philosophy for real life. Remarkably relevant and contemporary, despite being 1,800 years old.

Aurelius is a hero because he was a practitioner.

The Daily Stoic has a biography, here.

The Wikipedia article is here.

 

 

 

My own copies of Meditations have been the Penguin Great Ideas edition of a 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth, but I’m very tempted to try the recent Gregory Hays translation, as recommended, here.