Simulation or Mere Semblance (of an Argument)?

The Electric Agora

E. John Winner

**In the following discussion, I am indebted to a paper written by Brian Eggleston, when he was an undergraduate systems analysis student at Stanford University. [1]

Much of the recent interest in the idea that we all might be living in a computer simulation, run by an advanced civilization, arises from an argument put forth by Nick Bostrom, philosopher at Oxford University. [2]  As long as we remain within the realm of higher order probabilistic logic, the argument seems persuasive. If we apply common sense, however, we can easily identify serious problems with it.

First, let us separate the general argument from its initial construction, and refer to it as “a bostrom argument for a simulated reality.” Confronting Nick Bostrom’s original version of the argument requires a facility with probabilistic logic, and he cleverly hedges his, suggesting that while the case he makes could be true, the…

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Simulation argument as gambling logic

I have submitted an essay to the Electric Agora, in which I critique the infamous Simulation Argument – that we are actually simulations running in a program designed by post-humans in the future – , made in its strictest form by Nick Bostrom of Oxford University. Since Bostrom’s argument deploys probability logic, and my argument rests on traditional logic, I admitted to the editors that I could be on shaky ground. However, I point out in the essay that if we adopt the probability logic of the claims Bostrom makes, we are left with certain absurdities; therefore, Bostrom’s argument collapses into universal claims that can be criticized in traditional logic. At any rate, if the Electric Agora doesn’t post the essay, I’ll put it up here; if they do, I’ll try to reblog it (although reblogging has been a chancey effort ever since WordPress updated its systems last year).


Towards the end of that essay, I considered how the Simulation Argument is used rhetorically to advocate for continuing advanced research in computer technology in hope that we will someday achieve a post-human evolution. The choice with which we are presented is pretty strict, and a little threatening – either we continue such research, advancing toward post-humanity – or we are doomed. This sounded to me an awful lot like Pascal’s Gambit – believe in god and live a good life, even if there is no god, or do otherwise and live miserably and burn in hell if there is a god. After submitting the essay I continued to think on that resemblance and concluded that the Simulation Argument is very much like Pascal’s Gambit and its rhetorical use in support of advancing computer research, much like Pascal’s use of his Gambit to persuade non-believers to religion, was actually functioning as a kind of gambling. This is actually more true of the Simulation Argument, since continued research into computer technology involves considerable expenditure of monies in both the private and the public sector, with post-human evolution being the offered pay-off to be won.


I then realized that there is a kind of reasoning that has not been fully described with any precision (although there have been efforts of a kind moving in this direction) which we will here call Gambling Logic. (There is such a field as Gambling Mathematics, but this is simply a mathematical niche in game theory.)


Gambling Logic can be found in the intersection of probability theory, game theory, decision theory and psychology. The psychology component is the most problematic, and perhaps the reason why Gambling Logic has not received proper study. While psychology as a field has developed certain statistical models to predict how what percentages of a given population will make certain decisions given certain choices (say, in marketing research), the full import of psychology in the practice of gambling is difficult to measure accurately, since it is multifaceted. Psychology in Gambling Logic not only must account for the psychology of the other players in the game besides the target subject, but the psychology of the target subject him/herself, and for the way the target subject reads the psychology of the other players and responds to her/his own responses in order to adapt to winning or losing. That’s because a gamble is not simply an investment risked on a possible/probable outcome, but the outcome either rewards the investment with additional wealth, or punishes it by taking it away without reward. But we are not merely accountants; the profit or loss in a true gamble is responded to emotionally, not mathematically. Further, knowing this ahead of the gamble, the hopeful expectation of reward, and anxiety over the possibility of loss, colors our choices. In a game with more than one player, the successful gambler knows this about the other players, and knows how to play on their emotions; and knows it about him/her self, and knows when to quit.


Pascal’s Gambit is considered an important moment in the development of Decision Theory. But Pascal understood that he wasn’t simply addressing our understanding of the probability of success or failure in making the decision between the two offered choices. He well understood that in the post-Reformation era in which he (a Catholic) was writing, seeing as it did the rise of personality-less Deism, and some suggestion of atheism as well, many in his audience could be torn with anxiety over the possibility that Christianity was groundless, over the possibility that there was no ground for any belief or for any moral behavior. He is thus reducing the possible choices his audience confronted to the two, and suggesting one choice as providing a less anxious life, even should it prove there were no god (but, hey, if there is and you believe you get to Paradise!).


In other words, any argument like Pascal’s Gambit functions rhetorically as Gambling Logic, because it operates on the psychology of its audience, promising them a stress-free future with one choice (reward), or fearful doom with the other (punishment).


So recognizing the Simulation Argument as a gamble, let’s look at the Gambling Logic at work in it.


Bostrom himself introduces it as resolving the following proposed trilemma:


1. “The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a post-human stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero”, or

2. “The fraction of post-human civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero”, or

3. “The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.”


According to Bostrom himself, at least one of these claims must be true.

It should be noted that this trilemma actually collapses into a simple dilemma, since the second proposition is so obviously untrue: in order to reach post-human status, our descendents will have to engage in such simulations even to accomplish such simulation capacity.


Further, the first proposition is actually considered so unlikely, it converts to its opposite in this manner (from my essay): “However, given the rapid advances in computer technology continuing unabated in the future, the probability of ‘the probability of humans surviving to evolve into a post-human civilization with world-simulating capabilities is quite low’ is itself low. The probability of humans evolving into a post-human civilization with world-simulating capabilities is thus high.”


Now at this point, we merely have the probabilistic argument that we are currently living as simulations. However, once the argument gets deployed rhetorically, what really happens to the first proposition is this:


If you bet on the first proposition (presumably by diverting funds from computer research into other causes with little hope of post-human evolution), your only pay-off will be extinction.


If you bet against the first proposition (convert it to its opposite and bet on that), you may or may not be betting on the third proposition, but the pay-off will be the same whether we are simulations or not, namely evolution into post-humanity.


If you bet on the third proposition, then you stand at least a 50% chance of earning that same pay-off, but only by placing your bet by financing further computer research that could lead to evolution into post-humanity.


So even though the argument seems to be using the conversion of the first proposition in support of a gamble on the third proposition, in fact the third proposition supports betting against the first proposition (and on its conversion instead).


What is the psychology this gamble plays on? I’ll just mention the two most obvious sources of anxiety and hope. The anxiety of course concerns the possibility of human extinction: most people who have children would certainly be persuaded that their anxiety concerning the possible future they leave their children to can be allayed somewhat by betting on computer research and evolution to post-humanity. And all who share a faith in a possible technological utopia in the future will be readily persuaded by to take the same gamble.


There is a more popular recent variation on the Simulation Gamble we should note – namely that the programmers of the simulation we are living are not our future post-human descendents, but super-intelligent aliens living on another world, possibly in another universe. But while this is rhetorically deployed for the same purpose as the original argument, to further funding (and faith) in technological research, it should be noted that the gamble is actually rather weaker. The ultimate pay-off is not the same, but rather appears to be communion with our programmers. Well, not so enticing as a post-human utopia, surely! Further, that there may be such super-intelligent aliens in our universe is not much of a probability; that they exist in a separate universe is not even a probability, it is mere possibility, suggested by certain mathematical modellings. The reason for the popularity of this gamble seems to arise from an ancient desire to believe in gods or angels, or just some Higher Intelligence capable of ordering our own existence (and redeeming all of our mistakes).


It might sound as if, in critiquing the Simulation Gamble, I am attacking research into advances in computer and related technology. Not only is that not the case, but it would be irrelevant. In the current economic situation, we are certainly going to continue such research, regardless of any possible post-human evolution or super-aliens. Indeed, we will continue such research even if it never contributes to post-human evolution, and post-human evolution never happens. Which means of course that the Simulation Gamble is itself utterly irrelevant to the choice of whether to finance such research or not. I’m sure that some, perhaps many, engaged in such research see themselves as contributing to post-human evolution, but that certainly isn’t what wins grants for research. People want new toys; that is a stronger motivation than any hope for utopia.


So the real function of the Simulation Gamble appears to be ideological: it’s but one more reason to have faith in a technological utopia in the future; one more reason to believe that science is about ‘changing our lives’ (indeed, changing ourselves) for the better. It is a kind of pep-talk for the true believers in a certain perspective on the sciences. But perhaps not a healthy perspective; after all, it includes a fear that, should science or technology cease to advance, the world crumbles and extinction waits.


I believe in science and technology pragmatically – when it works it works, when it doesn’t, it don’t. It’s not simply that I don’t buy the possibility of a post-human evolution (evolution takes millions of years, remember), but I don’t buy our imminent extinction either. The human species will continue to bumble along as it has for the past million years. If things get worse – and I do believe they will – this won’t end the species, but only set to rest certain claims for a right to arrogantly proclaim itself master of the world. We’re just another animal species after all. Perhaps the cleverest of the lot, but also frequently the most foolish. We are likely to cut off our nose to spite our face – but the odd thing is our resilience in the face of our own mistakes. Noseless, we will still continue breathing, for better or worse.



Bostrom’s original argument:

Annual Christmas Message: It’s a Xmas terror thing!


I hate christmas. I have always hated christmas; yes always, since I can remember anything at all, I remember hating christmas.

My mother was a single parent (father having left when I was 2). She always worked christmas (she was a nurse), she usually worked double shifts on christmas – overtime at holiday pay rate. So she was never home for christmas. That left me to the tender care of my 2 older sisters – who basically hated me. (With one, the estrangement was never repaired.)

My mother would usually prepare christmas ahead of time – chicken sandwiches, canned ravioli or beans, canned string beans – sitting in pots on the stove waiting to be heated, yum yum. For dessert, those prepared sugary jelly pies one got at the corner-store. Of course, for the first few years, I got little of it – my sisters were voracious eaters and didn’t think of christmas as necessitating any more sharing behavior than they engaged in the rest of the year.

There was gift giving, of course. My oldest sister liked to give me torn socks. My second sister, fortunately would actually try to be generous, and usually bought me first comic books, and then later books.

My mother’s gift giving was a little erratic. I think she tried, she really did. But she was too busy with working and household chores to really put much thought into it. Usually she would ask us what we wanted, and then on Christmas morning we would unwrap these relatively cheap, easily broken plastic toys. Being kids, of course we reacted depressed and complaining. By the time I was a teen-ager, my mother had just given up – she just gave us money the week before Christmas and had us buy and wrap our own presents. Somehow, the experience unwrapping them was not the same.

We had a christmas tree – my aunt usually bought it. It was usually too big. Since we kids were doing the decorating, we always over-did it and the tree looked over-weighted and gaudy. It usually stood too long in the living-room, way past new years, so it was a brown shriveled, needle-shedding wreck by the time we got it out of there.

Holiday festivities revolved around the television set. I suppose I watched every christmas special produced during the late ’50s – early ’60s: tawdry re-narrations of the nativity story, cheap vaudeville acts pretending to be cheerful, sit-com families making vacuous jokes and grinning stupidly ear to ear. The only broadcasts worth remembering were old films. I still have fond memories of the Alistair Sims “Christmas Carol.” Otherwise, by the time I was 14, television as a whole was losing interest for me, and I had gotten the general idea that christamas was basically a marketing scam. (“Things go better with Coke – Ho ho ho!”)

For quite some time in my adult years, I tried and tried to ‘get the spirit’ of the holidays. A part of me wanted to believe that the religious magic could actually worked; a part merely wanted to belong to some community celebration.

But it was hopeless. The effort to feel happy only made things worse. Christmas after christmas collapsed in emotional ruin, occasionally spoiling romantic relationships. It was only in my late 30s that I began making friends who also found the christmas season emotionally tortuous, and for many of the same reasons. Families can be a curse, not a blessing, and we ought to allow those who experience that to live their lives without some sort of guilt trip about not observing holidays that they find hollow or painful.

The last christmas I tried to celebrate, in 1991, was with my mother and my second sister. By then I had abandoned christianity completely, so it was completely about family for me.

We ate chicken and potatoes (that I cooked), listened to an album of christmas songs, and sat through a viewing of one of my mother’s favorite films, “The Sound of Music.” We exchanged presents; my sister and I bought books, my mother (true to form) gave us plastic trinkets. We all agreed what a wonderful time of the year it was. We hugged and said good-night.

I never felt so hollow, and so hypocritical in my entire life. I gave up any attempt at celebrating christmas all together, and I have never regretted doing so.

Well, what about ‘the message,’ though? Peace and love and good will to all – and of course, if you buy that, we got a freshly born baby god to sell you too!

Well, I’m sorry – if peace and love and good will are dependent on some mythic infant from a tribal culture in some desert hinterland, than the human species is doomed – this only means we are incapable of generating an ethic that responds to the gross changes in culture that our history has brought about. The worship of an infant marks the infancy of our culture. Let us admit that there has been some progress since then.

Nostalgia for christmas is really nostalgia for small communities in rural cultures, when riding in a ‘one horse open sleigh’ was a necessity if one wanted to visit family. But we live in cities now, and many of us don’t want to visit our families. Many of us just wish the whole horror show were over, and we have every right not to participate.

And if you have children and they express unhappiness with christmas, don’t chastise them – they probably have very good reasons for it, and you should wonder hat these are.

So what to do this consumer glut ‘holiday’ season, if you’re not in a holiday mood?

well, if you can enjoy the sensual pleasures, the one good thing about christmas is that you get a good excuse for doing so – get drunk and have good sex is one possible experience of christmas cheer.

If you’re not so inclined, try reading a good book. I suggest George H. Smith’s “Atheism: the Case Against God” for its intellectual rigor. Or perhaps something more entertaining, a movie classic – Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” makes for jolly good holiday fare.

Certainly you can’t go wrong simply meditating on the absurdity of the human experience. 400 years of modernity and we’re still celebrating a Roman holiday!

Happy Saturnalia!

The legacy of Hegel

I found this essay on my computer, written some time ago, and decided – since I haven’t been posting here for a while – that I would go ahead and put it up, although it is not completely polished. Yes, it’s about Hegel again – don’t get too annoyed! – I hope not to write on this topic again for some time. But I do consider here some issues that extend beyond the immediate topic. So –


I like to describe Hegel as the cranky uncle one invites to Thanksgiving dinner, having to suffer his endless ramblings, because there is an inheretance worth suffering for.


Hegel’s language is well nigh impossible. He understands the way grammar shapes our thinking before any training in logic, and uses – often abuses – grammar, not only to persuade or convince, but to shape his readers’ responses, not only to his text, but to the world. After studying the Phenomenology of Mind, one can’t help but think dialectically for some time, whether one approves of Hegel or not. One actually has to find a way to ‘decompress’ and slowly withdraw, as from a drug. (Generally by reading completely dissimilar texts, like a good comic novel, or raunchy verses about sex.)


How did Hegel become so popular, given his difficulty? First of all, he answered certain problems raised in the wake of first Fichte’s near-solipsistic (but highly convincing) epistemology,and then in Schelling’s “philosophy of nature” (which had achieved considerable popularity among intellectuals by the time Hegel started getting noticed). But there was also the fact that he appears to have been an excellent and fascinating teacher at the University of Berlin. And we can see in his later lectures, which come to us largely through student notes, or student editing of Hegel’s notes, that, while the language remains difficult, there is an undeniable charm in his presentation. This raises questions, about how important teachers are in philosophy – do we forget that Plato was Socrates’ student, and what that must have meant to him?


Finally: Hegel is the first major philosopher who believed that knowledge, being partly the result of history and partly the result of social conditioning *, was in fact not dependent on individual will or insight, so much as being in the right place at the right time – the Idea, remember, is the protagonist of the Dialectic’s narrative. The importance of the individual, is that there is no narrative without the individual’s experience, no realization of the Idea without the individual’s achievement of knowledge.


However, despite this insistance on individual experience, Hegel is a recognizably ‘totalistic’ thinker: everything will be brought together eventually – our philosophy, our science, our religion, our politics, etc., will ultimately be found to be variant expressions of the same inner logic of human reasoning and human aspiration.


Even after Pragmatists abandoned Hegel – exactly because of this totalistic reading of history and experience – most of them recognized that Hegel had raised an important issue in this insistence – namely that there is a tendency for us to understand our cultures in a fashion that seemingly connects the various differences in experiences and ways of knowing so that we feel, to speak metaphorically, that we are swimming in the same stream as other members of our communities, largely in the same direction. Even the later John Dewey, who was perhaps the most directly critical of Hegel’s totalism, still strong believes that philosophy can tell the story of how culture comes together, why, eg., there can be a place for both science and the arts as variant explorations of the world around us. We see this culminate, somewhat, in Quine’s Web of Belief: different nodes in the web can change rapidly, others only gradually; but the web as a whole remains intact, so that what we believe not only has logical and evidentiary support, but also ‘hangs together’ – any one belief ‘makes sense’ in relation to our other beliefs.


(Notably, when British Idealism fell apart, its rebellious inheritors, eg., Russell and Ayers, went in the other direction, declaring that philosophy really had no need to explain anything in our culture other than itself and scientific theory.)


If we accept that knowledge forms a totalistic whole, we really are locked into Hegel’s dialectic, no matter how we argue otherwise.


Please note the opening clause “If we accept that knowledge forms a totalistic whole” – what follows here should be the question, is that what we are still doing, not only in philosophy but other fields of research? and I would suggest that while some of us have learned to do without, all too many are still trying to find the magic key that opens all doors; and when they attempt that, or argue for it, Hegel’s net closes over them – whether they’ve read Hegel or not. And that’s what makes him still worth engaging. Because while he’s largely forgotten – the mode of thought he recognizes and describes is still very much among us.


And this is precisely why I think writing about him and engaging his thought is so important. The hope that some philosophical system, or some science, or some political system will explain all and cure all is a failed hope, and there is no greater exposition of such hope than in the text of Hegel. The Dialectic is one of the great narrative structures of thought, and may indeed be a pretty good analog to the way in which we think our way through to knowledge, especially in the social sphere; it really is rather a persuasive reading of history, or at least the history of ideas. But it cannot accommodate differences that cannot be resolved if they do not share the same idea. For instance, the differing assumptions underlying physics as opposed to those of biology; or differing strategies in the writing of differing styles of novel or poetry; or consider the political problems of having quite different, even oppositional, cultures having to learn to live in the same space, even within the same city.


If Hegel is used to address possible futures, then of course such opposed cultures need to negate each other to find the appropriate resolution of their Dialectic. That seemed to work with the Civil War; but maybe not really. It certainly didn’t work in WWI – which is what led to Dewey finally rejecting Hegel, proposing instead that only a democratic society willing to engage in open-ended social experimentation and self-realization could really flourish, allowing difference itself to flourish.


Finally a totalistic narrative of one’s life will seem to make sense, and the Dialectic can be used to help it make sense. And when we tell our life-stories, whether aware of the Dialectic or no, this is to some extent what we are doing.


But the fact is, we must remember that – as Hume noted, and as re-enforced in the Eastern traditions – the ‘self’ is a convenient fiction; which means the story we tell about it is also fiction. On close examination, things don’t add up, they don’t hang together. One does everything one is supposed to do to get a professional degree, and then the economy takes a downturn, and there are no jobs. One does everything expected of a good son or daughter, and only to be abused. . One cares for one’s health and lives a good life – and some unpredictable illness strikes one down at an early age. I could go on – and not all of it is disappointment – but the point is that, while I know people who have exactly perfect stories to tell about successful lives, I also know others for whom living has proven so disjointed, it’s impossible to find the Idea that the Dialectic is supposed to reveal.


Yet the effort continues. We want to be whole as persons, we want to belong to a whole society. We want to know the story, of how we got here, why we belong here, and where all this is going to.


So in a previous essay **, I have given (I hope) a pretty accurate sketch of the Dialectic in outline – and why it might be useful, at least in the social sciences (it is really in Hegel that we first get a strong explication of the manner in which knowledge is socially conditioned). And the notion that stories have a logical structure – and thus effectively form arguments – I think intriguing and important. ***


But ultimately the Dialectic can not explain us. The mind is too full of jumble, and our lives too full of missteps on what might better be considered a ‘drunken walk’ than a march toward inevitable progress.


So why write about it? Because although in America, Hegel is now largely forgotten, but the Dialectic keeps coming back; all too many still want it – I don’t mean just the Continental tradition. I mean we are surrounded by those who wish for some Theory of Everything, not only in physics, but economics and politics, social theory, etc. And when we try to get that, we end up engaging the dialectical mode of thought,even if we have never read Hegel. He just happened to be able to see it in the thinkers of Modernity, beginning with Descartes and Luther. But we are still Moderns. And when we want to make the big break with the past and still read it as a story of progress leading to us; or when we think we’ve gotten ‘beyond’ the arguments of the day to achieve resolution of differences, and attain certain knowledge – Then we will inevitably engage the Dialectic. Because as soon as one wants to know everything, explain everything, finally succeed in the ‘quest for certainty’ (that Dewey finally dismissed as a pipe-dream), the Dialectic raises its enchanting head, replacing the Will of God that was lost with the arrival of Modernity.


That is why (regardless of his beliefs, which are by no means certain) Hegel’s having earned his doctorate in theology becomes important. Because as a prophet of Modernity, he recognized that the old religious narratives could only be preserved by way of sublation into a new narrative of the arrival of human mind replacing that divine will.


In a sense that is beautiful – the Phenomenology is in some way the story of human kind achieving divinity in and through itself. But in another way, it is fraught with dangers – have we Moderns freed ourselves from the tyranny of Heaven only to surrender ourselves to the tyranny of our own arrogance? Only time will tell.




* Much of what Hegel writes of social conditioning is actually implicit in Hume’s Conventionalism; Hegel systematizes it and makes it a cornerstone of his philosophy. (Kant, to the contrary, always assumes a purely rational individual ego; which is exactly the problem that Fichte had latched onto and reduced to ashes by trying to get to the root of human knowledge in desire.)



Full version:


*** I’ll emphasize this, because it is the single most important lesson I learned from Hegel – narrative is a logical structure, a story forms a logical argument, a kind of induction of particularities leading into thematic conclusions. I will hopefully return to this in a later essay.


Yet Some Men Say in Many Parts that Arthur is not Dead

I’ve embedded video from youtube, of performances of quoted material at my own web log, no sign of it, – I especially like the performance of selections of Morte d’Arthur in the original late Medieval dialect.

The Electric Agora

by E. John Winner

This essay is composed of informal reflections on the historical impact of the recent election; therefore, I hope the reader forgives the lack of endnotes and links supporting much of what I say here, since I am not making a case but offering a personal point of view.

From Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory, The Twenty-first Book, Chapter IV:

Then the king gat his spear in both his hands, and ran toward Sir Mordred, crying, Traitor, now is thy death day come. And when Sir Mordred heard Sir Arthur, he ran until him with his sword drawn in his hand. And then king Arthur smote Sir Mordred under the shield, with a foin of his spear throughout the body more than a fathom. And when Sir Mordred felt that he had his death’s wound, he thrust himself, with the might that he had, up to…

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Video links for literary essay

The editors at Electric Agora ( ) asked me to submit an essay reflecting on the recent presidential election, and I have.  If they like it, it will probably be posted in the next couple of days.

In preparation of that I thought I would here post videos (via youtube) to the material I quoted.  I quoted from two songs and two books.

The first song is Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” a heavy metal antiwar song, and condemnation of the Military Industrial Complex that seems to do well, no matter who’s elected president:

The second song is from the Dead Kennedys, from 1981.  This is a revised version of their earlier song “California Uber Alles,” but its actual title is “We’ve got a bigger problem now” (the bigger problem being the election of Ronald Reagan, a Donald Trump prototype):

The first book quoted from is Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte d’Arther, the tragic tale of the rise and fall of the great Kind of England (actually, Wales), Arthur Pendragon, slain by his illegitimate son by an incestuous affair.  The video I’ve chosen to represent it is a performance of selections from the text, recited in the original late Medieval English dialect.  The introduction is brief, and includes insight into the life of the author, who was a wild but mysterious adventurer who ended up in prison (several times).

The selection I quote from is read at about 31 minutes into the video.  Pay attention to the ferocity of Mordred’s hatred for his father, as he forces himself down Arthur’s spear in order to strike Arthur with his sword:


I’m not going to provide a video performance from the second book I quote from, Adolf Hitler’s Second Book.  My use of it in my essay is to introduce the romantic notion of achieving greatness in history, which I argue is false and only leads to disappointment.  However, generally Hitler disgusts me.  So here I simply include brief quotes from reviews of the standard translation of the text:


As the reader may know, there has ben considerable controversy about how much like Hitler Donald Trump really is.  Personally, I think he’s more like Mussolini, and for a number of reasons that’s actually worse for America, because Mussolini lasted longer than Hitler, was more integrated culturally into Italy than Hitler was in Germany (thus requiring less violence to control dissent), and was primarily concerned with long-term economic changes, preferring to fight his wars overseas – something the US does very easily and its people have no difficulty living with.

Nonetheless, I include here a bit of satire from Bill Maher, comparing Trump and Hitler:

If the essay doesn’t appear at Electric Agora, I’ll put it up here.   It will be the last comment I have on this wretched election.  I’m not going to ignore politics; but the train wreck has already started in Washington, and there is no point in looking backward, unless we’re willing to learn from it.  My guess is that most of us won’t.  Already the media is normalizing Trump, and Congressional Democrats are talking about working with him.  Only on the margins do we hear people talk about correcting the mistakes made in this election campaign.  Whether their voices will be heard is worth waiting to see; but my guess is that they won’t.  America seems set on a course of permanent decline; and all our best efforts simply disappoint us.

Misadventures in the dialectic

Or, a nasty thing happened on the way to the forum

Originally published at:

Thus precisely in labour where there seemed to be merely some outsider’s mind and ideas involved, the bondsman becomes aware, through this re-discovery of himself by himself, of having and being a ‘mind of his own. [1]

When Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Mind, makes an abrupt transition from epistemology per se (how we know about anything at all) into an historicized social epistemology (how knowledge is socially and historically conditioned), he begins at an odd point in history, with an analysis of the relationship between lords and bondsmen; or, as it is better known, the Master-Slave dialectic.  What the Master learns in this dialectic is that he not only commands things, but does so through the mediation of commanding his slaves.  It is the Slave, however, who turns out to be the real protagonist in this narrative – what he learns is the necessity of living for others, and through that, his own independence from “things”; that is, from the material.

In a series of important lectures in the 1930’s, the Master-Slave Dialectic received an interpretation by the Russian emigre to France, Alexandre Kojeve, which had enormous impact on French intellectual history, especially on Existentialist thinkers like Sartre, as well as on the development of Lacanian psychoanalysis.  [2]  Although written more than ten years after Kojeve’s lectures, Albert Camus’ The Rebel (1951), a text widely popular among those who have never even heard of Kojeve, is in fact a response to Kojeve.

Within Existentialism itself (and in French philosophy generally), an ongoing debate over the Marxist implications of Kojeve’s lectures emerged.  Indeed, the Marxian narrative of the historical development of a Materialist Dialectic arriving at Modern capitalism (in preparation of a future communism),  depends on the Master-Slave Dialectic, because it assumes that the economy of the Roman Empire was principally a “slave economy” [3]; that is, slaves provided the primary means of production, as well as the central market (in the exchange of slaves) and the essential social structure, of the empire – there were slave owners, there were slaves, and there were cast-off slaves who, scrounging for work where they could find it, formed a nascent proletariat.

A reasonable interpretation of the Phenomenology (given Hegel’s own historical interests and biases) suggests that Hegel’s writing here arose as a meditation on the introduction of Christianity into the culture of Rome [4].  When Hegel wrote this, scholars believed – as they did until quite recently – that Christianity spread through the Empire by appealing to the poor; i.e., to slaves and former slaves [5].  Recent scholarship, however, has proven this untrue, and it appears that Christianity’s greatest appeal in Rome was to the middle classes – businessmen, lawyers, tradesmen [6].  (Only a middle class could afford the charitable social work that Christians engaged in.)  This does not really threaten Hegel (who, after all, is talking about ideas, and in a most general way), but it doomed Marxist historiography.

Evidence has been piling up that the economy of the Roman Empire was not primarily a slave economy, but a sophisticated capitalist one, based on international trade [7].  Even without the accumulating evidence, one realizes that it couldn’t have been otherwise.  The Roman Empire not only conducted trade with client states in the Mediterranean, but with co-existing empires over which they had no direct control, including those in India and China, as well as with cultures in Africa, which they had no desire to control.  Such trade could not be centered around a market for slaves – beyond precious metals or mere commodity exchange, there had to be negotiable systems of exchange of wealth with symbolic representation of equivalent value, namely money.  And where there is money, there is capitalism [8].

However, it is with some degree of irony that we can see that long before the archaeological evidence was unearthed and pieced together showing that Rome was in fact a capitalist society, there actually existed documentary evidence of this (since Nero), which has been available to literati since the 17th century.   I don’t mean accounting records, some Roman economist’s commentary or remarks made by some court historian.  I’m referring to a work of prose fiction; indeed, one of the funniest, most incisive, and, surprisingly, most realistic texts ever written:  The Satyricon, attributed to Petronius Arbiter [9].

We don’t really know who wrote Satyricon.  We don’t even know the original shape of it.  All we have are fragments, preserved in monastic libraries, until the 17th century, when secular book collectors got their hands on it thanks to Protestant looting of those libraries [10].   Some evidence suggests that the fragments are mere slivers from a much longer work, but internal evidence from the text itself shows a remarkable thematic consistency, suggesting that the fragments we do have at least form a narrative sequence within any larger whole. [11]

Satyricon is a wild ride through the underbelly of Roman society of its time.  The narrative is what later would be called a picaresque, a disjointed series of adventures of social outcasts, whose main interests in life are sex (primarily homoerotic) and food and finding some way to acquire the capital with which to procure them.   The narrator and protagonist of the story, Encolpius, has just dropped out of the Roman equivalent of an undergraduate course in literature, in order to compete with a former lover (Ascyltus) for the affections of a young boy, Giton. [12]  Being an educated lowlife, Encolpius isn’t interested in finding suitable employment, but instead tries attaching himself to well-to-do patrons.  This leads to bizarre sexual experiences, meetings with failed poets, tasteless feasts put on by Roman tradesmen, fake religious rites (always good for initiating orgies), and capture by pirates at sea.  As the fragments close, the story doesn’t appear to be going well, as Eumolpus, an aging poet and tutor to whom Encolpius has attached himself, fails to realize an inheritance, which effectively condemns him to death among those who had been supporting him.

The most famous sequence of the narrative is Encolpius’ attendance at a banquet thrown by a successful tradesman, Trimalchio.  The sequence is a fairly complete, unified set-piece.  We first find Trimalchio at a recreation center, playing ball.  When he has to urinate, a slave rushes up with a bucket so that Trimalchio can relieve himself while still playing.  Meanwhile, another slave counts the balls that Trimalchio recurrently loses in play (to recover later), so that his master can toss out a new ball with every flub, as if he hadn’t lost any.   The tone is thus set for one of the most outrageous displays of conspicuous consumption – and conspicuous waste – in the history of Western literature.

At length some slaves came in who spread upon the couches some coverlets upon which were embroidered nets and hunters stalking their game with boar-spears, and all the paraphernalia of the chase.  We knew not what to look for next, until a hideous uproar commenced, just outside the dining-room door, and some Spartan hounds commenced to run around the table all of a sudden.  A tray followed them, upon which was served a wild boar of immense size, wearing a liberty cap upon its head, and from its tusks hung two little baskets of woven palm fibre, one of which contained Syrian dates, the other, Theban.  Around it hung little suckling pigs made from pastry, signifying that this was a brood-sow with her pigs at suck.  It turned out that these were souvenirs intended to be taken home.  When it came to carving the boar, our old friend Carver, who had carved the capons, did not appear, but in his place a great bearded giant, with bands around his legs, and wearing a short hunting cape in which a design was woven.  Drawing his hunting-knife, he plunged it fiercely into the boar’s side, and some thrushes flew out of the gash.  Fowlers, ready with their rods, caught them in a moment, as they fluttered around the room and Trimalchio ordered one to each guest, remarking, “Notice what fine acorns this forest-bred boar fed on,” and as he spoke, some slaves removed the little baskets from the tusks and divided the Syrian and Theban dates equally among the diners. [13]

This would seem to support Marxian analysis of the culture of a slave-based economy; but there’s a problem with this.  Trimalchio’s biography has to be pieced together from his own remarks, those of his guests, as well as portraiture found on the walls of the hall leading to the banquet room.   But it amounts to this:  Trimalchio had been born a slave to a wealthy merchant.  He had proven so good at his chores that he rose to the position of steward of the estate of the merchant, who provided him with an allowance.  This he saved and invested until he could buy his freedom and position himself as inheritor of the merchant’s business [14].  Trimalchio has since spent his life acquiring greater wealth and rubbing it in the noses of failed businessmen whom he turns into his personal court of sycophants.

The banquet seems to be winding down, probably intended to end at dawn [15] (like Plato’s Symposium, which it somewhat parodies), when Trimalchio (always one to sing his own praises) reveals the intended epitaph on his tomb:

Here Rests G Pompeius Trimalchio

Freedman Of Maecenas

Decreed Augustal, Sevir In His Absence

He Could Have Been A Member Of

 Every Decuria Of Rome But Would Not

Conscientious Brave Loyal

He Grew Rich From Little And Left

Thirty Million Sesterces Behind

He Never Heard A Philosopher

 Farewell Trimalchio

 Farewell Passerby [16]

Well, that’s his story, and he’s sticking with it, even after death: a dash of truth in a swill of self-admiration.

After a violent argument with his wife (formerly a prostitute) over his bisexual promiscuity, Trimalchio then returns to this theme, by effectively staging his own funeral; whereat he eulogizes himself in the crudest manner possible, boasting of his use of sex, investments, and shady business practices to build a financial empire.  “So your humble servant, who was a frog, is now a king.”  [17]

So much for the slave coming to self-consciousness by realizing the importance of working for others!

The Satyricon is the rotten apple in the bushel, not only of literary history, but of the literature of history.  Besides being unabashedly pornographic, unrepentantly cynical in the nastiest way, and thoroughly disrespectful of social manners while dismissive of any aspiration toward decency and good fellowship, the Satyricon paints an unnervingly realistic portrait of the people of ancient Rome and of their social environment.   It’s not a pretty picture, and it fails to conform to any of the expectations into which we have been long indoctrinated, by traditional historical narratives or the works of art that disseminated these.  Rome was not just monumental architecture and statues in the forum.  It was an ugly, over-populated metropolis, with tenement slums, a criminal underworld, thriving markets riddled with unethical business practices.  Alcoholism and drug abuse were rampant, and the working classes found their greatest distraction in public displays of cruelty, in the arena.   But more importantly, the people, as we find them in the Satyricon, are completely like ourselves.  We’ve met these people, we see them all around us.  Donald Trump is just a variant Trimalchio.  And who hasn’t encountered a pedantic professor pummeling students with bloated jargon that even he doesn’t understand?   I myself knew someone rather like a straight Encolpius in college; a bright mathematics student, he went through seven different sexual relationships in one semester (his general attitude toward women was best expressed in his parody of a classic song: “nothing could be finah than to wake in some vagina in the mo-o-orning…”).  There was never a day I met him when he wasn’t drunk or hung-over.

Moral improvement, political progress, aspirations toward a greater enlightenment and a brighter future; fables we tell ourselves to bring order to our lives and provide our children with hope.  To all such pretense the Satyricon raises a middle finger (as occasionally do its characters in the text).

What has really changed in human nature since Petronius?  We claim to know more about the world, but apparently we still do not know ourselves.  For two thousand years, Europe was able to mask this lack of self-recognition with a powerful ideological machine, supported by a monumental institutional structure with intimidating influence among political leaders.  As this began to fall apart, scientists, philosophers, poets and political revolutionaries sought to develop a similarly powerful ideology with an equal ability to suppress self-recognition.  But these are only stories, after all – told in mathematics sometimes, more often in heated rhetoric, but all just fables that we hope are true.  The only real change Modernity brought us has been new technology.   And all the new technology has accomplished is providing new commodities for thriving markets riddled with unethical business practices and war-mongers.

Marx is dead, but Hegel survives, as one of the grand fables of Modernity’s explanations for why we have any ideology at all and why we feel satisfied with our supposed progress [18].  Reading Hegel helps us to understand how we wish to think of ourselves, and of the history that we believe created us.  But the Satyricon shows us people as they are, at least in any complex, mercantile culture that we care to call a civilization.  Not all people, but enough that we should be more aware of – see with greater clarity – our own social environment, which hasn’t really improved so much in three thousand years.


[1] Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind; B. Self-consciousness, IV. The true nature of Self-Certainty, A. Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage.  J. B. Bailllie translation, 1910.

[2] Kojeve, who served in the French government after WWII, always claimed to be a Marxist, even a Stalinist, but slathered insults on the Soviet Union, and remained friends to the end with conservative political philosopher (and former student of Heidegger’s) Leo Strauss, whose best known student is Allan Bloom.  Bloom was the editor of the English translation of Kojeve’s lectures, 1969:   (Camus’ response to Kojeve, The Rebel, is also online:   Bloom’s best known student is Francis Fukuyama, who acted as de-facto philosophic counsel to the George W. Bush administration; his best known text: The End of History and the Last Man, 1989; essay prospectus:

[3] See:

[4] The Master-Slave Dialectic actually precedes a discussion of the Roman philosophies of Stoicism and Skepticism.  For Hegel, Christianity found its natural intellectual home in Rome, because Rome had produced the individualization of consciousness that Christianity requires, while exhausting all the reasonable expression of it possible within Roman culture itself.  (Per Hegel, Jewish culture, wherein Christianity originated, had found itself in a cul-de-sac of rigid, written “divine” law and inherited custom.)  By now, it should be obvious that we see in Hegel, not a theological explanation of history, but an historical explanation of theology, at least given the assumptions and accepted scholarly knowledge available to Hegel.

[5] Thus, for instance, Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity represented a “slave morality.”

[6] See: the review of scholarly opinion at:, especially section 13, Christianity was mostly made up of ‘middling-plus’ class folks: merchants, tradesmen, craftsmen.

[7] See:

[8] Even Marx understood this, which is one reason he hated the very idea of money. See: He just hoped that money had been a recent invention.  Nope; it’s been here throughout most of recorded history.  See:  I warn the reader that in this instance, the Wiki article is flawed, since it concentrates entirely on the history of money in the West.  In fact, there is evidence that the Chinese developed money at roughly the same time as the West, but paper currency much earlier.  See:

[9] Our translation is that of W. C. Firebaugh (1922), which includes fascinating, if dated, scholarly notes:

[10] See:  My suspicion – but this is only a guess – is that clergy believed the text worthy of preservation, despite its scandalous material, because it included necessary keys to colloquial Latin.  Some Roman slang is only preserved in the Satyricon.  Besides, as Augustine argued in Civitas Dei, not only was the Roman Empire a dung heap, but secular history, as opposed to Sacred History – i.e., the relationship between Man and God – was entirely a waste of time.  See:

[11] For instance:  Early in the text we get a discussion of the cannibalism performed on their children by mothers in besieged cities; and the existing text ends with Eumolpius demanding that his executioners eat his body.

[12] A requirement in the study of rhetoric, which tells us that Encolpius – like Augustine, two centuries later – was intended by his family for a career in law.

[13] Satyricon, Chapter Fortieth.

[14] And it certainly helped that he was the merchant’s lover, or “mistress,” as he remarks with drunken pride.

[15] It should end at dawn, but when Trimalchio hears the cock crow, he immediately orders it caught and cooked.

[16] Satyricon, Chapter Seventy-First.  “Decreed Augustal, Sevir In His Absence/ He Could Have Been A Member Of/ Every Decuria Of Rome But Would Not” – Trimalchio claims that he was appointed to the Priests of Augustus, and would have been welcome in any of the officially recognized cults of Rome; but (he implies) his modesty prohibited acceptance of such honors.

[17] Satyricon, Chapter Seventy-Seventh.

[18] In order to have an ideology, we must confront external disagreements with and internal contradictions to our beliefs, which are then resolved and appropriated, negated and cancelled, or marginalized and ignored.  We thus arrive at generalities that we comfortably assume are necessary and superior to those that came before.  Hegel’s is not the only description of this process, but it is in many ways the most powerful.  My argument here has been that the evidence of the Satyricon is that the margins keep coming back, the contradictions are rarely resolved, and it is an inevitable human trait to be thoroughly disagreeable.