Usury: the basics

Last month, I got dragged into yet another one of Theso’s or Reinhardt’s quixotic debates about usury. I want to say this once so that I never need to tweet about it again.

  1. Usury is a sin.
  2. Usury is accepting interest (i.e., profit) on a secure loan.
  3. A secure loan is one where, from a legal point of view, the lender assumes no risk; it merely deprives him of the use of his money until he demands repayment.
  4. For a loan to be risk-free (in the context of the theological concept of usury), all of the following conditions must be met:
    • It must be impossible to discharge the debt
    • The creditor must have speedy/effective legal recourse in the event of default
    • There must be no possibility of the debtor’s assets being inferior to the value of the debt
    • There must be no possibility of multiple creditors having conflicting claims on the same assets.
  5. A loan wherein the lender is exposed to the same economic risks as borrower (for example, if he is to be repaid out of the profits of the business the loan is financing) cannot be usurious.
    • (The creditor is in effect a silent partner in the debtor’s enterprise.)
  6. A loan cannot be usurious if repayment (either of the principal or the interest) is voluntary, or secured only by an asset or some abstract status.
    • (A social expectation that a debtor demonstrate gratitude to his creditor with some gift, on top of the original loan, is not usury.)
    • (A loan secured by the debtor’s word of honor cannot be usurious if it is not legally enforceable.)
    • (But a loan which both parties expect to be enforced by extralegal means – e.g. by a mafia loan shark – is secure, and thus any interest is usury.)
  7. A loan to a corporation cannot be usurious, unless the debts of the corporation become fully-secured personal debts upon the failure of the corporation.
    • (Otherwise, a corporation that fails must have some legal process that discharges its outstanding debts after distributing remaining assets among creditors.)
  8. A loan to an individual can only be usurious in a jurisdiction where loans are not discharged in personal bankruptcy.
    • (If a loan can be discharged in personal bankruptcy, there is ipso facto a risk that the debtor will default.)

The concept of usury is germane primarily in a society where debts could not be discharged. Originally, debt slavery and indentured servitude allowed creditors to actually assume ownership of their debtors, if their other assets were insufficient to cover their debts. The body of the debtor is the ultimate collateral for a debt-free loan. As ancient societies sunk into the usury crisis, some allowed creditors to whip or torture defaulted debtors; this encouraged them to make efforts to repay, and if ultimately the debtor died on the rack, this would at least uphold the principle that debts are undischargeable and debts must be honored.

There is nothing wrong with (literal) debt slavery. There isn’t even anything wrong with corporal punishment for debtors, if the sovereign feels the need for it. But in societies where the entire future life of the debtor stands as security for the loan, the creditor does not take on any real risk — indeed, realistically he stands to profit if his debtor’s misfortunes allow him to acquire the latter’s assets and even his family at distressed prices — and it is unnatural greed for him to demand interest payments on top of that. (Instead of rationing out risk-free loans to those willing to pay the most for them, he should lend to those he judges most deserving or most grateful.)

A lender may well say, “But with this same money, I could expand my business, or found a new one, and make a great deal of money. I won’t lend it out if I have to forgo those profits.” Well then by all means, use the money productively! Buy whatever you need to expand production, and then reap the reward for the risk you’ve taken in order to better serve your neighbors. The prohibition on usury is not merely to punish greed for its own sake, but rather to promote entrepreneurship.

However, the question is remote from our present circumstances because there are no secure loans in American society, so any lending is risky and deciding who will use a (fully dischargeable) loan responsibly is, itself, a form of entrepreneurship.

Hypothetically, I could see the case for indicting the holders of FDIC-insured savings accounts as usurers. Those deposits are as secure as any loan in the history of mankind, backed as they are by the full power of the state, even if the bank that holds the deposit fails; but the “interest” on FDIC-insured accounts is so low, the question becomes trivial.

Theso often argues that federally-insured student loan debt is usurious. Yes, it is nearly impossible to discharge in bankruptcy court; but there are no immediate consequences for simply refusing to pay. Wage garnishment is not structurally equivalent to indentured servitude or a public whipping, even if the debtors lack any honest way to scrabble out of their financial hole. I’m not sure Theso is wrong, but I’m not sure he’s right, either.

(Fundamentally it’s hard for me to think the student debt crisis wrongs debtors when it is so expensive for the taxpayers who are cast in the role of unwilling usurers.)

Many Roman Catholics who doggedly condemn the modern financial system for its usury tie the theological critique of usury to an economic critique of the financial system as whole, lumping usury in with speculation, financial manias, and structural instability. I’ve never read a good critique along these lines. Most papists don’t seem to recognize that the pre-condition for usury is the absolute security of the loan on which usury is charged. A financial system in which usury was possible would have be a very safe one, because every usurious loan would be secured by the entire property, person, and liberty of the debtor. If a financial instrument is risky — and especially if the risk is contagious, meaning that each insolvent firm’s losses can be passed on to its creditors — that implies the liability it creates can be discharged and is not usurious.


What should imperfect people do?


Recall that I advocate using fatties as a template for how to incorporate imperfect people into a movement.

Try to use fatties as your template.  Fatties (gluttons) are funny.  Sometimes you shame fatties for being fat because you’re not as nice as you should be.  Sometimes you tease them because they’re your friends.  You don’t stop thinking someone is fat just because he has done good things for your movement; in fact, you may neg him harder, because in some cases he may act as a representative of everyone in the entire movement, and you want him to make a good impression.

> Even if you won’t neg the fatty yourself, you should be (quietly) grateful that whenever there’s infighting, people mock his obesity — it might help him get his act together (especially if you supplement with positive reinforcement), but at the very least it will discourage others who are tempted by gluttony.  A tiny bit of mutual nastiness helps keep everyone in line.  It’s better that people hear that they have a problem from a friend than from a rival, and better from a friendly rival than from a political opponent.

> If his obesity were particularly shameful, no one would respect him, and that might unfit him for leadership roles.  But he would have to be a pretty disgusting glutton before you decided you would prefer to kick him out of the movement entirely.


From the perspective of a “perfect” person (in the paradigm case, a physically fit right-winger) the imperfection of the other person (the fatty) are a matter of empirical fat: the fatty weighs XYZ pounds, is at N% body fat, has tits, and so on. (Note that the fit right-winger who is perfect with respect to the paradigm case may be, e.g., a junkie or a thief or God knows what else. But we’re discussing one issue at a time!) Likewise, the fatty’s political principles are matters of fact: the perfect observer can gather the fatty’s political orientation from his statements, and evaluate the strength and soundness of these principles on the basis of the fatty’s actions. Also a matter of fact are what the fatty has accomplished in terms of research, networking, organization, creation, support for his friends and allies, and offering sound advice and council.

The perfect observer should not accept arguments from the fatty that obesity is no big deal, or that his gluttony is less of a fault than some other form of disordered living. He should certainly not accept arguments that embracing obesity (or at least turning a blind eye to it) is an essential part of right-wing thought. Nor should he tolerate arguments from the fatty to the affect that obesity is inevitable or irrelevant, that valuing physical fitness is a trivial and vain distraction from “real” political issues, or that criticizing gluttony and obesity splits off potential support from fascist hambeasts.

The observer does not need to ever contradict these positions, if the fatty does not defend them. (Indeed, far from being necessary, such statements may well be a waste of time.) Likewise, if the fatty does not appear to be shameless or proud about his gluttony and corpulence, the observer is under no positive obligation to shame him. (Remember, enemies will do a fine job of finding your allies’ weaknesses and tearing them down; don’t expend any effort on something an enemy will do for free!) But if the fatty does actually defend his gluttony or broadcast his obstinate perseverance, perfect observers have some obligation either to collectively establish that gluttony is not normal, or to disassociate themselves from the fatty.

Whether observers should encourage the fatty to prioritize restoring order to his diet and physical regimen is a situational matter. In general, of course, they must uphold the norm that moderation and discipline are healthy and praiseworthy. But the advice they give to an ally and friend should depend on particular circumstances. Physical fitness is not easy, making lifestyle changes is not easy, and good people cannot do every difficult thing at the same time. The advice the perfect observers give to their fat friend should depend on his value in the political ecology. For example, a fatty who is otherwise well-equipped to be a public spokesman must hit the gym. A fatty who has the resources to run for office must hit the gym. But a fatty who is in the final months of finishing a novel or making partner at his law firm can afford to accomplish those goals first before rededicating himself to reversing the consequences of years of slovenliness and laziness.

The only genuinely hard question is what to do when the fatty’s shame at being fat (which is proper) extends to misrepresenting his physical state. Such misrepresentation has two aspects: pretended to have an ordered diet and exercise regimen and pretending to be physically attractive. In other words, the fatty can admit to be being physically repulsive while trying to evade moral blame (“muh thyroid”), or can admit to having a disgusting diet and unhealthy lifestyle while pretending to have escaped the effects (“muh bad angles”). The judgment is particularly difficult when his imperfections are an open secret among his closest collaborators, but hidden from the public; it creates the impression that his collaborators are at best hypocrites, or at worst actively approve of his sins.


Now, to understand the position of the fat person himself only requires us to reverse the perspective of observer and observed. The fatty should recognize all the same facts as the perfect observers. But beyond that, he has deeper insight into his own thoughts and dispositions; for example, he knows or suspects to what extent his political beliefs may have been shaped by his obesity, and may be aware of a twinge of resentment or pain when his allies attack fatties on the enemy side. He also has much deeper extent into the roots of his gluttony than an outside observer: he knows, or thinks he knows, how deeply his sinfulness is entrenched in his soul.

I would advise a fatty to throw himself at the mercy of Jesus Christ (if he has not already) and to pray to be delivered, among any other sins, from his gluttony. But he should also accept that without the grace of God he will be a depraved and unregenerate glutton for the rest of his life, and he must work quietly and industriously to contain his sinful urges and thus avoid the worst consequences.

That is to say, a glutton must experience total despair: he must acknowledge that he will always be a glutton, and has no power to free himself from his satanic lust for ice cream and indolence, but that he must every day go through the slog of minimizing this lust and balancing it against its horrifying consequences. A despairing glutton will always be a glutton, but he may hope to be a self-controlled glutton, a thin glutton, a fit glutton. He starts with understanding that the sin of gluttony is a form of disordered living; he goes on to tracing gluttony out to its baneful effects; then the glutton looks inward at his own sinfulness, the causes, and tries to figure out how to dis-connect them from the causal nexus that leads to unhappiness and suffering.

This, in turn, requires looking at the disposition of an ordered soul, the virtue of moderation, and trying to understand the teleological function of this disposition in terms of the emotional states it creates and the ways they serve the health of the organism. A glutton cannot follow his instincts and expect to arrive at the natural good they promise, but he can see what natural goods accrue to moderate men and force himself to take the steps that will, in the long run, deliver to him the same goals.


If you review my suggestions, I think you will have a very easy time explaining to others (right-wing or left-wing, perfect or imperfect) why the right has so much trouble with fornicators and homosexuals.

It is notorious that homosexuals do not just want to be tolerated (i.e., free from punishment or persecution for their sexual activities), but allowed to transform their sin into a badge of pride and parade it around the public square. Nearly all right-wing homosexuals accept that homosexuality is abnormal, and most are eager to admit that they (or anyone else) would be much happier if they were not gay. But they typically think of their desires only as inconvenient, not as impulses that push them to do what is actively harmful to themselves and to others.

In other words, they think that their inconvenient desires are riskier or costlier to satisfy, but they do not question whether they need to be satisfied at all, and only very superficially consider whether they satisfy an actual need that human beings have. And even right-wing homosexuals only rarely and very hesitantly will admit that their gay lives are not just imperfect but sinful and their sodomite desires are the gentle whispering of the Devil. This failure to recognize the reality of sin corresponds to, and likely causes, the inability to see their error as a failure to function as a human being.

Given a sinner who cannot abstain from sodomy and is honest about this failing, signs of pride — defending sodomy, appearing in public with homosexual partners — greatly compound the sin itself, and should be avoided. Yet nonetheless any repentant sodomite should start by… refraining from sodomy. (Imagine!) And they should also try to hold back from situations which inflame their sinful desires.

But the model of despair and self-improvement I have suggested above implies that a Christian homosexual should understand not only the damage his disordered desires inflict on his soul and his body, but should also contemplate the natural end of healthy, ordered desires. The mockery of gays “in the closet” is, I suspect, a more powerful wound to our national spirit than even gay marriage itself. A repentant sodomite who contains his desires, refrains from sodomy, and goes on to live the life of a family man and a patriarch is every bit as admirable as a repentant glutton who, through iron will, eats only what he needs for health.

Obviously this is a high standard. Many are called and few are chosen. A repentant sodomite who stumbles, sins, and is caught and humiliated would undoubtedly give anything to not be in that situation. But I doubt any “closeted” sodomite who dies surrounded by his grandchildren and at peace with his God has ever wished that he were instead wasting away in a hospice, with only his HIV to keep him company.

But the same logic applies to fornication.

Ultimately there are very few gays, there is almost no risk that they will succeed in convincing the right to overlook their sins, and very few even try to flaunt their sins. But there are very, very many fornicators. Many of them defend fornication; many of them defend fornication on (they claim) right-wing principles; many persuade other right-wing men to fornicate, and nearly all (I can think of a handful of honorable exceptions) wish to be honored for the virtuosity of their fornications.

This is a difficult situation. The numbers are too high to “excommunicate” them all, of course. The numbers are even too high to chastise them all; it would be a huge waste of time, and they could easily find enough support from fellow fornicators to comfort each other. Yet as difficult as it may be, the underlying logical structure of the situation is the same as the (comparatively easier) cases of the glutton and the sodomite.

While it is difficult to know how observers should react to their allies’ fornications (and equally difficult to know how to reassure the celibate that they are making the right choice), the choices faced by the fornicators are simple enough, even if the path of virtue is rocky. They have to go in the closet! Closeted fornicators need to acknowledge that they are in the grips of sinful dispositions beyond their control, and try to replace the disorder of their own lives with the order of chastity and matrimony. That means no promiscuity, no “protection”, no abortions, no whores. Like the closeted homosexual, the closeted fornicator must choose a wife and try to mimic the life of the family man, even though he is not drawn to it. The path that an ordered love would pursue willingly, the closeted fornicator must force himself to follow, teeth-gritted, one step at a time, ignoring his aimless lusts and following instead the calm, clear voice of reason and virtue.

Frenemies on the Right

In general I think there should be more unity on the right. Big issue. Today, a minor issue: nazi-bashing. “No punching right” is a strategy that works because when a right-winger punches some “right-wing extremist group” to signal how moderate and principled he is, that only encourages the left to label every policy they don’t like as “right-wing extremism” to force the right-wing to denounce it. If you say “I’m on the right, but I draw the line at hate groups”, suddenly every right-wing group will be a “hate group”. If you say “I’m on the right, but I draw the line at neo-nazis,” every right-wing principle will be exposed as “nazism”.

That’s how I understand it.

It was disappointing to see Vox Day, who probably did more than anyone to popularize and explain this strategy, embrace nazi-bashing last October. Not because I am a nazi (*twirls villainous moustaches*), but because the entire purpose of the strategy is to dismantle the Left’s rhetorical super-weapons. The more effort he invests into arguing that he’s not a nazi and he hates nazis, the more pressure he’ll be under when Heat Street (are they still around?) urges him to condemn obviously-nazi-things like bloodright citizenship.

Vox Day defended himself by noting that he is not attacking nazis for being too far to the right, but for being too far to the left. This was unworthy of him. “Teh dems are teh reel nazis” is the chorus of D.C.’s conservative castrati, which I doubt Vox is quite ready to join. Whether nazi-bashing is virtue signaling doesn’t depend on the true relative position of National Socialism on the continuum of political ideologies, but on whether it is the most extreme of the “bad boy, go to your room” insults in the Leftist arsenal.

(That’s not all: as all QL readers are surely aware, there is no objective orientation of the political issue-space into left and right, independent of the need to organize against leftist parties. But I wouldn’t expect Vox Day to think in this way, so I can’t blame him for searching for the objectively-gauche characteristics of the Nazi Party.)

Regardless, Vox has shown good judgment in the past so, as I type this, I can only hope he knows what he’s doing. He also lives in the EU, where being designated as a nazi leads to jail time. And even if the strategy he is following is collectively suicide for the right, it may well be that he can successfully emphasize the differences between his homebrew libertarian-nativism and the tenets of National Socialism.

(All I wanted was Zionism for white people!, says the increasingly nervous novelist for the sixth time.)

NRx’ers don’t have either of these excuses so I don’t know exactly what the hell they think they’re doing when they nazi-bash. Some of them may have been inspired by Moldbug’s critique of demotism. But ask yourself this question: is the rhetorical function of claiming that Roosevelt’s America, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany all had the same form of government to smack down Uncle Adolf? I don’t think so.

The tenets of National Socialism and the role of the word “nahtsee” in your rhetorical strategy are two distinctly different things. (This, by the way, is a Moldbuggian axiom: an ideology’s label and its structure must be treated separately.) Even if you don’t want a NatSoc metapolitical strategy or social policy, nothing is forcing you to go out there and nazi-bash, disavow, distance, or otherwise punch the people leftists identify as being to the right of you, politically.

But here’s the dirty secret about formalism. (Ready?) Neo-cameralism, wherein a board of directors who collectively owned the productive capacities of society wield absolute power over it, sounds strikingly similar to the ideal-type definition of fascism developed by the USSR and its puppets. This wasn’t even something the commies believed to be true about the regimes they derided as “fascist”, it was a clumsy attempt to fit historical fascism into Marx’s theoretical categories, which all twentieth-century capitalist states supposedly approximated, to a greater or lesser degree. And the original proposal for formalization, wherein each institution’s/faction’s relative social power is commuted into voting shares in the government, sounds exactly like the corporatist social policy implemented by Mussolini’s Fascisti.

Has anyone who claims to be nazi-bashing from a neo-reactionary perspective thought this through?

A “constitutional conservative” can at least imagine coming out ahead after defecting from the Right’s optimal metapolitical strategy. So can a “but Israel does it!” populist. Hell, even Dick Spencer could hypothetically pull it off — despite the hellish aura the media projects on him, his policy proposals read like they’re straight out of Kant’s Perpetual Peace.

Personally, I’m just an easily confused nationalist populist who happens to want to see all sovereign power vested formally in a unitary ruling body. (Is that so much to ask?) I don’t have a dog in this fight. But if you, dear reader, are committed to neo-cameralism as the final solution, please don’t nazi-bash. Worse than being bad strategy, it’s embarrassing.

Docta Ignorantia

6One minor advantage of cultural homogeneity is that it gives you tools to figure out exactly how ignorant a society’s authors and intellectuals truly were. In an era when the pool of books written on any given topic was small, then if someone says something quirky we can eventually, given enough time and coffee, figure out exactly where he got his quirky ideas from.

For example, because of the relatively small number of commentaries and histories of modern philosophy available in 1800, we can be quite confident that the philosopher Schelling (successor to Kant and Fichte, schoolmate of Hegel and Hölderlin) did not read much philosophy. At the time of his groundbreaking philosophical work in the 1790s, he had not read Descartes, he had not read Aristotle, and he had read only an expurgated edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Some Schelling-experts take his plans to produce a condensation or epitome of the Critique of Judgment to be evidence that he must have read (or at least skimmed) the whole thing; I draw a different conclusion. The one philosopher he read early, and carefully, was Spinoza; that plus some Plato and one of Fichte’s essays was apparently all that he needed.

From our vantage point in TCY you might be inclined to take this as proof that Schelling was a fraud. But Schelling wasn’t a fraud; he was a brilliant and engaging philosopher who set the philosophical agenda for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Perhaps his contributions would have been even richer if he had actually bothered to read the philosophers his rivals were channeling and responding to; certainly, much dubious Hegel-interpretation could have avoided if he had actually read his old roommate’s work before lecturing on contemporary philosophy to students like Kierkegaard and Engels.

Perhaps. But many of Schelling’s contemporaries were demonstrably much more deeply steeped in the minutiae of Kant’s (and Descartes’, and Leibniz’s) arguments, and have nothing to show for it but dull, pedantic tomes in fraktur type that sit in the basements of German university libraries. Hobbes (who was in fact a voracious bookworm) joked that he wrote better than others because he read less; it is hard to avoid the impression that in Schelling’s case this quip is accurate.

However it may be, Schelling was a genius, and his contemporaries recognized his genius at an early age and rewarded it. For us this may be slightly difficult to parse, at first: how can you recognize the intellectual talent of a man — of a boy, really — who is in fact deeply ignorant of his own field, philosophy? How can you make him a professor and expect him to lecture on what he has only just started to study?

In our already-degenerate culture, talent has become synonymous with grinding. Having no common standards for the good, the beautiful, and the true, we have no easy way to judge whether someone who disagrees with us is far-sighted or short-sighted. (Imagine looking at Monet’s haystacks for the very first time.) With no consensus on the questions that matter, to seek standards for expertise we have no choice but to turn to the things that don’t matter: the raw mass of (relatively) uncontroversial background material that anyone hoping to become an expert on a certain subject would find useful.

I almost wrote: “… would be expected to master.” But that is to prejudge the question. Because we only expect experts (and promising beginners) to master this background material if they have some need to signal to us that they are experts. Learning the raw mass of background material, no matter how useful it could be, will never be the only useful thing. In a healthy culture, the proof of mastery is the masterwork.

If you can produce the masterwork, you’ve proven the value of your apprenticeship. But if there is no one there to judge the masterwork and recognize its merits, then ordinary people start to take the sorts of things an apprentice would normally do (like “three years experience sweeping the floor of the workshop”) as a substitute for the true evidence of mastery which they would be incompetent to judge even if it smacked them in the face.

That’s how we get into our current predicament. No Schellings in TCY. Schelling, if I recall correctly, was famous at 19 and had been appointed to a chair in philosophy by 21. Likewise, Goethe had published his Werther by the age of 25. I don’t mean to fetishize the achievements of children and young adults (the way the Cathedral will occasionally trot out a fourteen year-old who can parrot back his lessons); my point is that if Goethe had been born in the twenty-first century, he would still be participating workshops under the watchful eye of some shriveled cat-lady at an age when he would have been… writing.

And as bad as it is for art and poetry, it’s a thousand times worse for scholarship.

The Analects: a dialogue with Richard


QL: So if you take Line 2.16 of the Analects, for example ( 攻乎異端,斯害也已 ) you’ll notice the translators you compare don’t know what to do with it. Even where two translators come close to each other (Huang and Legge, Lyall and Pound) they nonetheless twist the line in significantly different directions.

  • Huang 1997: The Master said: “To apply oneself to heretical theories is harmful indeed!”
  • Lau 1979: The Master said, ‘To attack a task from the wrong end can do nothing but harm.’
  • Legge 1893: The Master said, “The study of strange doctrines is injurious indeed!”
  • Leys 1997: The Master said: “To attack a question from the wrong end – this is harmful indeed.”
  • Lyall 1909: The Master said, To fight strange doctrines does harm.
  • Pound 1951: He said: Attacking false systems merely harms you.
  • Waley 1938: The Master said, He who sets to work upon a different strand destroys the whole fabric.

How is it possible for competent translations of such a short sentence to differ so much?

Richard: Figurative language, maybe?

QL: Well, it’s more than that. It turns out there is too little semantic content in the characters to know exactly what Confucius meant. 

Richard: You mean the characters in 2.16 are too archaic to be intelligible?

QL: No, I don’t think that’s the problem here. To understand the problems these translators face, consider two interesting facts about classical Chinese:

(1) Classical Chinese was an inflected language.

  • So while modern Mandarin has additional (standardized) syllables for e.g. pluralization, possessive, and various other aspects of grammar, Old Chinese expressed these by modifications of the root-word itself (just like Latin and English).
  • These inflections aren’t reflected in the texts (not even the earliest surviving texts) because the text is only supposed to be an aid to memorization — memorization, that is, of the verbal version of the text which of course would include the inflections.
  • (And the memorized text itself was only a sort of key or outline to an oral doctrine, partially saved in the copious commentaries which exist for some of the texts, — and that “teaching” which was supposed to be “the meaning of the analects” assumed intimate familiarity with the Shujing (Classic of Documents), the Liji (Classic of Rituals), and other sprawling texts which no one has time to read anymore.)

(2) Classical Chinese had many fewer radicals than Middle Chinese.

  • Today, each Chinese character is composed of one or more (sometimes many more) simple characters, called radicals (“roots”).
  • Modern Chinese has a huge inventory of these radicals, which can be roughly divided into:
    • phonetic signs (which indicate how the word was pronounced, or at least what it rhymed with, when the writing system was put in its final form)
    • semantic signs (which hint at the meaning of the word the character refers to).
  • But this inventory was not always huge; it grew gradually in the Middle Ages.
  • Before this expansion, Classical Chinese generally didn’t make extensive use of compound characters (i.e., the kind that use a semantic radical to distinguish between two words with a similar pronunciation, or between two connotations of a single word).
  • The compound characters were mostly invented later, as the language changed (mostly in the direction of making many more words homophones) and the demands on the writing system became more complicated.

When you find early copies of these texts in archaeological digs, they often have all the key words written down ambiguously, using what is now the “phonetic root” with no additional radical to specify its meaning. Again, this created no problem because the original text was an aid to memorization, not a non-verbal means of instructing students.

The bottom line is that no one has any idea what some of these things mean. It’s a serious problem even for texts like the Dao De Jing, which are long and sustained and have some inner structure which allow you to — tortuously, hesitatingly — infer the original meaning of each line

The Analects is gone. No one will ever know what  攻乎異端,斯害也已  meant.

Richard: Yet, most translators substantially agree on probably 4/5 or more of the passages. I’m aware that parts of it are vexing for historians, linguists, and dedicated philosophers, but it seems clear that we can at lest get the gist of most of the work. With some guidance from those professionals and in light of other Confucian works, it’s still greatly valuable for the intellectually curious. I see no reason to hang caution tape around it with a “Professional Sinologists Only” sign.

QL: Well, I’m certainly no sinologist. (Though I do think context matters in trying to read an interpret old books.) Using the example I gave, Analects 2.16: do you think you know what Confucius meant by that? (Do you think it matters what Confucius meant by it?)

Richard: Again, I’m aware that some passages are obscure. Analects 2.16 is one of them. Yes, the Analects is a complex book. Some parts are difficult. Most of it is still within reach of those likely to have an interest in it in the first place (again: with guidance, and in light of other Confucian works).

QL: I asked you about 2.16 because I thought it might work as an example to illustrate a more general point. I picked that sentence, not because I think it’s the most important in the book (lol) or because you need to understand every sentence to get anything out of a philosopher, but because it clearly demonstrates the difficulties in the whole enterprise. You are willing to surrender a few obscure passages, to retreat to a more defensible position: but just as it is the contradictions that reveal the flaws in an argument, it may be the obscurities in the translations of the Analects that reveal just how indefensible the text really is.

Richard: You seem to be arguing that we should treat the exception as though it were the norm! If 4/5 of the passages I looked at were translated in substantially the same way, then the difficulties which translators face are peripheral — relevant only to the 1/5 of the Analects where the translators disagree — and curious students can study the 4/5 where the translators agree. Whatever peripheral issues historians and linguists are still debating don’t undermine this core.

QL: Are you sure? What if the passages whose translations are flatly incompatible were, like the tip of an iceberg, the only visible sign of the uncertainties and puzzles that overwhelm the scholar in every passage? What if the other passages posed similar puzzles, and you never even noticed that you had to grapple with them?

Richard: Sure, the Analects is a complex book, I acknowledged that. Even in the parts of it that are within my reach, there are bound to be places where technical historical or linguistic knowledge occasionally comes in handy.

QL: It is only when the professional translators are clearly struggling that ordinary readers think “Huh – how can you interpret one sentence in completely different ways? How can both options be reasonable?” The rest of the time, the puzzles the scholars grapple with sink out of sight.

Richard: But I don’t need to be able to understand the debates between historians and linguists to understand the Analects. I only need to understand the outcome of the experts’ debate, not how they got there. I never claimed the texts are accessible without guidance! If the sorts of puzzles you’re talking about exist throughout the Analects, there will be a commentary that can guide me around potential confusions and misunderstandings.

QL: But how much are you willing to rely on the commentary? When you reiterate your view about reading guides, it seems almost as though you thought you were staking out a moderate position between two extremes: perhaps you think I want you to master the whole scholarly literature before attempting to understand the basic texts, and have simply overlooked that there is a happy medium between becoming an expert and ignoring the experts.

Far from it!  In general, for classical works I say “Skip the introduction and the commentary, and dive straight into the text”. But if it is uncertain what the text said, you are reading an original philosophical work written by the translator, loosely inspired by the words of Confucius.

The commentary on the translation will not help you any more than the translation will, if the question is whether the translation actually conveys what Confucius said.

Richard: But if a bad translation doesn’t convey what Confucius said, better scholars will criticize it and make better translations. Remember, I’m not a sinologist, and neither are you. Do you think you can come up with a better translation? If all of the commentaries agree on many uncontroversial points, if all the scholars assign the same translations to their students, then I don’t see how you can presume to question whether it conveys Confucian ideas.

QL: Alas, I can see how what I have said might sound very presumptuous. But I hope you will bear with me, and perhaps by and by I will convince you that I do not imagine that I understand the Analects better than the translators do.

Now, if all the commentaries on the Analects agree on many points, that makes these points uncontroversial, certainly, but does it make the consensus a good one? I doubt it. I know you’ll call this presumption. But if the textual basis for a doctrine is flimsy and the consensus about the nature of the doctrine is strong, that only proves that the consensus comes from institutional and ideological pressures, rather than from the evidence.

Where there is voluminous and robust evidence, good research converges on the truth; where there is only scanty, brittle evidence, good research leads to the multiplication of hypotheses, as scholars discover each additional possible perspective on their inadequate data.

This doesn’t matter if you are studying the consensus itself rather than the evidence it is built on. When the Analects became important to the medieval Chinese literati, they built a tradition of commentary around it. If you care mostly about views of the literati under the Ming and Qing dynasties, none of my objections carry any weight: you can always fall back on the Neoconfucian interpretations as canonical. Understanding the thought of Confucius is difficult; but understanding how the Neo-Confucian interpretation of the Analects relates to other Neo-Confucian works is easy.

Richard: So what exactly is your position here, that no one should read the Analects? That we should read them only if we’re proficient in Chinese and other Confucian works? That we should only read what we can understand 100%, 90%, 80%?

QL: I would say that I would recommend the Analects primarily to people who are really, really, really interested in Confucianism; and ideally who are especially interested in Neo-Confucianism.

Richard: You mean because none of your objections are valid if I am willing to treat the Neo-Confucian readings as authoritative?

QL: Basically, but it’s not an ironic recommendation. If you care a lot about the ideas of Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, that is a genuinely good reason to read the Analects. It’s not only that you can substitute “trying to undertand Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming” for “trying to understand Confucius.” The Analects is important to their new conception of Confucianism, and part of their new conception of Confucianism was that the Analects needed to be treated as a very important book. You know that the Four Classics were the original textual basis of Confucian thought during its first millennium, right?

Richard: I know what you’re talking about. I’ve written about the Book of Odes.

QL: Those works were the were the original focus of the life of study that Confucius recommends. Rituals, Songs, Documents, Changes. Confucius was apparently very concerned to understand these texts, and to articulate why they were integral to ancient Chinese society. Many early Confucian works are commentary on these Four Classics, and the others are chock-full of allusions to and examples drawn from them. They were the focus of the original exam system for entering the civil service; the Han Dynasty enshrined this canon at the center of intellectual and political life.

Richard: Right.

QL: Pretty basic. But what most people don’t realize, perhaps even people who are interested in Confucianism, is that the four texts that were most central to Confucianism when the Portuguese and the Spanish reached China — the Analects, the Daxue, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Mencius — were originally quite obscure. The Doctrine of the Mean is an extract from the one of the Four Classics; the Daxue, an extract plus a commentary on it; the Analect is of course a collection of saying of unclear origins, and the Mencius is the eponymous work of a disciple of Confucius. As Chinese culture degenerated, the Four Classics were replaced by these four mini-books which had originally been intended primarily as commentaries on the Classics. Do you see how this totally changed the nature, not just of “Confucianism” as an ideology, but the entire educational system and government erected on top of it?

Richard: I can see how it might be substantially different, at any rate.

QL: If you are primarily concerned to understand the Neo-Confucian philosophy that arose after China’s academic system switched to the Four Books, then naturally the Analects (one fourth of the new canon) is extremely important, and the translation problem disappears. In that case you’re really trying to understand the Neo-Confucian commentaries, and the Analects is foundational because it is a common point of references for the commentators. But understanding what the Analects means outside of the preconceptions and premises the Neo-Confucians bring to the text becomes unnecessary, and a consensus among the commentators really is adequate to resolve any textual difficulties (about what they thought about the Analects).

Richard: But you say that the Analects might be useful to someone who doesn’t care about Neo-Confucianism, if he is very interested in Confucius?

QL: Yes, very interested: and in particular, interested enough to invest a lot of time in other texts first. If you were truly eager to understand Confucius, then once you had already read a lot of Chinese philosophy you would eventually get to the point where reading the Analects (even if it’s fairly obscure) would provide more food for thought, and deepen your understanding more, than re-reading some other, clearer work.

This isn’t limited to Confucius. Once you’ve read straightforward texts which contain a position articulated in clear propositions, you can enrich your understanding of them by reading texts which contain no clear philosophical propositions at all. Histories contain nuggets of contextual information that flesh out an author’s references to contemporary life, for example. Poetry and drama will expose you to metaphors, proverbs, and rhetorical tropes an author has used (or abused). Likewise, poorly written, fragmentary, or second-hand accounts of a philosophical doctrine may, despite their drawbacks, give valuable information about some aspect of the doctrine. These sources would read like gobbledygook to someone unfamiliar with the actual structure of the doctrine they refer to, and studying them would be a painful and unprofitable use of his time; but once the framework is in place, many details that are absent in the original are unnecessary to figure out what details of the doctrine are being addressed.

Richard: But you think the Analects couldn’t be useful to someone who hadn’t already done substantial background reading in Confucian thought?

QL: Eh, never say never. Conceivably someone who was absolutely committed to a serious study of Confucianism might want to read the Analects early on, expecting his investment to pay off gradually as ideas he encountered in the Analects helped him get into all of the books he plans to read over the coming months and years. Or if after your initial introduction to Confucius you developed a special interest in a certain Confucian concept, you might consult a pertinent passage in the Analects, as a counterpoint to what you’ve read elsewhere, even if you wouldn’t profit from reading the whole book.

Richard: But as a general rule…?

QL: Yeah, as a general rule it’s not useful. Barring special cases. It shouldn’t be treated as though it were the gateway to Confucian thought.

Richard: And it’s not useful because you don’t think there is any way to know exactly what Confucius meant?

QL: Correct.

Richard: I don’t know exactly what Confucius meant. I don’t know exactly what every sentence of Plato’s dialogues mean, I don’t know exactly what every verse of the Bible means, I don’t know exactly what every line of The Divine Comedy means, I don’t know exactly what every line of Shakespeare means, et cetera. That’s why I re-read them, consult commentaries, and so on.

QL: I don’t want to compare inspired text to Confucius. Is that okay? Biblical exegesis is a separate issue, so many interpretative problems in the Bible aren’t analogous… and if I recall correctly, you’re a papist, so we’d get horribly side-tracked.

Richard: Regarding the Bible, fine. But that’s true of only one example I gave, not Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, or a number of other difficult authors.

QL: Agreed: so let’s consider the other authors you mentioned.

First, read any of these classics and you’ll find that the text is a complete work, an organic whole. Even a Platonic dialogue, written at the very dawn of Western philosophy, is not a compressed formula, or a litany used to memorize a broader doctrine. The text expresses a doctrine, in complete sentences. Heck, Plato’s dialogues express multiple doctrines, from different personae… each of which are scrutinized closely within the dialogue itself!

Second, even Plato is already writing in complete sentences with phonetically explicit words. You can look at the Greek text of Plato and read off the exact same dialogue that Plato’s students would have heard. (This is also true of the Septuagint, for example, while it is not true of the Hebrew text of the Bible, whose vowelless words posed no problem during the flourishing of the hereditary priesthood of Judaea, but which became ambiguous after its eclipse, creating the need for the vowel-markings with which the medieval Masoretes recorded their interpretation of the text.)

So there are very real problems faced not only by modern translators of ancient Chinese literature, but even by medieval Chinese editors who compiled the standard editions of the Analects and the other Confucian texts, which simply don’t exist for the Western classics.

Richard: And yet despite this, academic experts apparently do believe that a layman can get something from the Analects. I’ve benefited greatly from the Analects, as have many others.

QL: Let’s consider the consequences, looking specifically at Analects 2.16.

“The study of strange doctrines is injurious indeed!”


We have three elements:

(study) — (strange doctrines) — (injurious),

plus a particle (I think is the emphatic “indeed!” here, but maybe some of the translators give it a semantic meaning); but each of these three elements loosely indicates a whole field of terms. [ed. – Scroll back up to the beginning of the post to remind yourself how broad a field each of the three elements covers.]

  • Take the first element, the “study” of some work. Is Confucius talking about reading X? Reading X diligently? Discussing X? Taking X seriously? Giving X-adherents the benefit of the doubt? These are very very different possibilities within the semantic field of ”study”.
  • And then, “strange doctrines”: what is strange about them? are they wrong? new? peculiar? unnatural? inconsistent with orthodox doctrines of some sort?
  • is he talking about one particular doctrine (“that strange doctrine”), or one school of doctrines (“the Strange Doctrine”)? … or is he talking about a subset of all doctrines ( i.e. the ones that match the predicate “strange”)?

I won’t be pedantic and list the different possibilities for “injurious”, I’m sure you get the point. Take these possibilities, permute them, and you see the dizzying ambiguity of the sentence…

Richard: Your point about the structure and resulting additional ambiguity is important. And I have no way of forming an opinion on this one way or another. I can only defer to experts and my own observations about how the translations work. I do value your opinion, but it can only be one among several others.

QL: There is one question about hard translations, and which translator’s version to trust. This is the question which is valid for Plato, for Dante, and all the rest. There is another question about assessing the textual basis of a translation (including the very possibility of any translation at all!)

For example, you’ve probably heard of the Indus Valley Script — i.e., bunch of symbols found on pottery at Harappan archaeological sites.

Richard: Sure, I know a tiny bit about it.

QL: Would it make sense for me to propose my own translation of any of the ceramics shards found in the Indus Valley? lol, no.

Can I assess the quality of the available “texts” and assess whether there is enough available to make any translation at all? —— indeed, whether there is any evidence that the symbols are a language or a script at all?

That I think I can do. I’m not claiming to be 100% certain on the Indus Valley Script, but I think non-experts can read the evidence and, on the basis of existing evidence and scholarly analysis of it, come to their own conclusion. 

And that conclusion —in this case, that the Indus Valley Script is probably just artistic motifs or seal-marks and definitely cannot be shown to record a language — tells you a lot about what you can learn from any of the “rival translations” of the evidence. If the Indus Valley Script isn’t even a language, for example, then any purported translation of the script is just bogus.

Or consider those scripts which definitely record a language but which no one knows how to read, like the Khitan scripts for certain Central Asian languages. Do you know the ones I mean?

Richard: I don’t think so. Khitan, as in the Khitan dynasty?

QL: Yes. They spoke a language related to Manchu, and when they were politically powerful in China they devised script based on the Chinese system to record their own language. But it quickly dropped out of use. Eventually the whole Khitan people disappeared, I believe.

Richard: Ah. So we have the texts, but we don’t have the language or any explanation of its script?

QL: Exactly. Maybe they’ve cracked it since I last read about it, but you can follow the logic: if an expert hazards a translation of one of those texts, his guess at what it means is certainly as good as anyone else’s… but it would be pointless to read it for insight into the literature, politics, or history of the Khitan people before there is any consensus on how their language was even written. At that point the “translation” needs to be interpreted as a linguistic hypothesis about the Khitan script, not an interpretative hypothesis about the meaning of a Khitan literary text.

So my conclusion is that even an amateur can form an opinion about the type of translation that is possible on the basis of existing evidence

Richard: I’ll have to look into this more, then; I’m open to any recommendations if there are any particular books or articles to look up.

QL: I think what would help most might be if you were to read about the way the Dunhuang scrolls have changed the interpretation of the Dao De Jing. There is a very accessible discussion of this in Moeller’s 2011 translation of Laozi. Would that interest you? Even if you find the DDJ boring, what you read about the DDJ will give you a much clearer picture of the history of the Analects (how it was preserved, what function it served, what difficulties arose later on from ambiguities and variants in the text).

Richard: It’s been a long time since I’ve read the DDJ, but I’d be interested, yes. I’ll trust your judgement that it’s relevant.  But for now I’m content to defer to later Confucian scholars, while noting that several points are necessarily controversial. I am slowly working my way through the rest of the canon, and from there to later Confucians, so my opinion may change down the road.

QL: As a general rule, it makes sense to trust authorities and trust traditions. But I think people who are professionally “Confucius translators” generally have distorting motives. Anyway, that’s a secondary issue and I won’t go into it right now if you think that’s special pleading.

Richard: It probably is special pleading, but I’ll take the bait: what motive are you talking about?

QL: If you’ve sunk half of your life into learning classical Chinese (which is not only it’s own language, nearly as different from modern Chinese as English is from proto-Indo-European, but has its own complex bibliographic and literary conventions), you are professionally capable of teaching and interpreting ancient Chinese philosophy and literature, and not much else. Are you really going to devote a lot of your time to arguing that we can’t really understand these texts? Or that it would be a waste of time for most amateurs to read the translation or commentary you spent a decade on?

Historians of China will often make asides about how different the paleo-Confucian interpretation of the Four Books is from the Neo-Confucian interpretation. One oft-noted controversy is the one over the opening of the Daxue: is the path of virtue to love the people (qin min) or to renew the people (xin min)? There was an entire dynasty (albeit short-lived) whose name is drawn from a word which current Confucian orthodoxy claims cannot be found in the Daxue; the textual disagreement would be extremely difficult to ignore entirely. But you’ll rarely see historians of Confucianism go one step further and point out that the reason for this confusion is almost certainly that the original text read (—) and there is no way to ever know whether students were taught to read it as xin or as qin. Nor will they point out that this is not an isolated anomaly, but a standard feature of how the Old Chinese texts were written and used.

Every translator and commentator has professional motives not to draw out these implications, regardless of his personal philosophical position. But in fact, most of the experts are themselves Neo-Confucian, became interested in Confucius via the Neo-Confucian doctrine, and have in many cases studied the texts at (Neo-)Confucian academies in China, which is a quasi-religious process akin to enrolling in a madrasa or entering a Buddhist monastery. Their understanding of some aspects of the Confucian canon thus becomes automatic, reflexive.


Postscript: A few days later we discussed the Presocratics, which brought Richard into closer sympathy with my point of view. The framework of my argument here, we agreed, can be easily extended to cover the difficulty of interpreting or translating the Presocratic philosophers (whose writings survive only in fragments).

Our conversation about the Analects raised a few interesting questions which we never came back to answer:

a., whether it is ideal that a beginner should have to rely on cross-references to other texts and the guidance of professionals (my bias is: people learn more when they ride bareback, without a commentary or key as intermediary),

b., to what extent context is central and necessary to the meaning of a text,

c., whether it is important to attempt to reconstruct the original meaning and doctrine of the author in the first place.

Also: d., differences between Biblical and secular exegesis, e. legitimate questions about the obscurity of classical texts and unknowability of their authors’ position, f. value of reading with and without commentary.

Maybe some day.

Status and Women

High-status women will have high status.

Is this a tautology? Almost, but a sufficient number of right-wingers hope to find an alternative that I think it can be broken down a bit further.

There’s a trope on the right that women ruin everything. I am averse to repeating at length what others have written about very extensively, so I will only give the abstract version of the case here, rather than fleshing out all 1,001 real-life versions:

  • Guys have some activity/group/institution that functions well
  • Women don’t participate originally because it appeals to some specifically masculine interest or requires some specifically masculine ability
  • Then, either (a) a few girls who are outliers along the interest/ability axes get involved in the activity or (b) a few girls, who are dating/otherwise interested in guys who participate, start following the activity out of admiration for their crush
  • The peripheral female participants in a previously all-male activity receive attention from the other participants, which they enjoy:
    • The peripheral females call attention to this fact, out of vanity and to get the thirsters to recognize that they need to outcompete each other.
    • They begin to figure out that their participation in or opinions about the activity gets disproportionate attention/acceptance, compared to how the original participants treat each other.
  • More girls who are almost-outliers on the relevant traits for participation notice how much attention the peripheral female participants get, and decide to join as well.
  • The distortions introduced by the newly-arrived girls start to change the original arrangement of the activity/group/institution; the new arrangements (which encompass the novel female behavior, or male behavior which caters to novel female standards of approval) are no longer optimal for the original function.
  • The distorted arrangements now affect the internal incentive structure of the activity, which opens up two possibilities:
    • Where the distortion of incentives is dominated by actual romantic successes of the original male participants, recruitment of new participants becomes permanently skewed towards guys who are more oriented towards sex and social status.
    • Where the distortion of incentive is dominated by lower standards that enable female participation, new recruitment of becomes permanently skewed towards girls.
    • (As a second-order dynamic, if the volume of participation swells, it also attracts still other types of guys whose priorities can be summarized as power, money or, more rarely, honor; these priorities can only be satisfied with access to larger groups.)
  • As the constitution of the activity changes, the sizes of the various blocs of participants change, giving newcomers an increasing ability to eliminate conventions that are holdovers from the original form of the activity and don’t match their own strengths or incentives.

The elements of this story aren’t truly unique to bros-before-hos dynamics, by the way. If you’re sharp you’ve already noticed that with a few tweaks this can be an account of immigration, or entryism, or any other type of breakdown of a homogenous community.

This breakdown is sort of sucky when it happens to some dumb nerd-thing you do with your nerdy friends, like playing Pokèmon or sending astronauts to the moon. But the big-picture worry about feminization of male activities is that feminization goes hand in hand with subversion. Whether we are talking about religion, literary circles, academia, or anything else, the subversion of the institution (and the consequent damage to society) typically has feminine fingerprints all over it.

Christianity is not only the truth and the light, but also, our God being filled with charity, a eucivic faith. Provided that you don’t let women talk in church. It actually says it right there in the “directions for assembly” when you open up the box: bitches should shut up in church.

Quibblers might ask whether, if you try to assemble your Church without reading the how-to instructions, the result is actually Christianity; but I’m content to observe that the faith is eucivic when women listen silently during the service. (Remember folks: a God of peace, not a God of disorder.) If you try it the other way and let the girls have a say in what’s holy or unholy, blessed or cursed, then you’re screwed.

To what extent the same logic extends to all other questions of social participation (public affairs? voting? education? art and literature?) I will let the reader decide. But the most doggedly consistent reactionary position is just to say: kids and kitchen, end of story.

The problem is that this reductio fundamentally misunderstands the logic of female infiltration. I suspect this is partly because, in articulating the women-ruin-everything theme, reactionaries typically model every institution on the small-scale groups with which they are most intimately familiar, and model the psychologies of all participants on the drives and attitudes they care most about in that familiar situation.

To make a long story short: the reality is that female infiltration is about social status (popularity, esteem, perceived power). In small groups, this status is mediated through personal relationships and typically evolves towards some sort of flirting or fooling around. This leads casual observers to get the impression that the relevant interaction between the new arrivals and the original male participants are romantic interactions and the motives of the girls are primarily sexual.

Nigel once referred to sociobiology as “the Freudianism of the right”. Bzzz, wrong! You can’t understand the human soul or the human city without understanding the evolution of the human species. But there is a half-truth lurking in Nigel’s bad take: pop-Darwinism dethroned pop-Freudianism without doing a thorough purge of the palace.

Find an average person, of any political affiliation, and start talking about psychology, and you’re going to start to hear some half-digested Freudian views. Originally these were simply naive Freudian views, back when the New York Times and NPR were peddling pop-Freudianism. When Freud became an embarrassment to most educated people, the overarching framework tying Freud’s claims together disappeared. But the average citizen who accepted those claims without ever looking into the underlying theory did not replace all of his old opinions with new ones overnight; he simply stopped thinking of them as Freudian.

This comes out from time to time in evolutionary psychology. An explanation of the (evolutionary) functions of someone’s psyche is not an explanation of the content of his psyche. Most of us can probably think of one or two bloggers who obstinately stick to a single explanation for female misbehavior: they’re always trying to get fucked. Bzzz, wrong. Nine times out of ten, the misbehavior in question evolved because it got their ancestors laid. But it didn’t evolve by making the descendant desire to get fucked.

You can see how this misunderstanding arises. Half-cup familiarity with a small social scene where friendships and dating get messed up, half-cup “unconscious drives” straight out of The Ego and the Id, stir in a tablespoon of personal obsessions, and voilà. A set of desires and attitudes which tends to lead to X (and has the evolutionary function of leading you to X) is glossed as “an unconscious desire for X”, i.e. it feels exactly like a normal desire for X but the desirer doesn’t recognize it or won’t openly admit it.

I’m not saying this sort of self-deception is impossible. The escalation of anger works a lot like that. The function of your anger is to help you destroy obstacles (be they things or people), and if you get sufficiently angry you’re going to get to the point where you think, Wow, I’d really like to kick that door in. But whenever anyone starts getting angry about anything, inevitably the others will notice that he’s raising his voice or getting agitated before he does. (“I’m perfectly calm!” It’s okay buddy, we’ve all been there before.) Yet even with destruction-goals, lots of drives which are offensive in nature are not “unconscious hostility”, but rather non-anger drives which lead to the same end-point. (E.g. if you are cheerfully teasing someone in a way that is likely to start a fight, chances are you really are cheerful, not secretly-angry; contempt is simply a type of cheerfulness whose functions overlap with anger.)

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of getting to the point that while the function of status-consciousness is probably to nab high-quality gametes (and this is especially true of the pursuit of high status, as opposed to the avoidance of low status, whose function is to avoid lynching/exile), the status-drive itself isn’t sexual and if you think it is you’re going to have screwy ideas about social institutions. Patriarchy can beat promiscuity and whoring back into the box they came in, and thereby avoid a lot of social chaos. But that still doesn’t solve status.

Women will always scheme to raise their status. Planning a “restoration” where women become magically indifferent to status because they “know their their place” is as crazy as de-kulakization. Young girls take popularity every bit as seriously as young boys take athletics, and as they mature they transfer that focus onto their place in a social hierarchy which is vast and complicated.

Now, it is quite likely that there is population diversity (or even antagonistic selection) along status-seeking traits, and that some women care much less about status (and in particular about high status) than others. But which women will end up with high-status husbands, the ones who care about high status or the ones who don’t?

And those high-status couples: are they going to have the daughters who care a lot about status, or humble daughters who don’t?

And high-status families looking for a marital alliance with a family of similar background; is it more likely the prospective brides they consider for their sons will be of the status-conscious variety, or not?

I don’t know that it’s a bad thing that high-status women are invariably ambitious to raise their status even further. It’s a good thing, at least, that they don’t have meek, otherworldly sons. Conceivably there are some other family/community benefits too. Where the problem arises is with the tautology we started with: high-status women will have high status.

I think I’ve already suggested reasons to doubt high-status women are indifferent to status. So they pursue high status. That is the end: but do they have the means? Well, generally, they must, because in questions of status high and low are signs of power, and so anyone who has a reputation based on status-signals which are signs of power but consistently shows weakness/impotence in pursuit of his own ends will eventually lose that reputation. So in equilibrium, people with higher status have more means than people with lower status; and thus high-status women have the means, as well. Right?

The relationship between status and power is complicated by the many domains within which status can be earned. A ski-champion may be highly respected by ski enthusiasts, but while his status within that world is based on his skiing abilities, his status relative to a banker or a football player is not. So I have cheated, but only a little bit. If we needed a general theory of status, then “in equilibrium, higher status implies more power” would be false, because it doesn’t take into account all the spheres where virtuosity is admired for its own sake.

Note the passive voice: is admired. Admired by whom? Typically it is the men in an activity/group/institution who respect virtuosity, if virtuosity entails accomplishing the activity’s function perfectly regardless of whether or not a virtuoso performance is well-rewarded in an absolute sense. And the general problem with female infiltration is that they come into an area where male virtuosi have started to acquire fame, wealth, or influence, and they destroy the internal status-dynamics of respect for virtue and shift them towards pursuit of external goods.

So we can correct that phrase to: …all the spheres where men admire virtuosity for its own sake, and now it is clear that our simplification of the status-power relationship is appropriate. High-status women are generally high-status in domains where they or their families acquired power in the general sense; the problem is that they use that endowment to try to win even more status in new domains where the excellent functioning of a group/institution has attracted the attention and admiration even of outsiders.

At the high end, this means that billionaire heiresses compete with merely multi-millionaire heiresses for status in the art world, in literature, or in other charitable endowments. She throws parties, spreads around a little patronage, writes a few checks, and soon even the visiting soloist from Moscow knows her name. If she’s really wasteful, the music director might even listen to her suggestions for next year’s programming, and then her friends will really seethe with resentment.

But at the lower end it takes more modest forms. There are lots of middle class women out there who work as schoolteachers or something similar their whole lives. You probably know a few. They only make a fraction of what their husbands make, but they still invest their most fertile years in getting the degrees and certifications and then they more or less need to work their whole lives to recoup the investment. Most likely, they only have two kids.

But if that woman’s father had said to her, back when she was a teenager, “College? For you? To be a teacher? That’s a terrible idea,” — what then? Would she, docile, nod “Yes, papa” and go work as a secretary or cashier while waiting to get married and have kids?

The problem is that if she’s middle class, and all her middle-class friends are going to college to get useless qualifications for dubious careers, then her father has effectively stripped away her social status. She is de-classed. Suddenly loss of perceived social status often causes either depression or erratic, risk-taking behavior (i.e., gambles to regain status). A sufficiently strict father might be able to prevent misbehavior. But the more effectively he forbids any status-seeking behavior, the more firmly he cements his daughter’s low status in the eyes of her peers, creating the impression that obedience to one’s father is, itself, a low-status disposition.

This isn’t to say that over-educated women in careers that make them unhappy and squeeze their families is some sort of law of nature. Of course not. It’s just a way that girls happen to pursue status in The Current Year. My point is that you can’t think systematically about how to solve this class of problem if you assume the solution will involve high-status women not having a high status.

If you make that assumption, you’ll start looking for different ways to prevent status-seeking behavior… and you’ll find them, for sure. No matter how many kulaks you whack, you’ll always be able to able to find one more to kill; that’s just how de-kulakization is.

If high-status women will always be high status, then the solution will have to involve high-status women continuing to scheme after social status. And so the difficulty is not to prevent any one specific type of status-seeking behavior, but to figure out what types of status-seeking behavior women can be channeled into. Bonus points for disequilibrium solutions wherein actual, status-seeking TCY women will start to envy the proposed eucivic feminine status-symbols after a reactionary avant-garde starts to acquire them. (Please show your work.)