Minor Note: Salad

I was never a huge salad fan. But for most of my life I’ve had fairly close control over what I eat; in the last year or so I have needed to buy more meals, and suddenly I understood a number of food-preoccupations that seemed vaguely comic to me before. This is not to say that I have ordered a salad in the last week or two, but I believe I can explain the obsession with salad.

First-order observation: when you make nutritional choices, you’re not just optimizing for one variable (total energy intake), you’re optimizing over several variables: calories, macronutrients, micronutrients, cost, time expenditure, and many other small details that are actually an important part of a healthy diet. Optimizing over many variables makes optimization problems much more complicated, especially in a problem with side-constraints!

Second-order observation: weight is mostly a function of hereditary traits + lifestyle, but which hereditary traits explain variance differs from person to person. The two major contributors are probably metabolism and conscientiousness; some have fitness-genes from one side, some from the other, some from both. The ability of highly-conscientious people to remain fit is contingent on their (a) having options and (b) knowing the consequences of the options. If you teach them that eating nutella from the jar and playing Zelda makes you thin, they’ll do that and won’t get thin.

Relevance for salads: salads are a relatively good way for anyone to hit their micronutrient goals while optimizing for a calorie deficit, and in many cases they are good way to hit macro goals as well (especially if you are a woman with relative low energy and protein needs to begin with, or if you have a lot of control over the content of the salad and can put a lot of beans/chicken/egg in it). But even more importantly, they are one of the few options at restaurants where you have a fair amount of control over/confidence in the ingredients.

The equilibrium for mass-market restaurants in a highly-diverse society is to serve highly-prepared meals, and in particular to serve meals which have generous amounts of sugar and oil added to the basic ingredients. Eating one meal which has added sugar makes diet-optimization a much harder problem for anyone. For conscientious people in particular, eating a meal where you have no idea how much sugar and fat were used to adulterate the food is a problem.

Many people who are trying to cut a few pounds would like to order just a grilled chicken breast, or something like that. Typically, not an option: if you order “the chicken” or “the salmon” it comes drenched in some mystery sauce swimming with lard and syrup. Trying to cut a deal where you pay the restaurant a few bucks for water while you socialize with your friends doesn’t work either. Thus, the salad.

Timeline: French Revolution

I found this among my papers; I offer it for your perusal and criticism.


Population of France is approximately 21M-23M.


Major remonstrance.


End of Seven Years War.

Physiocrats in power.


Louis XV rebukes the parlements.

Novembre: Turgot publishes his Reflexions


Turgot publishes his Valeur


Parlements curtailed due to campaign of unrest.


Louis XVI crowned; restores the parlements; appoints Turgot as minister.


Beginning of eleven years of falling grain prices.

Beginning of American Revolution (1776-1783); ultimately leads to £2 billion in borrowing.

Turgot’s edicts unregistered, rescinded; Turgot’s program paralyzed; Turgot replaced with Jacques Necker.


Necker dismissed. He had favored a program of reforms similar to Necker’s, which he was equally unable to implement.


C.A. Calone appointed Minister of Finances; he works to broaden France’s productive base.

(American Revolution ends; France has £2 billion to finance the war.)


Calone suggests using an assembly of notables to pass the Turgot/Necker Reforms.

(144 men appointed by the king; last summoned in 1624; 7 princes du sang, 39 nobles, 12 royal councillors, 11 bishops, 33 representatives of parlements and other regional assemblies,


Assembly of Notables.

12 mars: Calonne presents reform plans (including a land tax) to intransigent assembly.

31 mars: Calonne begins a pamphlet war to turn public sentiment against the Notables with anti-aristocratic rhetoric.

8 avril: Calone dismissed. (Replaced by Brienne, 1 mai.)

10 mai: Marquis de La Fayette calls for the convocation of “une Assemblée Nationale”. (The chair, M. le Comte d’Artois, interprets this as a motion to call for a meeting of the Estates-General).

19 mai: Assembly rejects land tax.

23 mai: Assembly accepts La Fayette’s motion advocating toleration for Protestants. (The king issues an edict to this effect in November.)

2 juli -15 septembre: The parlement of Paris begins refusing to register new taxes, leading to a power struggle which is finally resolved by a deal over tax policy.

19-21 novembre: At a royal session, the parlement of Paris refuses to register an edict authorizing £420 million in loans. Louis XVI announces the Estates-General will meet by the end of 1791.


(Crown now has £4.5 billion of debt on which it pays £318 million of interest on an income of £560 million. The Paris parlement continues its campaign of low-level obstruction, refusing to register royal edicts and forbidding the king’s subjects to obey edicts promulgated by royal fiat.)

8 mai: Lamoignon, Keeper of the Seals, suspends all parlements and deprives them of their powers; transfers power of registration to a new cour plénière. (Parlements of Rennes (Bretagne) and Grenoble (Dauphiné) become centers of opposition.)

Summer: Crop failure. Grain prices rise after eleven years of falling prices.

8 août: Louis XVI capitulates to parlements; revokes edicts of 8 mai; summons Estates-General to meet in nine months’ time.

16 août: Public loans in default.

24 août: Brienne resigns; replaced by Necker.

23 septembre: Necker restores parlementaires.

25 septembre: Parlement of Paris decrees that the nobility and the clergy must each have 1/3 of the delegates in the Estates-General. (The Assembly of Notables, reconvening 6 nov. – 12. déc., affirms; Louis XVI overrules and doubles the number of Third-Estate delegates, 27 déc.)


France now has a population of 24M-26M, an increase of ~3M in four decades. (Common contemporary estimate of French population is 30M.) — 75% of Frenchmen are peasants, approximately 11% are members of the bourgeoisie, and 11% the gens du peuple: all told, the IIIº Estate contains ~96% of the French population. The Iº Estate: 130k clergymen. The IIº Estate: 100k-400k noblemen. — The Estates-General is to consist of 1201 deputies. The Iº Estate provides 300 members (46 prelates, 254 clerics of low rank); the IIº, 291 (201 conservatives, 90 liberals); the IIIº, 610.

5 mai: Speeches by Louis XVI, Baratin and Necker. Disagreement over voting procedure leads to obstructionism, refusal to verify credentials.

10 juin: Sieyès instigates the de facto secession of the IIIº Estate, which begins its own verification procedure (with an eye to seating a unicameral body) two days later.

17 juin: Proclamation of the National Assembly.

20 juin: Tennis Court Oath.

23 juin: Confrontation between Baratin and Sieyès/Mirabeau. Louis XVI orders Estates to meet separately.

27 juin: Louis XVI orders Iº and IIº Estates to join the soi-disant National Assembly while summoning military units to Paris.

30 juin: Mob invades St.-Germain-des-Prés and releases soldiers who had been imprisoned for their subversive political activities.

July 1789

8 juillet: Mirabeau demands the withdrawal of royal troops from Paris.

11 juillet: Louis XVI dismisses Necker; mobs attack customs-buildings, loot les Lazaristes, skirmish with the cavalry of the King’s German Regiment outside the Tuileries; loyalty of French Guard units questionable.

14 juillet: La prise de la Bastille. After a brief siege, the governor of the Bastille surrenders the fortress and its munitions to an armed mob (which lynches him, and goes on to murder the provost of Paris).

15 juillet: National Assembly names Bailly mayor of Paris, and gives military command to the Marquis de La Fayette.

16 juillet: Louis XVI reinstates Necker and withdraws royal troops from Paris.

17 juillet: Louis XVI recognizes Bailly and La Fayette. Aristocrats begin to flee France (D’Artois, d’Enghien, de Breteuil, de Broglie, de Polignac, and the Prince de Condé).

20 juillet: La Grande Peur. Beginning of several weeks of peasant riots and rural unrest.

22 juillet: Amid anger over food prices, mob lynches Intendant of Paris (and his father-in-law).

August 1789

4 août: Abolition of feudalism. National Assembly abolishes seigneurial rights, manorial law, and other privileges granted by title of nobility or royal charter.

26 août: National Assembly adopts a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

A Little Learning VIII

gettyimages-590648955I think by now my point should be clear: to pursue excellence you must overcome obstacles, but in a very peculiar way. You need to devote yourself to overcoming each obstacle as though nothing else mattered, as though it were a matter of fundamental importance. But you also need to remember that none of the obstacles you overcome actually matter in the least, and that they have been created ex nihilo solely to force you towards more strenuous exertions.

If nothing else mattered but the obstacle, it would of course be perfectly natural to look for the quickest, surest, easiest way to overcome it. But if the “quickest, surest, easiest” way isn’t quite as strenuous, or doesn’t exercise quite as many of your developing skills, such a solution will rob the exercise of any benefit. On the other hand, if you are vividly aware that the only purpose of the exercise is to exert effort, it becomes difficult to exert more effort to overcome the obstacle than you would have exerted without the obstacle.

It takes a certain kind of mental fortitude to respect the spirit of a rule, rather than its literal meaning (only) or the consequences of disobedience (only).

The correct attitude requires, if anything, more discipline in academics than in other pursuits. The value of knowledge is much more ambiguous than the value of better-defined skills. Typically skill X has a clear instrumental value: it allows you to do Y. Why doing Y matters is neither here nor there. The mere fact that Y exists as an aspiration for beginners who are practicing X gives their training structure and focus. If they can’t yet use X to do Y, they haven’t yet mastered X. This creates clarity about the outlines of the skill, pricks inflated self-assessments, and strengthens honest self-confidence.

Knowledge lacks this clarity. For one thing, the instrumental structure of any program of study tends to look more like a web than a pyramid. If you are, say, studying a language, understanding the language’s grammar will make it easier to read, which will make it easier to learn new vocabulary, which will make it easier to converse, which will further solidify your understanding of its grammar. So the ultimate purpose of learning more grammar is… learning more grammar?

Yes and no, yes and no. Out of all “academic” studies, learning a language is probably the closest to athletic training in that it has a clear instrumental significance. At the end of the process you are proficient (maybe even fluent) in a language which you didn’t speak before.

Even so, learning a language has a web-like structure rather than a pyramidal structure. When you memorize a new word, you won’t be fluent after you’ve learned the new word. And while the new word may be useful in a number of  other ways, none of those uses lead directly to fluency either. (In fact, there is no single discrete step after which you have finally and decisively achieved “proficiency” or “fluency”.)

The advantages of the new word are much more diffuse than that. It will give you a vague sense of the meaning of thousands of sentences you wouldn’t have understood at all, otherwise. It will make thousands of other previously-vague sentences crystal clear. Your ignorance of these thousands-upon-thousands of sentences never would have inconvenienced you very greatly. If you hadn’t tried to learn a new language, you probably never would have been aware of your ignorance. So it seems peculiar to say “You should memorize this new word, it will be really useful — you’ll slightly understand thousands of sentences you don’t need to understand at all!”

What’s the point of vaguely understanding a few thousand sentences in a foreign language? Well, maybe it will make it easier for you to learn and remember other words (and grammatical paradigms, and stress patterns, and so on). What’s the point of understanding those words, then? To clarify a few thousand more irrelevant sentences? Okay, fine: but then what’s the point of the whole cycle, though?

bird252520caught252520in252520web252520spider252520approaching25252001_thumb25255b225255dYou’re weaving a web. It may seem pointless when you lay down the first strand, but by the end you may be catching surprising things.

Tribalism: A Model

Over at Neo-Ciceronian Times, T. Quinctius published a useful piece arguing that tribalism is the fruit of collapse last month. In the course of making that point, he distinguishes between a tribal attitude (i.e., the attitude typical of people who live in tribal societies) and a tribal system.  This distinction between the emotional state of the individual and the form of his society seems right to me, but I want to go further.

A. Identity

“Attitudinal” tribalism needs to be divided into identities and dispositions.  T. Quinctius refers to:

the possession by a group of people of a strong ethnic and cultural identity, one which pervades every level and facet of their society, and which serves to separate (often in a hostile sense) the group’s understanding of itself apart from its neighbors

One element we can identify here is the strength of the identity in question: is it strongly felt, or weak?  Does it contrast very strongly with neighboring and rival attitudes, or does it fade into them?  In this sense we can talk about “tribal” fans of the Red Sox or the Yankees, as opposed to more casual fans.

Another element is the form of the identity: for example, what is the identity’s domain? Does the tribal identity “pervade society” in the sense that it dictates allegiances and habits in many spheres of life, or only in one? (Even rabid Red Sox fans can have any religion, for example, but this is not true of all athletic allegiances.  Ethnically divided cities develop athletic rivalries on ethno-religious lines.  Medieval Byzantium had Iconclast and Iconophile chariot-racing teams.)

A related question is whether the identity is exclusive — may its members affiliate with overlapping or overarching groups with different focus? (For example, some people identify exclusively with their matrilineal clan or their patrilineal clan, while others identify with both.) And if those with some “strong ethnic and cultural identity” do nonetheless have multiple identities, is one of them predominant, either in how members publicly express their affiliation, or in how they resolve disputes between the demands of overlapping identities?

But an overarching question about the form of a (strong) identity is what kind of social system or body it corresponds to — and presumably, the formal structure of this identity (its domain, its exclusivity, its predominance or lack thereof) corresponds to facts about the structure of the group which creates the identity.  In particular, it is uniquely appropriate to describe a man’s identity as tribal when he identifies with his tribe in a tribal society.

Presumably purely tribal societies give rise to the strongest, broadest, most exclusive/ dominant identities.  It is also likely that in societies where identities with these properties are becoming the norm, the society is approaching sociological tribalism.  But this is a hypothesis to be examined and tested, not a general rule to be assumed, and certainly not an inference that should be drawn in every individual case.  (Steering clear of too-convenient verbal conflations like these is the whole point of drawing conceptual distinctions!)

B. Disposition

Actually existing tribal identities are one thing; the psychological traits that dispose people towards tribal attitudes are another.  This is a simple matter of human biodiversity.  If tribal societies are possible, then humans must have traits that allow them to live in tribal societies; if tribal societies are not necessary, we must have traits that allow us to live in non-tribal societies, as well.

There is no reason to assume these are the same traits!  Probably the genes that make us capable of learning Russian and those that make us capable of learning English are the same genes (i.e. genes for the cognitive processes involved in language)…. but the mental demands of any two languages are very similar, differing, like the demands they make on our tongues, merely in how they rearrange the material.

Someone who knew all the customs and taboos of Tribe A might find himself a misfit in Tribe B — not, presumably, because he is incapable of being a good tribesman: only because the sheer effort of learning an entirely new lifestyle is as tedious as learning to decline Russian nouns after a lifetime of speaking fluent English.  On the other hand, some people might simply have no ability to learn and follow these rules, just as the trick of memorizing long epics and astronomical tables disappears in societies which have no need for it. (Witness the persistence of mnemonic-champions in India, where Vedic texts were not written down for the first time until well into the common era.)

We can distinguish, first of all, between traits that increase one’s fitness in a tribal society, traits that increase the fitness of tribal societies, traits that are common in tribal (or recently-tribal) populations, traits that make a society more tribal, traits that stabilize a tribal society, and traits that destabilize non-tribal societies.

There is some overlap between these six categories, but less than it might at first seem.  For example, are traits that increase individual fitness in a tribal society also traits that are common in such societies?  Not necessarily.

  1. If there are dyscivic tribal traits that increase a tribesman’s fitness but decrease the fitness of his tribe, then these traits will grow common in particular tribes, but such tribes will be small and uncommon overall (they will be weak and prone to collapse).
  2. Even if the traits that increase a tribesman’s fitness are neutral (or beneficial) for his tribe, if they tend to cause the tribe to evolve towards a non-tribal form of organization, tribesmen will be less likely to have them overall (because they will no longer be tribesmen).
  3. And if many tribes evolve into post-tribal forms, then conversely the population of tribes must be regenerated by the collapse of non-tribal societies back into tribalism: if most tribes are the result of recent collapses, then their members will actually exhibit the traits that tribalize societies and/or destabilize non-tribal societies.

Likewise, traits that increase the fitness of tribal societies may not be the same traits that stabilize them.  Witness the history of the Aryans, the Germans, the Turks, the Mongols, the Manchus: pastoral tribes that are too good at what they do conquer their neighbors and lose their tribal form of organization.

Speaking of pastoral societies: there may links between certain ways of life and tribal organization, and thus between disposition-to-way-of-life and disposition-to-tribalism. Some of these correlations may be arbitrary. Almost certainly, lactase persistence improves the fitness of a tribal herdsman, but this tells us nothing about tribes.  On the other hand, if the types of bravery, violence and spontaneity required for successful cattle-rustling are valuable to a pastoral tribe, this isn’t a fact about cows (specifically, how to steal them), but rather about the forms of property and power that the tribal organization exists to safeguard.

I have not mentioned success in a tribal society apart from measures of fitness, stability, and so on. It is clear that one can succeed in a society, in the sense of having high status and a (relatively) happy life, without having children and without being of any benefit to one’s neighbors.  However, if there were some trait which (a) did not spread biologically (i.e., by its “successful” bearers having more children) and (b) did not benefit the rest of the tribe (so that the other tribesmen had no reason to reward it), in what sense could it contribute to success and how could it become common enough to attract the notice of our study of tribes?

Tribes are either highly-selected (i.e., they have been around for a long time) or they are one of Gnon’s crabs.  In either case, there shouldn’t be a concept of social success which is harms both the “successful” tribesman and his society.  (If there is, that would be extremely interesting.)  Modern societies do give us opportunities to succeed by sabotaging both our progeny and our civilization, which is why they degenerate.

Likewise, I have not mentioned traits that dispose us to take on the forms of identities we referred to as “tribal” in the previous section.  The relationship between tribal identities and tribal dispositions is the most important riddle about tribalism.

One extreme hypothesis we could offer about tribal identity is that high disposition towards tribal identities is simply a correlate of low intelligence, and that the relationship between low and the selection pressures most tribes face is as arbitrary as the relationship between lactase persistence and pastoralism.  If this hypothesis were correct, intense tribal identities would be real; dispositions towards tribal identity might be a serious social problem for modern societies in some situations, or a boon in others; but those identities would be little more than an epiphenomenon on the basic drive towards smaller brain-size in tribal environments.

At the other extreme, one might hypothesize that tribal identities are absolutely necessary to tribal life and the full-fledged disposition to form a “tribal” identity proliferates after only a very few generations of tribal selection pressure.  But I suspect the truth is more interesting, and that different aspects of identity-formation are put under selection by different aspects of tribal social structures.

Thus one mechanism might increase asabiyya (in the technical implied by the Bedouin saying “I am against my brother, my brother and I are against my cousin, my cousin and I are against the world”), leading tribesmen to ration out sympathy and solidarity in the geometric ratios that kin selection dictates. Another might increase clannishness, the tendency to draw clear borders between the in-group and the out-group and to match loyalty to the former with suspicion of the latter.  A third might make one hyper-aware of distinctions between proper and improper foods (and preparations of foods) — a trait with sanitary roots that can be re-directed towards subtle cues which identify friends and enemies.

The net effect of all of these dispositions would (presumably) be something like one of the purer versions of tribal identity I sketched out above.  But understanding how they arise permits a more precise understanding of how the dispositions function, which makes our knowledge of them much more useful.

For example, it would certainly clarify which aspects of tribal identity tribes need, and which are epiphenomenal spandrels.  It might also clarify which kinds of diversity among tribes are the result of incomplete evolution, and which are alternative evolutionary paths to the same goal. (If food-taboos are about identifying outsiders, and so are speech taboos, then each tribesman only needs to be hyper-aware of nutritional or verbal shibboleths. And perhaps a tribe as a whole really only needs one or the other.)

But the ultimate reason to study the relationship between disposition and identity in this way is to understand how the same “attitudinal mechanisms” function in non-tribal societies.  Roughly speaking, here is the problem tribalism poses:

  1. Western Civilization is not tribally organized.
  2. Western populations have no (or weak) tribal identities.
  3. (Version 1) The West has been invaded by tribal populations, and/or…
  4. (Version 2) Small tribal subpopulations with the West are exploiting the altruism of their neighbors, and/or…
  5. (Version 3) The progressive diminution of tribal dispositions, by itself, gave irresistible momentum to a vicious circle with dysgenic and dyscivic consequences.
  6. Therefore, the current social equilibrium (sic) in the West is unstable.
  7. If current trends continue Western Civ will suffer social disasters…
  8. And a complete societal collapse is possible.

The upshot of §§3-4 is that the non-tribal majority in a non-tribal society would benefit from acquiring sufficiently tribal traits to resist tribal invaders/parasites.  If you endorse §5 instead, you come to the same conclusion: a non-tribal society can’t afford to lose its tribal traits entirely. Failing this, §7 implies we will be entering a time of turmoil where our non-tribal societies will acquire quasi-tribal features, to which Westerners need to adapt; or, in the worst case scenario (§8), we may be forced to lead our communities into a fully-tribal existence for which neither their heritage nor their education has prepared them.

What §§3-5, §7 and §8 have in common is that they call for social hybrids: populations which are able to balance some of the advantages of modern Western societies with some of the advantages of tribalism.  In The Current Year, there is no sense to smearing on the war paint and dancing a rain-dance as an abjuration to banish feminists, atheists, and antifa. And if we live to see the collapse of the West, the rain-dance still will not bring rain. White cargo-cults that ape primitives are just as futile and absurd as primitive cargo-cults aping the white man.

To hope to forge a reactionary ethos by eyeballing a foreign social organism and copying its superficially striking traits is vain, as sterile as aesthetic admiration for sublime art divorced from any interest in the eternal order to which it is the keyhole. To temper modern realities with tribal virtue, one must first disaggregate this virtue into its functional parts, then determine which of them can be mimicked by modern men, and which can be cultivated over time.

C. Form

Tribal attitudes derive their name, of course, from the tribal societies where they are often found.  And is are the characteristics of this social form?  T. Quinctius defines a tribe as

a group of people organised along kinship lines and possessing what would generally be referred to as a “primitive” governmental form centered around a chieftain and body of elders

The Neo-Ciceronian definition of the tribe admirably captures, I think, the two main connotations the word ‘tribe’ carries: primitivism and kinship.  A tribe is primitive to the extent that the people are technologically backwards, and their political and social rules neither use technology nor govern technology.  It is based around kinship to the extent that whether one belongs to a tribe (and perhaps also one’s position in it, and social relationship to other tribesmen) is primarily a function of birth and genealogy.

However, we should take one step beyond primitivism and kinship.  Many societies have tribes, tribes with a primitive organizational structure based on kinship, but are still not tribal societies.  The classical Greek poleis had tribes (phylai).  Rome’s tribus gave us the word ‘tribe’ itself.  To this day the United States, Canada, and Britain have tribes, but neither are their societies tribal nor their tribesmen primitive.

The characteristic feature shared by tribal societies is that they are segmentary.  That is to say, nuclear families within an extended family stick together in one multi-generational family.  Sometimes they live in a single household or hamlet.  Usually either the matriline or the patriline is favored, but this is not necessary; and where cousin marriage is common, it may be a distinction without a difference. Multiple lineages descended from one recent ancestor continue to cooperate together as a clan. The leadership of the clan may descend on the clan’s oldest living patriarch, or it may be passed down along the eldest branch of the clan; but the clan may also simply improvise when need arises, choosing a member with the appropriate charisma, or simply deferring to the clan’s most powerful lineage(s).

This compounding of segments (many nuclear families make a lineage; many lineages make a clan) can continue indefinitely.  Depending on how large the clans have gotten (and whether clans mostly live together, or are scattered amongst each other), there may be additional levels of kin-groupings between clan and the tribe, grouping clans according to their genealogical affinities. However, to have a simple model of tribal societies, we only need to distinguish between five segmentary levels: family > lineage > clan > tribe > phratry.

A tribe is a collection of clan-segments that occupy the same territory. A phratry is a collection of neighboring or allied tribes; when they are not fighting each other, they band together to wage war on other phratries. But beyond the temporary appointment of a commander for the duration of a phratries wars, each of its tribal segments is autonomous and self-governing.

(The Greek word “phratry” means brotherhood.  Every Greek phratry claimed that the founding patriarchs of each of its member-tribes had all been brothers — usually, the sons of a suitably illustrious demi-god. Typically phratries, tribes, and clans claim to be genealogical descendants of a common ancestor, and transmit elaborate genealogies to this effect. Assume the kinship in question is fictional at the phratry-level and actual at the clan-level.)

The clan coordinates family life.  Most people interact constantly with their own branch of their clan.  Clans are usually the major determinant of blood relationship. Typically marriage within the clan is taboo and marriage between clans is acceptable, regardless of the actual degree of consanguinity.  In some tribes lineage plays this role instead, so that marriages within the clan — e.g. a parallel-cousin marriage between a man’s son and his brother’s daughter — are considered acceptable.

Clans resolve disputes between their members, and they may attempt to arbitrate disputes between tribesmen from different clans, as well.  Clan dispute-resolution is:

  1. Concentric: each subsegment of the clan is part of a larger grouping of subsegments that will join it in disputes with “outsiders” from other parts of the clan, or from the tribe at large.
  2. Flat: the outcome depends largely on the number of kinsmen each party to the dispute can call on, so each kinsman is roughly equally important.

Multiple clans with rival interests cannot inhabit the same territory and expect to resolve their own disputes both (a) by themselves and (b) peacefully. The tribe needs central mechanisms to govern its members, or else disputes between its clans will eventually cause it to fission into two tribes. (In fact, a segmentary tribal society is uniquely suited to that outcome.)

Besides making rulings that resolve intractable inter-clan disputes, the clans need a tribal government to pass sentence where all parties agree an injury has been done and the the guilty must be punished, to uphold laws and traditions peculiar to the tribe itself, and finally to make final decisions on matters of common interest to the entire tribe — mainly, disputes with other tribes and especially matters of war and peace.

The two main mechanisms tribes have are chiefs and elders.  Leadership of the tribe is often at least partially heritable (like leadership of a lineage or clan), but the hereditary role is much more precarious at the tribal level: either the hereditary tribal leader is a symbolic figurehead whose real power varies depending on his ability to wield it, or else kinship to a deceased leader is just one factor (although possibly an important one) in choosing his successors.

The chief of a tribe is de facto its warlord. He leads the tribe because in the event that the tribe comes to blows over an issue, he would lead the biggest, baddest faction of brawlers.  Each of his lieutenants, in turn, owes his influence over the chief to the respect of warriors who would follow his lead if he shifted his support to another potential leader.

When a chief passes judgment, his posse is there, waiting for him to exercise his posse comitatus to crack down on any resistance. When a chief decides on war, the size and enthusiasm of the raiding party that follows him into battle is the test of his authority to make such a decision.

(Modern leftists, in their limitless Manichaeanism, see tribal assemblies as a salutary lesson in proto-democracy. Far from it! A tribal assembly is more akin to a military parade than a parliament. It is a show of force, not a meeting of the minds.)

Other decisions are left to the tribe’s elders. Tribes defer to elders on a range of important questions. Elders are the sole living authorities on the ancestral traditions which each new generation of the tribe must learn from their parents and grandparents. Moreover, the elders’ breadth of experience inspires deference; they have seen and done more than anyone else in the tribe.  These years of experience are no small matter in preliterate societies where seeing and doing are the only source of information.

In particular, the very old can speak with authority on rare situations which occur so infrequently that they create threshold problems for tribal memory. In Collapse, Jared Diamond gives the example of a powerful typhoon that knocked down all the tall trees on a Polynesian island (an important food-source for the islanders) for the first time in sixty or seventy years.  If I recall the anecdote correctly, only one woman on the island was old enough to remember the earlier crisis and transmit what her generation learned from that struggle.

There are a number of other qualifications that elders bring to tribal decision-making, but perhaps that is better left for a supplementary discussion of tribal roles elsewhere. Suffice to say that the elderly do well at certain kinds of decisions, and the respect they are owed by the younger members of their own clans and lineages makes it hard for anyone to question the wisdom of their decisions.

Whether age alone suffices to make an old man an elder will vary from tribe to tribe; just as the measure of a chief is whether anyone follows him, men whose opinions attract the necessary deference will be treated as elders earlier than others. A near-universal trend in post-tribal commonwealths is for men to be inducted into the nascent ‘senate’ at younger and younger ages, on the strength of their reputation for judgment and learning.  (And then later: power, influence, and charisma.)

To sum up, while the tribe’s kinship networks are flat and concentric, its government is

  1. Resilient: officials acquire authority only in recognition of the exact sort of power that would give them equivalent authority in the absence of any government — and thus, the collapse of one part of the tribal government has little effect on the rest of it.
  2. Hierarchical: members of the tribe who can command other members to carry out their sentences have the power of life and death over other members of the tribe, and because tribal political dissent barely differs from civil war there is a very real chance they will use it.
  3. Polycentric: tribes have multiple levels at which disputes can be be resolved, multiple powers which can claim final jurisdiction over disputes at the tribal level, and multiple latent factions which can try to influence each ruling.

If you think in depth about the structural aspects of tribalism I have highlighted, you will probably notice a passing resemblance between the basic template for tribal government and the sorts of hypothetical dispute-resolution mechanisms anarchists (and in particular, anarcho-capitalists) love. This is no coincidence. Rather than solving the problem of violence, tribal societies organize it. They do not make their members’ rights sufficiently unambiguous and predictable to prevent violence, but they do make the paths by which conflicts escalate to violence unambiguous and predictable!

Of course, just as the resilient instability of segmentary tribes allows them to collapse into semi-contained violence, so it also allows them to “collapse” into elective monarchy, oligarchy, or aristocracy (depending on whether it is the tribe’s chief, the heads of its most powerful clans, or its elders who usurp power from the other centers of authority).  The legal force of tribal and clan affiliations may persist for centuries, and vestiges of tribal institutions and traditions may survive long after they lose their meaning.

But once a single ruler or ruling body is established, the new regime not only expands its reach into every sphere of tribal life: it starves these spheres of meaning. The unique features of tribalism, bereft of purpose, wither and eventually disappear.  The long march from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft has begun.

A Little Learning VII

One way or another, you need to break the illusion that you’re trying to run a sprint. Once you free yourself from the illusion, you can finally start to free yourself from the short-term trivialities which previously distracted you.

Short-term is a relative matter, of course. Any goal can be short-term relative to a larger objective within which it is a subgoal, while still having a long-term relationship to its own subgoals. This can make it difficult to figure out how to direct your studies fruitfully. If you want to figure out which of two alternative priorities is a short-term triviality, you can always trick yourself into believe that the immediate, urgent subgoals which fit into some higher-order, long-term goals are “short-term” and the goal which you have for next week or two is “long-term”.

Unfortunately, this means that a certain kind of cleverness actually hinders learning. When we face challenges, we face a cognitive trade-off between brainstorming new ideas about how to overcome the challenge and careful scrutiny of the solutions we already have (figuring out their strengths and weaknesses, rehearsing how best to implement each, and ultimately choosing and executing the best solution). If someone has a knack for finding quirky solutions that unravel knotty problems which resist more obvious methods, we call him “creative” or even “genius”.

indigo-closeupBut the problem is that in the modern age you spend 1/4 to 1/3 of your life undergoing various forms of education and training, during which your trainers will set challenges for you to overcome. The challenges are not their for their own sake, but for you to exert effort overcoming them.

If all children were born retarded, they would think about these challenges with the simple-minded docility their teachers hope for. Unfortunately they aren’t and they don’t. Some see through the futility of the training exercises too easily, stop caring, and stop trying. Others take the challenge seriously, but only because they have seen through the futility of the training exercise and spotted the utility of some short-term extrinsic reward they’ll get for succeeding. Thus, they want to overcome the challenge; they may even want to overcome as many challenges as possible; and the want to do it with minimum effort.

No one, I hope, would start strength training and then re-paint the labels on the barbells to help their lifts. No one would drive a hydraulic forklift into their gym in order to lift more weight. But nine times out of ten a clever student who has figured out a clever way to do more schoolwork in less time, a student who prides himself on his ability to ignore all the little distractions and focus on his long-term goal of getting an A on his report card next month, is doing exactly this.

For example: when we are little we are told that if someone doesn’t know what a word means, he should consult a dictionary. However, most children quickly learn that with many words, even if they are unsure of the meaning, the precise meaning of the word doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence very much. Further, the precise meaning of the sentence doesn’t change the precise meaning of the paragraph, which doesn’t change the precise meaning of the chapter, which doesn’t mean the precise meaning of the book.

And as far as the book goes — its significance is not to be understood, but to be transmogrified into a book report, whose only significance is the grade it earns, whose only significance is its effect on the child’s final grade for the semester, whose only significance is whether his parents are cross when they see the report card.

Therefore the very cleverest children see that the problem posed by a difficult book is to be solved not by looking up words and understanding the reading, but by ignoring those seductive short-term solutions to the immediate problem (reading the book) because they are inefficient solutions to the ultimate problem (receiving a good grade).

But the clever little tyke has shot himself in the foot. He is thinking on far too short a time-scale. Every word he understands will appear in books he reads for the rest of his life — and the more he understands, the more he will read, and the more useful each of those words will ultimately be. His grade will have no further ramifications after the school years ends, except insofar as they are correlated to other useful traits. (Traits like conscientiousness. And cleverness.)

A Little Learning VI

Patience is in the eye of the beholder…

asserted that structuring the non-academic parts of your life around certain kinds of competitive, goal-directed activities would help you see the big picture when it comes to studying. Basically, pursuing competitive excellence is structured a lot like the pursuit of knowledge, but compressed into a much shorter time frame: years instead of decades. But if you can’t understand why your studies need to have a long-term focus to begin with, you will probably be skeptical.

In all of these activities, you will face certain challenges. Some you set for yourself; others a rival sets for you. When you meet one set of challenges you set your eyes on bigger ones, or on bigger rivals. At first you will certainly fail miserably at almost everything. Over time, if you continue to challenge yourself (i.e.: if you continue to fail) you will begin to excel. But it will not happen overnight. You may not see any improvement after an hour or even a week of practice.

Sometimes you may give a worse performance after a period of intense practice. Sometimes you will improve quickly and steadily for a time (especially in the beginning) and then be disappointed when you can no longer notice tangible advances from day to day, and cycles in your mood and health can mask your ascent (for a time). Sometimes you’ll feel like you’ll never get as good as you wanted to be; at other times, you’ll feel like you were never as good as you thought you were.

In the end, maybe you will be proud of yourself… or maybe you’ll fail to meet your own expectations. The activity may still be an obsession, or it may bore you; your talents may win you rich prizes, or none at all. These uncertainties concern the value of the activity in itself. But you can be confident that you will be vastly more skilled than you were originally (no matter whether you have a high or low estimate of the value of the skill itself), and your proficiency will give you a new way of seeing the world.

Tricks that once seemed like magic, techniques you once thought were impossible, that you thought that you’d never master: they’re easy now. Second nature. (And equally there are different tricks, whose meaning you couldn’t even understand originally, which now dazzle and frustrate you.)

There was no one day where it happened. There was no shortcut to the top that you wish someone had told you about on your first day. All of the hare-brained worries you had about coincidental factors which contributed to the outcomes of each individual performances; all of the petty expedients you resorted to, which might have technically gotten you closer to a win in individual cases but contributed nothing to your fundamental abilities; all of these things seem trivial. You laugh when you hear beginners fret over that nonsense. You know it’s the long years of practice that made the difference, and if you apply your new perspective to the rest of your life…

A Little Learning V

The original intention of A Little Learning (which began here) was that I should do minimal edits on some notes I already had, and post a new installment every day. The best-laid plans of mice and men, and all that. In effect, I always have more things I’d like to write for QL than time to devote to it, so there is no way to do a daily series unless I give it priority over everything else in the queue.

Whether this series might become daily again I can’t say, but the hiatus is over.

Anyway! As you may remember, life is a marathon, and if you try to sprint your way through a marathon you’re going to get yourself into a mess.

The difficulty of understanding the marathon analogy (a difficulty which every young adult grapples with, and which our perverse educational system only aggravates) makes it difficult to structure your life appropriately. If you want to run a marathon but can’t figure out how to do it because your world is structured to create the illusion that life is a sprint, the first step is to find some way to fight the illusion. Once you have escaped from the illusion, then you’ll be able to tackle the problem itself.

Find a sport you like; play it; take it seriously. Stay in shape; lift weights; get strong. Try to excel at something (or better yet, at many things). If you play an instrument, and you pour your soul into it for years, that will serve the same purpose; likewise for mastering painting or other artistic techniques. Nearly any activity you enjoy can help you learn about learning if you can pursue them passionately. Even serious games (like chess or go, not Pokémon) have the same potential.

In all of these activities, you can succeed or you can fail. There is some goal, whether it is to move a lump of metal or paint a human face. Certain people have the ability to reach the goal. Others lack it. You will demonstrate which you are. You can pursue simple goals or more advanced goals; you can pursue them proficiently or deficiently, beautifully or awkwardly.

Over the course of several years, you’ll learn to value discipline and patience, and you’ll start to be more aware of the difference between the cultivation of excellence and short-term trivialities that distract from it.