Contemptuous Expressions

June 21, 2009 — 22 Comments

Richard Feynman’s father taught his son one other important exercise. He would sit him down and they would go through the newspaper together. When they would come across a photo of pope blessing a group of people and he’d say “tell me the difference between these men.” Before Richard would reply he’d say, the difference is the hat, he’s wearing a hat. If the photo was of a general then it was the stars on his collar and if it was executive it was his suit. After years in the uniform business, Feynman’s father knew that in it or out of it the man wearing it is the same. They get stuck in traffic, make mistakes and take shits just like everybody else.

Feynman’s father probably had no idea that this was a deeply Stoic exercise. That although it’s where they got their reputation for pessimism, it’s the same freeing kind of objectivity. Epictetus told his students, when they’d quote some great philosopher, to picture themselves standing over the man having sex. Grunting, groaning and awkward; like the rest of us so completely detached from their ‘philosophical’ rhetoric. Marcus would deprive things of their euphemisms – roasted meat is a dead animal and vintage wine is old, fermented grapes. The aim was to see these things as they really are, to ‘strip away the legend that encrusts them.’

We forget, I think, how often our perception puffs things up and embellishes them. We underestimate how this hurts us spiritually as well as strategically. It makes us weak and uncritical. It doesn’t make us happy, in fact, it burdens us to take these things too seriously. Feynman and the Stoics exaggerated their objectivity not to undermine but as a means to fight bad habits.

The exercise breaks apart the fantasy that names and uniforms mean anything. It proves the alchemy false. For instance: think of the companies that intimidate us or whose golden halo follows former employees for the rest of their lives. Look for their weakness and see how it defines them. How helpless it renders them. Google running 41 tests to figure out what color blue to use. Microsoft buying friends like a lame rich kid. Think of artists and politicians: An author and their divorces. George Bush, from the world’s most powerful man to a sad, quiet desperation.

All that’s left then, believe it or not, is a few cheerful prospects. One, that you’re essentially no different than anyone else. The pope, a billionaire, a pariah – the same. Two, the chance to appreciate things as they actually are. The plain, inadvertent majesty of them. Finally, a complete rejection of the tendency for words and recognition to define reality. There is nothing anyone can say about you or what you do that changes whether it’s right, whether it makes you happy, whether it’s healthy.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

22 responses to Contemptuous Expressions

  1. The bush story is eerily telling of how easily we can insulate ourselves from the world, and not question our decisions.

    This post gives a great dose of reality. Reminds me of the quote that goes something like “Behind they eyes of every great man is a succession of failures.”

  2. One of the reasons I love good writing is because it’s not filled with frustrating assumptions and commonalities that exist in the mindset of the collective majority of people. Because as silly as it sounds, a wild amount of people are thoughtless and stupid and you will often see people in between the ends of the spectrum borrowing aspects from each side. For example, Ryan Holiday exaggerated to make a point using George Bush, and Michael, the commenter above me, sort of misunderstood and decided to comment on the exaggeration instead of the main focus of Ryan’s point, which was actually a really good one. I don’t really have a point either, I have just been trying to complete my thoughts and thought I might as well post it. I’d say this is another one of your best posts though so far though Ryan.

  3. This reminds me of a post you wrote long ago, I believe it was called ‘You; a piece of art’. Everything is a blank canvas to paint perceptions and ideas on and, with the confusion that insues from so many perceptions, we forget that all of these things are just projections on blank spaces. I think stoicism helps the human mind return to that postively apathetic blankness and this particular blog entry suggests that very well.

  4. I can’t help but have this feeling that 95% of the population has their heads buried in the sand. They are unwilling to recognize the freedom life has given them. Then again, only a few have the courage climb Jacob’s ladder.

  5. I hope you’ve seen this video on YouTube.

    Interview with Dr. Viktor Frankl

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EIxGrIc_6g

    BTW, great list of life books. I’m getting into Stoicism bc of you and Tim Ferriss.

  6. ‘strip away the legend that encrusts them.’

    Seeing things as they are is important, but when things are uncertain, that is your opportunity to see them as they might be and endow them with a legend.

    When you don’t know, you fabricate. As a human, you mostly don’t know. So you mostly fabricate. This is not inherently wrong. It becomes wrong with the addition of ‘belief’ (defined as blind acceptance).

    “Feynman and the Stoics exaggerated their objectivity not to undermine but as a means to fight bad habits.”

    So Stoicism is encrusted in legend as well. If we strip that crust we can say: Being men, it is unlikely that any Stoic ever truly escaped emotion, or made himself immune to the allure of alchemy (particularly in language).

    But the Stoic at least tries, because he knows his stoicism frees up mental effort for productive, strategic thinking. Which is why I say Stoicism is an inherently romantic philosophy: it says life is a journey of constant difficulty through a material world with an incorporeal destination. To make it tolerable we must become experts at economizing and leaving things behind. But to make things worse, we are yoked to an emotional mind that will fight our objectivity at every turn.

    The Stoic is passionate and sincere, but he puts his passion in service of his sincerity instead of the other way around, which makes him different than most. A Stoic would never expect to rid himself of legends and passions, but is always updating himself to be better able to face the next moment in an indifferent world.

    Just some technical stuff:

    “you’re essentially no different than anyone else”

    For Stoicism to work (have value), being or not being a Stoic must be one appreciable difference between people. And I still prefer myself to almost everyone else, regardless of our similarity. I’m not sure that makes me a bad Stoic.

    “a complete rejection of the tendency for words and recognition to define reality”

    It isn’t evident to me that this can ever be anything but a thought exercise. I know I think primarily in English and realize I am forever doomed to reconstruct a crude palimpsest from what my senses give me and the inherent imprecision of my language allows. So I KNOW that my words are not GIVING definition to my reality, but they are my only means of paraphrase and so behave in almost every way as if they do.

    Language is the gospel and the apocrypha of our experience and you really can’t ever believe it completely or throw it out entirely.

  7. Xavier, Singapore, 17 June 24, 2009 at 1:54 am

    Holiday certainly hits the mark when he says that external symbols such as, in this case, a pope’s hat and a star on a general’s collar, do not necessitate the individual bearing them the qualities we might otherwise superimpose on them.

    We do, at times, put people who might otherwise not deserve it on pedestals.

    It certainly is an excellent means of grounding oneself, to obtain an ‘reality check’ with regards to how we perceive people and things.

    Nonetheless, I have to question the psychology behind such a desire to, quote, ‘look for their weakness and see how it defines them’.

    Such an urge actually reveals much about the psychology of the people who adhere to this to an extreme. The need to bring down, to reduce and define people by their lowest and weakest moments, is an incredibly ignoble act.

    It is one thing to focus on someone’s achievements until they become superhuman and completely out of touch with the reality of the matter, but it is another entirely to try to use the lapses and flaws of otherwise ‘great’ individuals to bring them down on the level of, well, everyone else, to see them on the same level as the lowest among us and say there is no distinction.

    Certainly, they are biologically human, they copulate, defecate and do other varieties of ‘human’ things. And of course, we cannot realistically expect any human being that has ever existed or will ever exist to never have made a ‘mistake’ or weaknesses (whatever ‘mistake’ or ‘weaknesses’ means. The term itself is ambiguous. What is a weakness for an ideological extremist, is probably not a weakness for me)

    However to be able to claim the people we might otherwise admire are on the level of the rabble, no different from just about anyone else…speaks volumes of the resentment and insecurity such a person possesses. A person influenced by stoic philosophy should know, better than anyone, that you see what you choose to focus on, and it would not be a stretch to say that a person is very much defined by what he chooses to see in people.

    My take on the matter is that we respond with admiration and reverence to people not because we overlook their human weaknesses, but because we recognize the value of the achievements they have wrought. And this is a distinction that must be made.

    I must stress that I am not criticizing the idea, but merely elaborating further on it, and warning against how such a mental exercise can be abused by an unhealthy consciousness.

    Filling in the blanks, as it were, because the extremes of herd mentality idol worship and ignoble pathetic cynicism (both of which are psychological tendencies) must be cautioned against.

    With love and much respect to you, Ryan Holiday,

    Xavier Koh Yan Hui

  8. I figured I would read through the comments before I typed a response to Ryan’s thoughts..but as I read through the last comment, I was at a loss for words. Xavier, I couldn’t agree with you more. I hope you continue to reiterate this “philosophy” in the future. I look forward to reading it.

  9. Xavier,

    The only point you’re trying to make comes down to questioning the desire to look for weaknesses in people when the entire point of the article

    isn’t about succumbing to a desire, but practicing an exercise, an exercise that comes from literature…

    “I must stress that I am not criticizing the idea, but merely elaborating further on it, and warning against how such a mental exercise can be abused by an unhealthy consciousness. ”

    Actually, your entire comment was pure criticism of the “mental exercise” Ryan Holiday refers to in his article. Anything can become dangerous when abused, his point was using

    the exercise for positive results and you went on a misguided tangent about human nature. You know what else is bad when abused by an unhealthy consciousness? Sit-ups. A situp maniac could end up shitting their guts out with too many. Next time, before you post a comment, try to really figure out what point it is you’re trying to make. I don’t know if it’s the case for you, but it seems like a lot of people just passively go against the grain to sound like an authority.

  10. Joey,

    I believe you might have misinterpreted me. If that is the case, I apologize, for I must have made my point badly.

    The point is this: Being able to see people in their entirety, that is, giving due admiration and respect to their achievements and virtues while acknowledging their weaknesses, is a good thing, a means of grounding yourself firmly in reality.

    Ryan Holiday only talks about finding people’s weaknesses and ‘seeing how it defines’ them. I do not disagree or purely criticize the mental exercise Holiday advocates, I am just suggesting, and ‘merely elaborating further on it’, that there are ‘gaps’ in which he has not filled, that is, we must not ‘only’ focus on their weaknesses, because that’d be ‘ignoble pathetic cynicism’.

    The whole rationale behind my ‘misguided tangent about human nature’ is simply to remove the privilege of ‘unhealthy consciousnesses’ to claim ‘objectivity’ by abusing this exercise.

    I am not sure what you intend with your situps analogy. Yes, just because sit ups, carried to an extreme, is harmful is no argument against sit ups. And in the same way, I wholeheartedly AGREE that just because such a mental exercise, abused by an unhealthy consciousness, would be harmful, it does not necessitate the exercise being harmful in itself. I am sure we are in agreement here, so I have no idea why you’re using it as a point against me.

    In the same way, altough Holiday does not explicitly claim that this exercise is unconditionally good, because it might be misinterpreted as such, I am merely trying to elaborate further on the principle and trying to define where the application of such a mental exercise becomes unhealthy.

    I must humbly ask of you to not misrepresent what I said. As you said in your first paragraph, yes, I DO talk about the desire to look for weakness in other people because that is exactly what the exercise is about. A noble use of the exercise, as I try to explain in my previous post, is to ground oneself in reality and not be taken by mindless herd mentality idol worship, while an abuse of it would be using it as a means to cover one’s insecurities and inadequacies. That point that I tried to make is not a trivial one. And hardly irrelevant, like you seem to imply of it. The mental exercise itself is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and I never generalized it as such. It all boils down to the intentions behind its use. So please do not make the untrue assertion that it is ‘pure criticism’ that I do of Holiday’s concept.

    I am also slightly taken aback by the tone you took in your criticism of me. You claim that I did not bother to read what Holiday was saying, and further implied indirectly that I am attempting to ‘go against the grain to sound like authority’. Believe me, you are reading too much into it, and making unnecessary ad hominems. Your criticisms could be made more neutrally, and in a less aggressive manner.

    At risk of causing undue offense, perhaps it is you who ought to read my points more carefully and try to really figure out what point I am trying to make. And I am sure Holiday does not require you or me to defend himself. If he had found that I had misinterpreted him, he would have taken the opportunity to respond to my fallacious reasoning, or at least not put my post up.

    However, I am glad for your criticism, because it gives me an opportunity to clarify my stand and prevent further misunderstandings.

    Forgive me, because English is not my first language (Chinese is), and sometimes my argumentation might get a bit convoluted and confused.

    Peace and

    Much love,

    Yan Hui

  11. “The point is this: Being able to see people in their entirety, that is, giving due admiration and respect to their achievements and virtues while acknowledging their weaknesses, is a good thing, a means of grounding yourself firmly in reality.”

    Imagine if that is exactly what you posted instead of your first comment. Of course no one is going to disagree with it, and it would have seemed sort of obvious and out of place. Re-read this excerpt from his original post:

    “All that’s left then, believe it or not, is a few cheerful prospects. One, that you’re essentially no different than anyone else. The pope, a billionaire, a pariah – the same. Two, the chance to appreciate things as they actually are.”

    Maybe it’s just a language thing, but that sounds like you’re just repeating what he said.

    “I am not sure what you intend with your situps analogy. Yes, just because sit ups, carried to an extreme, is harmful is no argument against sit ups.”

    Just as the abuse of situps is no argument against situps, the abuse of the exercise in question is no argument against the exercise itself. There’s some confusion here in regard to your unclear negative feelings about this exercise, it’s almost like you’re implying that it can’t be used without ignoble intentions, is that not criticism? Ryan makes his intentions pretty clear: “The aim was to see these things as they really are, to ‘strip away the legend that encrusts them.”

    Just because you might have a tough time dealing with the things that make everyone human, doesn’t mean everyone else can’t think about these things . I don’t necessarily disagree with anything your saying, I’m just criticizing your points for seeming kind of obvious and out of place. And I do forgive whatever mistakes that you have made that are at the fault of language barriers, I can’t imagine how difficult that must be, you seem very smart for a Chinese person, and I have been reading about your people’s ongoing issue with soulessness, which I also regret to hear. Peace and love peace and love.

  12. ‘The pope, a billionaire, a pariah – the same.’

    I did not completely agree with this, so it hardly counts as repetition. A pope and a pariah are NOT the same, aside from the fact that they are biologically human.

    ”There’s some confusion here in regard to your unclear negative feelings against the exercise itself.’

    You’re reading too much when you try to deduce my feelings. I have no negative feelings towards the exercise; I think its very useful.

    ”you’re implying it can’t be used without ignoble intentions.”

    No. Read again, I am saying it CAN be used for ignoble reasons and it should not be.

    ”Just because you might have a tough time dealing with the things that make everyone human…”

    Keep personal attacks out of this. You do not know me. Do not diagnose me. Think about what ‘things?’ Bringing people down negatively, being unnecessarily cynical? Sure, I won’t stop anyone. I’m just saying it is not good to do so, that it is an abuse of the exercise.

    ”your points…seem obvious and out of place.”

    Only because they are logical extensions of what Holiday is saying. I told you I was just elaborating on the idea. And how can something be obvious and out of place at the same time? That’s a contradiction, like a ‘relevant non-sequitur’

    ”I do forgive whatever mistakes you have made…”

    And I forgive you for misreading it. Also, it is a bit dishonest of you to change your stance. Earlier, you accused me of misreading and making misguided tangents. Now you say that what I am saying is obvious. That is a kind of contradiction that sticks out like a sore thumb. The issues you took to me to hand for are now completely different issues from the ones you are raising now.

    ‘you seem very smart for a Chinese person…”

    Yes, because most Chinese people are stupid, right? Don’t appreciate the implied racism…which is continued by…

    ”ongoing issue with soulessness’

    Please. Spare me that kind of attacks on me and my culture. It is entirely irrelevant, and utterly petty. The Han Chinese, without even including the many ethnic minorities in China, and the diaspora Chinese like myself, cannot be generalized in such a way. I do not know your race, your (real) gender, or even your nationality, but even if I did, I wouldn’t consider making such remarks.

    I must note that I have not made any attempt to provoke you, if I recall, you were the one who misinterpreted me, and are now making empty refutations laced with an insulting tone. Surely I deserve at least some of the respect that I have shown you.

    You have been consistently dishonest and irrelevant in this discussion, because you’ve never actually acknowledged my points or even read them properly.

    If you are not willing to honestly contribute to the discussion, then don’t.

    Xavier Koh Yan Hui

  13. “I did not completely agree with this, so it hardly counts as repetition. A pope and a pariah are NOT the same, aside from the fact that they are biologically human.”

    I don’t think he meant that they were the same in status or the same in social importance. Is that what you really thought he meant? His point was that because they are both biologically human, they are both capable of doing whatever it is man is capable of doing, regardless of what they have already accomplished for whatever reasons they have.

    “I am saying it CAN be used for ignoble reasons and it should not be. ”

    My earlier point was that, isn’t that true about pretty much everything in the world? Imagine going to a sit up blog and commenting, “Hey fellas, situps are good for exercise and whatever else, but if you do naked situps on top of a corpse in the middle of a funeral, it would be ignoble.” Wouldn’t that seem obvious? So why then do you feel you need to make that comment about the exercise in question? Is it more prone than any other exercise in the world of becoming ignoble? And if you believe it is, isn’t that criticism?

    “Only because they are logical extensions of what Holiday is saying. I told you I was just elaborating on the idea. And how can something be obvious and out of place at the same time?”

    In my opinion, if something is obvious, then posting it publicly for everyone to see makes it also out of place. Out of place meaning it does not belong where it is.

    ” Also, it is a bit dishonest of you to change your stance. Earlier, you accused me of misreading and making misguided tangents. Now you say that what I am saying is obvious. That is a kind of contradiction that sticks out like a sore thumb. The issues you took to me to hand for are now completely different issues from the ones you are raising now.”

    I think it’s another language problem you have over there, and again I forgive you. I was saying that your misguidedness caused you to make obvious and out of place comments. I’m being a little goofy about this because even though the comment section is possibly the exact place for misguided tangents, I caught a glimpse of your terrible blog when you made this comment about Ryan Holiday: “I’d recommend you to read through his archives; although he rarely types out something completely structured and systematic that expounds his personal philosophy or character, but if you read his posts here and there, you get little snapshots into the kind of person he is – and he is a pretty admirable person, no matter how you look at it.

    Not to put you down again, and maybe I’m completely wrong and don’t understand your perspective, but if you were really in the position to make statements like that, and not just to seem like an authority on this kind of stuff, it seems like you would have more to say for yourself besides a blog that no one reads and a bunch of pointless comments actually defending an accusations of soullessness.

    “Please. Spare me that kind of attacks on me and my culture. It is entirely irrelevant, and utterly petty. The Han Chinese, without even including the many ethnic minorities in China, and the diaspora Chinese like myself, cannot be generalized in such a way. I do not know your race, your (real) gender, or even your nationality, but even if I did, I wouldn’t consider making such remarks.”

    Dude, Pat Morita was great at what he did and it pains me his spirit is trapped in dark silence because of his soullessness. I think he was a great guy and I have nothing against your people.

  14. Thank you for reminding me of why I still have you in my RSS feed, Ryan. This stuff is positively golden.

  15. Billy Bob del Hooie July 22, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    The ex- potus isn’t paying for security, it is assigned him. Do you really think he needs more friends? Of course he’s a nice guy, he’s got it made.

  16. “Contemptuous Expressions | RyanHoliday.net” was quite entertaining and enlightening!
    In todays universe that’s tough to execute.
    Thanks a lot, Jeannette

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