The False Bravado of “Philosophy”

April 28, 2012 — 43 Comments

One of Ambrose Bierce’s best stories about the Civil War is “Parker Adderson, Philosopher.” In it, a Union spy is caught behind Confederate lines at night. He is taken to the Confederate general who questions him. In their interview, the soldier shows his wit and disdain for death (and fear), which intriques the general. The conversation is marked by one theme, the condemned soldier outsmarting the general’s compassionate but stern regard for the seriousness of the sentence he is obligated to hand down.

“Good God man! do you mean to go to your death with nothing but jokes upon your lips? Do you know that this is a serious matter?

“How can I know that? I have never been dead in all my life. I have heard that death is a serious matter, but never from any of those who have experienced it.”

The general quietly listens, considers the man’s points but still finds them terrifying.

“Death is horrible!”

“It was horrible to our savage ancestors because they had not enough intelligence to dissociate the idea of consciousness from the idea of the physical forms in which it is manifested–as even a lower order of intelligence, that of the monkey, for example, may be unable to imagine a house without inhabitants and seeing a ruined hut fancies a suffering occupent.”

Just then the stormy weather outside abates, and the general orders that the sentence be imposed that night, by firing squad, rather than waiting for the gallows to be built in the morning. The solider, unprepared for this turn of events, breaks down. “But General, I beg–I implore you, I am to hang!…Spies are hanged; I have rights under military law!” It’s no use. So he struggles, grabs an unguarded knife, and mortally wounds the general before being led away.

At the end the soldier meets his death whimpering before the firing squad, begging to be spared. The general, dying a few hours later, dies solemnly, saying only “I suppose this must be death.”

I like this story because of the twist. As you read it, you mark down the wise words of the soldier–finding them perfect reminders about the smallness of life and an example for how to think about death. The words may as well have come from Cato or Socrates. Parker Adderson truly is, as the title states, a philosopher.

Only like most “philosophers” he soon let’s us down when it comes to practice. He may not have been a coward in the face of grave threats–and that’s admirable and rare–but when those threats become realities his edifice crumbled. At the same time, the General, who was honest with the solider about not wanting to die and urged him to make things right before his sentence was imposed, was, when he himself faced with the same sentence, clearheaded and calm.

Behind laconic wit lies one of two things: compensatory horseshit or profound confidence and bravery. It is important to know which. Remember, all the preparation and philosophy and clever sayings in the world are no guarantee strength under duress. In fact, it may foreshadow the opposite. Why? Because they lead us to think it will not be so hard. That armed with logic or facts, we will not be afraid and regress. And this is true for things a lot less terrifying than death. (We feel proud and smart telling kids “it get’s better,” but how do you handle bullies in your adult life? Your heart races, you get flustered, you feel like quitting your job and running away.)

It’s important to remember that the Spartans, (the Lacedaemonians who the laconic style is named after) hated philosophers. They hated how easily they could say one thing and do another. To them, quips weren’t quips. They meant something. It was the expression of years of training, tradition and obligation. They were efficient, not condescending. Words were never a substitute for action. It was never about making a rhetorical point. For every Spartan whose rejoinder was passed down through history, there were a thousand more who simply performed, making even less of a show than the general in the story.

We must keep that in mind as we do our reading and make our way. That the real show is never the words–no matter how impressive or true or clever they are–and it’s no shame to be mocked and laughed at by those who are skilled at wordplay, so long as you best them when it comes time to face your own test.

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.

43 responses to The False Bravado of “Philosophy”

  1. Seems this is a common criticism of many philosophers. Hiding behind written works,living lives much in contradiction to the ideas they present. I have heard this critique of Kierkegaard. Do you have any examples of philosophers that you believe lived or live in accordance with their personal philosophies and the works they have presented to others? Experience, tradgedy even, may be a prerequisite to being a true philosopher. This is a very important point you have made here.

    • Some of the best Roman and Greek “philosophers” never wrote anything down. Or at least never wrote anything intended for public consumption. Marcus Aurelius, Cato are two examples.

      • Socrates as well. In fact, the Greek Stoics traced their philosophy back directly to Socrates, and claimed that Plato emphasized all the wrong aspects of his way of thinking.

        • Ideal response to death? How about fear? Fear makes a lot of sense. I respect the spy’s response – he wanted to live. The general may have gone out more bravely, but so what? They both died. (The scene reminds me of Martin Scorcese’s “Paths of Glory”.)

          I just started reading your blog (through boingboing) – and it’s great! This post is doing too much generalizing I think. Talk IS cheap… but thinking and discussing are important, things we all need to do at points to grow, and that’s all that true philosophy really as (as opposed to being an academic gasbag). Philo Sophy – Love of wisdom. That’s what this blog is – wisdom for navigating through the pitfalls of the digital age (as I see it). So, Ryan, you’re a modern philosopher, and that CAN be taken as a compliment.

          • Oops, I intended that comment to be posted to Patrick regarding his ideal middle ground.

            A philosopher worth remembering: Xenophon, a student of Socrates, who led the army of 10,000 greek mercenaries (later Spartans) through enemy territory after they lost all of their generals to a mass assassination. He could talk the talk and walk the walk. Plato shouts in his writings; Xenophon whispers. I haven’t thought about this stuff for years, it makes me want to dust off some old books.

  2. Intriguing post Ryan. I try and put my personal philosophy into practice as often as I can, partly due to the nagging feeling of hypocrisy and partly because I know that philosophy has little value without practicality.

    It’s easy to become engrossed in study and this served as a reminder for me to keep testing what I postulate.

  3. I have this in my collection of quotes, but I can’t figure out who it’s by (if anyone knows, please post his/her name). Anyway, your comment on the thousands of Spartans who must have performed valiantly without leaving any evidence reminded me of this poem. Makes me wonder what untold struggles, heroes, and civilizations we’ll never know about.

    “The great words never were writ,
    The great songs never were sung.
    They that were greatest did their deed
    Without the pen or tongue.

    “The word from a heart of flame
    Blazed and flickered and died,
    The moving song the minstrel sang
    Passed with the time and tide.

    “But the words that never were writ,
    And the songs that never were sung,
    In the silent hearts of heroes wrought
    Without the pen or tongue.

    “Instead of the word, a deed
    Instead of the song, a man,
    The things that are greatest are fashioned thus,
    Since the world began.”
    –Unknown

  4. Great post. Reminds me of the findings from some psychology studies claiming that announcing your plans publicly makes you less likely to follow through with them. (e.g., http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19389130)

    The flip side of this is that talking about anxieties and plans can give others strategies to deal with their problems too. I don’t think the implication is that you shouldn’t talk about your attempts to face and quell your fears, but rather that you should strive to maintain humility in doing so.

    • Right, I think the smug satisfaction we feel when we talk about how little we are afraid or how easy something we feel should be a sign: I will probably collapse under pressure.

  5. Too many words with no place to shit.

  6. In regards to the story, it initially came across to me that the Spy was afraid of considerable pain (being shot to death by firing squad) and in his begging to be hung was not necessarily afraid of death (being hanged produces a quick almost painless death).

    • As opposed to being stabbed with a sword and dying a slow agonizing death like the general? Read the story then give me your thoughts

      • An important reminder to always look to actions for the truth–both your own and others’.

        As for the story, do you think it’s fair to say the ideal lies somewhere between the two men? Not being flippant, but not fearful either. It seems the general showed respect for the finality of death, but also may have realized he had attributed too much fear to it. While the spy did not give death the consideration due it until it was upon him. It seems it’s not so much bravery in facing death (as bravery necessitates fear), as it is moving beyond fear to acceptance.

        That said, the general seems to find his way there, but perhaps only as a result of a slow death allowing him to reflect…if he was sentenced to a firing squad would he have trembled to his death?

        I’ll have to read this, but until then I’d enjoy hearing your take on the above.

  7. Good post. Another way of saying “talk is cheap.”

  8. Excellent post Ryan. Reminds me of the proverb “empty vessels make the nost noise.”

  9. Interesting post. While reading, couldn’t help but think of being on an airplane last week… while reading “Power of Now”, plane does a weird jerk down, goes silent for a spit second, then seems fine, people looking around, then feels like the plane is speeding up fast and descending…. flight attendant then comes on….

    She ended up saying something completely harmless and not having to do with what just happened. All was well. My body had practically shut down though. Heart was racing, mind was going in 20 different directions. Even brought myself to the awareness… “Calm down”, but it wasn’t happening.

    Thought about how ironic it was that I was reading a book like that and still couldn’t accept what was “maybe” happening.

    You are right. The test is not knowing the “clever sayings”, the test is having “profound confidence”.

  10. Great post. I think it is equally important to not beat yourself up when you don’t live up to your words. Not as an excuse or to “take it easy” on yourself but we are all human and old habits or habits instilled in us since birth are not easy to break. Recognizing a situation where your words said one thing and your actions another is the first step to becoming what you believe. Recognizing the same patterns over and over is laziness and complacency.

    Every unfavorable situation is an opportunity for us to shine through but if we succeeded in all of them we wouldn’t be human to begin with. Don’t get mad with yourself, see where you went wrong and when opportunity comes knocking again be the man you want to be.

  11. Ryan,

    Interesting post. Being a philosopher was a thinking profession, not a preaching profession. Sadly, not anymore. Now a days, anybody can setup a blog, including myself, and talk about how to live, think, die, etc.

    Granted that “talk IS cheap” and just talking about something and not actually following through is shitty. However, most of the times, I find myself writing about things I have learned as a result of my failures. I don’t tend to write and then fail at it but, in fact the other way around, where I fail and then write about it.

    Perhaps, a subtle difference. Anyways, that’s just my two cents. Nice post and looking forward to more.

    Did u ever buy those Invisible Shoes? Would love to hear about it.

    Amit

  12. Interesting. In your own experiences or from what you have read, do you think it is possible to truly grasp and realize within yourself, the lessons from philosophical teachings without having to find yourself in drastic or life-altering situations, ie. “Fight Club moments”? Or do you truly have to “live or experience it”?

    Thanks.

    • A Fight Club moment is not necessarily anything life threatening, it’s just a moment when all the artifice you’ve built up collapses.

  13. Good resource. I read a lot of classical philosophy, but I’ve been branching out further into contemporary philosophy. Thanks for the posts.

  14. Learn to use commas May 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    You don’t even know what philosophy is, much less what a philosopher does. Applied ethics is one subspeciality of philosophy (which you aren’t even really referring to, you’re referring to bullshit new-agey life ‘philosophies’ which are potentially derived from one of the big three ethical theories, but likely fail to be true to them), and whether or not one lives in accordance with the views they espouse (which is to say, whether or not one is a hypocrite) says nothing for the truth or falsity of their views. There are plenty of religious zealots, or people like you who glorify some twisted notion of physical courage, who wilt under the pressure of the rhetoric you find so unpalatable and feckless (thinking rhetoric useless is also indicative of tremendous stupidity, and is hilarious given your apparent love of Marcus Aurelius, who is considered by most classicists and philosophers to be boring and largely devoid of significant content). In the words of Twain, it’s curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.

    But of course, it’s not actually that curious.

    And the Spartans were pretty fucking terrible people.

    • You’re right, philosophy is restricted to grammar nazi grad students afraid of the real world. It is certainly not, and never has been, what soldiers, statesmen, and GOOD people have been doing naturally for thousands of years. Did I put my commas in the right spots this time?

  15. Hyper-Intellect May 17, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    I’m liking the person commenting just above, Learn to use commas.

    And you intrigue me. In other words, I see traits in you I should have. My first impression is that you are both wise & intelligent. I’m having to put your site on my bookmarks bar, and your book of interest on my list.

    I just came across your identity today. As I own a few shares in mobile marketing and advertising company Hipcricket, I read your article about not advertising on FaceBook. Your perspective on the quickly growing field of mobile marketing/advertising?

    I suspect I ‘m a philosopher: I’ve been accused of thinking too much, and as philosophers are wont to do – doing too little. An ineffectual. Which may not be quiiite as bad as doing neither.

    I’ve provided this link to quite a few other people, but have yet to have anyone from anywhere comment about it. Which I suppose has its benefits. http://www.friendburst.com/Hyper-Intellect/

    Warm regards.

  16. Profound. Posers. To keep from posing. To be true. Never mind the commas. Excellent post. Subscribing.
    Thanks.
    TJ

  17. Separating thought from action or practice seems wrong to me. What do you conceive of action as? Action is just a tightly bundled set of thoughts–and can only even be retroactively appreciated conceptually. The greatest deeds, like all deeds, are thoughts.

  18. While it might be debatable that this is true of modern philosophy, certainly in Plato’s “Apology” (which I’m sure you’ve read) wherein Socrates is facing the sentence of death for, “[corrupting] the you; …does not believe in the State, but has other new divinities of his own. Such is the charge…” And even presented with such a charge, he replies thus: “I shall never alter my ways even if I have to die 100 times.”

    But I suppose he could be bullshitting, right?

    Nope. In the second dialogue in the tetralogy, “Crito”, he is presented the opportunity to escape prison by an old friend of his, Crito. Socrates ignores the pleas that he consider his family’s welfare. But Socrates doesn’t budge.

    He even goes as far to state that the laws are like our parents, and however greatly he has been wronged, he cannot justify “requiting evil with evil.” He is then made to swallow a vial of some hemolck-based liquid, and subsequently dies.

    Nice try.

  19. Alternative theory:

    There is a third option. The spy is not a philospher at all. He is a spy… and as a spy, he is by default probably a sneaky, manipulative SOB. His only goal is to return to his own army alive. Upon being captured, he knows his best chance of escaping is humanizing himself in front of the opposing General. He knows his best chance of doing this is to win the General’s respect, appealing to his intellect and strength (a General, by his very nature of being a General, is going to value intelligence and courage above most else) – So, the spy plays the card of being extremely smart and fearless, hoping that the General will respect him enough, and be curious enough to delay his sentence, buying the spy time. However, his plan backfires, and once the spy realizes this, he breaks his facade and pleads with the General in a more desperate manner.

    • Or you could read the story and know that this is obviously not the case.

      • Well that’s a pretty condescending attitude, Ryan. Obviously AndyH did read the story, and to say that is “obviously not the case” is a bit much. He presented a very plausible explanation of the spy’s actions, even if this interpretation did not line up with the philosophical lesson you wished to impart upon us. An anecdote can be used to impart a variety of lessons and spark a variety of thoughts and ideas. To dismiss this interpretation so flippantly is disrespectful, at best.

        • Except he didn’t. The interpretation of literature is mostly subjective, but there are still scenarios that are blatantly wrong. In this case, his is one of them.

  20. There are other factors, intentional or not, at play in this story. The Spy, one might assume, would be younger than the General and less accepting of the concept of death at all. Most young people have a sense of immortality where death is more intellectual than actual. The General, being older, may have a more mature and internalized notion of death as inevitable. Yes, he does protest but maybe as an act of counsel to a younger, more foolish man.
    I say these things from 2 perspectives. As a young man I was diagnosed with an ‘incurable’ cancer. I was 22 and feeling invincible. I was subjected to very harsh rounds of chemotherapy (which made me question just how much I wanted to live). It reoccurred 2 more times (I’ve been called lucky as no one seems to know of another survivor with 3 occurrences). While I suffered greatly with humor intact, I did not embrace the notion that I would die despite the statistics. Cut to 30 years later and here comes another cancer. While no where near as serious, my response was quite different. I did what a person who might die would do. I inventoried, checked my will etc., thought about my family and mentally prepared for any eventuality. But here I am, clean again, posting drivel late at night having lived in the boots of both the General and the Spy.
    I can say that at no point did I crumble but was fearful. I was not heroic because I had no choice and I would have engaged in any manner of ‘philosophy’ to buy more time.
    Faced with it again, Id still consider any loopholes and escape hatches. Perhaps the Spy knew about Darwin. I know I did. Interesting post. Sorry about my commas.

  21. Lenny Dicello May 4, 2013 at 12:43 am

    The general meaning of ethics: rational, optimal (regarded as the best solution of the given options) and appropriate decision brought on the basis of common sense. This does not exclude the possibility of destruction if it is necessary and if it does not take place as the result of intentional malice…;

    Newest article on our personal blog site
    <http://www.caramoan.co

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