It Wasn’t Supposed to Happen (Michael Walzer)


Michael Walzer is a thinker who often thinks about politics. He has largely stayed away from the light beam of publicity, but is well-embedded into the lineages of Locke, Mill, Russell, and maybe, somehow, Aristotle. A lot of his work has dealt with the morality of initiating and resolving conflicts. He has taught at many prestigious places, and appears throughout the Western scholarly and journalistic realm. The caricature is by Honoré Daumier.

I feel I am too young for politics, and can tell that when I’ll be old enough, I’ll be too old.

(laughs) Then I suppose that I am too old.

You feel this?

You want me to concede that politics is a matter of involvement. That we are not, in some way, automatically involved.

Equally involved…

Not equally. Politics is so often about distance.


I was quite active for about ten years in my late 20s, early 30s. After that I became mostly just a writer, and an editor of a political magazine, and my political activity has mostly been literary, so to speak. And I’m not going to offer that at this period I am more involved than in my youth. That could be quite pretentious. My period of activity was in the civil rights movement of the early 60s and the anti-war movement in the late 60s. I was quite engaged then, as a graduate student spending more time in politics than in the library.

It’s a good phrase: ‘in politics, not in the library.’

It is distance – the degree of immediacy. Politics in the 60s was something like what it is today. That is, everybody spoke about it. It was a politics of communication. Except I found it a much more buoyant and optimistic period. Now the conversation is rather venomous. I was an anti-communist leftist back then, my mentors were the founders and editors of Dissent magazine, where I had done most of my writing. I’ve always been committed to the two-fold dissent that those editors had first announced: dissent against American capitalism and the inequalities of American society on one hand, and an opposition to authoritarian leftism on the other. At that time, that was most of the left. Authoritarian.

I’ve of course never experienced it, but the New Left has always struck me as a very vitalizing, romantic movement. When you could dispute your professor by bringing up intellectuals he knew less about than you: E. P. Thompson or Marcuse. Mario Savio gave that speech in Berkeley… You mention “buoyancy” – do we lack it today?

These are complex matters, and I’m not above acknowledging my own bias in favoring past expressions of leftism. You know, the Discourses on Livy… the second book starts with “Men always condemn the present…” Well, it may be that we had more of a center. We had the shared experience of World War Two, which in effect created my political consciousness… It was the feeling of the war, the grimness. I had the feeling that it was an evil, that there was evil there. And this feeling was carried through the anti-war movement, which didn’t see much success. The modern generation has no clear equivalent; the financial crisis was a difficult time for many, yes. There were also other binds that informed our lives in the 60s – intellectual, artistic backgrounds. 1984 was not yet a cliché, shall we say, of the high-school curriculum. Now the counterculture is more disparate, its focus isn’t so sharp, and there’s a much more robust realm for opinion. As the sphere for public exchange grows, the room for action often narrows.

Tell me about that sphere. Is that where the political life starts?

I suppose the political life, as we understand it, has not always existed. For long, there have been attempts at domination, and rebellion – that is a feature of the human psyche. But have people always argued, en masse? Politics – I believe – is a verbal activity. A lot of people want to see more action, perhaps, but it’s important to remember that politics starts with a kind of deliberative effort. Who knows why some person actually goes out onto the street in protest? He may be angry that his sink does not function well, you know, all kinds of grievances build up, we go through emotional phases, moments of madness. But his reflection on what he’s doing, the intellectual agenda he is transmitting to himself – that is, as we say, “political”.

People have long wondered about specific kinds of knowledge, particular to certain professions. An axe-maker needs to know how to craft an axe, such things. Is there a kind of knowledge particular to politicians? And, I should add, is it a knowledge one should be proud of having?

(laughs) See, what you are referring to is art in the Greek sense. Techne. But I would offer that politicians are like artists in a more modern way. If you have three children, and the two elders have gone off to get jobs, they got reasonable grades, do sports, all those hallmark things, and the third one just sits and broods and doesn’t really do much at all, well, some parents can call him an “artist”, or an “artistic soul” anyway. And that’s because we commonly use the term “artist” today to vindicate someone’s intellectual and creative independence. Well, you don’t really need to create much in order to call yourself an artist. Politics is like that – a discipline that avoids brackets – politicians decide what it is that politicians should know. In this way they can be called bohemian… I mean, they’re unaccountable, and often lazy.

If your son goes off to study carpentry and he becomes quite good at it, you can reasonably call him a carpenter, even if he hasn’t worked on some grand project. But if your daughter is at the top of the class in her study of politics, she’s not a politician yet, is she? She may never be, she’s likely to never be, unless she’s officially initiated into their club. Carpentry students study what carpenters know. Students of politics interpret how politicians behave – to some effect, what they decide they do. So, asking what knowledge politicians should possess, you’ll get no straight answer. Politicians, as well as students of politics, largely know what past politicians have determined they should know. Again, we return to those distances – as a student of politics, I have often felt infuriated that the political functionaries just don’t seem to reason in the same way as I do. Philosophers, voters, activists – we’re all on the sidelines in a very salient, felt way. Of course, rulers have always argued that they’re the vanguard of history, that they understand its laws in some way that others do not. But I would argue that there is no knowledge that gives one the right to rule over other people.

Now, should politicians be proud of their epistemic independence? Well, I don’t have a single answer. You can tell from my tone that I don’t think it’s ideal. But, of course, this situation we’re in is in large part a creation of history. That history is quite complex.

On that history. A telos, a contemplation of what the purpose and function of the human life is – that has been exempted from politics.

Yes, but that is a feature of liberalism, and maybe of leftism – something many people, I suspect even you, treasure greatly. We think in terms of right and not of group. We entrust individuals with the right to determine how they want to live. We have a pluralist conception of the good. In that way, liberalism is the ultimate expression of humility. And even Socrates, or Plato – the people who first wrote down this end-based thinking you’re referring to – if you allow yourself to interpret their texts one way, they were quite humble actually. I don’t buy into this Socratic alternative to liberalism, if that’s what you’re getting at. But please, continue.

Let me push back. You collapse leftism into liberalism, all under the “pluralistic conception of the good.” But some thinkers that interest me on this topic – C. B. Macpherson, for instance, or even Thomas Green – use leftist ideology, Marx, Hegel too, to shift the terms of discussion. Yet they are not radicals, and I don’t think you can so easily dismiss them.

Perhaps my resistance to these criticisms flows from the amount of work I’ve done in the communitarian philosophy. But I do think Macpherson gives a very partial account of what’s really going on. He said we’ve become entangled in this sort of “possessive individualism,” where society is organized by the distribution and apportionment of people’s skills, and the material rewards that those skills garner. And he blamed Locke, Hobbes, James Harrington, and some others for creating this paradigm. I’m willing to grant this, maybe, that politics has lost sight of some other human faculties – friendship, reason, emotional expression. But not all the way. Not all the way. Nozick might have seen people as ends in themselves. Yet there’s a very substantive literature on interpersonal obligation, and social duties… a literature that I’ve contributed to.

Consider it this way. Political deliberation resembles a shell atop society… A rind. I do believe that a certain Malthusian calculus was always inherent to political philosophy. The Greek polis is perhaps a good example of this. Plato, even for all the transcendental qualities of his reason, could perhaps not imagine a world where the population is rising exponentially, where the richest and most well-educated societies are swiftly aging, where government debts are beyond any human arithmetical intelligibility. The current political reality is perpetual crisis. I’ll add this too – that crisis isn’t solely the product of individualism. Political religions, which we see now in revivalist mode, have a very overwhelming and totalizing spirit of obligation. Even Islam, which claims to be remarkably egalitarian, has the hierarchy of the learned and the ignorant. Hinduism has other features, but their effect is comparable. Liberal individualism is a useful form of critique and resistance against this.

So yes, there are worthwhile ideas of positive liberty. You know, positive liberty that frees up and inspires our communal actions, as contrasted to the negative liberty that removes legal constraints. Idealist communitarianism is something I have a lot of passion for. But Macpherson is very much within the fold of Canadian idealism. And Canada has long been a source of envy and perplexity for us Americans. (laughs)

Is the social contract still a useful concept in modern politics?

In some ways it is clearly outmoded, because we can no longer opt to leave the normative hold of our societies in any serious way. Movement is easier than ever, but escape I’m not sure about. And there are many obligations that do not depend upon my agreement. For instance, I cannot murder my neighbor. I may want to, but cannot. Yet I think of the social contract differently, as a longstanding feature of our political mind. For me, that idea goes way way back to the Biblical idea of the covenant. Certainly, in Jewish thought, the idea of a commitment, originally voluntary, is very very powerful. The legitimizing account of legal obligations started with the covenant. I do think it’s still a useful tool to think about politics as something that is rooted in the past. People need to be constantly reminded that the past, in some ways, is more powerful than their political will. You can’t just shake it off.

Going back to your years of dissidence, did you feel you were in a covenant with the left, or with society as a whole? Because I agree – society has escaped the Malthusian trap so thoroughly and grown so large that it’s difficult to typify with the whole of a country’s population. You can’t be doing something for America, only an America.  

I felt solidarity with my fellow activists, but I felt an obligation to my fellow citizens. And these are different things, it is essential for them to be separated. This is how we derive the concept of civil disobedience, how we keep it “civil”. I don’t feel alienated from— I’ve written a lot about social criticism and I’ve always seen social criticism as an ode to the society you’re criticizing. It’s an expression of fellowship.

You introduced a motif of distances. I was wondering, given your distance from many of the people the left claims to represent, how can you claim to speak for them? Do the suffering ask you to represent them?

This is a major political problem today, and it has a lot to do with the left’s marginalization. People have been speaking for each other, over each other. Again, this is why we’re right to stress the importance of communitarianism. When I say I felt solidarity with my fellow anti-war protesters, that’s because we had agreed on an end – stopping the Vietnam war. We could be academics, businessmen, artists, vagrants, anyone. But when I say that I feel solidarity with the suffering, the destitute, well, that’s a bit different, because I cannot internalize their struggle. How can I really know, here in Princeton, what people in Kentucky, or in the south side of Chicago, think and feel? Communitarianism, as we’ve talked, isn’t a panacea, but it constitutes a step in the right direction. If the public discourse promotes the importance of the well-being of our society, we have a common end. As you said – a telos. That’s another limitation of absolute liberalism – it makes it difficult for people to stick up for each other in a genuine way. A lot of the recent violent protests around America have been very troubling for me. They represent a partial breakdown of civility, a degradation of the threads of our community.

In its earliest stages, political philosophy was largely an extension of ethics. Is that still the case?

Political theory has largely been a slave to history. If you want to see this in a clear way within the traditional continental canon, observe the writings of Machiavelli or Montesquieu. That tendency is very clearly forming there. Throughout time, all kinds of societies yielded all kinds of political philosophies – feudal philosophy, democratic philosophy, communist philosophy. We think of the ancient Greeks as very humane, so to speak, political philosophers, but they also evoked, very forcefully, the political culture of Classical Athens. I mean, the trial of Socrates, represented, among other things, some very deep political tensions of that society… The Athenian invasion of Sicily was a great topic of contention among the young and old of Athens… as in that play [The Wasps] by Aristophanes.

I do think it is important to remember that much of the political philosophy we now value was very heterodox for its time and place of composition. So the great masterpieces of political theory sit atop mounds of more conservative writings.

That’s certainly true for some thinkers. Thomas Hobbes is now, in more ways than one, a very standard conservative thinker, but he was heterodox, as you say, for his time. Plato and Aristotle were, of course, creative minds. I’m not sure I would apply this to many liberals, such as John Locke. I suspect that his way of thinking about politics, especially in the Letter Concerning Toleration, was very close to some of his fellow Protestant and Puritan thinkers, ordinary Protestants and Puritans. Maybe at a higher level of sophistication or coherence, but I doubt that he was all that different.

But I should say that I do worry sometimes about the distance modern thinkers assume from the more traditional political questions. Because sometimes, when I read the academic journals today, I think that the subject of political theory is political theory, whereas the subject of political theory ought to be politics. I see this especially clearly in the arguments about just war theory. You must know that there is now a major revisionist critique of orthodox just war theory, of which I am sometimes considered a part. When I read critics, they are very smart, they are mostly philosophers, and they are interested in just war theory, but they’re not very interested in war. Before I wrote Just & Unjust Wars, I spent five years reading military history, and the memoirs of various generals and soldiers, and journalistic accounts of wars. You look at the books and articles of my critics, and almost all the references are to just war theory, to moral philosophy. Virtually no reference is made to accounts of war. So that’s a disconnect that I think is pernicious.

I had a person call me a right-winger recently. It reminded me of that Laozi quote: “We look at it and do not see it… we touch it and do not find it; its name is The Subtle…” Is there a point to these labels still?

Well, there’s two questions there: how relevant is the left-right dichotomy to our current state, and how useful it is to have one? Well, on the latter, I think it is useful. There’s a book by the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio, where he outlines the – I don’t want to say it because it’s not allowed – the essential distinction, so to call it. The left believes in equality, he says, and the right believes in hierarchy. And that does, in some very broad way, that does distinguish most leftists from most on the right. You can be a defender of equality and you can be a defender of authoritarianism. So there are many more things to be said, but I think that fundamental division holds, and it is useful. As for the American system, I think your Laozi quote fits. There are deeper cultural allegiances that people with power hold in this country. A left-right continuum won’t do you much good if you wish to understand the Supreme Court.

When we talk about equality— well, what’s interesting is that it is, in some way, against our nature. By this I mean that I haven’t encountered a rudimentary society – you know, indigenous peoples, so and so – that tends toward equality.

It’s easy to get confused in the many equalities – equality in opportunity, equality in outcome, equality of process and labor… I think whatever accounts we make of political possibilities, and whatever accounts we give of political realities, we are assuming certain basic features, as I was doing when I said there have always been struggles for power, and resistance to domination. Those are probably eternal features of the human character. When I defend humanitarianism, whether that is humanitarian aid or intervention, say to stop a massacre, I am assuming some basic human empathy for people in need or trouble. It is a possible human response, and because it is a possible human response, we can try to evoke that response.

I don’t think there is an innate desire for equality. I do think there is an innate desire not to be unequal. So when people on the left attack rising inequality, we are appealing to something in human nature…


Well, the desire not to be in a relationship of inferiority with some other group, or person. And I think it’s very important to make that appeal. But you have to connect it to a fellow feeling. I guess what you’d call empathy.

Empathy has been under significant attack recently, you know.

By whom?

You know, the people who look for efficient, though not necessarily intuitive, ways to help people.

That’s not so recent. Peter Singer has been writing about that for a long time. There’s that example of a baby in a well. Well, you may spend time getting it out of the well, but there might be a well with three babies just around the curve of the road. So I guess you keep walking and checking. It has always seemed slightly frivolous as an argument to me. I don’t think our problem is that we’re overloaded with empathy.

Empathy is not a sufficient moral compass, certainly. Jack Rawls says somewhere that there’s an ‘obligation to mutual aid’. I’m not sure he talks about the mutual psychological grounding for that obligation, but there must be one – it cannot be a strictly philosophical construct.

Why do you say that people detest authoritarianism?

I really don’t believe in the happy slave, or the existence of false consciousness among large numbers of people who don’t realize that their authoritarian leaders are actually working to harm them. This theory of false consciousness, propounded by many, including Noam Chomsky, has been a great impetus for many left wing intellectual traditions. Of authoritarian leftism, in fact, of vanguard politics. But, as I see it, there’s an obvious flaw in that theory. If we agree that there’s a false political consciousness and a true political consciousness, we’re automatically making a value argument for a rulership of the truly conscious. That premise is not very helpful to principal exponents of this belief, but, as far as I’m concerned, it is sound.

There are many people that accommodate to submission, to subordination. And there is a considerable literature, an anthropological literature, about the forms that accommodation takes, and the patterns of evasion and local, small-scale, everyday resistance, that go along with it. I think if you were to write a history of female subordination in patriarchal societies, you would find not a great joy in being subordinate, but patterns of evasion, and resistance, at the very very local, intimate level. And that’s a history several people have written; James Scott, the anthropologist, is one of them. He’s written a lot about this. He wrote a book where he coined the term infrapolitics to describe the means by which subordinate groups resist authorities in ways that go unnoticed by the dominant power. There’s a “public transcript,” he wrote, which seems to show a history of people accepting their oppressors. And then there’s the “hidden transcript,” which depicts how we are truly, though more subtly, inclined to be free. But I believe that the great book on insubordinate subordination has yet to be written.

I wanted to ask if there is room for Marxism still, in today’s political theory?

There’s room for Augustinianism, there’s room for Confucianism… You can make useful arguments in Marxist terminology. And there are aspects of class analysis, which are, I think, worth working through. There are conceptions of human freedom in those famous manuscripts of the young Marx that can still produce excitement. One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is precisely the value of class politics versus identity politics. If you think about the past fifty years of American history – fifty, maybe more, seventy – you can see that there have been particularist struggles – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, which have made America a more egalitarian society for blacks, for women, for gay people. And yet, overall, America has become less egalitarian. So you need an analysis. And, in that sense, some rough version of Marxism is still a useful part of the theoretical toolkit.

You mention the theoretical toolkit, but Marxism, as I’ve understood it, depends upon maybe two essential things: action, and a belief in the inevitability of certain kinds of change. Those two things have been eliminated. I don’t think people believe they can easily create change anymore. And everyone, at this point, must be questioning their presumptions about where the world is heading.  

I agree with you. The inapplicability of Marxist essentialism to our time is quite informative, quite informative. We certainly no longer believe we know the course of history. Certainly we don’t believe in the liberating mission of the industrial proletariat. Although many of us still believe that the labor movement is still a necessary part of any left political campaign. But it isn’t the part that is going to lead us to some ultimate victory. There are fewer people now who believe in a communist society, than the Messianic age.

As for action. Again, there’s no authoritative account of what to do. But if you talk to the people who now march in New York, or Washington, they believe they’re doing something worthwhile. And they’re asking the usual question: what comes next? Certainly, this is something we can still talk about.

In nature, things tend toward an eventual, ultimate equilibrium. Do you think that can be extended toward political history?

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people believed, many of my friends believed, that we were in the advent of the liberal age. Fukuyama is certainly a famous example of this. And that did not happen. And doesn’t seem to be a near prospect. The kinds of victories that the left was able to win – the achievement of social democracy after World War II – took place only within the confines of particular states. It was only the state that provided the space for the left’s mobilization and for social democratic achievement. In a globalizing universe, that achievement is under threat. And the threats have produced specially– the fact that— well, to be very simple, and simple-minded perhaps, that capitalism can function within global society and socialists can’t, yet. That the world— that the capitalists do very well in a world of relatively free movement of capital and commodities and maybe, also, labor. And that the left can’t do well in that world, and that the people who are under threat in that world, under the threat of globalization, are turning now to a populist-nationalism.

A lot of states, as they drift toward democracy, tend to get caught up in illiberal policies. Part of that has to do with leadership – Nigerian leaders have historically been quite bad. India and South Africa have done quite well in that respect. It is also institutional – the institutions of underdeveloped countries don’t have the time-worn cultural capital and the efficient depth of Western institutions. People call such cases illiberal democracy; I’m not sure how long it will be democratic. Even in pretense. This is the politics of people who are in trouble, for whom the promise of prosperity and welfare has not been fulfilled.

And we’re reminded now, continuously, that our states contain these people. That our democracies can decay from within. To route back to what we were discussing before, is it true that democracy depends largely upon a spirit of communitarianism for its institutional survival?

Exactly right. Tocqueville described this when he visited America. Our democracy is enshrined in our institutions. The Founding Fathers took great precaution with that. But the stuff of democracy is between the government and the person; clubs, friendships, various sorts of clubs and unions, businesses – even something like lobby groups! A political culture inhabits these intermediary associations. I don’t think Macpherson was a kind of sage, but he could be right that—well, maybe Lockean “common sense” political philosophies resist complexity. That tends to be a good thing, to keep things efficient. But simplicity is dangerous; free markets lose culture and become war zones, and party cultures are overtaken by one-time populists. So we must not be idealistic. But it doesn’t take a Canadian communitarian idealist to see that there’s an insufficient group effort in today’s free-market, big-party society.

And illiberalism feeds off of this. As I see it, what we’re arguing for here is a kind of Aristotelean “mixed regime”. Just in a modern way.

Aristotle lived in a time of very complex civic associations… well, later, the Romans had something like guilds, for example. That’s one reason for why he could have the understanding of “art” that he did. The Hippocratic Oath is taken out of service to the notion of a doctor’s art. Today that concept seems much like an atavism. Doctors don’t betray their patients for much more clearly practical reasons. One thing to note here is that violence has been decreasing tremendously in the democratic world. At all levels. There’s research showing that this “liberal democratic peace” is a consequence of these communitarian bonds that are fostered in social democracies. The world of illiberal democracy may be more violent. A non-democratic world would almost surely be. The threatening idea is that international society may be a space within which socialism cannot work. And then we’re going to live with the consequence of that.

After the US presidential election, I was fascinated by some lines recurring in the media. I had previously seen something similar in the European conversation about jihadism. It’s a recurrent surprise: “we didn’t expect so many college-educated people to vote for him, we didn’t expect so many Hispanics to vote for him, we didn’t expect so many women to vote for him,” and so on… Just as they would say about Danish or British jihadists… An often-purchased book among Islamic State recruits was Islam for Dummies. The 9/11 hijackers went to a strip club. There’s a wide-eyed reaction of surprise triggered by these forces.

Do you think there is a way to interpret jihadism and American right-wing populism in the same terms?

My personal, perhaps moronic, interpretation is that a lot of these voters, and a lot of these jihadists, feel completely fed up with and abandoned by the dominant political philosophy of their societies. Again, the distance between them and any political commitment is so great, that they want to feel emotionally involved— It’s like the Byron effect, when he went off to fight for Greek independence. You know, for romance.

I find it hard to accept this. It just doesn’t sound right to me. I’m not sure philosophy or Byronic romance looms very large in the thinking or feeling of people in the Rust Belt. The global religious revival was certainly unexpected, and is certainly not understood. The secular left has had a lot of difficulty in understanding Hindutva, or Buddhist militancy, or Messianic Zionism, or jihadi Islam.

There are some convincing arguments made to frame Islam as a unique religion in its political force, and conservative staunchness.

That may be. It’s true, perhaps, that Islam is a very romantic, personally-involving ideology. But we lack rigorous psychological accounts on these issues. There are a lot of people who do field work, who actually talk to the people involved in these revivalist movements. Yet that is an important aspect of the contemporary world that we don’t have a handle on. But that’s not the same as the resentments of many American workers, who feel that they have been abandoned precisely by the politicians, who claimed to be defenders of the working class, and defenders of the poor. There is some higher journalism now, there are some very good journalists who have gone to the Rust Belt and actually spoken to the people who are causing and mirroring these grand shifts in the Western political culture. And what they talk about is not strictly irrational.

I’ve been thinking about this notion of a bottleneck in political history. We believed we were converging in our political interests. And now, as liberal democracy is perhaps receding, I’m wondering if educated people will begin to conceptually move past globalist democracy. You’re visibly doing so in our conversation here, by talking about the importance of intermediary bonds, by isolating a form of Idealism to Canada, by questioning the potency of socialism on the world stage… I’m wondering if we’ll have a Burke moment now in history, where we look again to individual states as places of unique, gradual, inimitable progress. I think people should be allowed to ask this without being labeled bigots. Perhaps I don’t want a France for the French, in the sense of the “French” being white, Jules et Jim types, but maybe I do want a French politics, an American politics, a Canadian politics?

The reason this argument is susceptible to the pitfalls of bigotry and racism is because political culture is so profoundly intertwined with the general culture, as we’ve already talked. So while arguing for a “French politics”, you’re arguing for strong cuts to immigration, and thus, in effect, arguing for exactly white, Jules et Jim types. But I will grant you this. I think we can both agree that the modern political theorist has to be a defender of limits. Limits to how much our democracies can be altered by populist whims, and also, perhaps, limits to the cultural change that political change is rooted in.

I have a younger brother whose political consciousness will be formed in a very different world than my own. Do you see any value in asking the broad question: “do we live in the best possible world, or the worst possible world?” at the start of one’s political reasoning?

(long pause) I came of age politically in an age of optimism. Since some point in the 70s, I have lived in a country that has drifted steadily rightward, in which leftist politics has grown more and more defensive, and more and more grim. I have moved in my lifetime from great optimism, to, well, perhaps it’s not yet desperate pessimism. I feel under threat. I feel we live in dangerous times. Which wasn’t supposed to happen.

I recently read Chesterton’s tract What I Saw in America.  There he writes about the wild unpredictability of the American life. He gives the example of how you wouldn’t expect an Oxford tutor for your children to just randomly blow up your home. But an American might, and declare himself an anarchist.

You mentioned Burke earlier. I think he was very right to caution that change made rapidly is change made sloppily. America, in that sense, has been a sloppy country. There are still nation-states. And when you encounter people from them, you see a shared character – in the jokes people tell, the tones in which they speak, even in how they love.

You wrote a book called What It Means to Be an American.

It’s a book about hyphenated identities – a defense of the hyphen. I argued that Americans shouldn’t aspire simply to be a nation. I wrote that Americans should embrace those cultures – Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Chinese-Americans. My thesis was that what holds us together is a certain understanding of politics.

You seemed to question that very idea just a moment ago.

Well the American politics I wrote about is based on sacred texts – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution. Most countries don’t have that. My thesis, as it was expounded in that book, is jeopardized by political turbulence.

I’ve heard the argument that the German Constitution is superior to the American because it’s more easily amendable.

It is more efficient, I would imagine.

No bullshit.

(laughs) You know, it feels like I wrote that book a long time ago. Its ideas came in large part from the Jewish experience in America, which was one of unprecedented hospitality.

That Alan King line… that the essence of any Jewish holiday can be captured with: “someone tried to end us — he failed — let’s eat!”

(laughs) America was a place where Jews could be socially, economically engaged, while remaining Jewish. France has aspired to be a much more assimilatory culture than America is.

I had the thought. Russia, Turkey, Poland – these places would survive totalitarianism. I’m not sure America would.

I wouldn’t dare to think about that. (pause) The country would not disappear. The country would not disappear, and it if it ever emerged… I suspect, it would look a lot like it did before… (long pause, laughs)

Can you tell me about the Jewish political experience? The early Jews did not care much for politics.

No early people really cared for politics. They were preoccupied… and generally, a lot of political theorists in history have not seen deliberation as a worthwhile aspect of politics, because it draws you into empty, spiraling disputes. My wife’s parents come from Lithuania. Vilnius was one of the great centers for Jewish thought in the world. My parents came from Belarus, then the Tsarist empire. What is perhaps most interesting for non-Jews in the Jewish political experience is the experience of living for two thousand years, without a territory, without coercive power most of the time, and yet sustaining a common, a kind of national existence without sovereignty, without the usual things. One of the amazing features of Jewish life in the intermediary period after the fall of the Jewish commonwealths and before the dawn of Zionism, one of the amazing features was the ability to maintain taxes, even foreign policies of some sorts. If anyone really believes that there’s going to be a post-Westphalian politics, then the Jewish experience can be a very edifying example of that.

How important to that example is Jewish theology? I’ve heard several political theorists claim to draw from Talmudic philosophy in creating political images.

I don’t think there’s much political wisdom that can be drawn from Jewish theology. The Jews were never really high on theology or philosophy; we were a people of law and the interpretation of law. The kind of bond that the Jews have sustained may be rooted in covenantal thought, but I believe that the key lies in the communal experience of precariousness. Which is something that fortifies people, and perhaps something we could use today – looking to community in event of uncertainty. If you look at Jewish community in the Middle Ages, it was governed by a kind of oligarchy of the rich and the learned, intermarried families of the merchants and the rabbis, and it was so vulnerable to outside pressures of all sorts, that solidarity was a necessary response. So the wealth of the wealthy was a communal resource, because it had to be a communal resource, because the gentiles had to be bribed, and whose money could you bribe them with?

Tell me, why do you think your idea of complex equality has had such traction?

In a sense, it hasn’t had that much traction. Rawls, and Dworkin, and Nozick, have gotten much more play. I think partially because their ideas are much more anthropological, and historical, while mine is truly philosophical. The central idea of Spheres of Justice was that success in one sphere of human activity – making money is the obvious one – should not bring with it success in another sphere. You shouldn’t be able to buy justice in the court room, you shouldn’t be able to buy a place for your child in an elite university. Similarly, if you win political power, that power shouldn’t translate into great wealth, or better medical care, and so on. If each of these spheres of life were autonomous, if all the spheres were autonomous, the overall society would be one of complex equality. That is, there would be localized, merited inequalities. One can obviously see how this theory would be questioned by more practical, for lack of a better term, thinkers. What about the people who are successful in one, or two, or three spheres? But it was a gentle idea, and one that connects well with a fair-minded mentality. You told me it’s beautiful. I appreciate that. I think there is still a place for beauty in politics.

Princeton, New Jersey, January 2017

Curiosity (Theodore Zeldin)


In 1933, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, a certain Theodore Zeldin was born, son to a former colonel of the Russian Czarist Army. The boy proved exceptionally bright and graduated from the University of London at the age of 17, with an education in history, philosophy and Latin. He progressed to Oxford, eventually becoming Dean of the college that conferred his doctorate. Since then, he’s taught at Oxford and Harvard, and distinguished himself as one of our most educated and colourful minds. Zeldin has crafted over a dozen intensely erudite books on speaking, hurting, loving, yearning and reaching. His five-volume History of French Passions is a full-bodied work, chronicling the habits and minutiae of French love, marriage, employment, boredom, leisure, and cuisine. This opus (along with his smaller writings) reminds us that human life is found in spaces. Spaces between the physical and the spiritual, gaps between our atavisms and novelties, between situations and aspirations. And most crucially – in talking, and in being together.

Deirdre Wilson, who briefly joins us, is a linguist and cognitive scientist, a pupil of Noam Chomsky, a professor at the University College London, and one of the developers of the relevance theory of communication. The above image was taken by Austrian-born photographer Ernst Haas.

Why not just kill yourself, in this stupid world?

Well, this is one of the surprising things about life – that even though there’s so much suffering and cruelty in it, people still want to live. Religion has tried to explain our tenacity: “well, there’s a better world, not in America, but in the next world, and you have to work in this world.” Ultimately, I think that hope is built into life, because life is all about reproducing life. If you cannot live yourself, you will produce something that will continue your existence; and if you cannot do it through children, you will do it through ideas, or benefactions. True suicide most often is a vision into nowhere. Which is why so many people commit suicide in a different way – by cutting themselves off from others, by partial mutilations of their personality. We have all committed partial suicide because we have killed capacities which we have but are not using.

Because these partial suicides can be, in a sense, useful. Do you think a person can be predisposed to a kind of un-success? Meaning that no matter how much they qualify their goals—

I think the cult of success is a misconceived one. Because it implies that one can arrive at a certain situation where one is successful. I think this has been destroyed by the scientific approach; the scientific approach dictates that we can always go further. And that every time we fail, it is a successful experiment. Supposing the world was blown up tomorrow, and some would survive, what would we do to reconstruct it? We obviously wouldn’t rebuild the old things again. We would say: “this didn’t work, and that didn’t work. Let’s see what we can do.” We would experiment. And some things might not work, and even after 50 attempts, we may have a worse world than our old one. But we’re trying things out – and that’s what distinguishes humans from animals. Of course, if you do science, you might tell me exactly how much imagination a rat has, or a goose…

So that’s it – the imagination – that’s what distinguishes us from animals?

There’s this book by Charles Foster, a colleague, called Being a Beast, in which he tried to, you know, become a beast. He is, in fact, by training a veterinary surgeon, so he knows about animals. And he went and buried himself in the soil and tried to live from ground level, and you know, ate worms, and all the rest of it. The interesting thing about that book is that, in the end, he feels very lonely. What we have that animals do not, is precisely this capacity to imagine that things need not be as they are. You know, I look at your face, but that is misleading. I look at this table in front of me and I may think it’s a table, but it’s made up of electric charges and so on, which of course I cannot see. This is an amazing – amazing – quality: to say that the world is an illusion. Whereas animals have a tremendous capacity to the see the world as it is, not God, not science-fiction.

Thus we need interpersonality? Because, on an individual basis, this sense of illusion can be confusing. How does one become lonely?

To be lonely is to be blind. That is to say, to fail to see the connections between people that are not obvious, and the connections between elements in society and inside people. It’s also the inability to be inspired by people, inspired no matter how disagreeable one may find them, or however marvellous they may be – to create something that had not been used before, new thoughts. I’m a trustee of a foundation that helps people in poor parts of the world, and we once invited some sheikhs from southern Iraq who live in rural conditions, almost those resembling the Bible. The most elementary situation. And I asked one of these sheikhs, all dressed up in their traditional garb: “are you ever lonely?” He couldn’t understand what “lonely” meant. Because to him there was no such thing as loneliness. He was surrounded by his tribe, and his king. And so this may lead one to consider a new definition of poverty. In ancient times, what made a man poor was that he had no family. Now it’s an inability to create one’s own, you might say, imaginary family, not necessarily a family that one likes, but one that brings new thoughts into one’s head. So I’m sitting alone in this room, but thoughts are coming to me from all sorts of places.

But sometimes you just need a hug.

It’s interesting, loneliness is a tremendous weight on the young generation. I’ve spoken to many people, particularly young women, who say they cannot find a man who will make them talk. Men don’t seem to be able to talk properly.

I don’t see why one would leave it at men. I think that many people have lost their ability to talk. Certainly, people chat now more than ever, but the substance… well,  I’d love it, for our purposes here, if we found some way to blame psychology for this. Could we?

It’s true, psychology has made a history of emphasising the need to know oneself. I do not think that is possible, and I don’t think that’s interesting. As we talked, the ideas that one has of oneself are largely illusions.

So a remedy to loneliness is to uncover the self in others. But what of the secluded lonely? I took a trip to the countryside recently, to meet some members of my family, and their known ones. An experience that stayed with me was the sight of a ninety-year-old man, living with his daughters, daughters brimming on seventy, maybe.

Well, it’s interesting you talk about that. One of the chapters I did not include in my latest book was about rural people. What I found in investigating them was that they were not lonely because they have all the circumstance you describe. These people were very connected to nature – and not in a banal way. They were very connected to the animals walking around in the forests. They had relationships with different forms of life. If you ask such people, even your relatives, if they’re lonely, most will say that they are not. We’ve lost this idea that there are many forms of life. It’s interesting how the latest scientific work on trees has suggested that trees communicate with each other — give warning to each other of climatic difficulties and so on. We’ve lost, in our urbanisation, this capacity to respect other forms of life.

I personally find gardening to be a source of encouragement. I see the difficulties of being a plant. The weather has been terrible this year; it’s been a massacre of plants. I have all these wild animals coming in here, into my garden, desperate for food. We have a life of eighty years, one hundred years, whatever it is. But as I look outside my window I see trees that have been there just as long. One has a different idea of time when examining these temporal relationships. So when you asked earlier what distinguishes us from animals, I can word my answer differently: we have memory. It’s not only our own memory, which is what psychologists have concentrated on. We can also acquire the memory of different people. We construct ourselves with inputs and our minds are therefore constantly capable of either being reinforced by new ideas or being emptied of ideas.

What keeps us from depersonalising our thoughts: pride—and love, I think? A love of love?     

This thing – ‘love’ – used to be much more practical in ancient times. More than fifty percent of the world is still living in those situations, where parents choose their children’s partner. Romantic love was a revolution. Saying: “we’re not going to listen to our parents. We’re going to listen to our chemistry, our instinct.” This breach between parents and children is one of the biggest events in history. But like with all revolutions, you have to move past them. We can move past romantic love. So what makes relationships last? People need to stimulate each other to be more than they are independently. If two people say the same thing and do the same thing all the time, it becomes static. Now what we need to move past is this love for security.

By some meaning, you need to complete that revolution.

The more you’re educated, the more likely you are to be bored. When people can procreate new ideas, that’s when life is exciting together. There is a different type of love that needs to be created by educated people. They just haven’t gotten around to creating it. There are all these books written by so-called gurus, saying that they can examine you and tell you who your partner should be. I think that’s all— well, for a different generation. I say, if one has stopped producing ideas, they are a dead object. I remember a woman writing to me after reading one of my books – The Intimate History of Humanity – and she was struck by the passage where I write that people now ask not “do you love me?”, but “why do you love me?” and “will you love me once I change?” I think friendship is the basis of love. Friendship has to be created and tested and gradually a trust develops. Friendship is a mutual search for truth, and a trust that a friend will tell you what others hide. If we were friends, I would tell you what I think about your pullover. But since we have never met before, politeness will prevent me from saying whatever it is, you see. And I would like to know what you think of my pullover. And I want to know what possible judgements can be made about my pullover. And about all the other things that can be said about you or me.

— Laughing —

In my own personal life, I was friends with my wife for about ten years before we got married. We each had boy and girlfriends. Our relationship has been a long discovery of each other, based on different situations. Professionally, my wife is in a field of interest to me, but in a different specialty. She’s very bold, she was offered a job at Oxford and rejected it to become a Ph.D. student under Chomsky. Very few people were brave enough to do that. I’ve always valued friendship with women, I’ve found that women were willing to talk about things men were less willing to talk about. We might say, about the more intimate things.

You believe men and women can be friends?

Very much so. I’ve been blessed with female friends. The dominance of sex is quite recent, really – sex was separated from love for many centuries. An attempt to explain everything through sexual attraction, I think, diminishes humans.

There have been people who say that, let me be crude, that men and women cannot even really understand each other.

Well, they’ll try anyway. That’s one of our great ambitions. At school we would fool around together – it wasn’t very profound. I recently was put in touch with my first girlfriend, age thirteen. It was really interesting talking to her. I hadn’t met her for sixty years. She found me rather frightening back then because I was more intellectually advanced – I was three years younger than my class. I learned a lot from her about the accident of attraction. Our relationship was based on nothing very solid. As a student I was quite a – I won’t say lonely – I was a very concentrated student. I used to go to library at nine o’clock and come back at ten o’clock. I was enthralled by what I studied, my friends were all the people I studied. I was completely captivated by the variety of humans. As a young person I was isolated, but intellectually far from it. Friendship with books is quite a possible thing. That’s something that I’ve kept. Books are my friends. These friends tell me about different kinds of life. My friends have always been different from myself.


If they’re artists, say, they tell me about their own ideas of what art is.

So different professionally–

I’m really interested in the relationship between professional activity and the private life. And the inability of people to combine the two, to make them relevant to each other. It’s something that I’ve learned from history, that it’s possible to connect those two worlds.

I remember hearing a talk you had with Richard Sennett, the sociologist, about work in the 21st century. He was saying, it seemed to me, that career has replaced character, if you’ll allow that formulation.

In my work with business people, I found how CEOs would come in at the age of 40 or 50, and say: “look, I’ve made this career, I have all this success, and I ask ‘what have I done with myself? I’ve messed up my life.’” I’ve seen this in billionaires, who are sometimes really pitiful in their feeling of loneliness, despite their billions. Successful business people tend to shut out the difficulties that they’re having with their children, for example.

It’s also that the mobility implied by a modern career can reveal a historically unprecedented range of experiences to a person. A range of spaces to have different conversations in, for example. There’s a lot that a well-curated career can do to invigorate personal character.

It’d be nice for some sociologist to calculate how many of those conversations are profound. I was impressed by a study made by a firm that manufactures beer, which wanted to know what kind of conversations resulted from two people having beers together. You’ll be surprised, they found them pretty superficial.


When I’ve been invited by companies and corporations to organise proper conversation inside the institutions, it’s amazing how the reactions of those people… For example, the heads of the British Ministry of Health came to Oxford and told me they want to have a conversation. The seven directors came because they wanted to talk to each other. And in the end they said: “we can’t do this, it’s not how we do it.” Because I made them talk not about their work, but about the problems of life. I’ve done that likewise with people in the Ministry of Finance, and so forth. There are all sorts of obstacles to substantive conversation. If I only think of my own college – I never really got to know many of my colleagues, very distinguished minds. We just exchanged superficiality and gossip. When I came to Harvard, did I get to know people there? Very superficially.

Let me tell you of the Oxford Muse Foundation. It began as an organization meant to stimulate conversation, when my book on conversation garnered a tremendous amount of attention around the world. It’s now being translated into Chinese. So we organized conversations. We sat people down with menus in front of them, but not of food – menus of topics. There’s enormous hunger for conversation. The Foundation is now working in fourteen countries around the world. I remember I was once at the World Economic Forum at Davos, and there were all the top people in the world there. I organized many into pairs; I remember people asking me if conversation can be had in threes or fours, and I say no. You can have intensity and surprise in pairs. When I say you have to talk for at least two hours, people say: “we can’t talk for so long!” Well, you try it and you can. People have gone on for seven hours, they cannot stop. At Davos my wife talked to a very senior person, a very important man, and he poured out the troubles of his youth in a most dramatic way. That he had a really terrible father, who was often drunk, and how it was really painful. My wife asked: “how many people have you told this?” And he said: “not even my wife.”

And here was a stranger.

A psychotherapist fits a mould. He may ask you: “oh, describe your father…” But he won’t tell you, in a raw way, about his own current troubles. At best he will feed off of you and reciprocate some feeling…

Is there such a thing as a good time for conversation?

I’ll tell you, I found some of the Foundation’s work very sorely limited. I didn’t want people to view their conversations as entertainment, as relaxation. So we went into a second phase, where we would get people to write up their conversations. They would then walk around and show that like a passport. Now, I’ve taken a city in England – a down-and-out city. It has many problems, one third of the population is made of foreign immigrants, and so forth. It’s even classified as a city where it’s dangerous for women to go out on their own. But it’s also a city with lots of dynamism, spiritedness. And these are the contrasts of modern life. I’m trying to get different communities to talk to each other, and then to display those conversations back to them. I’d like to do this in the USA, in India. There’s a limit to what governments can do, by passing reforms that suit everybody. I’m interested in how people can change their lives one-by-one. That’s the second stage. The third stage of my work has had to do with work. I’ve become very interested by how people experience work. People are working harder; people are being more controlled by technologies. And how we can use work to make people better.

What is your profession? Have you reinvented it?

(laughs) That raises the question of whether one wants to have a profession. My profession is to discover what life is. I’m an explorer of life. (phone rings) Let me just answer this. Hello? Yes, who is that? Ah, Nigel, very glad to hear from you. Deirdre is here, Nigel. That was Nigel. He works at MIT. Where were we?

Are you a philosopher?

Well you see, my wife was trained as a philosopher, under the philosopher Paul Grice. They’re very clever people who do philosophy, focusing on the smallest issues. She even said that she lacked a sense of connection to life. Many people call me a philosopher, but that’s because I reflect on life. But that’s not what philosophers do. My wife keeps telling me that I mustn’t call myself a philosopher.

Deirdre Wilson, interjecting: “Theodore, get off the extension!”

What? I have turned it off.

But I am interested in what reality is, what truth is. I suppose I introduce much more than academic philosophers do. I’m trying to increase the varieties of humans, instead of saying: “humans do this, or humans do that.”

Deirdre Wilson, interjecting: “Theodore, will you put the extension back on the phone!”

What extension? What do you mean?

Deirdre Wilson: “On the telephone!”

What does that mean, “put the extension back on the phone!” I don’t understand what that means!

Deirdre Wilson: “We can hear your bloody voice!”

Well, I can’t see why. Ah yes, okay. Yes, it’s off now. Yes, it might have been pressed, yes.

Deirdre Wilson: “Such a bloody – [inaudible]!”

(laughs) Deirdre is talking with Nigel and they can hear us! It’s alright now.

Theodore, I wanted to ask about this label: “the historian”.

Yes, yes, about the professions. I suppose one of the things that I have done as a historian, I have tried to move history away from just recounting what happened, to a provocation of the imagination. History can give you instruction on what is possible to do, and, by my reading, that range is far greater than many people suspect.

Also, as per R. G. Collingwood, history is a way to give yourself, personally, more time. It’s one of the few tools we have to manipulate time.

I agree with that. Personally, I’ve broken up the study of the past into, sort of, molecular pieces. All my works have focused on human individuals, taking them as the atoms of history as it were. So I haven’t looked at classes or movements, haven’t generalized like that. I’ve tried to produce something like impressionism, with little dots. It’s personal history, it’s free history. As for my accomplishments, uh, well, my wife who just interrupted us, I have very good relations with my wife, something I’ve discovered is rare for over fifty percent of the Western population. You may think of problems in politics, but our failures in private life are enormous.

Do you think people will follow you? You’ve mentioned to me before that there may be another hundred years of work left for you, in discovering ways to personalize work, to get people talking and to drag them out of themselves.

I’m convinced that the concept of a guru – someone who tells people what they should do – is mythological. One should not think of disciples. The notion of influencing others – I don’t think it’s supported by historical evidence.

Does that worry you?

I’ve made a very basic, memorable point: that everything should be done to actively get people to not only confabulate, but to have profound interactions with as many partners as possible. That may be a happy society. Beyond that, well, ideas are like lovers: they meet, they make love, and the progeny is quite totally different. So while you’re at it, you might as well be good at making love.

Are you averse, almost irrationally, to some kinds of people? Do some just piss you off?

We had a man in Oxford, who held a very senior position in the University. One could only describe him as an egotistical man who was forcing his own opinion, being authoritarian. I didn’t like that. But then I came to understand it: he was a very weak person, it takes a lot of weakness to try to make the world fit you. Some think that’s strength, but it’s weakness. It’s no good hating some of the people who are now causing calamities, one needs to understand them, and one needs to keep an awareness of the scent of weakness.

And what of daily frustrations?

I’m consistently frustrated by politics. I find it bizarre that one carries a passport indicating only their territorial allegiance. Does one not also belong to a republic of literatures, and arts? Why is there no citizenship of the mental state? The nation was a great attempt to get people living together to believe in a common ambition. But it was a failure. Increasingly, there is an amazing – amazing – amount of opposition. We have got to find new solutions. And do remember that nations are not so old. We may have to find other solutions.

You know, I think both of us agree that food is an underappreciated common basis for human interaction. Everyone loves food; belligerent nations consume each other’s cuisines.  

I was one of the first to write pages about gastronomy in a standard history book, The Oxford History of Europe. I convinced my colleagues to admit someone who, in fact, was an ambassador, but was very interested in food, and wanted to study food. One of my aims, and accomplishments, has been to make food worthy of serious, university-level study. We call it the Oxford Food Symposium.

What have you discovered?

We are eating only a small portion of the edible spectrum. A really minute proportion – we have concentrated on just three staples. We are also running out of water – there needs to be a great rethinking of agriculture, in terms of synthetically produced crops, efficient water-transport systems, the recycling of edible materials, so forth. Further, we have to consider whether food can be made something inexpensive. That is to say, there is much talk of giving everyone a universal income. But I think – no, people will just want more money, and then you’ll have money dominating their lives, but not even through work. My question is if we can make food like birds or grass or breathing – how can we make food easier?

Alcohol – is it useful?

I haven’t had alcohol since I was eighteen. One of the first things that happened when I arrived to Oxford was that I was handed a glass of Sherry. I hated it. I abstained since. I taste wine because I’ve been made a chevalier of certain wine orders. But, to be honest, well, I like lucidity. Humans have shown the capacity to learn, far greater than any other creature. You know, in China, at one point, all civil servants were required to be adept artistically. I often ask people bluntly: are you fully alive, or only twenty-five percent alive? It’s remarkable how people recognize that they could, with a little more effort, be more lucid, be more alive. But they don’t feel the motivation to do it, because they’re isolated. None of us are a hundred percent alive.

How can the consumer society be used to promote living?

The main hobby for relaxation now is going shopping. When one lived several hundred years ago, one would be communing with nature, one would be more observant. I’m not saying that we should go back, but, well…

You know, I’ve sinned. I’ve purchased many books that I didn’t later read. But shopping, consuming, spending – these things can be a great benefit for one’s mental health.

How would you distinguish between that and drinking alcohol?

Both can certainly be very ritualistic. But shopping is much more of a spectacle.

Well, maybe in the future, as digital goods and digital forms of purchasing continue to expand, shops will be more like museums for human ingenuity. You get to appreciate, fiddle with and try out the things that you would otherwise not purchase.

Shopping is indeed pretending. These trinkets are rendered so mundane the second you exchange some paper for them. Talk to me a bit about the act of pretending. I remember a very eerie experience of going to an opera and feeling it all around me – in the man on stage, moving like people never do, and in myself. A swelling of shame and confusion. I think it has infected many of my other experiences with art and social living, this hidden affair with fakery.

It’s interesting. There are many women who concern themselves with how they look, and are looking for some external show of approval. There is the question, on the other hand, if your main interest is simply making people think well of you. If you start to see love as a kind of understanding, and you wish to be loved, not just tacitly approved of, you will not engage in deception. Pretence is an obstacle to discovery – it’s a deliberate form of deceit. And why should one consciously involve oneself in deceit?

When you were first talking about illusion, I wanted to ask: what’s a great illusion that you’ve had?

I lived with a lack of illusions. That is to say, I didn’t know what I was doing. That is worse than having an illusion. You come to college, you’re writing essays, and you’re doing what you’re told. You go to work, you do your job, you’re doing what you’re told. You go out with friends – you are doing what you’re told. That’s a sort of emptiness, a sort of blankness of illusion. Conversely, stupidity is an inability to see one’s limitations. Stupid people don’t feel unintelligent. But historically, an idiot has been someone who has been outside the norm. In Athens, an idiot didn’t participate in the public realm. I’ve come to think of every human being as a heretic. Many people try to avoid that by putting on what you call the pretense, they try to act a role. Yet biologically, individuals are increasingly revealed to be so unique from one another. Only when we realize this can we be brought together. I say, everyone should try this; one of the most pleasurable experiences, which we’re encoded to enjoy, is the bringing together of enemies. I remember organizing highly successful meetings between Armenians and Turks. I made them talk about things other than, made them talk about things like what it means to be alive.


Theodore Zeldin’s painting, untitled

How important to you are non-verbal forms of communication, visuals?

There’s a great book by an academic, Laura Otis – Rethinking Thought. It doesn’t give many answers, but it conveys the human need to take in the whole of life – taste, sound and colour. There’s an interview with Salman Rushdie, the writer, and an interview with Elizabeth Blackburn, the biologist. It shows how much the feeling of thinking can vary, and how many different personalised strategies individuals have – dancers, physicists, artists, business people. Words are very important to me, but I also paint. One learns a lot from painting, learns a lot about the imagination. I’ve thought of organising events where people react to paintings in a controlled way, to observe the differences between our imaginations. Many people seem to be especially stirred by visuals. There is a purpose in finding a theory of how to make people more receptive to learning.

Disraeli wrote that one should only read biographies, for that is life without theory.

Well, we need to understand which types of new ideas people will find interesting, and which they will dismiss.

And what of writing for dead people? Audiences that exist, only in another form, who cannot dish out cash at a bookstore?

Writing to the past, you say? You see, it’s a bit unfair, I think those spirits, by their nature, have made us their audience. Our great, uninterrupted, performance is in death.

I’ll say, reading your Passions, I got the impression that the French may challenge even the dead in that respect.

Yes, you know, I was assigned, as a young scholar, to read the papers of Lord Salisbury, and I thought: “this is boring.” And when I began to study the French, there it was – explosion! The French enlarged me. I say the greatest mystery of our time is that we do not know what resides in each of our heads. In the past we could dismiss people, but now we’re past that. And our curiosity destroys our fear.

Oxford, United Kingdom, October 2016

The Most Important Question (Robin Hanson)


Robin Hanson was educated at the Universities of California and Chicago, and received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology. He’s worked at the Institute, as well as Berkeley, Lockheed, and the NASA Ames Research Center where he investigated Bayesian statistics. He’s since become a professor of economics at George Mason University, and a researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. Much of his output has dealt with signaling theory, prediction markets, and the vagaries of efficiency in the complex modern economy. His recent work, drawing from expertise in physics, computer science and economics, has explored the possibilities presented by brain emulation. All this can be found in his book The Age of Em: “Scan a human brain, then run a model with the same connections on a fast computer, and you have a robot brain, but recognizably human. Train an em to do some job and copy it a million times: an army of workers is at your disposal. When they can be made cheaply, within perhaps a century, ems will displace humans in most jobs. In this new economic era, the world economy may double in size every few weeks.” Dr. Hanson is having his brain cryonically preserved.

I’ll start simply: is there a God?

I didn’t hear that.

Is there a God?

Uh, no.



Was there, at any point?

Well, I was a Christian as a child. I even joined something of a Christian cult. But by college I became an atheist.

You joined a cult as a child?

A teen. A Pentecostal Christian sect. With speaking in tongues, and group homes, and a compound out in Iowa somewhere where the more dedicated went to live.

So is it a case of teenage rebellion becoming early skepticism?

No no. It was an appealing social milieu. In a Pentecostal sect people feel a high degree of connection and they are very inviting of outsiders and they express a lot of feelings for each another and they have a cause and there’s a reason, a reason for the community to exist. Those were all appealing.

I recall reading something by you about how if one gives up the benefits of religion, because of their love for truth, then why not also give up stories? You’ve given up stories, too?

Honestly, a lot of the appeal of religion comes via the form of religious stories. The social functions of religion overlap a lot with the social functions of stories. I do try to reduce my reliance on stories. To the extent I want to enjoy stories I might like to partition them off from my beliefs about the world, but that’s actually pretty hard.

Well with a goal like that…

But I might say that even if I reject formal religions, I’m still embodying many religious attitudes and forms in my life. So I exclude neither stories nor religion from my life, but, on the margin, I can somewhat reduce their influence. A common Christian theme is the disapproval of sin and the celebration of those who have at least partially resisted sin. There’s a certain style of a sermon in which one describes the certain makeup of a sin, describes its cause, points out its many examples in people’s lives, and provides communal encouragement and a promise of praise if you drop the behaviour. I follow that form when I write about avoiding bias. So I am describing bias as a sin and invoking a larger religious framework that my community is comfortable with.

Is economics a science?

Sure, yes, but I don’t so much care about the word science. It’s more of a broader cultural reference than anything that has a precise definition.

Science… It’s fascinating to me how science – since Keats brought up this view in his diatribe against Newton – how science has been leeched of its imagination by being called ‘science’. How can we decouple imagination from the negative label of ‘bias’?

See it for what it is. Imagination is one of our standard mental capacities. We are imagining every time we envision anything that isn’t real. When I plan my day tomorrow, I’m imagining, and maybe my plan won’t be realised. It’s a question of using this mental capacity for one goal rather than others – finding truth, instead of being dramatic or fun. I don’t mind if the true things that I imagine also happen to be charismatic, and dramatic, and engaging, and maybe even creative.

I want to try this; say you exit this office now and have to describe your book – The Age of Em – to a passerby, for, whatever, a minute. It’s a really crazy book, for me it seems crazy. And after you describe it, the guy selects – ‘plausible’ or ‘implausible’. How would you describe it so the guy pressed “plausible”?

Well first I have to justify a wide range of possibilities as worth considering. So I might say: look, we have a lot of historians in the world. The future is more important than the past – because we can do things about it! So when we look at the past, we break it down by time and place. But when we break down the future, it’s different – we break it down by the major things that could happen. So it’s worth having a hundred books on the future, it’s worth having a hundred books on a hundred different scenarios, each of which has only a 1% chance of coming about. I’m arguing for this standard. If I give you a scenario that has a 1% chance, you should still think it’s worth talking about, because it’s realistic enough and the future is important!

And “implausible”?

It’s a question of what you want to spend your time on. One would just make the argument: well, look; this book doesn’t have any of your friends in it, none of your children, and probably none of your grandchildren. It’s about people you don’t know in a world you don’t live in. And other people aren’t talking about this, so you can hold forth at parties and your lack of knowledge of my work probably won’t embarrass you.

Do you resent this?

Why resent? Most people live like that, actually, and most people don’t live boring lives. It’s boring for you and I, who have unusual taste.

Unusual people.

Well, maybe. People who want to know what the future will be like. And that’s quite rare, but in those communities you might be embarrassed about not knowing.

I’m trying to get a feel for how much it matters to you, that link between truth and speculation. If we speak narrowly for a moment, people have modeled minds – or whatever you call them – on silicon. But there’s a big big difference between that and transistor systems, which is what people like Carver Mead are invested in. And people have made headway recently in creating ‘crystal neurons’ that mimic the randomness that comes into any neuronal signaling.

Yeah, I heard of that.

But here we need phase change material and we’re still so far from linking anything into even rudimentary network systems. So if we do accomplish the emulation of minds, how can we know what size these creations will be, how they will be maintained, and so on?

The transition to this world is one that we can speak about with less confidence than the equilibrium of this world. I think of these two very distinct paths: one is to stay relatively far away from the brain, to observe the structure of the brain, and use that as inspiration to develop algorithms and tools that do roughly what the brain does in context. And the second tries to take the brain and emulate its pattern of activity.

The grammar and logic of soft or hardware is not necessarily the grammar and logic of the human mind – though it may have the same input and output.

Of course. But the question should be: for what purposes is that difference relevant? So just how much of the detail of the brain will we need to emulate in order to emulate the human mind. The closer the input-output and behavior correspondence is, the more exactly the emulation will do the same thing in the same situation. Including, if you ask it if it feels human, saying ‘yes’.

So if I understand correctly, you’re taking the gamble that, in the gradual laborious development of the emulated mind, mimicking the randomness and idiosyncrasy of what makes us human, we won’t divert, stop, compromise – ‘artificialize’ – along the way?

Yes. If we artificialize before, my book is largely irrelevant. But, see, we know that human minds are capable of enormous intelligence and are tremendously valuable. They function quite impressively, quite impressively compared to most of the machinery that we’ve ever built.

That’s a nice sentiment.

It’s a question of supply, demand, and investiture.

When I read your book I’m tempted to say: look, if it’s plausible that this stuff will come about, we’re scraping against the next revelatory stage of economics. It might feel like being a chemist before Wöhler came about – a chemist who nonetheless knew Wöhler would come about and had nothing to do but wait. Or a physicist who had to sit around and linger for Heisenberg. A geneticist before Morgan, a psychologist before William James, so on. We see this world on the horizon and it’s interesting, but we’re not there, so feel a little, well, dry.

The future attracts, but you have to resist it. You stay in the moment with your eye to the future. I was an artificial intelligence researcher for nine years. And that’s a very slow process. We’ve made machines perform tasks that, some time ago, were solely the domain of humans, but we still seem to be a long way off, yes. That’s why it’s so important for us to talk about plausibility…

As a counterweight to the numbing power of imagination.

Yes, in any area of inquiry one has some sort of basis of knowledge or understanding or theory to draw on and one also has a sense of the things they don’t know. And your job, your goal, should be to think about the things you don’t know while limiting yourself to the current knowledge that will give you confidence in what you say. Analysis is a game between the degree of uncertainty and the degree of confidence. Again, that’s what I always say, the future is more important than the past. I could envy the future for its pool of knowledge, but right now I’m in a position where I can still influence it. We know more now about the industrial revolution than someone living in the 1500s, but by now it’s too late!

Do you think the economist’s toolkit will change fundamentally with time? I get the sense that you do not.

Listen, in economic journals, we’re already not talking about humans. It’s these abstract, alien creatures. We presume to know exactly what information they have, that they’re able to calculate long trees of possibilities of what people might do, that they can calculate these things at high precision without ever making a mistake. In addition, these creatures are often quite selfish. They’re also often focused solely on the moment, or they might have a very long-term focus. They really are just alien creatures. And then we have the lens of efficiency. Much of economics is a game, a kind of applied mathematics. There should be a place for the real and descriptive in economics, but  think a lot of economists miss how far out from the real world they actually are. I think, fundamentally, economics should study efficiency and teach people how to be efficient and unbiased.

I’ve always thought: there is no universal scientific method, every science has an approach. I mean, you look for informational exchange in biology, but you don’t look for informational exchange in thermochemistry. Economics could be called the study of efficiency, yeah?

If you look at random states of affairs and think about making them more efficient, I think you will find that actual states of affairs are more efficient than random states of affairs. That is one way to understand the world. The world tends in the direction of more efficient things.

I think many would happily return to administrative economics. I’m referring to Herbert Simon here, the psychological study of how people can best organize. But such work, as I see it, is now mostly being done in business schools, not economics departments. Perhaps regular economists are burdened by the weight of prediction – everyone wants to know when the markets will crash next, and so on. 

Economists also profit off of that. That’s how stars are born. The problem is that they take shortcuts and have no actual stake in the game. So I can write a hundred opinion pieces heralding disaster, and I’ll be right a dozen times. That’s why I worked on prediction markets – it’s an old idea, you can trace it back to [Friedrich] Hayek – getting people to trade on what they claim they believe. Put money in. And when you don’t want to, be quiet. You’d see economists working more. Working on substance.

You write that unequal love is a problem.  I think I might take issue with this. If you’ll forgive me (laughs) – what is love?

I don’t need to define love in order to talk about love in my capacity as an economist. All I need to do is refer to the sense people have: do they feel loved?

But come on, who cares what people say? You have two people having sex, and they say that they’re not in love, do you take that straightly?

This doesn’t matter as much as you seem to think it does. As an economist, I view people wanting things, people wanting care, people wanting sex, people wanting cosmic revelation, and I can look at how efficiently they achieve those things. Sure, that can be explicitly stated, or observed in behavior.

In biology, some guy comes around with systems theory, and says, look, how brilliant, we’re seeing the ovary interact with the insular cortex, and it’s so revelatory! Well, it might be, but you’re still trying to understand a single phenomenon, fully. Yet there is no unified economic theory.

If you’re thinking about a starship, and you’re thinking about what kind of engine or shielding you might make, then you’re focused on the physics. But then you start talking about designs, and who would go on this starship – and there, you’re firmly back in economics! It’s encompassing – if you’re focused on the degree of destruction inflicted by cosmic rays on your heat shield, it seems like you’re solving an engineer’s problem, that’s not so much economics, but that part is certainly relevant to the social interactions of how much this ship will cost and who will get together to build it and—

Does economics end where life ends, then?


Okay let me clarify. You’ve done work on colonizing space.

I’ve analyzed the equilibrium of a potential wave of colonization of space – I presume that’s what you’re referring to. It looks like the speed of light is the limit on travel speeds. So we have some limits and we can already begin to think about the behavior of our descendants on a wave of colonization that is capped by the speed of light. I did an analysis where I assume that this colonization is via some short hops. That is, the optimal strategy is to land somewhere, grow quickly there, make some new seeds and send them out for a relatively short distance – so a hundred light years, or a hundredth of a light year. Then you see there’s been this wave of landing and jumping, and we think about a wave of contests like that, and the participants cannot even help each other, because they’re too far away from each other, because of the speed of light. So there’s a limit and there are these local competitors. In that context I’ve written a paper where I analyze that behavior, in a mathematical form. For example, in my paper, however many seeds you send out from your ‘oasis’, on average only one of those seeds makes it out to repeat the process. If it’s a billion seeds, only one of those seeds makes it to repeat the process. If there’s a hundred, only one makes it. That’s a robust mathematical feature of this contest at the leading edge.

There’s something there, no? The unique creative opportunities the discipline presents.


What about aliens though?

Obviously, if there are aliens out there, you have to win the contest to meet them!

What would they look like, these aliens?

Not as difficult as one might think. If we’re talking about aliens, we’re talking about creatures that are way way beyond their origin as a simple subsistence animal or forager or industrialist. I would presume that they have thrown out biology entirely, or completely revamped it.

You’d like that, yes.

They are, you know, robots… and the things that you can say about them, I think, will be the things that you can say about us eventually.

Given The Age of Em.

Well, human culture started out in different places with different sorts of music and clothing and local customs, but in a modern economy, I think more than people understand, we’ve converged upon sets of efficient practices. Why should this convergence of efficient behavior stop on a planetary level?

I wanted to ask you if you’re proud of being an American.

Uh, no. I would rather be proud of things I can claim some credit for. I can be grateful for being an American. I suppose the effort I put into staying an American could give me pride, but I don’t think I really do that either.

Is there a problem with America today?

That’s an easy standard. Of course.

There’s a problem, really?

We’re rich, and comfortable, and increasingly aware of that fact. In that context, we are less eager to innovate and bear risks. And we give tremendous veto power to parts of society that would feel like they’re on the losing end of a change. We are more eager to do the things that make us feel good, and make us look good, rather than being, well—



Give me an example – the education system?

There is simply too much education.

Too much?

Too much. I mean, I see my college students sitting in class, barely assimilating useless general principles. That’s not finding a place in the world. It’s a waste.

It seems to me that if we’re going to posit economics as a specially inventive mode of empirical inquiry, we nonetheless have to keep it from seeming relativistic. How do you keep economics from becoming a morality play? Take inequality. It’s an economic idea, but is so bound with emotion, and ethics. As is education. You call yourself an economist, not an ethicist with a calculator.

Partly because values, at least in part, flow from economics. My one-factor theory to explain as much as possible of the change undergone by society in the last few centuries is the idea that we are slowly drifting back towards forager values and manners as we get rich. Our distant ancestors from a million or two million years ago were foragers, meaning that they would wander around, staying in one place for one, two weeks and then moving on. That’s where humanity evolved, where most of human nature evolved. In that context, humans were highly egalitarian, they shared a lot, they didn’t allow anyone to really give orders, they tried to coordinate, to resist domination. They had rules against bragging, maybe. They were relatively promiscuous, they didn’t have property. This is our human heritage. But roughly ten thousand years ago, farming became possible – but above being possible physically, it had to become possible psychologically, meaning that we had to adopt a large number of changes in attitude. And humans had enough cultural plasticity to make that happen, in part via conformity and religious pressures. And this new farming set of attitudes and habits included marriage and family and war and slavery and a lack of travel and a greater work ethic. And we got used to this and managed to implement it for 10,000 years. And then in the last few hundred we’ve gotten rich! In the context of increasing wealth, we feel these social pressures that turned foragers into farmers less strongly. In the farming world, if you told a young woman that she would have a child out of wedlock, they might starve and die, because society had already arranged itself that way, that would be a valid concern. In our society, women who want to have sex outside of marriage know, actually, that it won’t be so bad if they have a child. And so they’re more tempted to do what feels right rather than what this farming culture heritage has inculcated in them. And that’s a consistent trend through the last few centuries, explaining not only increased promiscuity, but more democracy, less slavery, more leisure. A great many trends can be explained this way.

That’s not teleology?

No. I mean, earlier, in some sense, it might have been, because the behavior would maximize the number of offspring in forager societies, but now that’s no longer relevant, but we can’t do much about it. So that’s where our behavior is moving, not because there’s a goal, but because it feels natural.

And going back to love?

In the farming world, marriage was not usually chosen on the basis of romance. It was more chosen on the basis of co-production, of family, of family based units of production, of keeping the right sort of ties in clans. All of those were important. But we’ve moved back to romance.

Some argue that romance in recent times has actually become even more commodity-oriented. The concept of dating, for instance, has boomed – boomed – with increases in capital, as people who are attracted to one another consummate their bond by experiencing the economy together.

That is true. Centuries ago, when we were near the margin of subsistence, we would choose our partners more by the criteria of co-production. I can agree that co-consumption has replaced that, yes. So we now want people we can enjoy our leisure hours with, that’s very important – we want someone to enjoy parties, events with, someone to like the same products, activities with. As we grow richer, these trends will continue – people will be more consumptive, more promiscuous. Before the Age of Em.

What will the apocalypse be like?

Presumably there will just be a lot of apocalypses in the future. I could see a pandemic. Among emulated minds you wouldn’t really have biological disease, I don’t think, but you could have something analogous, viruses. Wars still apply to emulated minds.

I had a man tell me that the apocalypse will be someone turning our simulation off.

I find it hard to worry about that. Keenly observe whether, in the future, people grow more inclined to simulate the past in a giant, robust way. I just find it hard to believe that people in the future will be eager to simulate creatures like us.

We’re unsavory?

Expensive. We’re not really interested in simulating the whole past. We’re so obsessed with recent eras like World War Two or even the [American] Civil War, but the farther back you go, the less people are interested in simulating life, in movies or acting or academic work.

But it just takes just one guy! Look, with emulated minds, we’re already working with humans as capital for innovation. You don’t see the danger of that dusty historian coming along? That idealist, the obsessed simulator?

I’m sure people will think of grand simulations. It’s a question of if they will be able to afford it. If you want to live in a simulation, you have to consider that it cannot be random. That it has a purpose.

You’re freezing your brain?

I’m signed up for that, yes, to have my brain cryonically preserved. I’m a consumer – as a consumer I’m signed up for that, yes. My rough estimate is that a 5% chance of it working would make it worth buying the product. It’s sufficient for me, I would say there’s a greater chance than that.

Are you afraid of death?

Yeah! (laughs) If there’s anything worth fearing, it’s that. It’s losing what you feel is important.

Well, I don’t think you would really lose it. But what’s important to you, Dr. Hanson?

I took some time early in my life to ask: what was the most important question, and how could I answer it? And I think I found it and answered it. The most important question was: how can we come together, all over society, not just in economics or even science – how can we come together and decide what to believe about what works? And I concluded that it was basically the idea of prediction markets. Trading on the outcome of future events, investing yourself into the future, binding yourself to a community.

And I found myself in the position where I had identified this key question, and, in my view, answered it, answered it in an actionable, real way. I had showed people my work, my theoretical explanations and my lab experiments, my data sets. I explained to them why it’s so important to bet and gamble and trade on the future. And then, to my surprise, I found that the world does not much care.

Fairfax, Virginia, August 2016