Meet the New Cult of the Self (Same as the Old Cult of the Self)

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The Cult of the Self has shifted into high gear.  It was rough going out of the gate, back in the 1970’s, what with hirsute gurus, earnest, aging hippies talking about their astral projections, and simultaneously terrifying and lampoonable movements like EST (Erhard Seminars Training), but it has since found its footing and now enjoys an unprecedented level of cultural approval.  From Wellness to Yoga (hot and not-hot) to meditation and “mindfulness,” we are all our own favorite projects, today, and everyone thinks that’s just great.

Except for me.  I can’t stand it.

The old criticism of EST and more broadly, of the “Human Potential Movement,” from which it and the entire Self-Improvement industry was spawned, was that it was self-absorbed, narcissistic, and perhaps even amoral.  As Peter Marin described it, in his seminal essay, “The New Narcissism,” published in Harpers in 1975:

An endless litany of self-concern, self-satisfaction, self-improvement, self-assertion, self-gratification, self-actualization, and self-esteem… Everything one finds in est – the refusal to consider moral complexities, the denial of history and a larger community, the disappearance of the other, the exaggerations of the will, the reduction of experience to a set of platitudes – all of that is to be found in embryonic form in almost all modern therapy. (1)

Now, you might think that the charge of self-absorption or of amorality couldn’t possibly apply to today’s Self-Improvement programs, which are almost always characterized at least partly in ethical terms; oftentimes, as the best means by which to get us to treat one another better; sometimes, even, as the secret to world peace.  But as well-meaning as many of the people who say these sorts of things are, I still call bullshit.  The new Cult of the Self is the same as the old one, just with better PR, and at its heart are – and have always been — several core ideas.

Self Sufficiency – One’s happiness, psychological well-being, flourishing, etc., do not rely upon external goods or the behavior of others, but on how one chooses to react to things. This idea is ubiquitous in the Self-Improvement literature, not to mention popular (and even sometimes clinical) psychology. “Only you can make you unhappy!” “Bloom where you’re planted!” or in a more serious vein, “Your feelings result from the messages you give yourself.  [Y]our thoughts have more to do with how you feel than what is actually happening in your life.” (2)  That hell might be other people or the result of immiserating conditions simply never occurs to the folks who say these sorts of things, and why would they?  This stuff isn’t meant for people in Haiti or Sierra Leone, but for New Yorkers, Los Angelites, and the like.  (And not the poor ones.)

Self-Precedence – One’s own well-being takes priority over everything else. Self-Improvement is a full-time job and requires an enormous amount of attention and effort, devoted to oneself of course.  Daily meditations. Retreats.  Perpetual “mindfulness,” which means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” (3)  Even wearing devices 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that track the number of steps one has taken, heartbeats that have gone by, and times that one has woken up momentarily in the middle of the night.  Now all of this might seem obviously, clearly, demonstrably self-absorbed, narcissistic, manic — not to mention weird – but contemporary Self-Improvement enthusiasts assure us that this is not the case; that all of this self-attention is, in fact, the best thing we can do not just for ourselves but for other people.  Expressing what one might call “airplane oxygen-mask logic” – Make sure your own mask is firmly in place, before assisting others! (which, if you did it with a gasping four year old next to you, should earn you a good kicking) – we are told that by paying all of this attention to ourselves, we are actually much more likely to be kind and generous to others.  Of course, this is backed up by “studies” and “research,” which are dutifully, if credulously cited, in the manner typical of advocacy (i.e. with no concerns about framing, samples, reporting bias, replication, etc.).  (4)  And it is worth remembering that the discredited Self-Improvement fads of the 1970’s also could claim grounding in “science,” insofar as they developed out of Humanistic Psychology and Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” at the top of which is – ten bucks, if you guessed it – “self-actualization.” (5)

Self-Creation – With regard to our psychic and spiritual characteristics and identities, we are entirely self-made, with the potential for endless remaking.  Who I am, what I am, what my purpose and significance are – these are all determined exclusively by me, without regard to family, background, culture, history, environment, or even nature.  (Apparently, the New York City Commission on Human Rights currently recognizes 31 genders. (6))  Ordinary, timeless human expressions like “I am my father’s son” or the common notion that much about our personalities and perceptions is a matter of national or other culturally-inflected characteristics are completely alien to those belonging to the Cult of the Self.  To accept them would be to acquiesce to the notion that there are fixed points – givens – that constrain just how much and in what ways we can change, an admission that would undermine the very premise on which the ethos of Self-Improvement rests.   

Self-as-Project – The notion that one’s life is a deliberate, planned endeavor, in which one is both the project and the project manager. Hence the obsession with Self-Improvement in the first place, as well as the love for “programs” (especially if they have “steps,” “stages,” or “levels”), regimens, and routines, not to mention goals, benchmarks, and other allegedly tangible indicators of “progress.”


The old Cult of the Self was born out of disillusionment with all manner of prevailing institutions – government, religion, the family, traditional medicine – and with a distinctively 1970’s sense of malaise, which is why it wore its self-obsession on its sleeve.  In that sense, the old Cult of the Self actually may have been slightly less loathsome than its newer, smarmier versions, insofar as it was at least honest, albeit in a brutal, tone-deaf sort of way.  It understood the implications of its own principles and was unafraid to voice them.  After all, if one’s happiness or well-being or flourishing or whatever is entirely self-sufficient – a matter of one’s own agency – then why think anyone has any obligations to anyone else or even that it makes sense to speak of doing right by or wronging another?  Contemporary Self-Improvement enthusiasts entirely ignore this obvious, well-rehearsed criticism, but their predecessors were much more willing to admit to the “every man for himself” logic underlying their respective movements.  As Marin described Warner Erhard, the creator of EST:

Clearly Erhard has a genius – not only for the efficiency with which his program is organized and sold, but also for the accuracy with which he tells his audience what it wants to hear… [E]ach of us is all-powerful, shame and guilt are merely arbitrary notions, truth is identical to belief, suffering is merely the result of imperfect consciousness – how like manna all of this must seem to hungry souls.  For if we are each totally responsible for our fate, then all the others in the world are responsible for their fates, and, if that is so, why should we worry about them? (8)

Today’s Cult of the Self is also motivated by disconnection, anxiety, and emptiness, grounded in a disillusionment with prevailing institutions and especially, organized religion, as evinced by the rapidly expanding number of “Nones” and those who are “Spiritual but not religious!” Unlike its predecessor, however, today’s Cult of the Self represents itself as being socially oriented, and with social media having trained us to accept the thinnest, most indirect, heavily mediated interactions as constituting real relationships, it’s easy to convince ourselves that seeing others entirely through the lens of our own well-being and virtue constitutes genuine connection and concern, rather than self-absorption masquerading as such.  Gone is the idea that our deepest relationships with and obligations to others are properly self-effacing, and in its place is the notion that the main thing to think about, with respect to other people and what  they deserve, is how the way I treat them reflects upon me.  And while this is a problem that has always dogged virtue-ethics, it is one that the crude, popular versions one sees in today’s Self-Improvement programs have in spades.

Of course, self improvement, in the ordinary sense, is a part of the human condition, and an inability or unwillingness to change or evolve over the course of our lives is undoubtedly problematic.  Marriage and parenthood and middle age have led to my changing and developing in myriad ways, as has my relocation from New York to the Lower Midwest.  I’ve had to begin paying more attention to my physical condition; to moderate some of my more reactive tendencies; to let more things go, rather than fight them all out; and to give up who knows how many personal prerogatives that I would have insisted upon, when I was younger, single, and childless, roaming the hedonistic mecca that was 1980’s and 90’s Manhattan.  There is nothing special about this – indeed, it is boringly common.  It isn’t the result of a program or a project or a plan.  It requires no explicit philosophy or discipline.  There is no need to meditate or visualize or take special views or whatever the hell the current Self-Improvement crowd would like to suggest is necessary.  The result is not “enlightenment,” but growing up and eventually, growing old.  This means, alas, that there is nothing to tweet or blog about, no reason to set up a website or to write a book chronicling “the journey”… unless, that is, one wants to broadcast to the world the bloody obvious, and why on earth would anyone want to do that?

It’s depressing to realize that the American memory is so stunted, so addled, that these fads have to be unmasked every decade or so and the same criticisms made over and over again.  EST came upon hard times and was repackaged, in subsequent decades, into the “Landmark Forum,” which was even more successful than the original.  Guru after guru has been revealed to be a crook, a fraud, or a pervert, but the parade of such characters and their mobs of credulous, adoring fans continues on, unabated.  That Americans continue to exhibit an unending thirst for this sort of thing suggests that for all that has changed, we still have not escaped the grip of the malaise that arose in the wake of the 1960’s, the collapse of the counterculture, and the disintegration of America’s families.  The retreat into cyberspace is only the latest and most radical manifestation of this national emptiness and sadness, and we can expect that as it deepens, the Cult of the Self will only grow stronger, easily overwhelming the few voices that rise up in opposition to it, and with no obvious end in sight.


  1. Peter Marin, “The New Narcissism,” Harpers, October 1975, p. 35.
  2. David Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, 2008, p. xviii.
  7. Marin, “The New Narcissism,” p. 32.
  8. Marin, “The New Narcissism,” p. 34

**My title is, of course, an homage to one of The Who’s greatest masterpieces, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” from their 1971 album, Who’s Next.  Unfortunately, it seems as if we will get fooled again … and again … and again.


  1. Except for me. I can’t stand it.
    I still call bullshit. The new Cult of the Self is the same as the old one, just with better PR

    Terrific. To this I would add the selfie is the ultimate symbol of this new cult of the self. But it is more than a symbol, it is the altar of self-worship. It is more than an enabler, it is a powerful catalyst. It is a recursive project that burrows so deep into itself that its horizons become itself, its pleasures become itself and its goals become itself. It is the masturbation of the soul.

    And it is a tragedy.

    For several hundred years society has been expanding its circle of compassion beyond the traditional bounds of family and tribe. This had the potential to finally bring peace and well being to all of mankind as they found a place in the universal circle of compassion. The worship of the self is a dramatic reversal of this process and the expanding circle of compassion is instead being rapidly shrunk to the self, smaller even than the traditional circles of compassion, the family and the tribe.

    And when society is reduced to a vast assembly of self-worshipers, gazing devoutly into their selfie-screens, recording their genitals and orgasms for posterity, what hope does society have as it chants its mantra – In the name of the Vagina, the Penis and the Holy Orgasm, ahh men while making the Sign of the Condom?

  2. I hope you have read that entertaining book, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room, An American Jew visits Germany by Tuvia Tenebom with its savage take-down of anti-semitism in Germany, all done in the humorous, sardonic and ironical way that marks his writing. I see something of you in in Tuvia Tenenbom 🙂

  3. Labnut: I don’t primarily associate this phenomenon with hedonism or with overt self-gratification. Much of the current meditation and mindfulness and fitness crazes involve a significant asceticism

    In my view what characterizes this phenomenon most centrally is its self-absorption; the idea that ones “self” becomes a kind of “project” to which one devotes what I take to be a pathological level of attention and formalization. Whether fitness nuts running around with FitBits, counting their every step and heartbeat, or “mindfulness” types, attending to every thought that they have at every moment, what we see, fundamentally, is a morbid fixation on oneself.

  4. I’m afraid that this strikes me as a rant. No single point can encapsulate my reaction, but I’ll offer this question:

    Could it be that “immiserating” conditions arise as a side-effect of unhappy people seeking validation from without, often in a context of invidious comparison?

    Is fixing the source of the problem necessarily hypocritical?

    1. “Immiserating” conditions need not indicate one person doing something bad to another. It could mean crushing poverty, as one finds in much of the third world or natural disaster.

      1. In my mind, the classic confrontation with “immiserating conditions” is Joseph McNamara going to India, and coming back to commit his life to poverty relief. The background to my comment incudes Lewis Lapham’s “Money and Class in America,” Kabaservice’s “The Guardians” and Karenna Gore’s “Lighting the Way,” all of which document how the insularity of the financial elite fostered misery that was only overcome by personal contact.

    2. I’m also curious, do you think Peter Marin’s essay in Harpers was a rant? Or Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcisissm” (1979)? Because much of what I am doing here is connecting today’s self-improvement movements to those of the 70’s and saying that much of the same criticisms apply.

      1. I find little of value in any social commentary that denounces a movement due to misbehavior by some without considering the antecedants of suffering that motivates people to invest time and money in seeking relief. Treating psychic wounds is a terribly difficult problem. Methods that work for some are difficult to generalize. As a result, the modern therapeutic default is to mask the problem with medication. The alternative offered by Gautama Buddha, Karl Jung and others is to turn inwards to assess our psychic landscape, and to form communities committed to providing support as we wrestle with our inner demons. That is the goal of all psycho/spiritual healing, and to denounce a movement that grew out of that motivation, whatever its failings, without recognizing that necessity of that mission, appears to me to be intellectually and morally unsatisfying.

        1. Well, it’s not for you then.

          As for psychic wounds, the essay is not a critique of legitimate psyhcotherapy, so that’s just a red herring. To criticize cultish fads is more than legitimate. It is essential. As mentioned several times, books by major thinkers like Christopher Lasch and Peter Marin have done just that. All that I’m doing is reminding everyone.

          1. Your constructive aims would be furthered by holding forth a viable alterative. I am unaware of any, and so tend to be cautious in my analysis.

            I was not familiar with Lasch, so I went out to Wikipedia to get a sense of his thinking. The excerpt in the article summary, on paternalism, does not inspire my confidence. I say this in the context of awareness of the conclusions of European psychotherapists who came to America as intellectual refugees from the Third Reich and applied their skills to help veterans suffering from PTSD. What they discovered was that many of the soldiers were struggling with far more serious traumas visited upon them by their families and peers. The fear of the therapists was that America was only a whisker away from seizing Hitler’s purpose.

            So we can look at “Leave it to Beaver” and decry its shallow middle-class values, or we can see a father that reasons with his children, rather than beating them for misbehavior.

            Modern consumer culture was a challenge to established “norms,” and fostered enormous social change. To generalize our exploration of those possibilities for self-creation as “narcissism” is unfortunate. I suggest Rifkin’s “The Empathic Civilization” as a book that offers a vision of a future transformation that would redeem the defects of that process.

  5. i came to realize the limitations of this cult of the self & how fatuous it could be after reading David Hawkins some years ago. perhaps you are familiar with him Daniel. he claims he (any of us in fact) can ask the universe true or false questions through kinesiology, the reaction of our muscles via the brain to these binary questions, from which he devised a scale of consciousness. here is where he shoots himself in the foot: you can only determine a calibration if you are at that level (he tells us), but he pencils in Godhead at 10,000, meaning either we are all Godhead (which doesn’t add up according to what he insinuates by never telling us how he got this number), he made a balls up because he is crap at maths, or he is Godhead while we are well…mugs for buying all his books from the publishing company he started to publish only his books. i mean what author put Dr & MD before their name on their books. O & the universities he got his degrees from were closed down for giving out degrees to people who never completed the courses. this is part rant, but also to highlight he is one of many spouting self improvement guff for profit. that silly book the Secret was written by two fundamental Christian business persons who found old books from the 20’s, out of print or just obscure & basically took their ideas verbatim. they were already millions & became much richer after book deals & lectures.
    i am glad to see someone intelligent talking about this in a clear & easy tone. have too many friends who buy into all this crap, alienating themselves sometimes, or just blinkered into thinking that suffering comes from negative thinking, as if all of us holding hands & chanting Hare Krishna will stop Russia from bombing Syrian hospitals, or feed the abandoned huddling in our city’s doorways.
    i am not in complete agreement about your thoughts on the internet though. it has provided me with some necessary relationships, to meet people who i can share things with, which my friends are not interested in sharing with me. i also live a long way from home, so an opportunity to speak with people isn’t always to hand, so the internet has been invaluable. for a long time i had no interest in the internet, but in the right circumstances it can be a link to people who wouldn’t make the effort any other way.
    i will re-blog this Daniel, thanks. people blinded by self need to be exposed to this manner of thinking with greater frequency.

    1. I had not heard of Hawkins, thanks for the tip! And I expect many will disagree with me. This is not the sort of thing that is any way “provable,” but reflects the temperament of the critic as much as the thing he is criticizing.

      1. i apologize in advance: i don’t expect you’ll enjoy Hawkins but rather have some strong opinions on his particular breed of nonsense. that you still regard this as potentially disagreeable, essentially subjective illustrates your humility. we are in the same boat there i am pleased it doesn’t halt you from saying your piece. i really think the issues you raise need addressing.
        i am new to photography so it is good to hear they have struck a nerve with someone. as for my essays, you may find them amateurish, so please expose any weakness in them it’ll do me good.

  6. Having taught tai chi for over twenty years, and also being engaged in an endurance running culture it would be easy for me to take offense with this essay. On the other hand it would be silly to argue that the phenomenon that Dan lampoons does not exist.

    Interestingly, however there are also important community based elements within each of these very different cultures. The self-focus – self-absorption is especially ironic in the new age mindfulness community given that the underlying philosophies (buddhism, taoism) are based on a core concepts like inter-dependence and non-self. I can say with a great deal of confidence that the concepts Dan highlights such as self-sufficiency, self-precedence, and self-creation are in direct opposition to the way I understand the core underlying philosophies, and also to the way I try to teach.

    I will not deny that there is an element self-development that underlies my interest and involvement in both communities, but I think in both cases this development as I try to conceptualize it and as I try to apply it is aimed at finding that difficult balance that rests between our the assertion own autonomy and becoming part of a larger group.

    I think what tends to happen in the new age community is that this idea of being ‘special’ ( as Mark pointed out in a prior essay) becomes an abstract ideology that washes away much of what I see beautiful in a philosophy like taoism. Zhuangzi for example always emphasized finding the usefulness and beauty in what tends to be superficially seen as mundane or ugly. He elevates the developmental of practical skills in low status professions like butchery, and talks down the virtue of a life overly absorbed in single track skill development no matter how highbrow skill (using examples like music and logic ). It is all to easy to be attracted to a practice that promises special powers of one sort or another (yes including some special access to a higher moral ground), and it is that abstract ideology that I think often yields the phenomena that so repels Dan.

    So I have an ambivalent reaction to this essay. Ambivalence was an attribute linked to Didion’s writing in the prior essay and talk and this is swimming in my head, because when Dan described ‘play it as it lays’ I found much in the description to identify with. I also felt a strong parralel the description of Didion’s themes with taoist themes as I understand them. I’m ambivalent because I think the lampooning hits an important target ,but also because I find it overly generalizing in it’s attack on both cultures. There is a lot of good in both of the lampooned cultures mixed in with the aspects gone wrong. I think it is not an especially nuanced lampooning, and I have a negative reaction to that sort of thing whether it is carried out against say Trump followers or the groups targeted here.

  7. Seth: Many of the things I’m describing have elements that belong to venerable, ancient traditions which, in no way are subject to the sort of critique levied in the essay. It is the modern, self-help/improvement frames into which they are brought, in which many of the original, core elements are removed, and the remnants are then mixed together with other traditions or systems, which have also been vivisected, that I am addressing here.

    As Marin characterized EST in “the New Narcissism”:

    “It is a mixture of ideas and techniques borrowed from the behavioral sciences, Eastern philosophy, the traditional American classroom, Marine boot camp, and modern brainwashing methods.”

  8. I agree with Dan’s analysis, partcularly in terms of the fatuous notion that one can be a little world unto oneself.

    @Brian Balke: In terms of your observation/question, I would say that there is no fixing here. Just one problem replaced with another, and the second arguably worse.

    Seth & Dan: I think you guys are spot on about the repurposing of traditions that were, in origin, not about the cult of the self at all.

  9. @Seth:

    In a Provocations article, I would not expect “nuanced lampooning” of this kind. Plus, it seems clear that what the piece is criticizing is the New Age-inspired manifestations of these things, where ancient practices often get processed through a filter that focuses on the individual above all.

  10. Perhaps the new cult of the self is a byproduct of living in a meritocracy (or of living in a society that tells you all the time that it’s as close to a meritocracy as can be).

  11. Hi Dan, the return of the self-improvement movement is not that surprising as it seems to me that everything is cyclical, and even obviously flawed fads of the past (not matter how well documented as a failure) come back again in some new polished form… this time it is different!

    Appropriately, you have riffed on one of my favorite songs, which I believe has merit in more than politics as you demonstrate here.

    Like Seth I am somewhat of a Taoist (philosophy not religion) and have practiced martial arts (with meditation as part of this) to “improve” certain aspects of myself. While I don’t mind choosing from the diverse (cultural) array of ways to work on oneself, it is the gratuitous, smug, in your face I AM IMPROVING MYSELF AND YOU ARE NOT aspect of social self-improvement fads that really annoys me.

    The current “mindfulness” craze really gets to me on that aspect. The Stoic movement threatens to do so, but has not yet reached the degree of fad+smug “we’d all be better if everyone did this” attitude that makes me roll my eyes. If it ever gains traction to this degree I suppose we can re-release or remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers (’78).

    What I never understood is why people think that any specific thing is useful or necessary for all people and at all stages of life. Tell me what someone can get out of whatever practice you have and save the general “it will make you a better person” speech. Nothing can make you a better person “in general”. And what is useful at one time is not interesting, much less useful, at another.

    Of course one of the worst modern self-improvement fads is “The Secret” which gets to the very basest elements you describe, a narcissism which rewards the self for having bettered oneself (no one else needs thanking for their help), while removing any need to be concerned for anyone else.

    1. dbholmes wrote:

      it is the gratuitous, smug, in your face “I AM IMPROVING MYSELF AND YOU ARE NOT aspect of social self-improvement fads that really annoys me. ”


      “fad+smug “we’d all be better if everyone did this” attitude that makes me roll my eyes.”


      While I agree that these are especially awful, I don’t think that a conception of Self-Improvement need express them in order to rub me the wrong way.

      In another comment, you say this:

      “They make YOU the center of everything, the prime mover and shaper. They make everyone else essentially cannon fodder to your improvement.”

      This, indeed, is what I find difficult to stand about the movement. Indeed, the fact that it is, in itself, quite loathsome is why those who do it hide behind the “airline oxygen mask logic,” according to which their self-centered attitude is instrumental to being good to others.

      So, I’m really not in love with modern Stoicism, even as described by my friend and colleague, Massimo and despite the fact that he is most certainly *not* trying to suggest that everyone should do it. It’s the — in my view — self-absorbed/obsessed aspect of it that I find distasteful, not any kind of proselytization. The idea that our relationships and duties to others, far from being self-effacing, are just more reasons to focus on and work on “me.”

  12. I understand the difference between the manifestation targeted by the essay and the various original sources that have been re-purposed. I also did acknowledge that the essay hits it’s mark. I think the target is large and that it doesn’t require an expert marksman to pierce it’s surface. I have been fighting this battle on the ground level for some time and doing so because I do think there is much of worth in what that I have acquired over the years, and because there are those who have expressed a good deal of gratitude towards me for what I have been trying to accomplish.

    I will say it is difficult for me to compete with those offering feel good promises of transcendence, and has become more and more difficult over the last 5 years or so. I am moving in a few weeks and will be severing my relationship with a school where I have taught for 18 years. The phenomenon spoken to in the essay is not the sole reason for this big change but it certainly played a large role in the decision process.

    That said, throughout, I have encountered a number of earnest students who do not resemble the profile targeted in the essay ( though they would consider themselves part of the ‘mindfulness’ movement), and I have encountered pretty much the full range were I to try construct something like a selfless-narcissistic continuum (not sure that’s the best dichotomy). I think a large theme over a number of essays at this site have pointed to our societal polarization, and to our increasing incapability for discourse and dialog between portions of society that seem to live in separate worlds.

    So I was expressing my ambivalence, as I think it is a pretty easy target and I would be more interested in attempts to look at the sources that might be driving our current superficial cultural expressions. After all given what passes for lifestyle for the great majority of Americans, it is not in my view especially surprising that counter-culture reactions would express a similar superficiality. I know an essay can’t be all things, but it does feel a bit to me like there are some groups which are fair game for lampooning here, and others which should not be lampooned for fear of further harming our discourse.

    Any how, I agree that the manifestation is problematic and should be addressed. Thanks for the essay.

  13. Hi Labnut, again with the attack on hedonism as if that were an actual worldwide movement, much less advocating anything like you are claiming. Maybe you should move to the US or Europe. The rampant conservatism and asceticism (even among the so-called liberals) would delight you.

    Most self-improvement movements (by which I mean about 99.99%) are based on ascetic and not hedonistic principles. They are amoral in a much different sense, removing one’s sense of connection with others (big hint: hedonistic sex involves others and if you are doing it right a concern for others). They make YOU the center of everything, the prime mover and shaper. They make everyone else essentially cannon fodder to your improvement.

  14. Hi Dan, I forgot to mention that I didn’t know what EST meant (though I am familiar with other self-improvement movements). You might want to add an explanatory footnote or link for readers.

    1. Will do. I forget sometimes that not everyone remembers the 70’s so well. It was pretty big back then, and anyone with a connection to 70s popular culture would have heard of it.

  15. dbholmes: I have to say that I find the notion of “preferred indifferents” particularly obnoxious, insofar it is central to the “self-sufficiency” idea. As I said, this is the sort of thing one can only say to people in modern, wealthy nations. Imagine telling it to some person in Haiti, whose entire village was destroyed in a hurricane or to a Rwandan orphan, whose parents were murdered in the civil war or some child standing in the middle of a pile of garbage and sewage in Liberia.

    And don’t tell me Epictetus was a slave. That’s thousands of years ago and exactly the kind of ripping something from its context that renders it entirely irrelevant. Yes, he was a slave. And yes, he also believed all the religio/metaphysical elements of Stoicism that have been excised from the modern version. His consciousness was not that of the modern individual.

    I mean, you and I both love Massimo to death, but don’t tell me that this sort of thing isn’t rather difficult to stomach:

    “Seneca reminded us several times that one way to appreciate what we have, as well as to prepare for adversity, is to occasionally do without some of our preferred indifferents. Musonius Rufus said that “mastering one’s appetites for food and drink is the beginning of and basis for self-control” (Lectures 18A.1), so that’s what I try to do: once a week I fast for the day and take no alcohol (for Italians, having dinner without a glass of wine is almost a sin…). I call it my “endure & renounce” day, in honor of Epictetus. As a side-effect, this feels good both psychologically (self-control is empowering!) and physically (I feel refreshed and ready to go the following morning).

    Regular self-imposed discomfort. This is another version of the exercise just above, and for me it takes the form of, for instance, finishing my shower by turning the water to cold, or going outside in the winter slightly underdressed for the weather. The idea isn’t to suffer for the sake of suffering, nor to do things that actually imperil one’s health. It is, again, both a reminder of what we have and may take for granted, and training for the eventuality that we may actually have to go hungry or with poor clothing — one never knows what Fortuna has in store for us.”

    My mother was starving and freezing in Bergen-Belsen when she was 13 years old. Her sister was 11. I guarantee you that Massimo’s “fasts” and “going outside without a coat” do nothing whatsoever to prepare him for such a situation. And I hope to God that neither he nor anyone else I care about should find themselves in one.

  16. I’m with you on one thing, Dan. I can’t wait for Massimo to get tired of this Stoicism thing, so maybe I could attend a salon of his on something of more interest — especially after the long general piece of philosophy that was discussed here.

    Sorry, but I can think of few things sillier than saying “We won’t be fooled again!” We most certainly will. It seems like rock-and-roll stage posturing, and on the subject of The Who, what is more narcissistic than the glorification of “Tommy” the sad victim of sexual abuse who rises to glory while having no avenue of escape from himself (deaf, dumb, and blind indeed)? Dan, an earnest question though it may sound rhetorical, are you a fan of Howard Beale of Network and the “We’re sick and tired and we’re not going to take it any more!” moment. I’m decidedly not.

    This does seem to be a rant of one vaguely conceived “type” or person (people like you) against another vaguely conceived “type” of person, and among other things, making up that they all feel superior to you and criticizing them for that. Human, all to human, is exactly what I think it is. Rather than this kind of posturing and dividing the world in two, better to be asking oneself “Why do we/I get fooled over and over again.

    For those wanting some picture of “est”, I was told by a fellow “graduate” that an episode in the Amazon Prime series “The Americans” did reasonable justice to it. Or you could read the 1978 Werner Erhard The Transformation of a Man: The Founding of est by William Bartley III, which describes the course as it was til about 1984, in some detail. Bartley is a rather curious character who probably started out in theology or seminary (judging from his _The Retreat to Commitment_), who wrote a controversial biography of Wittgenstein, took the training, and remained close to Erhard. He also edited and annotated Lewis Carroll’s Symbolic Logic (1977), had an on again off again close relation with Karl Popper and edited his Realism and the Aim of Science, and who at the end of his life was editing the complete works of Hayek.

    I took the “est training” in March 1983, just over half my lifetime ago. I was intensely active for a few years, including extensive volunteer work with “Youth at Rish” which I believed saved many lives of mostly black and Hispanic teens, and put others on a far better course of life. I was never attracted to anything else that could be called “New Age”, and I think it is quite an anomaly among programs/movements that are given that designation. There are some people involved then and now who try just about everything though, and are very “new age”. The YAR program died out in a few years as a national program, but there are local and regional successor programs, including New York Youth at Risk (see and 2 very good 7-minute videos to see what that is about).

    For now I won’t try to explain it, but refer you to those sources, and there are others if anyone is curious.

    It seems to me it managed to convey one key thing, but one that is very hard to express. Before, my interest in understanding the world was kind of dreamy; afterwards, I became very focused, and “on fire”. It is very clearly not about believing anything particular, but a shift in attitude such as one might have on *really* getting you’re going to die some day. In some literal sense you haven’t learned a new thing, but then again you have. I stopped participating probably a couple of years after 1991, the year the organization was divested by Erhard and continued by Landmark Education. The vast majority of my friends to date are extremely active in Landmark, but nobody has tried to “enroll” me in anything although I have no negative feelings about it. Only in the last few years, I came to participate in a distant spinoff called CCC or Couples Coaching Couples, which mostly attracts Landmark people, but has lately become a lot more “integrated”. In this program, which is all-volunteer (no professionals) I have seen many couples improve tremendously, sometimes in several marked phases.

    The change from “est training” to “Forum” started around 1984, mostly due to interaction between Erhard and Fernando Flores, once a minister in Allende’s Chile, who, after being gotten out of Pinochet’s prisons took a Ph.D. in philosophy under Hubert Dreyfus. I believe Paul Grice and John Austin were also there at U.C. Berkeley. The Forum became much less earthy and theatrical, and much more like a pure conversation (despite the image of “trainer” harranguing participants in “est”, the participants did, I’d guess, 80% of the talking, moved by introductions to face different aspects of their lives — most of what was learned came from seeing into regular human beings), with much direct influence from Wittgenstein, Austin and Heidegger.

    Landmark Education was the result, in January 1991 of a decision by Erhard to let the organization he built go its own way. The Forum was reduced from two weekends plus to 3 consecutive days, and reduced to less than half its former price, but it was otherwise not a sharp break in continuity.

    1. Hal: My wife did the Landmark Forum. Obviously, she vehemently disagrees with my essay.

      Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea. I can’t accept your characterization re: “they all feel superior to you and criticizing them for that,” as that simply is not what the essay and its critique is about at all.

      And yes, I love The Who. And the movie “Network.”

    2. One other thing: The essay doesn’t mention the new Stoicism, which isn’t big enough to have the sort of impact I’m talking about anyway. I only spoke of it in response to Dwayne, who brought it up.

  17. The Guardian has a piece on one of the newest iterations of this cult of the self, with an observer and participant voicing similar concerns to those in this essay:

    “Swiss Artist Salome Voegelin also found a purpose in silence. However, rather than finding silence soothing or nulling somehow, it instead opened her mind to the “radical possibility of hearing”. She describes silence, not as the absence of sound, but as the beginning of listening, though she has some reservations about the “egotistical tendencies” of the current trend for silent getaways.

  18. Well, I agree with the OP, but to give the matter a little wider historical context…. Look, the ‘cult of the self’ really begins in the Reformation, in the insistence on the part of reformers that a true Christian read the Bible and develop a ‘personal relationship with god.’ ‘Self-help’ begins as a personal aspiration for the experience of ‘a higher spirit’ liberated from tradition. And while Protestant communities did form in the wake of the Reformation, this core aspiration meant that one needed to be willing to divorce from the community if it was not found useful to achieving this aspiration – which has led to one Protestant sect breaking off from another and yet another. At roughly the same time the technological revolution – deriving from a science of personal inquiry, founded on an epistemology that had rejected tradition – developed into the Industrial Revolution, which realized itself in an era when it was becoming possible to attain great wealth without inheritance or title, and without owing much to one’s community.

    In short, the Cult of the Self has roots long and deep and has recurred in differing forms throughout the history of Modernity. What’s interesting is that, if we have indeed entered a ‘Post-Modern’ era, this fascination with the Self, rather than being critically deconstructed, has attained to almost fetishistic cultural normativity. In short, it remains what is most Modern about the Post-Modern. Which raises the question whether it is where Modernity was headed all along. (‘Post-Modernism’ may not be ‘post’ anything, it may simply prove the culminating realization of Modernism. It’s self-realization, if I may put it ironically.)

  19. I had to look up Erhard and est. Not my cup of tea but the little I have learned about it looks interesting.

    Dan, I agree with part of what you are saying. But much of this (as you readily admit) is based on temperament and so is not the sort of thing one agrees or disagrees with. (One might or might not have *similar feelings*.)

    “… [T]he old Cult of the Self actually may have been slightly less loathsome than its newer, smarmier versions, insofar as it was at least honest, albeit in a brutal, tone-deaf sort of way.”

    My default position is that something like that “brutal” position is probably ‘true’ in the sense that it correlates well with reality. But this could be seen as a dangerous idea. It seems to me there is a key divide here on how people see the world (and themselves). I don’t know, however, that I would want to *push* this idea too much: social consequences may not be good. There is no reason to think that just because something is true, it is something one should talk about. I’ve never liked the ‘noble lie’ idea, but reticence is slightly different from this. Reticence is also something – like lying, actually – which I am not particularly good at. 🙂

    Ejwinner’s historical perspective sounds plausible. My (more immediate) suggested precursor would be with Max Stirner’s radical egoism (which Kolakowski saw as prefiguring fascism).

    1. Mark, if I didn’t think this movement was bad — as Peter Marin did, as Christopher Lasch did, and many others — I wouldn’t criticize it *solely* on the basis of temperament. I think it is straightforwardly bad, which is why I wrote the essay.

      And that’s all it is. An essay.

  20. EJ,
    ‘Post-Modernism’ may not be ‘post’ anything, it may simply prove the culminating realization of Modernism.

    Exactly. Anthony Giddens called it Late Modernity which is rather more accurate. He called this phenomenon the ‘the reflexive project of the self.‘.

    I suspect though that your well known dislike of religion has led you to over-interpret the influence of Protestantism and ignore other, more powerful factors. It is true that it unleashed a certain sense of individualism in the interpretation of the Bible and that this in turn led to the formation of many Protestant denominations. It is also true that this individualism liberated a strong, thrusting sense of purpose that got things done. Western society owes a lot to this. This is founded on a deep seated belief in a better future, epitomized by the Kingdom of God.

    However the link of this with today’s obsessive self-absorption is most tenuous. I think you need to do more than claim the link exists.

    The individualism of the time was always confined, constrained or directed by an over-arching ethical, community and religious framework that gave it a clear sense of purpose and whereby the individual was held accountable. Remember too that religious communities were precisely that, communities, where the individual interest was strongly aligned with the community interest. The obsessively self-absorbed would soon be called out and held to account.

    Individualism is decidedly not the same thing as obsessive self-absorption and this is where your argument fails.

    Our minds attempt to find a balance between self-interest, community interest and the transcendental. Self-interest and self improvement are healthy and balanced when it is not solely directed to the self but also aligns itself with community interests and transcendental values. It is this three way balance which determines what kind of people we are.

    We are all brains-in-vats, vitally concerned with our own pleasures and interests. That is a normal state of affairs. What redeems us is a strong sense of otherness. This is a strong sense that others really do exist outside our brain-in-a-vat and that they really do matter. It is a strong sense that other, transcendental values, outside our brain-in-a-vat, really do matter. It is when others matter less that we become obsessively self-absorbed.

    What has gone wrong in society is that the healthy balance between self-interest and otherness(community and the transcendental) has been heavily tilted towards the self.

    It is not the result of individualism. It is rather the result of several other changes:
    1. a corrosive spirit of criticism that grew out of the Enlightenment that we now call critical thinking. This has reduced the influence of the community and the transcendental on the individual, tipping the balance towards the self. We have claimed for ourselves the role of appeal court and supreme court. We are the judge, prosecutor and jury.
    2. a surfeit of goods, which strongly rewards the self, reinforcing the imbalance.
    3. a commercial system designed to entice excessive consumption by appealing to the self and thus fetishsizing the self.
    4. an entertainment system that celebrates excessive and conspicuous consumption thus elevating the self to the first god in a pantheon of gods.
    5. an entertainment system that elevates the narcissistic values of celebrities to the highest goals of society.

    Individualism can be other-directed or inward-directed. The individualism of the Protestant Reformation was always other-directed whereas today’s individualism has become inward-directed and this is what has become the excessive self-absorption criticised so trenchantly by Dan-K.

    1. Labnut: I *would* ascribe to the Reformation the origins of modern individualism, but the movement I am talking about is a toxic version; one that, in my view need not reflect negatively on the non-toxic version.

    2. I can certainly see many points in this response that can be validated, yet, especially in the comment regarding Protestantism. As a devoted Baptist from the South, that probably just conjured up a mental check, I taught my kids a lesson or two which have been around in our family since they first set foot on pre-revolutionary Virginian soil back in the late 1600s – take care of your mental and physical well being, yet, serve others with patience, humility, brevity and above all else, understanding. Without having a pre-determined notion of what is in it for me, Acting in such a way as mentioned above naturally creates a sense of community, no matter where you choose to serve. Kids and the young generation of adults are fascinated with Branding the self. Every aspect of their lives is enraptured with every detail which should and needs to convey what, not who, they wish to be. Prior to this technologically boosted generation, legacies and great people were made as a result of what great things in their lives they selflessly, not selfishly, did to serve others in the name of humanity. The legacy was born as a result of what they gave and gave without creating the brand first. The “brand” actually was irrelevant because their attention was neither self absorbed nor selfish. A legacies attention, a great persons attention, was on the serving of humankind. Contrary to what we might think, there are still many people, even Protestants, who work and serve everyday with this model in mind.

  21. Dan=K,
    Gone is the idea that our deepest relationships with and obligations to others are properly self-effacing,

    That is so well put.

    and in its place is the notion that the main thing to think about, with respect to other people and what they deserve, is how the way I treat them reflects upon me.

    Exactly. We have become PR agents for the enterprise of the self. The irony is that, in the age of the self, it is wasted effort since you are the only reader of your PR.

  22. Brian B,
    I’m afraid that this strikes me as a rant.

    Dan-K certainly offered some trenchant opinions but this was done in a thoughtful framework that offered useful insights. This is an essay, not an academic paper and robustly expressed opinions, if well done, have their place in essay writing.

  23. Brian,
    To generalize our exploration of those possibilities for self-creation as “narcissism” is unfortunate.

    The moment you used the term ‘self-creation‘ you admitted Dan-K’s thesis 🙂

  24. I also reject the notion that in order legitimately to criticize something, you need to provide a “viable alternative.” This is not a standard that is generally applied, and I see no reason why it should be applied here.

    I might also say just one other thing. That so many people in wealthy, western, free-from-war countries feel so in need of this sort of “help” is, in itself, an expression of the problem. In many ways, it is a “disease” born of affluence and the unhealthy self-attention that follows. (Again, we are not talking about actual mental illness, for which there exists legitimate psychotherapy. That’s not what these cults of the self are about. They are about “self improvement” in precisely the way I described.)

  25. While pondering what to say next, my eyes came to rest on this:

    “You are following this blog, along with 984 other amazing people”

    Well, aren’t we special? Yes, we’re all special. That’s why everybody has to get a present, not just the birthday boy.

    I’ll repeat one thing:

    This does seem to be a rant of one vaguely conceived “type” or person (people like you) against another vaguely conceived “type” of person.

    I don’t care if you substitute “vehement critique” for “rant”, but it’s what people have always done out of habit and nearly irresistible impulse, and I believe we need a different kind of conversation if we are to escape being divided and ruled by the .001%.

    The OP has left me without any clear idea what form the “cult of self” is supposed to be taking in the 2000-teens.

    I have found one useful critique of current culture, addressing the “40% loss of empathy” of today’s college students, which is Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle, and it goes beyond critique to suggest solutions. Like for the teenage boy who kept texting that he would not show up at family get-togethers. He was told by his parents he had to make his excuses with an actual phone call (and hear the disappointment in his grandparent’s voices), and he started showing up to most occasions.

    The world of being expected to respond to a text in 3-5 minutes, of texting from one party to another to see if it is more lively, of labeling a girl who responds too quickly to a flirtatious text “psycho” and dropping her, or eighth graders with the social skills of elementary schoolers, of girls and boys while “hooked up”, scanning their phones for something better. All these are described as individuals, many I believe from the author’s clinical practice. I think we need to look at individuals rather than the generalizations of “critiques of the other” (which become evolving life forms, accumulating new bits and new people and trends to blame) — if we hope to understand what is going on, and try to act like you can do something about it (whether the event will prove you right or not, it is a better way to live, I believe).

    1. I look forward to your doing the kind of critique you prefer on your own magazine. I started my own magazine so that I could do the kind of critique that *I* like to do.

      As for the follower count, if there’s a point, I’m not getting it. It’s part of the functionality of WordPress. I didn’t invent it.

  26. The OP has left me without any clear idea what form the “cult of self” is supposed to be taking in the 2000-teens.


    Well, I listed some of them at the beginning. Then I gave a pretty detailed characterization in terms of a number of core ideas. Then I connected them to their 1970’s predecessors. And I also explained what I dislike about them.

    All in under 2,000 words.

  27. As for the follower count, if there’s a point, I’m not getting it. It’s part of the functionality of WordPress. I didn’t invent it.

    It’s the “amazing people” bit. “984 other AMAZING PEOPLE”

    I didn’t think you were responsible for it, but it struck me as a funny illustration of a rather pandering culture, which fits into the discussion.

  28. @ Hal Morris:

    Sherry Turkle is an important voice and has plenty to say in general about the current generation and its challenges, especially as these relate to social media. Dan K. strikes a similar note in his essay when he discusses how the present cult of the self is intimately connected to the increasing dominance of “social” media. Sounds contemporary to me.

  29. Hal,
    I don’t care if you substitute “vehement critique” for “rant”, but it’s what people have always done out of habit and nearly irresistible impulse, and I believe we need a different kind of conversation

    It matter a great deal what term you choose, rant, vehement critique or trenchant criticism, because they go beyond being descriptive and indicate (strong)approval or disapproval. Most times we are not interested in whether you approve or disapprove because we prefer constructive contributions.

    done out of habit and nearly irresistible impulse

    Are you describing Dan-K’s putative drinking habits, eating habits or bedroom practices?

    I believe we need a different kind of conversation

    That depends on your goals and your strategy. Polemical pieces can serve an important role as attention getter, stimulus to debate and provoker of controversy. One needs to appeal to the thoughtful and sometimes to provoke them to thought. This requires a judicious mixture of approaches, not a monochromatic approach. Judging by the replies he has succeeded in provoking thought. Bravo.

    I believe we need a different kind of conversation if we are to escape being divided and ruled by the .001%.

    That is a very different kind of conversation. People with power never relinquish it under the threat of peaceful persuasion.

    …addressing the “40% loss of empathy” Students, Less Kindness for Strangers?)

    I’m glad you mentioned this. This of course confirms the deep concern expressed in Dan-K’s essay. The shrinking of our circle of compassion is a tragic reversal of the progress made in the last 150 years.

    Dan-K did not propose remedies for the simple reason that one must first accept there is a need before anyone will consider remedies. Remedies are the really difficult part that require deep and even structural changes in society. That conversation should really be reserved for another essay.

    But even so, I agree with you that restoring face-to-face conversation is central to the process. And conversation in the home is the most vital part of this. Nowhere is this more important than the daily conversation over dinner. The advent of television administered a mortal blow to this practice and now mobile devices have delivered the coup de grâce.

    How does one achieve this? Has the chicken flown from the coop for good? I come from a milieu where the daily dinner was an important event and one signaled its importance by dressing up for dinner. Dinner was the central event of the evening. It was a place for insightful conversation. It was a place where each person received attention and was encouraged to contribute. It was a place where daily experiences were shared and larger matters were considered. This was the heart of the family and the heart of the family is the heart of society.

    Will we ever return to this? I don’t think so.

  30. Hi Dan, I remember the 70s somewhat well (I think), but I got roped into a whole other set of self-improvement ideas from my parents and so those color/dominate my memory regarding those things.

    “While I agree that these are especially awful, I don’t think that a conception of Self-Improvement need express them in order to rub me the wrong way.”

    Yes, I understood that your target was more along the lines of what I mentioned to Labnut (placing you at the center), than what I said upset me (the vocal/critical dimension). The combination really grates on my nerves, though the former issue is more problematic.

    I want to make clear, particularly since Hal picked up on the topic as well, that I was not trying to say Stoicism falls into that category, much less Massimo. However, it does have a self-centered aspect (which you describe) and with its recent rise in popularity threatens to be heading in the direction of movements that have upset me (the whole “mindfulness” movement being a good example).

    I am not a stoic. And having followed Massimo’s investigations into it, have reaffirmed that I am definitely not a stoic. There are some interesting aspects of that philosophy, and I am not critical of those that pursue it (much like Buddhism), in fact I like that people are becoming more interested in it as compared to Utilitarianism/Kantian ethics.

    But as I concluded decades back my temperament is more Epicurean. While Epicurean philosophy is open to the criticism of being self-centered as much as stoicism it lacks the unrealistic element of “preferred indifferents” which further isolates the stoic from others, by furthering the illusion one never needed anything from others nor do they need anything from you. I think that is an error, for me one that is crucial to whether I could practice it.

    “As I said, this is the sort of thing one can only say to people in modern, wealthy nations. Imagine telling it to some person in Haiti, whose entire village was destroyed in a hurricane or to a Rwandan orphan, whose parents were murdered in the civil war or some child standing in the middle of a pile of garbage and sewage in Liberia… I guarantee you that Massimo’s “fasts” and “going outside without a coat” do nothing whatsoever to prepare him for such a situation. And I hope to God that neither he nor anyone else I care about should find themselves in one.”

    Exactly. While I am not going to put myself on the level of the examples you gave, I have been homeless and (basically) penniless, with no clear way of coming back from that situation. The experiences I had in that underlined what I had already considered in the comfy (by comparison) college dorms while debating the merits of Epicurean v. Stoic philosophy.

    The Stoics sure have a lot of great quotes to keep in mind when one is down, indeed I would credit them with some great mind games when one is down to concentrate on what is necessary as opposed to desired. But the idea one can “prepare” or have an idea what “suffering” is from self-deprivation or self-punishment is absurd, as well as a cruel insult to those who have suffered such things. Self-deprivation and punishment may be worthwhile for building self-discipline (and inspecting one’s desires) it is a dire mistake to pretend it has any relevance to actual deprivation, actual suffering.

    Outside of drug addicts, being poor, much less enslaved or oppressed, is not about a lack of “self control” regarding one’s desires, or a question of what one must do to maintain such control. It is about what one needs to do to regain control from others (or the world) to stay alive, and (preferably) to obtain one’s desires.

    Recognition one might need to help others who are suffering, requires an understanding that major sources of suffering (and so relief) can come from external sources beyond the control of the individual.

  31. Hi Hal Morris, as Dan noted I was the one who brought up Stoicism and so you might read my latest response to Dan on that topic. I am actually positive about Massimo’s experiment and think Stoicism offers elements that are quite useful, even if it is not the most sound philosophy (out of those falling within Virtue Ethics).

    Funny enough, I was more taken aback by your criticism of The Who, and feel I must reply… 🙂

    The song “Won’t get fooled again” is not in any way a declaration that people (including The Who) won’t. If anything it is an open acknowledgement that everyone will. The best they can do (though I assume this is via the words of Pete Townsend) is to “pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday.” Then they get on their knees and pray they won’t be fooled again. The fact that it ends with “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” shows they have been and likely always will.

    And I never thought I’d see Tommy described as “the glorification of “Tommy” the sad victim of sexual abuse who rises to glory while having no avenue of escape from himself (deaf, dumb, and blind indeed)”. While I don’t think it is their best, or absolutely clear in its narrative, your description seems to have missed the mark widely. Maybe you should give it (and other Who albums… I plug Who’s Next) another listen.

    Actually Tommy might offer a similar criticism as what Dan gave. When Tommy becomes free (you know he does overcome his blindness etc, right?) and then treated as some guru for being a pinball wizard, the best he has to offer is for others to close their eyes, ears, and mouths. Give up pleasure and interaction. Focus on an isolated self… to win at pinball? Faced with that form of “self-improvement” advice, the people revolt and over throw him.

  32. Hi Labnut, I have always found this concept interesting and compelling (even if not as necessary as you suggest)…

    “…the daily dinner was an important event and one signaled its importance by dressing up for dinner. Dinner was the central event of the evening. It was a place for insightful conversation. It was a place where each person received attention and was encouraged to contribute. It was a place where daily experiences were shared and larger matters were considered. This was the heart of the family and the heart of the family is the heart of society.”

    I had a girlfriend that was adamant about having this kind of lifestyle (while being a hedonist you’d definitely recoil at). Outside of holiday dinners I had not experienced this, but they were nice.


    “The advent of television administered a mortal blow to this practice and now mobile devices have delivered the coup de grâce.”

    I don’t agree with this assessment at all, at least with regard to television. Mobile devices are individual-based and so divisive, isolating, and so a form of solipsism. But why TV?

    Some of my best memories of family dinners were shared events while we all watched TV. It gave us an external set of narratives to react to and discuss (even where purely fiction or fluff). Many families (and to some extent my own) included bonding, especially at holidays while watching major sports events. From time to time Dan has discussed common cultural narratives created by national broadcast TV shows. And I think this was true to a relevant degree (at least in my home).

    To my mind the larger blow to all of this was the changing economic climate, and job market, which decimated a family’s ability to actually meet at a regular time to eat, watch TV, or discuss things, in some communal way.

  33. Hi Hal (and all), I just realized my comment about “We won’t get fooled again” was worded more strongly than I meant. It is not that we or they “will” be fooled, but that anyone (always) “could” be fooled. It is of course trying to prevent one from being fooled, by showing how one has/can be fooled in a social revolutions. When you are sure the next “boss” will be better than the last (in any revolution), it is likely you’ve been had.

  34. @Dan I look forward to your doing the kind of critique you prefer on your own magazine. I started my own magazine so that I could do the kind of critique that *I* like to do.

    I’d be grateful if I thought you meant that, but I’m skeptical.

    I’m sorry to keep getting under your skin; it seems to happen repeatedly, and I suspect you frequently sense I’m hostile when I’m not, but I do have passionate opinions as you do. I also tend to get into any discussion like I think I might make some difference, and as if that were the whole point. That’s precisely what I got out of anything I did connected with “est” or the Forum, and I don’t see how that is self-involved. I think it made me far less self-involved and narcissistic than I was.

    I was drawn into this, out of some vexation at reading a good bit of “piling on” against a sort of bogeyman IMO, and Exhibit A is something with which I’ve had some experience. The whole thing seems incoherent. “Self” is a poor subject for a cult, as it would have everybody worshiping a different god (him/herself).

    Besides, wasn’t Descartes kind of self-obsessed, and Benjamin Franklin was obsessed with self-improvement, and the Romantics with theirs Bildungsromans, and the Transcendentalists, who were a kind of American romantic — those who weren’t abolitionists at least, and and the Shakers and the other commune dwellers … this thing has ebbed and flowed for a long time.

    @Labnut, I was purposely backing away from saying “rant”. I’ve been known to rant myself, and am not that interested in taking on ranting per se. When I said “it’s what people have always done out of habit and nearly irresistible impulse” I meant elaborating on an angry narrative about some “other” who is presumed not to be in the room. I prefer to take up an issue with somebody in the room. It is like Mark Twain saying “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” I think people, at least those who are not leaders, have some preference for talking about the thing they can do nothing about, or which they believe they can do nothing about.

    It’s an academic fad to (which I’m sure Dan rightly disapproves of) to rant about the negative obsession with “the other”, where the obsessor is identified with something like western bourgeois culture, and the “other” is identified with some vague congeries of the oppressed, and we had almost run out of new people to identify as oppressed (which was sad because to progress we should always be defending more “subalterns” then we were yesterday) when somebody thought of the “T” in “LGBT”. It would be a better conversation if they stopped shaking their fingers and tut-tutting, and just said “Yes, this is how people tend to act”. We divide up into teams and obsess about each other. The West is probably about as “guilty” as anybody else, only accidents of history gave us an extreme technical superiority for a while, and it is worth acknowledging that we perpetrated all kinds of horror, especially if we want others, such as the Germans and Japanese, and the descendants of the Aztecs, etc. to acknowledge their past and not glorify it just because it is “their own” as we are wont to do.

    Anyway, this is what I’m saying “people have always done out of habit and nearly irresistible impulse” (I don’t see how that could have been taken as eating, drinking, or bedroom habits). The “subaltern studies” folks are doing what they criticize everybody else of doing, and it does make a practical difference whether you’re doing it from a position of extreme dominance rather than spouting in a classroom, but still it’s the same damn universally human phenomenon, which is mostly moderated by giving people something else to think about, like participating in a working economy, and aggravated when you go in and atomize that working economy, as the US did in Iraq, leaving people again with nothing to think about but the “evil other”.

    And the near inescapability of it is summarized by the saying “There are two kinds of people in ther world, people who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and people who don’t” — i.e. in trying to be one I become the other, but I think with some humor, esp. laughing at our own self-righteousness, there is hope.

    1. Hal, you’re not getting under my skin. But nothing you’ve said provides any sort of actual argument against the substance of the essay. Rather, it’s all been about whether one should write such things, which just seems rather pointless, because I did and will continue to do so.

  35. Stoicism has come in for some criticism here, unfairly, I think. I am also critical of some aspects but I think it is largely a good practice.

    The unfair criticism.
    1. Comparing Massimo’s exercises with suffering in the Holocaust was really unfair. Very few are called upon to endure such suffering and there is little that one could do that could ever prepare one for such an ordeal. What was remarkable about the Holocaust was the strength with which the Jewish people endured it. I really doubt that any other people would have shown such enduring strength in the face of such a calamitous disaster. I put this down to their faith. Read the Psalms and you will understand.

    But adversity of the more mundane kind is an ever present reality. How do we react to or confront adversity? Massimo’s practices are training in hardiness and resilience. The mere fact of doing them is the most important step in preparing the mind. It is the attitude of the mind which is the crucial thing in overcoming adversity. Prepare the mind and you can confront most adversities. I was mugged twice this year and was severely injured. Each time I fought back vigorously. When this happens it is so fast that there is no time to think. If the mind is not prepared there is a good chance that one’s reaction may be wrong.

    2. Its foundation of virtue ethics was another criticism. Virtue ethics is our most fundamental and basic perception of morality. It is present in all peoples and is our deepest moral intuition.

    3. It is evidence of self-centredness or self absorption. This is such a surprising criticism. We are all centres of our own world but Stoic practices prepare one to engage with the world more effectively. Stoicism is not a retreat from the world but is rather a search for a better way of engaging with the world.

    The fair criticism.
    1. Love is not regarded as a foundational virtue. I think this is quite a substantial defect. Love should be be the preeminent virtue that defines everything else.

    2. It emphases too much the virtues of equanimity, even-handedness and acceptance. I subscribe rather to the Roman concept of the ‘glowing spirit‘ which seeks greatness in overcoming great odds in a contest culture. It sees life as a succession of tests, of intense competition, where you define yourself in the eager, ardent, determined way you confront the tests. It is this that creates the ‘glowing spirit‘. It claims reward and pleasure with glad, intense enjoyment but never in surfeit or at the cost of others and it is never the goal. You may, on occasion, lose the fight but if you lose the fight greatly, with courage and determination, then you have a ‘glowing spirit‘. Even the defeats will be celebrated for their courage.

    This is also a criticism of Aristotelian virtue ethics, with its emphasis on finding the wise middle way. This, more often than not, results in a kind of ethical mediocrity. On the other hand it is the ‘glowing spirit‘ that powers all the advances of our species. However we must take care that our ‘glowing spirit‘ is not perverted into a ‘malignant spirit‘, which is always a danger.

    The benefits of Stoicism
    It is first and foremost an ethical system.
    1. In a growing secular age we badly need an ethical system to supplant the moral emptiness created by loss of religion. There is quite simply nothing else available to fill this hole.
    2. It is a neutral ethical system that can serve as a common point for atheists, agnostics, secularists and people of the many faith persuasions. It is a broad tent for them all. For example, Stoicism is a natural adjunct to Catholicism, except that we insist on the primacy of love.

    The danger of Stoicism
    Stoicism encourages frugality. On the face of it that seems like a good thing but it would devastate our economy if it became the norm. A decline in consumption would end economic growth and precipitate a recession. Mind you abortion and declining birth rate will likely achieve the same effect and then we will need Stoicism as a mean of enduring the resulting calamity. The obsessively self-absorbed(the subject of the essay) are likely to have fewer children. In a perverse sort of way that may be a good thing since they would make poor parents.

    1. Labnut: The Jews did not always bear it so well. Read Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz.

      The dirty secret is that when you dehumanize people they actually do act like animals. So much for the doctrine of “self sufficiency.”

    2. And you don’t have to evoke the Holocaust. Massimo’s “exercises” do nothing to prepare him for being homeless or poor in today’s America either. You think walking around for a day without a coat makes you more “hardy” and prepared for impoverishment and insufficient clothing for the winter?

      I agree with Dwayne. The very suggestion is offensive and obnoxious.

  36. I must also defend Massimo’s practice of dieting.

    1. there are well documented and quite substantial health benefits to regular fasting.

    2. it is a form of practice in regulating the appetites so that we don’t succumb to them.

    3. it is a form of practice in self control that carries over into other areas in life.

    4. it increases one’s sense of command and mastery over oneself. It builds confidence and self esteem to know that one has command and mastery over oneself.

    5. it restores our sense of taste and discrimination to the enjoyment of food. It undoes the effect of habituation. Satiety desensitises one to subtle nuances in taste.

    6. after the fast one approaches food with a sense of newness and discovery which is delightfully enjoyable.

    7. it restores a feeling of sacredness and value to the meal, making it more intensely enjoyable and valuable. Eating becomes a ritual to be savoured in slow, rich enjoyment.

    1. Labnut, this and your other post are all fine and well, but I quoted the post and it’s pretty explicit. Part of the point of these exercises is to prepare oneself for the possibility that one will lose these things. What Dwayne and I have said is that they are no such preparation at all and to think they are is to completely misunderstand what the experience of such deprivation is like.

      And again, modern Stoicism was *not* part of the critique. I only mentioned it, because Dwayne brought it up.

  37. Part of the point of these exercises is to prepare oneself for the possibility that one will lose these things.

    I agree with you that the reasons Massimo gave were pretty poorly thought out and that is why I amplified on the subject, listing what I thought were better reasons. These are the reasons why I support the practice of fasting. There is also a strong religious dimension but this secular audience won’t understand that.

    1. I think a lot of the other reasons you give are very good ones. Whether they are Stoic ones is, of course, another question. But there is nothing wrong with fasting. Walking around in the cold without a coat, on purpose, however, just seems stupid, no matter how you slice it.

  38. I agree with Dwayne. The very suggestion is offensive and obnoxious.

    Strong words. Are you trying to close down dissenting views? These views were courteously expressed in an attempt to make a thoughtful contribution and I don’t apologize for trying to do that. Peremptorily dismissing them as ‘offensive and obnoxious‘ is an example of the behaviour you condemn.

    1. Labnut, people can write whatever they like. That’s part one of free speech. The other part is that people get to say what they think of it. That’s all I’ve done. I have no power over anyone else. And yes, one can be unwittingly obnoxious.

      A good test is whether you would actually say something like this to the relevant person. Would you go up to a poor person, who can’t afford a winter coat, and tell them that you are walking without one yourself to prepare yourself for the possibility that you might wind up in their situation? If not, it’s worth pondering why.

  39. @Dan Hal, you’re not getting under my skin. But nothing you’ve said provides any sort of actual argument against the substance of the essay. Rather, it’s all been about whether one should write such things, which just seems rather pointless, because I did and will continue to do so.

    To reduce everything I said to “You shouldn’t write such things” is IMO rather obtuse.

    Also, there is quite a bit of precedent in philosophy for saying “this is the wrong way to talk about a thing”. I’d expect someone who calls Wittgenstein the greatest philosopher of the 20c (certainly something close to that if I haven’t got it quite right) to be less dismissive of that sort of critique.

  40. Hi Labnut, you appear to have read more criticism of Stoicism (and Massimo) into my and Dan’s comments than was actually there. My reply to Dan above (if you did not read it) clarifies the extent of my criticism and points out that I actually support people studying Stoicism, including Massimo’s experiment, even if I have (re)discovered it is not the form of virtue ethics I could practice myself. In fact, I explicitly stated that such self-denial practices (like dieting) had merit for improving things like self-discipline/control. It just isn’t going to help you learn to deal with real loss.

    While I’ve supported virtue ethics for decades, I’m dubious non-theists need something like a common philosophy to replace religion. And I am leery of what would/could happen if atheists organized into ethical institutions paralleling the model of religious institutions.

    I don’t think Dan was saying your posts in defense of Stoicism/Massimo were offensive and obnoxious (which is how it looks like you took his words). Rather it is just the claim by some stoics that they are preparing for (can understand) suffering by choosing to deprive themselves of things, which would likely be offensive and obnoxious to those who have actually suffered loss.

    And I ought to add pain to that point. I forgot to mention that I suffered through a few different medical problems that were excruciatingly painful. I do not believe lack of pain is a preferred indifferent, and that one can have a meaningful, worthwhile life in prolonged physical pain. Again this is where I split toward the Epicureans.

    To Dan’s recommended reading on how Jews fared about as well as anyone else under extreme duress and privation, I’d add Tadeusz Borowski’s “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” Perhaps books like these ought to be critical reading (a sobering counter example) for virtue ethicists who believe (by reading the works of Emperors and well-lived “slaves”) they can will themselves out of suffering and would have made it through a concentration camp without it affecting (in some meaningful way) the quality of their life.

  41. Interesting as usual. A vehement critique or a rant, I think both aren’t unreasonable qualifiers, but my first impression was ‘venting’.

    I’m a fan of a good rant by the way, I’m just not used to your style, like choice of qualifiers or allusions, so it’s hard for me to ‘get’ what your talking about on a first read.

    I’m aware of attitudes like the ones you mention in your essay, and my first reaction to them has often been negative, negative like I felt when I first read your essay, but I usually end up finding something useful, of value or more, though I don’t expect others to feel the same.

  42. On EJ’s linking the cult of self to Protestantism, I’d agree that a motivating force in modern western versions might be traced to Protestantism (though Something to Ponder has raised an objection), however it is not sufficient to cover the phenomena entirely.

    I would think it is common for most people at some point in life to feel, or observe that basically the world boils down (or can be boiled down) to oneself. The self is all you can really know about (if anything). It is up to you to get things done for yourself. And in the end you die alone.

    Given this feeling, what is most necessary to obtain in life, how can one improve one’s goal seeking thoughts/actions, and how can one avoid suffering become a reasonable set of questions to try to answer.

    For a person that has no theistic beliefs, these can arguably be addressed by isolation of oneself and one’s thoughts (with only a bare minimum connection to the world). For a person with theistic beliefs it can be addressed by isolation of oneself and one’s thoughts in connection with a particular transcendent being (or beings).

    This has gone on for ages, well before and outside Protestantism. Jesus was one of a vast number of religious ascetics (stretching back into antiquity) that went out into the desert to find themselves and so “important” truths. It should be noted that Jesus told his followers as part of his teachings (and this is well before Protestantism) to leave their families and friends behind. As such Catholics have a long tradition of supporting/championing highly self-oriented, ascetic lifestyles to find truth (embodied in monasteries and cloisters). In a similar line, Buddha separated himself from the world and Buddhist monks (following his teaching) retreat from all but the most minimal aspects of the world. Same for the ancient Taoists. And of course there have been non-theistic philosophers who have done the same.

    Contra EJ, I think one should not discount the contributions that Eastern and ancient philosophical traditions may have played in the rise of recent “cults of self” (especially from the 1960’s on).

    While valid as a way to pursue certain questions, to strengthen self-discipline, recover from great injury (physical or other), or clear the mind, these can be great tools. But as a way of life in general, to believe this gets to absolute essential truths about life, is IMHO to make a great mistake. It is a reductionist vision of the universe and life, at best barebones survivalist, at worst a view from the grave.

    As I said in my first reply, most things are cyclical, and I view the rise in popularity of this kind of thinking as belonging to a cyclical pattern. It may very well coincide with times of great visible suffering, where people with sufficient means feel powerless to stop the suffering, and so choose to turn inwards and work on themselves. Perhaps to prevent themselves becoming one of those suffering, perhaps to alleviate guilt by fostering a belief they don’t need to do anything to help others.

    I am also interested in Something to Ponder’s idea that modern strains have been affected by concerns about “branding”.

  43. dbholmes wrote:
    “I would think it is common for most people at some point in life to feel, or observe that basically the world boils down (or can be boiled down) to oneself. The self is all you can really know about (if anything). It is up to you to get things done for yourself. And in the end you die alone.” &

    “For a person that has no theistic beliefs, these can arguably be addressed by isolation of oneself and one’s thoughts (with only a bare minimum connection to the world). For a person with theistic beliefs it can be addressed by isolation of oneself and one’s thoughts in connection with a particular transcendent being (or beings).”

    I know that a lot folks see these ideas as central to Buddhist and Taoist tradition. There are core aspects of both traditions however that are in tension with the idea of knowing by way of isolation. I also agree with Ryle when he suggests that there are some ways in which we know others better than we know ourselves (and vice versa). There is an asymmetry regarding access to the link between motivation and behavior in this regard. When we pay attention to our narratives they are driven by what others would think. I personally think a routine that includes some quiet time for contemplation is useful, but I think we learn to know ourselves mostly through the way we act in the world with others.

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