Ye venerate me; but what if your veneration should some day collapse? Take heed lest a statue crush you!
Ye say, ye believe in Zarathustra? But of what account is Zarathustra! Ye are my believers: but of what account are all believers!
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I have close friends who venerate Adam Smith, John Rawls, Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan, John Maynard Keynes, Ayn Rand, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig von Mises, Paul Samuelson, Deirdre McCloskey, Elinor Ostrom, Hannah Arendt, Alexis de Tocqueville, David Hume, Murray Rothbard, Paul Krugman, or Thomas Jefferson.
“Venerate.” I choose the word with care. “Venerates X” means far more than “Admires X’s intellectual achievements.” It means, rather, than you (a) ascribe superlative and wide-ranging intellectual insight to X, and (b) energetically lobby to get X ample credit for their supposedly remarkable intellectual contributions. Thus, people who venerate Hayek don’t merely say, “Hayek made several fruitful points.” People who venerate Hayek maintain that Hayek’s work is packed with wisdom – and persistently advertise Hayek’s genius to the world.
This veneration of the Great Names mystifies me on two levels.
First, the standard idols just seem overrated. I’ve read everyone on the preceding list. When I was a teenager, I venerated a few of them myself. The more I learned, however, the less impressive even my favorites seemed. At this point in my life, not a one fills me with awe. Sure, they’ll all smart. Sure, they all made interesting observations. But once you set aside the halo effect, each and every one is, in his own way, a massive let-down.
How so? Some of the Great Names are comically dogmatic. Others make frequent glaring logical errors. Some love hyperbole. Others mask banalities in pompous academic prose. Some were great for their time. Others have been overrated from the get-go. Some simply lived before events and discoveries that seriously discredit their life’s work. Others manage to be equally oblivious despite an epistemically advantageous birthyear. Call me hard to please, but after a thorough read, I don’t see why any of the canonical intellectual idols deserve my veneration. Or anyone’s.
Second, lobbying on the idols’ behalf seems overrated as well. Suppose I’m wrong about one of the Great Names. Maybe Adam Smith really is the cat’s meow. I still have to ask: What’s the point of loudly and repeatedly declaring his awesomeness? I can understand why you would want to publicize Smith’s great arguments. Great arguments are what takes rational minds from error to truth. But habitually talking about the man himself seems like a colossal distraction.
I guess you could claim that today’s Adam Smith worship motivates the Smiths of the future: “O Promising Grad Student, if you become as great as Smith was, one day you too will have acolytes who devote their careers to singing your praises.” But it’s hard to believe that this has more than a tiny effect on current thinkers’ intellectual effort. Indeed, if history’s Great Names get too much praise, it’s easy to imagine current thinkers reducing their effort in abject frustration: “I’ll never match the glorious achievements of Adam Smith, so why bother?”
Many will assume that I’m trying to smash existing idols to clear the way for my personal favorites. There’s a kernel of truth here. When I hear “superlative and wide-ranging intellectual insight,” the people who come to my mind are none of the Great Names, but Phil Tetlock and Mike Huemer.
Yet in all candor, I don’t venerate them either. Venerate the living? That’s cultish! Kidding aside, I’m confident Tetlock and Huemer are glad not to be venerated. Truly great thinkers cherish meritocratic intellectual exchange, not Odes to Their Own Greatness.
But, you may ask, where’s the harm in veneration? Above all else, veneration taxes the search for truth. Once you idolize a thinker, it’s hard to calmly weigh his arguments. Perverse nepotism sets in: “Take heed lest a statue crush you!” Don’t believe me? Imagine if I randomly inserted some trite words into the works of whatever thinker you most venerate. Wouldn’t you be sorely tempted, by hook or by crook, to spin my forgery as yet another expression of your idol’s genius?
Finally, you could insist: Veneration may be objectively silly, but it brings meaning to many lives. A tempting plea, but what of the opportunity cost? We could take the brainpower we squander on mortal thinkers, and spend it instead on immortal arguments. Just picture it. We don’t have to settle for meaning alone. We can have truth as well.
Steven E Landsburg
Nov 8 2018 at 1:57pm
the standard idols just seem overrated.
Maybe you just need better idols. Try Emmy Noether, for example.
Nov 9 2018 at 1:24am
@Steve, I was going to make the same comment with Paul Erdos.
Nov 8 2018 at 2:03pm
Venerating an author is a handy metonomy for that author’s arguments. It’s far easier name check Adam Smith than it is to distill his relevant insights into a similarly concise phrase. Such metonomy, while necessarily imprecise, is also crucial to human language.
Nov 8 2018 at 2:41pm
Veneration is useful as a gateway drug to get “people interested in people” to be interested in certain ideas. Also useful to venerate someone for the thread that ties their thinking together, which is important and emulable beyond the nuggets they produce.
Agree that there is far too little emphasis on the difference between the veneration of them for certain parts of their thinking patterns and the veneration of them as borderline infallible dispensers of knowledge. Even the best thinkers are surprisingly wrong most of the time (probably part of the structure of knowledge) but most of the time someone makes a great new argument, it comes from an important and quasi-unique thinking pattern that can be learned solely from reading them.
Nov 8 2018 at 2:58pm
I get it, veneration is unjustified. I agree.
But “each and every one, in his own way, is a massive letdown”? I’m reminded of your statement in another blogpost, “we live in a world of ingratitude.” I’m still grateful for a cornucopia of insights by “the standard idols.”
I have three touchstones for targeting heightened gratitude for insights:
1) After first acquaintance with an author’s work, am I moved to read all of the author’s work? Jon Elster, Thomas Schelling, Bernard Williams, Diego Gambetta, Robert Sugden, C. Behan McCullagh, Gary Becker, Bryan Caplan! And, yes, David Hume, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, and J.S. Mill—and don’t forget the early-modern French moralistes: Montaigne, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld!
2) Does the author change my mind about important things? Same list as above. (You changed my mind about open borders, the signaling model of education (contra Becker), and much or most of mental illness.)
3) Does the author fight good fights, bringing insights and truth to bear in the public square?
Nov 8 2018 at 4:20pm
We should venerate those who benefit us in unique and irreplaceable ways. Artists are most straightforward — no Mona Lisa or Well-Tempered Clavier without da Vinci or Beethoven. Ideas are less obvious. Even after confirming that there is a benefit, we have to ask: What if not for _____ (Smith, Rawls, Hayek, etc.)? Theories of justice sometimes look like pulling needles from a haystack, so philosophical ideas are often irreplaceable. With science, process seems to follow the tide — Newton or Einstein might have turned the clock forward a couple of decades, but we were going to get calculus and relativity eventually.
Second point: Whom we choose (or fail) to venerate signals allegiance with a group. If all of the idols ideas were correct, the signal would be too cheap. So, worshipers look a little foolish sometimes when “defending” their heroes, but this has relatively low social cost. Since modern day politicians or political parties might sometimes do serious harm, this peccadillo is rather innocuous.
Question: What prompted this rant against veneration? I do not see obvious connections to anything else you have been writing about…
Nov 8 2018 at 5:45pm
@Blink – Bach wrote the Well Tempered Clavier, not Beethoven
Nov 10 2018 at 12:20pm
Of course! An eggregious error of attribution! Apologies.
Nov 8 2018 at 6:34pm
Interesting distinction. And so it seems to me as well.
I don’t have a firm theory of art. If an artist never exists, he doesn’t leave a hole. In contrast, the fact that we acknowledge conundrums means that DO perceive a hole. So, in a sense, contributions in science, math, and philosophy matter more because people live with a sensation of something missing–and that sensation leads to the discoveries. But by that very token, the specific INDIVIDUALS making the discoveries may matter less, because it seems likely that we’d eventually arrive at the various discoveries anyway.
(The more a philosophy seems to depend upon a unique vision of its expositor, the less useful it seems as a philosophy. Doubtless Leibniz created his theory of monads to resolve some problem, but until I appreciate what that problem was, I can’t say that I see the value of the philosophy. Likewise for Natural Law Theory.)
Nov 10 2018 at 12:27pm
I agree with your parenthetical normative point — more unique philosophical visions tend to be less useful, as with religion. I intend my point to be merely explanatory based on my observation that philosophers are more venerated by their exponents than are economists by theirs who are in turn more venerated than scientists.
Separately, thanks for the references to past posts and information on Gygax.
Nov 9 2018 at 5:43am
In Caplan’s recent post entitled “Election Boilerplate,” he references his earlier post on building “<a href=”https://www.econlib.org/election-boilerplate/#comments”>My Beautiful Bubble</a>” based around the teachings of the people he venerates: Alex Tabarrok, Robin Hanson, and Gary Gygax.
(If you’re not acquainted with his writings, Gygax was an early expositor of AD&D. This work not only involves a lot of Accidental Death and Dismemberment, but–although he didn’t know it at the time–entails a surprising amount of Attention Deficit Disorder.)
Nov 8 2018 at 5:36pm
This is silly. Should we all pretend to forget where we learned something? Never bring it up in public?
Some people have good ideas and it is useful to know where they come from, if only so you can have a sense of how they worked in that persons own time, if they were even tried, or what other ideas were being discussed at the time.
Perhaps it is veneration, or maybe it is courtesy to the audience, giving them the means with which to verify the speakers claims or start their own studies.
Nov 8 2018 at 6:40pm
First, what Mori Kopel said. Sometimes people will cite an author/philosophy by name/label as a shorthand for citing all of the substantive ideas associated with that name/label. This is not veneration, but it may SEEM like veneration because it substitutes a label for substance.
But in addition, veneration serves some psychological needs that are less benign, such as the following:
A. Association: The obvious object of veneration is God. Many people make a great display of praising God. I often appears to me that these people wish to let you know that they are somehow affiliated with God, and thus you should accord them some measure of deference and respect that you would accord God. God is one of their teammates, and you don’t want to cross a member of God’s team, do you?
B. Aggrandizement of opinion/judgment: My typical sophomore essays contained multiple uses of “I think” or “I feel” or “It seems to me that,” reflecting an unstated assumption that the reader should care about my statement of opinion, unrelated to the reasons supporting the opinion. Instructors taught me to make arguments based on reason, without engaging in the self-aggrandizing assumption about the persuasiveness of my endorsement. But when people venerate some authority by label, they make the self-aggrandizing claim that you should care about their opinions about the authority.
C. Self-praise: Unsurprisingly, people praise authorities with whom they agree. And by venerating these authorities, they effectively venerate themselves by projection. First Things is a conservative Catholic publication/website. When the conservative Benedict was pope, people on that page venerated the office of the papacy and “God’s representative on Earth.” Now that the more liberal Francis is pope, people on that page are tongue-tied. They no longer wish to express their veneration of God’s representative on Earth. So did they venerate the papacy? Or did they simply venerate themselves, and use the papacy as a convenient vehicle for doing so?
D. Erudition: By venerating an author, a person gives the impression of being schooled in the author’s work. Famously, “hipsters” gain status by lavishly praising obscure, unfamiliar things, thereby showing not only that they encountered something before you, but that they have become so steeped in the new thing as to a sufficient basis to form an informed opinion. They present themselves as experts to whom you should defer, and imply that you are deficient for lacking their level of expertise.
Does veneration impede critical thinking? Sure. Veneration arises from a person’s conclusion about another person’s work. And as Martin H. Fischer observed, a conclusion is just the place where you got tired of thinking. In contrast, Nietzsche remarked that, however difficult it is to have the courage of your convictions, the greater challenge is to have the courage for an attack upon your convictions. That is, the greater challenge is to refrain from drawing conclusions, leaving yourself perpetually open to evaluating new evidence (and reevaluating old evidence). As a practical matter, I can’t imagine living this way entirely, but I understand the advantage of holding conclusions lightly and avoiding tying my identity to them.
Nov 8 2018 at 8:42pm
There’s a movie called Hannah Arendt, and it venerates her. But it’s really just another movie about being true to yourself. A morality play with Arendt as Socrates or Mulan.
The character called Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons is also not the real Thomas More. Nor is the Thomas More character in a book called Wolf Hall. Likewise with the Adolf Eichmann character in Arendt’s book about him.
She may be right about bureaucracy, but Eichmann himself was no example of what she wished to say. Her point is worth making. But the specific facts don’t back up her case.
Likewise with the movie that uses her name. She was wrong. Gershom Scholem was right. She was true to herself. But she took the wrong stand.
But suppose someone who never read On Revolution or Men In Dark Times is in a bookstore one day and thinks, “Like in that film.” These books are worth reading. The movie did that.
The opposite is the bigger danger, and more common.
Maybe when you hear the name Arendt you think of her Nazi boyfriend. That’s it. Or you read something in high school about her contempt for what she called “the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.” That’s all you know, and all you need to know. So you never learn anything more. She’s on your list of forbidden writers, so you cut yourself off, and you end up missing out.
Veneration or dismissal? One strike and she’s out?
Nov 8 2018 at 9:54pm
I venerate those totems and idols that confirm my biases!
A Country Farmer
Nov 9 2018 at 12:17am
This is an awkward post for me because I venerate you!
Paul A Sand
Nov 9 2018 at 7:32am
I found myself wondering on the related question: on the name list, who would find such veneration silly and misguided? My guess: Every one of them. Except (perhaps) Ayn Rand.
Nov 9 2018 at 9:09am
What a list: no Karl Marx! (Or Albert Einstein, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Muhammed; not to mention Jesus.)
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