Aphorisms by Emile Benoit

Emile Benoit is the pseudonym of the author of Essays and Aphorisms of the Higher Man, a collection of original philosophical aphorisms and fragmentary essays. Benoit holds a B.A. and M.A. in philosophy and his aphorisms have a distinctively late 19th-century Nietzschean feel and flair to them, not least in the echo of Nietzsche’s “over-man” in the book’s title. Even the language itself has a delightfully antiquated feel to it: complex sentences that couch dark, faintly misanthropic observations in an artful formality. Though they may feel like something from another era, the moral musings in Benoit’s sayings are never out of fashion. These aphorisms, Benoit writes, “stand alone but they are also a part of the larger whole of the book itself, which argues for an artistic perspective to one’s outlook on life.” A selection:

The vast majority of men are little more than children without the excuse of youth to forgive them.

The fearful are often more dangerous than the man who seeks to do you harm.

Man carries on as if he possessed something of a free will because he has no other choice but to do so.

In matters of greatest importance, it is generally not the cream that rises to the top, but the foam.

There are a great many means to suicide, only a few of them resulting in actual death.

Metaphor and Obama’s Sputnik Analogy

There is a fascinating take in Miller-McCune on President Obama’s recent speech in which the President compared America’s flagging international competitiveness to the period in the 1950s when the Soviet Union managed to put the first satellite into space. Embarrassed, enraged, and more than a little threatened by the Soviet success, the U.S. poured resources into research and development and ended up first on the Moon. Nevertheless, the President’s analogy (analogy being a kind of extended metaphor) got stuck on the launching pad. “Beyond the growing evidence that America is not No. 1 in the key arenas likely to drive the world out of economic malaise, Obama’s Sputnik analogy may not make for a very good fit,” Emily Badger writes.

Badger points out that it was more than just wounded national pride that motivated America to win the “space race” (another competitive metaphor, by the way). Sputnik was an impressive technological achievement as well as a direct military threat. Some people even equated the 1957 Soviet launch to Pearl Harbor. Obama’s analogy isn’t right because today both the stakes and the threats are totally different. In the 1950s, the priority was to make something happen: Win the space race by putting a man on the Moon. Today, the priority is to prevent something from happening: Reduce carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change. Different problems require different metaphors if people are to be motivated to solve those problems.

In terms of the environmental challenge, some argue that the term “global warming” is far too mild, suggesting a relaxed and possibly pleasant condition rather than one that is urgent and potentially catastrophic. Instead, they suggest that terms like “climate crisis” or even “climate cancer” would be more accurate and more likely to motivate changes in behavior. The term “greenhouse gases” may also be outdated. Few people have any direct knowledge of greenhouses these days, just as few people are likely to get the Sputnik analogy, so we need a more relevant metaphor.

Instead of our “Sputnik moment,” how about this analogy: This is our “ecological sub-prime mortgage crisis moment.” The analogy fits. The environmental crisis is a crisis of our own making, just as the sub-prime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession were. The environmental crisis also has many of the same causes as the sub-prime mortgage crisis; namely, greed, unsustainable spending (of natural resources), and a self-defeating focus on short-term gains rather than long-term returns. Happily, the outcome of the environmental crisis can be directly affected by what we do, just like the sub-prime mortgage crisis: Live within our means.

“This is our ecological sub-prime mortgage crisis moment” is hardly stirring rhetoric, but it does remind people that the challenges we face relate to inner rather than to outer space and it does bring the distant, abstract prospect of “global warming” firmly down to earth.

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8, 2011.

Metaphor and the Pearl Harbor effect

Last week was the 69th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which FDR so memorably and so metaphorically described as “a date which will live in infamy.” This piece from MarketWatch provides an interesting Japanese perspective on the attack (and the date) and outlines how “Pearl Harbor” has become a metaphor for any unexpected, cataclysmic event, such as when Warren Buffett “used the phrase ‘economic Pearl Harbor’ to describe the credit crisis facing the U.S. in the autumn of 2008.”

Historical metaphors like these have hidden power. Psychologist Thomas Gilovich demonstrated this by asking a group of Stanford undergraduates to imagine that they were high-ranking officials in the U.S. State Department. He informed them that a small democratic country of no vital interest to U.S. national security had been attacked by a moderately powerful communist or fascist country and had asked the U.S. for help. What should the U.S. do—nothing, appeal to the United Nations, or intervene?

Gilovich then gave each student one of three different descriptions of this hypothetical foreign policy crisis, each of which contained a few minor associations and a few familiar names designed to trigger different historical analogies. One scenario featured allusions to World War II, another featured allusions to Vietnam, and the third was historically neutral. In the World War II scenario, minorities were described as fleeing in boxcars on freight trains, while the State Department briefing was described as held in Winston Churchill Hall. In the Vietnam scenario, minorities were described as fleeing in small boats up the coast, while the State Department briefing was described as held in Dean Rusk Hall, named after President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of state during the Vietnam War.

These historical cues were, of course, entirely irrelevant to the decision participants had to make. Nonetheless, subjects given the World War II scenario made more interventionist recommendations than the other two. The Vietnam and control groups both tended to recommend a hands-off approach. Gilovich quizzed students afterward, and none was aware of the historical allusions embedded in the descriptions—and all denied that these associations could have influenced their decisions.

Historical metaphors create associations in our minds that are difficult to ignore, and those associations can influence our decisions without our conscious knowledge. Something to consider the next time you find yourself heading for your Waterloo or re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8, 2011.

“Bad metaphors make for bad policy”

So says Paul Krugman in his most recent NYTimes column. “America’s economy isn’t a stalled car, nor is it an invalid who will soon return to health if he gets a bit more rest,” Krugman writes. “Our problems are longer-term than either metaphor implies … The idea that the economic engine is going to catch or the patient rise from his sickbed any day now encourages policy makers to settle for sloppy, short-term measures when the economy really needs well-designed, sustained support.”

Metaphors definitely matter in economics. When describing the stock market, for example, we tend to consistently use specific types of metaphors for specific types of price movements. ‘Agent metaphors’ describe price movements as the deliberate action of a living thing, as in “the NASDAQ climbed higher” or “the Dow fought its way upward.” In contrast, ‘object metaphors’ describe price movements as non-living things subject to external forces, as in “the NASDAQ dropped off a cliff” or “the Dow fell like a brick.”

Psychologist Michael W. Morris and collaborators found that because a metaphor like “the NASDAQ climbed higher” suggests a living thing pursuing a goal, people expect the upward trend to continue. If, for example, house prices are relentlessly described as climbing higher and higher, homeowners might unconsciously assume that the steady ascent is unstoppable. They might feel confident in, say, taking out mortgages they really can’t afford in the expectation that soaring property values will eventually make unsustainable debt look like a smart investment.

Something entirely different is suggested by object metaphors like “the NASDAQ dropped off a cliff.” When something drops off a cliff, it tends to keep falling. And when it hits bottom, it usually remains exactly where it landed. So, if stock prices are described in passive terms as dropping, plunging, or plummeting, investors might be unconsciously prompted into panic selling, imagining that the decline is irreversible. This kind of thinking pushes investors to sell en masse when prices fall, at precisely the time when logic dictates they should be buying since stocks are becoming cheaper.

So handle financial metaphors with care. Even if the economic engine sputters back to life, the road to recovery may turn out to be a dead end…

Blatant self-promotional message:

Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8, 2011.

Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, also writes aphorisms, which he has collected in the recently released The Bed of Procrustes: Practical and Philosophical Aphorisms. Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Janet Maslin describes Taleb as a “fiscal prophet and self-appointed flâneur [who] aims particular scorn at anyone who thinks aphorisms require explanation.” Fair enough. Book titles, in contrast to aphorisms, do sometimes require explanation, and this one refers to the mythological Greek villain who chopped off victims’ limbs to make them fit into his bed and who finally got a taste of his own medicine from Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur. These are imperious aphorisms, delivered in grand stentorian tones. (Occasionally, adjectives, unlike aphorisms but like book titles, require explanation, too; Stentor was a Greek herald in the Trojan War described by Homer as having the voice of 50 men). A selection from The Bed of Procrustes, sure to make for uncomfortable reading and definitely not to be taken lying down:

You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept.

Lose all your money, never half of it.

Randomness is indistinguishable from complicated, undetected and undetectable order; but order itself is indistinguishable from artful randomness.

Respect those who make a living lying down or standing up, never those who do so sitting down.

A good maxim allows you to have the last word without even starting a conversation.