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Better Thinking: Off Base!



Paul Krugman is not amused by those who want to box him in, and rightly so; say he in “Fields of Expertise”: “One of the more annoying kinds of comment that pops up sometimes on this blog is the complaint that I’m violating some kind of principle whenever I write about anything that isn’t strictly economics.”

The concept of “economy” and the coining of the word, was authored by Xenophon. Xenophon, a golden youth, a child of the rich, was a student and friend of Socrates. He took part in military campaigns, rather as a dilettante and detached observer (he admits). However, when a Greek army found itself leaderless and isolated in the middle of Mesopotamia, he was elected general (!) and did his job superbly.

The Greek army was surrounded by uncountable ferocious enemies. The Persians of Ataxerxes II had proven themselves treacherous beyond belief. After the Greeks had been victorious, during a negotiation, the Spartan overall commander Clearchus and all other Greek senior officers were assassinated by the treachery of the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. (Middle Eastern perfidy has a long history!)

It was high time to think different. General Xenophon did the unexpected; instead of heading west towards Ionian Greece, as Ataxerxes expected, he led the army north, across deserts and what is now called Kurdistan. The mountains were severe, and the Kurds, not amused. However, after treasures of ingeniosity, and ferocious combat, the Greeks pulled through and reached the Black Sea.

Xenophon wrote down this history in Anabasis. Ah, yes, because Xenophon was also a historian. Anabasis means: going up! Or literally; off base! Off base, that is, leaving behind lower dimensions, acquiring higher ones.

Anabasis got the Greeks thinking that maybe the problem of Persia could be solved by conquering the whole damned thing. (Something the fascist pseudo-Greek Alexander so called “The Great” would soon implement, after being taught by another Athenian philosopher from the same tribe, Aristotle: many of the greatest philosophers ever knew each other personally!)

After returning triumphantly to Athens, Xenophon thought of philosophical matters, at the creative level. He got the idea of economy: house (eco) management (nomy). Thus he formally founded a field that had been central to civilization for millennia. Xenophon saw the need. It detached, to some extent, a field of study, making the claim it was partly dimensionally independent  from politics and customs. The veracity of that axiom has been demonstrated since.

Xenophon was an immensely courageous, creative and intelligent man, as his military exploits demonstrate. That’s what it takes to distinguish a concept of importance, previously unobserved, or deemed unworthy. This is the essence of the philosophical method.

So what is philosophy? Guessing what was not guessed before. How? By thinking so broadly, or so extradimensionally that one can see, or imagine connections and concepts that were never seen before. Who is cut for it? The smartest. What are the consequences? Encouraging thinking to go across frontiers that were never even imagined before.

How did we get to have a house and manage it? How did we come out of the cave that way? Because we exerted off base thinking. So the title, of the seven book volumes of Xenophon of his adventures as a general, Anabasis, is actually symbolic of the entire civilizational condition. Charles Quint, another admirable leader of mankind (for the human, and far sighted way in which he treated American natives) may have been inspired when he chose the motto:“Plus Oultre!”

We are living in a science fiction world. Why? because anything is possible. not just technologically: watch the USA having secreted a secret surveillance court making so called “secret laws”. Watch the sulfur of the Secret State Police (GEheime STAat POlizei: Gestapo). Contemplate the consequences if the world economy, which is energy dependent, broke down: no more than two billion people, at best, can be supported by the local economies.

Reading Sci-Fi is relevant to understand what is happening, and, more importantly, what could happen. Specialists, like woodpeckers do what they do well, pecking an overspecialized field of expertise and their brains, or academic careers, are well insulated from shocks.

But geniuses they are not. So keep on broadly thinking, professor Krugman, economics is everywhere, even when we look up to the stars, as we have to. Where we have to go. Be it only if we do the math!

And let the ants do their special things, as they get crushed by the weight of what is for them incomprehensible wisdom on its way towards unimaginable horizons!

Economics is vast, vaster than has been guessed so far. It contains all of physics. And more; all of human behavior, all of human imagination.

Take a particular case: Krugman, and others, have been lamenting that the Republicans in the USA are self destructive, because they want to reduce programs for the poor. And poor, old, voting whites are the main beneficiaries of these programs. So Krugman thinks the danger is limited. However, doing so, he neglects a big chunk of human evolutionary psychology that has consequences, not just on the soul, but on economics.  

One should never underestimate the power of run-away propaganda to hurt those it seduces. There is, deep down in man, born in the evolution of domination, a self destructive streak. Neoconservatives or neofascists exploit it. They may be crazy, but that only reinforces their appeal.

Anabasis, freeing oneself of the base, is the symbol of the human condition, and, a fortiori, civilization. When the mind is flat, the world is flat. It takes more than eyes to see the world. It takes a mind. And it better look up, to make up what was not there before.

Patrice Ayme


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