Stupidity is no bar to enterprise; on the contrary, it tends to conceal difficulties which an intelligent man would consider insuperable.
Stupidity is no bar to enterprise; on the contrary, it tends to conceal difficulties which an intelligent man would consider insuperable.
It is terrifying to think how much research is needed to determine the truth of even the most unimportant fact.
It is a great misfortune to be born with the soul of a king if one is not destined to reign.
The best friendships are based on mutual interest and common plans for the future.
If you’re the parent of a young child, you probably have a copy of The Rainbow Fish somewhere in the house– probably two or three! It seems this is one of several books that every family member and friend wants to be the one to give to you.
The book’s popularity and appeal are rooted not just in its attractive art style, including reflective foil silver fish scales, but also in its moral lesson. In simple terms, the book teaches about sharing and every modern parent knows that sharing is the Cardinal Virtue of Childhood. Whatever your child’s other vices, shortcomings and individual weaknesses might be, if he or she knows how to share and does it consistently in public social settings the parent can be confident, even proud, that they’ve raised their child right.
But why is sharing so important? Ah, this is the question to which no parent seems to know the answer!
We do not read The Rainbow Fish in our house, not to our children and not for the pleasure of the adults. We don’t think “sharing” is a virtue, cardinal or otherwise. We think it is an unthinking codeword of social metaphysics– the idea that one’s individual value is relative to what other individuals think it is.
Here is how The Rainbow Fish teaches social metaphysics to children:
The eponymous pisces is born with beautiful shiny scales. His shiny scales are coveted by other fish who are born without them. These fish ask for his scales, which he does not give to them. As a result, the other fish scorn and ostracize him. He meets a “wise” octopus (ie, a not-fish) who tells him that he can be desirable to the other fish if he gives the virtues he was born with to others. He proceeds to do so until he is left with one shiny scale for himself, all others being distributed pro-rata to the other fish. At this point, the other fish are happy with him and he is accepted into their community.
What’s going on here? Let’s parse this.
The protagonist is an antagonist. The school of fish, the fish community, is the protagonist and he has antagonized them simply be existing. The reason his existence is bothersome is because he was born with qualities (beauty, in this case) which they lack. They feel lessened in their pride and their own existence by witnessing things he came into life with that they were not.
Without making any attempt to know and understand the Rainbow Fish, the other fish determine he is unlikable because he won’t give them the things they have, simply because they ask for it. His virtues are vices if they can’t have them for themselves.
The Rainbow Fish faces exclusion and emotional pain if he chooses to keep himself to himself. He is not free to exercise his property rights as he likes without fear of being alienated by the other members of the community.
To gain wisdom about how to participate in a community of his peers, he speaks with a creature outside of his species. He learns not to trust his instincts or his own rational capabilities but to trust in alien powers. He learns that he is wrong “as a person” just for being who he is– he must make some gift, offering or sacrifice of himself to the community to be accepted.
Finally, he gives up what is desirable and virtuous of himself to others. Only when there is equality are the others happy with him. And suddenly, he is happy with himself for being liked by them. It is not explained how and why he needed to be unhappy without that condition being met nor why he couldn’t survive and prosper without giving away his virtue and strengths to others, now totally diluted.
We believe that the strengths and capabilities people are born with are virtuous. At minimum, they benefit the individual and at maximum they may be utilized in social cooperation to benefit others as well. But they do not harm or hinder other people who are born without them.
We believe that people should be free to choose who they associate with and on what terms. Giving away one’s values and virtues is not an acceptable condition for gaining group membership or loyalty in our minds. Any group that values an individual as a member should be able to value them for who they are, not for what they can take from them.
We believe individuals should trust themselves and their own reasoning. They should not need to rely upon the “wisdom” (opinions) of people who are not like themselves to learn how to live their own life truthfully and successfully.
We do not believe that self-sacrifice is a reasonable price to pay for the approval of others. We do not believe the approval of others to be valuable or desirable criteria for self-esteem and the ability to live life joyfully on one’s own terms.
We believe there are other means for establishing group harmony and the bonds of community than simple equality of property, possessions or ideas. The Cardinal Virtue in our minds, in childhood and otherwise, is Integrity– honesty with oneself, full visibility of one’s individuality, and the courageous nobility of embracing the unique challenges and triumphs of each person’s identity.
For these reasons, we do not read The Rainbow Fish in our household even though many families do.
The formal study of the psychology of self-esteem is a modern development, while the concept itself is timeless, immemorial and universal to the nature of the human mind. That we only recently discovered it as an intellectual category and began to examine its principles and the practical applications thereof in concrete detail does not mean that self-esteem was not an operant condition of the human psyche throughout history.
The spirit of the ancient world and the pre-modern past is often thought to be one of tradition and imposed order. Every person was born into a certain station in life which they would inhabit, without change or any particular effort, until their death. Another way to consider this set of circumstances is that the past was a place of entitlement. Entitlement often carries a pejorative connotation indicating undue privilege, but in its broadest sense it applies to any situation in which people deem what they have and what they are due to be a function of “who they are” rather than “what they have done” and it applies to high and low alike.
The emergence of markets, of dynamic technologies and of new thinking about meritocratic social orders heralded the arrival of the age of personal responsibility trodding over the threshold of the age of entitlement. In this new world, the modern world, people had new opportunities to change their station and position in life through strategic ideas and the will to carry it out. Life outcomes began to shift from what role or relationship they were born into, to being due more and more to individual thinking and decisions people made over the course of their lives.
This age of responsibility, unlike the age of entitlement that preceded it, demands active engagement with the psychology of self-esteem to maximize the opportunities presented. Rather than finding oneself resentful, frustrated and confused by an ever-changing society, business and technological landscape, the individual who has mastered the psychology of self-esteem is enabled to continue to change their own ideas and with them, their actions, in relation to this kaleidoscopic shifting of external reality and continually stand to benefit from whatever arrangement it takes. In contrast, the individual living with entitlement feels threatened by change, discouraged by having to think and come up with new plans and ultimately concludes that personal transformation is hopeless and if they can not benefit from progress, they ought to stand in its way and at least enjoy the satisfaction of gumming it up for their historical antagonists and enemies.
The parenting of the past, founded on authority and parental license and the diminution of the individual identity of the child to prepare him or her for their “entitled” adult future, is a severe liability in the modern world and one which few have come to terms with or even understand as a problem. An ever-changing future demands a growth, rather than a fixed, mindset, and a growth mindset stems from confidence in the self’s ability to remain flexible and adapt to new conditions. In other words, a growth mindset is directly tied to the psychology of self-esteem.
Self-esteem being at root a relationship that one has with oneself — feelings of personal worthiness and the capability to seize the good in life — it is incumbent upon parents who wish to “future-proof” their children in a world of hyperactive change to start in infancy with a parenting approach based upon respect. The respect shown for the infant becomes a model for the later child and future adult in how they should relate to themselves.
In other words, parents who wish to benefit from the modern knowledge of the psychology of self-esteem so as to arm their children with a growth mindset in a continuously developing world that demands the greatest creativity and flexibility of thinking to seize the numerous advantages presented on an almost daily basis, should start by grounding their parenting approach in respect for the individual child before them.
When the house is finished, death follows.
What is success? A mysterious, indescribable power– a vigilance, a readiness, the awareness that simply by my presence I can exert pressure on the movements of life around me, the belief that life can be molded to my advantage. Happiness and success are inside us. We have to reach deep and hold tight. And the moment something begins to subside, to relax, to grow weary, then everything around us is turned loose, resists us, rebels, moved beyond our influence. And then it’s just one thing after another, one setback after another, and you’re finished.
~Thomas Buddenbrooks, in Buddenbrooks
by Paul Strathern, published 2017
The history of the Medici family might best be summarized with the phrase “from dust to dust.” As if to emphasize how they were destined for greatness and nobility, the family started out as a bunch of Tuscan hillbillies who could trace their lineage to a legendary knight of the Holy Roman Empire who settled near Florence in the 8th or 9th Century. From there and then, no one heard much of these people until some of the clan moved into Florence proper in the early 1300s and formed a small money-changing business.
Using conservative business practices and investing in roles of civic responsibility, eventually a Medici was elected to the position of gonfaloniere, the primus inter pares of the Florentine Republic. From this position the dice were carefully loaded in the favor of subsequent Medici generations by artfully forming governing coalitions that cemented their public position while creating leverage across their business and investment portfolio through the tactical use of subsidy, official privilege, insider information and regulatory capture wielded against competitors and opponents.
The story of the “overnight success” of the Medici begins here. The first great head of the Medici family and Medici bank, Giovanni de Medici, had jockeyed for favor with the newly appointed (anti-)Pope John XXIII in order to secure a role as the personal banker to the Papal Curia upon his ascendancy, which was then granted. For much of the 14th Century and Renaissance period in general, the papal revenues and banking needs were equivalent to managing the treasury function for the modern era’s most wealthy and complex multi-national corporations. To gain this trust was not only a measure of unique esteem valuable in and of itself, but a responsibility that carried with it priceless information and irreplaceable business franchises throughout European Christendom and even the Levant.
However, Pope John XXIII soon became embroiled in the Great Schism in which he and 2 other rival popes were called before the Holy Roman Emperor and summarily dismissed, to be replaced with his appointment, Pope Martin V. At his son Cosimo’s urging (whom he had sent to be his representative at the delegation attending the papal conference) the Medici’s continued to support the defrocked pope, even helping to pay his ransom for his release from imprisonment. Rather than being a financial disaster, this loyal support of the former pope led to a new lucrative banking relationship under Martin V, because in return for bartering his release the former Pope John XXIII agreed to support the nomination of Martin V and participate in the reconciliation of the Schism, leading to greater legitimacy for the new pope.
As a major political player on top of his business responsibilities, Giovanni left three apocryphal warnings for his descendants:
It seems as if it should be unnecessary to say that in time this advice was forgotten and eventually, so, too, were the Medici.
But the dissolution of the Medici was a ways away yet. After Giovanni came Cosimo as head of the family and the Medici bank. He faced a disastrous and unpopular war between Florence and Lucca (backed by Milan) which threatened to ruin the Florentine treasury and which had pitted the various leading families against one another. Subscribing to Rule #3, Cosimo opposed the conduct of the war and worked to hide the bank’s assets outside of Florence to avoid expropriation in the war’s aftermath.
For these maneuvers and others, Cosimo was recalled to Florence and imprisoned in the bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio by a faction led by the rival Albizzi who had plans to execute him for treachery. However, Cosimo’s far flung banking business and participation in the geopolitics of Western Europe had led him to a series of alliances and power relationships with foreign entities such as the Venetian Republic and the Papal States which he utilized to create a kind of diplomatic protection for himself, pressuring his enemies to choose exile over execution as his fate.
In the meantime, he used bribes and the threat of invasion of the city by his own mercenary forces outside its walls to add to the diplomatic pressure and engineer a favorable outcome for himself, all while behind bars.
Shaken but not stirred, Cosimo came to rule Florence through the intervention of the Pope and Venice, but vowed that “he would rule, but he would not be seen to rule” going forward. He had learned his lesson about bearing personal responsibility when it came to matters of state. Further, he was coming to understand that it was easier to wield power when others weren’t watching.
According to one supporter, “Whenever he wished to achieve something, he saw to it, in order to escape envy as much as possible, that the initiative appeared to come from others and not from him.” One policy he pushed for through his crony network was the use of the “catasto”, which had originally been levied to pay for the war, as a punitive tool to crush his political and business opponents through ruinous taxation. While he was forcing his enemies into exile to avoid financial ruin, purchasing and redistributing their former property to his supporters on a bargain basis, he simultaneously used inflated personal balance sheets to hide his income and appear to be bearing the heaviest personal tax burden on a relative basis.
But Cosimo was far from poor:
Between 1434 and 1471, Cosimo spent 663,755 gold florins supporting public works, by comparison, total assets of the Peruzzi bank at its height were 103,000 florins from Western Europe to Cyprus and Beirut.
If he was able to spend 6X the total assets of a well-known competitor at the height of its powers on public works, his total assets and wealth must have been a multiple of that amount. Normal banking and family secrecy aside, the Medici wealth at this time seems to have been nearly incalculable. It is no wonder, then, that one of Cosimo’s key strategies in building and wielding power was to always return favors with favors.
Following Cosimo, who was once to have said that “Trade brings mankind together, and casts glory on those who venture into it” his son Piero and Piero’s son, Lorenzo began to venture the family increasingly beyond the scope of banking and business and into the realm of politics and social standing via nobility. Depending upon how you interpret the events that followed, Piero and Lorenzo were either some of the most “magnificent” leaders of the Medici banking and political enterprises or they were equivalent to the decadent dissipators of the true talent and generational thrift of their greater ancestors.
Either way, the local power of the Medici in and around Florence was successively traded for inter-regional power and influence within the royal families of Europe. As the Medici gained a queen mothership in France, they lost their rule over the Florentine Republic to foreign invasion and intervention and increasingly squandered the capital of their banking and related enterprises. By the early 18th Century the Medici had failed to produce a male heir and had ceded their Grand Duchy of Florence to the Holy Roman Emperor and ceased to be a meaningful business or political entity forever.
by Ross King, published 2013
In the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, to complete a large bronze equestrian statue to honor himself and his late father and cement his authority over the people of Milan and northern Italy. It was to be one of the greatest equestrian statues of the era and one of the most technically challenging, single biggest pieces of cast bronze in the history of sculpture which would also fix Da Vinci’s reputation as a craftsman, artist and virtuoso.
But like many of Da Vinci’s projects and ambitions, it was not to be. After a series of unfortunate events that cascaded from Sforza’s unpredictable realpolitik, the duke was forced to melt down the bronze assigned to the project to form cannon to defend Milan from the invading forces of France’s Charles VIII.
Although Leonardo Da Vinci is known to history as an artist and mechanical genius (or at least, a philosopher of theoretical mechanical devices) his great personal ambition was to create outstanding weapons of war. He hoped the equestrian statue would be his entree into a world of defense industries assignments for the notoriously pugnacious Sforza clan. Instead, he spent most of his time in their employ designing parties, feasts and pageants and lamenting himself at age 42 as some one who could not positively reply to his own request, “Tell me if I ever did a thing.” He had struggled unsuccessfully in his 30s to learn Latin, a standard achievement of the scholarly and intellectual in his era, and as a result ended up a uomo senza lettere or “man without letters”, almost like a person today who failed to go to college. However, it was not the external standards of brilliance or achievement he failed against but rather the “extremely high standard he set for himself in his quest for a new visual language” that brought him the most self-doubt and personal pain.
And so it seems fittingly ironic then that his pinnacle achievement and the work of art he would come to be most famous for beyond even the mysterious Mona Lisa was not a weapon of war on a field of conquest or a bold statue in a central plaza but a fresco-style painting of a commonly depicted scene throughout Italy, found in many a dining hall of a local convent– The Last Supper.
There are many details of the painting that ended up making it remarkable and that have to do with the finished output, such as we know of it today in its highly degenerated and damaged form from the original. But it is what went into the painting that are the details most worthy of consideration.
First, this being a common subject matter in a humble, dingy room in a less-than-spectacular Dominican church, Da Vinci considered the work beneath him and like many of his projects he had trouble bringing himself to complete it. One of the art world’s masterpieces almost never happened out of simple spite and disinterest.
Second, Da Vinci combined the urban with the urbane in painting the portraits of the individual saints. To capture interesting “grotesque” expressions, he spent weeks hanging around the lower class parts of town studying the bodies, stances and gestures of various commoners. But for the visages of the saints themselves who are, along with the face of Jesus, lost to history in terms of any factual depictions, he selected from well-known friends and courtiers of the Ducal Palace in Milan. Thus these characters are both realistic, ahistorical and anachronistic simultaneously.
Third, the work of fresco is time and labor intensive and large scale murals are very much a team sport. Many materials such as certain paint colors and sealants had to be developed in a proprietary fashion by each workshop through a method of experimentation similar to laboratory chemistry. Most great art works were made by the master and his apprentices, but contracts at times specified certain portions which must be completed by the master himself. And the work itself was not necessarily quiet and contemplative but perhaps closer to today’s modern construction sites replete with boombox jamming. Although, Da Vinci is reputed to have worked to the sound of musicians or readers speaking from philosophical books, a Renaissance-era Spotify/podcast listening approach to productivity.
While the Last Supper is an act of inspired genius, it did not simply leap out of the head of Da Vinci through his paintbrush fully-formed. It was a team effort and followed a thorough process in which the final “draft” was first broken into constituent parts, practiced and rehearsed (“studies”, “carbons”) before being recomposed piece-by-piece as a fresco. The process is similar to writing a long history or novel (see Paris Review Interview No. 5 w/ Robert Caro) and has parallels in sports and investment analysis– from the parts to the whole.
While Leonardo Da Vinci found himself disappointed in his inability to produce a volume of highly anticipated works, his ability to nonetheless achieve global notoriety for just two works of art over the course of a longer, fully life perhaps gives double-meaning to his quip that “men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least.”