The Ruricolist is now available in print.


We are uneasy in this world, half because it is cruel, and half because it is boring. That is not to equate cruelty and boredom, though boredom may reach cruel intensity (as for prisoners, who fear the boredom of isolation more than abuse), and though the cruelest of the cruel are the bored and cruel.

Nor is that to say that the world is in itself boring. But the things that are worthwhile about the world – its scientific intricacy, its aesthetic depth, its spiritual weight – are not the things we naturally see in it. They must be found or found out; introduced by education or example; happened upon, in reveries or shocks; or won, by study or pursuit, patience or passion.

In the long view, of many lives together, or of one life in unity, the intellectual endowments of human beings exceed any particular demand for their use. We do not feel this when we are engaged on a difficult problem. Our powers are tidal – when they go out, we drag, and think the world too much; when they come in, we soar and rush, and call it inspiration. But in the end, there is no such thing as a hard problem; only a problem which happens to be hard in a certain place or time. Every problem that can be solved is, or will be, easy for someone, not because that someone is any smarter than you, but because that someone, knowing what is irrelevant, where the dead ends are, and what it is realistic to expect, will not waste time or effort.

This is easiest to see in politics and economics. A body of voters is more likely to be correct than a cabal of aristocrats; consumers, than planners; educated guessers, than experts. But this wisdom of the demos, the market, or the crowd, is not because the many are even as smart together as a single human being alone; but because, when acting as a unit and addressing a limited range of choices, they stop in the right place. A laser is not brighter light, but light without distractions.

How could it be that the many are better than the one at deciding what policies to establish; at knowing how many widgets to make; at guessing how many beans are in a barrel? Certainly, averaging draws towards the mean, and so filters out the kinds of distortion which, being continuously variable, fit a curve – like variability in strength of eyesight. But people are diverse, and while you can average apples and oranges (as fruits, or spheres, or edibles, or vendibles), you cannot eat an average.

It must be noted that, while a range of secret answers always contains a few absurd outliers (three or a million beans in the barrel), the averaged results will tend towards the real. But this is not a miracle effected by the act of averaging; it is an effect of some people being right, or nearly right, by themselves. The reality of a true quantity creates a distribution over the crowd; the crowd does not, by the distribution, create the quantity.

Individuals’ failings result in part from their weaknesses. They cannot clearly see the beans or the barrel, they do not know how large the beans are. But even when everyone has equal access to the same data – as in the stock market – performance is not therefore equal. No special intellectual ability distinguishes successful investors. Rather, failures in investment are generally caused by over-thinking. That does not only mean thinking too hard, or reaching for the obscure when the obvious suffices; but also the inescapable friction of irrelevant considerations – moral, emotional, sentimental, logical, philosophical, mathematical, scientific, ambitious, charitable, or personal. Even where these are consciously excluded, the discipline required to avoid such constant temptations demands and impels needless, wasteful, confusing, and complicating repetition and recapitulation. The art of haggling is the art of inducing this state – of leading someone in circles until they are dizzy with thinking; so that the easiest to take advantage of, tend to be the most determined to energetically resist it. By thinking in circles we drill ourselves into deeper holes than we could fall into by not thinking.

This is not as strange as it sounds. You must leave room between routine and emergency, or an unforeseen emergency will catch you overstretched. It is admirable to be able to improvise in an emergency; it is foolish to do so from day to day, when the right tool or procedure is available to save time and effort. In an emergency, the wise man finds many ways to drive a nail; but when the emergency is over, the wise man uses a hammer (or a nail gun) like everyone else. Animals built to fight are slow to fight, because they fight all-out; animals that fight habitually do not fight well, because they fight predictably. In war, room for heroes proves bad planning – the best commander is not the one whose soldiers earn the most medals, but whose soldiers do not have the chance to earn medals before they win.

Boredom is one of the human conditions. Belief blunts, even turns, the sharp cruelty of life; but whenever religion tries to address the boredom of life, it becomes fanaticism; and the same is true of politics, which becomes totalitarianism. The opposite of this, whatever the religion or party, is humanism.

Life cannot be all about one thing. It is certainly possible to indirectly refer everything back to the glory of God, or the good of society. And if one takes any thought about life, some such summum bonum, some such qiblah, is inevitable. But even saints and prophets cannot always have God before their eyes; nor philanthropists, humanity. Such hauntedness, such fixity, is a kind of madness – the intellectual equivalent of staring at the sun.

At one extreme, fanaticism and totalitarianism deny boredom; at the other extreme, barbarism suffocates it; between, humanism cultivates it, and all that answers to it. The cruelty in life gives value to what allow us to overcome that cruelty, which are virtues; but virtues are all in some way denials of life – the patience to bear it as something separate to be borne, the courage to risk it as something you could lose. It is the boredom in life which gives value to life itself: to company, conversation, and friendship; to creation, enjoyment, and appreciation; to knowledge, reflection, and wisdom; to everything that provides human beings with the substance of human dignity.

As boredom and cruelty meet each other at the extremities, so do belief and humanism. A beautiful place of worship or devotion is more than the sum of a place of worship and a beautiful place. Still, even then, they must be pursued separately, each by its own law, each with its own end even where both share the same means. But the relationship is not perfectly reciprocal. Belief without humanism is death; humanism without belief is still a kind of life, though a naked one. Disbelief or unbelief is an act of independence which leads to dependence, because it preserves an openness which, like an unwalled city, is open to all; belief is an act of dependence or surrender which leads to independence, because it armors the mind against ambush and siege. This is a distinction of intellectual metabolism. Belief, endothermic, makes its own warmth; but in cities, people are like bees – individually ectothermic, they can yet ball up and shiver against each other for warmth.

Bare life, life unmoving and unmoved, is rightly an object of horror. Life is not need, and life is not fulfillment; life is in between – between hunger and satiety, to eat; between satiety and hunger, to do. We live to live; and life is the question which only life answers. The summit, fullness, and extremity of hope is the idea of a heaven which is but more and better life; and the best thing which can be done with life is to bring about more life. We live to live – and, living, to add to life.