Artificial preciousness

It's a good idea to become suspicious whenever something seems precious: elegant jewelry and fragrances, exquisite fabric and other choice materials in clothing, collector's items, rare foods, tickets for exclusive 'once in a life time' events, ... whenever something in this vein appears on the horizon and presents itself in a desirable light, better be on the lookout.

Preciousness is something we talk ourselves into: its components are typically some pleasure we enjoy and some sense of rareness about that which gives us the pleasure. Sometimes it's not rareness, but some other kind of difficulty in getting it: if it requires hard work, or patience over some extended time, or giving up something else for it, then after we've invested that we are much less likely to view the thing we got in return realistically. We measure it up against the investment we did, not against what it really is worth for us (for our success in living our life, and becoming the person we want to be).

It's not difficult to see how this can fall victim to all kinds of manipulation. 'Playing hard to get' is a notoriously successful strategy for pushing up attraction. Advertisements play up the scarcity or exclusivity of some item (which is of course plenty in supply, so much so that the profits from selling it are still considerable even after subtracting the costs for those advertisements). The preciousness we're made to feel here is always artificial. The higher a price the manipulator attaches to something (while managing to still keep us wanting it), the higher we will value it. All along, in reality there's no corresponding value to that higher price. It only exists in our imagination (and the imagination is notoriously bad with numbers and ratios, too).

It seems we habitually form desires for what we perceive as rare; sometimes it's enough that someone simply puts it to us, plausibly, that this is the case with something, and we're already yearning for it. But of course, there is nothing inevitable about this habit. It's not a necessary element of our nature (if in fact, there is such a thing); it's just a habit that can be questioned, shaped, and redirected over time to not let us fall victim to erroneously valuing the wrong things.

For you may already have guessed it: once more the trick in this pattern works only with externals. (Have you ever reflected why good qualities of character, even though they're hard to achieve, never seem precious in this way to people?) At the root of the appearance of preciousness is a double act of misguided emotions: first the desire for some external good, which is mistaken already, for externals are at best something to prefer or disprefer in a given situation, they are never valuable as such — so there is no point in getting emotional about them; and secondly a kind of fear which results from recognizing the possibility (even probability) of not getting what you want. The desire sets off the fear: the more you want it, the more relevant appears the idea that you might not acquire it. The fear intensifies the desire: the more difficult or improbable it seems to get it, the higher the desire for it. As they whip up each other, they magnify an initial nothing into a wrongheaded fixation.

And thus, whenever something seems precious, it's advisable to be suspicious. Pause and consider: what makes this so desirable? Who's interested in making it look rare and hard to get? What would you really lose if you did not pursue it? The only thing that is in fact both limited and valuable is your own life time; and if you have earlier on decided to put it to work for something else, then chances are that what seems precious here is just a distraction. Take care.


For many of us, life runs in compartments: part of your time is work, another part, separately, is spent with your friends and family, then part in pursuit of social or political causes, with sports or studies, on travels — there might be many more. It's not just that these occupy different stretches of time: they are really more like compartments in that we often apply only part of our person to each. We have a work persona and a play persona. We forget our goals and commitments for a while when we go traveling. What changes from context to context is not just what we do, and how we do it: it's also who we are (who we take ourselves to be) that gets temporarily transformed, depending on the compartment within which we're currently enclosed.

It's characteristic of a compartment to shield you from what goes on in the other compartments. This can happen in many ways. One is a neglect of memory, suppressing or ignoring what went on in other compartments in the past. (Do you have to push memories of your recent weekend out of your head in order to be able to focus on your work?) Another is playing down aspects that may be central in another compartment: skills and habits that are required while running in one rut are simply forgotten or remain dormant somewhere else. (Do you find it difficult to show the same patience and understanding you have for people you just met to those you've been familiar with for a long time?)

If this goes too far, it creates an unfavorable condition. Though it looks much like valuable effectiveness from a point of view within the compartments, it means that you live your life not fully as the person you are (or could be). Those compartments fill a significant portion of your life time, so, when viewed together, they must be connected: there have to be ways of looking at yourself that are in harmony with each other. These ways don't have to be identical, or even continuous, but they must be integrated, fit together. For example, you may go to extremes to feel the thrill every so often, maybe do some extreme sports, precisely to create a counterweight to routine and precision requirements in your job. That you create variety and even a polarity in your life is fine; but if each side makes you forget or ignore the other side it gets you on the wrong track. Even while you're running in two different ruts here, they should be balanced against each other, and support each other so that neither wears you out.

There might be conflicts between the overt traits that come to the front in one compartment and the hidden or sleeping ones (those which aren't currently engaged) that are needed only in others. If such a conflict surfaces, we might feel shame for those aspects of our person that do us no good in this compartment, because they belong somewhere else. And so we ignore or suppress them. But it's not just this, it's not just the aspects of our person that don't belong in the current situation. Even those things that work in the current compartment are only relatively optimal. They might work well, but they don't draw on your full resources as a person. This is the kind of thing that makes you feel as if you're not fully centered in your own life. Or, to put the point somewhat differently, they're showing you not as the person you are or could be, but as another person, an impoverished one which only has the overt traits central to this current compartment situation. You live your life alternately as one constrained and one-dimensional person and then as another, equally one-dimensional and constrained person — until you flip back again.

So, get the creativity you exhibit in cultural activities (like painting, or playing an instrument) into your work life; get the energy you find in physical activities such as sport (or sex) into your creative life; dedicate your professional skills in time management and coordinated, methodical procedure to building a lifestyle as well (doing those cultural and sports activities frequently and regularly enough to get much out of them), ... — in other words, integrate everything with everything. And just as always, pay particular attention to the character qualities which are central to you as a person, to the way you want to live your life. These above everything else must be integrated over whatever you do.

And why stop there? Reflect on why you have these compartments at all. More often than not they are structured by the world around us rather than laid out by ourselves: perhaps your day is fixed by the beginning and end of working hours; and in addition to the rigid time window here, space is also often constrained: you're in a specific workplace where you remain for almost all of that time. Once you have children, the morning starts the moment they wake up, not when you do. The duration and character of your morning commute depends on where you live. Social activities are aligned with the rhythm of your social circle, and perhaps with less obvious things such as Friday nights, the happy hour at your favorite pub, and the like. And think about how many of these structures you have chosen and actively shaped, and how many you have just taken up as they came along (perhaps even sometimes without giving them a thought at all).

Compartmentalization results from the interplay between the structure we have imposed on our lives (or at any rate, the structure that has been imposed on your life, whether you have done it yourself or let others do it) and how much of our own self we put into the elements of this structure: how we organize ourselves in order to accommodate these structures, and especially how we restrict ourselves (or let ourselves be restricted) in order to fit in. When we have to ignore or suppress part of ourself to fit into some compartment (or to perform better in some compartment), then there's something wrong: either we have carved up the world into compartments the wrong way, or we have applied ourselves badly into the compartment. But since this is the structure of your life, it is your own responsibility to find a good fit: find out whether you need compartments at all; and if you do, how to make them work so that you always apply yourself with your full person, even when accentuating aspects that are central within a particular compartment. Take care.


Whenever you start thinking deep about something, there is a certain merit in remaining detached, observing carefully, and clarifying even the most subtle detail. Almost every question of relevance is complex; in real life, there's usually a multitude of factors that play a role. So whenever you get into deep thinking about something, there's something to say for a dispassionate, neutral, and detail-loving stance: not taking sides regarding a certain question; not having an emotional preference but carefully observing in a detached way; paying attention to all the details and connections which transpire.

This also applies to thinking about what matters most: how you want to live your life, what kind of person you want to be. When we start comparing different answers to those questions, when we evaluate the various approaches, examine the arguments for and against them, and try to find criteria by which we regard them as better or worse — in a word, when we start doing philosophy —, then it helps to remain open and neutral, not closing off roads just because of some judgment taken previously (or prematurely); it's good to be aware of all the details, options, the arguments pro and contra all the sides; and it's a helpful skill to be acute in making distinctions, and in making connections.

Of course, this must not be taken too far, or otherwise there would never be any action at all. It's not enough just to think, we also have to live the answers to these questions. In fact, we already do so, and it's probably fair to say that in most cases, the answers that we do live aren't the best ones we're actually capable of — capable of giving, and living. Whenever we make some progress, we have to update both our views and our actions.

If we don't, there is a danger that sophistication itself is made the goal, a l'art pour l'art of the intellect. And there is ample occasion for observing this danger coming true in today's intellectual institutions, where sophistication in argument, hunting for nuances in subtly different views, and compulsive quibbling frequently enough double up for any real goal or real direction. The phrase "it's an academic question" has become proverbial for this kind of talk. An 'academic' question is one without real relevance, one that can be left to those who play the self-contained game of debating it comprehensively, in all the minutest detail, just for the sake of debating nuances. There is a difference between theoretical skill and excellence on the one hand and this kind of self-absorbed sophistication on the other. Unless you want to start an academic career and measure up to others who also are intent on conquering that institutional path, thought and talk of that latter kind are not for you. It's philosophy that is valued for its own sake, not academic subtlety; for philosophy is ultimately a way of living your life in an examined way, informed by the best critical and theoretical thinking there is. As such (as an activity), philosophy must translate into action; and not much action flows from sophisticated talk that is primarily directed at, well: being sophisticated.

When sophistication in an area becomes a self-contained game, it's often difficult to recognize that this is what's going on; it tends to happen in a group or community which shares and mutually supports that sophistication, and so it will be difficult to tell from genuine admiration you receive when you're living a good life. The dangerous slip here is to make a community of similar-doers into an external standard for quality and worthiness, something that doesn't come from a connection to a real, personal quest for a goal in your life any more. (Of course, the connection doesn't have to be direct and explicit all the time, but it must be there somewhere.) In other words, when you get drawn to tendencies of sophistication you'll least notice it from the attitudes of encouragement or discouragement in those around you. With respect to philosophy, self-absorbed scholasticism is the result, a professionalization of intellectual debate that becomes separated not just from real goals, but even from real intellectual questions.

Philosophy is often about conceptual distinctions, and their good and correct use. Philosophical education is in many ways a process of getting trained to find and apply them. But then again, handling them should not be just a goal in itself. They are part of exercising rationality, but they must be anchored in real goals, and those include the improvement of character: working towards the elimination of false emotions, building a consistent view of the world, guiding practical decisions, and promoting excellence in yourself and others. If they don't, if sophistication becomes a habit and a goal in itself, it only drains our energies and diverts our focus from the things that really matter; for sophistication, even though it may look admirable at times, is not among the things that really matter. Take care.


Why is it that having money seems so immensely attractive to many people? Perhaps it's not a single thing, a particular experience of 'being rich', but many different ones which overlap in that money comes in useful for them. You may enjoy going on travels once a year — for which you need the spare cash. You may take it to be important to be well and fashionably dressed, to own a car and a house, and also to be able to choose among many options in these matters, aiming for good quality and a personal note. You may have an eye on buying good school education for your children, a pleasant retirement home for yourself or your parents, or on supporting a charitable cause financially. For each of these goals it is imperative to assemble the necessary means; you have to find ways of making money.

In all these cases, however, money is simply a means to an end. As long as it is only required to get something else, all the motivation to get our hands on it comes from that something, whatever it is in the circumstances. Of course you might doubt whether all the purposes I've just listed are really good goals to have your activity directed at; but at least they're purposes distinct from simply collecting money. The focus is on the actual goal, and if something other than money were required for achieving that goal, then we'd be glad to let go the money and direct our attention towards that other thing.

Yet there is something special about money — and that can let us slide into becoming attracted to the money itself, instead to what it buys us. Money functions as an abstract placeholder for options: the very same fistful of currency can be used for widely varying purposes; it's not inscribed on it what you can get in exchange; as long as it is money (and valid, and the right amount), it's fully up to you what you want to trade for it. It's also up to you when you make use of it: as long as it remains in the abstract form of money, you can hoard it somewhere for as long as you like, and thus delay both your decision what to trade it for, and the beginning of your ownership of that thing. Take a simple example: if you've got some money right now, but you're not hungry, then you don't have to decide at this very moment what to eat; and neither do you need to carry around actual food. Only later, when you think it's time to trade your cash for something to eat you have both to choose and also, once you transformed the money into an actual meal, you must consume that meal within a reasonable time (or else it will corrupt). So money is both an abstract placeholder and a means to counter the passing of time: you can keep money for a while and only later trade it for something else.

(It is both only ever to a certain degree: there may come an economic crisis bringing a devaluation of the sums in your bank account; and inevitably over time the world changes, sometimes drastically — or more strictly, given enough time, it will always change drastically —, perhaps to the point where money doesn't count any more: remember those post-apocalyptic movies where a wad of banknotes doesn't even buy you a bite to eat and is best used for making a fire? Or think of the currency of old times: a handful of 18th-century coins have no value other than for being exhibited at a museum or written about in history books. Money is more stable than many other things in life; but it is by no means eternal.)

Pervasive as it is in our world, and broad as the range of things might be that you can get for it, note that these are always externals. Money functions as a placeholder only for externals: it's true, there's no need to produce food, build houses, transportation, tools and the like when you can buy them; and yes, you can buy pleasure and convenience, entertainment and distraction, even public attention and celebrity — as long as you have money, you can exchange it for almost every kind of external goods. (Especially in our modern world; this wasn't always so — for instance, in societies of old high birth was considered valuable, and you could at best have bought the appearance of that, but not the thing itself.) But then also think of all the things money cannot buy: love, friendship, more life time, a sense of direction in your life, and, first and foremost, excellence of character. Just as you would expect, if money is only an abstract placeholder for externals, it precisely cannot stand for anything of those things that are not external, which require at least in part an attitude from you yourself, something integral to your person, and the way you're living your life.

Now most people would agree, when prompted to think it through, that money is not a good guide to living a good life. And yet many exhibit that same tendency in practice that they would dismiss in their considered opinion. This is partly because of the placeholder function. As long as you value any externals that can be bought by money, you will thus automatically value money. It's easy to recognize individual kinds of externals for what they are: just external things with no real value. But all of them at once are a tough call, and as long as there are many that you still consider valuable, money will draw on that attraction cumulatively. Likewise, the potential of deferral is attractive especially when fears about the future (and the future procurement of externals) come into play. The more fearful you are about the future, the more attractive seems getting more money.

Since money, in its function as abstract placeholder for externals, is so pervasive, it's easy to fall for the error that it is always a good thing to have more of it — that it is always a good idea to go for it. That's where we begin to think that the question "How much money will it get me (or save me)?" is a good guide for our actions. In short, you might make money into an unconditional good, something that is good per se, without depending on circumstances. And this is where the error lies. We fall into a mindset in which money considerations can only be trumped by other money considerations. Consider: money can be quantified, as many other things can't, so it is always possible to easily compare options by their weight in money; it will often be harder to compare them in other respects. Thus in addition to buying you some time, putting money first can also simplify decision-making about how to act. In the jungle of options we inhabit today, such simple clarity can be seductive. So in the end, we might even make up a general rule such as "if in doubt, go for what gets you more money (or what costs you less)".

But that means to overlook the fact that it's only externals that can be bought with money, and so the general rule blocks your view of what is much more important than externals: the integrity and excellence in the qualities of your character, which show themselves in the way you're living your life, and in the personal relationships you maintain. Money may be abstract, but it's not abstract enough to cover that. Moreover: money may make it all right to delay decisions on externals, but with decisions about those other things, the integral concerns of your relationships, your character, and what use you make of your lifetime, there is no such thing as delay. With externals, it might be an advantage; with your personal development, it always puts you at a disadvantage. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.