Arrogant Philosophers

I have spotted a certain propensity for arrogance amongst philosophers and creatives, particularly amongst the most studied or celebrated ones. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, of course, but even doubting Descartes and gentle Hume appear to have had their moments.

Here is a list of some of the most arrogant or downright offensive offerings ever to come out of some of the greatest philosophers and creatives. Needless to say, I do not in any way condone or subscribe to these positions—or, at least, not to the vast majority of them… Some may raise a laugh, others are nothing but distasteful.

And here are some questions that I pondered whilst compiling the list.

What is arrogance?
How, if at all, might arrogance be helpful?
Can arrogance ever be excused or justified?

Your answers on the back of a card, please.

1. ‎I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things which I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery. —Descartes

2. Philosophy must indeed recognize the possibility that the people rise to it, but must not lower itself to the people. —Hegel

3. Mark this well, you proud men of action! you are, after all, nothing but unconscious instruments of the men of thought. —Hegel

4. I’m not ugly, but my beauty is a total creation. —Hegel

5. Democracy… is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.—Aristotle

6. Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honour, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honour or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, that is, to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar. —Aristotle

7. I may tell you, between ourselves, that these six Meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice that they destroy the principles of Aristotle. —Descartes

8. As a consequence of her weaker reasoning powers, woman has a smaller share of the advantages and disadvantages these bring with them. She is, rather, a mental myopic… —Schopenhauer

9. Only a male intellect clouded by the sexual drive could call the stunted, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged sex the fair sex … More fittingly than the fair sex, women could be called the unaesthetic sex. Neither for music, nor poetry, nor the plastic arts do they possess any real feeling of receptivity: if they affect to do so, it is merely mimicry in service of their effort to please. —Schopenhauer

10. Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent. —Nietzsche

11. A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. —Nietzsche

12. After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands. —Nietzsche

13. ‘Evil men have no songs.’ How is it that the Russians have songs? —Nietzsche

14. It is a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave. —Hume

15. I have written on all sorts of subjects… yet I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians. —Hume

16. I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. —Freud

17. To be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful. —Jung

18. I don’t do drugs. I am drugs. —Dali

19. My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso. —Picasso

20. There was a time when I was running about the world, fancying myself to be well employed, but I was really a most wretched thing, no better than you are now. I thought that I ought to do anything rather than be a philosopher. —Socrates

21. Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul? —Socrates

22. …if you mean to share with me and to exchange beauty for beauty, you will have greatly the advantage of me; you will gain true beauty in return for appearance—like Diomede, gold in exchange for brass. —Socrates

23. Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive. —Nietzsche

Successful psychopaths (Updated)

Whilst personality disorders may lead to distress and impairment, they may also lead to extraordinary achievement. In 2005, Board and Fritzon at the University of Surrey found that, compared to mentally disordered criminal offenders at the high security Broadmoor Hospital, high-level executives were more likely to have one of three personality disorders: histrionic personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and anankastic personality disorder.

Thus, it is possible to envisage that people may benefit from strongly ingrained and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For example, people with histrionic personality disorder may be adept at charming and manipulating others, and therefore at building and exercising business relationships; people with narcissistic personality disorder may be highly ambitious, confident, and self-focused, and able to exploit people and situations to their best advantage; and people with anankastic personality disorder may get quite far up the corporate and professional ladders simply by being so devoted to work and productivity. Even people with borderline personality disorder may at times be bright, witty, and the very life of the party.

As the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910) put it more than a hundred years ago, ‘When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce … in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.’

Update 27/12/11:
Most recently, in 2010, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues carried out a study to uncover exactly how successful psychopaths differ from unsuccessful ones. They asked a number of members of Division 41 (psychology and law) of the American Psychological Association, professors of clinical psychology, and criminal attorneys to first identify and then to rate and describe one of their acquaintances (if any) who was not only successful but also conformed to Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath,

…social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life … Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.

From the responses that they collated, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues found that the successful psychopath matched the unsuccessful one in all respects but one, namely, conscientiousness. Thus, it appears that the key difference between unsuccessful and successful psychopaths is that the one behaves impulsively and irresponsibly, whereas the other is able to inhibit or restrain those destructive tendencies to build for the future.

Adapted from The Meaning of Madness.

Criticisms of the Concept of Depression

This crayon drawing by a hospital in-patient with severe depression alludes to her temporary withdrawal from mainstream society. The months that she spent in hospital gave her the time and the solitude to think over her life, and the motivation to make difficult but necessary changes to it. She went on to make a full recovery.

Many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head, and knows not that it brings abundance to drive away the hunger. – St Basil the Great

Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind. – Marcel Proust

Depression around the world

There are important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression, and these can in large part be accounted for by socio-cultural factors. In traditional societies, human distress is more likely to be seen as an indicator of the need to address important life problems, rather than as a mental disorder requiring professional treatment. For this reason, the diagnosis of depression is correspondingly less common. Some linguistic communities do not have a word or even a concept for ‘depression’, and many people from traditional societies with what may be construed as depression present with physical complaints such as headache or chest pain rather than with psychological complaints. Punjabi women who have recently immigrated to the UK and given birth find it baffling that a health visitor should pop round to ask them if they are depressed. Not only had they never considered the possibility that giving birth could be anything other than a joyous event, but they do not even have a word with which to translate the concept of ‘depression’ into Punjabi!

In modern societies such as the UK and the USA, people talk about depression more readily and more openly. As a result, they are more likely to interpret their distress in terms of depression, and less likely to fear being stigmatised if they seek out a diagnosis of the illness. At the same time, groups with vested interests such as pharmaceutical companies and mental health experts promote the notion of saccharine happiness as a natural, default state, and of human distress as a mental disorder. The concept of depression as a mental disorder may be useful for the more severe and intractable cases treated by hospital psychiatrists, but probably not for the majority of cases, which, for the most part, are mild and short-lived, and easily interpreted in terms of life circumstances, human nature, or the human condition.

Another (non-mutually exclusive) explanation for the important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression may lie in the nature of modern societies, which have become increasingly individualistic and divorced from traditional values. For many people living in our society, life can seem both suffocating and far removed, lonely even and especially amongst the multitudes, and not only meaningless but absurd. By encoding their distress in terms of mental disorder, our society may be subtly implying that the problem lies not with itself, but with them. However, thinking of the milder forms of depression in terms of an illness can be counterproductive, as it can prevent people from identifying and addressing the important life problems that are at the root of their distress.

Problems with diagnosis

All this is not to say that the concept of depression as a mental disorder is bogus, but only that the diagnosis of depression may have been over-extended to include far more than just depression the mental disorder. If, like the majority of medical conditions, depression could be defined and diagnosed according to its aetiology or pathology, such a state of affairs could not have arisen. Unfortunately, depression cannot as yet be defined according to its aetiology or pathology, but only according to its clinical manifestations and symptoms. For this reason, a doctor cannot base a diagnosis of depression on any objective criterion such as a blood test or a brain scan, but only on his subjective interpretation of the nature and severity of the patient’s symptoms. If some of these symptoms appear to tally with the diagnostic criteria for depression, then the doctor is able to justify making a diagnosis of depression.

One important problem here is that the definition of ‘depression’ is circular: the concept of depression is defined according to the symptoms of depression, which are in turn defined according to the concept of depression. Thus, it is impossible to be certain that the concept of depression maps onto any distinct disease entity, particularly since a diagnosis of depression can apply to anything from mild depression to depressive psychosis and depressive stupor, and overlap with several other categories of mental disorder including dysthymia, adjustment disorders, and anxiety disorders. Indeed, one of the consequences of the ‘menu of symptoms’ approach to diagnosing depression is that two people with absolutely no symptoms in common can both end up with the same diagnosis of depression. For this reason especially, the concept of depression has been charged with being little more than a socially constructed dustbin for all manner of human suffering.

An adaptive role?

Every person inherits a certain complement of genes that make her more or less vulnerable to developing depression during her lifetime. A person suffers from depression if the amount of stress that she comes under is greater than the amount of stress that she can tolerate, given her vulnerability to developing depression. Genes for potentially debilitating disorders such as depression usually pass out of a population over time because affected people have, on average, fewer children than non-affected people. The fact that this has not happened for depression suggests that the responsible genes are being maintained despite their potentially debilitating effects on a significant proportion of the population, and thus that they are lending an important adaptive or evolutionary advantage.

There are other instances of genes that both predispose to an illness and lend an important adaptive advantage. In sickle cell disease, for example, red blood cells assume a rigid sickle shape that restricts their passage through tiny blood vessels. This leads to a number of serious physical complications and, in traditional societies, to a radically shortened life expectancy. At the same time, carrying just one allele of the sickle cell gene (‘sickle cell trait’) makes it impossible for malarial parasites to reproduce inside red blood cells, and so confers immunity to malaria. The fact that the gene for sickle cell anaemia is particularly common in populations from malarial regions suggests that, in evolutionary terms, a debilitating illness in the few can be a price worth paying for an important adaptive advantage in the many.

What important adaptive advantage could depression have? Just as physical pain has evolved to signal injury and to prevent further injury, so depression may have evolved to remove us from distressing, damaging, or futile situations. The time and space and solitude that depression affords prevents us from making rash decisions, enables us to see the bigger picture, and – in the context of being a social animal – to reassess our social relationships, think about those who are significant to us, and relate to them more meaningfully and with greater understanding. Thus, depression may have evolved as a signal that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing or, at least, understanding. Sometimes people can become so immersed in the humdrum of their everyday lives that they no longer have the time to think and feel about themselves, and so lose sight of their bigger picture. The experience of depression can force them to stand back at a distance, re-evaluate and prioritise their needs, and formulate a modest but realistic plan for fulfilling them.

Sorrow’s children

Although the experience of depression can serve such a mundane purpose, it can also enable a person to develop a more refined perspective and deeper understanding of her life and of life in general. From an existential standpoint, the experience of depression obliges the person to become aware of her mortality and freedom, and challenges her to exercise the latter within the framework of the former. By meeting this difficult challenge, the person is able to break out of the mould that has been imposed upon her, discover who she truly is, and, in so doing, begin to give deep meaning to her life. Indeed, many of the most creative and most insightful people in society suffer or suffered from depression. They include the politicians Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln; the poets Charles Baudelaire, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke; the thinkers Michel Foucault, William James, John Stuart Mill, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer; and the writers Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Waugh, Tennessee Williams, and many, many others.

The curse of the strong

People with depression are often stigmatised as ‘failures’ or ‘losers’. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the sorts of people who are most vulnerable to developing depression are all the opposite of failures or losers. If they are suffering from depression, it is most probably because they have tried too hard or taken on too much, so hard and so much that they have made themselves ill with depression. In other words, if they are suffering from depression, it is because their world was simply not good enough for them. They wanted more, they wanted better, and they wanted different, not just for themselves, but for all those around them. So if they are failures or losers, this is only because they set the bar far too high. They could have swept everything under the carpet and pretended, as many people do, that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds. However, unlike many people, they had the honesty and the strength to admit that something was amiss, that something was not quite right. So rather than being failures or losers, they are just the opposite: they are ambitious, truthful, and courageous. And that is precisely why they got ill. Getting ill is never a good thing, but in the case of depression it can present a precious opportunity to identify and to address some very challenging life problems, and to develop a deeper and more refined understanding and appreciation of one’s life and of life in general.

A note of caution

Depression should not be romanticised, sought out, or left unattended simply because it may or may not predispose to problem-solving, personal development, or creativity. The most severe forms of depression have a strong biological basis and are not related to a person’s life circumstances or aspirations. All forms of depression are drab and intensely painful, and most people who suffer from depression would never wish it on anyone, least of all themselves. In some cases, depression can lead to serious injury or even to death through accident, self-neglect, or self-harm. Even highly successful people who suffered from depression such as Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath ended up committing suicide in the end, and most people who attempt suicide do so because they are suffering with some form of depression.

Adapted from Growing from Depression: A Self-Help Guide

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Schizophrenia and creativity

Some highly creative people have suffered from schizophrenia, including Syd Barrett (1946–2006), the early driving force behind the rock band Pink Floyd; John Nash (born 1928), the father of ‘game theory’; and Vaclav Nijinsky (1889–1950), the legendary choreographer and dancer. The cases of Barrett, Nash, and Nijinsky are exceptional, and most people with schizophrenia are intensely disabled by the disorder. Even highly creative people with schizophrenia such as Barrett, Nash, and Nijinsky tend to be at their most creative not during active phases of the disorder, but before its onset and during later phases of remission.

Many more highly creative people, whilst not suffering from schizophrenia themselves, have or have had close relatives who do. This was, for example, the case for the physicist Albert Einstein (his son had schizophrenia), the philosopher Bertrand Russell (also his son), and the novelist James Joyce (his daughter). This is unlikely to be simple coincidence, and a number of studies have suggested that the relatives of people with schizophrenia do indeed have above average creative intelligence.

According to one theory, both people with schizophrenia and their non-schizophrenic relatives lack lateralisation of function in the brain. Whilst this tends to be a disadvantage for the former, it tends to be an advantage for the latter who gain in creativity from increased use of the right hemisphere and thus from increased communication between the right and left hemispheres. This increased communication between the right and left hemispheres also occurs in people with schizophrenia, but their thought and language processes tend to be too disorganised for them to make creative use of it.

Schizophrenia affects about 1% of the population; the idea that the genes that predispose to schizophrenia also predispose to creativity – and thus confer an adaptive or evolutionary advantage – may help to explain why such a debilitating illness remains so common.

Adapted from

Successful psychopaths

Whilst personality disorders may lead to distress and impairment, they may also lead to extraordinary achievement. In 2005, Board and Fritzon at the University of Surrey found that, compared to mentally disordered criminal offenders at the high security Broadmoor Hospital, high-level executives were more likely to have one of three personality disorders: histrionic personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and anankastic personality disorder.

Thus, it is possible to envisage that people may benefit from strongly ingrained and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For example, people with histrionic personality disorder may be adept at charming and manipulating others, and therefore at building and exercising business relationships; people with narcissistic personality disorder may be highly ambitious, confident, and self-focused, and able to exploit people and situations to their best advantage; and people with anankastic personality disorder may get quite far up the corporate and professional ladders simply by being so devoted to work and productivity. Even people with borderline personality disorder may at times be bright, witty, and the very life of the party.

As the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910) put it more than a hundred years ago, ‘When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce … in the same individual, we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.’

Update 27/12/11:
Most recently, in 2010, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues carried out a study to uncover exactly how successful psychopaths differ from unsuccessful ones. They asked a number of members of Division 41 (psychology and law) of the American Psychological Association, professors of clinical psychology, and criminal attorneys to first identify and then to rate and describe one of their acquaintances (if any) who was not only successful but also conformed to Robert Hare’s definition of a psychopath,

…social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life … Completely lacking in conscience and feeling for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.

From the responses that they collated, Mullins-Sweatt and her colleagues found that the successful psychopath matched the unsuccessful one in all respects but one, namely, conscientiousness. Thus, it appears that the key difference between unsuccessful and successful psychopaths is that the one behaves impulsively and irresponsibly, whereas the other is able to inhibit or restrain those destructive tendencies and build for the future.

Adapted from