Cool Essays: Adventurer #45, The difficulty of forming confederacies

Considering that this was written in 1753 by Samuel Johnson in his mid forties, the incisive observations are still remarkably stunning and the points addressed are especially noteworthy. One of his best essays.

Nulla fides regni sociis, omnisque potestas
Impatiens consortis erit.
—LUCAN. Lib. i. 92.

  No faith of partnership dominion owns:
Still discord hovers o’er divided thrones.

It is well known, that many things appear plausible in speculation, which can never be reduced to practice; and that of the numberless projects that have flattered mankind with theoretical speciousness, few have served any other purpose than to show the ingenuity of their contrivers. A voyage to the moon, however romantick and absurd the scheme may now appear, since the properties of air have been better understood, seemed highly probable to many of the aspiring wits in the last century, who began to dote upon their glossy plumes, and fluttered with impatience for the hour of their departure:

   —Pereunt vestigia mille
Ante fugam, absentemque ferit gravis ungula campum.

  Hills, vales and floods appear already crost;
And, ere he starts, a thousand steps are lost. POPE.

Among the fallacies which only experience can detect, there are some, of which scarcely experience itself can destroy the influence; some which, by a captivating show of indubitable certainty, are perpetually gaining upon the human mind; and which, though every trial ends in disappointment, obtain new credit as the sense of miscarriage wears gradually away, persuade us to try again what we have tried already, and expose us by the same failure to double vexation.

Of this tempting, this delusive kind, is the expectation of great performances by confederated strength. The speculatist, when he has carefully observed how much may be performed by a single hand, calculates by a very easy operation the force of thousands, and goes on accumulating power till resistance vanishes before it; then rejoices in the success of his new scheme, and wonders at the folly or idleness of former ages, who have lived in want of what might so readily be procured, and suffered themselves to be debarred from happiness by obstacles which one united effort would have so easily surmounted.

But this gigantick phantom of collective power vanishes at once into air and emptiness, at the first attempt to put it into action. The different apprehensions, the discordant passions, the jarring interests of men, will scarcely permit that many should unite in one undertaking.

Of a great and complicated design, some will never be brought to discern the end; and of the several means by which it may be accomplished, the choice will be a perpetual subject of debate, as every man is swayed in his determination by his own knowledge or convenience. In a long series of action some will languish with fatigue, and some be drawn off by present gratifications; some will loiter because others labour, and some will cease to labour because others loiter: and if once they come within prospect of success and profit, some will be greedy and others envious; some will undertake more than they can perform, to enlarge their claims of advantage; some will perform less than they undertake, lest their labours should chiefly turn to the benefit of others.

The history of mankind informs us that a single power is very seldom broken by a confederacy. States of different interests, and aspects malevolent to each other, may be united for a time by common distress; and in the ardour of self-preservation fall unanimously upon an enemy, by whom they are all equally endangered. But if their first attack can be withstood, time will never fail to dissolve their union: success and miscarriage will be equally destructive: after the conquest of a province, they will quarrel in the division; after the loss of a battle, all will be endeavouring to secure themselves by abandoning the rest.

From the impossibility of confining numbers to the constant and uniform prosecution of a common interest, arises the difficulty of securing subjects against the encroachment of governours. Power is always gradually stealing away from the many to the few, because the few are more vigilant and consistent; it still contracts to a smaller number, till in time it centres in a single person.

Thus all the forms of governments instituted among mankind, perpetually tend towards monarchy; and power, however diffused through the whole community, is, by negligence or corruption, commotion or distress, reposed at last in the chief magistrate.

“There never appear,” says Swift, “more than five or six men of genius in an age; but if they were united, the world could not stand before them.” It is happy, therefore, for mankind, that of this union there is no probability. As men take in a wider compass of intellectual survey, they are more likely to choose different objects of pursuit; as they see more ways to the same end, they will be less easily persuaded to travel together; as each is better qualified to form an independent scheme of private greatness, he will reject with greater obstinacy the project of another; as each is more able to distinguish himself as the head of a party, he will less readily be made a follower or an associate.

The reigning philosophy informs us, that the vast bodies which constitute the universe, are regulated in their progress through the ethereal spaces by the perpetual agency of contrary forces; by one of which they are restrained from deserting their orbits, and losing themselves in the immensity of heaven; and held off by the other from rushing together, and clustering round their centre with everlasting cohesion.

The same contrariety of impulse may be perhaps discovered in the motions of men: we are formed for society, not for combination; we are equally unqualified to live in a close connexion with our fellow-beings, and in total separation from them; we are attracted towards each other by general sympathy, but kept back from contact by private interests.

Some philosophers have been foolish enough to imagine, that improvements might be made in the system of the universe, by a different arrangement of the orbs of heaven; and politicians, equally ignorant and equally presumptuous, may easily be led to suppose, that the happiness of our world would be promoted by a different tendency of the human mind. It appears, indeed, to a slight and superficial observer, that many things impracticable in our present state, might be easily effected, if mankind were better disposed to union and co-operation: but a little reflection will discover, that if confederacies were easily formed, they would lose their efficacy, since numbers would be opposed to numbers, and unanimity to unanimity; and instead of the present petty competitions of individuals or single families, multitudes would be supplanting multitudes, and thousands plotting against thousands.

There is no class of the human species, of which the union seems to have been more expected, than of the learned: the rest of the world have almost always agreed to shut scholars up together in colleges and cloisters; surely not without hope, that they would look for that happiness in concord, which they were debarred from finding in variety; and that such conjunctions of intellect would recompense the munificence of founders and patrons, by performances above the reach of any single mind.

But discord, who found means to roll her apple into the banqueting chamber of the goddesses, has had the address to scatter her laurels in the seminaries of learning. The friendship of students and of beauties is for the most part equally sincere, and equally durable: as both depend for happiness on the regard of others, on that of which the value arises merely from comparison, they are both exposed to perpetual jealousies, and both incessantly employed in schemes to intercept the praises of each other.

I am, however, far from intending to inculcate that this confinement of the studious to studious companions, has been wholly without advantage to the publick: neighbourhood, where it does not conciliate friendship, incites competition; and he that would contentedly rest in a lower degree of excellence, where he had no rival to dread, will be urged by his impatience of inferiority to incessant endeavours after great attainments.

These stimulations of honest rivalry are, perhaps, the chief effects of academies and societies; for whatever be the bulk of their joint labours, every single piece is always the production of an individual, that owes nothing to his colleagues but the contagion of diligence, a resolution to write, because the rest are writing, and the scorn of obscurity while the rest are illustrious.


On Economic Assessment

This post was originally written as a exposition for private circulation back in 2020, I’m sharing it as I believe it still has some value to contribute, and as the intervening passage of time has erroded any embarrassment I may have had in my potential naivety of perception on the patterns prevalent in the world. Also, it provides some neat insight to the conceptions, or lack thereof, I had when I just turned twenty five.

GDP is not designed nor originally intended to be used as a metric for comparing countries. It was designed for assessing year-to-year changes in a given currency region, usually coextensive with a county.

GDP (PPP) is an attempt to allow for inter-country comparisons, however it is based on a common basket of goods that are not representative of the entire economy. It is a flawed metric that probably underestimates the differences. The true value is likely somewhere in between GDP and GDP (PPP).

Neither measures are meant for assessing real wealth, the actual size of the productive economy, or tangible work, or anything that doesn’t show up on a balance sheet. These are economic metrics that can be “cheated” in a sense.

For example, paying someone to dig holes in the ground and then fill the holes back up would count as GDP. If the size of payments for hole digging and filling increase year-on-year then that would also count as GDP growth. Even the actual number of holes dug and filled could stay constant as long as payments increase.

Generally it is assumed that the vast majority of GDP, and GDP growth, is tied to actual productive efforts. I.e. many assume that the GDP economy ~ real economy, otherwise vastly more nuanced, and inconvenient, metrics would have to be used, many of which requires understanding outside the educational background of current decision makers.

However as recent events have shown, the animating forces of the GDP economy are not necessarily equal to the animating forces of the real economy. Just as the balance sheet for a company only captures a certain perspective, the balance sheet for a nation’s economy only captures a certain perspective.

In the future, farsighted government organizations might decide to focus on assessing the real economy and achieve results similar to private companies focused on assessing real economic factors.

An explanation of the historical development of English mathematics and higher education by Norbert Wiener, in an obituary for G. H. Hardy – with some parallels for today

Once you read enough books you begin to come across curious bits of knowledge that are rarely mentioned nowadays, often in the most obscure sources.

Although George Harold Hardy (1877-1947) was very well known in mathematics circles in the early to mid 20th century, he never attained the prominence even then of other intellectual peers of his generation, such as Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, etc., Nowadays he is a remote figure known only to passionate students of the mathematics and the history thereof.

However, thanks to a very illuminating obituary written in memorial by Norbert Wiener in 1947, a fascinating view of the historical development of mathematics, and more broadly that of the scientific and higher education system in England from the 17th to 20th century, comes to light.

Here are the key passages:


Hardy came from a family with artistic and intellectual traditions. He went to Winchester and then to Trinity College, Cambridge. The milieu in which he developed as a mathematician is one which it is particularly difficult for those outside of the English tradition to understand, and even rather difficult for those belonging to the newer English tradition which Hardy himself had so much hand in establishing.

It all goes back to the disputes between Newton and Leibniz concerning the invention of the calculus. At present we have not much doubt of the fact that Newton invented the differential and integral calculus, that Leibniz’ work was somewhat later but independent, and that Leibniz’ notation was far superior to Newton’s. At the beginning the relations between the Leibnizian and the Newtonian schools were not hostile, but it was not long before patriotic and misguidedly loyal colleagues of both discoverers instigated a quarrel, the effects of which have scarcely yet died out. the British mathematicians to use the less flexible Newtonian notation and to affect to look down on the new work done by the Leibnizian school on the Continent. For a while there was no scarcity of able English mathematicians of the strictly Newtonian school. For example, we must mention Taylor and Maclaurin. However, when the great continental school of the Bernoullis and Euler arose (not to mention Lagrange and Laplace who came later) there were no men of comparable calibre north of the Channel to compete with them on anything like a plane of equality.

Part of this must be attributed to the fallen status the British mathematicians to use the less flexible Newtonian notation and to affect to look down on the new work done by the Leibnizian school on the Continent. For a while there was no scarcity of able English mathematicians of the strictly Newtonian school. For example, we must mention Taylor and Maclaurin. However, when the great continental school of the Bernoullis and Euler arose (not to mention Lagrange and Laplace who came later) there were no men of comparable calibre north of the Channel to compete with them on anything like a plane of equality. Part of this must be attributed to the fallen status of the English Universities during the 18th century.

In the 17th century the English Universities were seats of learning comparable with the greatest schools of the Continent, but in the 18th century the grasping new Whig aristocracy that had risen out of the prosperous middle class (the nabobs) took over the older English institutions, the common land, public schools, universities, lock, stock and barrel, as their private property. The public schools were transformed from institutions of a semi-charitable nature to the place where the children of the new aristocracy were formed after its own pattern. The universities became nests of sinecures for dependent clergymen. In this atmosphere creative scholarship did not and could not flourish, and it is not until the 19th century is well under way that we find the signs of a new awareness of what the continental scholars, particularly Laplace and Lagrange, had done in mathematics. Among the English names belonging to this tentative reformation we may mention Boole, Peacock and DeMorgan. DeMorgan in particular is associated with the new University College at London which by its pressure did so much to bring the older universities back to a sense of intellectual responsibility.

This reform of English education was far from complete. The level of mathematics at Oxford was for many years scarcely more than contemptible, and even at Cambridge the training was devoted to the passing of severe examinations, the Triposes, rather than to the development of original mathematical workers. What mathematical talent there was in the British Isles went rather to the formation of a great school of mathematical physicists. Even here Cambridge entered the game rather late. Clerk Maxwell owes more to Faraday, the self-taught practical experimentor, than to any Cambridge man, and neither George Green nor Hamilton was in the Cambridge tradition. Sylvester, as a Jew, was not permitted to enter the older universities till towards the end of his life, and is another of those seminal figures who center around the University of London. Cayley is the first real great Cambridge pure mathematician of the 19th century. He certainly was in touch with those continental scholars whose interest was primarily in algebra, but algebra was at that time an important secondary mathematical subject rather than one in the main stream of development.

It is not remarkable that in such an environment, secluded from the central activity of world mathematics, mathematical study should be devoted rather to the formation of public school ushers or a trial intellectual run for promising barristers than to research activities. As a matter of fact, the Tripos was made such an ordeal, at least in difficulty though in general not in originality, that it marked the culminating point in the intellectual life of many of those who participated in it, and their subsequent activity became retrospective rather than creative. This was the state of English mathematics to about the turn of the century, when an awareness of the great work of the continental mathematicians smuggles itself into England by non-academic bypaths. The English generation of pure mathematicians of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century is curiously tentative. It has many important names, such as A. N. Whitehead, Andrew Forsyth, E. A. Hobson and W. H. Young. These all carry to some degree a mathematical style and ethos formed under the older English tradition into a period when the topics of interest were far more continental.

In addition to his accomplishments in research and teaching, Hardy contributed greatly to the reform of mathematical instruction. He was bitterly opposed to the rigid and unmathematical Tripos system and is unquestionably in a large part responsible for the fact that the order of rank of the Wranglers, those who obtain first class in the Tripos, has not been published since 1912. The present mathematical Tripos and indeed the whole system of training at Cambridge has been modified in the sense of conforming very closely to the actual work and career of the mathematicians of this day. Even this change, which has spread from Cambridge to all the British Universities, is a compromise between the old system and a system where research should even more completely take the place of examinations.


Curious indeed when contemplating alongside with the current trends!

From Volume IV of Norbert Wiener: Collected Works

Interesting Buddhist terminology – applicable to modern thought?

With my handy dandy Buddhist dictionary I’ve discovered a few interesting words that succinctly describe quite complex ideas. Here’s an example of one such word with a useful english description:


Chinese : xuwang fenbie; Japanese: komō funbetsu; Korean: hŏmang punbyŏl, Sinograph: 妄分別

In Sanskrit, “false imagining” or “construction of what is unreal”; a pivotal Yogācāra term describing the tendency of the dependent (PARATANTRA) nature (SVABHĀVA) to project false constructions of a reality that is bifurcated between self and others. Sentient beings mistakenly assume that what has been constructed through consciousness has a static, unchanging reality. This process inserts into the perceptual process an imaginary bifurcation (VIKALPA) between perceiving subject (grāhaka) and perceived object (grāhya) (see GRĀHYAGRĀHAKAVIKALPA), which is the basis for a continued proliferation of such mental constructions. This subject–object dichotomy is then projected onto all sensory experience, resulting in the imagined (PARIKALPITA) nature (svabhāva). By relying on these false imaginings to construct our sense of what is real, we inevitably subject ourselves to continued suffering (DUḤKHA) within the cycle of birth-and-death (SAṂSĀRA). The term figures prominently in MAITREYNĀTHA’s MADHYĀNTAVIBHĀGA (“Separating the Middle from the Extremes”) and VASUBANDHU’s commentary on the treatise, the Madhyāntavibhāgabhāṣya.

Note that all the sanskrit terms have been transliterated.

It’s easily imaginable that there is great potential value for usage of these terms for discussing complex philosophical ideas. The sophistication of the core ideas of Buddhism is also noticeable when fully elaborated like this, in comparison to the simpler allegorical versions presented in popular culture for Buddhism and other religions.

Here’s the cleaned up description:

abhūtaparikalpa, 妄分別

In Sanskrit, “false imagining” or “construction of what is unreal”; a pivotal Yogācāra term describing the tendency of the dependent nature to project false constructions of a reality that is bifurcated between self and others. Sentient beings mistakenly assume that what has been constructed through consciousness has a static, unchanging reality. This process inserts into the perceptual process an imaginary bifurcation between perceiving subject and perceived object, which is the basis for a continued proliferation of such mental constructions. This subject–object dichotomy is then projected onto all sensory experience, resulting in the imagined nature. By relying on these false imaginings to construct our sense of what is real, we inevitably subject ourselves to continued suffering within the cycle of birth-and-death. The term figures prominently in“Separating the Middle from the Extremes” and VASUBANDHU’s commentary on the treatise, the Madhyāntavibhāgabhāṣya.

Notable speeches: ‘Law and the Court’ by US Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

There are a great number of obscure yet wonderful speeches delivered in many tongues through the ages. For the public benefit I’ve decided to post a select few in the public domain to broaden the mind of the curious reader.

The following was delivered by a then famous personage, and probably the most erudite judge in US history, on the occasion of a private dinner honouring his achievements.

Law and the Court 

by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1858-1968

Speech at a dinner of the Harvard Law School Association of New York on February 15, 1913.

Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen:

Vanity is the most philosophical of those feelings that we are taught to despise. For vanity recognizes that if a man is in a minority of one we lock him up, and therefore longs for an assurance from others that one’s work has not been in vain. If a man’s ambition is the thirst for a power that comes not from office but from within, he never can be sure that any happiness is not a fool’s paradise – he never can be sure that he sits on that other bench reserved for the masters of those who know. Then too, at least until one draws near to seventy, one is less likely to hear the trumpets than the rolling fire of the front. I have passed that age, but I still am on the firing line, and it is only in rare moments like this that there comes a pause and for half an hour one feels a trembling hope. They are the rewards of a lifetime’s work.

But let me turn to more palpable realities – to that other visible Court to which for ten now accomplished years it has been my opportunity to belong. We are very quiet there, but it is the quiet of a storm centre, as we all know. Science has taught the world scepticism and has made it legitimate to put everything to the test of proof. Many beautiful and noble reverences are impaired, but in these days no one can complain if any institution, system, or belief is called on to justify its continuance in life. Of course we are not excepted and have not escaped. Doubts are expressed that go to our very being. Not only are we told that when Marshall pronounced an Act of Congress unconstitutional he usurped a power that the Constitution did not give, but we are told that we are representatives of a class – a tool of the money power. I get letters, not always anonymous, intimating that we are corrupt. Well, gentlemen, I admit that it makes my heart ache. It is very painful, when one spends all the energies of one’s soul in trying to do good work, with no thought but that of solving a problem according to the rules by which one is bound, to know that many see sinister motives and would be glad of evidence that one was consciously bad. But we must take such things philosophically and try to see what we can learn from hatred and distrust and whether behind them there may not be some germ of inarticulate truth.

The attacks upon the Court are merely an expression of the unrest that seems to wonder vaguely whether law and order pay. When the ignorant are taught to doubt they do not know what they safely may believe. And it seems to me that at this time we need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure. I do not see so much immediate use in committees on the high cost of living and inquiries how far it is due to the increased production of gold, how far to the narrowing of cattle ranges and the growth of population, how far to the bugaboo, as I do in bringing home to people a few social and economic truths. Most men think dramatically, not have and how much go without; that thus the final competition is between the objects of desire, and therefore between the producers of those objects; that when we oppose labor and capital, labor means the group that is selling its product and capital all the other groups that are buying it. The hated capitalist is simply the mediator, the prophet, the adjuster according to his divination of the future desire. If you could get that believed, the body of the people would have no doubt as to the worth of law.

That is my outside thought on the present discontents. As to the truth embodied in them, in part it cannot be helped. It cannot be helped, it is as it should be, that the law is behind the times. I told a labor leader once that what they asked was favor, and if a decision was against them they called it wicked. The same might be said of their opponents. It means that the law is growing. As law embodies beliefs that have triumphed in the battle of ideas and then have translated themselves into action, while there still is doubt, while opposite convictions still keep a battle front against each other, the time for law has not come; the notion destined to prevail is not yet entitled to the field. It is a misfortune if a judge reads his conscious or unconscious sympathy with one side or the other prematurely into the law, and forgets that what seem to him to be first principles are believed by half his fellow men to be wrong. I think that we have suffered from this misfortune, in State courts at least, and that this is another and very important truth to be extracted from the popular discontent. When twenty years ago a vague terror went over the earth and the word socialism began to be heard, I thought and still think that fear was translated into doctrines that had no proper place in the Constitution or the common law. Judges are apt to be naif, simple-minded men, and they need something of Mephistopheles. We too need education in the obvious — to learn to transcend our own convictions and to leave room for much that we hold dear to be done away with short of revolution by the orderly change of law. 

I have no belief in panaceas and almost none in sudden ruin. I believe with Montesquieu that if the chance of a battle — I may add, the passage of a law—has ruined a state, there was a general cause at work that made the state ready to perish by a single battle or law. Hence I am not much interested one way or the other in the nostrums now so strenuously urged. I do not think the United States would come to an end if we lost our power to declare an Act of Congress void. I do think the Union would be imperiled if we could not make that declaration as to the laws of the several States. For one in my place sees how often a local policy prevails with those who are not trained to national views and how often action is taken that embodies what the Commerce Clause was meant to end. But I am not aware that there is any serious desire to limit the Court’s power in this regard. For most of the things that properly can be called evils in the present state of the law I think the main remedy, as for the evils of public opinion, is for us to grow more civilized.

If I am right it will be a slow business for our people to reach rational views, assuming that we are allowed to work peaceably to that end. But as I grow older I grow calm. If I feel what are perhaps an old man’s apprehensions, that competition from new races will cut deeper than working men’s disputes and will test whether we can hang together and can fight; if I fear that we are running through the world’s resources at a pace that we cannot keep; I do not lose my hopes. I do not pin my dreams for the future to my country or even to my race. I think it probable that civilization somehow will last as long as I care to look ahead — perhaps with smaller numbers, but perhaps also bred to greatness and splendor by science. I think it not improbable that man, like the grub that prepares a chamber for the winged thing it never has seen but is to be — that man may have cosmic destinies that he does not understand. And so beyond the vision of battling races and an impoverished earth I catch a dreaming glimpse of peace.

The other day my dream was pictured to my mind. It was evening. I was walking homeward on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Treasury, and as I looked beyond Sherman’s Statue to the west the sky was aflame with scarlet and crimson from the setting sun. But, like the note of downfall in Wagner’s opera, below the sky line there came from little globes the pallid discord of the electric lights. And I thought to myself the Gotterdammerung will end, and from those globes clustered like evil eggs will come the new masters of the sky. It is like the time in which we live. But then I remembered the faith that I partly have expressed, faith in a universe not measured by our fears, a universe that has thought and more than thought inside of it, and as I gazed, after the sunset and above the electric lights there shone the stars.