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Life is Not a Dream But Much of it is Built on Illusion

January 19, 2014

History, Illusion, Paradox

Paradox

Life is not a dream but much of it is built on illusion. Our thoughts like to run in safe, accustomed grooves, without crossing the chasms of paradox and subtlety necessary to understand the real world. For example, although wealth accumulation is not necessarily a zero-sum game it’s still true that the prosperity of one generation often stands on the injustices of earlier generations. In England the success of the mill owners in pioneering large scale factory production was only made possible by the dispossession of yeoman land through enclosures, creating a landless wage-earning class willing to accept a subsistence livelihood. Similarly the rapid economic development of the late 19th and early 20th century in the U.S. was only made possible by the genocide of most Native American tribes through warfare, starvation and/or enslavement.

Adam Smith famously said: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”  In other words all the benefits of prosperity that we owe to a liberal society flow from selfish interest or greed, one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins.

Machiavelli (1469-1527), is considered to be the first modern political thinker. Even after five centuries his thoughts and teaching are still being read as the last word on political realism:

“The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous and to make use of this or not according to need”

In The Prince Machiavelli describes how princes should lie to get things done, a precept that virtually all politicians  instinctively follow:

“Princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning and who in the end have overcome those abiding by honest principles.”

There is no realistic alternative to markets for providing our needs and wants but markets are so successful at this that material progress takes place in acceleration mode, forcing both welcome and unwelcome changes. Progress undermines tradition and belief, but it is tradition and belief that are the foundations for the illusions that keep us going.

The delicate sensibilities and exquisite manners of the courtier, as described in the The Book of the Courtier, one of the most widely distributed and influential books in 16th century Europe, were only made possible because of the exploitation of a huge underclass paying for the existence of a pampered elite relying on monopolies, special privileges, land grants and influence peddling.

True virtues are not meant to clash but they often do. Justice is a virtue because a society lacking in justice is a corrupt and inefficient one. At the same time mercy is also an important virtue because a society lacking in mercy is a stifling and restrictive one lacking the basic quality of kindness. But mercy entails that something less than justice be done. If a convicted criminal asks for mercy, he is asking to receive a punishment less than his due.

We like to think of the Founding Fathers as defending the personal freedom of citizens against the English king, but they were just as much or even more concerned with stifling social disorder and the libertine behaviors of the rabble. It is not often remembered that John Adams was the lawyer who defended the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre. During the trial, Adams correctly described the victims as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish Jack tars.” According to Thaddeus Russell’s ground breaking work, A Renegade History of the United States:

The Founding Fathers were part of a transatlantic movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to replace the external controls over subjects in absolutist regimes with the internal restraints of citizens in republics.”

The fathers believed that the only thing that could make men forsake their own freedom and still believe they were free was democracy. A government of the people, John Adams argued, would make the people disciplined, stern, hard-working, and joyless – the qualities he most admired. The Founding Fathers understood what we now choose to ignore, that democracy is the enemy of personal freedom.

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” A wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it is real, so he escapes the suffering.”  Buddha

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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53 Comments on “Life is Not a Dream But Much of it is Built on Illusion”

  1. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    Perceptive job of exposing the illusions and contradictions humans blissfully ignore. Thanks, Malcolm.

    Reply

  2. cattalespress Says:

    Wow, Malcolm , another thought-provoking post. They always give me so much food for thought, thank you!

    Reply

  3. unfetteredbs Says:

    Excellent

    Reply

  4. Brett Says:

    Very thought-provoking post, Malcolm. I agree. Most of our life and society is built on illusion. I’ve been looking at some plays that explore this actually. In most of them, one character wants to expose the illusions for what they are, while another wants to keep the illusions for people out of a sense of compassion, since he knows how much the truth can hurt. I suppose I always fall in the middle somewhere.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Brett, thank you. I retain most of my ire for the humanists attempting to debunk the illusions of religion without realizing that they have adopted another religion involving redemption through technological progress.

      Reply

  5. matt Says:

    Well said, Malcolm; however, it should never be forgotten that those who peddle influence and receive favors often provide work for those who cannot. Of course it’s in their own best interest — no argument there… but others with little or no influence benefit. And they should never forget that.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Matt, thank you. If you mean that, for example, entrepreneurs may have to peddle influence in a statist world just to get things done then I agree with you. However, in the post I was also referring to parasites who produce nothing themselves and just exist by plundering others.

      Reply

      • matt Says:

        Yes, my comment was in regard to business people who produce and are cursed for it by the looters and moochers. The parasites seek to trash and belittle the efforts of the producers while providing no value in return always whine the loudest about equality and the ‘fairness’ factor. They bite the hand that feeds them and think nothing of it.

        The looters, moochers, thieves, parasites were definitely not the ones to which my comment applied. These are the ones who should never forget that they exist by the ‘selfishness’ of the producers.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          So far I’m in agreement with you but we have to bear in mind that some of the producers benefited from institutional injustice. For example there is some evidence that the mill owners I referred to in the post benefited from capital made available to them from the sale of lands as a result of the enclosure movement. In other words youngest sons of the nobility used their political influence to obtain land from the yeoman farmers and having made them landless then used the capital to set up mills. If the yeomen would have retained their land they would not have been so willing to hire themselves out at subsistence wages.

        • matt Says:

          That’s certainly true enough in the cases of the yeomen you mentioned — and that’s certainly one of the reasons personal property rights are so important and the chipping away of those is so dangerous.
          You’ve hit rather closely to something I’ve been rolling around in my mind to write about, though; I suppose I’m using your post to hone mine!

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Matt, feel free to hone. That’s the beauty of blogging.

  6. Dalo 2013 Says:

    Wow, very intriguing post Malcolm. Governments have always strived to create ‘opium for the masses’ in one form or another ~ for the very reason you mention: control. Machiavelli, I believe, is one of the most influential philosophers and writers, as his work (The Prince specifically) was a manifesto on how to manipulate and rule (and in a sense he presented this to the public as warning). Love the title of this post 🙂

    Reply

  7. Klausbernd Says:

    Thanks, dear Malcolm, for quoting this Renaissance philosopher Machiavelli, who is usually only known for his famous quote “right is what the men in power helps” (sorry, I don`t have “Il Principe” in the English translation – so it`s my translation, oh dear). Machiavelli was much more sophiticated in his texts and stood in the tradition of Renaissance thought.

    Of course, life as we use to perceive it is an illusion. About 100 years after Machiavelli Pedro Calderon de la Barca published his famous play “Life is a Dream” in the “Spanish Golden Age” (Baroque Time) where he made clear that our life is an illusion and by this he anticipated the research of psychologists in the 20th c.
    Of course, nobody doubts that our reception is highly subjective nowadays but in those times of Machiavelli and Calderon it was revelutionary. Well, well, that`s actually not exactly true because Platon did write about the illusion of our reception and so of our thinking already in his metaphor of the cave and the shadows on the wall.

    All the best from the North Norfolk coast
    Klausbernd and his busy Bookfayries Siri and Selma

    Reply

  8. chr1 Says:

    “The Founding Fathers were part of a transatlantic movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to replace the external controls over subjects in absolutist regimes with the internal restraints of citizens in republics.”

    You can say that again. Thanks Malcolm.

    Reply

  9. Mikels Skele Says:

    Hmm.. I think I see a pattern here: you see things as either/or. I see things as continuum. The apparent world is neither wholly illusory nor wholly real. Interesting how often those who quote Adam Smith ignore the parts about how men in business will connive against the interests of the whole, unless closely watched, i.e., regulated. It is beyond me why, logically, workers collectively bargaining, for instance, is not considered part of the market. As for Machiavelli, there are some who see his work as either subtle satire or shameless pandering, given that he had just finished a long period of imprisonment for “republicanism” when he wrote “The Prince.”

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Mikels but your comment can’t be referring to my post 🙂 because I never said the world was wholly illusory, I said that much of life is built on illusion, a very different statement. The quotation from Adam Smith that you refer to was not relevant to this post but I certainly have used it in earlier posts, for example here:

      Also, I am very sympathetic to Trades Unions and collective bargaining, with certain caveats, as demonstrated in the following post on ‘Ending Wage Slavery’ where I outline my position on the subject. As for Machiavelli, I agree with you that there is some controversy over his work as there is over virtually anything written over 500 years ago, however, his doctrines are certainly not taught as satire at our leading universities where his ideas are taken very seriously.

      Reply

  10. Duncan Says:

    Excellent post as always Malcolm. It’s always nice to see some legitimate, thought-provoking content here in the blogosphere. I commend you for mentioning the founding fathers. It seems to me that they merely wanted to move the influence of power and money across an ocean – little to do with individual freedom and liberty. My, how little things change.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Duncan. It’s another post but I actually think the Articles of Confederation have received a bad rap and that the elites decided they needed to consolidate their power through a constitutional republic.

      Reply

      • Duncan Says:

        Due to my lack of studies, I can’t agree or disagree. It’s been quite a while since I read the Articles of Confederation or any circumstances surrounding them. But I will certainly do so when my schedule permits. Have you already published a post about this or is it in your future plans. I would enjoy reading it.

        Reply

  11. Daniela Says:

    Hi Malcolm,

    As always – thoughtful and well-written post. If ‘democracy is the enemy of personal freedom’ – what is the alternative?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Daniela, thank you for the feedback, it is much appreciated. Your question is clearly one that requires a much longer answer than I can give here. Many of the posts on this blog indicate that I believe the size of government should be significantly reduced and the role of civil society extended as far as it is practical to do so. Perhaps this old post will give you a better idea of where I am going with this.

      Reply

  12. Jon Sharp Says:

    Malcolm,
    Good post! Much of life may indeed be built on an illusion, but it seems to me that it is becoming less illusory all the time. A global economy, technology and the internet mean that fewer and fewer societal groups can live in ignorant isolation. International indexes covering corruption, ease of starting a business, quality of life along with an increasingly mobile labour force means that national governments cannot pursue policies that impoverish their people without facing popular protest and/or incurring the wrath of the markets. Democracy may put limits on personal freedom, but there is a quid pro quo in terms of the benefits – an implicit social contract that leaves everyone feeling better off. While democracy in Russia, Argentina, Venezuela, U.K, US may not be equivalent in terms of the balance on either side of the benefit equation, it seems to me that the global trend is more convergent than divergent. Hence the Arab spring, the tug of war in Ukraine, the opening of Myanmar etc… You can still fool some of the people some of the time, but it’s getting harder to fool all the people all the time!
    Cheers
    Jon.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jon, thank you for these thoughtful comments. You make a persuasive case and while I am sympathetic to it, I am not convinced. Technology is a two-edged sword. While it helps solve the problems of ignorance and isolation just look at the way the NSA has been using it to build an imitation Stasi-like system to spy on the population. The problem with technology is that we lose control of it almost immediately. Who could foresee what cars would actually come to mean to individuals in terms of image and identity, over and above a way to travel faster from point A to point B? Who could foresee what the internet has become?

      We harbor the capacity for both civilization and barbarism within us. Modernity has not eliminated the barbarous element in our nature as illustrated by the fact that it was not that long ago that leaders of the ‘free’ world stood up publicly to defend torture. While we may be enjoying a period of grace, as long as moral development lags technological development I am cautiously pessimistic.

      Reply

      • Jon Sharp Says:

        Thanks for your reply Malcolm, with which I find nothing to disagree. Equally I don’t see how it negates my position regarding the convergence of socio-political systems based on a growing inability for governments to keep their people in blind ignorance due to the wide spread adoption of the internet and mobile telecommunications technology. I would argue the outing of the NSA supports my position rather than contradicting it. That said, technology is indeed a double edge sword and capable of mass dislocations in society as per this week’s Economist Article: http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21594264-previous-technological-innovation-has-always-delivered-more-long-run-employment-not-less
        And yes, barbarism is always at the front gate. Despite that I remain cautiously optimistic with the glass half full – cheers!

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Jon, the issue of a convergence of socio-political systems is an old chestnut that I remember caused a great intellectual stir when Francis Fukuyama published his book The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama argued that Western liberal democracy was the final form of human government in man’s evolution. There was plenty of criticism at the time and particularly after 9/11 when it became more obvious that cultural and religious identities were becoming the primary source of conflict in the post-cold war world. You can see a summary of the criticisms of Fukuyama’s thesis on the link I provided above.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Jon, I wanted to add to my reply about converging socio-political systems that historically these type of predictions have always been made with the most fashionable goal in mind. At the end of the 19th century Herbert Spencer said that the global tendency was towards free markets and capitalism. In the 1930’s Beatrice and Sidney Webb said the West was tending towards the system of the Soviet Union. In the late 1980’s it was predicted that the tendency was a move towards American style capitalism. In 50 years time someone will make another prediction based on the most fashionable system de jour.

  13. Michele Seminara Says:

    Malcolm, I feel a bit muddled by this post. But I think that is due to lack of understanding on my part, and a bias towards the spiritual. Prosperity being the result of self interest does not make sense to me – it is, itself, an illusion. Buddha taught that wealth is the result of past generosity – this, of course, is based on a belief in karma and re-birth; certainly not everyone’s belief. He would argue that although we may appear to prosper from self interest, in the long term, this is not possible. I only bring this up because of the quote at the end of the post.
    Are you saying that democracy is an illusion, and self interest is the thinly veiled reality that drives it?
    Thanks, as always, for the thought provoking post 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Michele, thank you. It was Adam Smith’s greatest contribution to classical liberal thought that society uses private gain to bring about social good. Generosity is a quality useful for redistributing existing wealth but Adam Smith’s concern was identifying the social conditions most conducive to the creation of new wealth. Both you and I, as well as Adam Smith, would certainly agree that material wealth does not translate into spiritual wealth. Indeed Smith was at pains to point out that it was individual pursuing selfish ends who inadvertently benefited society as a whole.

      As to the issue of democracy I was arguing that the Founding Fathers wanted to bring about democracy, not to increase personal freedom but to reduce it. Most of us live our lives believing in illusions and I think the connection between democracy and freedom is one of them. I hope this helps to clear up the muddle.

      Reply

  14. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    Malcolm, it’s been a while 🙂

    Allow me to possibly stray from the origins of this post (as I tend to do) and dive into one thing that made me raise an eye-brow because I often find this thoroughly misunderstood and misinterpreted “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In other words all the benefits of prosperity that we owe to a liberal society flow from selfish interest or greed Own interest can be selfish but is it true that it always is selfish interest or greed? Could it be that perhaps even more often than not, you find people honoring something that keeps calling them from deep within which is beyond self and bigger than themselves? That it can also be utterly self-less and even despite their self; a self that might be frightful and wish for certainties. But regardless they still dedicate themselves and their whole lives to that which has their interest and fascination and a deep urge towards evolving in this area and to create.. the musician where it is all about her music, not herself, a baker where it is all about his baking, inventing new recipes because of an undefined joy of it. The scientist driven by a great curiosity and a sense that the understanding is so close, behind a thin veil she dedicates her life to dissolve. And yes, from their dedication to this the rest of the world benefits. Hugely. And perhaps they dedicate less time to their closest friends and family because this is not about themselves and the few they love, it’s about something beyond, which paradoxically is themselves and those they love too… There is more to us than the self, not everything is personal, however we mostly interpret ‘reality’ from the self and all our actions too, a wee bit limiting, if I dare say so… and here the words you have chosen by Buddha resonates as Leonard Cohen sings: “you live your life as if it’s real…” What is real? Will we ever know?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Hanne, thank you and welcome back. Adam Smith was far from saying that we are just selfish beings. Indeed he wrote a book called ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ to provide the ethical and moral underpinnings for his later works. In this work he said:

      “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.”

      The modern science of economics does make some modest assumptions such as that work is generally a disutility i.e. that most people would prefer leisure over work. However, as economics does not require that everyone feel this way both the creative genius and the baker who enjoys baking, can continue doing their own thing without violating any cardinal principles of the discipline.

      Reply

      • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

        Malcolm, thanks for adding this to my comment. That was a good read.

        Why either leisure or work? More often than not, a great outcome arises when leisure and work is the same thing, combined; a work of love. Often I hear the phrase, when someone is going to work: “back to reality” insinuating that ‘reality’ is made of matter we don’t find pleasure in, whereas the times of pleasure and leisure is only but a dream, an illusion… I find it, well not exactly sad, but somehow disillusioning, because there is much more behind that phrase than we are conscious of and what might even be why we view the everyday as we sometimes happen to do; cynical and with very little excitement and doing the same thing over and over again, even when we are dreading it and not one time questioning the way things are and that there might be another way… (I know I’m generalizing, but I hope I thereby can express what I’m pointing towards) and I hope I’m not violating any cardinal principles of the discipline… 😉 Maybe, if you find it of interest and have time, you wouldn’t mind explaining this further to me? It sounds rather rigid and stiff in my ears, surely because I have no clue how to interpret it.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Hanne, thank you but I think trade-offs are a part of life. If we do one thing we can’t do another. The more of one thing that we have or do the more attractive doing or having something else becomes. The more I work the less pleasure I get from it and the more attractive becomes a cessation of work. Clearly there are a few people whose leisure is their work, a “work of love” as you call it and no doubt they just want to keep working for as long as they can. However, I do think it a reasonable assumption that this is not the case for most people.

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          Everything is part of life, including trade offs… and indeed, it’s a reasonable assumption that it is not the case for most people. I do have a sense though that there is ‘disturbances’ in the ways of thinking and believing what life is like and the way we, in the western world are living it. It appears to me, more and more have started questioning and bringing awareness to the many, suggesting that things can be different… I’m not taking about changing the world, I’m pointing towards a shift on the inner planes. Or perhaps this has always occurred…

  15. Lisa Chesser Says:

    I think that’s the best way to end your post. What a great circus democracy is! I was thinking that today while I was wandering around locked in my own illusion called education. And, yes, wanting to escape the suffering.

    Reply

  16. becwillmylife Says:

    Malcolm, I had to leave a note just to say that I appreciate your post. You know you and I don’t always agree and to be honest I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine tonight so I am not going to ramble. This I know…your writings come from a place of knowledge, understanding and integrity.

    Reply

  17. moorezart Says:

    wonderful post, excellent blog, following

    Reply

  18. sharoncummings Says:

    Great post Malcolm! Love your writing style. 🙂

    Reply

  19. Nick Mordowanec Says:

    Malcolm, your post just goes to show that humanity in its purest form is more universal than relative. Although times have changed millions of ways over since the days of Machiavelli and Genghis Khan, people still use similar methodology to gain what they want if they do so desire. And, in the end, someone has to remain in power; it’s just a question of who and not when.

    Reply

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