Purity and the Desire for Death

I’ve finished reading Runaway Horses, the second book in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy by Yukio Mishima; it is astonishing in its beauty and has sparked the thoughts below. If, after reading its Wikipedia entry, you feel like you may want to read the first novel, you should stop reading this (spoiler alert).

Purity is the central concept of Runaway Horses and the overriding concern of its main character, a young man of twenty in 1930s Japan. Isao Iinuma is obsessed with reverting the westernization of his country and steering it back to a mythical time when the God-like Emperor ruled the Japanese people entirely and benevolently.

Isao is possessed by the need to be a servant of the emperor – completely. Since by creating unrest and attacking the status quo (the emperor is nominally in power at that time) he is acting against the laws sanctioned by the emperor, Isao feels he must commit suicide immediately after his coup. The plot of the book throws many challenges at Isao’s pure vision of perfect service to the emperor – money and material interests, the morally ambiguous history of his family, the realpolitik of navigating modern society, his underlying personal motivations. Life, in short.

Ultimately, Isao attains purity by committing ritual suicide in a startingly beautiful scene.

Purity – the absence of any blemish, from a particular perspective – is thus intrinsically linked with death in the novel. I think this is more generally true.

Purity is just the catch-all term for the maximum expression of any virtue; the linear projection of certain things encountered in the real world to their logical conclusion. Take loyalty, Runaway Horses‘ key form of Purity, as an example: at some point our ancestors found that it was helpful (or natural) for all members of the tribe to follow the instructions of another (better at hunting, better at war) and the concept of loyalty was born. It didn’t take long for us to extrapolate this into absolute loyalty, codified in many societal rituals which often times are fairly counter-productive to common welfare.

I don’t know why human beings have this need to extrapolate things to their logical conclusion in such a narrow, linear way. I remember hearing that linear projection is a useful mental skill for animals because they need to estimate where other animals in motion will be in the future – so they can eat them. Maybe we’re just using the same “software” but at a more abstract level. No idea.

At some point, we forget that these concepts are just that – abstractions. These are human mental models and tools, not goals, and should be evaluated on the basis of their utility towards more fundamental goals. Goals should be stated in as fundamental a manner as possible, so that we’re not baking in assumptions of potential solutions into the definition of our problem. In short, goals should be stated as first principles.

In the case of Runaway Horses, Isao is so focused on maximizing the idea of loyalty – presumably something intended to lead to a good society – that he fails to notice anything around him. No such idea of how society should work can stand the test of reality, and so to avoid this lack of consistency Isao seeks death. Rather than discard and replace his mental model of reality – which is failing badly to explain any of what he encounters – Isao chooses to discard reality.

I’m left with the impression that human beings’ tendency to linearly project concepts, coupled with a desperate need to avoid cognitive dissonance is at the root of fanaticism. This also seems to explain what I see as a correlation between fanaticism and the wish for death.

To Know and Not to Act is Not to Know

I don’t usually agree with Confucians, or neo-Confucians for that matter. But this view is very much in line with my own.

A related thought is Samuelson’s concept of Revealed Preference, or the old saying “Actions speak louder than words”.

Another connection is the notion of a “costly signal”: posting on social media about feminism makes you a little bit feminist, marching at a feminist rally makes you more of a feminist, consistently spending time, effort and resources on promoting the welfare and equality of women makes you a “real” feminist.

Democracy, Multiculturalism and Risk Management

When I think about multiculturalism I often think about democracy; both concepts value pluralism and consensus, both are high-ranking values in my personal preferences and both tend to disappoint when observed in their real world version.

Democracy and multiculturalism are also in tension with the idea of progress; if you believe that there is a right answer to any given question, voting on it or sitting and listening to others with opposing views seems like a waste of time.

We see very little progress (according to our own beliefs), we get tired with the long, boring slog of consensus-building and then -like most tired people – we succumb to temptation. With democracy, the temptation is to believe in the myth of the benevolent autocrat. With multiculturalism, we are tempted to believe that the views commonly held by people we respect are universal and unimpeachable.

I will agree with this: democracy and multiculturalism would be a waste of time if we knew what the right way to govern or live was. But of course, we don’t really understand these things yet. We may know a good outcome when we see it, but it is pretty evident that we can’t yet replicate these good outcomes or improve on them systematically. If the best my auto mechanic could do is tell me when my car is running OK and when it is on fire I would probably not think too highly of his expertise in auto repair.

It is in light of this ignorance and uncertainty that the virtue of democracy and multiculturalism becomes evident: if you don’t know what the right answer is, a good approach is to focus on the process for finding it*. You try to not rule out any possible answer, no matter how unpleasant, because you want to make progress. Consultation and consensus-building are frustratingly slow, but this is a feature of the system, not a bug. Given that the stakes of society-building are so high, it is much more important to avoid catastrophic outcomes than to move faster.

I believe in progress and therefore also in objective reality in some sense. I get as frustrated as anyone when people continue to question well-established findings. But to abandon respectful, reasoned debate out of frustration with those who refuse to engage with it is to destroy what got us this far in the first place.

*If you believe that there is no right answer to these things, multiculturalism and democracy seem to make even more sense vs. the alternative.