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333. Approach (VI)

I once knew a man who decided to take part in a motor race to Mongolia, while everyone else used cars he decided to use a somewhat dilapidated motorbike. When he announced his intention, I said that if he did it I would eat my shoe; he did it—and I did not eat my shoe, since I was then a very facetious young man. The reason I offered to eat my shoe was because I had recently seen a documentary called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which the German film director ate his shoe to fulfil a bet he made with a fellow filmmaker. Herzog claimed the man, Errol Morris, would never finish his latest film, a documentary about a pet cemetery, and so said if he did it he would eat his shoe—unlike me, Herzog delivered.

Now, yesterday I promised to discuss whom I would bind myself to as a master. A difficult question; for example, I admire the late Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing. He had brilliant insights into the human condition; and yet, if I imagine being in a position where I had to obey him, assume that his decisions made on my behalf were better than any I could reach myself, then I have doubts. He was alcoholic, unstable, and his family life was a mess.

Similarly, Wittgenstein was a brilliant figure; and yet when he chose to be a schoolteacher for a time he beat his pupils and disdained them, made them cry. This would be a little forgivable if he had no choice but to teach, but he had a family fortune to fall back on; he had no reason to beat his pupils or make them cry—there was no fundamental need for him to be there. And so, despite his genius, I would not want such a man to make decisions for me; he seems irresponsible and not to know himself.

So the question of a master cannot just be about intelligence, perceptive insights, or genius. The genius is not necessarily the best person to lead, whatever his brilliance. I think a master must demonstrate a responsible reality-adjusted attitude; and this requires self-knowledge, since to act in such a way one must have a clear boundary between self and other—responsibility is the ability to contract, with yourself and others, and so one must understand the difference between the two contractural parties to cooperate reliably. Our world celebrates the opposite: we live in a world where actors and prostitutes are high status. Traditionally, these were low status; and this is because they are liars and narcissists—unreliable and without boundaries. So it is difficult to pick contemporary masters simply from the famous; hence, these are my historical masters: Guénon, Amundsen, von Neumann, Carton de Wiart, Montaigne, Jung, and Jünger. For contemporaries I choose: Werner Herzog, Musk, Hoppe, Luttwak, David Lynch, and Trump.

This returns us, finally, to the shoe. One way in which Herzog demonstrated his suitability to lead—to be a master—was his willingness, unlike my younger self, to contract to an extraordinary bet and see it through. This is not exactly to lead from the front, but it demonstrates a particular attitude and responsibility, possibly even if it could have adverse health effects.

Herzog demonstrated, simply, he was a man of his word; and this must be an essential component to what we call virtueto be a man of your word is to be a man; and to hold to it without external compulsion and not to wheedle out with lawyers and caveats demonstrates self-government, we could call it “character”; and this is what you really want in a master. It is a condition women cannot know, since it depends on reliable self-government and self-knowledge and women lack both; hence virtue derives from vir, manliness. This brings us to an even simpler conclusion: the test of a master worthy to be a master is whether or not he would eat his shoe.


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