Followup toPretending to be Wise

For comparison purposes, here's an essay with similar content to yesterday's "Pretending to be Wise", which I wrote in 2006 in a completely different style, edited down slightly (content has been deleted but not added).  Note that the 2006 concept of "pretending to be Wise" hasn't been narrowed down as much compared to the 2009 version; also when I wrote it, I was in more urgent need of persuasive force.

I thought it would be an interesting data point to check whether this essay seems more convincing than yesterday's, following Robin's injuction "to avoid emotion, color, flash, stories, vagueness, repetition, rambling, and even eloquence" - this seems like rather the sort of thing he might have had in mind.

And conversely the stylistic change also seems like the sort of thing Orwell might have had in mind, when Politics and the English Language compared:  "I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."  Versus:  "Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."  That would be the other side of it.

At any rate, here goes Eliezer2006...

I do not fit the stereotype of the Wise. I am not Gandalf, Ged, or Gandhi. I do not sit amidst my quiet garden, staring deeply into the truths engraved in a flower or a drop of dew; speaking courteously to all who come before me, and answering them gently regardless of how they speak to me.

If I tried to look Wise, and succeeded, I would receive more respect from my fellows. But there would be a price.

To pretend to be Wise means that you must always appear to give people the benefit of the doubt. Thus people will admire you for your courtesy. But this is not always true.

To pretend to be Wise, you must always pretend that both sides have merit, and solemnly refuse to judge between them. For if you took one side or another, why then, you would no longer be one of the aloof Wise, but merely another partisan, on a level with all the other mere bickerers.

As one of the Wise, you are omnipotent on the condition that you never exercise your power. Otherwise people would start thinking that you were no better than they; and they would no longer hold you in awe.

Ofttimes it is greatly convenient, to pretend to be Wise. When any conflict breaks out, you can sternly chide both sides, saying: "You are equally at fault; you must learn to see each other's viewpoints. I am older and more mature, and I say to you: stop this pointless bickering, children, for you begin to annoy me. Ponder well the wisdom of having everyone get along!" You do not need to examine the dispute, nor wonder if perhaps one side does have more merit than the other. You need not judge between two sides, and risk having your judgment turn out to be embarrassingly wrong, or risk having your judgment questioned as though you were only another ordinary mortal. Indeed you must not ask questions, you must not judge; for if you take sides, you will at once lose your reputation for being Wise, which requires that you stand forever above the fray.

But truth is not handed out in equal parts before the start of a dispute.

And I am not one of the Wise. Even if I wished to be, it is not within my nature. I do not hesitate to place my reputation in jeopardy to aid the side I believe is right. Even if it makes me seem but an ordinary mortal, no better than any other in the fray. The respect I have earned, I have earned by other ways than by appearing gravely solemn; and respect has no purpose but what it can accomplish. Respect is not to be hoarded, but spent. Even when those pretending to be Wise chide me, saying: "Stop this bickering!" - yet I will not pretend to neutrality, nor rise above the fray.

For not all conflicts are balanced; indeed an exactly balanced conflict is very rare. Sometimes - indeed often - I have struck out against both sides in a dispute, saying: "You are both wrong; here is the third way." But never have I told both sides of a dispute: "It doesn't matter who started it, just end it." This is the path of convenience to yourself, and it comes at a cost to others; it is selfish. There are aggressors and aggressed, in wars. When some small nation is invaded by another, or is provoked endlessly, or when one nation provokes another and that other responds disproportionately; then it may prove convenient indeed to the Great Powers, to pretend that all violence is equally wrong and equally the fault of all sides, and selfishly seek a truce for this year, this election. The Great Powers have no need to take sides, when they can more easily tell the two edges of the gaping wound: "Oh, just stop fighting, you foolish children!" Ignoring the rottenness inside... but that is pragmatism to a Great Power, which only wishes that the boat should go unrocked, and does not truly care for the health of lesser nations.

And so too with those who pretend to be Wise: who pretend that there is no aggrieved, that there is no long-term problem to be addressed, that no side is ever in the right nor another in the wrong; that there are no causes for conflicts, only fools who are not Wise and who will spontaneously strike out at each other for no reason. It only takes one to start a war. But the Wise cannot acknowledge this in any particular case, for then they would be taking sides, and they would not be above the fray, merely another combatant. They would lose the awe, in which the Wise are held, and which they most earnestly desire.

I do not say that the Wise do this deliberately; but it is the constraint that settles around them, the invisible chain that governs their behavior. No doubt the Wise truly believe that the combatants are but spoiled children; for if the Wise ceased to believe this, they would have to act, and no longer appear Wise.

Have you not met them? the principal who cares not which child started it? the Chair who is above the mere fray of corporate politics? the Great Power who demands only an immediate truce? the priest who says that all alike are sinners and all must repent? the boss who sternly dictates that the conflict end now? have you not met them, the Wise?

To care about the public image of any virtue - whether that virtue be charity, or wisdom, or rationality itself - is to limit your performance of that virtue to what all others already understand of it. Therefore those who would walk the Way of any virtue must first relinquish all desire to appear virtuous before others, for this will limit and constrain their understanding of the virtue. To earn the respect of others is not hard, if you have a little talent, if that is the limit of your desire. But to know what is true, or to do what is right - that is far harder than convincing an audience of your wisdom. I am not Wise, and I will not be Wise, and no one can be Wise if they would follow the Way of rationality.

For the eye of the Wise is blinded, and it may sometimes miss the gaping obvious.

I prefer yesterday's post (which is why I wrote it).  But I also suspect that yesterday's post is more persuasive, signaling more maturity and deliberately avoiding flashes of eloquence that might provoke skepticism here... while containing pretty much exactly the same message-payload.

On the other hand, this version seems easier to read, and you might find it more persuasive if you had just encountered it on the Net - if you weren't used to a different style from me.

(Nowadays if I have something to say that sounds suspiciously eloquent, I'll create a character and have them say it in dialogue or fiction; this lets me have my cake and eat it too.  Though - important disclaimer - many of my characters are also there to say eloquent things that I disagree with, c.f. the Superhappies.)

What think you?  Criticism can be addressed to me personally, I guess; Eliezer2006 is still someone who I'd talk about as "me".

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Reading this I can't help but think of a character, The Sphinx from Mystery Men, who illustrates your topic. He only signals wisdom:

The Shoveller: I know this guy. Big crime-fighter from down South. Big-league hitter down there. Mr. Furious: What's his power? The Blue Raja: Well, he's terribly mysterious. Mr. Furious: [dismissively] That's it? That's his power? He's mysterious? The Blue Raja: Well, TERRIBLY mysterious.

The Sphinx: Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage... Mr. Furious: ...your rage will become your master? That's what you were going to say. Right? Right? The Sphinx: Not necessarily.

(now that wasn't signaling wisdom nor maturity)

I find this harder to read. The arguments are obscured. The structure sucks; claims are not isolated into neat little paragraphs so that I can stop and think "Is this claim actually true?". It's about you (why you aren't Wise) rather than about the world (how Wisdom works).

Manon: Heh, the pre-redacted version was worse. But remember - talking about yourself and not talking about yourself are also signals of maturity. If you only wanted to convey the point - would it necessarily be any less effective?

On the other hand: short more focused paragraphs, definitely.


You seem to imply that wisdom is in direct contradiction with rationality, and so should be discarded. If being wise is primarily focused on being unbiased and impartial then this holds, but focusing on how you appear doesn't seem particularly like wisdom. Caring about whether one appeared wise or not automatically precludes someone from being wise, and puts them directly into the "pretending to be wise" camp. But true wisdom, using all the tools available to you to solve a problem, seems to be in harmony with rationality, not opposed to it.


I think Robin has won this argument. Removing rhetorical flourishes makes the post easier to criticise in the comments section. You shouldn't be deliberately trying to make your statements more or less persuasive, just say what you want to say as clear as you can and let other contributors thrash it out in the comments. That is probably part of Robin's point about the importance of academic style: it makes peer-review easier.

I think being eloquent is particularly unsuited to this topic because it's the rhetorical style of those who like being pretentiously indifferent. So there are some mixed signals in the essay that the more business-like 2009 essay avoids.

This comparison brings to mind a possible... experiment, of sorts. Create two blogs, anonymously, and otherwise unconnected to one's prior writings. Prepare a series of posts, communicating the same concepts, with different degrees of emotion, rhetorical flourish, and eloquence. Promote the two blogs in an identical manner, but never in the same place as each other.

Then, at the end of some length of time, one could compare metrics, such as number of readers and comments left, frequency of agreement/disagreement in comments, or possibly degree of communication accuracy through some means (soliciting guest posts on the blog's theme, degree of comprehension in comments, &c.?)

What might the results of such an experiment be? I suspect the consensus here would be to expect that the "flashier" blog would get more readers, comments, and agreement, but a lower median comprehension level.

Patrick: Yes, the style was deliberately and ironically written to sound Wise.


I prefer this style. It's a much more interesting and entertaining read. It has a 'wisdom of the ancients' feel which, while obviously meant to be ironic, has (I think) a greater chance of being remembered in 1000 years.

My problem with this is that Mr. Yudkoswky (of 2006)'s examples (at least Gandhi and Gandalf, the ones I'm familiar with) were not disinterested and impartisan.

(The problem of the disinterested "Wise Man" in general, apart from the inapplicability of these examples, I have no quarrel with, and the problem is interesting. Though I can't come up with any examples of such a man, offhand. Hasn't wisdom always gone hand-in-hand with knowing The Right, and thus not being impartial?

The Buddha was not impartial about attachment and nirvana, and he's as close as I can think of. Socrates, Diogenes, all the Greek wise men - not impartial. Are there actually any examples of this stereotype? It's an interesting question because I have the stereotype just as much as Eliezer does, but I can't think of any actual examples of it.)

Gandhi would never have even appeared to consent to the idea that the goal of Indian self-rule and continued colonial status were goals he "could not judge between"; he was openly and irrevocably in favor of the former and opposed to the latter as inherently injust. The Gandhi of the Salt March was a partisan, quite openly and simply.

Likewise, Gandalf had a specific goal - the defeat of Sauron. He might refuse to judge between two things unrelated to that goal (or he might not), but on that subject he had definite and expressed opinions, that were not only that, but not open to change. For instance, refusing to take the Ring when it was offered, and his insistence that its destruction was the only possible strategy.

There was no pretense that acquiescence to the Witch-King's power was acceptable, or that rule there "was no long-term problem" (Sauron) or "no aggrieved" (the entirety of Middle Earth) - this applies equally to Gandhi, in the real world.

Sigivald, it's more a question of what kind of judgment you pass on arguments between those under your policing.

Well, I like the 2006 version better. For all that it's more polemic in style -- and if I recall correctly, I was one of the people against whom the polemic was directed -- it's got more punch. After all, this is the kind of topic where there's no point in even pretending to be emotionless. The 2006 version alloys logic and emotion more seamlessly.

I'm with Sigivald here: I think that the archetype here is about serenity, not about impartiality, though the selfishly impartial may at times misuse the archetype when claiming it as a justification for their actions. Personally, I thought that my comment yesterday about the question of whether you should criticize those like or unlike you was more interesting/important.

Answering the question the post posed, I think that the less rhetorical style is superior for every-day use, but it doesn't hurt to whip out a more intense article from time to time, just preferably to make a better point than this one.

I'm not sure if it's because I'm "used" to Eliezer's styles, but while I can recognize the two posts use different styles, both seem equally "appealing to read" to me. That said, I feel more "informed" and "convinced" by the 2009 style. One thing that really struck out to me as a difference between the two was that the 2009 explored more deeply the school principal example. Before reading the 2009 essay, I "believed in" the claim "It doesn't matter who started it; the important thing is to end it". I don't think the 2006 essay would have convinced me that this claim was false, but the 2009 sure did.

Unfortunately, this probably has a lot more to do with difference content than in styles, so I guess this might not be the most useful datapoint to use in your comparison.

@ Gandalf: As you put it, fictional evidence.

@ Gandhi: He chose sides in disputes under his policing all the time, most notably on the issue of Pakistan.

Anyhow, I found this essay much less persuasive, but I suspect that that is because I had already heard and disagreed with parts of the argument. a soulless automaton's idea for a test using blogs would be a much more unbiased test, although I'm not sure if you'd want to go through that much effort.

"To care about the public image of any virtue [...] is to limit your performance of that virtue to what all others already understand of it. Therefore those who would walk the Way of any virtue must first relinquish all desire to appear virtuous before others, for this will limit and constrain their understanding of the virtue. "

Is it possible to quote this without being guilty of trying to foster the public image of not caring about public image? That's a serious question; I had briefly updated the "Favorite Quotes" section of my Facebook before deciding the potential irony was too great. And does my feeling compelled to ask this have anything to do with the fact that I still don't understand Löb's theorem?

Davis, it's certainly possible to quote it without being guilty of said crime, provided that you believe the statement is true and you quote it for no other reason.

I prefer yesterday's post (which is why I wrote it). But I also suspect that yesterday's post is more persuasive, signaling more maturity and deliberately avoiding flashes of eloquence that might provoke skepticism here

I agree, and vastly prefer yesterday's post. Without intending to offend, the problem for me is that the 'flashes of eloquence' read more as 'attempts at eloquence'. They fall short for me, and thus cause me to doubt the rest of the piece.

On the other hand, this version seems easier to read, and you might find it more persuasive if you had just encountered it on the Net - if you weren't used to a different style from me.

The first piece I read through from start to finish, and felt more able to evaluate it as a whole. For the second, the style was sufficiently jarring that I found myself doubting the argument phrase by phrase. I guess one could conclude that the second style helps to achieve a critical reading, but in the wild I'd never have bothered to read the whole thing.

The question is great, though, and the side-by-side presentation is a great test case. Is there one of these that you consider to be your native tone?

I third Sigivald and Michael. People do conflate serenity and impartiality through plain confusion, though; I've seen multiple popular books on Buddhism that appear to advocate, not detachment, but making no value judgments whatsoever. (This seems like an example [here's another] of a common pattern of giving literal bad advice that gets distorted into good. Maybe I should write about this on Less Wrong.) "It's more a question of what kind of judgment you pass on arguments between those under your policing" is plausible, but this wasn't the emphasis of either post. (It may genuinely be wise not to get involved in minor disputes between subordinates, if that's not the whole of your job; no matter how clearly Merry is right and Pippin wrong, Gandalf taking sides could do more harm than good.)

Some say this style is harder to analyze and criticize, but Sigivald's criticism wouldn't have occurred to me (which it did independently) without "Gandalf, Ged, or Gandhi" named as exemplifying the stereotype of the Wise, even though it applies similarly well to yesterday's post. I took your word that the common concept of 'wisdom' included complete impartiality, until you gave me counterexamples. I suppose the lesson is that extensive definitions both pin down a concept in the reader's mind and make it easier to test for inconsistencies, equivocations, or simply uncommon usages that reduce applicability.

I find neither that convincing. Justice is not a terminal value for me, so I might sacrifice it for Winning. I prefered reading the first, but that is no indication of what a random person may prefer.

After reading the 2006 version, I feel that I understand the argument better.

But since I've read the 2009 version before, it's difficult to tell if the 2006 version is really more comprehensible (to me) or the understanding is an effect of having read both versions.

I'm glad you shared this. I've been trying to figure out how to define wisdom, and the connection to impartiality is exactly what I needed. What is the difference between the truly wise and the pretentious wise then? Is it that the truly wise are simply ignorant of their lazy impartiality?

I prefer the first Orwell quote to the second, but the 2009 post to the 2006 post. The colourful style is more aesthetically appealing, but it's tiring to read more than a few sentences of it, whereas the cold style is much easier (for me) to skim.