~ “The self-imposed task of our society and all its members is a contradiction: to force things to happen which are acceptable only when they happen without force.” — Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)

This quote is from a book by Alan Watts. I believe it to be a profoundly true statement. We all necessarily live within this contradiction. After reading it, writing it, thinking on it, it has sparked a train of thought. This train has melded with an ideal of my own. The concept is something I have considered again and again as I grow older, in the context of complex human interrelationships, political structures, and my own self and the people around me. Here are some of my musings on this particular topic.



Agency, unalienable rights, freedom of thought ~ This is what we must have. As a baseline, to achieve a benevolent civilization and flourish within our various communities, we must be free. Watts, in his declaration on the “task” of society, is speaking indirectly of the good life. “The good life” is the life we all want to see: something like minimal suffering & maximal flourishing for as many as humanly possible. “Eudaimonia.” It might remain eternally aspirational for us. It’s certainly something to strive for.

But one could posit that attaining what we want, here in this world, only matters if it comes mutually; it only works, in the long run, if it comes by giving rather than taking. Democracy comes to mind. I think a poetic reorganization of this ideal would look something like this: the ideal state of being has staying power only through love overcoming hate. The good life can never come by force.

It’s why authoritarianism ultimately doesn’t work. It’s why people say “you can’t change somebody.” It’s why “just be yourself” is so powerful. It’s why it is easier to persuade someone to do something if they feel like they originated the decision themselves. In order to feel right, people need to have a say in the matter — they have to have the power to choose. Without this sense of agency, when some directive is attained only through force of will, through fear, through violence, then the directive has no real staying power. We know this. It should seem obvious. You cannot persuade someone to do something — and do it well, and have it remain in the long-term — outside of what is in their heart. Anything gained through the violation of agency is corrupted, and by definition — especially impermanent.

~ Agency: the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power

This is why master persuaders must have an in-depth understanding of human nature, as well as the individual intricacies of their audience, in order to cultivate a desired action. Those vying for power must understand what the majority already wants. And from there, from that existing want in the hearts of the populace, there are certain extrapolations which can be capitalized upon. Even if they, the leader/politician/persuader, themselves do not hold those ideals, they can effectively become a vessel through which a population can act out their collective desires. The persuader must be adaptable to his targets in this way.

This isn’t to say that people, as a collective, always have the best intentions at heart, or even have serious concerns about giving up their autonomy to systems or individuals they believe to be a paragon to what they believe to be the greater good. Large swaths of misguided, indoctrinated, collectively suppressed communities are capable of holding the ideal of fascism or systemic racial or religious superiority within them, or merely failing to reject it, and therefore are led down the darkest of paths. We’ve seen it before, throughout history. We see it now, in some places, in some degree.

Authoritarianism, fascism, and prejudiced, violent, murderous power structures taking hold will always be a threat. At the top, we see through time immemorial, the powerful will come to take as much as they can and then fight tooth and nail to keep it. But at the bottom, you could make the argument those individuals outside of the circles of power, the voters or the sympathizers tacitly supporting such terror are simply inexperienced; they just don’t know what they are missing, or what they are slowly but surely perpetrating. They have never seen the power of personal liberty and thus underestimate its singular value (and the imperative necessity to always preserve it —for everyone). Or they are confused about what constitutes liberty, or true agency in their own lives and the lives of their neighbors. Or they have been corrupted by prejudice, or darkened by wayward mores and dangerously existential ideas concerning out-groups in the environment they were raised. The vast majority of human beings are, in fact, capable of experiencing empathy (i.e. not sociopaths). Thus, there must be other factors at work. If only temporarily, if only for a single generation, the truth escapes them: that of the indestructible necessity for agency – liberty – for themselves, for everyone they know, for everyone they don’t know – for everyone.

Machiavelli spoke on the indestructibility of the ideal of liberty upon a populace that had tasted of its fruits (whether you believe his writings in The Prince —calling for manipulative, sociopathic political ruling — to be satirically instructive or not is up to you):

“He who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it, for in rebellion it has always the watchword of liberty and its ancient privileges as a rallying point, which neither time nor benefits will ever cause it to forget.”

The conquered land that lived previously as a republic is incapable of forgetting that fact. But I would argue it’s not just in their memories, it is also within their blood. Such longing for liberty is within our DNA as thinking, sentient beings. From birth, we are gifted with the ability to think and dream; when we cannot, we suffer. And when we suffer, we are willing to fight to change things. Thus, along these lines, the cycles of power and revolution and continuous political reform are borne out throughout history.

It can be insinuated here that a city accustomed to freedom is capable of being destroyed. And I suppose that is true — the people are. The former tenants and their path back to liberty would be considerably easier given their life experience up to that point. Once it was taken, from then on —they would know exactly what they were missing. Ensuring the old guard is vanquished no doubt extends the life of the new master’s iron-fisted regime. But I would posit the drive for personal freedoms is inherent to our nature. Thus, from all those under subjugation, we would expect a fight back for control of their own hearts and minds, bodies and souls.

We are naturally inclined to yearn for liberty, and to necessitate and defend our own agency. This seems clear enough to me at this point. It’s on the short list of things worth dying for. Those born under an iron fist will realize it in time, and their need for agency will surface. As long as there are large subsets of a population living without rights, existing without the ability to exert power over their destiny —then change lies on the horizon. It is an ideal, likely an innate one, and hopefully one that holds true in the end, for all peoples.


You often hear, simply put, that you cannot change someone. They must learn of the necessity for changes within themselves and nothing can force a serious change in another’s heart. This is only partly true. I do not believe in the idea that you cannot change someone. You can, indirectly, through the introduction of philosophy {i.e. an idea}.

Philosophy is powerful beyond what most people understand. Philosophy is perhaps the best form of indirect communication we have. Adopting it, in one of its many forms, allows for one to be convinced by themselves, by working it out themselves — implicitly or explicitly, through its tenets and principles and proclamations. Even if the philosophy was not developed from the ground up by the person  {nothing and no one is any longer creating new forms of thought out of thin air }  it can still work as if it was. Since it is merely a framework for further reflection and action, philosophy thus allows the user of it to feel as though they did originate such thinking within themselves. And in this novelty, through a manner of personalized resonance within the reader, the watcher, the listener — there comes the sincerest conviction backing one’s actions.

Philosophy, like a computer program, provides the tools for the user to execute an understanding of any subject, through the lense of an abstract and renewable methodology. In this world, people do change, of course. They grow and they regress, through higher and lower thinking. And these changes occur under the canvas of self-development, in events and reactions, and within the locus of a particular set of ideas, such as you might find in a certain philosophy. 

What does this mean? It means that you can bring about the changes you wish to see in the world, even on a mass scale, by merely espousing philosophy in lieu of specific action, or any forceful means. By outlining a desired endgame in abstract terms, you enact real change without forcing anything. Abstractly, this sounds manipulative, perhaps even morally reprehensible, but it doesn’t have to be. You can prevent someone from destroying their life by communicating to them some manner of personal responsibility or virtue ethics. You can steady someone’s sense of their own suffering through the precepts of a certain kind of self-care via philosophical means — such as a sincere reading of stoicism or existentialism. You can forge solidarity and unity within a community through an elucidation of the evolutionary and world historical benefits of collective cooperation.

We convinced society to give up some of their assets and freedoms over time, so they could co-exist in a secure relationship to a larger community of public goods and institutions which can be built upon and leveraged to (theoretically) improve the lives of our ancestors into perpetuity. We created a vengeful God, complete with a Good and Bad place you go after you die, to incentivize moral behavior. It has worked in some ways and in other ways it has not. The point here being: the effective resolution of a philosophy into one or more minds can bring about serious, long-term alterations. And these changes can be incredibly good. The age of the person and the stage of society matters less than their ability to coalesce their world with the one being proposed within the philosophy in a beneficent way.

One could say that an educated, or moral, or truly self-aware, person knows how to get what they want out of life without ever violating the rights and freedoms of others. Philosophy can help one along such an enlightened path.

There is a caveat however. Philosophical content, much like human beings, runs the full gamut. It features all kinds of ideas and they are composed all along the spectrum of morality — good, evil, grey ambiguous paradoxes — it’s all there. There are as many potential philosophies as persons, perhaps each personalized to an individual perspective, informed by nature, nurture, and historical perspective. Often, ‘good’ ones are crafted, tinkered, and interpreted to effectuate a worldview bent on nothing more than carnage.

So for philosophy, on the subject of its very use, there is another meta-philosophy which must be presented, in the simplest of terms of familiar profundity: with great power comes great responsibility.

“There are crimes of passion and crimes of logic. The boundary between them is not clearly defined. But the Penal Code makes the convenient distinction of premeditation. We are living in the era of premeditation and the perfect crime. Our criminals are no longer helpless children who could plead love as their excuse. On the contrary, they are adults and they have a perfect alibi: philosophy, which can be used for any purpose—even for transforming murderers into judges.”

~ Albert Camus, “The Rebel


What of relationships with other people? You cannot force someone to want to be in relationship to you, and have it mean anything. You cannot force anyone to like you. This is why we are taught // why it feels good // why it feels necessary— to be good to other people. This is why all major religions and general ethical theory has its basis in the golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated.

If you are good, then other good people will populate themselves around you naturally and happily. You will reap what you sow, and accumulate friends, lovers, future generations and a legacy within a community worth remembrance.

“Just be yourself.” Just be yourself and those that love you for you, are your true companions in this life. Anyone who isn’t about you, at your most authentic, can and should be moved on from and forgotten. It’s true, I think.

There can be struggles in this however. Often, you might think yourself isn’t enough, and you must force yourself to change to fit the ideal of those you wish to be with. No one cares about me / no one wants to know me / why can’t I get what I want / why don’t people listen to me / I probably deserve this. I need to change. I think it happens to everyone. It certainly happens to me.

We are all trying to get to the point where we can accept who we are, complete with all of our character flaws and mistakes and hot and messy emotional baggage. It would do us well to practice some kind of continuous realization that when a person says or does something adverse towards us, it is likely 90% due to something within themselves and 10% something about us. In varying proportions, this is a relative constant. But alas, we are wired to take things personally. The numbers fall away when the emotions arise.

The bottom line in all of this: Relationships with others, and with our self, are the most important and most challenging aspects of life within this world. If we aren’t seeking love, we are working hard to maintain it. And even in my short life, in my limited experience and naivety, I have come to a rather clear understanding that none of this stuff is easy and it never will be. Especially self-love.

At the end of this train of thought is this simple, inherent and beautiful truth:

you can’t force someone to love you;

one has to have absolute agency to love. ~