Against Ambition

NOTE: citations for this post can be found here.

Robinson Crusoe begins with a disagreement. Eighteen-year-old Crusoe is full of ambition. He’s determined to leave home and set sail for some faraway continent: Africa, perhaps, or South America. After all, the year is 1650, and the seafaring life promises the quickest route to fame and fortune. But Crusoe’s father is set against it and he pleads with his son to remain at home. One morning, the elder Crusoe calls his son into his chamber. In a final attempt to dissuade his son, he sings the praises of a peaceful life, in which people are not enraged with the passion of envy, or secret burning lust of ambition for great things, but in easy circumstances sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter, feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day’s experience to know it more sensibly.
Crusoe is touched by this speech and he resolves to remain at home. But, al…


The story of Run the Jewels is, above all, a story of great branding.
Type their name into YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Their first album, ‘Run the Jewels’, begins with a song called ‘Run the Jewels’, the chorus to which goes ‘Run the jewels, jewels, jewels…’. There’s the acronym – RTJ – that crops up whenever there’s three syllables going spare. Then there’s the gun-and-fist hand-symbol that both forms the basis of all three album covers and serves as a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone unsure what to do with their hands at a gig. RTJ have turned brand recognition into an art form.
But the songs are pretty decent too. They provide for young people what the priesthood provided in previous generations: a comprehensive vision of the world and a sense of purpose. They paint a picture of a world in which all the lies, violence and corruption have finally come to a head and it’s now or never for all the would-be saviours of humanity. The overriding impression is of this final ba…


The first philosophical thought most people have goes something like this: ‘Maybe what I’m seeing right now isn’t real. Maybe this world of trees and buildings and cars doesn’t really exist. Maybe I’m dreaming it all. Maybe I’m in the Matrix.’
It’s a thought that’s concerned philosophers from the very beginning. Way back in the 4th century BCE, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzhi was worried that he might really be a butterfly:
“Once, Zhuangzhi dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know that he was Zhuangzhi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzhi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzhi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzhi.” – Zhuangzhi, Zhuangzhi

Two thousand years later, the French philosopher René Descartes had similar worries. He was agonising over the possibility that he was being tricked by an evil demon:
“I shall the…


He had one-hundred-and-nine hours to rehearse his lines, and his lines amounted to a mere thirteen words. He could have spent eight hours on each word if he really wanted to. He could have devoted an entire working day to making sure each word came out just right.
You couldn’t have blamed him for doing so. It had cost $25 billion to get him to this point. He’d travelled 240,000 miles. Half a billion people were watching.
It had officially kicked off eight years ago, but this event was the fulfilment of a dream as old as dreams themselves. After centuries of learning, of striving, of fantasising, this was to be humanity’s finest hour. This was to be our first stop on our way out of the cradle and into the big, wide universe. A human being was going to walk on the moon.
The occasion was momentous enough to be recorded to the second. At 02:56:15 UTC on the 21st of July 1969, Neil Armstrong set his left boot on the surface of the moon and delivered those famous words:

Exactly which famous wor…

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