I first discovered Noah Cicero in June of 2007. Discovered isn’t the right word, of course, since Noah Cicero had been Noah Cicero for quite some time by that point, but, at the time, Noah was brand new to me. And while it might be the case that, since then, I’ve read every single one of his blog posts and all the books of his I could get my hands on, Noah still remains new to me every time I read something of his. Consistently, over the years, he’s continued to produce inventive and insightful content that’s kept me both a fan and an ardent promoter.
Noah and I have a number of overlapping interests, so I was overjoyed when he agreed to discuss some of them. We chatted about philosophy, writing, going to school, etc. If you find our conversation interesting, I suggest you head over to his blog and check out his latest book, Best Behavior (BB).
Noah provides plenty of his usual honesty and insight in BB, which is a document of a trip he took to NYC to be interviewed and photographed, along with a number of his contemporaries, for a magazine feature. The book is like On the Road in that many characters are modeled after real life authors, like Tao Lin or Sam Pink. In the course of the text, readers learn not only about what it was like for Noah to meet his contemporaries, but also what it was like for his contemporaries to live the lives they’ve had, giving a book a rhizomatic structure.
As with all of his books, I read through BB quickly, my eyes scanning the text quickly, fingers eager to turn to the next page so I could see what was next. What I think makes Noah, and his books, so compelling is that they are so real and personal. When I read Noah Cicero, I do not think, “I am reading a book,” I think, “I am reading Noah Cicero’s book.” It’s not often that I feel so strongly connected to an author, and I don’t think it’s something that’s particular to me alone. I think it’s a rare feeling that Noah is able to evoke. And every time I suggest his work to someone else, I wonder if they feel it too.
How’d you decide on your majors in college and why did you not focus on philosophy?
I probably chose the Political Science major because of my family. My father’s family is very political. My great uncle was a mayor for a while, my aunt works for the Democrats in the area, and everyone on that side talked about politics a lot. My mother’s side is all hardcore Republican. My aunt on that side is actually the head of the Republican Party for my county. They have a giant picture of Ronald Reagan in their house; it is actually framed. I had a Democrat dad and a Republican mother. Politics flows in my DNA.
I also like how political science involves history, philosophy and statistics. You get the history, you get the stats, you find out what philosophers or thinkers they were reading, and then you make up a story of what happened.
I find that I can’t talk politics without talking philosophy.
I will talk philosophy and politics with someone like you. But at school or with normal people it usually comes down to ‘prudence’ and charts. By ‘prudence’ I mean if a town should build a bridge or just repair it. There are seriously streets in Youngstown that have only one house with people living in it. There are other houses but those houses are empty. And the Youngstown government is still paving that street, bringing mail to it, running sewer and city water pipes to it, and electricity lines to it. The cost of that one house is huge to the local government.
There are things like building a suburb in a place where a nice little forest once was, where animals and trees could live peacefully. Where people could walk, hunt, and drive their four wheelers. But now they want to build a suburb for what? There are a lot of things like that if one is prone to see them; they can see it in their local area without much effort.
It is easy to talk philosophy about the debt crisis but we can’t forget to look at charts concerning taxes, government revenue and things like that. Like the idea of the trickle down theory, there is no empirical evidence for that theory; none whatsoever. All evidence goes against it. But at the same time the theory of “growth is good” doesn’t work when looking at sustainability charts because eventually it will lead to oil and natural gas depletion and global warming.
So we have philosophy, but we need to look at charts.
When I re-read the phrase, ” I find that I can’t talk politics without talking philosophy,” it made me think that it might come off as though I live a carefree life unaffected by local current affairs, which I would say isn’t the case. I think there are a number of reasons why so many of my politically oriented discussions end up more philosophical than anything else. For one, it strikes me as being the case that the people I hear talking about politics do so very abstractly, as opposed to very concretely as you did when you spoke of the single house on a road.
I find, for example, that people and actions are too often quickly written off as “good” or “bad”, which strikes me as odd given how little the news I read reveals about how and why people do what they. And then I’m left confused by such evaluations, which leads me to asking questions, which is I guess what makes it seem philosophical to me.
When people talk about politics it is usually pretty fucking bad. It is strange: I’m a political science major. I’m a senior. Everyone I work with knows this, but nobody asks me about politics. Nobody, not once, has ever asked me, “Is the Obama health care bill really going to fund abortions?” But we have an engineering major and he gets asked math questions all the time. We have criminal justice majors and they get asked legal questions. But nobody wants to ask a political science major anything. A lot of people have actually asked me, “What is political science?”
The American people have no concern for what the facts are about politics. A Tea Bagger screams, “I want to reduce funding for transportation” they scream, “Yeah, fuck those liberals,” not knowing the whole time that their roads may turn into pothole cement crumbles if the states were left to pay for them. I’ve heard republicans wanting to close down OSHA, and the people scream, “YEAH, lets do it.” They don’t have a clue what is these departments even do even though they can be easily Googled.
How’d you start reading philosophy and how has it affected you?
I started reading philosophy when I was young. But it was only Nietzsche, Sartre and other basics. But around four years ago I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. Then I started reading about Peak Oil and sustainability problems. These things about resources deeply troubled me. But it wasn’t an existential crisis. An existential crisis is personal and involves yourself. I already had one of those. These facts about resources and nature sucked me into the world. So, I started reading ancient Roman and Greek histories and started on political philosophy. I actually went to the Wikipedia page and just wrote done the names and books and started to read. Then I went back to college.
I didn’t know what I wanted to find, an answer of some sort. I haven’t though; neither political philosophy nor real philosophy mentions resources or nature. There is so little nature that in Hebrew the word “nature” doesn’t even exist. When the ancient Greeks use the word nature it refers to the “nature” of things. Not the actual environment. Then the banks collapsed and the gas prices rose, causing more trouble, which made me look for more things. The political philosophers don’t mention feasibility, debt, or anything of that sort. I’m at the conclusion now that there is a whole world of political philosophy that has yet to be discovered. There needs to be a reevaluation of Lockean paradigm.
I’ve tried really hard to figure out what philosophy is and this is what I came up with.
Philosophy is supposed to be “what is the good.” Aristotle, Plato, Jesus, Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas all fit in that category. They were all looking for what the good is. But modern philosophy doesn’t do that; Wittgenstein and Heidegger weren’t looking for the good. They were ‘thinking’ about things– about how to process information, not for the good. It probably starts with Machiavelli and Descartes when they both threw ‘the good’ away. They were more interested in ‘what is’, which isn’t philosophy.
Currently the main philosophy going around are people writing about sustainability and how to make our lives live with nature without hurting it. I wouldn’t be surprised that if there were books out right now that in 400 years will be considered the major works of philosophy of our time and we don’t even know it. And if you look at the history of philosophy when the original major philosophical works came out, no one cared about them. No one considered them important at that time.
How often do you think about the amount of resources there are to go around and how do your thoughts make you feel?
It troubles me. If the cost of gas keeps rising it won’t be good for the economy. It won’t be good for anything. How are we supposed to fix our political problems if we keep spending all of our money on gas? What will happen when gasoline hits six dollars a gallon?
There is no oil solution when it comes to cars. Car tires come from oil; many parts of the car come from oil. But I wouldn’t worry about our cars. I would be more worried about tractors and tires for tractors. I would be worried about semi-trucks. Pavement also contains oil. The machines that lay down roads use oil. We need to realize what is NEEDED. Farm tractors are needed; machines that keep our infrastructure are needed. We don’t need everyone owning a car. That isn’t the problem. Another problem is the transportation of medicine. If there are not good roads and good vehicles transporting medicine then there is no medicine. Then people die from simple things like diabetes, asthma and childbirth.
Concerning myself, I have a bad case of psoriasis. If I don’t have aloe gel and certain hair care products, my skin will become very painful. I also have acid reflux disorder; if I can’t take an anti-acid pill every three days, by the end of the month I will be vomiting stomach bile all the time. I have an investment in this world of quick and easy transportation. So, if society collapsed I might be of no use to anyone because I just might end up vomiting bile all the time and laying there screaming that my skin hurts.
You mentioned the search for goodness a few times. Lately I’ve been thinking that since we’re often not in agreement as to the nature of goodness we end up talking past rather than with each other. So, I think we should all try to get on the same page. And what that page should entail, I think, is something like knowingly and co-operatively working to fulfill the needs of others such that doing so entails necessarily fulfilling our own needs.
What are you employing when you say, “to fulfill the needs of others such that doing so entails necessarily fulfilling our own needs” is a Medieval idea that comes from King Edward I when he said, “What touches all,” which was used by Rawls several times in A Theory of Justice. This idea you have proposed would destroy our way of life; our whole society would collapse.
Our current idea is that everyone is an individual and that we pick and choose what we want through democracy and capitalistic purchases. But we could go with Rawls’ theory that people should believe in justice first of all. That the main belief of society should be justice and if everyone believes in justice first, then we will behave in a just manner according to The Original Position. If this can be done I don’t know. You could say that in the 50s and 60s, when we had a very high tax rate and Warren Court, that America was following the idea of The Original Position and that people understood that “What touches all” was true. And then slowly it died with consumerism.
This is why it would destroy our way of life: if we still had a high tax rate and a Supreme Court resembling the Warren Court, America would be a different place. What it would look like, I don’t know. But it would be different.
See, political philosophy is different from regular philosophy. Two philosophers can argue about epistemology all day and no one gets hurt. But two politicians– one holding a book by Ayn Rand and one holding a book by John Rawls– can argue and perhaps they personally won’t get hurt, but they could collapse the economy and cause a lot of suffering for other people.
Why would it destroy our way of life? And would this be the case even if the transition was gradual? I think a lot of people live their lives this way already.
Democracy and capitalism work together to make this social contract. Tocqueville describes it well. He says that democracy makes citizens only concerned with their self-interest. Their self-interest is themselves and their family; that’s it. Capitalism helps this. Capitalism, to use Marx, forces humans to sell themselves on the labor as commodities. It makes everyone live in a state of competition with each other. Everyone lives at war with everyone else. Everyone lives for wages not ancient glory or to go to heaven. Everyone lives for money.
Today I was doing my taxes at H and R Block. A 65-year-old woman was the person helping me. Now the woman was really nice. She knew I was a student and didn’t have much money, so she told me how to do my state taxes so I would have to give them 40 dollars. Now, she could be described as a “nice person.” But, this is where the shittiness comes in: she asks me my major and I say political science. She asks what I want to do and I say work for a non-profit. She doesn’t say, “Oh that’s good.” She says, “You should work for a hospital, that’s where the money is. You can make a lot of money at a hospital.” This is the difference: in the Middle Ages doing charity would make you a saint, a beautiful heroic human. In our times, it makes you stupid for passing up good money.
That is why it is destructive. Because think about what the world would look like if we made our decisions off of, “What would be the nicest thing to do?” Instead of, “What would make us happiest?” Would a nice person invent the cell phone or Internet? Probably not. Would a nice person send out snow truck drivers out into the snowy cold night to clean the roads; no a nice person would say, “Fuck it till the morning.” Would a nice person open a shirt factory in China, pay the workers a dollar an hour and then sell the shirt for 20 dollars in America? Would a nice person be friends with Saudi Arabia just for the sake of their oil? Would a nice person make a semi-truck driver drive 12 hours in a row for the sake of delivering some Ruffles or Pepsi?
No, no, and no. The whole world would change if we broke with this “happiness utilitarian thing” we have going on.
Am I causing trouble then with the whole “caring about the needs of others” thing? Because I was thinking that might be a good way to go. (I consider emotional and psychological well being a need as well. Although I am uncertain about the utility of thinking about it hierarchically like Maslow. I am also leaning toward entertainment as a need.)
No, I agree that we should notice and have the motivation when doing things, “This affects everyone. I have a duty toward everyone.” But I don’t see how that is possible in a capitalist society. I can see how in a democracy that people could vote with local group interests in mind. I can see how rural people would vote against gun control and people in the city would vote against it. But in our democracy there are a million issues and you only have two parties. If you want to vote against gun control but you belong to a union, what do you do? Right now I want the government to reform itself and get smaller, which means Republican but at the same time I want it to raise taxes on people making 5 million a year. I can’t even vote now.
My point is, we live in a society with 300 million people with a lot of political issues, and if you are Republican you have to believe everything Republicans believe and if you are Democrat you have to believe in everything Democrats believe. Which is stupid and dangerous.
But I could see how in a smaller population or with more parties, democracy could lead to people having a duty to other people.
But not for capitalism. Capitalism forces us to compete with everyone around us. When you live in a capitalist society you live in a constant state of competition with your fellow humans, which leads to a constant state of anxiety and fear. If you live in America you are born to grow up and then find a rich person to sell your labor to, then they skim a little off your labor for your entire life, and while they are skimming you are forced to compete with your fellow workers for raises and promotions. And at any time the business might close or they might downsize. We live lives of constant anxiety and fear.
But according to Marx, the situation, how we produce our goods, compels us to new ideas and governments. So maybe if everything got really bad, we would revert to the old line of Jesus, Mathew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
We’ve talked at length about politics and philosophy, but you mentioned the other day that you’re taking a fiction class. Is that a workshop? If so, what’s it like for you to take a writing workshop? Do you tell people or your professors about your books, blog, etc?
The professor of the writing workshop knows I’m a published writer that’s why he let me in without having to take intro classes. But we havent’ talked about writing together personally. I gave one professor one of my books to read. He told the whole class one day one day I would write a great book but I’m not ready yet. It was a strange moment. I don’t really tell people that I write unless I think they will be interested. Most people aren’t interested in reading about crackheads or strippers.
Taking the writing workshop is good. Writing workshops are like therapy. Everyone sits around in a circle and discuss their feelings. Everyone writes a story showing who they are, what they feel about life and everyone talks about it. I recommend it to anyone depressed.
If you change “writing workshop” to “philosophy class” and “story” to “philosophy”, that’s how I think about philosophy. I found my experience studying philosophy to be very therapeutic.
I think philosophy is therapeutic. It would be cool if philosophy class was like writing workshop. If my philosophy of law professor made us read something and then we would sit in a circle and talk about it. It would cool.
I have a hard time writing fiction now because I just want to think about things. Of course if I want to be a philosopher I need to start thinking about the good. I have been trying to think about the good lately. Thinking about the good is very hard. There is nothing in the American upbringing that teaches you to consider anything but consumerism and working for corporations as something worthwhile. We are all bureaucrats now. Even at a restaurant or at a non-profit you are just another cog in a giant hierarchy.
As challenging as I find philosophy to be, it turned out to not be as challenging as I thought it might be. I think of philosophers as just people expressing their thoughts. For me, thinking about philosophy in this way demystifies it. I used to read your blog, for example, and think, “How does Noah come up with all these thoughts?!” And now, years later, I think, “He comes up with thoughts the same way I do!”
I’ve done a lot of comedian interviews and comics often talk about how people ask them how to do comedy. “Just get up onstage,” they say. But I don’t think that’s always what people want to know. I think what these sorts of questions are often getting at is more like, “So, you’re just a person telling jokes, right? You don’t have some sort of 7th sense for jokes, like a humor nub on your inner thigh that tingles every time you write a joke?” “No, I’m a person just like you.”
That is, unless you have a philosophy nub. In which case this theory is going out the window!
The thing about philosophy, to make philosophy is that it takes something different than just being smart. There are a lot of smart people that can understand what a philosopher wrote. But what it takes is courage and imagination. If you look at the history of political philosophy and philosophy a lot of the great philosophers weren’t scholars. Socrates wasn’t a scholar; Wittgenstein didn’t have his doctorate when he wrote the Tractatus and his education was in engineering; Machiavelli was like a secretary of state and was most famous for his play the Mandrake Root: John Milton was a politician and wrote the poem Paradise Lost and also wrote political philosophy; John Locke was a doctor of medicine; Montesquieu was a rich landowner; Weber was a historian; and Saint Augustine was a priest.
People don’t really like to think. It hurts them. Thinking really hurts, it can cause real physical problems. Anxiety causes terrible psychosomatic conditions. It can probably be said that humans weren’t meant to think that much. That it was an evolutionary accident that an animal could think this much. To have anxiety is to be troubled, philosophers and novelists are always troubled. They are troubled by the world and what is presented to them. Most people only have anxiety about moving, when someone close dies, about what to do with their life after college. But a philosopher lives in this state their whole life. Philosophy instead of “love of widsom” should be “love of anxiety.” Because the philosophy loves anxiety, they love being troubled, they love it so much they devote their lives to it.
The people in Kant’s life probably never really knew the extent of his mental chaos. We have to remember that Kant went to the market and bought shoes and there were probably many normal people that had encounters with Kant all the time. Kant probably bought his bread and milk at the same place every time, the bread seller would have known his name maybe, they would have exchanged pleasant comments about the weather. But Kant didn’t want the bread seller to know that while he was standing there buying bread, his mind was in chaos, in anxiety, his mind was going to places that would have terrified the bread seller. Kant knew he had to be normal to live on planet, he needed to eat and have necessities.
The thing about courage and philosophy is this: most humans say to themselves, “What would my parents think?” In doing comedy a lot of parents would be fine with dick and sex jokes. My parents personally would have been fine with me telling sex jokes and talking about smoking weed. They wouldn’t have cared at all.
But most parents are not fine with their child walking into the house and saying to their parents, “Your way of life is consumerist bullshit. The cars you drive are gas-guzzling piles of shit destroying society and you aren’t living up to your duty as citizens. You don’t do anything to help society. You don’t even know what thinking is; I doubt you’ve ever thought about anything. Do you even believe in democracy or is your voting just something you do to feel normal at work? What is virtue dad? What is justice mom?”
People want to make their parents happy. They constantly ask themselves, “What would my parents think about me doing this?” If you engage in philosophy hardcore most likely you will end up thinking, “My parents will be mad if I am thinking these thoughts because these thoughts go against their way of life.”
When people say, “Think out of the box.” What they are saying is, “Think something that would piss your parents off.”