The Art of the Ego: Review of Stefan Molyneux’s Stupid Book
Imagine that you have no discernible talents. You are not very intelligent. You are not particularly athletic. You are not good-looking. You can’t sing or dance well. Your jokes are basic and predictable. You read the newspapers and have political opinions, but, although you may not know it, you are part of the reason newspaper editors have to enforce the standard reading age of eight or under.
However, your need for approval is boundless. And your lust is ferocious and uncontrollable. You demand to be admired by admirable people and sexually desired by beautiful people. These hopeless demands breathe bile into your impotent rage, which soon turns rancid and bitter. Slowly, you come to adjust your entire worldview to support a single proposition: that you are a very objectively impressive person, and that the world’s disinterest in you is evidence of a gigantic conspiracy. The fact that nobody finds you in any way noteworthy is evidence of their intellectual and spiritual deficiency. If people cannot see how impressive you are, it must be because they reject objective facts.
This is the book for you. It will sell you a dream: you have something very special that other people can’t see, and it’s their fault they can’t see it. This special something is rationality, or, as this book calls it, The Argument, I guess because pointless definite articles are very macho. And if you have The Argument then you have everything because, as the book modestly begins:
The Argument is everything. The Argument is civilization; The Argument is peace; The Argument is love; The Argument is truth and beauty; The Argument is, in fact, life itself.
The book hits some of the same notes as the rest of Molyneux’s oeuvre. By “some of the same notes” I mean “The Note” since he only hits one note, over and over again, shrill and insistent like the music in Psycho. The note is the resentment of very average white men who can’t understand why people don’t find them as impressive as they find themselves. This book gives them an answer: there is a terrible conspiracy against them, and against reason itself. The conspiracy is called ‘political correctness’ or ‘relativism’ or ‘postmodernism’ or as Molyneux puts it, proudly wheeling out his immense classical learning, ‘sophism’.
Molyneux’s first few chapters outline some basic principles of logic. His explanation of ‘logic’ is as terrible as you might expect from someone with neither qualifications nor natural talent (see this review). Molyneux is one of these people who thinks that (barely) being able to do the First Figure Syllogism is ‘knowing logic’ — the logical equivalent of the Astonishing Human Calculator who can add single-digit numbers in mere seconds or Sir Andrew Aguecheek who can speak languages without book. The really telling thing, however, is how Molyneux deals with his own ignorance. Here is what he says about abduction, for example:
There is another category called abductive reasoning that draws a tentative hypothesis from disparate data, but which is related to some sort of testable hypothesis, rather than the reaching of a specific conclusion.
Now, many people don’t know what abduction is. Nothing wrong with that. And you might find yourself in an exam, where you’re asked to define abduction, and maybe you missed that lecture, or you drifted off, or you just can’t remember. Then you might just write some bullshit, hoping to get a few marks. Perfectly acceptable behaviour. But if you’re writing a book on reasoning, and you remember that abduction is a form of reasoning but you can’t quite remember what it is — can you imagine in that circumstance just writing down some bullshit and hoping to get a few marks? Wouldn’t you just google it or something? Imagine being so devoid of intellectual humility.
Molyneux’s reaction shows what happens when you begin by presupposing your intellectual superiority. You must already know what abduction is, because you are just magnificent. So whatever word-salad your brain squirts out must be the correct definition. And if anyone rejects your definition, that’s because they reject reason, as part of the big conspiracy against White Men Who Are Objectively Correct.
Equally depressing are the overwrought explanations Molyneux worries out for incredibly elementary points. They give an indication of how low he sets the bar for his readers. Here are some things Molyneux finds it necessary to point out:
Gravity existed for billions of years before human thought, and there is nothing in gravity that says that human beings ought to develop a theory about gravity. But this does not mean that human ideas about gravity are irrelevant, subjective or unnecessary.
When we remind people of reality, we are not imposing our will, just presenting facts. Telling you that you are sunburned does not make me the sun.
A Mafia shakedown is not an argument
Taxation is not an argument.
Imagine believing that there are many people who don’t know these things, and that you are special because (with Molyneux’s help) you know them. The whole tone of Molyneux’s book is like this. It is 90% incredibly obvious points about informal logic, but these are oversold in the same tenor as those piss-easy arithmetic puzzles ‘for geniuses’ you find online.
Mixed in with the obvious truths are patent falsehoods. E.g. “If I accurately want to describe the color red to a child, I must use the word ‘red.’” But never mind, the book comes from a place of such profound contempt for the reader that even the metaphors are cranked up to an insulting and deafening volume: “Getting most modern thinkers to accept the absolutism of deductive reasoning is like trying to use a nail-gun to attach electrified Jell-O to a fog bank”. Gee, what do you think Molyneux might be trying to say here? If only he’d stirred a few more metaphors into that soup before ramming it down our throats.
Another example: every time the magic words “The Argument” appear, they are both bold and italicised. You see, Molyneux is afraid you might miss their importance. How can anyone have such a low opinion of his readers? Let’s use The Argument to reason out the explanation. Molyneux thinks he is much more intelligent than the average person. Introspecting to his own level of intelligence, he validly concludes that the average person must be outrageously, cosmically, unfathomably fuckwitted.
But didn’t I say this was a book designed to flatter the egos of its readers? Well, it is. But this requires the readers, who are taken as complete troglodytes, to be shown in turn to be vastly intellectually superior to somebody else, namely those silly, emo, irrational liberals who don’t understand The Argument.
Thus Molyneux is led to make daring leaps from his slap-headed logical platitudes to ridiculous critiques of liberal views. Since, again, he’s writing entirely for an audience of white men who think they’re geniuses obscured behind the cataracted judgment of the world, he doesn’t have to work hard here. Having taken several excruciating pages to explain precisely how if Fa is true for all a then there is not an a for which ~Fa, he then infers that campus rape culture is a liberal myth. The Einsteins of the alt-right will of course see the link by intuition, but as a courtesy Molyneux includes an argument for those of us less blessed:
If I have some sexual fetish role-play fantasy about being raped, and I then ask my partner to simulate such an attack, I cannot reasonably charge my partner with rape.
Of course not. Consent couldn’t possibly ever be withdrawn. That would go against logic. Here is the proof: A if and only if A. How the hell is that relevant, you ask? Well, now you’re getting emotional. And emotional reactions (from women) are by definition coercive and go against the peaceful free-speech standards of The Argument:
A woman who pouts and withdraws emotionally if you don’t do what she wants is not using The Argument, because she punishes you for noncompliance, rather than making a reasonable case for her preferences.
I won’t go through the rest of the book; you’ve suffered enough, and God knows I have. But I will note one other striking thing. In addition to ‘reasoning’, The Argument stresses the importance of ‘evidence’. In fact: “An argument is an attempt to convince another person of the truth or value of your position using only reason and evidence” (note: I don’t know why the indefinite article before “argument” was good enough in this instance, so please don’t write in to ask). The Argument — sorry The Argument is, however, littered with empirical claims for which not a shred of evidence is given.
One very representative example. “Leftist antipoverty advocates” fail to see that their evidence for the claim that poverty breeds crime is terribly inadequate:
See, for example, their reaction to someone who argues that it is not poverty that breeds crime, but rather the presence of crime that breeds poverty. Or someone who argues that lower marriage rates give rise to both poverty and crime.
Since Molyneux writes “see” you might expect some citations. But there are none. In fact if you see the inside of Wilkinson and Pickett’s book The Spirit Level, you will see many attempts to control for factors like this in the data, which don’t turn out to alter their conclusion. No wonder Molyneux doesn’t cite any sources. You might see something that would get in the way of The Argument. See something, say something. Therefore, by modus tollens: not see something. That’s logic. You’ll find it replicated throughout this steaming pile of shit.
It does help to show that, while logicians have no claim to be any better at informal reasoning than anyone else, there is such a thing as being godawful at informal reasoning. I’m not sure I knew that before looking at this book. But Molyneux is as bad at reasoning as he seems to be at everything else. Yet somehow, through some Dunning-Kruger pathology, he seems to regard himself as good enough to educate others. He is desperately in need of education himself, although I wouldn’t blame you if you preferred to put him ‘through the fist’ (“There are only two ways to resolve disagreements: through The Argument, or through the fist”).
The Argument won’t, of course, convince anyone to come around to Molyneux’s repulsive views. But I think its purpose is therapeutic rather than persuasive. The strategy is:
- Give the reader incredibly basic bits of informal logic, maximally dumbed-down, but presented as though they’re some kind of advanced science. If the reader is inclined towards egotism, he (yes, he) will conclude that he is having an easy time understanding them because he is so brilliant. This will feed his already blossoming suspicion that he has some astonishing power of intellectual intuition. 90% of people can’t get this right!!
- Next, present him with political opinions that accord with his own biases. He will ‘see’ that these are true and rational and supported by The Argument.
- As to why everyone else doesn’t agree with these views, now the reader has an explanation. He is blessed with extraordinary intellectual powers of which others are deprived. He sees further than others, because he is a giant. The disagreement has nothing to do with the fact that his views are, in fact, born out of mere arrogant resentment and have no empirical or rational support at all. Perish the thought that he is the one who bases his views on ‘emotion’ rather than reason — namely the frustration he feels towards a world that ranks him from average to below-average on every relevant scale, when deep down he knows — he knows—that he is a prodigy of nature and we’re all hiding behind PC culture to avoid recognising this.