I resent my lack of candour

Bento, I think this article (via Barry Ritholz) concerns a very Spinozist project. Radical Honesty is the idea that we should simply stop all the pointless little lies that pervade our every day life and which in the end preclude actual communication of real, useful information. We would feel free to say, yes, your arse does look fat in that, or (and in my office this would be relevant), excuse me, but your breath smells like shit so can you please eat a polo mint or talk to me from farther away? In both cases we would be helping the other party either avoid wearing something that does not suit them or alert them to something that other people will have no doubt noticed and which could help them better build functioning personal relationships or even unblock that promotion which their ability might otherwise merit.

If Radical Honesty is a truly Spinozist project then you and I have no alternative but to exercise it absolutely in our personal lives, Bento. And what were Spinozan ethics but the application of Radical Honesty, writ large in logic, to the bases of theology and philosophy of the C17th? What role could little white lies possibly play in a society of Men of Reason, in control of their passions, interested solely in enquiries about the nature of Nature and Man, except to restrict and delay the march of progress? Simply from this, we must become Radically Honest, and I would probably start by making some crude assertions about your appearance. However, we also have to contrast this with Spinoza’s personal behaviour, where much of the time he was happy to remain at worst mendacious or at best dissembling. After all, his refusal to publish the Ethics due to the uncomfortable nature of its conclusions in the political and religious climate of the time and the attacks of the “Stupid Cartesians”, prudent though it might have been, was not truly Honest. Other examples stand out: his apocryphal commending the wife of his landlord on the quality of her attachment to  utterly conventional religion, as reported by Spinoza’s lastest (and excellent) biographer Nadler, must be seen in the same light. Clearly, we should be initially confused.

But the resolution is of course (as it almost always is in matters like these) in understanding Spinoza’s historical context, and in C17th Holland I am sure a policy of Radical Honesty, scrupulously applied, would likely be terminal in a short space of time. I recall Spinoza narrowly survived an assassination attempt even before his excommunication, and shortly after the publication of the Treatise, 2 of his closest friends were to die in prison or be executed for holding and propagating beliefs not far from his own. Even before one got as far as stating one’s philosophical beliefs in a Radically Honest way, the fact that the middle classes on up were generally armed, and not afraid to duel, would make frequent expressions of Radical Honesty about, say, personal hygeine highly dangerous. Sadly of course they would be inevitable in a society where most people almost never washed.

So instead we have to conclude that Radical Honesty is Spinozan, and therefore probably mandatory, but only in situations where it is safe. Having a fairly regular sort of office job myself, with classical Boss-employee relationships, and a vengeful Balkan wife and family, I can think of few everyday situations where it would be safe for me to be Radically Honest. Therefore it is incumbent on you, Bento, to lead an initial pathfinding experiment and try on Radical Honesty for an initial 2 week period for both of us. Tell us what it was like on Ultimi Barbarorum, with regular status updates. Why not start right now?

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