ivorytowerstyle

MUST A MAN HAVE A CODE?

Omar Little, the shotgun-toting stickup man who was Barack Obama’s favorite character in The Wire, famously said that “A man got to have a code.” I think most people believe this. The world is a complicated place, but it should be navigated, so this thinking goes, using a limited set of basic truths, from which all others are derived.

In mathematical proofs these are called “axioms.” You get your audience to agree to a set of axioms that seem obvious, and then you lead them down a logical path. At each step, you say, if you agreed with that last thing, then you’ve clearly got to agree with this next one too. Eventually, with enough steps, you arrive at whatever it is you wanted to convince them of.

There are less formal axioms floating all around us, unweighted by mathematical proofs but much more consequential. The Ten Commandments are a set of axioms for righteous behavior. As is The Golden Rule. Aesthetics tries to formalize basic criteria for what is pleasing to the senses and what is not.

These distillations seem to simplify and clarify difficult judgments of what is right and wrong, or what is beautiful and what is ugly - a life hack, just like learning to distinguish real gold from fool’s by biting it. Using axioms would also seem to make your decisions consistent, and therefore coherent.

But these advantages are mostly illusory. Axioms usually either lead you into conflict with your intuition - and at this point the intuition usually wins, nullifying the value of axioms in the first place - or become so demanding as to eliminate every option available to you.

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