I’m probably a bit of an oddball in that I enjoy reading philosophy. I especially enjoy contemporary philosophers with the ability to write with us non-philosophy majors in mind. The best of them craft concise, lucid, and interesting sentences, while knowing that most people are interested only in those ideas that can be immediately applied to the lives they actually lead. For this reason, I generally limit my reading to areas like moral or political philosophy.
In these two realms I have found no more satisfying author than Michael J. Sandel. He is a Harvard professor whose class, Justice, has been an on-campus and YouTube sensation for years. If you want to witness the practice of a great teacher – someone who knows that philosophy IS important to everyone and knows how to make it accessible, Google “Justice” and watch the PBS tapes. Afterwards, read the book version (also called Justice) as well as Public Philosophy, an equally readable and important book.
But today, I’m here to tell you about my current reading. Whereas you might seek out Sandel to learn how to live ethically, you would seek out Aaron James to understand the nature and practices of perhaps the gravest threat to human happiness today – assholes. James is a Harvard Ph.D,, a professor of philosophy at UC Irvine, and an expert in this field. In his book, Assholes:A Theory, James provides a comprehensive analysis of the causes of this dreaded affliction (hint: being born male provides a major leg-up for all aspiring assholes) as well necessary instruction in asshole management.
James’s theory has three main parts. He writes:
In interpersonal and cooperative relations, the asshole:
1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other
James is careful throughout his treatise. For instance, he is quick to point out any that any one of us is capable of acting like an asshole from time to time, perhaps even for days at a time, but that does not assure a person of actually being an asshole. He focuses on “the sort of person for whom asshole acts are quite in character, and indeed routine, because they do generally reflect the type of person he stably is.”
So as not to disappoint the reader, James classifies the various types of assholes and prominent exemplars: the boorish asshole (H.L. Mencken), the smug asshole (Larry Summers), the royal asshole (Henry VIII), the presidential asshole (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), and the corporate asshole (Steve Jobs). The clear winner in James’s way of thinking, however, swept two distinct categories: being both a reckless and self-aggrandizing asshole is Donald Rumsfeld.
I recommend this book to all truth seekers. If you are reluctant, however, to learn more about James’s conclusions because of enormous self-doubts (as I was), rest easy with this quote: “So as not to cast the first stone, we had better start by asking about ourselves: Am I an asshole? Here is one test: if you would be willing to call yourself an asshole, this indicates that you are not in fact one.”