J.S. Mill and the Good Life

Sunday, May 15, 2022
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 23, 2019

What Is It

John Stuart Mill was one of the most important British philosophers of the 19th century. As a liberal, he thought that individuals are generally the best judges of their own welfare. But Mill was also a utilitarian who thought that there were objectively lower and higher pleasures and that the good life was one which maximized higher pleasures. So is there a way to reconcile Mill’s liberal project with his utilitarianism? Is the good life for Mill one in which individuals determine their own paths? Or should those who know better still try to nudge others to live better lives? John and Ken fulfill their potential with David Brink from UC San Diego, author of Mill's Progressive Principles.

 

Transcript

Comments (22)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, June 6, 2019 -- 11:40 AM

I freely admit I have never

I freely admit I have never read Mill. Not yet, anyway. But, if he really did believe in utilitarianism and liberalism, we might ask if he was just another philosopher, talking two games simultaneously. Perhaps he saw no contradiction? Or, on the other hand, maybe this was his way of separating philosophers from 'the vulgar' (a common term, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which philosophers employed to differentiate between themselves and everyone else). Philosophy remains pretty 'full of itself', seems to me. There have been efforts to make it accessible to a wider audience, though these have not necessarily been convincing. We can't ask him now. Even if we could talk to Mr. Mill, I am not sure we would get a straight answer. It is fun to speculate, though.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, June 21, 2019 -- 11:50 AM

I have just received a copy

I have just received a copy of Mill's Three Essays from my friendly library. Looking forward to reading this work. One essay is about the 'utility of religion'. Recently, I have been outlining talking points for an essay on magic and religion. The premise being fleshed out has to do with the origins of magic and religion. Several of these, I will contend, include: ignorance; fear; uncertainty; and the human knowledge of the fatality of existence (in other words: mortality). No other organism has to think about this---primary consciousness neither provides for nor requires such agonizing. My essay, I hope, will illustrate the mysterious nature and allure of magic, and the restorative, promissory nature of religion. At the root of both magic and religion we find superstition. This might be viewed as one of the origins mentioned above, but I see it as an effect. (I alluded to this project in another recent comment on a different post.) Don't yet know how Mill treated the 'utility' notion. I suspect he will have said some things about this, vis-a-vis, his support of utilitarianism. I will have to wait and see...stay tuned!

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, December 28, 2021 -- 12:18 PM

Can liberty and utilitarian

Can liberty and utilitarian strands of Mill's thought be reconciled?

It is hard to imagine ourselves as a collective organism when we think or philosophize; it seems a personal act. When politicians refer to America, they most often refer to their America. When we refer to our thought, we think of them as our own. However, much of my thought is derived from John Stuart Mill, and I didn't realize this affinity until I read it and found him speaking to my core beliefs.

But lately, my core beliefs have been questioned, and I wonder what Mill would think of our times and events. Pornography, money in politics, and information as a commodity would repulse Mill from his thesis On Liberty. I doubt he could have come to his ideas in our current reality.

David, Ken, and John give a fair accounting of the conflict in Mill's work.

Sexual freedom for one will always imply sexual repression for another. The legalization of drugs will cripple the lives of those prone to addiction. Refusing vaccinations will kill the unvaccinated and vaccinated alike.

Expanding our concept of identity to others, both inside and outside our body in a rule-based utilitarian manner allows our embodied actions to serve our interests without restricting others. Our blood, personal information, and emotional lives are intertwined with others. Ridding ourselves of identifying with our bodies, acts and emotions is one step in a path to reconciling Mills' conundrum. It's not an easy path to travel nor a truthful one in sentiment, but it is a good path and a good life, in the end.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, January 11, 2022 -- 6:12 AM

I had a brain fart this

I had a brain fart this morning, concerning the enigma of J.S. Mill. Is it reasonable to assume and/or believe well-to-do people read? I think so, although I have only one relative ( by marriage) who meets the criteria of well-to-do. He is the spouse of my wife's aunt. They raised children; travelled some and he retired from a successful career. I imagine he reads but do not know what. As with other self-made men and women, he is a private person. Here is where this is going: it occurs to me that wealthier people might enjoy reading Mill. They have access to 'the good life'. That there is contradiction in the foundations of his philosophy might not occur to them---whether they are utilitarian, liberal or indeterminate. Perhaps this is a clue to resolving the enigma. If Mill saw no contradiction, only attending circumstances, he would have had no qualms about the matter.

It has often been noticed that the well-off or wealthy don't talk about money. This sometimes annoys those who lack the luxury. But, as a practical matter, they should not trouble themselves. Another's economic status is not their business.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Sunday, May 8, 2022 -- 3:31 PM

it seems to my mind a valid

it seems to my mind a valid and insightful point is being made here. To get around Bentham's hedonistic version of utilitarianism, that only the quantity of pleasure is at issue, so that the more of it that's possessed in aggregate the better off society will be, Mill introduces the distinction between different qualities of pleasure. In this respect, sadistic and vulgar pleasures, such as that derived from a mob's stoning a criminal to death, would fulfill Bentham's criterion but would clearly be harmful to society, as they would condition the development of abilities to seek one's own hedonic self-maximization in the wrong way, towards harming others in addition to pleasing one's self, violating Mill's central principle expressed in On Liberty: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over [another]..., is to prevent harm to others."

But this conversion from quantity to quality with regards to pleasure carries a hidden premise of acceptable arbitrariness of class-distinction, which I interpret to be referred to in participant Neuman's remarks above: If the same degree of pleasure-quality is gotten by an upper-class English gentleman's consumption of a steak and lobster dinner as can be produced by a lower-class London factory worker's consumption of a bowl of porridge after a fourteen hour workday, by Mill's conversion, any improvement in the factory worker's situation might reduce the pleasure-quality of the porridge, and therefore would receive by implication no recommendation for it.

A contradiction does seem, then, to prevail in Mill's reform of Bentham's theory by distinguishing between quality of pleasures and his inveterate emphasis on their proportional quantity, so that it remains to be seen whether something like a reverse conversion may remedy this instability, or instead offer some alternative which better fulfills its aims.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Saturday, May 7, 2022 -- 3:41 PM

Can utilitarianism work in

Can utilitarianism work in converse form? Instead of converting happiness-quality into the quantity of its bearers, could one convert the quality of its bearers into happiness-quantity?

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Sunday, May 8, 2022 -- 11:36 AM

Yes, that's exactly how math

I'm curious how math works in the context you describe. It seems we ought to apply a ratio to ourselves as a whole people: The Golden Mean (as in Pythagorean mathematics, the greatest harmony). However, right now what is in fact being applied appears to be the opposite ratio (as in the golden MEAN, the greatest disruption). Can a mathematician chime in here? In light of technology and social media platforms, it would be nice to consider the powerful environmental effects of mathematical language when actively applied to privately held social and political theories ("greatest" "least" "average" "all" "equality" ""truth" "is" etc.). Thanks.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Tuesday, May 10, 2022 -- 11:56 AM

Assuming one understands Mill

Assuming one understands Mill in the context of the liberal tradition of the European Enlightenment, that the greatest good for human beings is also the most rational one, and that this rational goal is happiness, both individually and collectively in aggregate, then no argument needs to be made against a claim that happiness is not the most rational goal, and that makes the primary aim of social analysis to discover the most rational means to achieve what is already accepted by his readers as uncontroversial.

Utility is the name given to whatever contributes to happiness (according to Mill). As a teleological principle, the value of its use is determined by its consequence. The direct consequence is pleasure or pain, and because Mill following Bentham describes happiness as a sum of pleasures broadly understood, its indirect consequence is happiness where instantiation of the principle of utility generates sufficiently more pleasurable consequences than unpleasant. This gets the theory into trouble when, as noted above, the same pleasure-quality might occur under differing relevant conditions which are overlooked in pleasure-volume calculations. One way out is suggested in the book "Utilitarianism", where pleasures whose net sum generates happiness must be conditioned by choice, so that any which are not preceded by a period of deliberation are excluded. This distinguishes between happiness and mere satisfaction, where the latter can be seen as evidence of one's immediate needs or momentary desires being met, and the former as only the higher pleasures which produce the phenomenon. Conditioning happiness-producing pleasure by prior deliberation has the additional benefit of confirming that the range of alternatives have been viewed first, prior to its pursuit. To calculate its quantity in a given context could not then be by the evidence of its occurrence, but by the reasons for its being chosen. In the above example, only the English Gentleman would have a good reason for his choice of pleasure, whereas the Factory worker's would be a mere bi-product of satisfying a basic need, and thus not factor into the calculation, even if in evidentiary terms they might be of equal quality. Judged on a normative criterion for pleasure-choice, then, the event of a pleasure's occurrence can not be confirmed by any evidence for its being produced. Prior knowledge of its alternates in the choice of which pleasure will occur might leave a clear footprint, but since the range of alternatives is different in each case, no standard for what it would look like can be supplied. Rather, one has to presuppose what kind of pleasures could not occur without prior deliberation, in order to determine their quantitative measure. The largest quantity of happiness for the most people has to therefore rely on an indemonstrable, axiomatically assumed concept of what humans are or human nature is. By a qualitative assumption, then, the utility of an action can in aggregate be quantitatively determined within a reliable measure of probability. The diversity of conditions across individuals under which the range of alternatives is presented in pleasure-choice deliberation, however, might be so distinct as to be incomparable, yet in terms of utility be of equal value as to the calculation of the greatest number of those to whom it occurs. For an accurate count, it seems that prior conditions for roughly the same range of alternate pleasures itself would have to be shared (even if the chosen ones can be different in each case), in addition to the criterion of what determines it as a precondition for the utilitarian value of any given pleasure. In Victorian society that would have been a difficult trick, but Mill's central goal would seem to suggest its inexorable eventuality if the calculation and therefore scientific promotion of the quantity of happiness a society possesses can be undertaken.

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Thursday, May 12, 2022 -- 9:27 PM

Smoking a cigarette now...

Smoking a cigarette now...

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Tuesday, May 24, 2022 -- 10:45 AM

--Fulfilling at least one

--Fulfilling at least one basic standard of utility, as a causal factor associated by confirmation, for a pleasure's generation and relative absence of pain. Three aspects of this fundamental association can be offered using Mill's divisions in his "A System of Logic", as based on the distinctions between references, propositions, and inductive generalizations. It's got to have a name which contains the token of its reference, let's say, "smoke". The claim which is made by an understanding of the pleasure's cause must have a propositional form, to wit, "if person y smokes cigarette x, then their relation R is a causal one of combustion of x producing pleasure in y" or, in more formal terms, for all x in relation R to y, some y stands in relation R to x. And in terms of inductive generalization the claim is an empirical one of reliability which excludes its opposite: Cigarettes understood as members of a set are predicated by causal properties which under conditions of their combustion generate pleasure and exclude pain in person y, their inhaler. Under this third criterion exists the possibility of testing its utility and therefore its contribution to the happiness of the smoker relative to happiness in general. In Book III (on induction), chapter 8, Mill describes four methods (which turn out to be five) of "experimental inquiry": the methods Agreement, Difference, Joining, Residue, and Concomitant Variation. Each constitutes a variation on the determination of a phenomenon's cause. The first (A) is where its occurrences share only one circumstance. The second (D) is where all circumstances are shared except for one by two of a phenomenon's occurrences. The third (J) is where occurrences of a phenomenon share in only one circumstance and at least two occurrences of other phenomena share in nothing but the absence of that circumstance, showing that the two sets differ with regards to only one circumstance. The fourth (R) is where parts of the phenomenon known (by induction) to be effects of antecedent causes are separated from it, showing that the remaining effects are of the antecedent causes that remain. And the fifth (CV) is where any group of variations of a phenomenon occurring together with a mono-variant one is the cause of the phenomenon as its effect or side-effect (bi-product). Examples provided by way of explanation can be stated as:

(A) Scurvy is caused by a dietary lack of fruit.
(D) Where two swords are forged identically except for the difference that the harder of the two was dipped in water and the other wasn't, so that being dipped in water is judged as the cause of its increased hardness.
(J) That scurvy is caused by a lack of fruit in one's diet, is a more reliable conclusion if the observation is made that those who include fruit in their diet don't get scurvy.
(R) In testing for phlogiston, the substance which produces the heat from combustion, metal is burned and what remains is slightly heavier that the original metal, showing that combustion must be a combination of the fuel with the air, rather than only a consumption of the fuel purported to contain the phlogiston, so that the unknown element added by the air is named "oxygen", or "what spoils the wine".
(CV) The moon's effect on ocean tides.

If applied to the combustion of a quantity of tobacco for the purpose of respiratory intake to a claim of net pleasure gain over discomfort, one could say that with regards to-
(A) the criterion is applicable. A particular variety of pleasure is reliably associated the with the cigarette as its cause.
(D) applies to the preference of one brand over another.
(J) seems to apply as well. The pleasure associated with nicotine can be said with a good amount of accuracy to be unknown to non-smokers.
(R) clearly does not apply. What's left when the tobacco's gone can in not be said to be a cause of the pleasure of its being consumed.
(CV) also does not apply. Any variations of its effects and causes relative to each other, say, the size of the cigarette and where the smoker is standing, are causally independent.

So can one say that on Mill's account, an occurrence of the pleasure caused by smoking a cigarette is utilitarian in character, on account of the fact that its cause is one of special agreement exclusive to it which is based on consumption of its material source whose effect ceases when the source is gone and is independent of its variation in form? A way is not seen to my mind how it could be denied, as any negative health effects which are associated with smoking, even while being avoidable pains to the non-smoker, can not override the pleasure-quantity, if understood as contributing to the overall quantity a society possesses at any given time, which the smoker provides on the occasion of her or his nicotine-based chemical infusion.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, May 25, 2022 -- 3:51 AM

I am no scholar of Mill nor a

I am no scholar of Mill nor a fan of Tartarthistle’s philosophy in general, but you do both wrong here.

Honest feedback – you are using too many words and could have expressed this in less than half the time with more clarity.

If anything can be said of John Stuart Mill, it is this.

He loved his wife.

It is easy to juxtapose Mill with modernity and make his arguments seem conflicted, and in his own time, they are in conflict. At his core, Mill was romantic and anti-apriori.

Second-hand smoke is a way not seen in your mind/brain. If Mill understood the health issues, if he could take care of others by not smoking, he would not smoke, even if it brought him extreme pleasure to smoke one down and increase worldwide utility in the bargain, in any time frame. He certainly would not have done so in the presence of his wife.

We can learn quite a bit from reading and re-reading Mill. I’m confused by your post, even as it demonstrates presumptive erudition. Let me re-read this passage and think about this ADJRCV. I’m not sure it means what you think it does. You are reading, and that is good. I am doing the same and missing the point for the most part. It’s not the first time, nor the last.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Wednesday, May 25, 2022 -- 1:10 PM

Quite the contrary, it seems

Quite the contrary, it seems to me you've grasped a central point without which there's no understanding of his work: He was a radical empiricist, (what you're calling "anti-apriori"). I think though it's false to call him a Romantic. He was a Liberal. The Classical Liberalism of his thinking coincides with his radical empiricism in the equation between happiness and pleasure. Pleasure is the libertarian form of happiness-confirmation, since no one can sufficiently confirm its occurrence except its recipient. The idea of pleasure-utility though is how one gets from the happiness of the individual as a sum of pleasant occurrences to the happiness prevailing in a given society. Following Aristotle, the criterion for happiness-determination for individuals is the only one possessed in empirically confirmable form, and therefore the one which must be applied to whole populations, if any such determination can be found. And because, under socially liberal conditions, there's no common motive for being duplicitous about one's pleasures, each one is in effect a de facto vote for collective happiness. The negative effects of how some are produced, on the other hand, (e.g. the effects on non-smokers health from proximate tobacco-combustion), must be determined by the reliability of their inductive generalization, and as such may never have one over against the quality of one's pleasure in relation to another's proximate displeasure. Even today, while knowing much more about the adverse effects of cigarette smoke than in Mill's time, it's not at all clear that attempting to reduce them would override other health priorities, such as reduction of car-exhaust; so that the effort in a less important area to the neglect of a more important area would cause an overall reduction of a society's happiness which, as determined by a purely empirical criterion, can only be on the basis of an aggregate sum of pleasures.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, May 28, 2022 -- 6:40 AM

To be against does not imply

To be against does not imply being for.

We disagree, but again, I am no scholar here. Mill was romantic in his dedication to his wife, if nothing else, and that alone is worthy of the title.

John Stuart Mill was many things, took many positions, and was critically wrong on scientific inquiry and method. ADJRCV is a dangerous cannon to fire on subjects where relevant objects are not predetermined or are complex. I did go through and read some of Mill’s “A System of Logic,” including Chapter 8 on method and inquiry. It lacks authority if helpful to order food or win a game of Clue. Applying these methods in real life requires judgment that Mill himself didn’t have. This is not to say others did explicitly in his time. There is little that Mill says that can be refuted and, to his credit, attributed to others.

If JS Mill was a radical of any sort, it was being “English.” Most importantly, he was never a boy, the most English of all Anglomanic fates. It broke him several times. Maybe he recovered some in his marriage, but I don’t think that is true. He was a bit of a monster of the cookie monster sort. I would very much like to have known him. If he were to ask me for a cookie, I’d have given him a hug and sincere thanks for all his work.

Talking about Plato and Aristotle is well and good as we have had a few millennia to recover from their mistakes. Talking about a 19th-century philosopher is much more dangerous, as would be assuming their style of inquiry or writing. When any author proposes validity because they can’t think of alternative models, in that case, buyers be wary. We should be wary mostly because 200-year-old philosophers are largely correct.

I don’t know here. I’ve read some. I’m not sure what is relevant to Tartarthistle’s cigarette, but I think it is deep. I may be blowing smoke which is also another possibility. Maybe it is both.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Saturday, May 28, 2022 -- 2:53 PM

The cigarette is an example

The cigarette is an example of distributable pleasure-resources. The fact that it tends to kill its users does not factor prominently into Mill's eudaimonic hedonism-calculus. For that would always remain an hypothesis, and hence in principle, unlike reception of pleasure-stimulus in individuals, open to empirical contradiction. In the post of 5/25/22, 3:13 pm, second paragraph from the end, you've offered a counter-example to this picture by suggesting that if Mill had known about its negative health effects but still enjoyed smoking, he wouldn't have done so around someone he cared about, e.g. the woman who he was married to. The question thus arises whether care for his wife overrides the care for his smoking pleasure. Or, differently, can an inductive premise capable of being adjusted override an immediate one which precludes any adjustment-need? Can a naturalized ethics survive a well confirmed physics? Apart from whether or not an answer to this question can be found in Mill's work, it strikes me as remaining unresolved.

In the second paragraph of the post above you indicate an awareness of certain errors which were made in the works of Plato and Aristotle. It would I think be of great interest and benefit if it could be pointed out what these errors are and where to find them in the texts. Might one be found, for example, in the first book of Aristotle's Politics?

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, May 29, 2022 -- 9:59 AM

There are too many learnings

There are too many learnings since antiquity to point out.

It is enough to point Mills errors in method.

We will have redux of Plato and Aristotle soon enough to throw out thoughts. There are too few passages that can't be questioned.

The simplest ancient example would be natural science models, but logic is more lasting and relevant here and in general.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Sunday, May 29, 2022 -- 12:30 PM

One error I suppose would be

One error I suppose would be Aristotle's heliocentrism, which seems to be decisively disproven. But what about the claim Aristotle makes in the Metaphysics at 980a22? Could a counter-example to it be found in your own body of work?

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, May 29, 2022 -- 7:39 PM

Stevie Wonder.

Stevie Wonder.

Can you wrap this into Mill? I think we need to do that or stall this for a show on Aristotle.

If there is one other person on the planet who is reading this - here is the Perseus Project translation.

https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0...

"All men naturally desire knowledge. An indication of this is our esteem for the senses; for apart from their use we esteem them for their own sake, and most of all the sense of sight. Not only with a view to action, but even when no action is contemplated, we prefer sight, generally speaking, to all the other senses.The reason of this is that of all the senses sight best helps us to know things, and reveals many distinctions.

Now animals are by nature born with the power of sensation, and from this some acquire the faculty of memory, whereas others do not."

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Sunday, May 29, 2022 -- 9:35 PM

Yeah, that's the one.

Yeah, that's the one. Admittedly a digression, my question was in response to a claim made at the beginning of the second paragraph of your 5/28/22, 6:40 am- post above about mistakes made by ancient philosophers, (implying that you know what they are and where to find them), and concerns the first sentence of the passage. Is this one of them? What would we say to someone who claims to have never seen any exceptions to this rule? --Only that improbability can't rule out possibility. Aristotle is making an apriori claim: phusei, "by nature", signifies independence from any constraints by possible experience and subsequent empirical confirmation. Yet it's safe to assume that's where he got it. That's a mistake that Mill avoids. Aristotle presumably wouldn't worry much if he came across someone that didn't desire knowledge, since that could be explained as merely one individual who lacks a characteristic of the species to which it belongs, without changing it. The suggestion in that relation that an individual lacking in any one of the faculties of sensation which Aristotle appeals to in support for his apriori claim does not weaken the assertion made of the nature of the species, and therefore does not constitute a sufficient counterexample which contradicts its contents.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, May 29, 2022 -- 10:04 PM

I like this.

I like this.

I'm not sure that Mill doesn't do this. I say again... I am no Mill scholar, nor Aristotle geek or scholar of any sort.

But I do like to read and honestly react without caution.

I like this. Thanks.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Tuesday, May 31, 2022 -- 9:01 AM

Thanks for what? --Asking a

Thanks for what? --Asking a question which you've refused to answer? Claiming ignorance of a subject after having participated in a discussion of it is not sufficient. A defense of the priority of inductive-generalization with regards to collective health issues over pleasure-resource distribution on the basis of non-contradictable quantitative determination, as expressed in your post of 5/25/22 above, could be, but this potentially valuable service to your readers has so far been denied. Indeed, even in the case where you've claimed an unconditioned certitude, that ancient philosophers have made numerous "mistakes", you've avoided the question of identifying even one of the most basic and obvious ones in the post modern era: whether or not a single instance of a person not desiring any more knowledge than already possessed overturns Aristotle's sweeping claim at 980a22. Could this be on account of an apprehension on your part that your own work might be interpreted as providing such an instance? If so, sufficient grounds are not available at present on my part to preclude such an interpretation.

And as long as an exchange-attempt at thanking has been initiated, however, even if its inceptive grounds may remain not unmurky, I'd like to give mine for the cookie-monster analogy in your post of 5/28/22, which could be described as a reverse Malthusianism of a hedonistic Leviathan, and may merit an energetic update.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, June 2, 2022 -- 12:09 AM

Daniel,

Daniel,

I have been trying to respond here but am running into the Spam filter.

I'm told by my confidants, that the world is a better place for it.

Thanks for this.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, June 2, 2022 -- 7:52 AM

Daniel,

Daniel,

Let me do this with audio files.

1
https://www.speakpipe.com/msg/s/174998/15/zypmwl6k2t6z1oxi
2
https://www.speakpipe.com/msg/s/174998/16/gpz2iy891ldb0rx1
3
https://www.speakpipe.com/msg/s/174998/17/zvoj8wsqvd4gb1us

Again not exactly what I said but let's see if this works. I have sent my previous comments to the site admin and haven't heard back. One thing I didn't recite and tried to add below even was actual greek here.

For others (that is really stretching the pale on plural) who want to look or read:

In Greek ==>https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0...

In English==>https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0...

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