Anyone who read Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit or On Truth couldn’t wait to read its seemingly logical counterpart, Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James. Both philosophers cover alarming American cultural trends, such as the insidious force of “bullshit,” a noted lack of appreciation for the truth, and the so-called freedoms that we abuse on a daily basis in a truly asshole-like fashion. In his poignant taxonomy, Aaron James technically defines the asshole in this way:
Our theory is simply this: a person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.
As examples to back, James cites the notorious line-cutter, entitled surfers, righteous media personalities (on both sides of the political spectrum1), bankers, politicians, our current president, Ayn Rand, and more, whilst making the distinction between a mere “prick,” an asshole, and a dangerous psychopath.
Along with meeting the criteria set above, assholes have one thing in common: they incite a righteous fury within us. An idiot is easily dismissed: they obviously don’t know any better, which is why they don’t have the capacity to offend us so. But an asshole? An asshole sets up their “wall,” the entrenched sense of entitlement James refers to, rendering us completely invisible in the moral playing field. When someone is “asshole-ish,” they have their moments but are usually, at one point or another, willing to bend and hear the perspective of the one who has been slighted by their actions. The asshole? The asshole leaves us banging at the door.
This is where James poses an interesting question that was lacking in Frankfurt’s accounts: can, and should we, accept the asshole’s behavior?
James weighs in with a Stoic perspective. Stoicism arose when Athenian society was in complete social upheaval, a response to (or even coping mechanism for) the chaos that surrounded them. In other words, at a time when you would expect many civilians be angry and upset. Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, lived an objectively wretched life as a slave and cripple, though believed that true freedom was to be found in a complete disregard for external things:
That alone is in our power, which is our own work; and in this class are our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. What, on the contrary, is not in our power, are our bodies, possessions, glory, and power. Any delusion on this point leads to the greatest errors, misfortunes, and troubles, and to the slavery of the soul…We have no power over external things, and the good that ought to be the object of our earnest pursuit, is to be found only within ourselves.
This includes all other living, breathing, messy human beings. And yes—this includes the asshole. And didn’t Epictetus, a slave, accept his master’s enslavement over him? Didn’t the Greeks accept that Alexander the Great, the leader of the world’s then-largest empire, was an incompetent leader and, most likely, an asshole in his own right? And did life not go on? No doubt, I think Americans are puzzling over a similar problem. Should we relinquish control and let the “all-powerful” play the same reckless and stupid game they have been playing for centuries? Or do we try knocking at the door?
And what if we do neither? What if we were to find a path in between? The asshole will never see us. They’ll never play by the rules. So the question then becomes: what does it look like, at this moment in history, to stop playing the game?
1. Michael Moore and Bill O’Reilly, to be precise.
“Moments of Impact” is an original Falcon Post series dedicated to stop-in-your-track moments. It’s when the daily routine becomes jarred, experiences, knowledge, and emotions find a meeting point, producing a revelation that you could sit in your chair pondering for hours like David Bowie in the Labyrinth. I personally hope that I have at least one moment of impact a week. Indeed, this is a weekly series.
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.