Is it really “all or nothing”? Well, maybe sometimes …

Castalian Stream
9 min readMay 28

“Give me absolute control/over every living soul/and lie beside me, baby/that’s an order,” Leonard Cohen, The Future

There is a certain turn of mind, I’m sure you’ve met it, which suggests that “all or nothing” stances are the only truthful, authentic, or even courageous way to go.

It might be in politics, where it leads to the kinds of brinkmanship that risk utter catastrophe, unless we get the other team to back down. It might be in our personal life, when the same absolutism characterises how we treat those dearest to us.

Many of us seem inescapably drawn to those who present themselves as ‘strong men’, who advertise their unwillingness to compromise, as if this were the foundation stone of virtue itself. Very well.

I remember being on an email list once, where people were discussing an ancient philosophy, and could it be revived today? Soon enough, purists were emerging, producing lists of 8 or 10 things everyone who would lay claim to the school’s name would have to abide by. Otherwise, they were insufficiently vigilant, insufficiently strong, insufficiently pure, or just insufficiently informed.

I left the list, as I’m sure many others did. It’s our way, or the highway. I hit the road, preferring more open horizons.

There is a kind of purity about all or nothing stances, I get it. We know where we stand, or feel like we do. We feel in the moment that our reasons are unimpeachable. We put our foot down. We do not brook compromise, weakness, backsliding, compromising with the other, whose failure to come along soon positions them as a foe.

This is strength, yes? And who doesn’t love strength? There are people out there online who say that “strength” is, if not everything, the most important thing. All women apparently adore it, even when it involves treating them as somewhat less than the rational beings their continuing capacities to speak, and bring down better school and university results, would suggest.

Who wants to compromise, after all? Anyone who has raised children will remember that we hardly emerge from the womb ready to undertake complex negotiations, and engage in the work of tooing and froing, somethings-for-somethings. No, we must have what we must have, and it better be now. As for others, they are obstacles or instruments…

Castalian Stream

Articles on philosophy, psychology & classical thought (notably Stoic), aimed at renewing, spreading, and applying these ideas today.