ASK THE SOPHIST: Answered and asked


ASK THE SOPHIST: Answered and asked

By Request (More or Less), a Very Special Rerun of Ask The Sophist

INSPIRED BY YESTERDAY’S call for letters to our Ask The Sophist column—send yours to!—a reader wrote in with a meta-question:

Dear The Sophist,
I recall reading that when advice columns are light on letters, or light on exciting letters, they will zhuzz up the boring ones, or invent interesting problems out of whole cloth and publish that.

What are your thoughts on this? Should advice columns be treated as (and optimized for) harmless entertainment or is there an implicit promise of slice of life veracity in the format?


Dear (and 100 percent authentic) Pen Buddy,
The Sophist believes that nothing is more entertaining than the truth. But something is more entertaining than nothing. As it happens, your question—or something close enough to it for The Sophist’s purposes—was featured in the very first edition of Ask The Sophist, as the second letter in the column.

Because The Sophist wouldn’t be The Sophist without a keenly honed sense of how to get away with taking it easy on the job, here is a rerun of that original column, for the edification of new readers.

Keep those questions coming!
The Sophist

Ask The Sophist.

By THE SOPHIST, in Hmm Weekly
Originally published in Hmm Weekly, December 11, 2020

Dear The Sophist,
In the mail the other day we got an envelope from the U.S. Department of the Treasury that appeared to contain a government stimulus check for my late sister-in law, who died earlier this year. There’s a box on the front of the envelope—we didn’t open it—that reads IF RECIPIENT DECEASED
CHECK HERE AND DROP IN MAILBOX, so I checked the box and dropped it in a mailbox. A few days later the box-checked envelope made its way back to our address. What should I do?

Stimulated by Guilt

Dear Stimulated,
If I were here to give you ethical advice, I would say that you made a good-faith effort to return the misdirected government funds, and the government failed to do its part to take them back. Or, technically, an independent government agency that is under attack by the rest of the executive branch failed to relay your money back to the hostile government, but let's set that aside. Either way, the money has made its way to you again. It is not yours, yet the government seems bent on forfeiting it—so the most useful and helpful thing to do would be to sign the check over to a food bank, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture has currently left farmers to plow undistributed crops back into the ground while people line up all day to get food relief from charity.

But you did not write for ethical advice. You wrote to me, whose purpose is to try to help you justify doing whatever it is you want to do. So. Can you keep the money? It is a very small amount of money, from the government's point of view. If it's the full $1,200 stimulus, and you were to give it back to the president, and I just did the math right, he could spend it on adding a little less than four inches to the length of his border wall—insignificant, yet also evil. Much better to spend the money on good times, in the memory of your lost loved one, who was still here for part of this tax year, after all.

Except! The Sophist may bend logic and arguments to suit your wishes, but I can't change the state of the world. Although our current federal government can do almost nothing effectively, it can still hassle regular folks, and it likely will. The IRS has more or less quit going after corporate tax evasion, but it is busily auditing poor people to make sure nobody got too much from the earned income tax credit. For our purposes here, that means they're going to end up prosecuting people who got $1,200 through bureaucratic error, while the people who scored $100 million contracts for nonexistent shipments of PPE skate free. This is how what's left of America works now; your seeming good fortune must go, like so many shredded cabbages, back into the soil unsavored. I'd tell you to burn the check, but really you should put it in a file folder, to pull out when the authorities come looking for you. Hope it helps then!

Good luck,
The Sophist

Dear The Sophist,
I’ve had an idea for an advice column kicking around forever. I drafted up a whole debut version of it once—way back in the 20th century. But before we ever got around to putting it into print, the
New York Times Magazine up and came out with its The Ethicist column, which would have made my column look like a mere parody of that, rather than a concept that could stand on its own. Now I’m too old to care about that, and The Ethicist messed around with its format anyway and I’m not even sure who writes it. So I return to a question that’s gone unanswered since before the Forever War, a question that’s outlived the newspaper it would have been published in: If I want to launch an advice column, and I need material, is it OK to make up a fake letter to get it started?


Dear Anonymous,
It is a settled fact that the egg did, in fact, come before the chicken—an egg fertilized by the mating of two amorous and mutating fowl who had almost, but not quite, attained chickenhood. Without that primeval creative act, we might never have had a chicken, let alone chicken eggs as we know them—those same eggs, moreover, that you cannot make an omelet without breaking. You cannot, furthermore, cook that omelet without a fire, and as the man sang in one of his only two good songs, you can’t start a fire without a spark. Nothing was ever born from nothing.

How can the people know what to write to your column, if they don’t know what the column would be? You could try soliciting letters from people in advance, but you’d just be conscripting them into a different kind of artificiality, pressing them to pretend to be addressing something that doesn’t yet exist. No one will be satisfied, and the pump will go unprimed, so you can’t even wash down your omelet with a glass of water. Go ahead, make up a letter yourself. Gin up another letter with a colleague who has a real question, but who knows how to work with you to play the game. It’s not just OK, it’s your duty. The readers will come around when they’re ready. Or they won’t, if the column stinks. If they don’t, it won’t be because you didn’t give them the best questions you could.

Go get ’em,
The Sophist

Got something you need to justify to yourself, or to the world at large? Other columnists are here to judge you, but The Sophist is here to tell you why you’re right. Send your questions to The Sophist at, and get the answers you want.


New York City, January 23, 2024

★★ A crow perched on the top of a water tower, drenched in amber light, under an ambiguous sky: rich blue for the moment, but shaded like it was overcast. A second crow flapped up to join it, on the lower slope of the tank's roof. Soon after, the lush light was gone and the sky had tipped over to plain gray. Thirteen mourning doves occupied the dogwood, plump but inconspicuous, the tails of each subgroup aligned in downward angle and direction. The thaw was on, the snow patches slowly receding beside wet pavement. The flurries in the forecast either didn't come by or were too brief to notice. The air was humid, blunting the cold. Later, a returning child reported drizzle.


Indignity Morning Podcast No. 204: Chillingly fatuous.

Tom Scocca • Jan 24, 2024


Adjacent Items

More consciousness at Instagram.


READERS OF INDIGNITY who have previously benefited from the Bluesky-code generosity of other readers of Indignity are now daily paying it forward and providing us with even more codes for the still-beta social network. If you haven’t already gotten a code from us, we have lots of codes. Email and we will award Bluesky codes to those who respond, one per reader, first email, first served.


WE PRESENT INSTRUCTIONS for the assembly of sandwiches from The Butterick Book of Recipes and Household Helps, published by the Butterick Publishing Company in 1927, now in the Public Domain and available at for the delectation of all.

10 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
10 slices toasted bread
5 anchovies

Add to the Parmesan cheese the anchovy and rub to a paste. Spread between two very thin slices of toasted buttered bread.

1/2 cup cream cheese
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup orange marmalade

Spread half the slices with seasoned cheese, softened with the cream and mixed with seasoning if desired, the other half with orange marmalade to which is added a little French mustard, and fit slices together.

1/2 cup Neufchatel cheese
1/4 cup chopped olives
10 lettuce leaves
1/4 cup chopped pimiento
1/4 cup mayonnaise

Spread thin slices of Boston brown bread, lightly buttered, with Neufchatel cheese, or any other cream cheese. Spread also an equal number of buttered slices with finely chopped olives and pimientos mixed with mayonnaise dressing. Press together in pairs with a crisp lettuce leaf between.

If you decide to prepare and attempt to enjoy a sandwich inspired by this offering, be sure to send a picture to


The second printing of 19 FOLK TALES is now available for belated Holiday gift-giving and personal perusal! Huddle up against the cold with a cozy collection of stories, each of which is concise enough to read within the snowy part of a wintry-mix storm.

HMM WEEKLY MINI-ZINE, Subject: GAME SHOW, Joe MacLeod’s account of his Total Experience of a Journey Into Television, expanded from the original published account found here at Hmm Daily. The special MINI ZINE features other viewpoints related to an appearance on, at, and inside the teevee game show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, available for purchase at SHOPULA.

FLAMING HYDRA will launch in January of 2024. The FLAMING HYDRA Holiday Preview Spectacular, a rich sampling of the writing and art you’ll enjoy as a subscriber to the forthcoming daily newsletter, is available now for your inspection. FLAMING HYDRA is the work of 60 world-class talents, but that’s just one reason to subscribe. FLAMING HYDRA is a 100% cooperatively owned, ad-free publication with no owners and no investors; just a bunch of writers and artists working together and splitting the proceeds equally.

INDIGNITY is a general-interest publication for a discerning and self-selected audience. We appreciate and depend on your support!