Category Books

Some Ideas & Resources to Celebrate World Book Day 2015 …*

Some Ideas & Resources to Celebrate World Book Day 2015 ...* | rethinked.org

HAPPY WORLD BOOK DAY TO ALL …*

I thought that today I would put together a list of resources and ideas to celebrate books and the people that write them:

Finally, I’m always on the lookout for book suggestions, so please let me know what were the best (however you define best–gripping, thought-provoking, beautiful, heartbreaking, transformative) last five books that you read? Let me know in the comments section below

Mine were (in no particular order):

  1. Maps by Nuruddin Farah
  2. Keeping A Rendezvous by John Berger
  3. A Certain World: A Commonplace Book by W.H. Auden
  4. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
  5. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

read & celebrate . . .

[ Literacy ] through Educational Technology?

I recently read a cyberpunk novel called The Diamond Age (highly recommended), and it delves deeply into issues of education and social class.The main plot line concerns the development of a new technology, a book called the A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This is an infinitely adaptive interactive book that bonds and grows with the young girl it is first given to. It speaks natural language, teaches through allegory and elements of the learner’s environment, and consistently provides just-in-time information. It’s higher goals are humanist in that it aims to make the learner a strong, independent thinker. Along the way, the primer teachers various characters many different skills including how to read, problem solve, self defense, and computer programming.

Diamond Age is fiction, and we are FAR away from developing anything of this caliber, if it is even remotely possible. Yet the books presents an interesting model of education, and I was delighted to see an article recently about teaching literacy through technology from Sesame WorkshopThey have recently signed a two-year grant to explore how conversational technology (with toys such as Elmo or Grover) can teach preschool early literacy.

The success of this idea hinges firmly on two things: 1) technology capabilities and 2) the ways in which children will interact with a toy versus a human. Speech recognition software is good right now, but is it good enough to understand a toddler who is just learning to make sounds? I will love to see how this project progresses. The other aspect is how children interact with toys. Speech theories often suggest that children begin to use language around the same time as they develop “theory of mind” or an understanding that there are other people in the world with their own minds, who are experiencing the world from another perspective. Once you recognize this, you realize the need to communicate with them. Yet in today’s world, children communicate with technology all the time – sometimes as a means to speak to another person (e.g., Skype, FaceTime) and other times just with a screen (e.g., Blue’s Clues). Children also develop rich narratives, often aloud, when they play with toys or as they go to sleep at night.

Are we taking one step closed to A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer?

And the bigger question… how is educational technology good and bad for rethinking education?

[ Ed Tech – The Bigger Picture ]

A larger theme of my studies is thinking about and discussing technology’s role in the education world. This is something that everyone you meet will have an opinion about, and these opinions can often be very polarized.

My standard response is that I do research in order to better understand what technology is good for and what it is not good for. I am the first to admit that there are many current uses of technology in our classrooms and education systems that are under-researched and therefore poorly executed. Yet in this digital age there is such a need to integrate technology more seamlessly into education that I know there are spaces where Ed Tech could help teacher teach, help students learn, and provide experience with new forms of learning that are vital for functioning in today’s society.

[ What are the hurdles to successful Educational Technology?? ]

Umang Gupta wrote an article in edsurge last month explaining some of the issues surrounding integrating Ed Tech in schools. Currently, we spend only 1% of education funds on technology, compared with the approximate spending of 10% of GDP in the wider economy. Obstacles for technology in the education world include 1) worries that the tech world is going to replace teachers with laptops, and brick-and-mortar schools with services such as MOOCS (massive open online courses), and 3) a highly fragmented, high regulated, and highly bureaucratic industry.

To respond to issue #1, I maintain that real life teachers and brick-and-mortar schools are here to stay. The social aspect of school is important and motivating in and of itself, and I doubt we will see technology in my lifetime that can rival a really good teacher working one-on-one with a student. Yet good teachers are a limited commodity, so the idea with technology is to supplement that teacher’s abilities. If a computer program can teach and manage some of the more basic aspects of a lesson, the teacher is free to move about the room and provide individual help with other aspects. The research project I am working on currently exists entirely under the rationale that we’ve discovered a great pedagogy but the current teacher to student ratio is too high (about 1:4) for it to be feasibly introduced into classrooms. With a software to guide students, the ratio can go down.

In terms of online education, I’m definitely wary of any education that is completed entirely from a screen. Yet blended learning has a tremendous future and value to students, creating multimodal, asynchronous learning opportunities for students to connect across time and space and to learn in more authentic spaces in the world.

The bureaucratic red tape is definitely another huge issue, especially when combined with the time constraints of school. In addition to some of the issues Gupta brings up in his article, simply finding a school to pilot test or conduct research in is extremely difficult (if anyone has a middle school in the NYC area let me know!), and once you have a product, the general rule of thumb is allowing up to 6 months of professional development to teach the teachers how to use the software before beginning to integrate that software into classrooms. When this lag doesn’t happen, teachers tend to just ignore the new piece of technology. When the lag DOES happen, a better piece of technology is often already in development.

Ultimately, I am excited to be a part of the education world, specifically in the technology realm, and I think that we will see huge transformations in the ways in which technology supplements traditional modes of education over the course of the next few decades.

Character vs. Virtue: On the Circular Journey of the Developing Self

                                    And the end of all our exploring
                                    Will be to arrive where we started
                                    And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


How can we argue that “Making a living, economically speaking, will be at one with making a life that is worth living”[1]? And if we say a life worth living is one that is economically valuable as well, how can that life worth living be a life of art and ethics too, of tapping into “social creative forces” and continuing the unstoppable project of human invention?

The question of a life that is worth living seems to be one about both morality and imagination. I will save that topic for another discussion and focus on a point made by Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed. Tough writes:

“In most societies, Seligman and Peterson wrote, character strengths were considered to have a moral valence, and in many cases they overlapped with religious laws and strictures. But moral laws were limiting when it came to character because they reduced virtuous conduct to a simple matter of obedience to a higher authority. ‘Virtues,’ they wrote, ‘are much more interesting than laws.’ According to Seligman and Peterson, the value of these twenty-four character strengths did not come from their relationship to any particular system of ethics but from their practical benefit—what you could actually gain by possessing and expressing them. Cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to ‘the good life,’ a life that was not just happy but meaningful and fulfilling.”

The cultivation of virtue, and virtues as much more interesting than laws, is a long attended-to philosophical topic. I would say that in lieu of “interesting,” it is extremely important, because virtues are “metamarkers” that guide our journey. Laws are the habits and characteristics we create to help us stay on track, regulations that we break and remake as we move towards–but never fully realize–virtues.

I will draw on French philosopher Jacques Derrida to elucidate my point. Derrida, known for his impenetrability and complex discussion of language and society, is particularly clear, I think, on this point of the difference between “higher aims” and “habits/ rules/ institutions.” In his essay, “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” Derrida writes about Justice and its relation to laws. Derrida’s conception of law in relation to Justice offers a way of understanding how something finite, such as a policy or law, can be thought of as operating under the umbrella of a greater purpose. Derrida writes about Justice as an overarching value that guides the making, interpretation, and application of laws.

Laws, as Derrida lays out, in an ideal sense ought to be made in the name of Justice, but then what is Justice? Whereas value may suggest something definable and finite, Justice is the opposite; it is indefinable and beyond the scope of comprehension, according to Derrida. Justice is a point of uncertainty that cannot be pinned down, though it is also a source of guidance because in resisting certainty it requires that we constantly question and reaffirm a purpose. Justice is not a means to an end, it is not in service of anything, but rather it is the guiding light by which we question all our actions and laws. Derrida writes, “one cannot speak directly about justice, thematize or objectivize justice” (Derrida, 1990, p. 936), and in this way he views Justice as something infinite and eternal that we must return to again and again in order to ensure we have not strayed off the path into injustice.

Justice is nondeconstructible, that is, something that is infinite, something that we cannot pull apart into composite parts in order to construct an all-encompassing definition. The deconstructible element, law, can help us to have experiences of Justice, but it does not in itself constitute and can never supplant Justice. In moving towards a true understanding of the nondeconstructible element, we must constantly return to the deconstructible elements, rethink them, reinvent them. Each time we come to a law or a policy, we must “assume it, approve it, confirm its value, by reinstituting act of interpretation as if ultimately nothing previously existed of the law, as if the judge himself invented the law in every case” (Derrida, 1990, p. 961). To do so, we must be attuned to the details of language, and we must reinstate meaning in the things under consideration in order to begin to understand them in the present situation. That is, in the localized context of a community, culture, socio-economic group, we must look again at a law or policy, pull it apart and ask whether it is in the service of a political or economic agenda, for example, and fundamentally whether it is in the name of truth or justice.

In this way, we are saying that laws and policy should not be in the service of a limited (and limiting) political agenda, but rather should aim toward a greater purpose of truth or justice. In the same way that we ought to recognize laws as something we must constantly rethink and reshape in the context of justice, so too we must rethink policies and curricula in the context of a greater purpose aiming to serve truth or justice. Laws and education policies are often made in the context of a particular and limiting political, social, economic, cultural climate, but our greater obligation to humanity, whether it be for Justice or education, calls us to deconstruct and examine those laws beyond the immediate interests driving political, social, economic, cultural agenda.

Attentiveness, or in Derrida’s terms understanding of difference, is essential for an ability to reconceive. Attentiveness can be understood as a rigorous process of noticing that can guide policy makers in their approach to the context of a proposed educational reform and can guide students in their approach to learning because it enables them to build an experience through deeper and more thoughtful engagement with the situations they encounter. The process of noticing can be thought of in terms of Stanley Fish’s “fresh judgment”(Derrida, 1990, p.950). The idea of fresh judgment connects to the idea of always approaching something as new. Approaching something as new inherently suggests that we cannot assume that any statement or meaning or definition (or law or policy or verdict) which we had concluded before was true is still true. If we approach something as though we did not understand it, then we return to a concept each time with fresh judgment.

This encounter allows us to see and understand something anew, discovering some nuance or variation, or perhaps something entirely the opposite of what we had seen before. Such recognition teaches us, since we come to realize that our previous understanding was limited or even wrong, that we have a responsibility, if we wish to truly understand, to return again and again to our experience and be attentive. Attentiveness means setting aside preconceptions and judgments. It is a supremely important process of thought and way of being, especially where localized and individual differences can vary greatly and where it is essential for policymakers and teachers to take into account such differences and to do so fairly rather than in the exercise of power for certain interests or social groups over others. Derrida states that laws should not be in “the service of a social force of power,” which he defines as “economic, political, ideological powers.”

This philosophical exploration  helps us to understand more deeply some of the problems Tough grappled with as he thought about, watched, and spoke with children trained to be grandmaster chess players. While the children Tough followed were trained to have character traits recognized as on the path to virtue, such as patience, attentiveness, self-assurance, and also work ethic, “grit,” and ability to overcome failure, they were not necessarily taught to look to see those traits as useful for developing knowledge, beauty, truth (or more simply to be just and empathetic with those around them). It is not that they could not find this on their own, but as the stories showed, the grandmaster chess players in middle school became somewhat handicapped when they could not apply their arguably superior character traits to a higher, unattainable purpose like thirst for knowledge and curiosity which would have the added benefit of helping them get into college. With life, the message here is, there are things we will never obtain in an absolute sense like a title of grandmaster—happiness, justice, virtue—and these are undeniably some of the more important things in life. Rather, we must learn to cognizantly apply our character traits to a variety of tasks at hand emerging to us throughout life.

So to move back out our discussion of virtue and character, we can say we can never precisely define in words The Good is or Imagination or Truth. What we can do is identify the character traits, or habits, that we can cultivate that would make us close to the Good (empathy) or Imagination (creativity) or Truth (reflection). The articulation of  the traits and  habits indicating character helps schools as they work to gain the more undefinable goal of Knowledge and Happiness (for Wittgenstein being happy is having values “in spite of the misery of the world”) engaged persons and citizens. Tough continues on to write:

“For many of us, character refers to something innate and unchanging: a core set of attributes that define one’s very essence. Seligman and Peterson defined character in a different way: a set of abilities or strengths that are very much changeable—entirely malleable, in fact. They are skills you can learn; they are skills you can practice and they are skills you can teach.” (59, Tough)

While Tough may be correct when he says “for many of us,” as I have not surveyed what people think when they hear the word character and I am sure he has, I can say that in the traditions of philosophy, psychology and many religions it is accepted that virtue and character are things worked at and developed and not something genetic or  innate. In these fields malleable character is interpreted in a variety of different ways. For some it is through activity (Aristotle), for others through reflection and love (Moore), and for Kant it is though universalizing concepts. The paths to the good are varied, but the notion across the board remains the same: the labor of virtue is not a linear progression to a finite moment of perfect and complete understanding. Rather, it is an orbiting around an ideal, a casting out and a reeling back in, that is perpetual and endless.

The ideal is to a be one who is developing character traits towards a higher end and being, as educational philosopher John Dewey says, “intelligently experimental”[2] in the process. Stay tuned for more on imagination, creativity and the process of being intelligently experimental.


[1] Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy. It is a book based on series of lectures that Dewey gave at Tokyo’s Imperial University of Japan not long after World War I. “When the liberation of capacity no longer seems a menace to organization and established institutions, something that cannot be avoided practically and yet something that is a threat to conservation of the most previous values of the past, when the liberating human capacity operates as a socially creative force, art will not be a luxury, a stranger to the daily occupations of making a living. Making a living economically speaking, will be at one with making a life that is worth living. And when the emotional force, the mystic force on might say, of communication, of the miracle of shared life and shared experience is spontaneously felt, the hardness and crudeness of contemporary life will be bathed in the light that never was on land or sea.”
[2] “The conjunction of problematic and determinate characters in nature renders everyexistence, as well as every idea and human act, an experiment in fact, even though not in design.To be intelligently experimental is but to be conscious of this intersection of natural conditionsso as to profit by it instead of being at its mercy.”(Dewey, Experience and Nature, 63)

Kenya Hara on the 21st Century as an Age of Discovery, Making the Ordinary Unknown & Imagining the Future at 6.8

We all have myriad seeds of thoughts and ideas lying dormant or actively sprouting in every nook and recess of our brains. Over time, some of these seeds will erupt into full-blown concepts and form relationships with other kernels of thoughts. My favorite phase of the creative process is what I have come to term the ‘festering’ phase. In the festering phase, two or more kernels of ideas start to hatch, and one can almost feel the ideas pecking at the membranes that isolate them, seeking to break out of their containers to intertwine with other ideas and concepts. Germination might seem a fitting alternative to describe this process but I prefer festering because of how forcefully it conveys the notion of infection–itself denoting pain and delirium, which can alternatively be perceived and experienced as good or bad depending on the strength of the fever.

Festering is the part of thinking that you feel; it’s strenuous—there is real effort involved. You can sense the ideas reaching for one another and you feel compelled to help them in their quest despite the great mental effort required. You strain and push for a while, sometimes you are rewarded with glimpses of the creature to come, but before long you are forced to give up, exhausted. You try to put it out of your head, to think of something else, but it always creeps back, this pecking at your skull.

Creativity is a productive act but it is also an act of destruction. For something new to emerge–to be created–you must first help it break past the constraints that kept it from its renewed state. This process takes time: weeks, months, and sometimes even years. But when the ideas have festered long enough to seep outside of their contained spaces and into the rest of your mind, you are rewarded with the ecstatic feeling of discovery, of experiencing the ordinary as if in the presence of a mystery.

Every once in while however, you chance upon someone else’s ‘brain creatures’ and you realize that this person has done the delicate weaving of your own fragile evolving ideas and expressed—in words that ring so true to the way you experience reality you want to weep—an obsession you hold deep within but are unable to express as fully as you need. Kenya Hara is such a catalyst for many of my festering kernels of lurking obsessions, key among which, my desire to unroof reality, to question assumptions and experience the ordinary as an unknown. A theme central to our philosophy, work and values here at Rethinked…*

In his splendid book, Designing Design, Hara defines his vision of the 21st century as an age of discovery. While reminding us that the act of “making the known unknown” is a creative act, Hara aims to nuance our understanding of the future by conceiving of it not as a radical break with the past but, rather, a rethinking of the ordinary.

The future is not where everyone looks for it, “there,” right after the present. It’s not an integral number in a line: 9, 10, 11…It’s somewhere like 6.8 or 7.3. The new design scene nestled in ordinary life will be created by the intellect that perceives the unlimited numbers between two successive integers. (51)

And now, in Hara’s own, beautiful words ~

Naoto Fukasawa’s Tea Bag Redesign for Hara’s 2000 exhibition RE-DESIGN: Daily Products of the 21st Century. Source: Hara Design Institute ~ This concept comes from the motion of dipping a tea bag in hot water, which reminds him of a marionette dancing. The handle on this human-shaped tea bag looks like a marionette handle too. When the bag is dipped in hot water, the leaves swell to fill the bag, creating a deep-hued roll. Repeating the dipping action, the user is engaged in a wondrous world of puppet play. Thus, design intrigued with the unconscious emerges through the medium of an action.

Perception & Understanding

To understand something is not to be able to define it or describe it. Instead, taking something that we think we already know and making it unknown thrills us afresh with reality and deepens our understanding of it. For instance, suppose there’s a glass here. You might know about a glass. But what if you need to design one? The moment a glass is proposed as an object to be designed, you start thinking about what kind of glass you want to design, and you lose a little bit of your understanding of “glass.” Arrayed in order before you are dozens of glass vessels of gradually varying depths, from “glass” to “dish.” What if you are asked to clarify the exact boundary point between one and the other? Faced with objects, you’re at a loss. And again you become a little less sure of your knowledge of a glass. However, this doesn’t mean that your knowledge has been overturned. Indeed, it’s just the opposite. You’ve become more keenly conscious of glasses than before, when you understood them by simply unconsciously calling them all by the term “glass.” Now you actually understand glasses more realistically. (19)

The whole world looks different if you just put your chin in your hand and think. There are an unlimited number of ways of thinking and perceiving. In my understanding, to design is to intentionally apply to ordinary objects, phenomena and communication the essence of these innumerable ways of thinking and perceiving. (19)

Masahiko Sato’s Exit/Entry Stamps re-design for Hara’s 2000 exhibition RE-DESIGN: Daily Products of the 21st Century. Source: Typouts.wordpress.com ~ ” The entry stamp depicts an airplane pointing right, and the exit, one pointing left. This concept hold the seeds of an exchange designed to inject a dose of communication into an office procedure via the intermediary of stamps, which would lead to further germination within the mind of travelers exposed to the stamps. You might see the moment of contact between stamp and traveler as an “ah-ha!” moment, when the traveler, not expecting the message, falls into a pit of a panic, which upon the instant of understanding turns into a small exclamation point in the back of his mind. This “ah-ha!” is positive and full of goodwill. If these stamps were used at our international airports, where 10,000 tourists a day begin their first visit to Japan, they could create 10, 000 positive ah-ha’s a day, or 10, 000 friendly feelings, borne via this small taste of hospitality.” (30)

RE-DESIGN as a Form of Understanding & Creativity

“Re-design” refers to a redoing of the design of ordinary objects. You could call it an experiment, an attempt to look at familiar things as if it were our very first encounter with them. Re-design is a means by which to correct and renew our feelings about the essence of design, hidden within the fascinating environment of an object that is so overly familiar to us that we can no longer see it. (22)

Producing something new from scratch is creative, but making the known unknown is also an act of creation. Maybe the latter is more useful in nailing down just what design is. (22)

Our daily surroundings seem completely wrapped in design: our floors, walls, TV monitors, CDs, books, beer bottles, lighting appliances, bathrobes, coasters, and so on and so forth. All are the outcome of design work. The talent of the designer is to reexamine these daily surroundings at any time, with a fresh eye, as if they were yet unknown. (48)

Kaoru Mende’s Matches redesign for Hara’s 2000 exhibition RE-DESIGN: Daily Products of the 21st Century. Source: Hara Design Institute ~ “his concept is to entrust these dried twigs with a final role (matches), prior to their return to the soil. The design asks us to consider the relationship between humans & fire, which spans tens of thousands of years, letting our imagination run through time, over our ancestors’ life as it was intertwined with fire, & then place fire in the palm of our hand. Now as we take a closer look, the shapes of sticks are quite aesthetically pleasing. Our busy life usually exiles such aesthetic objects from our mind. Nature, fire and humans: Mende’s solution impressively evokes their individual existences. These are called Anniversary Matches. It would be quite effective to use these matches to light the candles on birthday or anniversary cakes. After all, burning fire is a powerful symbol. Perhaps this is because flame enshrines the possibility of both a ferocious, destructive power that can grow immensely, and the essence of creation. This giant imagination is infused into a match-sized design solution.” (40)

The 21st Century as an Age of Discovery: Making the Ordinary Unknown

The more firmly we’re convinced that we’ve identified an object, the less precisely we understand it. The 21st century is an age of discovery—of astonishingly fine designs found right in our midst, in our daily lives. We used to design mere stimulation, but now we part ways with that past and look at the ordinary with clear eyes, to yield new thinking on design. (23)

I used to wonder what kinds of novel things would be created in the 21st century, and what kinds of innovations we’d experience, doubtless one after the other. But today I would say that this very idea should be left behind in the previous century. Instead, a new era should arise, as the ordinary that we think we know so well is made unknown, one object after another. Just as the cell phone has taken its position at the forefront of communication, unnoticed, we shall realize that we sit right in the center of the future, as it reveals itself to us little by little, from within every aperture of our ordinary life. The idea that new things will come crashing upon us from afar, as waves begin in the distance of the sea, is an image that belongs to the past. (48-49)

At the same time, the idea that technological innovation sweeps over the entire planet and shapes our daily lives is also an illusion. Technology will bring forth new possibilities, but it is still only an environment, not creativity itself. The question is how to use human wisdom in the new environment afforded by technology. What should we aim for? What kind of plans should we realize? (49)

Raising our point of view regarding daily life is like discovering decimals. The future is not where everyone looks for it, “there,” right after the present. It’s not an integral number in a line: 9, 10, 11…It’s somewhere like 6.8 or 7.3. The new design scene nestled in ordinary life will be created by the intellect that perceives the unlimited numbers between two successive integers. (51)

Shigeru Ban’s Toilet Paper redesign for Hara’s 2000 exhibition RE-DESIGN: Daily Products of the 21st Century. Source: Hara Design Institute ~ “Ban’s proposal doesn’t mean that all the toilet paper rolls in the world should be square. But I would like you to notice the note of criticism sensed vaguely at the periphery of the concept of square toilet paper. From the perspective of daily life, design passes criticism on civilization. Not that this is anything new. Design thinking and perception have been critical since the beginning. I’ll be happy if you sense design’s critical nature in the difference between two objects: the square roll and the round one” (29)

Source: Hara, Kenya. Designing Design. Zurich: Lars Muller Publishers, 2007. Print.

…* You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish

Celebrate the freedom to read for this year’s  Banned Books Week (September 30-October 6th) with this glorious excerpt from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which used to be banned from high school reading lists and schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington state.

 

 

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

–Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

On The Consolations of Philosophy

In The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton takes philosophy off the high dusty shelves of academia and shows his readers how the lives and works of six philosophers—Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche—can help them deal with everyday issues such as unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart and difficulties.

While the book is full of simple and extremely relevant advice on a host of issues, what resonated most with me in terms of the rethinked*annex project was de Botton’s chapter on how Michel de Montaigne’s life and Essays contribute salient insights into how one might go about dealing with feelings of inadequacy.

Montaigne was committed to giving written testimony to the whole man, baser self included, and representing all aspects, even the ugly ones, of the man behind the ideas. This was a response and a critique of an ancient academic tradition of portraying great ideas and those who produced them as operating solely in the intellectual sphere, separated from the body and other ‘animal’ and less than reasonable sides of man. But in life, man cannot be torn in half; both aspects of his self are present at all time: the intellectual reasonable, logical and the emotional, needy, animalistic. This silencing of an entire facet of human beings worried Montaigne because, as de Botton points out:

If we accord importance to the kinds of portraits which surround us, it is because we fashion our lives according to their example, accepting aspects of ourselves if they concur with what others mention of themselves. What we see evidence for in others, we will attend to within, what others are silent about, we may stay blind to or experience only in shame. 129

To combat this narrowing of the human experience to only a few aspects deemed worthy by ‘logic’ and ‘reason’, Montaigne was

[…] concerned with the whole man, with the creation of an alternative to the portraits which had left out most of what man was. It was why his book came to include discussions of his meals, his penis, his stools, his sexual conquests and his farts—details which had seldom featured in a serious book before, so gravely did they flout man’s image of himself as a rational creature. 129

This observation marks both a challenge and a solution to a problem that has been bothering me lately about the rethinked*annex project. While following Montaigne and discussing, in writing and with strangers, thoughts on my farts, meals or sexual encounters would contribute nothing to the rethinked*annex project, other aspects, that are similarly less favorable and flattering than the ones generally allowed to be shared by ‘reason’, common sense, and academic tradition, would be beneficial to discuss because they would portray a more holistic representation of what it is like, at least for one individual, to search deeply for meaning and start to formulate a more useful understanding of the good life for man. I therefore promise to account for my ‘baser’ self, to the extent that it is relevant to the investigation, in future reports of progress or disasters as I attempt to find out how best to live out my humanity.

When I let others read something I have written about perception, reality, empathy, and the general condition of being human, it is always with measured words and edited sentences. My thoughts are structured and expressed linearly or thematically—at any rate always ‘reasonably’. But this reasonable writing and the reasonable read it produces show nothing of the deeply animal, irrational, subconscious aspect of my interaction with these concepts. When the investigation at hand is no less than how one should live his or her life it would be especially foolish to assume that these darker aspects of my search for meaning are secondary to the intellectual ones. As in everything humans interact with, every aspect of my self, reasonable and half-crazed, is engaged with this investigation. These concepts and questions aren’t just passing notions in my life but the source of violent and unquenchable obsessions. I have literally—in the actual sense of the word—screamed and cried for meaning. There have been long periods of my life where I have been afflicted by a debilitating sense of existential exhaustion and have lost sleep, appetite, and yes, even my sex drive, over the despair that resulted from an understanding that meaning, and reality—in all its undifferentiated glory—lay forever beyond my cognitive and perceptual reach. On more occasions than I care to remember, I have acted against my better judgment and placed myself in situations, which from the outside seemed directly opposed to reason, but which, at the time, presented for me an opportunity to engage with these ideas in new ways; and always present, the glimmer of hope that I might learn something new or formulate a better question.

But I never share any of this when I share my ideas about perception and reality, empathy and being human; and why would I? It would feel strangely personal, inappropriate even, to write about the days I spent in sweatpants with greasy hair despairing over the limitations of my perception mechanism and overwhelming sense of indifference from the universe right along descriptions of the glories of understanding ideas that make ones life better. But that is what we should do, Montaigne warns us, we should talk about the ugly moments of creation and thinking because they are inextricably enmeshed with the understanding, the revelation, the shaking of assumptions and renewed perspectives.

As mentioned above, the concepts underlying the rethinked*annex project have at times led to immensely rewarding experiences while at other times, they have taken an enormous emotional and existential toll. And part of this, I believe, is simply the nature of our interactions with salient notions and ideas. The process through which we work our way through new ideas and make them our own is inherently confusing, complex and involves all sides of our humanity. It is fundamentally a creative process because working through complex ideas and embracing them into one’s own thought system creates the self anew by changing it, however imperceptibly. And so the process of thinking through ideas and experimenting with their applicability is not one solely of intellect, but of the whole being—the self itself.

If nothing else should come out of rethinked*annex, at least I will have given written testimony to the range of human emotions—reasonable and otherwise—that are a part of my quest for meaning and (hopefully) broadened the range of experiences that we dare to accept and talk about.

I have also decided to adopt Seneca’s Praemeditatio, a sort of gratitude journal concept flipped inside out—“a mediation in advance, on all the sorrows of mind and body to which the goddess may subsequently subject us.” Because fortune is unpredictable and since “We do not know what will happen next: we must expect something.” To prepare and manage our expectations Seneca urges us to reflect on his praemeditatio each day in the early morning.

A Senecan Praemeditatio

[The wise] will start each day with the thought…

Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own. Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men,

No less than those of cities, are in a whirl.

Whatever structures had been reared by long sequences of years, at

the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is

scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’

has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour,

an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.

How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by

a single shock of earthquake? How many towns in Syria, how many

in Macedonia, have been swallowed up? How often has this kind of

devastation laid Cyprus in ruins?

We live in the middle of thing which have all been destined to die.

Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth.

Reckon on everything, expect everything.  91

Below are quotes from the book, broken down by chapter. If you don’t have time to read the book just yet but are intrigued by the idea of taking philosophy out of the dungeons of academia and into the real contemporary world, check out Examined Life, a brilliant documentary by Astra Taylor in which she places various philosophers in the social contexts that they examine in their works. The cast includes an impressive list of rethinkers ranging from Slavoj Zizek, Cornel West, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Peter Singer, Avital Ronell & Judith Butler.

‘Philosophy, as much as I love it, is really associated with academia […] I wanted to break philosophy out of that rarefied ivory tower space and show how compelling it can be when it’s directly connected to ordinary life.’  -Astra Taylor

Quotes

Source: De Botton, Alain. The Consolations of Philosophy. New York: Vintage International, 2000.

 

Socrates ~ Consolations for unpopularity

 

Philosophy had supplied Socrates with convictions in which he had been able to have rational, as opposed to hysterical, confidence when faced with disapproval. 7

If common sense is cordoned off from questions, it is because its judgments are deemed plainly too sensible to be the targets of scrutiny. 9

But it is not only the hostility of others that may prevent us from questioning the status quo. Our will to doubt can be just as powerfully sapped by an internal sense that societal conventions must have a sound basis, even if we are not sure exactly what this may be, because they have been adhered to by a great many people for a long time. It seems implausible that our society could be gravely mistaken in its beliefs and at the same time that we would be alone in noticing the fact. We stifle our doubts and follow the flock because we cannot conceive of ourselves as pioneers of hitherto unknown, difficult truths. 13

If we refrain from questioning the status quo, it is […] primarily because we associate what is popular with what is right. The sandalless philosopher raised a plethora of questions to determine whether what was popular happened to make any sense. 16

[…] other people may be wrong, even when they are in important positions, even when they are espousing beliefs held for centuries by vast majorities. And the reason is simple: they have not examined their beliefs logically. 20

[…] Socrates compared living without thinking systematically to practicing an activity like pottery or shoemaking without following or even knowing of technical procedures. One would never imagine that a good pot or shoe could result from intuition alone; why then assume that the more complex task of directing one’s life could be undertaken without any sustained reflection on premises or goals? Perhaps because we don’t believe that directing our lives is in fact complicated. Certain difficult activities look very difficult from the outside, while, others, equally difficult activities look very easy. Arriving at sound views on how to live falls into the second category, making a pot or a shoe into the first. 21

Pottery looks as difficult as it is. Unfortunately, arriving at good ethical ideas doesn’t, belonging instead to a troublesome class of superficially simple but inherently complex activities. 23

What is declared obvious and ‘natural’ rarely is so. Recognition of this should teach us to think that the world is more flexible than it seems, for the established views have frequently emerged not through a process of faultless reasoning, but through centuries of intellectual muddle. There may be no good reason for things to be the way they are. 23

on how to think for oneself

The philosopher does not only help us to conceive that others may be wrong, he offers us simple method by which we can ourselves determine what is right. Few philosophers have had a more minimal sense of what is needed to begin a thinking life. We do not need years of formal education and a leisured existence. Anyone with a curious and well-ordered mind can start a conversation with a friend in a city street and, by following the Socratic method, may arrive at one or two ground-breaking ideas in under half an hour. 23

Socrates’ method of examining common sense is observable in all Plato’s early and middle dialogues and, because it follows consistent steps, may without injustice be presented in the language of a recipe book or manual, and applied to any belief one is asked to accept or feels inclined to rebel against. The correctness of a statement cannot, the method suggests, be determined by whether it is held by a majority or has been believed for a long time by important people. A correct statement is one incapable of being rationally contradicted. A statement is true if it cannot be disproved. If it can, however many believe it, however grand they may be, it must be false and we are right to doubt it. 23

on the Socratic method for thinking (24)

1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.

-Acting courageously involves not retreating in battle.

-Being virtuous requires money.

2. Imagine for a moment that, despite the confidence of the person proposing it, the statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where the statement would not be true.

-Could one ever be courageous and yet retreat in battle?

-Could one ever stay firm in battle and yet not be courageous?

-Could one ever have money and not be virtuous?

-Could one ever have no money and be virtuous?

3. If an exception is found, the definition must be false or at least imprecise.

-It is possible to be courageous and retreat.

-It is possible to stay firm in battle and yet not be courageous.

-It is possible to have money and be a crook.

-It is possible to be poor and virtuous.

4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.

-Acting courageously can involve both retreat and advance in battle.

-People who have money can be described as virtuous only if they have acquired it in a virtuous way, and some people with no money can be virtuous when they have lived through situations where it was impossible to be virtuous and make money.

5. If one subsequently finds exceptions to the improved statements, the process should be repeated. The truth, in so far as a human being is able to attain such a thing, lies in a statement which it seems impossible to disprove. It is by finding out what something is not that one comes closest to understanding what it is.

6. The product of thought is, whatever Aristophanes insinuated, superior to the product of intuition.

Socrates would naturally have conceded that there are times when we are in the wrong and should be made to doubt our view, but he would have added a vital detail to alter our sense of truth’s relation to unpopularity: errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition. What should worry us is not the number of people who oppose us, but how good their reasons are for doing so. 29

A bad thought delivered authoritatively, though without evidence of how it was put together, can for a time carry all the weight of a sound one. But we acquire a misplaced respect for others when we concentrate solely on their conclusion—which is why Socrates urged us to dwell on the logic they used to reach them. Even if we cannot escape the consequences of opposition, we will at least be spared the debilitating sense of standing in error. 31

We should not look to Socrates for advice on escaping a death sentence; we should look to him as an extreme example of how to maintain confidence in an intelligent position which has met with illogical opposition. 37

 

Epicurus ~ Consolations for Not Having Enough Money

 

We are often, in the words of the Epicurean poet Lucretius, like ‘a sick man ignorant of the cause of his malady.’ 55

At the heart of Epicureanism is the thought that we are as bad at intuitively answering ‘what will make me happy?’ as ‘What will make me healthy?’ The answer which most rapidly comes to mind is liable to be as faulty. Our souls do not spell out their troubles more clearly than our bodies, and our intuitive diagnoses are rarely any more accurate. 54

The task of philosophy was, for Epicurus, to help us interpret our indistinct pulses of distress and desire and thereby save us from mistaken schemes of happiness. We were to cease acting on first impulses, and instead investigate the rationality of our desires according to a method of questioning close to that used by Socrates in evaluating ethical definitions over a hundred years earlier. And by providing what might at times feel like counter-intuitive diagnoses of our ailments, philosophy would—Epicurus promised—guide us to superior cures and true happiness. 55

Happiness, An Epicurean Acquisition List:

friendship

We don’t exist unless there is someone who can see us existing, what we say has no meaning until someone can understand, while to be surrounded by friends is constantly to have our identity confirmed; their knowledge and care for us have the power to pull us from our numbness. In small comments, many of them teasing, they reveal they know our foibles and accept them and so, in turn, accept that we have a place in the world. We can ask them ‘Isn’t he frightening?’ or ‘Do you ever feel that…?’ and be understood, rather than encounter the puzzled ‘No, not particularly’—which can make us feel, even when in company as lonely as polar explorers. 57

True friends do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria, it is the core self they are interested in; like ideal parents, their love for us remains unaffected by our appearance or position in the social hierarchy, and so we have no qualms in dressing in old clothes and revealing that we have made little money this year. 57

 freedom

Simplicity did not affect the friends’ sense of status because, by distancing themselves from the values of Athens, they had ceased to judge themselves on a material basis. There was no need to be embarrassed by bare walls, and no benefit in showing off gold. Among a group of friends living outside the political and economic center of the city, there was—in the financial state—nothing to prove. 58

thought

There are few better remedies for anxiety than thought. In writing a problem down or airing it in conversation we let its essential aspects emerge. And by knowing its character, we remove, if not the problem itself, then its secondary, aggravating characteristics; confusion, displacement, surprise. 59

If one thought rationally about mortality, one would, Epicurus argued, realize that there was nothing but oblivion after death, and that ‘what is no trouble when it arrives is an idle worry in anticipation.’ It was senseless to alarm oneself in advance about a state which one would never experience:

There is nothing dreadful in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living. 59

Wealth is of course unlikely ever to make anyone miserable. But the crux of Epicurus’ argument is that if we have money without friends, freedom and an analyzed life, we will never be truly happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy. 59

To plot the Epicurean relation between money and happiness on a graph, money’s capacity to deliver happiness is already present in small salaries and will not rise with the largest. We will not cease being happy with greater outlay, but we will not, Epicurus insisted, surpass levels of happiness already available to those on a limited income. 60

For Epicurus, we are happy if we are not in active pain. Because we suffer active pain if we lack nutrients and clothes, we must have enough money to buy them. But suffering is too strong a word to describe what will occur if we are obliged to wear an ordinary cardigan rather than a cashmere one or to eat a sandwich rather than tea scallops. 61

To avoid acquiring what we do not need or regretting what we cannot afford, we should ask rigorously the moment we desire an expensive object whether we are right to do so. We should undertake a series of thought experiments in which we imagine ourselves projected in time to the moment when our desires have been realized, in order to gauge our likely degree of happiness:

The following method of inquiry must be applied to every desire: What will happen to me if what I long for is accomplished? What will happen if it is not accomplished? 63

Why, then, if expensive things cannot bring us remarkable joy, are we so powerfully drawn to them? Because of an error similar to that of the migraine sufferer who drills a hole in the side of his skull: because expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand. Objects mimic in material dimension what we require in a psychological one. We need to rearrange our minds but are lured towards new shelves. We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends. 65

We are not solely to blame for our confusions. Our weak understanding of our needs is aggravated by what Epicurus termed the ‘idle opinions’ of those around us, which do not reflect the natural hierarchy of our needs, emphasizing luxury and riches, seldom friendship, freedom and thought. 65

 

Lucius Annaeus Seneca ~ Consolations for Frustration

 

He [Seneca] had from the first conceived of philosophy as a discipline to assist human beings in overcoming conflicts between their wishes and reality. As Tacitus had reported, Seneca’s response to his weeping companion had been to ask, as though the two were essentially one, where their philosophy had gone, and where their resolutions against impending misfortunes. 78

His experience had taught him a comprehensive dictionary of frustration, his intellect a series of responses to them. Years of philosophy had prepared him for the catastrophic day Nero’s centurion had struck at the villa door. 79

Though the terrain of frustration may be vast—from a stubbed toe to an untimely death—at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality. 80

And yet, for Seneca, in so far as we can ever attain wisdom, it is by learning not to aggravate the world’s obstinacy through our own responses, through spams of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia. 81

A single idea recurs throughout his work: that we best endure those frustrations which we have prepared ourselves for and understand and are hurt most by those we least expected and cannot fathom. Philosophy must reconcile us to the true dimensions of reality, and so spare us, if not frustration itself, then at least its panoply of pernicious accompanying emotions. Her task is to prepare for our wishes the softest landing possible on the adamantine wall of reality. 81

on anger

The ultimate infantile collision. We cannot find the remote control or the keys, the road is blocked, the restaurant full—and so we slam doors, deracinate plants and howl. 82

According to [Seneca’s view of the mind] anger results not from an uncontrollable eruption of the passions, but from a basic (and correctable) error of reasoning. Reason does not always govern our actions, he conceded: if we are sprinkled with cold water, our body gives us no choice but to shiver; if fingers are flicked over our eyes, we have to blink. But anger does not belong in the category of involuntary physical movement, it can only break out on the back of certain rationally held ideas; if we can only change the ideas, we will change our propensity to anger. 83

How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. 83

Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground rules of existence. 83

We must reconcile ourselves to the necessary imperfectability of existence. 85

We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful. 85

on shock 

If we do not dwell on the risk of sudden disaster and pay a price for our innocence, it is because reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability lasting across generations; on the other, unheralded cataclysms. We find ourselves divided between a plausible invitation to assume that tomorrow will be much like today and the possibility that we will meet with an appalling event after which nothing will ever be the same again. 86

Because we are injured most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything (‘There is nothing which Fortune does not dare’), we must, proposed Seneca, hold the possibility of disaster in mind at all times. No one should undertake a journey by car, or walk down the stairs, or say goodbye to a friend, without an awareness, which Seneca would have wished to be neither gruesome nor unnecessarily dramatic, of fatal possibilities. 87

For evidence of how little is needed for all to come to nought, we have only to hold up our wrists and study for a moment the pulses of blood through our fragile, greenish veins:

What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest toss will break… A body weak and fragile, naked, in its natural state defenseless, dependent upon another’s help and exposed to all the affronts of fortune. 88

 

We are mistaken if we believe any part of the world is exempt and safe…Nature has not created anything in such a way that it is immobile. 89

No promise has been given you for this night—no, I have suggested too long a respite—no promise has been given even for this hour. 90

There is a dangerous innocence in the expectation of a future formed on the basis of probability. Any accident to which a human has been subject, however rare, however distant in time, is a possibility we must ready ourselves for. 90

Because Fortune’s long benevolent periods risk seducing us into somnolence, Seneca entreated us to spare a little time each day to think of her. We do not know what will happen next: we must expect something. In the early morning, we should undertake what Seneca termed a praemeditatio, a mediation in advance, on all the sorrows of mind and body to which the goddess may subsequently subject us. 91

A Senecan Praemeditatio

[The wise] will start each day with the thought…

Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own. Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men,

No less than those of cities, are in a whirl.

Whatever structures had been reared by long sequences of years, at

the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is

scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’

has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour,

an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.

How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by

a single shock of earthquake? How many towns in Syria, how many

in Macedonia, have been swallowed up? How often has this kind of

devastation laid Cyprus in ruins?

We live in the middle of thing which have all been destined to die.

Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth.

Reckon on everything, expect everything.  91

Arguments are like eels: however logical, they may slip from the mind’s weak grasp unless fixed there by imagery and style. We need metaphors to derive a sense of what cannot be seen or touched, or else we will forget. 92

on a sense of injustice

A feeling that the rules of justice have been violated, rules which dictate that if we are honorable, we will be rewarded, and that if we are bad, we will be punished—a sense of justice inculcated in the earliest education of children, and found in most religious texts, for example, in the book of Deuteronomy, which explains that the godly person ‘shall be like a tree’ planted by the rivers of water…and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. 93

The continuing belief that the world is fundamentally just is implied in the very complaint that there has been an injustice. 93

Not everything which happens to us occurs with reference to something about us.  93

I do not allow [Fortune] to pass sentence upon myself. 95

on anxiety

But reassurance can be the cruelest antidote to anxiety. Our rosy predictions both leave the anxious unprepared for the worst, and unwittingly imply that it would be disastrous if the worst came to pass. Seneca more wisely asks us to consider that bad thing probably will occur, but adds that they are unlikely ever to be as bad as we fear. 96

Seneca wagered that once we look rationally at what will occur if our desires are not fulfilled, we will almost certainly find that the underlying problems are more modest than the anxieties they have bred. 97

Never did I trust Fortune, even when she seemed to be offering peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me—money, public office, influence—I relegated to a place from which she could take them back without disturbing me. Between them and me, I have kept a gap, and so she has merely taken them, not torn them from me. 99

on feelings of being mocked:

It is tempting, when we are hurt, to believe that the thing which hurt us intended to do so. It is tempting to move from a sentence with clauses connected by ‘and’ to one with clauses connected by ‘in order to’; to move from thinking that ‘The pencil fell off the table and now I am annoyed’ to the view that ‘The pencil fell off the table in order to annoy me. 100

When we suspect that we are appropriate targets for hurt, it does not take much for us to believe that someone or something is out to hurt us. 102

So we must endeavor to surround our initial impressions with a fireguard and refuse to act at once on their precepts. We must ask ourselves if someone who has not answered a letter is necessarily being tardy to annoy us, and if the missing keys have necessarily been stolen:

[The wise] do not put a wrong construction upon everything. 103

We should not import into scenarios where they don’t belong pessimistic interpretations of others’ motives. 105

Of course, there would be few great human achievements if we accepted all frustrations. The motor of our ingenuity is the question, ‘Does it have to be like this?’, from which arise political reforms, scientific developments, improved relationships, better books. 106

Unfortunately, the mental faculties which search so assiduously for alternatives are hard to arrest. They continue to play out scenarios of change and progress even when there is no hope of altering reality. To generate the energy required to spur us to action, we are reminded by jolts of discomfort—anxiety, pain, outrage, offense—that reality is not as we would wish it. Yet these jolts have served no purpose if we cannot subsequently effect improvement, if we lose our peace of mind but are unable to divert rivers; which is why, for Seneca, wisdom lies in correctly discerning where we are free to mold reality according to our wishes and where we must accept the unalterable with tranquility. 107

When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow, it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity. But if the dog does not follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they don’t want to, they will be compelled to follow what is destined. 107 [Hippolytus]

It is no less unreasonable to accept something as necessary when it isn’t as to rebel against something when it is. We can as easily go astray by accepting the unnecessary and denying the possible, as by denying the necessary and wishing for the impossible. It is for reason to make the distinction. 109

We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them, and it is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that we find our distinctive freedom. 109

In the human world, we grow to believe that we may always alter our destinies, and hope and worry accordingly. It is apparent from the heedless pounding of the oceans or the flight of comets across the night sky that there are forces entirely indifferent to our desires. The indifference is not nature’s alone; humans can wield equally blind powers over their fellows, but it is nature which gives us a most elegant lesson in the necessities to which we are subject. 111

That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure. 111

 

Michel De Montaigne ~ Consolations for Inadequacy

 

Misplaced confidence in reason was the well-spring of idiocy—and, indirectly, also of inadequacy. 121

Beneath his painted beams, Montaigne had outlined a new kind of philosophy, one which acknowledged how far we were from the rational, serene creatures whom most of the ancient thinkers had taken us to be. We were for the most party hysterical and demented, gross and agitated souls beside whom animals were in many respects paragons of health and virtue—an unfortunate reality which philosophy was obliged to reflect on but rarely did:

Our life consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom: whoever writes about it merely respectfully and by rule leaves more than half of it behind.

And yet if we accepted our frailties, and ceased claiming a mastery we did not have, we stood to find—in Montaigne’s generous redemptive philosophy—that we were ultimately still adequate in our own distinctive half-wise, half-blockheadish way. 121

Montaigne’s philosophy is one of reconciliation: ‘The most uncouth of our afflictions is to despise our being.’ Rather than trying to cut ourselves in two, we should cease waging civil war on our perplexing physical envelopes and learn to accept them as unalterable facts of our condition, neither so terrible nor so humiliating. 123

Cutting a path into the private sorrows of the bedchamber, Montaigne drained them of their ignominy, attempting all the while to reconcile us to our bodily selves. His courage in mentioning what is secretly lived but rarely heard expands the range of what we can dare to express to our lovers and to ourselves—a courage founded in Montaigne’s conviction that nothing that can happen to man in inhuman, that ‘every man bears the whole Form of the human condition’, a condition which includes—we do not need to blush nor hate ourselves for it—the risk of an occasional rebellious flaccidity in the penis. 125

But this robed, Ciceronian self was not what Montaigne wished his Essays to reveal. He was concerned with the whole man, with the creation of an alternative to the portraits which had left out most of what man was. It was why his book came to include discussions of his meals, his penis, his stools, his sexual conquests and his farts—details which had seldom featured in a serious book before, so gravely did they flout man’s image of himself as a rational creature. 129

If we accord importance to the kinds of portraits which surround us, it is because we fashion our lives according to their example, accepting aspects of ourselves if they concur with what others mention of themselves. What we see evidence for in others, we will attend to within, what others are silent about, we may stay blind to or experience only in shame. 129

It is not that wisdom is impossible, rather it is the definition of wisdom that Montaigne was seeking to nuance. True wisdom must involve an accommodation with our baser selves, it must adopt a modest view about the role that intelligence and high culture can play in any life and accept the urgent and at times deeply edifying demands of our mortal frame. 130

The body cannot be denied nor overcome, but there is at least, as Montaigne wished to remind the ‘old crone’, no need to choose between our dignity and an interest in fouteau:

May we not say that there is nothing in us during this earthly prison either purely corporeal or purely spiritual and that it is injurious to tear a living man apart? 130

Another cause of a sense of inadequacy is the speed and arrogance with which people seem to divide the world into two camps, the camp of the normal and that of the abnormal. Our experiences and beliefs are liable frequently to be dismissed with a quizzical, eyebrow, amounting in a small way to a denial of our legitimacy and humanity. 131

The definition of normality proposed by any given society seems to capture only a fraction of what is in fact reasonable, unfairly condemning vast areas of experience to an alien status.  By pointing out to the man from Augsburg and his Gascon neighbors that an iron stove and an open fireplace had a legitimate place in the vast realm of acceptable heating systems, Montaigne was attempting to broaden his reader’s provincial conception of the normal—and following in the footsteps of his favorite philosopher:

When they asked Socrates where he came from, he did not say ‘From Athens’, but ‘From the world.’ 135

The Spanish had butchered the Indians with a clean conscience because they were confident that they knew what a normal human being was. Their reason told them it was someone who wore breeches, had one wife, didn’t eat spiders and slept in a bed. 140

Our country might have many virtues, but these did not depend on it being our country. A foreign land might have many faults, but these could not be identified through the mere fact that its customs were unusual. Nationality and familiarity were absurd criteria by which to decide on the good. 143

Perhaps we should remember the degree to which accusations of abnormality are regionally and historically founded. To loosen their hold on us, we need only expose ourselves to the diversity of customs across time and space. What is considered abnormal in one group at one moment may not, and will not always be deemed so. We may cross borders in our minds. 144

Every man may bear the whole form of the human condition, but it seems that no single country can tolerate the complexity of this condition. 146

Montaigne distinguished between two categories of knowledge: learning and wisdom. In the category of learning he placed, among other subjects, logic, etymology, grammar, Latin and Greek. And in the category of wisdom, he placed a far broader, more elusive and more valuable kind of knowledge, everything that could help a person live well, by which Montaigne meant, help them to live happily and morally. 153

If our souls do not move with a better motion and if we do not have a healthier judgment, then I would just as soon that a pupil spend his time playing tennis. 154

He would of course have preferred students to go to school, but schools that taught them wisdom rather than the etymology of the word and could correct the long-standing intellectual bias towards abstract questions. 154

Setting people examination on papers measuring wisdom rather than learning would probably result in an immediate realignment of the hierarchy of intelligence—and a surprising new elite. Montaigne delighted in the prospect of the incongruous people who would now be recognized a cleverer than the lauded but often unworthy traditional candidates. 156

There are, so Montaigne implied, no legitimate reasons why books in the humanities should be difficult or boring; wisdom does not require a specialized vocabulary or syntax, nor does an audience benefit from being wearied. 158

We can appreciate no graces which are not pointed, inflated and magnified by artifice. 159

Yet in Montaigne’s schema of intelligence, what matters in a book is usefulness and appropriateness to life; it is less valuable to convey with precision what Plato wrote or Epicurus meant than to judge whether what they have said is interesting and could in the early hours help us over anxiety or loneliness. The responsibility of authors in the humanities is not to quasi-scientific accuracy, but to happiness and health. 160

But rather than illuminating our experiences and goading us on to our own discoveries, great books may come to cast a problematic shadow. They may lead us to dismiss aspects of our lives of which there is no printed testimony. Far from expanding our horizons, they may unjustly come to mark their limits. 162

Such reluctance to trust our own, extra-literary, experiences might not be grievous if books could be relied upon to express all our potentialities, if they knew all our scabs. But as Montaigne recognized, the great books are silent on too many themes, so that if we allow them to define the boundaries of our curiosity, they will hold back the development of our minds. 162

There are authors too clever for our own good. Having said so much, they appear to have had the last word. Their genius inhibits the sense of irreverence vital to creative work in their successors. 162

[Montaigne] was using the criticism of more ambitious contemporary works as a symptom of a deleterious impulse to think that the truth always has to lie far from us, in another climate, in an ancient library, in the books of people who lived long ago. It is a question of whether access to genuinely valuable things is limited to a handful of geniuses born between the construction of the Parthenon and the sack of Rome, or whether, as Montaigne daringly proposed, they may be open to you and me as well. 164

Furthermore, many of the books which academic tradition encourages us to parrot are not fascinating in themselves. They are accorded a central place in the syllabus because they are the work of prestigious authors, while many equally or far more valid themes languish because no grand intellectual authority ever elucidated them. The relation of art to reality has long been considered a serious philosophical topic, in part because Plato first raised it; the relation of shyness to personal appearance has not, in part because it did not attract the attention of any ancient philosopher. 165

But interesting ideas are, Montaigne insisted, to be found in every life. However modest our stories, we can derive greater insights from ourselves than from all the books of old:

Were I a good scholar, I would find enough in my own experience to make me wise. Whoever recalls to mind his last bout of anger…sees the ugliness of this passion better than in Aristotle. Anyone who recalls the ills he has undergone, those which have threatened him and the trivial incidents which have moved him from one condition to another, makes himself thereby ready for future mutations and the exploring of his condition. Even the life of Caesar is less exemplary for us than our own; a life whether imperial or plebeian is always a life affected by everything that can happen to a man. 167

In Montaigne’s redrawn portrait of the adequate, semi-rational human being, it is possible to speak no Greek, fart, change one’s mind after a meal, get bored with books, know none of the ancient philosophers and mistake Scipios. A virtuous, ordinary life, striving for wisdom but never far from folly, is achievement enough. 168

 

Arthur Schopenhauer ~ Consolations for a Broken heart

 

Human existence must be a kind of error. 171

Like the Gascon essayist born 255 years before him, Schopenhauer was concerned with what made man—supposedly the most rational of all creatures—less than reasonable.  185

Rather than alighting on loose examples of the dethronement of reason, he gave a name to a force within us which he felt invariably had precedence over reason, a force powerful enough to distort all of reason’s plans and judgments, and which he termed the will-to-life (Wille zum Leben)—defined as an inherent drive within human beings to stay alive and reproduce. The will-to-life led even committed depressives to fight for survival when they were threatened by shipwreck or grave illness. It ensured that the most cerebral, career-minded individuals would be seduced by the sight of gurgling infants, or if they remained unmoved, that they were likely to conceive a child anyway, and love it fiercely upon arrival. And it was the will-to-life that drove people to lose their reason over comely passengers encountered across the  aisles of long-distance trains. 186

Schopenhauer might have resented the disruption of love but he refused to conceive of it as either disproportionate or accidental. It was entirely commensurate with love’s function:

Why all this noise and fuss? Why all the urgency, uproar, anguish and exertion… Why should such a trifle play so important a role…? It is no trifle that is here in question; on the contrary, the importance of the matter is perfectly in keeping with the earnestness and ardor of the effort. The ultimate aim of all love-affairs…is actually more important than all other aims in man’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it.

And what is the aim? Neither communion nor sexual release, understanding nor entertainment. The romantic dominates life because:

What is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation…the existence and special constitution of the human race in times to come. 186

The fact that the continuation of the species is seldom in our minds when we ask for a phone number is no objection to the theory. We are, suggested Schopenhauer, split into conscious and unconscious selves, the unconscious governed by the will-to-life, the conscious subservient to it and unable to learn of all its plans. Rather than a sovereign entity, the conscious mind is a partially sighted servant of a dominant, child-obsessed will-to-life:

[The intellect] does not penetrate into the secret workshop of the will’s decisions. It is, of course, a confidant of the will, yet a confidant that does not get to know everything.

The intellect understands only so much as is necessary to promote reproduction—which may mean understanding very little:

[It] remains…much excluded from the real resolutions and secret decisions of its own will.

An exclusion which explains how we may consciously feel nothing more than an intense desire to see someone again, while unconsciously being driven by the force aiming at the reproduction of the next generation. 187

By conceiving of love as biologically inevitable, key to the continuation of the species, Schopenhauer’s theory of the will invites us to adopt a more forgiving stance towards the eccentric behaviors to which love so often makes us subject. 188

Love is nothing but the conscious manifestation of the will-to-life’s discovery of an ideal co-parent. 189

The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically contrasting projects, which love maliciously confuses us into thinking of as one for a requisite number of years. 192

Love could not induce us to take on the burden of propagating the species without promising us the greatest happiness we could imagine. To be shocked at how deeply rejection hurts is to ignore what acceptance involves. We must never allow our suffering to be compounded by suggestions that there is something odd in suffering so deeply. There would be something amiss if we didn’t. 194

What is more, we are not inherently unlovable. There is nothing wrong with us per se. Our characters are not repellent, nor our faces abhorrent. The union collapsed because we were unfit to produce a balanced child with one particular person. There is no need to hate ourselves. One day we will come across someone who can find us wonderful and who will feel exceptionally natural and open with us (because our chin and their chin make a desirable combination from the will-to-life’s point of view). 194

We should in time learn to forgive our rejectors. The break-up was not their choice. In every clumsy attempt by one person to inform another that they need more space or time, that they are reluctant to commit or are afraid of intimacy, the rejector is striving to intellectualize an essentially unconscious negative verdict formulated by the will-to-life. Their reason may have had an appreciation of our qualities, their will-to-life did not and told them so in a way that brooked no argument—by draining them of sexual interest in us. 195

It is consoling when love has let us down, to hear that happiness was never part of the plan. The darkest thinkers may, paradoxically, be the most cheering:

There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy…So long as we persist in this inborn error…the world seems to us full of contradictions. For at every step, in great things and small, we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of maintaining a happy existence…hence the countenances of almost all elderly persons wear the expression of what is called disappointment. 198

The greatest works of art speak to us without knowing of us. As Schopenhauer put it:

The…poet takes from life that which is quite particular and individual, and describes it accurately in its individuality; but in this way he reveals the whole of human existence…though he appears to be concerned with the particular, he is actually concerned with that which is everywhere and at all times. From this it arises that sentences, especially of the dramatic poets, even without being general apothegms, find frequent applications in real life.

Goethe’s readers not only recognized themselves in The Sorrows of Young Werther, they also understood themselves better as a result, for Goethe had clarified a range of the awkward, evanescent moments of love, moments that his readers would previously have lived through, though would not necessarily have fathomed. He laid bare certain laws of love, what Schopenhauer termed essential ‘Ideas’ of romantic psychology. 200

There are fewer stories than there are people on earth, the plots repeated ceaselessly while the names and backdrops alter. ‘The essence of art is that its one case applies to thousands,’ knew Schopenhauer. In turn, there is consolation in realizing that our case is only one of thousands. 201

The distress of Adam and Eve at leaving paradise is not theirs alone. In the faces and postures of the two figures, Massacio has captured the essence of distress, the very Idea of distress, his fresco a universal symbol of our fallibility and fragility. We have all been expelled from the heavenly garden. 201

We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavor always to transform our tears into knowledge. 202

 

Friedrich Nietzsche ~ Consolations for Difficulties

 

Fulfillment was to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good. 210

Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment. 215

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfillment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable. 215

If most work of literature are less fine than Le Rouge et Le noir, it is—suggested Nietzsche—not because their authors lack genius, but because they have an incorrect idea of how much pain is required. This is how hard one should try to write a novel:

The recipe for becoming a good novelist…is easy to give, but to carry it out presupposes qualities one is accustomed to overlook when one says ‘I do not have enough talent.’ One has only to make a hundred or so sketches for novels, no longer than two pages but of such distinctness that every word in them is necessary; one should write down anecdotes every day until one has learnt how to give them the most pregnant and effective form; one should be tireless in collecting and describing human types and characters; one should above all relate things to others and listen to others relate, keeping one’s eyes and ears open for the effect produced on those present, one should travel like a landscape painter or costume designer…one should, finally, reflect on the motives of human actions, disdain no signpost for instruction about them and be a collector of these things by day and night. On should continue in this many-sided exercise for some ten years; what is then created in the workshop…will be fit to go out into the world. 217

The philosophy amounted to a curious mixture of extreme faith in human potential (fulfillment is open to us all, as is the writing of great novels) and extreme toughness (we may need to spend a miserable decade on the first book.) 217

Only thoughts which come from walking have any value. 223

But frightful difficulties are sadly, of course, not enough. All lives are difficult; what makes some of them fulfilled as well is the manner in which pains have been met. Every pain is an indistinct signal that something is wrong, which may engender either a good or bad result depending on the sagacity and strength of mind of the sufferer. 224

As Nietzsche’s beloved Montaigne had explained in the final chapter of the Essays, the art of living lies in finding uses for our adversities:

We must learn to suffer whatever we cannot avoid. Our life is composed, like the harmony of the world, of discords as well as of different tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If as musician liked only some of them, what could he sing? He has got to know how to use them all and blend them together. So too must we with good and ill, which are of one substance in our lives. 224

[Nietzsche] proposed that we should look at our difficulties like gardeners. At their roots, plants can be odd and unpleasant, but a person with knowledge and faith in their potential will lead them to bear beautiful flowers and fruit–just as, in life, at root level, there may be difficult emotions and situations which can nevertheless result, through careful cultivation, in the greatest achievements and joys.

One can dispose of one’s drives like a gardener and, though few know it, cultivate the shoots of anger, pity, curiosity, vanity as productively and profitably as a beautiful fruit tree on a trellis. 227

But most of us fail to recognize the debt we owe to these shoots of difficulty. We are liable to think that anxiety and envy have nothing legitimate to teach us and so remove them like emotional weeds. We believe, as Nietzsche put it, that ‘the higher is not allowed to grow out of the lower, is not allowed to have grown at all…everything first-rate must be causa sui [the cause of itself].’ Yet ‘good and honored things’ were, Nietzsche stressed, ‘artuflly related, knotted and crocheted to…wicked, apparently antithetical things.’ ‘Love and hate, gratitude and revenge, good nature and anger…belong together,’ which does not mean that they have to be expressed together, but that a positive may be the result of a negative successfully gardened. Therefore:

The emotions of hatred, envy, covetousness and lust for domination [are] life-conditioning emotions… which must fundamentally and essentially be present in the total economy of life. 228

We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them. 228

Fulfillment is reached by responding wisely to difficulties that could tear one apart. Squeamish spirits may be tempted to pull out the molar at once or come off Piz Corvatsch on the lower slopes. Nietzsche urged us to endure. 230

Anyone seeking to be happy was strongly advised never to drink anything alcoholic at all. Never:

I cannot advise all more spiritual natures too seriously to abstain from alcohol absolutely. Water suffices.

Why? Because Raphael had not drunk to escape his envy of Urbino in 1504, he had gone to Florence and learned how to be a great painter. Because Stendhal had not drunk in 1805 to escape his despair over L’Homme qui craint d’être gouverné, he had gardened the pain for seventeen years and published De L’amour in 1822:

If you refuse to let your suffering lie upon you even for an hour and if you constantly try to prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time; if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil, hateful, worthy of annihilation, and as a defect of existence, then it is clear that [you harbor in your heart]… the religion of comfortableness. How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable….people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together or, as in your case, remain small together. 233

 

All these modes of thought which assess the value of things according to pleasure and pain, that is to say according to attendant and secondary phenomena, are foreground modes of thought and naiveties which anyone conscious of creative powers and an artist’s conscience will look down on with derision.

An artist’s conscience because artistic creation offers a most explicit example of an activity which may deliver immense fullfillment but always demands immense suffering. 234

Instead of drinking beer in the lowlands, Nietzsche asked us to accept the pain of the climb. He also offered a suggestion for town-planners:

The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is–to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! 234

Both Christianity and alcohol have the power to convince us that what we previously thought deficient in ourselves and the world does not require attention; both weaken our resolve to garden our problems; both deny us the chance of fulfillment. 237

He fought hard to be happy, but where he did not succeed he did not turn against what he had once aspired to. He remained committed to what was in his eye the most important characteristic of a noble human being: to be someone who ‘no longer denies. 243

Not everything which makes us feel better is good for us. Not everything which hurts may be bad. 244

To regard states of distress in general as an objection, as something that must be abolished, is the [supreme idiocy], in a general sense a real disaster in its consequences….almost as stupid as the will to abolish bad weather. 244

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