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Month August 2012

Teachers and Design

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” – Emerson

green building, sustainable architecture, top ten green architecture projects, 2008 green building projects, top 10 sustainable design stories, inhabitat top 10 architecture projects

In a recent conversation about the use of strict standards in classrooms, someone mentioned the necessity of having clear objectives for all aspects of teaching and learning that meet identified criteria for specified learning outcomes. The idea being, if we standardize everything, we know exactly what is being taught and how, exactly what is being learned, and how we can measure it all in clear charts.

The idea with standards, when taken to their fullest and most complete state, is that the standards lead like a tributary into the Grand Plan Learning Experience that all children will have in their heads because the teacher will have taught a replicated and flawless lesson plan.

This doesn’t work. Or it works to a certain level of satisfaction, if you are lucky, and then doesn’t. Or it seems to work until in the large scheme of things we produce students lost and lonely in the world who feel the greatest sense of success if they are meeting someone else’s already produced rubric. And ideally one that can be broken down in numbers. Better to align activities with the teacher’s and learner’s interests in order to reach success.

Making the habitual foreign, trying to see the world differently, taking a flawless plan, looking at it with a different perspective and recognizing flaws—while these are certainly indispensable to a pioneer leader, they’re really just good practice in general, for everyone. Creativity isn’t a means to an end, it’s a way of life. That’s what we should be educating for, that’s what a makes a good citizen, friend, spouse, person. When we say the secret to success is failure, we don’t just mean in school. We don’t just mean, in the IDEO sense, “Fail early, fail often” or  “Prototype, prototype, prototype to create the best product.” We actually mean, when it comes to us and our students, there’s always something new to see, something new to find, something new to interpret.  The world is infinite. Visually and mentally we simplify. The more we can keep redrawing the dots with the same data points, the more we find and use hidden meaning, the happier we’ll be.

So why empower teachers to see themselves as designers of classroom experience? Why creative confidence? Why permission to fail? Well, teachers are designers, and by empowering to identify as such, we help them do what they do better.

But perhaps even more importantly, empowering teachers as designers directly effects student engagement and provides models for students to think of themselves as designers of their own learning experiences. By allowing themselves to experiment and even not present a perfect lesson plan, teachers give their students creative confidence and permission to fail as well.

Let’s imagine schools as structures of education, not just tangibly, but intangibly as well.  Within the crossbeams and floor plans of curriculum, the students, teachers and administrators are the architects of learning experiences.  They may have learning objectives, they may have the limitations of white board space, but as teachers prepare the night before and students do homework they are gearing up for an essentially human-to-human interaction built on interpersonal experience.  After teachers have designed an experience, they come into the classroom and embrace the flow of the class where it is all about the predictability and unpredictability that go hand in hand with teaching and learning.

The element of design in the phrase “architects of that learning experience” is key: part of the learning experience is both designed and experienced in real time after the planning has been carried out. The experience can be categorized as an experience of place in a constructed space. We can build the math curriculum as innovatively as we like, we can use iPads and Singapore math techniques, but when it comes to the real time experience of teaching and learning, there is an element of artistry to that experience that emits from the individuals involved. The best learning models, plans, and curriculums are the ones that are an avowal of that artistry, not a  distrust.

Emerson’s quote brings us back to the critical beginning and end point in the circular route of questions and ideas we take ourselves on as we construct new ideas or rely on old ones. Ultimately, all sources of learning, wonder, poetry, and beauty will start from the teachers and students in the classroom and end with the same two critical players in that educational experience. Ultimately, it all comes back to us as an awareness of how we are seeing the world and a realization that the way we see the world need not be fixed and in fact would be much better if it were more fluid.

As Emerson states, we can travel the world once over, but we learn nothing until we start with ourselves. Teachers can attend every professional development workshop, students can receive every new-fangled tool, but until they feel empowered to create, learn, fail, and design, they will approach all learning experiences with the same boxed-in, number-fixated anxiety that will produced boxed-in, number-fixated anxious people whose only way to feel successful is to perform rote, replicated tasks.

Jennifer Riel from the Rotman School of Business said at a workshop she led on integrative thinking at RCS: “if you think the plan is perfect, it’s flawed.” The idea that one could take an experience-based, creative process like teaching and think that there is a replicable formula that could produce the same results every time is a perfect plan flawed to the core.

There is no perfect flawless plan. We have to continually return to ourselves and the way we are seeing the world—what we assume to be true, what we assume will work and won’t—and imagine, often in the moment of learning and teaching, how we can do something differently, better, more creatively, more beautifully.

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

On the White Bird, the transcendental face of art, aesthetic emotion & being human

 

The notion that art is the mirror of nature is one that only appeals in periods of skepticism. Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply…the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer. -John Berger, The White Bird

Last week, I wrote about the role that street art plays in my life, and how it affects my experience of self, others and the world in which I operate. I made a passing observation on the differences between ‘institutionalized’/’gallery’ Art and ‘street art’, making the point that both ‘types’ of art are inextricably tied together in a symbiotic relationship. In The White BirdJohn Berger gives us a poignant description of art as being, fundamentally, a response and expression of human existence and experience. According to Berger, art “imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply…the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.” As such, the meaning and function of art and aesthetic emotions transcend the contexts in which they are embedded. It is not so much the medium as the reaction and impact of something (object, scene, etc.) on the human experience that express the potential, power and nature of art and aesthetic emotions.

Berger starts off by describing the white wooden birds crafted by the peasants of Haute Savoie, but found across various other European countries. He seeks to describe aesthetic emotions by identifying and describing the five qualities of the wooden birds that, “when undifferentiated and perceived as a whole, provoke at least a momentary sense of being before a mystery.” (These are: figurative representation; symbolic representation; respect of the material used; formal unity & economy; provokes a kind of astonishment.)

While the man-made white bird provides an aesthetic emotion to its beholder, Berger point out that we experience a similar sense of mystery and emotion when viewing objects and scenes made and embedded in nature: sunsets, deserts, the moon, trees, etc. We must therefore broaden our exploration of the definition and investigation of art past man-made objects to account for the aesthetic emotions and transcendent face of art found across human experiences, man-made or otherwise. Ultimately, Berger defines art as the human hope that beauty, connection, empathy and other authentic human needs and emotions are more than rare and ephemeral occasions in a world that is often perceived as being largely indifferent and dangerous.

In essence then, art and the aesthetic and transcendental emotions and qualities it engenders, are best understood as a primal human response to our condition and “the nature into which we are born,” which is governed by the fearsome indifference of nature and the evils at work in the world. Art is a statement of hope and an attempt to fix the instantaneous, undifferentiated flux of existence that we (humans) sense but which remains locked away beyond the confines of our perception mechanisms and cognition.

If art is a response and an expression of human experience and existence, designing one’s life should be understood as being, to a certain extent, an aesthetic endeavor. I want to keep that in mind, the aesthetic factor and the power of aesthetic emotions, as I meticulously design a life around core concepts and values over the course of the rethinked*annex project. But intent is irrelevant to the impact of art and aesthetic emotions. Naturally occurring objects or scenes can have the same impact on the human psyche as planned, man-made ‘masterpieces’. It becomes clear then, that the act of living–which can be broadly understood as a response to the nature into which we are born– whether with obsessive intent or in the spur of the moment with no premeditation or afterthought, is inextricably tied to aesthetics. Art is thus an inherent and important part of all lives.

The White Bird is a splendid short read that gives a glimpse into Berger’s thoughts on nature (physical & human), craftsmanship, the human need for shelter and resistance to the forces of evil and indifference that push &pull our existence; the potential and purpose of aesthetic and transcendental emotions, the nature and function of art and the quality of being human. Berger’s writing is as beautiful as it is salient and I hope you will read the essay for yourself. But in case you don’t have time to get to it just yet, here are some favorite quotes from The White Bird:

Source: Berger, John. The White Bird. London: Chatto & Windus, 1985. From Sense Of Sight

The problem is that you can’t talk about aesthetics without talking about the principle of hope and the existence of evil.

Despite the object’s apparent complexity, the grammar of its making is simple, even austere. Its richness is the result of repetitions which are also variations.

Yet my definitions beg the essential question. They reduce aesthetics to art. They say nothing about the relation between art and nature, art and the world.

Before a mountain, a desert just after the sun has gone down, or a fruit tree, one can also experience aesthetic emotion. Consequently we are forced to begin again–not this time with a man-made object but with the nature into which we are born.

Urban living has always tended to produce a sentimental view of nature. Nature is thought of as a garden, or a view framed by a window, or as an arena of freedom. Peasants, sailors, nomads have known better. Nature is energy and struggle. It is what exists without any promise. If it can be thought of by man as an arena, a setting, it has to be thought of as one which lends itself as much to evil as to good. Its energy is fearsomely indifferent. The first necessity of life is shelter. Shelter against nature. The first prayer is for protection. The first sign of life is pain. If the Creation was purposeful, its purpose is a hidden one which can only be discovered intangibly within signs, never by the evidence of what happens.

The evolution of natural forms and the evolution of human perception have coincided to produce the phenomenon of a potential recognition: what is and what we can see (and by seeing also feel) sometimes meet at a point of affirmation. This point, this coincidence, is two-faced: what has been seen is recognized and affirmed and, at the same time, the seer is affirmed by what he sees. For a brief moment one finds oneself–without the pretensions of a creator–in the position of God in the first chapter of Genesis… And he saw that it was good. The aesthetic emotion before nature derives, I believe, from this double affirmation.

Yet we do not live in the first chapter of Genesis. We live–if one follows the biblical sequence of events–after the Fall. In any case, we live in a world of suffering in which evil is rampant, a world whose events do not confirm our Being, a world that has to be resisted. It is in this situation that the aesthetic moment offers hope

I try to describe as accurately as possible the experience in question; my starting point is phenomenological, not deductive; its form, perceived as such, becomes a message that one receives but cannot translate because, in it, all is instantaneous. For an instant, the energy of one’s perception becomes inseparable from the energy of the creation.

The white bird is an attempt to translate a message received from a real bird. All the languages of art have been developed as an attempt to transform the instantaneous into the permanent. Art supposes that beauty is not an exception–is not in despite of–but is the basis for an order.

The notion that art is the mirror of nature is one that only appeals in periods of skepticism. Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply…the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.

@rethinkedteam is back up!

Aaaand we’re back! Received an email from Twitter a couple hours ago telling us our account had been falsely picked up by a spam cloud and has been restored. Not gonna lie, getting our Twitter account back felt somewhat like reuniting with a beloved pet after a long vacation.

We’re still sharing our makeshift twitter stream (a little out of protest for being silenced for 4 days but mostly because we love the idea). As you’ll see by the links below, our journey through cyberspace took us through dense design thinking territory before veering off to cats and drag queens.

Design Thinking to Help Reverse a Difficult Deformity Find out how a team of d.school students have channeled Design Thinking to rethink and redesign braces for Clubfoot children in the developing world. via SmartPlanet 2012

To Design is to Understand Uncertainty James Self explores uncertainty and what contributions it can make to design activity and design thinking. via Core77, August 2012

Eddie Opara on Design Thinking via Design Thinking Foundations. 2012

Jon Kolko On Design Thinking via Design Thinking Foundations, 2012

Jon Kolko on Design Thinking vs. Design Doing via Design Thinking Foundations, 2012

Redesigning Cape Town ~ An interview with Richard Perez, the industrial design engineer responsible for nurturing and using design thinking in Cape Town, which has officially accepted the title of World Design Capital 2014.

Photographer Captures the Two Faces of Drag queens via Design Taxi August 2, 2012. Check out Leland Bobbé‘s portrait photographs of drag queens in half drag in his series ‘I mezzi drag di’ for Vogue Italy. Bobbé’s work seeks to explore the concept of contemporary queer and sexuality.

A Sofa with a Built-In Tunnel for Cats ~ via Design Taxi, 2012 *…self explanatory…*

Miss our Twitter Handle? So Do We…

 

You may have noticed that our twitter handle @rethinkEDteam has been down since this past Friday. Twitter has suspended our account, although after reviewing all of their rules and regulations we can’t seem to figure out why; looks like it just got accidentally picked up in a spam cloud. We’ve emailed Twitter and raised a support ticket several times, but so far to no avail…

Because were obsessive when it comes to the sharing of good ideas and because curating rocks our socks, we’ll be posting, here on the blog, 5-10 links to the most gloriously interesting things we come across each day as a sort of makeshift Twitter until we get ours back.

Until this gets sorted out, you can always connect with us via Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or email: elsa@rethinked.org.

We would love to hear your experiences with suspended Twitter accounts, if you’ve had any, and how you went about resolving the issue quickly.

Finally, Twitter, if you’re listening….your customer service system is archaic. Get it rethinked…*

on hidden love notes

 

The last time I went to a gallery was three or four months ago when I tried to see Rammellzze’s The Letter Racers at the Susanne Geiss gallery. I say tried, because I never made it to the show. I arrived at the gallery to find the door closed. I rang the doorbell and a very sleek, slightly pissed-off girl answered. She told me they were closed for the next two hours, and when I come back to use the other door. I don’t like to wait and by then I was feeling a strange mix of intimidation and irritation. But this was Rammellzee so I decided I would stick it out, and come back in two hours. The gallery is on Grand Street, prime street art neighborhood, so I started walking around, scanning the streets as I went; getting in my ‘graffiti journey’ mode: entering a portal of love, despair, needs, dreams and obsessions that scream so loudly for attention that I make abstraction of all other things tangible: the people around me, the noises, the chaos, time, myself. When I came out of my “graffiti trance”, four and a half hours had passed and the gallery had closed. I was disappointed not to have seen the Letter Racers but I would not have changed anything about that afternoon, where I discovered myriad touching and provoking street art.

I am not trying to raise the debate over the merits of institutionalized, ‘elitist’ art versus popular, gritty, street art. I find the dispute futile, and believe both models have their place; anyway, one could not exist without the other (but this is a complex conversation for another post). An article today on how the city of Säo Paulo is lifting its five year ban on billboard advertising as long as the advertising is in the form of  “graffiti”, made me ponder the state of  co-optation of graffiti and street art as a guerilla marketing technique. But when my cat lost interest and walked away, I changed gears and started reminiscing about what street art means to me and how integral it is and has been to my education, or formation, as a rethinker.

I don’t remember when it started, maybe five or six years ago, this impulse to seek out graffiti. It had been going on for a while when it became something more than a passing hobby, evolving into a full blown mode of life. Walking around, looking at all the ‘notes’–the images, texts and other forms of imprints-from other people, who share my city and my condition of being human, has become something of an addiction for me, it’s become a necessary part of my well-being, making me feel deeply grounded in my own skin and connected to the rest of humanity. There is something about the use of the street as a medium that always communicates, to me, anyway, the “mammalian” nature (was absorbed with Christopher Hitchens’ quotes yesterday…so some of his terms and obsessions are going to come through…) of the artist behind the piece. I always think of the individual–that cauldron of dreams, needs, imagination, love, desires, obsessions, anxiety, drives and emotion, all wrapped up in our porous, puncturable and decaying skins—that cared enough to make the piece. In that sense, street art, in whatever form it takes, is a way to make “others” “people” and “humanity’ immediately accessible and tangible.

It is always a deeply empathetic experience, to seek out and find love notes to humanity left by complete stranger. It was the day that my grandmother passed away that ‘graffiti journeys’ really entered my life. I got the call early in the morning. It felt like someone had violently ripped out whatever center I had. I didnt know what I was feeling or how to deal with it, so I just left my apartment and started walking. I scanned the streets, furiously searching for every bit of paint, ink, chalk, or paper ‘calling’ to be seen, as I walked. And so I spent the entire day following one ‘love note’ after another, feeling the joy and despair of the people that had left them, making abstraction of everything within myself to exist in the immediate moment–within the organic, dirty, smelly and infinitely beautiful palimspest of humanity that is NYC. It made me feel better.

I have always been deeply moved by various forms and expressions of art, but static images (discounting photography) have only made me cry twice. Once, in the Louvre, in front of a Fragonard painting, and once on the streets of New York, in front of this anonymous tag:

I have noticed a strange paradox about New Yorkers and the vibes of the streets here. We’re often described as unfriendly, hurried, blazé, dirty and frenetic, which we are. But there is also a special atmosphere of respect for the whimsical, the authentic, and the sacred, however one chooses to define that. When I had cried in the Louvre, it had been in a moment of strong and overwhelming emotion that was quickly tempered by the stares of other tourists. But here, on Prince and Bowery, as I experienced a similar moment of being deeply touched, there were no stares. The city, with its unquenchable energy, pace and life, went on, just as it always does. It was comforting.

The term Street Art today is as broad as “Art”, which, I suppose, means gallery, or rather, institutionalized art. Street art goes far beyond the graffiti tags and throw-ups to which the term owes its roots—from urban hactivist like Florian Rivière, yarn-bomber, Agata Olek, reversed graffiti or “grime” artist  Paul Curtis (aka Moose),  Iranian stencil artists Icy & Scot, street art installation and photography artist Slinkachu, JR’s Inside Out project to Blu‘s wall-painted animations (Muto & BIG BANG BIG BOOM)—street art is everywhere, taking all sorts of existing and new forms, and more often than not, driven by the desire to jolt individuals and communities out of their routines and acceptance of the status quo to collectively rethink our human experiences.

Would love to hear about your experiences of street art/favorite artists and obsessions!

On Letters to A Young Contrarian

So I have no peroration or clarion note on which to close. Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the “transcendent” and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you. -Christopher Hitchens

 

Last December, when I read in the news that Christopher Hitchens had died, I just sat in front of my computer and cried. I dug out my copy of Letters to a Young Contrarian, the first of Hitchens’ books that I had ever read, devoured it in one sitting and carried it around with me everywhere I went for the next two weeks. I was touched with a deep and immediate sense of loss that might seem excessive given that I had never even met the man. But I felt I knew Christopher Hitchens—his voice and very unique, poignant and authentic way of seeing the world—made me feel he had always been a part of my life. Not only did I know him but I have engaged with his ideas deeply and often in the six years since I have ‘discovered’ him.

I don’t know how much I actually understood the first time I read it, at eighteen years old, but something about Hitchens’ voice compelled me to go back and revisit Letters To A Young Contrarian periodically throughout the years. Each time I discovered new layers of meaning and complex creative connections of ideas. I remember this one passage in which he speaks of transcendence, and urges his readers to be wary of it and of the people that exalt it. At eighteen, I believed transcendence a worthy pursuit and could not understand Hitchens’ warning. It is around that time that my obsession with reality, perception and meaning began. I was just then becoming aware of the limits of my own perspective, truly realizing, for the first time, the full scope of what it means to experience reality as a human being, trapped and embedded in our need for meaning; destined to live in structures that we forget we have built ourselves and which are founded upon limiting assumptions and, too often, imaginary binaries. I had revolutionary ideas about breaking free from the system back then, of shattering the boundaries of cognition and getting at, discovering, The Real—whatever that might be. It took me a long time to understand what Hitchens meant, and I think that the process of working through his ideas was, ultimately, equally as valuable as understanding them. In the case of transcendence, my own ideas became more aligned with Hitchens’  over time but there are other instances where, having worked through his logic, I maintained my own opinion and rejected his. In either case, engaging with his thinking process and ideas has always made me engage more deeply with my own.

The Letters had been a gift from my father, which he had given to me shortly before I left for Tanzania on a gap year between high school and college. I was going to Tanzania, for five months, to work in an orphanage, but to be honest, the motives of my trip were not “humanitarian” or altruistic. I had been to Dar es Salaam my senior year of high school and had fallen in love with the energy, light and pace of the city. I would be lying however, if I did not own up to some warm, glowy and completely foolish feelings of being a good person for taking care of other people’s babies. I think it’s fair to say that Christopher Hitchens’ well dispensed advice in Letters to A Young Contrarian, saved me from being the a**hole, or at least made me less so, that my age and situation predisposed me to be. This is not so say that there is something horrifyingly self-righteous and misguided about most people’s attempts to help others. Quite the contrary; but good intentions, left unattended and unexamined, can turn lethal. And that, in my opinion, is one of the most salient aspects of Hitchens’ work: his unfailing commitment to show how solutions can turn into problems when not designed and implemented with the well-being of the end users in mind and their direct collaboration along every step of the project.

Hitchens, in the short time I have ‘known’ him has been a mentor and has pushed me to think more deeply about the sort or life I want to lead and the impact and consequences of my choices and actions, whether moral, intellectual, emotional or physical. So naturally, as I embark on a yearlong project to lead a hyper-examined and carefully designed life based on living out abstract concepts from books, it is to Hitchens, in his Letters to a Young Contrarian, that I turn once again. It is a magical moment, the rereading of old books and the rediscovery of old marginalia, scribbled in handwritings that change over the years, next to passages of text highlighted in different colors. Following is a list of quotes from the Letters that I want to keep in mind as I carry out the rethinked*annex project.

Source: Hitchens, Christopher. Letters to a Young Contrarian. Cambridge: Basic Books, 2001. Print.

 

*…on design thinking…*

The essential element of historical materialism as applied to ethical and social matters was (and actually still is) this: it demonstrated how much unhappiness and injustice and irrationality was man-made. Once the fog of supposedly god-given conditions had been dispelled, the decision to tolerate such conditions was exactly that—a decision. “The West,” at least, has happily never recovered from this discovery; you would be astounded if you looked up the books and commentaries of only a century ago and saw what was taken for granted before the Marxist irruption. Fatalism and piety were the least of it; this was cynicism allied to utilitarianism. 99

Anyway, what you swiftly realize if you peek over the wall of your own immediate neighborhood or environment, and travel beyond it, is, first that we have a huge surplus of people who wouldn’t change anything about the way they were born, or the group they were born into, but second that “humanity” (and the idea of change) is best represented by those who have the wit not to think, or should I say feel, in this way. 113

 

*…on integrative thinking…*

[…] don’t allow your thinking to be done for you by any party or faction, however high-minded. Distrust any speaker who talks confidently about “we,” or speaks in the name of “us.” Distrust yourself if you hear these tones creeping into your own style. The search for security and majority is not always the same as solidarity; it can be another name for consensus and tyranny and tribalism. Never forget that, even if there are “’masses to be invoked, or “the people” to be praised, they and it must by definition be composed of individuals. 99

Thus in order to be a “radical” one must be open to the possibility that one’s own core assumptions are misconceived. 102

P.S. A note on language. Be even more suspicious than I was just telling you to be, of all those who employ the term “we” or “us” without your permission. This is another form of surreptitious conscription, designed to suggest that “we” are all agreed on “our” interests and identity. Populist authoritarians try to slip it past you; so do some kinds of literary critics (“our sensibilities are engaged…”) Always ask who this “we” is; as often as not it’s an attempt to smuggle tribalism through the customs. 103

There’s a small paradox here; the job of supposed intellectuals is to combat oversimplification or reductionism and to say, well, actually, it’s more complicated than that. At least, that’s part of the job. However, you must have noticed how often certain “complexities” are introduced as a means of obfuscation. Here it becomes necessary to ply with glee the celebrated razor of old Occam, dispose of unnecessary assumptions, and proclaim that, actually, things are less complicated than they appear. Very often in my experience, the extraneous or irrelevant complexities are inserted when a matter of elementary justice of principle is at issue. 47

 

 *…on living an examined life…*

[…] everybody can do something, and that the role of dissident is not, and should not be, a claim of membership in a communion of saints. In other words, the more fallible the mammal, the truer the example. 94

Try your hardest to combat atrophy and routine. To question The Obvious and the given is an essential element of the maxim de omnius dubitandum. 52

How to ward off atrophy and routine, you ask? Well, I can give you a small and perhaps ridiculous example. Every day, the New York Times carries a motto in a box on its front page. “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” it says. It’s been saying it for decades, day in and day out. I imagine that most readers have long ceased to notice this bannered and flaunted symbol of its mental furniture. I myself check it every day to make sure that the bright, smug, pompous, idiotic claim is still there. Then I check to make sure that it still irritates me. If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know that I still have a pulse. You may wish to choose a more rigorous mental workout but I credit this daily infusion of annoyance with extending my life span. 53

[…] very often the hardest thing to see is what is right in front of your nose. And there is, not infrequently, a considerable social pressure not to take note of the obvious. 50

One is sometimes asked “by what right?” one presumes to offer judgment. Quo warranto? is a very old and very justified question. But the right and warrant of an individual critic does not need to be demonstrated in the same was as that of a holder of power. It is in most ways its own justification. That is why so many irritating dissidents have been described by their enemies as “self-appointed.” (Once again, you see, the surreptitious suggestion of elitism and arrogance.) “Self-appointed” suits me fine. Nobody asked me to do this and it would not be the same thing I do if they had asked me. I can’t be fired any more than I can be promoted. I am happy in the ranks of the self-employed. If I am stupid or on poor form, nobody suffers but me. To the question, Who do you think you are? I can return the calm response: Who wants to know? 81

I want to urge you very strongly to travel as much as you can, and to evolve yourself as an internationalist. It’s as important a part of your education as a radical as the reading of any book. 105

The high ambition, therefore, seems to me to be this: That one should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism. This would mean really deciding to learn from history rather than invoking or sloganising it. 138

So I have no peroration or clarion note on which to close. Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the “transcendent” and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you. 140

Have a lived life instead of a career. Put yourself in the safekeeping of good taste. Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses…If you don’t like the style of others, cultivate your own. Get to know the tricks of reproduction, be a self-publisher even in conversation, and then the joy of working can fill your days.” [George Konrad] May it be so with you, and may you keep your powder dry for the battles ahead, and know when and how to recognize them. 141

Remember that saying nothing is also a decision, and that the relativists and the “nonjudgmental” have made up their minds just as much, if not as firmly. This is simply another way of reminding you that, if you decide to pass judgments and make criticisms and take forward positions, you both can and should expect a few hearings to convene on yourself. A welcome prospect, I trust. It certainly helps prevent the art and science of disputation from dying out amongst us. 83

[…] the figure of Emile Zola offers encouragement, and his singular campaign for justice is one of the imperishable examples of what may be accomplished by an individual. 4

There’s an old argument about whether full bellies or empty bellies lead to contentment or revolt: it’s an argument not worth having. The crucial organ is the mind, not the gut. People assert themselves out of an unquenchable sense of dignity. 112

The great reward, if that’s the right word, lies in the people you will meet when engaged in the same work, the lessons you will learn, and the confidence you will acquire from having some experiences and convictions of your own–to set against the received or third hand opinions of so many others. 126

 

*…on empathy…*

Ruthless and arrogant though power can appear, it is only ever held by mere mammals who excrete and yearn, and who suffer from insomnia and insecurity. These mammals are also necessarily vain in the extreme, and often wish to be liked almost as much as they desire to be feared. 87

I like the fact that he had feet of clay and a digestive tract and reproductive organs: all human achievement must also be accomplished by mammals and this realization (interestingly negated by sexless plaster saints and representations of angels) puts us on a useful spot. It strongly suggests that anyone could do what the heroes have done. Our current culture, with its stupid emphasis on the “role model,” offers as examples the lives of superstars and princesses and other pseudo-ethereal beings whose lives—fortunate, I think—cannot by definition be emulated. 92

In one way, travelling has narrowed my mind. What I have discovered is something very ordinary and unexciting, which is that humans are the same everywhere and that the degree of variation between members of our species is very slight. This is of course an encouraging finding; it helps arm you against news programs back home that show seething or abject masses of either fanatical or torpid people. In another way it is a depressing finding; the sort of things that make people quarrel and make them stupid are the same everywhere. The two worst things, as one can work out without leaving home, are racism and religion. 107

We still inhabit the prehistory of our race, and have not caught up with the immense discoveries about our own nature and about the nature of the universe. The unspooling of the skein of the genome has effectively abolished racism and creationism, and the amazing findings of Hubble and Hawking have allowed us to guess at the origins of the cosmos. But how much more addictive is the familiar old garbage about tribe and nation and faith. 108

In some ways I feel sorry for racists and religious fanatics, because they so much miss the point of being human, and deserve a sort of pity. But then I harden my heart, and decide to hate them all the more, because of the misery they inflict and because of the contemptible excuses they advance for doing so. It especially annoys me when racists are accused of “discrimination.” The ability to discriminate is a precious faculty; by judging all members of one “race” to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination. 109

I don’t seem to have said enough about the compensating or positive element of exposure to travel. Just as you discover that stupidity and cruelty are the same everywhere, you find that the essential elements of humanism are the same everywhere, too. 111

The next phase or epoch is already discernible; it is the fight to extend the concept of universal human rights, and to match the “globalization” of production by the globalization of a common standard for justice and ethics. That may sound mild to the point of the herbivorous: I can assure you it will not be in the least a moderate undertaking. It will provide more than enough scope for the most ambitious radical. 136

Radicalism is humanism or it is nothing; the proper study of mankind is man and the ability to laugh is the one of the faculties that defines the human and distinguishes the species from other animals. (With the other higher mammals, which I do not in the least wish to insult, there may be high levels of playfulness and even some practical jokes, but no irony.) An individual deficient in the sense of humor represents more of a challenge to our idea of the human than a person of subnormal intelligence; we fear the psychopathic and the reptilian when we meet characters like Anthony Powell’s Widmerpool. 115

One way of phrasing it might be to say that injustice and irrationality are inevitable parts of the human condition, but that challenges to them are inevitable also. 27

 

*…on being a free thinker…*

Always look to the language. 25

The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but how it thinks. 3

To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do. 12

We know as a law of physics that heat is the chief, if not the only, source of light. Reducing the sun to room temperature would decrease light to nothing at all, as well as generating a definite chill. The truth cannot lie, but if it could, it would lie somewhere in between. On some grave questions, there is no difference to be split; one does not look for synthesis between verity and falsehood: the sun does not rise in the east one day and in the west the next. As for the chiaroscuro, or the light and shade, the platitude is at least a little more artistic. (Watching a Civil War reenactment at Gettysburg a few years ago, I wrote in my notebook that those who wore the Gray had been conditioned to think in terms of black and white.) Neither black nor white are true colors, but then neither is grey. 20-21

[…] our greatest resource is the mind and the mind is not well-trained by being taught to assume what has to be proved. 56

One must have the nerve to assert that, while people are entitled to their illusions, they are not entitled to a limitless enjoyment of them and they are not entitled to impose them upon others. 82

The question you ask—what to read and whom to study—is one that I receive quite often. It ought to be an easy inquiry to answer. But it isn’t, and this is for a series of reasons. The first and most obvious is that you should not look for arguments from authority. You must have noticed that I make liberal use of extracts and quotations, not just to show off my reading but also to lighten my text and make use of those who can express my thoughts better than I am able to. So I am not immune from the weakness against which I am counseling you. I do have some sources of inspiration to which I recur, but it would not always be clear why they have come to mean what they do to me. 85

If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then, you had better be well-equipped with points of argument and combativity, because if you are not then the “center” will be occupied and defined without your having helped to decide it, or determine what and were it is. 21

Alain, in Martin du Gard’s Lieutenant Colonel Maumort says the first rule—he calls it the rule of rules—is the art of challenging what is appealing. You will notice that he describes this as an “art”: it is not enough simply to set oneself up as a person who distrusts majority taste as a matter or principle or perhaps conceit; that way lies snobbery and frigidity. However, it will very often be found that people are highly attached to illusions or prejudices, and are not just the sullen victims of dogma or orthodoxy. If you have ever argued with a religious devotee, for example, you will have noticed that his self-esteem and pride are involved in the dispute, and that you are asking him to give up something more than a point in argument. The same is true of visceral patriots, and admirers of monarchy and aristocracy. Allegiance is a powerful force in human affairs; it will not do to treat someone as a mental serf if he is convinced that his thralldom is honorable and voluntary. 28

It is very seldom, as he noticed, that in debate any one of two evenly matched antagonists will succeed in actually convincing or “converting” the other. But it is equally seldom that in a properly conducted argument either antagonist will end up holding exactly the same position as that with which he began. Concessions, refinements and adjustments will occur, and each initial position will have undergone modification even if it remains ostensibly the “same.” Not even the most apparently glacial “system” is immune to this rule. 29

Beware of identity politics. I’ll rephrase that: have nothing to do with identity politics. I remember very well the first time I heard the saying “The Personal Is Political.” It began as a sort of reaction to the defeats and downturns that followed 1968: a consolation prize, as you might say, for people who had missed that year. I knew in my bones that a truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse. Nor was I wrong. People began to stand up at meetings and orate about how they felt, not about what or how they thought, and how who they were rather than what (if anything) they had done or stood for. It became the replication in even less interesting form of the narcissism of small difference, because each identity group begat its subgroups and “specificities.” 112

 

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