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What Is the Meaning of Sacred Texts?

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Truthfully, the way Karen Armstrong explains it, sacred texts seem more or less a variety of tarot cards, rich in suggestions, open to interpretation, to be read in the light of the current situation and context, with many possible meanings. And perhaps that is indeed the proper approach, akin to the way one approaches serious music: not for specific detailed meaning but for an experience and an openness of understanding.

Nicholas Kristof writes in the NY Times:

THE LOST ART OF SCRIPTURE
Rescuing the Sacred Texts
By Karen Armstrong

In the Bible, St. Paul declares: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Scholars suspect that this was actually written by some grump other than St. Paul, but such sexist passages are sometimes used by conservative Christians to justify the subjugation of women — and by secular liberals to portray the Bible as outdated and misogynistic.

Or take militant passages from the Quran like this one: “Kill them wherever you encounter them.” Early Muslims considered this obsolete because it applied narrowly to enemies in a particular conflict; more recently, Muslim extremists have interpreted such passages to justify murder, while Islamophobes cite them to excuse religious bigotry.

Similar points can be made of many Scriptures from around the world. Both secular liberals and fundamentalists see Scripture as words to be taken literally, the former to ridicule and the latter to embrace. Karen Armstrong wades into these debates and says that both sides are wrong.

“Too many believers and nonbelievers alike now read these sacred texts in a doggedly literal manner that is quite different from the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality,” Armstrong writes. “Because its creation myths do not concur with recent scientific discoveries, militant atheists have condemned the Bible as a pack of lies, while Christian fundamentalists have developed a ‘Creation science’ claiming that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound….Not surprisingly, all this has given Scripture a bad name.”

A British writer and former nun, Armstrong argues in her magisterial new book, “The Lost Art of Scripture,” that Scripture shouldn’t be interpreted literally or rigidly from a pulpit or in a library. She argues that Scripture is flexible, evolving, contextual and more like performance art than a book.

“Our English word ‘Scripture’ implies a written text, but most Scriptures began as texts that were composed and transmitted orally,” she writes. “Indeed, in some traditions, the sound of the inspired words would always be more important than their semantic meaning. Scripture was usually sung, chanted or declaimed in a way that separated it from mundane speech, so that words — a product of the brain’s left hemisphere — were fused with the more indefinable emotions of the right.”

With the rise of literacy and science, Scriptures were printed and scrutinized, then examined as if they were historical documents. Believers and skeptics alike came to read Scripture as if they were poring over Thucydides or Plutarch.

I’ve adopted that approach myself. Among the Gospels, I’ve put the most weight on the Gospel of Mark, because it was the first written, and have skeptically pestered pastors about why Mark doesn’t mention the Virgin Birth or describe the Resurrection. Strange things to leave out. I’ve also been puzzled that the Bible can have multiple versions of the Ten Commandments, or provide conflicting accounts of how Judas died or on which night the Last Supper occurred.

Armstrong argues that this approach misunderstands how Scripture works. It’s like complaining about Shakespeare bending history, or protesting that a great song isn’t factual. That resonates. Anyone who has been to a Catholic Mass or a Pentecostal service, or experienced the recitation of the Quran or a Tibetan Buddhist chant, knows that they couldn’t fully be captured by a transcript any more than a song can be by its lyrics. I still don’t understand Don McLean’s classic song “American Pie,” but it moves me every time I hear it. Music doesn’t need to be factually accurate to be true.

“Because it does not conform to modern scientific and historical norms, many people dismiss Scripture as incredible and patently ‘untrue,’ but they do not apply the same criteria to a novel, which yields profound and valuable insights by means of fiction,” Armstrong writes. “A work of art, be it a novel, a poem or a Scripture, must be read according to the laws of its genre.”

Partly because Scriptures are revered, they are often regarded today as fossilized, the last word for all eternity. But historically, they were regularly repurposed to provide comfort or insight for new challenges. During the Babylonian Exile, the “editors” of the Hebrew Bible dramatically shaped previous Scripture to make sense of their own turmoil. Abraham, who Armstrong says was originally a southern Israeli hero with only a minor role in northern lore, assumed far greater importance because his story resonated: He had been commanded by God to leave his home, suffered exile and was richly rewarded in turn. The exiles also appear to have added details on the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, which paralleled their own trauma in Babylon.

Some Muslims applauded a similar process of seeking new meaning from old Scripture. “The Quran is perpetually new,” argued Muid ad-Din Ibn al-Arabi, who died in 1240. He went so far as to add that anyone who recited a verse in the same way twice had not understood it correctly.

The subtitle of this book is “Rescuing the Sacred Texts,” and Armstrong’s effort reminds me of Kant trying to save religion by arguing that God is beyond reason and therefore cannot be rationally proved. Not all believers welcomed Kant’s intervention; likewise, traditionalists will resent Armstrong’s “rescue.”

Armstrong has won respect for her scholarly and thoughtful treatment of faith in books such as “A History of God,” “The Case for God” and “Fields of Blood.” Her latest work builds on these, partly by exploring common threads across different religious traditions, and it’s an encyclopedic undertaking. Armstrong guides us not only through the history of Judeo-Christian and Islamic Scripture, but also through Hindu and Sikh texts and Buddhist and Chinese philosophies. She uses “Scripture” loosely, encompassing ancient Greek plays as well as Confucian and Taoist texts that are more about how to live a good life than about God in a Western sense. That’s partly because Armstrong perceives the God of Scripture not as a white-bearded old man on a cloud but as an ineffable, indescribable, unknowable transcendence. We encounter the transcendent, she says, in music, poetry, sex, love, nature — and religion. In effect, Armstrong has written a highly rational tribute to the murky wingman of our lives that exists beyond what is material and rational.

A common feature of Scripture, as she sees it, is . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 November 2019 at 8:18 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Religion

What John Rawls Missed

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Jedediah Briton-Purdy, who teaches at Columbia Law School, writes in the New Republic:

John Rawls, who died in 2002, was the most influential American philosopher of the twentieth century. His great work, A Theory of Justice, appeared in 1971 and defined the field of political philosophy for generations. It set out standards for a just society in the form of two principles. First, a just society would protect the strongest set of civil liberties and personal rights compatible with everyone else having the same rights. Second, it would tolerate economic inequalities only if they improved the situation of the poorest and most marginalized (for example, by paying doctors well to encourage people to enter a socially necessary profession).

Taken seriously, Rawls’s principles would require a radical transformation: no hedge funds unless allowing them to operate will benefit the homeless? No Silicon Valley IPOs unless they make life better for farmworkers in the Central Valley? A just society would be very different from anything the United States has ever been. Rawls argued that justice would be compatible with either democratic socialism or a “property-owning democracy” of roughly equal smallholders. One thing was clear: America could not remain as it was, on pain of injustice.

It did not remain as it was, but Rawls’s vision did not triumph either. A Theory of Justice was published in 1971, just before economic inequality began its long ascent from its lowest level in history to today’s Second Gilded Age. Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” was reorganizing American politics around resistance to equal rights. Within a decade, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would lead the English-speaking world sharply away from anything resembling Rawls’s egalitarianism. Yet his philosophical stature only increased. Even his critics—the libertarian Robert Nozick, the feminist Susan Moller Okin, the communitarian Michael Sandel—ended up confirming the central and inescapable place of his thought. By the end of his life, philosophical thinking about equality, war, political authority, dissent and obedience, and global order took place on a terrain that Rawls towered over—in the shadow of justice.

That shadow provides the title of Katrina Forrester’s extraordinary study of Rawls’s thought and its legacy. Over the last 50 years, she argues, Rawls’s centrality has shaped the very idea of what philosophy is. Working in his aftermath, political philosophers have tended to emphasize ideals of consensus-seeking deliberation, legalistic formulations of political problems, and the dilemmas of individual choice in terrible situations such as war. Certain other questions have been quietly kept out: notably, the central place of conflict and collective action in politics, the tendency of capitalist democracy to fall into plutocracy, and the deep role of racism and colonialism in shaping American society and world order.

Yet as Forrester’s book demonstrates, Rawls’s approach to philosophizing about politics was never the only one, however much his influence has made it seem so. Instead, his theory of justice emerged from his distinctive experience of the exceptional decades after World War II. By tracing those historical circumstances—the political and economic assumptions of the postwar years, as well as the ways philosophy was done then—Forrester shows how Rawls’s thinking, with its strengths and blind spots, came to seem natural. Her aim is to open space for problems that Rawls neglected. What would it mean to pursue a just society while grappling with how deeply unjust and divided ours is, with how it got and stays that way?


Although Rawls’s principles of justice were in many ways radical, they were not novel. He is often thought of as the philosopher of 1960s Great Society reformism, because his principles seemed to elaborate on the goals of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty. What was new was Rawls’s mode of argument. He asked a question fundamental in political philosophy: Can any society be justified to all its members, in light of the inequalities it contains, the burdens it imposes (who empties the bedpans and gets up at midnight to make sure the subways keep running?), and the violence it deals out through police, prisons, and wars? If it cannot be just, then some of us are living in a kind of prison, and others are the wardens. If, however, justification is possible, then we might be able to create a world in which we actually approach one another as free and equal persons.

To imagine such a world, we have to shake off the habits of this one and picture ourselves as able to reset all our institutions and social relations, keeping only those that are just—that is, are justifiable to everyone who has to live within them. Rawls proposed a technique for doing this, a thought experiment that he called the “original position.” It invites us to imagine a situation in which people are to choose the world in which they will live. The key is that they choose behind a “veil of ignorance,” that is, they do not know where they would fall in the distribution of privilege and vulnerability in the societies they imagine. Would you choose to live in the United States today if you didn’t know whether you would be Elon Musk or an undocumented immigrant?

Rawls argued that, faced with this uncertainty, people would choose the world that provided the best position for the least advantaged, worst-off class of people. If you don’t know where you will fall, you will want the worst possibility to be as acceptable as possible. Economics-minded critics argued that this was too risk-averse, that one might gamble for the Silicon Valley jackpot at the risk of picking lettuce instead. But this criticism misconstrued the project: Rawls’s argument was a way of setting out exactly what it meant to justify a social world even to the people picking lettuce. If the question is, “Can this world be justified to me as a free and equal person?” Rawls was not prepared to accept, “Yes, because you might have been Elon Musk!” as an answer.

Conservative critics such as the Straussian Allan Bloom (later famous for his polemic The Closing of the American Mind) accused Rawls of cherry-picking principles to suit the liberal prejudices of the moment. In Rawls’s hands, the original position gave philosophy’s imprimatur to the democratic welfare state as well as to the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement and resistance to the Vietnam War. Friendlier readers interpreted Rawls in light of the conflicts of the early 1970s too. Philosopher Marshall Cohen’s New York Times review of A Theory of Justice welcomed a defense of American liberalism “at a time when these principles are persistently being obscured and betrayed”—presumably in Vietnam and at home by the Nixon administration.


Both of these responses, Forrester argues, miss key features of Rawls’s project. Her story begins in the decade after World War II, when Rawls undertook the work that became A Theory of Justice. A watershed event for Rawls was the 1953 publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which along with Wittgenstein’s other late work helped to inspire a broader philosophical turn to “ordinary language.” When Rawls visited Oxford in the academic year of 1952 to ’53, this approach was richly elaborated there. It was the new philosophical frontier of the age, full of untried possibility.

Ordinary-language philosophers turned away from highly technical questions about the fundamental nature of language (What makes a sentence true? Does every word in a true statement refer to some definite object in the world?). Instead they asked how language works from the point of view of a clear-minded speaker and listener. Everyone lives inside a language, they reasoned, knows how to use its grammar, and recognizes misuse and confusion. We have to get over the philosophical impulse to seize sentences and sweat them, inquisition-style, until they confirm their truth or confess their falsehood. Philosophy is less about achieving a new kind of knowledge, more about making clear what we already know. Philosophers began to think about language and social practices such as law the way we think about games. There is no such thing as hitting a triple outside of baseball: Try as you might, you cannot do it alone, or in a group of people who have never heard of baseball and want you, please, to take your stick off the soccer pitch. But once you are playing baseball, it is clear whether or not a triple has been hit. Even close cases, such as a photo-finish race to beat a throw from an outfielder, just confirm that we know what a triple is.

The legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart argued that law, too, is a game in this way. There is no “natural law” that tells you whether you “really” must obey a law you dislike, as both dissenters and defenders of existing law had long hoped to show. But once you are involved in legal argument, you tacitly accept that certain things count as law. If you start to insist that Leviticus trumps the San Francisco municipal code, then you have become the person waving a baseball bat on the soccer pitch, hoping to get to third base in a game where third base does not exist. Forrester argues that Rawls wanted to elucidate society itself as a “game” of this sort. Social morality, which is the topic of justice, had its own tacit rules, and drawing those out could help to make clear what people already knew when not distracted by self-interest or prejudice. Like the rule book for a well-established sport, the original position and the principles that Rawls drew from it did not dictate some new morality. They helped to spell out the terms of a social practice.

If Rawls’s approach to justice emerged from the philosophical currents of the 1950s, it also formed in response to political concerns. Born in Baltimore in 1921, Rawls saw the rise of the administrative state through the 1930s and ’40s, as New Deal programs led to the establishment of an alphabet soup of government agencies to implement them: the SEC, the FHA, the PWA, the NLRB, and many more. Although Rawls was not an anti-New Deal reactionary, he shared the worries of some liberals and centrists that the expanded American state would end up interfering with personal autonomy through perennial supervision of the economy. He preferred to think that if the state established the right set of operating principles and guardrails, people would be able to get along on their own, with no more than modest political intrusion or contest.

It was bold, if not implausible, to posit a neutral and abiding set of principles in American society, which was torn by bloody labor conflict in the ’30s and ’40s, and sent its pacifists and revolutionaries to prison or worse. But Rawls wasn’t alone in doing so: The decades in which he developed his theory formed the high-water mark of the “consensus” schools of American political science and history. It became conventional to say that Americans had mostly agreed on the essential principles of liberty, equality, and democracy—and, less abstractly, private property, regulated markets, and courts of law. Conflict was the exception. Radical dissenters were outliers. The idea of consensus was essential to Rawls’s project: If Americans deeply agreed on justice, then the hidden logic of that agreement, drawn out through the original position, could both guide and limit the state.

A Theory of Justice was both radical and conservative. Yes, it proposed a sweeping reconstruction of “the basic structure” of American life—Rawls’s term for the key institutions of public life, such as government and the economy. At the same time, it described the principles of reconstruction as ones that Americans already held. This strategy of squaring the circle might seem odd: How can a country be committed to principles it routinely and pervasively defies and ignores? Yet it’s also peculiarly American. The American political myth (meaning not a simple fiction but a kind of shared master-story) is “constitutional redemption,” the idea that moral truths are woven deep into the country’s character, imperfectly expressed in the Constitution and existing institutions, but awaiting realization in “a more perfect union.” This was how Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln talked about freedom and equality in the 1860s, and how Martin Luther King and Lyndon Baines Johnson talked about the same values in the mid-1960s. Constitutional redemption was the defining ideal of Cold War liberal patriotism. Its strategies became, by subtle philosophical transformation, the strategy of A Theory of Justice: to say that Americans already are what they have never yet been—and that this ideal is also incipiently universal, if other peoples can make their way to it.


Forrester is a subtle intellectual historian as well as a political theorist, and she does not imply that one book, even a work as field-defining as A Theory of Justice, can in fact define a field. In the Shadow of Justice also tells the story of a network of Rawls’s contemporaries and the generation-plus that followed him. These thinkers continued a search for the impersonal perspective on politics that Rawls had put at the heart of the field. Ironically, however, the consensus Rawls had counted on was already gone by the polarized late 1960s, which saw violent backlash against the civil rights movement, vicious clashes over the Vietnam War, and acts of domestic terrorism from both the militant left and the racist right. There was little more reason in 1971 to think that Americans shared an abiding consensus than there is in 2019. In the face of polarization, the thinkers in political philosophy’s mainstream persisted in presenting themselves as above mere political conflict, claiming a neutral ground that no longer existed.

In Forrester’s telling, the philosophers in Rawls’s milieu aimed to engage with the radical challenges of the 1960s and 1970s, but tended to formulations that blunted the sharpest criticisms of American life. Confronted with civil disobedience against the Vietnam War and racial subordination, Rawls and his cohort developed the canonical modern image of civil disobedience: as an appeal to the country’s higher principles, a fragment of lawbreaking in support of a larger fidelity to law. Those dissenters who disobeyed because they considered the U.S. government illegitimate, at least in some respects, were written out of the story.

When black activists and scholars proposed reparations for slavery and Jim Crow, the philosophers responded that justice asks whether people are being treated as equals today, not the “historical” question of how inequalities arose. Rawls similarly hurried past segregation in his work; he reasoned that it was so manifestly unjust that there was nothing a philosopher should say about it except that it should be abolished completely. But maybe a philosopher who was trying to distill the country’s most basic values should have lingered over just how deeply the legacies of Jim Crow and slavery shaped that country. What did the vicious and often successful resistance to the civil rights movement reveal about the American grammar of justice?

A similar ahistorical impulse governed when Rawls and others turned to the problem of international justice. Colonialism and empire largely receded from sight, as did postcolonial political efforts to develop redistributive regimes such as the short-lived New International Economic Order. In The Law of Peoples, Rawls imagined an original position for representatives of nation-states, interested in fair rules of international order. But he didn’t propose redress for newly independent countries, which would be starting out poorer than the colonial powers that had dominated them for years. There is a fine line between distilling problems to issues of principle and losing track of the settings altogether.

A part of what happened in these decades was that the technique of Rawls’s arguments came loose from the setting in which it had originally made sense. The discipline became increasingly remote from moral and political experience. What, asked some next-generation Rawlsians, would be the result of an original position for the whole world? The question moves far away from Rawls’s own effort to draw out the principles to which his audience was already committed. Where was the consensus, what were the institutions, for a philosophy of global justice? . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 November 2019 at 7:24 am

Philip Pullman’s dark arts

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The Economist 1843 reruns a Robert Butler interview of Philip Pullman that was originally published in 2007:

He had written fairy tales, detective stories, melodramas, thrillers and fantasies. But when Philip Pullman embarked on his trilogy, “His Dark Materials”, he went back to the most fundamental story of all: the one with the snake, the apple and the fig leaf. He recast Adam and Eve as a 12-year-old girl and boy living in parallel universes, who meet, fall in love and spend the night together. This time God, known as the Authority, fades away and dies. “I thought there would be a small audience,” Pullman says, “a few clever kids somewhere and a few intelligent adults who thought, “That’s all right, quite enjoyed it.'” Well, he got that wrong.

The books have been translated into 40 languages and sold 15m copies, and that’s only the beginning. In 2003 and 2004, a stage version was a big hit at the National Theatre in London. This month the phenomenon goes to another level with the release of the film, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. It’s produced by New Line, which brought us “The Lord of the Rings” 1, 2 and 3. By the time New Line has worked its way through the trilogy, Pullman’s rewrite of Genesis 3 will have gone far beyond its bedtime-reading, Waterstone’s-shopping, theatre-going constituency. It will have become a story known by people who may not even read.

“His Dark Materials” has its origins in the writings of Milton, Blake and Kleist, but if that sounds literary and erudite, don’t worry, it won’t show: this is a big-budget fantasy movie playing at a cinema near you, and near pretty well everyone else. Its main characters–Lyra, Mrs Coulter, Lee Scoresby–will shortly be as famous as Dumbledore and Gandalf. But there’s a difference. Pullman has written an epic with the entertainment value to capture a mass audience, which simultaneously taps into the same profound themes as Homer and the Bible. It’s a story with a dark and powerful undertow: a creation myth for the 21st century.

Its author sits in the study of his farmhouse near Oxford surrounded by books, Black & Decker woodwork equipment, and a rocking horse that he’s making for a grandchild. Two pugs, Hoagy and Nellie, run in and out. Next door, our photographer and her two assistants are transforming his kitchen into a photographic studio. (“I’ve never been on a front cover, have I?” Pullman says to his wife, Jude, who greets this invasionary force with warm and unconcerned tolerance.) During the shoot, his broad face and high-domed forehead change dramatically when he dons a wide-brimmed hat (a little reluctantly) and a beret (more enthusiastically): as an author, he would rather be cast as a Paris intellectual than a Tory squire.

On the dining-room table next door, a pile of new publications and spin-offs sits next to a picture of Pullman with the new James Bond. “His Dark Materials” comprises three books, “Northern Lights” (1995), “The Subtle Knife” (1997) and “The Amber Spyglass” (2000). It’s “Northern Lights” that has been made into the movie, called “The Golden Compass”– the name of “Northern Lights” in American bookshops. Genesis 3 runs to 24 verses; “His Dark Materials” weighs in at 1,300 pages. Pullman spent seven years in a shed at the bottom of his Oxford garden, doing his three pages a day (no more, no less). About one in ten pages made the cut. The mathematics alone is impressive.

It all began in the last 15 minutes of a wet Friday afternoon in a classroom in Oxford. Or that’s how you would want to tell it. After reading English at Exeter College, Oxford, Pullman did stints working at Moss Bros, the suit-hire shop, and a public library. Aged 25, he qualified as a teacher, mainly, he says, because he liked the idea of the holidays. It was the early 1970s, there was no National Curriculum, no Sats and league tables, and “no bumptious ignorant twit in Whitehall telling me what to do and how to teach”. So Pullman found that he had time to tell stories. He believes all teachers should be able to tell a story “at a moment’s notice to a class for the last quarter of an hour on a wet Friday afternoon”. Not read it, he insists-tell it. “If you’re reading out of a book all the time, nothing changes. But if you tell it face to face, you improvise a bit, you play around…”

He set about this task in a typically deliberate way. In the first term, he decided, he would do the births and deaths of the gods and goddesses, their natures and deeds; in the second term he would do the origins of the Trojan war, which would segue into “The Iliad”; and in the third term, he would do “The Odyssey”. He prepared each week’s story thoroughly so he could tell it without notes. He was teaching three separate classes, which meant telling each episode three times in a week. Again, the maths is impressive. “I must have told each story 36 times.”

It was a perfect apprenticeship, giving him “an unsupervised, unnoticed little area of ground” to cultivate his own talent and find out what kinds of stories he could tell. Others might be good at making people laugh; he wasn’t particularly. “But I was good at doing exciting stuff that kept them listening.” He was drawn to a world of “once upon a time”, “meanwhile”, and “suddenly”, of hidden hands and knocks on the door, of dark, stormy nights, shadows and surprises, ogres and-time and again-orphans. He says he couldn’t do the storytelling now. “I’d be sacked, I’d go to prison: “You’re not fulfilling the requirements of the National Curriculum! Away with you!'”

At each school where he taught, Pullman wrote and produced the end-of-term plays, which enabled him to reach another captive audience: the parents. He treated the parents and children as one audience (he dislikes the business of throwing in sophisticated jokes for the grown-ups) and wrote for both age groups at the same time. “I got better at it. It’s to do with taking your story seriously, laughing, yes, but never scoffing at it, always taking the story seriously.”

His inspiration came from a family-run toy shop in Covent Garden. “I wanted costumes, I wanted colour and spectacle. My source for all this was toy theatre, those lovely little things that you can get from Pollocks. I’ve got the lot. I discovered them as a grown-up and fell in love with them.” Some of his school plays became children’s books: “Clockwork”, “Count Karlstein” and “The Firework-Maker’s Daughter”. Go into a bookshop and Pullman can be found between Marcel Proust and Mario Puzo on the fiction shelves, and between Terry Pratchett and Arthur Ransome in the children’s section. The only difference is the cover.

When Pullman got home from school in the evenings, his eldest son would be doing his music practice (he is now a professional viola player) and Pullman would go to his shed at the bottom of the garden. He is the most successful writer since Roald Dahl to have worked in a shed. “My real life began”, he says, “when I came home from the job and sat at my table and wrote three pages for the day.”

No one could accuse Pullman of under-researching his subject: the heroine of “His Dark Materials” is a 12-year-old tomboy called Lyra Belacqua, and Pullman spent 12 years teaching girls of this age. He taught at three schools in Oxford, one working-class, one middle-class, one in between. The working-class pupils, whose parents mostly worked at the car factories, were very direct and let him know immediately what they thought. The middle-class pupils, many of whose parents were dons, had subtler ways of expressing their disapproval. The three schools were diverse in socio-economic terms, but he discovered that within the classroom the same patterns of behaviour applied. There were certain roles that always had to be filled: the clown, the smelly one who no one wanted to sit next to, and the king and queen.

“If you work out quickly in the first couple of days who the king and queen are, and you direct all your attention to them in the first week or so, get them on your side, you won’t have any discipline problems because everyone follows them. They don’t follow you. They follow them.”

The girls in particular fell into two groups. “There were the . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 November 2019 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Books, Religion

Choose your path — and avoid the fear of missing out

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Epicurus advocates enjoying the daily pleasures that life presents. That requires being present for those pleasure and not becoming preoccupied by absent pleasures.

I mention this idea in the long post on my diet — how some who choose a plant-based diet become preoccupied with the foods they’re not eating (the steaks, ribs, roasts, sausage, duck breast, scrambled eggs, triple-cream cheese, and so on) to the extent that they fail to focus on the pleasures of the food they are eating. Their focus is on denial (no meat! no dairy! no eggs!) and not on affirmation; they keep looking back at what they once had and ignore all the wonders of the new possibilities open to them. I wrote:

How to be happy with your diet

Look at the variety of whole plant-based foods and the meals you can make with them. If you focus your attention on what you can/should eat and not dwell on what you can’t (or shouldn’t) eat, you’ll feel much more satisfied with your lot. If you constantly obsess about foods you should avoid, you’ll make yourself unhappy and undermine your will to eat well. I mention this because it seems that people have a tendency to focus on what they lack and not on what they have. (“We look before and after, And pine for what is not; Our sincerest laughter With some pain is fraught; Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.” – from To a Skylark, by Percy Bysshe Shelley.)

This is a specific example of a more general situation — namely, whenever you choose a direction you necessarily must forsake other directions.

The Road Not Taken – by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Having chosen a path, an Epicurean will enjoy the pleasure of that path and not fret about what s/he has missed from all other possible paths. Whatever you do and whatever you have, you can think of myriads of things you aren’t doing and don’t have. Do not let yourself become attached to those absences.

For example, if you choose a whole-food plant-based diet, do not consider it as rejecting meat, dairy, and eggs (the negative view, which focuses on the path abandoned), but rather look for the pleasures of the path now chosen.

More generally, we necessarily move from one day to next and from one season to the next. We are always moving on, changing, and (hopefully) growing in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man. That growth suggests a path that constantly presents new vistas and new choices. Each stage along the way is an abandonment of the previous stage. One can focus on the loss of the previous stage or look for the pleasures the new stage brings. If you follow Epicurus, it is obvious that you should enjoy the pleasures.

I mention this in Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving:

I realized recently that this book might have been more accurately titled The Epicure’s Guide to Shaving, for Epicurus[i] would surely approve making necessary tasks enjoyable. He thought that chance encounters of atoms falling through the void, randomly interacting, produced — after much time — us and the world in which we live. In his view we cease to exist when we die, while the atoms of our body continue to tumble along through time and space.

Because Epicurus believed that life is a one-shot deal, he made enjoying life a high priority. A dissolute lifestyle tends to have highly unpleasant consequences, so it makes sense to seek enjoyment first in the small things of life, which is what we mostly encounter day to day. Learning new ideas and mastering new skills are examples of activities that provide enjoyment without harm.

Take, as a random example, the morning shave: an Epicurean who shaves will seek a way to derive enjoyment from the task: to spend his (limited) time doing things he doesn’t enjoy makes no sense when he could instead do them enjoyably. Moreover, an enjoyable task requires little willpower: you are drawn to the task rather than having to push yourself. Indeed, a task can even be restorative and energizing; rather than draining you, a task approached properly can provide both enjoyment and a satisfying sense of fulfillment.

The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote several books on a mental state he termed “flow”: a focused, absorbing, satisfying involvement in what is happening in the moment[ii]. So another way to state the Epicurean position is that one should arrange his or her life to maximize the opportunities for flow to occur. Flow is a mental experience, so introspection combined with an attitude that encourages the enjoyment of small things—to look for joy, and to think about how to find more occasions of joy—is an obvious step.

This book is my contribution to an Epicurean lifestyle: the book offers a way to make a necessary chore enjoyable. But don’t stop just at shaving.

[i] Epicurus: See Catherine Wilson’s book and (of course) his own writings, and there’s also the Wikipedia entry on Epicurus.

[ii] Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: See the Wikipedia article on flow. Each person can find activities appropriate for him or her that will promote flow: rock climbing, painting or drawing, gardening, cooking, playing a musical instrument, and the like. Csíkszentmihályi defined the term in his studies and in the fascinating book that emerged from them, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

This is why I see as wrong-headed the effort by some who take up a plant-based diet to focus on trying to mimic the foods left behind: seeking imitation bacon, imitation sausage, imitation roast, imitation burgers, imitation cheese. Those strike me as distractions that prevent appreciation of the new vistas that the new direction offers. That approach amounts to looking back at the past and longing for it.

The Chambered Nautilus – by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

To cling to your current mansion and fear to abandon it prevents means you will not encounter (nor appreciate) new pleasures. It’s bad enough when this fear means one fails to appreciate the pleasures of a new dietary direction, but such fears can cost more: they can imprison one in a life of misery because their focus is totally on what would be lost by moving on. Consider, for example, a terrible marriage in which two remain together only because each fears the loss of wealth and possessions (the house, the lifestyle, the cars, …). Their wealth and possessions are a prison, and they remain in their current chamber of misery, never moving to a dome more vast. They view taking a new path only as the loss of the old path, and they cannot see the possibility of pleasures that lie unseen ahead.

Epicurus would, I think, see this as a tragedy. They have but one life, and to remain stuck in a miserable situation, never considering the joys that could await them in a new stage, always clinging to what they now have, holding back from moving on: that enacts a terrible price.

Rabbi Ben Ezra – by Robert Browning

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

That’s but the first stanza of a long poem. It presents a two-chambered version of the nautilus: youth and old age. Don’t cling to youth, for it must pass. Enjoy the pleasures of a fuller experience.

Those who fear change do not grow, for growth is change. They fear to leave the mansions of the past to see what pleasures lie ahead — they cannot make this leap of faith. If your attention is totally taken by what was, potential new pleasures pass by unobserved and unexperienced.

So if you choose a whole-food plant-based diet, embrace it. See where it takes you. Explore the new mansion.

Update: This morning another poem occurred to me on somewhat the same theme — a theme that seems to appeal to poets because being distracted from what is here now before one by pining for what is not is a common human (and uniquely human) condition. Here’s the poem:

Maud Muller – by John Greenleaf Whittier

Maud Muller, on a summer’s day,
Raked the meadow sweet with hay.

Beneath her torn hat glowed the wealth
Of simple beauty and rustic health.

Singing, she wrought, and her merry glee
The mock-bird echoed from his tree.

But when she glanced to the far-off town,
White from its hill-slope looking down,

The sweet song died, and a vague unrest
And a nameless longing filled her breast,—

A wish that she hardly dared to own,
For something better than she had known.

The Judge rode slowly down the lane,
Smoothing his horse’s chestnut mane.

He drew his bridle in the shade
Of the apple-trees to greet the maid,

And ask a draught from the spring that flowed
Through the meadow across the road.

She stooped where the cool spring bubbled up,
And filled for him her small tin cup,

And blushed as she gave it, looking down
On her feet so bare, and her tattered gown.

“Thanks!” said the Judge; “a sweeter draught
From a fairer hand was never quaffed.”

He spoke of the grass and flowers and trees,
Of the singing birds and the humming bees;

Then talked of the haying, and wondered whether
The cloud in the west would bring foul weather.

And Maud forgot her brier-torn gown
And her graceful ankles bare and brown;

And listened, while a pleased surprise
Looked from her long-lashed hazel eyes.

At last, like one who for delay
Seeks a vain excuse, he rode away.

Maud Muller looked and sighed: “Ah me!
That I the Judge’s bride might be!

“He would dress me up in silks so fine,
And praise and toast me at his wine.

“My father should wear a broadcloth coat;
My brother should sail a painted boat.

“I’d dress my mother so grand and gay,
And the baby should have a new toy each day.

“And I’d feed the hungry and clothe the poor,
And all should bless me who left our door.”

The Judge looked back as he climbed the hill,
And saw Maud Muller standing still.

“A form more fair, a face more sweet,
Ne’er hath it been my lot to meet.

“And her modest answer and graceful air
Show her wise and good as she is fair.

“Would she were mine, and I to-day,
Like her, a harvester of hay:

“No doubtful balance of rights and wrongs,
Nor weary lawyers with endless tongues,

“But low of cattle and song of birds,
And health and quiet and loving words.”

But he thought of his sisters proud and cold,
And his mother vain of her rank and gold.

So, closing his heart, the Judge rode on,
And Maud was left in the field alone.

But the lawyers smiled that afternoon,
When he hummed in court an old love-tune;

And the young girl mused beside the well,
Till the rain on the unraked clover fell.

He wedded a wife of richest dower,
Who lived for fashion, as he for power.

Yet oft, in his marble hearth’s bright glow,
He watched a picture come and go;

And sweet Maud Muller’s hazel eyes
Looked out in their innocent surprise.

Oft, when the wine in his glass was red,
He longed for the wayside well instead;

And closed his eyes on his garnished rooms
To dream of meadows and clover-blooms.

And the proud man sighed, with a secret pain,
“Ah, that I were free again!

“Free as when I rode that day,
Where the barefoot maiden raked her hay.”

She wedded a man unlearned and poor,
And many children played round her door.

But care and sorrow, and childbirth pain,
Left their traces on heart and brain.

And oft, when the summer sun shone hot
On the new-mown hay in the meadow lot,

And she heard the little spring brook fall
Over the roadside, through the wall,

In the shade of the apple-tree again
She saw a rider draw his rein.

And, gazing down with timid grace,
She felt his pleased eyes read her face.

Sometimes her narrow kitchen walls
Stretched away into stately halls;

The weary wheel to a spinet turned,
The tallow candle an astral burned,

And for him who sat by the chimney lug,
Dozing and grumbling o’er pipe and mug,

A manly form at her side she saw,
And joy was duty and love was law.

Then she took up her burden of life again,
Saying only, “It might have been.”

Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!

God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies
Deeply buried from human eyes;

And, in the hereafter, angels may
Roll the stone from its grave away!

Written by LeisureGuy

8 November 2019 at 3:57 am

The Ethical Algorithm

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Jenna Marshall of the Santa Fe Institute points out a new book published by Oxford University Press:

Algorithms have come to dominate today’s modern life. From advertisements and consumer lending to college admissions and hiring, our day to day is increasingly moderated by technology. At the same time, complex algorithms are also routinely violating the basic rights of individual citizens. How we choose to address the issue of misbehaving algorithms will have widespread implications, not just for the business and technology fields, but for society as a whole.

In The Ethical Algorithm: The Science of Socially Aware Algorithm Design, leading experts Michael Kearns, an SFI External Professor based at the University of Pennsylvania, and his Penn colleague Aaron Roth offer a set of principled solutions based on the emerging science of socially aware algorithm design. While most of the discussion to date has focused on traditional fixes like laws, regulations, and watchdog groups, these approaches have proven woefully inadequate on their own. Kearns and Roth instead propose fixing the technology from the inside, by building better algorithms that have precise definitions of fairness, accuracy, transparency, and ethics embedded within their design.

As theoretical computer scientists, Kearns and Roth argue “it’s essential that the scientific and research communities who work on machine learning be engaged and centrally involved in the ethical debates around algorithmic decision-making.”

Addressing critics who might call out computer scientists as the source of our algorithmic problems, the authors recall an example from Kearns’ 2017 SFI Community Lecture. After World War II, many Manhattan Project scientists worked tirelessly to curb the use of the atomic weapons they had invented. In the case of algorithms, “the harms are more diffuse and harder to detect” than in the case of the nuclear bombs, but both are examples of irreversible technologies that can be controlled, but not undone. Those who design machine learning algorithms can play a critical role in identifying the inherent limits of algorithms and designing them to balance predictive power with social values like fairness and privacy.

Kearns and Roth present technological solutions to real-life issues like leaked sensitive personal information; algorithmic models that reflect racial and gender bias; or users that “game” search engines, spam filters, and navigation apps — and show how we can better protect humans from the unintended consequences of technology. Weaving in fascinating real-life examples from the business, legal, and medical fields, Kearns and Roth demonstrate how we can instill human principles into machine code, without halting the advance of data-driven scientific exploration.

[Source: Oxford University Press]

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 1:00 pm

How to be an Epicurean

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The preface to the sixth edition of Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving (the preface is included also in the current (seventh) edition) begins:

I REALIZED recently that this book might have been more accurately titled The Epicure’s Guide to Shaving, for Epicurus[i] would surely approve making necessary tasks enjoyable. He thought that chance encounters of atoms falling through the void, randomly interacting, produced—after much time—us and the world in which we live. In his view we cease to exist when we die, while the atoms of our body continue to tumble along through time and space.

Because Epicurus believed that life is a one-shot deal, he made enjoying life a high priority. A dissolute lifestyle tends to have highly unpleasant consequences, so it makes sense to seek enjoyment first in the small things of life, which is what we mostly encounter day to day. Learning new ideas and mastering new skills are examples of activities that provide enjoyment without harm.

Take, as a random example, the morning shave: an Epicurean who shaves will seek a way to derive enjoyment from the task: to spend his (limited) time doing things he doesn’t enjoy makes no sense when he could instead do them enjoyably. Moreover, an enjoyable task requires little willpower: you are drawn to the task rather than having to push yourself. Indeed, a task can even be restorative and energizing; rather than draining you, a task approached properly can provide both enjoyment and a satisfying sense of fulfillment.

The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi wrote several books on a mental state he termed “flow”: a focused, absorbing, satisfying involvement in what is happening in the moment[ii]. So another way to state the Epicurean position is that one should arrange his or her life to maximize the opportunities for flow to occur. Flow is a mental experience, so introspection combined with an attitude that encourages the enjoyment of small things—to look for joy, and to think about how to find more occasions of joy—is an obvious step.

This book is my contribution to an Epicurean lifestyle: the book offers a way to make a necessary chore enjoyable. But don’t stop just at shaving.

[i] Epicurus: See https://tinyurl.com/7kafxfj and (of course) the Wikipedia entry.

[ii] Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: See https://tinyurl.com/a5f4s. Each person can find activities appropriate for him or her that will promote flow: rock climbing, painting or drawing, gardening, cooking, playing a musical instrument, and the like. Csíkszentmihályi defined the term in his studies and in the fascinating book that emerged from them, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (https://tinyurl.com/ywzrea for inexpensive copies).

Catherine Wilson, most recently Anniversary Professor of Philosophy at the University of York and now Visiting Presidential Professor at CUNY Graduate Center in New York, whose latest book is How to Be an Epicurean (2019), published simultaneously in the UK under the title The Pleasure Principle, writes in Aeon:

Like many people, I am skeptical of any book, lecture or article offering to divulge the secrets of happiness. To me, happiness is episodic. It’s there at a moment of insight over drinks with a friend, when hearing a new and affecting piece of music on the radio, sharing confidences with a relative or waking up from a good night’s sleep after a bout of the flu. Happiness is a feeling of in-the-moment joy that can’t be chased and caught and which can’t last very long.

But satisfaction with how things are going is different than happiness. Satisfaction has to do with the qualities and arrangements of life that make us want to get out of bed in the morning, find out what’s happening in the world, and get on with whatever the day brings. There are obstacles to satisfaction, and they can be, if not entirely removed, at least lowered. Some writers argue that satisfaction mostly depends on my genes, where I live and the season of the year, or how other people, including the government, are treating me. Nevertheless, psychology and the sharing of first-person experience acquired over many generations, can actually help.

So can philosophy. The major schools of philosophy in antiquity – Platonism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism and, my favourite, Epicureanism, addressed the question of the good life directly. The philosophers all subscribed to an ideal of ‘life according to nature’, by which they meant both human and nonhuman nature, while disagreeing among themselves about what that entailed. Their original writings, most of them widely accessible, readable and thought-provoking, remain a resource, not just for philosophy students and specialists, but for everyone interested in the topics of nature, society and wellbeing.

What was a ‘school’ of philosophy for the ancient Greeks and Romans? Essentially, it was a group that shared common beliefs and values. Its members would meet regularly to listen to lectures by the leader, to discuss the philosophical issues among themselves and with occasional visitors, and to work out how to defend their views against the objections of their competitors’ schools. Accounts of the lectures and discussions might make their way into written texts, crafted by the leader or his students. Philosophy was not, however, a form of public education. Between 40 and 80 per cent of the population of Athens in the first few centuries BCE were male and female slaves. Some of them might serve and entertain at philosophical functions but did not participate.

Plato, who collected the thoughts and discussions of his 5th-century BCE teacher Socrates, emphasised the cultivation of the four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. Plato considered these virtues, and other ‘forms’ such as truth and beauty, more real than anything composed of matter. Virtue, he thought, was the route and the only route to eudaimonia, usually translated as ‘welfare’ or ‘flourishing’. Dishonesty, cowardice, gluttonous, lustful, intemperate behaviour and mistreatment of others could produce only a disordered and unhappy personality.

The audiences that Socrates and Plato meant to address consisted most typically of ambitious and spoiled young men from top Athenian families who needed to be set straight. Was Plato’s theory of human flourishing through virtue meant to apply to women? Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics led all-male academies. The women of the time were largely confined to the household, at least the respectable ones. Their domestic occupations would not have given them opportunity to display courage (mostly understood as courage in battle), or wisdom (as they lacked an education and experience of the world outside the home), or moderation (as they had no sexual freedom and did not take part in heavy-drinking parties), or justice (as they had no scope to judge adult men and to mete out rewards and punishments). Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, writing in the 4th century BCE stated explicitly that virtue was different for men and for women. For women, obedience was the top virtue and so presumably conducive to their flourishing.

Aristotle wrote on a much wider range of subjects than Plato had, from marine biology to human reproduction, from political organisation to drama and rhetoric. In ethics, he pointed out that some supposed virtues could be too much of a good thing. Too much courage was foolhardiness; too much moderation was stinginess and asceticism. Too much wisdom might make you seem pompous, I suppose, and a fanatical commitment to justice would exclude mercy and forgiveness, which seem virtuous. But Aristotle’s main contribution to moral philosophy is often considered to be his point that to be happy you have to be somewhat lucky. If you are born with a terrible, progressive disease, or into the middle of a war, or if you happen to have powerful enemies who impede you at every turn, your chances of flourishing are lower than otherwise. For eudaimonia, you not only have to practise virtue; you need friends, your health and a decent income.

A third major school of philosophy, Stoicism, represented by a number of teachers and writers in the Greek and Roman traditions, including Epictetus and Seneca, reverted to the Platonic view that external events cannot diminish the wellbeing of the good person. The world, they thought, is ruled by providence; all that happens is fated to happen, and we must embrace our individual fates and the past and the future that has been determined for us. As things could not have happened otherwise, regret and remorse over past decisions and actions are pointless.

Not only regret, but all emotions, including anger, pity and love, are ‘diseases’ of the soul in need of a cure, though a general benevolence towards humanity was permissible. An emotional reaction, they maintained, always involves the illusion that some external event, a rejection letter, or a friend’s betrayal, or meeting someone fantastic, or being tortured, is objectively bad or good for you. An emotion, they said, is just a bodily disturbance that causes mental disturbance. To restore tranquility, one should remember that these things happen all the time, that they were fated to happen, and that the self is an ‘inner citadel’ that can withstand any attack.

Stoicism has many adherents even today because it offers explicit coping mechanisms for everyday adversities. Psychotherapeutic techniques that involve getting distance or perspective on individual problems have a lot of overlap with Stoic techniques. But there are many problems with Stoicism – and psychotherapy. The major one, in my opinion, is that these techniques haven’t been proven. I have found no well-designed and methodologically sound empirical study showing that emotionally troubled people who undergo perspective-inducing therapy fare better, after some given length of time, than emotionally troubled people who just wait for time to heal their wounds.

A second problem with Stoic practices is that emotions make life feel worth living. Emotional numbness and absence of motivation is the main feature of depression. Drugs that reduce affect are widely disliked by patients who have been prescribed them. Recent empirical work suggests that we need the emotions to make decisions; otherwise we just waffle endlessly, making up rationales and counter-rationales for some course of action. And finally, the Stoic claim that pity for the suffering of others just makes you feel bad yourself is deeply inhuman.

The fourth major philosophy of antiquity was developed in the 3rd century BCE in Athens by Epicurus and taken up by his 1st-century BCE Roman follower, Titus Carus Lucretius, the author of the great didactic poem ‘On the Nature of Things’. Epicureanism challenged both the overall organisation and the accounts of the way to eudaimonia of the other philosophical schools. Epicurus and his followers formed a sort of commune based in Epicurus’s house, surrounded by a ‘garden’, outside the city walls. The Epicureans took their meals in common, discussed science and ethics, and socialised. Women were included in the sect, and their flourishing was not understood differently to that of men. Epicurus was notorious for his nonmarital relationships that combined sex and philosophy.

Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics each made a place in their systems for a god, or godlike intelligences, as the creator or the rulers of the world. And in their various ways, they all agreed that matter by itself was dead, illusory and devoid of any characteristics except being a lump. Spiritual entities, such as Plato’s forms, or Aristotle’s souls, or the Stoic’s world-enlivening pneuma, had to be brought in to explain life, thought and the changes observed in nature.

Epicurus, by contrast, was a materialist. All that really existed, he declared, were indestructible atoms – tiny mobile particles, invisible to the naked eye, with various shapes and sizes, but devoid of colour, odour, flavour and sound, and separated by void space. In combination, they gave rise to the physical world and all its phenomena, including thought and perception. The atoms had formed the world by themselves – originally sticking together just by chance and growing into larger stable complexes. If there were gods, they too were made of atoms. But there was no need to appeal to the gods to explain any happenings on Earth or in the sky – or for that matter in history or in anyone’s personal life. The soul was composed of atoms as well; it dissipated into the air at death, so there was no immortality, or resurrection, or transmigration of souls.

Their theory of nature had ethical consequences for the Epicureans. Prayer was useless, and there was no hell, regardless of what the priests taught, for the wicked. The life of eudaimonia was simply one in which pleasure dominated over pain. This required prudence, and the ability to tell the difference between experiences and occupations conventionally assumed to be pleasurable and those that were truly pleasurable.

The Epicureans had no patience for the Stoic claim that human beings are self-sufficient, without need for the approval, goodwill or assistance of others. They doubted that the mind could, or should try to repress or dissolve emotions. To be happy, they insisted, we need to be engaged with external things and with other people. When things go badly, we will suffer, and there is no real cure except time and distraction. So it’s essential to be aware of the most frequent external causes of misfortune and to steer clear of them before misfortunes happen. As the future is not predetermined, and as humans have free will, this is possible.

Political ambition and wealth-seeking almost always cause anxiety and disappointment. So does romantic love when unrequited, which sociologists tell us is most of the time. So try not to get or remain snared! (Obsession with someone unavailable will fade quicker with no contact, according to Epicurus, and, according to Lucretius, temporary diversion with just about any willing bystander can help.) Many painful illnesses can be avoided by prudent behaviour and correct choice of food and drink, and, when those befall us despite our best efforts, intense pains are short-lived and long-lived pains are mild.

Rather than aiming specifically to maximise pleasure, the Epicureans concentrated on minimising pains, the pains that arise from failures of ‘choice and avoidance’. They knew that immediate intuition about costs and benefits is unreliable. One must sometimes sacrifice appealing food and drink in the short term to avoid the long-term pains of addiction and poor health; and sacrifice sexual opportunity to avoid humiliation, anger or social or economic fallout. But there is nothing virtuous about poverty and deprivation, and no one’s misery is ever deserved. Martyrdom for a cause is pointless, and, if we punish wrongdoers, it should be only for reasons of deterrence, not for revenge; if punishment doesn’t work, it is morally wrong to punish.

But if life is limited to this life, and if virtues such as wisdom, moderation and justice are only abstract ideas in atomic minds, why be moral?

The Epicureans had two answers to this question. One was that the people around you resent stupidity, cowardice, self-indulgence and injustice – the opposites of the traditional virtues. So, if you habitually engage in them, you will find yourself socially excluded and perhaps even punished by the law. Nonconformity to morality brings pain.

The other answer was that it is possible to have an entirely pleasant life without causing injury to others through dishonesty, immoderation or other vices. The sources of innocent pleasure are all around us: in the sensory enjoyment of music, food, landscapes and artworks, and especially, Epicurus thought, in the study of nature and society, and in conversing with friends. Unlike Aristotle, who thought one’s friends should be chosen for their virtue (rather than for their advantage), Epicurus thought that friends were just people who thought more or less the same way you did, whom you just happened to like.

Although few of us want to drop out and join a residential philosophical cult in the suburbs, carrying the Epicurean perspective into daily life can be of personal value.

A first point of departure for thinking about Epicureanism in a contemporary context is the fact that competition for power, esteem and financial reward (none of which the Epicureans regarded as real goods) is built into every aspect of our society. We are urged to strive for promotions and better salaries, for the best GPAs, test scores and university places, for recognition and approval from colleagues, for the best possible mate in terms of looks and status. Advertisements on the New York subway urge me to get a diploma, bid for construction contracts, initiate and win lucrative lawsuits, and fix my face and figure. My glossy alumni magazine glorifies those faculty who discovered or invented something patentable, or who at least seem to be on track to do so, and its advertising urges me to invest my wealth with prestigious firms to acquire even more wealth. The bestselling self-help books advertised on Amazon, and lining the shelves in the airport newsvendors, promise to boost me to a top position where I can make all the decisions and boss others around, and to crush the self-defeating behaviour preventing me from finding lasting love.

This success-driven focus of contemporary life is complemented by a focus on the passive consumption of supposed comfort- and pleasure-inducing objects, such as speciality mattresses and bamboo-fibre socks. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more to read (and to ponder).

Two book recommendations (included in the list of books I find myself repeatedly recommending):

No Contest: The Case Against Competition

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes

Written by LeisureGuy

5 November 2019 at 8:41 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Mental Health, Shaving

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Tech tips for National Novel-Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo)

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the National Novel Writing Month project, which challenges people to write a 50,000-word novel in November. NaNoWriMo, as it is known, is a nonprofit that supports creative writing and education. Those who sign up for the group’s free annual event get community support, progress tracking and motivational advice to complete a book draft.

If you think you have a novel in you, here is a quick guide to digital tools to help you along your way.

(And if the thought of cranking out an average of 1,667 words a day in the NaNoWriMo challenge doesn’t fit in with your schedule or you need more prep time — don’t despair. You could write it at your own pace.)

The NaNoWriMo site has useful writing guides and other material to help you map out your plot and develop your characters before you dive in.

Check your app store for software like Novelist (free for Android), which has a text editor function and templates for organizing plot points, themes and characters — along with tools for tracking word-count goals and backing up your work. Writing Shed ($10 to $14 for iOS, iPadOS and Mac), Bear ($1.50 a month for iOS, iPadOS and Mac) and Writer Tools (free to $5 a month for Android) are similar options.

For those serious about book writing, Scrivener is a full-fledged composition and manuscript-management program. It uses a clever interface to break long documents into sections so you can write, research and rearrange word chunks more easily. Scrivener runs on Windows, Mac and iOS systems; prices start at $20 with a free trial available.

If you’ve already done your prep work, fire up your word processor. Most common programs — including Apple’s PagesDropbox PaperGoogle DocsMicrosoft Word and Zoho Writer — work on computer and mobile devices. You can write on the screen you’re currently using and have the text update everywhere, although you may need an Office 365 subscription for syncing Word files. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 October 2019 at 4:21 pm

Posted in Books, Software, Technology

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