Maxims

I’ve just bought La Rochefoucauld’s ‘Maxims’ on Kindle.

What does Wikipedia have to say about maxims:

A maxim is a ground rule or subjective principle of action; in that sense, a maxim is a thought that can motivate individuals. It is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy as:

“Generally any simple and memorable rule or guide for living; for example, ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’. Tennyson speaks of ‘a little hoard of maxims preaching down a daughter’s heart’ (Locksley Hall), and maxims have generally been associated with a ‘folksy’ or ‘copy-book’ approach to morality.”

Oh dear not so positive… Still the rather wonderful Leonard Tancock begs to differ in the terrific intro to the Penguin Classics Edition.

Voltaire describes the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld as one of the works which contributed the most towards forming the taste of the French nation and giving it a feeling for aptness and precision.

This little book of reflections about human nature, perhaps the most penetrating and disconcerting ever written, appeared in its original form, in 1665, in the middle of the wonderful decade which saw the flowering of the genius of Molière, Racine, La Fontaine, Boileau, Bossuet, and a galaxy of masterpieces by artists in other forms, painting, sculpture, architecture; the age that is made alive for us by the incomparable letters of Mme de Sévigné, one of La Rochefoucauld’s closest friends.

Tancock explains the origin of ‘maximes’ as the famous literary salons of the time:

It would be difficult to overestimate the benefits conferred by the salons upon French literature, language, and even thought during the first half of the seventeenth century, whilst some of the greatest writers of the second half had been brought up in them.

In the linguistic field the constant influence of the salons of such ladies as Mme de Rambouillet and Mme de Sablé upon most of the great writers of the day gradually transformed the picturesque and over-rich legacy of the sixteenth century into the clearest and most elegant medium for conveying abstract thought known to the modern world, and in the fields of matter and taste these salons worked a comparable miracle.

They turned the manners and conversation of the barrack-room into discussion of moral, sentimental, psychological problems, observation of human behaviour and speculation upon its motives and aims, overt or hidden.

What did the habitués of the salons talk about?

Apart from the merely social and frivolous side of their activity, their object was to enjoy interesting and elegant conversation.

And Tancock sets out some maxims of his own for the art of conversation:

Now conversation means conversation, and not a series of monologues, nor impassioned argument. Therefore they avoided certain topics and cultivated others.

Two subjects lead sooner or later to hot tempers, shrill monologues, rudeness, boredom, and all kinds of social discomforts: one is religion and the other politics.

Moreover, apart from exhibitions of stupidity, prejudice, and intolerance, religious discussion usually ends in embarrassing personal allusions or indelicate self-revelation.

Politics is not only boring to all but fanatics, but highly dangerous in a society dominated by a tyrant and riddled with spies. In such a society these subjects are best left alone.

Neither does one converse about any specialized subject on which an enthusiastic crank can lecture in technical jargon meaningless to half the company.

And above all one avoids talking about oneself, not merely because social convention discourages the first person singular, but for the much more important reason that each human being is so wrapped up in himself that he cannot abide hearing about the self of any other.

A bore, somebody has said, is a fool who insists on telling you about himself when you want to tell him about yourself.

Maxims enabled elegant conversation without recourse to religion, politics, enthusiastic crankery or bores:

…pithy, proverb-like generalization about human conduct known as the sentence or maxime… the skill consists in expressing some thought about human motives or behaviour in a form combining the maximum of clarity and truth with the minimum of words arranged in the most striking and memorable order.

The concocting of these maxims was therefore a society game, and maxims were the product of communal efforts at pruning and arranging.

But returning to the slightly sour definition from the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy; Tancock makes the case that maxims added up to more than their parts. Properly assembled they guide the life of the ‘honnête homme’:

Modern English-speaking people, tend to think of the seventeenth-century French as heroic supermen tempered by ‘reason’, ‘will-power’, ‘the middle way’, who lived in an age when all things were straightforward.

But in reality most thinking people at that time, as always, were profoundly disturbed and perplexed by the evils and contradictions, the grandeur and misery of the human condition.

Not only was it evident that men are neither heroes nor reasonable beings, but it was clear, as Descartes had pointed out, that much of man’s so-called moral and psychological nature is simply the product of his physical condition, of his humeurs, and, more humiliating still, that man’s physical condition may depend upon quite fortuitous things, devoid of any apparent sense or plan, such as the piece of grit which, according to Pascal, introduced itself into the ureter of Oliver Cromwell and reversed the trend of English history.

All this is the very opposite of what the text books call the reason and good sense of the classical period, and these misgivings are reflected in the Maxims, which show mankind tossed hither and thither by passions born of a deep-seated self-centredness, by all kinds of physical factors including fluctuating state of health, by sheer chance.

It was precisely because the French towards the middle of the seventeenth century were sickened by the iniquities of public life and frightened by these glimpses into the abyss of man’s private nature that they evolved a modus vivendi, the ideal of the honnête homme.

Since man cannot live unto himself, but must contrive to exist in the company of his fellow creatures, it follows that the ideal type of person is the one who can lead a sociable life with other men of all sorts and conditions, whose character, behaviour, and opinions give the least offence to others.

The seventeenth-century honnête homme is not unlike the gentleman as defined by Cardinal Newman: ‘one who never inflicts pain… his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home.’

This kind of natural gentleman never hurts or embarrasses others by asserting himself or deviating too markedly from the accepted norm of decent conduct, whether in the direction of virtue or of vice, for excessive, intransigent virtue can be as painful to others as wickedness, and as upsetting to the equilibrium of society.

The honnête homme is moderate and unobtrusive in all things, doing his exact share in society, nor more nor less. The man who insists on being different or outstanding, above all the man with a mission to ‘improve’ his fellow men, is either a villain or a fool, wicked or laughable.

But we must not conclude from certain remarks of those in Molière’s plays that the honnête homme was a negative creature, a non-committal yes-man intent on mere conformity and etiquette, for officiousness and bowings and scrapings can be a nuisance and an embarrassment, and therefore the very opposite of good manners.

Perfect manners come only from within, from real goodness, kindness, respect, and understanding.

What’s not to like in the honnête homme? I’m all for real goodness, kindness, respect, and understanding. ‘Perfect manners come only from within’ is not a bad maxim itself. One down; only another 600+ maxims to go.

Curiosity killed the Habit

This week I’ve been enjoying a fascinating insight from psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer on ‘reward based learning’ and rewiring habit loops.

The simple trick is to use curiosity; not attempt self-control. As he explains (below) the bit of the brain which exerts control is way less ancient, and way less powerful than the bit that imposes cravings. So a battle with smoking or snacking with willpower alone is likely to be a losing one.

The key according to Brewer is curiosity. If we can stop and curiously examine an urge; not instantly act on it or try to make it go away, we can ‘hack’ our ‘reward based learning’ system by enjoying the experience of learning.

This – when I think back – is how I quit smoking nearly 18 years ago; actively exploring the craving made it manageable. I’d read ‘aversion’ doesn’t work. So I used to think of the famous Bisto gravy ads: and with a deep breath go ‘ahhh!’ remembering the ‘hit’, sensation and reward of a deep drag on a cigarette when I smelt one or the urge came upon me. Enjoying the urge made it pass.

Brewer’s is a very simple but clever idea – curiosity is its own reward; it could be habit-forming…

The Midlife Crisis

Of course we’re all ultimately barrelling towards the abyss; but there’s something about the middle of life that starts you thinking about it…

The ancients, the Stoics, the Buddhists; even the most whacko Californians all agree: at least half of the purpose of philosophy is to cope with our own mortality. And that need kicks-in big time around half-way through.

Elliot Jacques coined the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ in his 1965 paper Death And The Midlife Crisis. And MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya has had a proper go at really thinking about what it is and what to do about it, in this terrific podcast from the ever wonderful series Philosophy Bites.

The essence of his advice lies in giving up ‘telic’ living: the life focused on ‘projects’ and achievements. Defined by their completion: projects, achievements and ‘bucket lists’ are either constantly being consumed or are eluding you – increasing the feeling of time running out.

Instead the focus needs to be on ‘atelic’ living; enjoying ‘categories’ of activity and the process of doing them. It’s about enjoying philosophy, not ticking off the great philosophers; listening to classical music, not methodically completing the works of Beethoven; enjoying really looking at Art not consuming, categorising and collating it…

One approach endlessly pursues endpoints; of which and there is an infinite supply versus a finite amount of time. The other enjoys the time there is, in the doing of enjoyable things; not just the completing of them.

It’s a subtle thing; often the identical activities, but with a slightly different mental approach – enjoying the journey, not racing to complete as much as possible before the end.

Diced Relevant-Complexity

Having codified it three years ago, I amply proved the central premise of relevantcomplexity.com:

“But then, subtly and imperceptibly, sometimes even the things we once enjoyed the most, tail off into familiarity, boredom and ennui.”

I got bored of it.

Thanks goodness for Sonja Lyubomorsky… in the How of Happiness (which is also a website here) she sets out compelling evidence for two things which have really helped me this winter:

1) Hedonic Adaptation: pretty much anything which happens in your life – house move, significant gain or loss, any purchase from car to Concorde – you will have adapted to within three months; and then very importantly…

2) Happiness Set Point: you always return, inexorably, to your genetically determined default happiness setting; as proven by identical and non-identical twin studies. If you’re a miserable so and so, you likely always will be; if you’re a ray of sunlight, the same. Identical twins separated – with completely different life circumstances – have almost identical happiness levels. Non-identical twins living near identical lives, have widely divergent default happiness levels.

This sounds like a recipe for Stoicism (of which more anon). But the good news is you can better your Happiness Set Point – not by getting a better job, car or house… but by tricking yourself. The only way to beat your Happiness Set Point is to catch yourself out!

This explains (and links) my experience with Relevant Complexity and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”. My Happiness Set Point is a comparatively gloomy one. I was (initially) enjoying Relevant Complexity because of the variety and novelty. Then Hedonic Adaptation kicked in, “flow” went away – and inexorably and inevitably like a Newton’s Cradle I returned to my default ‘same old same old’ Happiness Set Point and lost enthusiasm for Relevant Complexity.

But now I’m back! The secret? Dice…

As Sonja Lyubomirsky sets out, the key is to trick yourself. So now I have dice and lists. When I’m pottering in the kitchen: the dice decide whether I’ll listen to a podcast, an audio book, the news in Italian, classical music, 80s hits, footie or talk radio. And each time I get bored; simple – roll again.

Similarly in a morning instead of fighting the randomness of which bus arrives first (and it’s never the one I want) I’m just hopping on. Make some progress, watch the world go by and change where there are more options. Embracing – even imposing – randomness seems to brighten up both me and my day. And it has certainly got me back doing the Relevant Complexity thing again.

But I’m not kidding myself… I’ve got three months before I have to come up with something new; you can’t cheat Hedonic Adaptation and your Happiness Set Point for long!

What I’d spend a $billion on…

There is so much that is shocking about this book; I almost can’t begin…

West Coast life is a million miles from South-East London; but there’s something in the heady mix of crazy diets, dotcom startups and whopping egos which makes Tools of Titans a veritable page turner… albeit I have it on Kindle so no one can see I’m reading it!

In fairness, author Tim Ferriss says right up the front that not all of it is for everyone. But I have to say I’ve picked up five or six things from the lists, watchwords and obsessions of the featured folk which are actually rather transformational.

Five rep weights, Kettlebells, cracking down on carbs, single ‘golden’ rules and (in an otherwise toxic chapter featuring a right old narcissist) a moment of clarity on the thing I’d spend a $billion on – if someone gave me $1bn to change the world… I’d promote Learned Optimism à la Martin Seligman.

Optimism – and crucially the fact you can indeed ‘learn’ it – is perhaps the single most important thing I’ve discovered in my adult life. Shame I didn’t find that out until just under two years ago!

Everything improves with optimism. Well worth remembering given the state of the world in 2017.

So here’s to 2018; a shiny new optimistic year. And thanks to Tim Ferriss for reminding me.

The Lancaster

In years gone by I used to liken one of my old colleagues to a WWII Lancaster bomber.

You could always rely on her to slowly but surely drone towards the required organisational target; drop her bombs all over it, and chug back over the North Sea – usually with a rueful smile, half a wing blown off and one of her engines misfiring.

In that era I fancied myself more the de Havilland Mosquito: fast, accurate – but lightly armoured; the ideal pathfinder.

Now I realise it’s my turn to be the Lancaster pilot.

Thankless (and at times seemingly pointless) long lonely missions; flying through the dark; constant flak and regular strafing; searchlights hunting you down; uneven inexperienced crews – no sooner back from one mission before back in the cockpit again toward another improbable and impregnable target.

But the penny dropped the other week; this is what my kind of job now is. A big operational job is much more Bomber Command than fast reconnaissance and precision bombing with an expert co-pilot.

Resilience, calm under fire, keeping a crew intact and in the sky; and taking it one day at a time are the thing. The Lancaster wasn’t the prettiest machine, but it got the job done.

This footage I found – from the cockpit radio of a Lancaster on two raids in 1943 – is a sobering listen. There’s plenty of tension at 20,000 feet, but spare a thought for the destruction down below.

Makes my modest troubles seem small beer indeed; it took something special to fly a Lancaster.

Exocets

I texted the person I’m slowly turning into late last night:

“Phew wee – a really stretching week… grievances, gross misconduct, controversial and risky things to land before Xmas and much change being imposed.”

“I suspect like you at a similar stage – I am strangely both deeply affected and also somewhat distant in my reaction to all this – it matters and it affects me; but much of it is not my doing and not in my gift to change.”

“A dawning of a more realistic sense of personal responsibility and the limits thereof?”

Maybe so.

I also have fought off the desire to compete, undermine and fight back in the face of many provocations these last weeks. And this is a lesson well learned…

As I also admitted to my pal:

“One of the bigger lessons of recent years was that firing two Exocets into an adversary’s hull damaged me below the waterline more surely than it did them.”

It has been hard; but I’ve largely managed to let go of a week of days packed without pause with relentless interpersonal aggro.

As I sit here listening to happy tunes in the school carpark (having chosen to save my eldest from a cold walk home from dancing) I have refound my equilibrium, equanimity – and the all important inner peace.

It gets the blood up; but Exocets just aren’t worth firing.

Happy Tracks

Sitting in the car singing along, I’m reminded to be eternally grateful for one of Chris Croft’s top tips from the Big Book of Happiness: get yourself a playlist of ‘Happy Tracks’.

Quite simply these are pieces of music which always make you happy. I’ve been building and editing mine for a year; and it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

From Sinatra to Leadbelly, Beyoncé to Chumbawumba, Finlandia to Bach; I’ve got every genre. Some came from the radio, some from Spotify – one I was reminded of over a supermarket tannoy…

But wherever I am: standing crushed by the stairs on a fully loaded bus, schlepping across a windswept Waterloo Bridge or bowling along on a Santander bike; ‘Happy Tracks’ reliably puts me on top of the world.

Happy days.

Dog tired

He’s a lovely little fella, but phew! As predicted; a puppy is a whole lot of work.

Still it’s a joyful business. And despite finding myself breathing mist: in a bobble hat, an old coat and a pair of crocs; chucking a stuffed squeaky toy for him at 6am this morning (for the tenth day running) it’s nice to have a dog about the house.

Life’s all about choices in the end. The house is a tip; the brief idealistic moment (after we moved two houses) of thinking we might get the place sorted and tidy is almost forgotten.

But a tidy house and a tidy life is a shrinking life – a puppy creates mess and disorder. That’s no bad thing.

A bit more sleep wouldn’t go amiss though!

Dam; Busted

After a month of refusal, obstruction and obfuscation… on Monday the dam finally broke.

Under siege from my other and better half, out thought and out argued by my eldest; and finally advised to throw in the towel by my youngest… I gave in. Tomorrow we drive to the south coast to pick up a small brindled bundle of energy and potential joy called Romeo.

My daughter’s well argued PowerPoint put a massive crack in my defences

Our friends bringing his sister Winnie round last weekend brought the proposition to life…

So tomorrow we embark on by my guesstimate circa 17 years of having a hound again. Here he is looking rather down in the mouth with his breeder:

Albeit I know I’ll end up schlepping around in the rain, cold and dark for myriad hours as a result; I also know – in my heart of hearts – this is a statement of genuine optimism.

A dog brings mess, bother, responsibility, cost and ultimately great sadness – in their inevitable and sometimes painfully protracted decline. But a dog also brings joy, unconditional love and companionship; no one more pleased to see you when you open the door than a dog.

Every home is a happier home with a hound.

And so to our old dog. Poor old Mr Tumnus went downhill very badly in his last months; but he was a very fine hound for a good 7 years. It has taken half a decade but it’s time to welcome another big fella into our lives.