I’ve just finished another terrific Coursera course with the University of Leiden, this time on the Cosmopolitan Medieval Arabic World. As promised by the course leader, a number of my preconceptions and beliefs about this place and time in history have changed…
The sophistication of medieval Baghdad, the mixing and mingling of peoples and cultures, the virtuous circle of stability, good rule and prosperity from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East and across the arc of the Turkic silk route to China; all these and more brought technological, intellectual, medical, social and philosophical advances.
So, nice to see some of that encapsulated in a useful aphorism, which dropped into my inbox on Monday; and that I’ve quoted three times this week:
He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare,
He who has one enemy will meet him everywhere.
Ali ibn-Abi-Talib c.602–661, fourth Islamic caliph: A Hundred Sayings
I first started to realise this about enemies in my late thirties, and learnt some formative lessons in making one or two in my forties. But I’ve only really fully embraced the truth of the matter post 50…
It is really really really not worth gratuitously falling out with people. There’s pretty much always an amicable way forward and it’s always worth seeking one.
Life is good. And as I was saying to an old friend yesterday Covid has certainly helped me to get a better balance in my life. A change of job, no time wasted on public transport, and an enhanced ability to manage my own time and energy are among the dividends of this pandemic.
So, encouraging to read in the New Scientist this week that terminal decline isn’t something to worry too much about either:
While 20-somethings may win a sprint, performance in many other sports can reach a high later in life. That’s not to mention factors like emotional well-being and mental discipline, which rise and fall in unexpected patterns. And despite nostalgia for the joys of youth, for most of us, our happiest days are actually yet to come.
And I must say that’s certainly how it feels to me. The New Scientist suggests there are seven stages:
CHILDHOOD The era for original thinking and imagination.
ADOLESCENCE The peak of curiosity and risk taking, which reaps rewards in later life.
TWENTIES The fast years, but are they really the happiest?
THIRTIES When superpowers of endurance make up for any loss of speed.
FORTIES A peak time for emotional intelligence and ability to focus.
FIFTIES AND SIXTIES Reaping the rewards of your crystallised intelligence.
SEVENTY-PLUS A peak time for wise reasoning and making the best decisions.
I’m not sure I entirely recognise all these. I was fabulously unfit in my early thirties, and the brain scrambling effect of young children means I can’t remember much of our early 40s. Also I’m not entirely thrilled about being lumped in with sixty-somethings… (Sorry sixty-somethings!)
Still adding crystallised to emotional intelligence is certainly one of the gifts of your 50s. So long as you can keep fit and guard against cynicism, it helps to have seen a good many things happen before.
As the article says:
Contrary to popular opinion, humans seem to have evolved to flourish into middle age and beyond.
A good friend of mine told me this a decade ago. He wasn’t wrong.
Up before 7am – a cup of tea made, the bed stripped and sheets in the washer before 9am. Out to the shops before several of them were open, and it’s a Saturday!
What’s going on?
18 months without drinking is what’s going on… Who’d have thought it? Not me that’s for sure. Least of all when I wrote this blog on New Year’s Day 2020.
Still (as subsequent reading has helped me realise) the signs and signals were there some while before. Five years ago in fact:
And then more recently:
So how did we get here? Two books, some Lego, a flower and a podcast…
Book one, by Simon Chapple, spoke to my cultural background as a middle aged British bloke; and dealt with my conscious mind:
Reading this led me to book two, by Annie Grace, which gave me stories, science and neuroscience; this dealt with my subconscious mind:
To get through the first days in early Jan 2020 (and it sustained me through the onset of the pandemic and more) I bought myself a Lego ‘clock’ which I converted into a day counter:
The flower is the carnivorous pitcher plant. It lures unsuspecting insects in search of a pool of delicious sweet nectar. Some varieties have a gentle slope which invites you in. Indiscernibly the insects passes a point of no-return. And then ‘plop’, into the drink and a sticky end.
The argument is we’re all inexorably wandering down the enticing slope of the pitcher plant with alcohol. It’s just a question of whether we’re meandering, or marching purposefully.
Finally, regular reinforcement as been helped by a podcast series, which is so culturally different for me (largely American, deeply personal life stories, mainly from women) that I find it incredibly powerful. It gets through my residual subconscious resistance to the reality of alcohol:
In sum, it’s a bit like when I quit smoking; thoroughly disgusted with myself after smoking three packs (and drinking a skinful) at a wedding in 2001. I’ve not had a cigarette since. I think I’d just had enough – and reminding myself of quitting smoking certainly helped on the odd day I’ve fancied a drink since 2019.
I can’t see myself going back though; and this week has given me a couple of reminders why.
Heading indoors to a pub (for the first time since lockdown) on Monday to celebrate a friend’s birthday, I arrived to find tequila shots already on the table. I smiled and said:
“Sorry chaps, I’m still not drinking.”
A few disappointed and incredulous looks, but people are getting used to it now. I ordered a low alcohol Erdinger and settled in for the evening.
Two and a half hours later it was getting on for time to leave. A half-hearted shout went up for “One more beer?” Everyone was tired, we’d had a good laugh and it was a ‘school night’ so there were mumbles of “Not for me”, “I’m good” etc. But then the inevitable happened in the ‘world of men’… someone pressed the group into “one more”. Another shot of tequila. I smiled and said I’m off.
As any heavyweight boxer will tell you (if they still can) it’s the late-career, late round punches that do all the damage. Into our fifties at past 11pm on a Monday night, we have no business doing shots. That’s a younger man’s game. I’m glad to be out of it.
And so to this morning. Bright, alert, healthy, happy, well-rested and ready for my day. And the only explanation (and it takes a year for the brain to rewire, the chemicals to rebalance and the urge to hit the alcohol ‘kill switch’ and turn your mind off to pass) is the absence of alcohol from my life.
Listening to the BBC’s In Our Time on French mathematician and polymath Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), I rather enjoyed Napoleon’s quote on his old teacher – whom he briefly made Minister of the Interior for all of six weeks.
His work was important to the development of engineering, mathematics, statistics, physics, astronomy, and philosophy. Laplace is remembered as one of the greatest scientists of all time. Sometimes referred to as the French Newton he has been described as possessing a phenomenal natural mathematical faculty superior to that of any of his contemporaries. He was Napoleon’s examiner when Napoleon attended the École Militaire in Paris in 1784.
Napoleon clearly rated him, but soon realised not even the finest minds are good for everything…
“Geometrician of the first rank, Laplace was not long in showing himself a worse than average administrator; from his first actions in office we recognized our mistake. Laplace did not consider any question from the right angle: he sought subtleties everywhere, conceived only problems.”
But the killer line is this:
Il portait enfin l’esprit des ‘infiniment petits’ jusque dans l’administration.
In the end, he brought the spirit of the ‘infinitely small’ to matters administrative.
Poor old Laplace; but having worked in universities I know exactly how Napoleon felt… Allez!
No-one would have wished for the pandemic. But it does help with one thing – the appreciation of simple pleasures. Last evening we had our favourite Chinese takeaway and enjoyed ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ as a family.
This morning: a fry up with sausages and bacon all round. And I sneaked a cheeky fried egg into the pan, just for me. I can’t remember the last time I had a fried egg.
And my head is going to explode if I have to stay tuned to any more thoroughly-middle-class ‘easy listening’. Sorry, I love the BBC but this is too much.
So why am I doing it?
Because I’m supervising this little bundle of life, who is bringing joy, and leaping, and pouncing, and chewing, and chasing into our lives again.
BBC Radio 4 is intended to bring soothing narcolepsy to her new kitchen home.
It’s like having a baby again; bursts of all-action energy and spells of total inactivity. Still, it’s doing me good.
I read a good piece of advice in the week, which is, whatever your faith (or lack of it) everyone should have a Sabbath; a day of rest where you sit, relax and put jobs aside. I’ve not been properly idle forever.
Despite The Archers, it’s good to sit still for a few hours on a Sunday; especially with a warm puppy in your lap.
After years (and especially the last year) of constant emails, texts and troubles, this week the tone has changed.
My last two jobs have been all about problems: building failures, system crashes, unhappy people, complaints, campaigns, strikes and unreasonable and unrealistic senior folk.
As a result every time I put my phone down I was expecting another electric shock to come my way – via text, WhatsApp or email. Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon pick your hour, there’d be someone who’d find something to trouble me about.
Of course 2020 takes some beating for stuff going wrong (plus a tree smashed our studio and the dog has now died) but in truth, I’ve been suffering pretty much constant electric shocks from work since 2005.
So imagine my delight this (Saturday) morning to find no new problems in my inbox. No texts. No WhatsApps…
How long it will last who knows. But not having to look after the reputation of a national institution or the operations of a multi-campus university certainly made my day today.
A difficult week given the untimely demise of our beloved pup; but I am finally released from the shackles of a job which often made me feel helpless and hopeless.
After crying my eyes out on Tuesday as the vet put Romeo to sleep, on Wednesday I began to tackle the domestic to do list: tidying and odd jobs. By yesterday evening I’d got as far as completing my tax return… a process and sense of achievement nicely encapsulated by Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, here:
Today I have cycled, walked, made sausage sandwiches for breakfast, sorted our evening meal, done my washing, and now am sitting socially distanced outside a little cafe with a nice flat white. I feel a bit like Atlas the robot below, tentatively upbeat…
But there’s no getting away from the fact that this week will always be remembered for our lost little dog; he tried, but after his stroke, never could quite get back to his feet.
The great Dutch philosopher Spinoza has always appealed to me; but all the more so now I’ve studied more psychology.
Spinoza’s ethics are ‘naturalistic’ and spring from simple real-world causes. There is no divine origin or human uniqueness. Everything stems from the simple proposition (as Michael LeBuffe explains in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that:
Human beings desire whatever will bring joy and are averse to whatever will lead to sadness.
This fits beautifully with modern psychological theories that, along with animals, we have one of two basic reactions to everything: approach or avoid. And it all stems from a simple, unquenchable, animalistic drive which Spinoza describes thus:
Both insofar as the mind has clear and distinct ideas, and insofar as it has confused ideas, it strives, for an indefinite duration, to persevere in its being and it is conscious of this striving it has.
Spinoza’s ‘passions’ are the manifestations of this striving, as LeBuffe describes them:
Human passions are for Spinoza changes, that is, increases or decreases, in the power with which we, or parts of us, strive.
And again, as modern psychology suggests, Spinoza suggests a lot of what drives us is subliminal and below the level of consciousness:
Between appetite and desire there is no difference, except that desire is generally related to men insofar as they are conscious of the appetite. So desire can be defined as appetite together with consciousness of the appetite.
And the mind is constantly on the lookout for ‘perfection’ via more ‘joy’ and less ‘sadness’.
By Joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion by which the mind passes to a greater perfection. And by Sadness, that passion by which it passes to a lesser perfection.
All of which drives our actions or ‘striving’ accordingly:
We strive to promote the occurrence of whatever we imagine will lead to joy, and to avert or destroy what we imagine is contrary to it, or will lead to sadness.
And virtue for Spinoza is simply ‘correctly’ striving:
Consciously trying to preserve oneself is right and neglecting to preserve oneself is wrong.
The more each one strives, and is able, to seek his own advantage, i.e., to preserve his being, the more he is endowed with virtue; conversely, insofar as each one neglects his own advantage, i.e., neglects to preserve his own being, he lacks power.
All very simple – but we’re pretty complex in our motivations aren’t we? All that complexity comes from our reaction to other people and things; or as Spinoza has them ‘objects’.
There are as many species of Joy, Sadness and Desire, and consequently of each affect composed of these (like vacillation of mind) or derived from them (like love, hate, hope, fear, etc.), as there are objects (i.e. things) by which we are affected.
And a key part of achieving virtue, and correctly developing and using our ‘power’ of right action, is developing ‘clear and distinct ideas’ on things. As LeBuffe explains:
When I do something that fails to help me to persevere, it’s because the ideas on which I based my action were confused; that is, I thought I knew what would help me to persevere, but I was wrong.
When I do something that does help me to persevere, though (unless I have simply been lucky in acting from an inadequate idea), it is because I acted on clear and distinct ideas or, in other words, genuine knowledge about what would help me to persevere.
And this of course is a life’s work; coming to know ourselves, understand others and appreciate how the world works.
But does this mean there is no objective good and bad? Looks like it… For Spinoza:
As far as good and evil are concerned, they also indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another. For one and the same thing can be good, and [evil], and also indifferent. For example, Music is good for one who is melancholy, [evil to] one who is mourning, and neither good nor [evil] to one who is deaf.
Truth is, as Spinoza sees it, they are the other way around:
It is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.
LeBuffe concludes we need to stop kidding ourselves:
The ideal we set before ourselves will be a person who possesses the greatest possible power of action. This would be, in effect, to correlate our systematically distorted ways of perceiving ourselves—as free agents pursuing as an end a model of human nature—with the causes that really determine our actions.
So does this mean anything goes?
No, because we live in community, society and constant connection with myriad others, each with their own delusions, desires, passions and ideas of what’s good and bad; and that 100% creates our context.
And so as Susan Jones explained in Philosophy Bites in December 2007, Spinoza’s sage advice is to find a ‘community’ whose values you share – as he himself did. Because given how small our ‘power’ to influence events, people, ourselves and human nature truly is, you won’t make much headway in changing one you don’t.
And this piece of Spinoza’s advice – from across time and place – is part of why I’m changing jobs next month.
Peterson’s work bears more than a passing resemblance to Aristotle’s virtues, strengths and character deficits:
Notably Aristotle doesn’t have ‘humour’ in his list per se; instead he has ‘wittiness’ in the virtue of ‘conversation’ and ‘friendliness’ in the virtue of ‘social conduct’.
Now, following Aristotle’s logic, I can see why I’m not laughing much – laughter is a social thing more than a personal humour, joking or consuming ‘funniness’ thing. You need people for laughter. It’s infectious and contagious. And given the other infectious contagious thing out there right now, we’re just not rubbing along with people as much. Too little witty conversation and not enough scope for seeing friends. No wonder I’m laughing less.
And this chimes with Professor Sophie Scott’s work on laughter – in a nutshell you’re 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re with somebody else than if you’re alone…
We typically link laughter and humour very profoundly, but the link may not be as close as we imagine. When I started working with laughter, as part of my work into vocal emotional expressions, I always used to refer to it as “amusement”. However, our lay understanding of laughter is not quite on the ball – while we do laugh at jokes and comedy, we laugh most in social situations.
Watching comedies on my own on Netflix (as I’ve tried) doesn’t really do the job. Watching comedies with the family does… Not so surprising, as Scott’s research shows:
Laughter, like yawning, is behaviourally contagious, and we can catch it easily from other people, especially if we know them.
And it matters too – Peterson is right ‘dourness’ is bad for you and as Sophie Scott concludes:
In short, we do laugh because of humour and jokes, but we laugh mostly because of love and affection. We laugh to share meaning and understanding, to make ourselves feel better, to reaffirm relationships and to make new ones. It’s probably time to be taking our laughter more seriously.
So laughter is far less about ‘funnies’ and far more about conversations and friendship. On reflection, I have actually been laughing a bit lately – on Zooms with people at work.
Laughter is a highly infectious social phenomenon, and Scott’s work explains why the other one – Covid-19 – is getting in the way; I need to phone a few more friends!