Of Kings

Man or woman, royal or republican, political or organisational – anyone who leads or seeks to should reflect on this…

Josef Pieper once again makes the truth limpid – in order for there to be justice, there must be authority; but when that authority is vested in a person, if they are bad there is nothing that can stop injustice.

This perhaps explains the state of the world today – there aren’t too many ‘just rulers’ about…

Of course it’s not easy:

The lesson here is: political nous and worldly wisdom i.e. ‘prudentia‘ and ‘temperantia‘ (self management) might get you there; but if you take a position of responsibility ‘guarding justice’ is your job.

Cardiac Coherence

I’d forgotten all about cardiac coherence having first read (and written) about it in 2010. But finding it again is a wonderful thing…

As I put it to someone at work: what’s not to like about about a regular feeling of ‘lightness, warmth and expansion in your chest?’

Even better when it becomes something you sometimes default to; as I found listening to Happy Tracks on a busy bus into work this week.

Here’s what it is and how you do it from David Servan-Schreiber’s wonderful ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’:

Enjoy.

: )

Cathedral or Cave II

Whew, I’ve been hard at it recently. And as so often: intractable problems, helping people who are struggling and taking on more than I should; all of which have taken their toll.

But also – as increasingly often these last ten years – I’ve caught myself just in time…

Flagging, tired and increasingly irascible, I had the good sense to book this Friday off and as I texted to a great friend, here’s what I did with it:

For my part I walked the hound and then slept from 9.30am to 11.40am with the dog by my side, and then again from 2.30pm to 5.50pm similarly. I feel a deep basin of fatigue has been considerably drained. My biggest problem in life has always been that I need more sleep than most people.

I also coughed the other truth about myself last weekend – I like people; but they tire me out. And very very helpfully, I have been excused some social outings subsequently.

Which reminded me of this – written eight years ago…

I’m more cave than cathedral I increasingly think. I need more sleep and more time alone than most people:

Cathedral or Cave?

I imagine Aristotle, like the Acropolis, as more Cathedral. The reclusive poet Emily Dickinson would be more cave. Montaigne, perhaps old Paris; earthy rumbustious streets and deep reflective catacombs. 

I’ve been toying with Nietzsche’s idea that our ‘will to power’ is either expressed in the real world or forcibly turned in.

For him, we create a complex inner life in proportion to the scale of our drive we cannot express externally. It’s an interesting thought.

Complex interesting people tend to have a good deal of both – rich inner lives and fulfilling outer ones. But not always. Nietzsche credits civilisation with curbing the capacity to express our animal instincts externally – driving them inwards. This unexpressed energy drives our inner lives – our conscience, guilt and creativity.

I think regularly about the balance of inner and external. I don’t feel I have the ‘will to power’ for a full ‘Cathedral’ in the external world. Too much competition, conflict, one-upmanship and strife in seeking grandeur. I fear I’d lose my health, precious time with my family and my happiness if I allowed a ‘grand projet’ or personal aggrandisement to consume me. 

Talking to a friend – who is a decade older than me – this week, I felt a bit guilty. He has real fire in his belly for systemic reform, transformational change and the great debates of public policy. I said I’m just not attracted to any of that right now. 

We talked about using our talents and our responsibility to improve the lot of others…

He started his career as a lone residential social worker – on a tough housing estate. Beer bottles bounced off the cage that surrounded his outpost all night.

That’s where his fire still comes from. It drives him to want to improve the scaffolding and superstructure of the nation’s health and social care system.

I don’t have that. I’m more a family chapel with a good sized intellectual cellar. My projects are more local and small scale – my family, the people around me.

But never say never. The world is an unpredictable place. Gaudi started with lamp posts and squat schoolhouses, so I suppose you never really know what you might build one brick at a time.

Courage II

Image result for red lightning

I spoke to two different people this week about ‘red energy’ and ‘blue energy’; and I couldn’t remember when I’d first noted the difference. So I had a look back in time… turns out it was in this very month in 2011…

Funny when you look back how themes recur, because in one of those conversations I was talking about Josef Pieper – and the balance between the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Courage and Temperance.

As it was yesterday, so it was in 2011 – sometimes it’s good to look back; but not in anger.

Courage

I’ve been working in the USA this week – same language, quite different working cultures. Still Brits talking to Americans is easy enough. But add Germans, South Africans, Sudanese, Cameroonians, Central African Republicans, French, Colombians, Turks, Japanese and Koreans – and an age range from 18 to 70 and you have plenty of difference to accommodate.

The very different people I was working with cared about very different things. They wanted to talk about different things and wanted to do different things. My job was to facilitate and find a collective conclusion. Enough to give me a thumping headache. But not this time. Why?

Usually on overseas work trips the combination of travel, missed sleep, wall-to-wall meetings, some sort of set piece event to speak at and produce an outcome from – plus lunch meetings and formal dinners – gives me a throbbing headache by 3pm on day one. It then goes on to throb the whole time I’m away. But this time, no headache. Why? Mainly thanks to an Aristotelian virtue – drawing my courage a little more from confidence than fear.

When I first read: “Courage is the mean between confidence and fear” it didn’t seem a particularly significant insight. My first thought was Aristotle was on about ‘courage’ in the sense of ‘fight or flight’ – there was after all a lot of fighting in ancient Greece. Given the clank of metal and the clash of swords is rarer these days, I didn’t think much about Aristotelian courage – one for the battlefield I thought. Who knows whether I’d stand and fight or run into a hail of bullets. Hopefully I’ll never find out. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see Aristotle’s point with ‘courage’ is as much about motivation as action.

I’ve come to realise that from school to university to the bigger world of work, I’ve used fear of failure as my prime motivation to perform. And it has always worked. Fear failure, worry the detail, think of what might go wrong, fire up the adrenaline, run flat out on intellectual broadband and the job gets done – and well. But at what cost? Stress, tiredness, raggedness, fraught, strung out and brittle.

So, thanks to Aristotle, once, a few months ago, when I started to feel the rising tide of anxiety and the throb of the vein in my head – the feeling of spotting and galvanising myself for another tough challenge – I stopped myself. I stopped myself from firing up my fear generator: what might go wrong, might I fail, what will people say, will I look like a duffer – and the killer: will someone say I did a bad job?

Instead I fumbled in my kitbag for something else – confidence. This could go well, I know how to do this sort of thing, I’ll be fine, who’s better than me to do this – and if someone says I did a bad job, so what, I’ll learn from it. The first few times I tried to do it I’d readily flip back to fear. I’d have to concentrate hard to find the courageous ‘golden mean’ with confidence. But with practice I’m learning how to plug in and stay more connected to confidence. And the courage to do new things with a smile flows from there.

As Aristotle said:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence [arete in his words], then, is not an act, but a habit.”

To help me form the habit, I’ve started to think of Aristotle’s courage as a choice between two different forms of energy. One is red, electrical, crackling and spitting like lightning or charge sparking from a Tesla coil – fear. The other is blue, pure, unwavering like a beam of laser light – confidence.

Both work. Both help me get the job done. But the red form is hot, sparky, volatile and the toxic by-products pollute my environment. The blue form is cool, reliable and powers me with clean reusable, renewable and sustainable energy.

In the USA I was running on ‘blue energy’ – better mastering myself, enjoying the experience more, enjoying the different people, performing and getting the job done. No headaches, heartaches, worries or lost sleep. I came home quietly pleased, quietly satisfied and with a spot more confidence to draw on.

Day to day courage, like the battlefield kind, is the mean between confidence and fear. Developing Aristotelian virtue and excellence is simply developing good habits. And, I’ve come to realise, what is at stake, is developing the courage to live a confident happy life – not one haunted by the spectre of constant fears, real or imagined.

Randomness

I was talking this week about ‘chucking some random numbers’ at my career; which I think some people listening thought might be bit reckless.

But in fact what I have in mind is well grounded in computer science.

A pseudorandomly generated bitmap – Wikipedia

Going back and listening again to ‘Algorithms to live by’ out walking the dog today, I was reminded that there are excellent design, creativity and evolutionary reasons to ‘chuck in’ a bit of randomness…

After all, life is all about optimisation.

Being randomly jittered, thrown out of the frame and focused on a larger scale, provides a way to leave what might be locally good and get back to the pursuit of what might be globally optimal.

But there are (and should be) limits:

The cult classic 1971 novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (real name: George Cockcroft) provides a cautionary tale. Its narrator, a man who replaces decision-making with dice rolling, quickly ends up in situations that most of us would probably like to avoid.

I remember flirting with The Dice Man in the 1990s – and it’s a young man’s game… Later on in life there’s much more at stake.

But maybe it’s more about how, and how much:

If the Dice Man had only had a deeper grasp of computer science, he’d have had some guidance.

‘Algorithms’ says there are three golden rules; first, from ‘Hill Climbing‘:

Even if you’re in the habit of sometimes acting on bad ideas, you should always act on good ones.

Second from the ‘Metropolis Algorithm’:

Your likelihood of following a bad idea should be inversely proportional to how bad an idea it is.

And third from ‘Simulated Annealing‘:

You should front-load randomness, rapidly cooling out of a totally random state, using ever less and less randomness as time goes on, lingering longest as you approach freezing. Temper yourself—literally.

And that’s that the original Dice Man did too:

Cockcroft himself apparently turned, not unlike his protagonist, to “dicing” for a time in his life, living nomadically with his family on a Mediterranean sailboat, in a kind of Brownian slow motion.

At some point, however, his annealing schedule cooled off: he settled down comfortably into a local maximum, on a lake in upstate New York.

Sometimes you need to know when you’re in a good place:

Now in his eighties, he’s still contentedly there. “Once you got somewhere you were happy,” he told the Guardian, “you’d be stupid to shake it up any further.”

Writing

Here’s to Eric Barker, who more than once has put me on a better track. His weekly writings are well worth signing up for here in my humble opinion.

He’s given me a handy reminder that apart from anything else, there are good mental health reasons for writing stuff down:

We ruminate endlessly but that just makes things worse. When you’re merely thinking about your problems, you hop, skip and jump all over the place, never resolving one issue before moving on to the next. Writing forces us to put a structure around life. To make sense of it.

And it’s not just about venting:

The effects were not due to simple catharsis or the venting of pent-up emotions. In fact, the people who just blew off steam by venting their feelings without any thoughtful analysis tended to fare worse…Talking or writing about the source of our problems without self-reflection merely adds to our distress…

Writing is about codifying and coming to a deeper understanding…

The authors asked students to write about their thoughts and feelings about their lives. Those who showed more deep-level thinking along with constructive problem solving were less depressed later and had fewer health care visits. Those students who merely expressed their emotions and described their anxiety had more health care visits…

A large number of good scientific studies conclude that the mere expression of emotion is usually not beneficial on its own. Rather, people typically must learn to recognize and identify their emotional reactions to events.

In effect:

Once you understand something, once you can find a place for it in the story of your life, that’s when you can put it behind you and move on.

And, that’s just one of the many reasons it seems to me (and to science) that regular writing is so important…

Here’s where the some of the science comes from:

More than thirty years ago there was a guy named Jamie, his marriage was in the toilet, and he was utterly depressed. Despite having big problems, he didn’t go to a therapist. (Which is ironic because Jamie was a graduate student in psychology, of all things.)

Instead he started writing. A lot. He wrote about his marriage, his career, his childhood. He basically covered every serious issue in his life and how he felt about it. And then something happened… He felt better. A lot better. And he realized how much his wife meant to him. They resolved their issues. Then he had a thought:

“Maybe writing might help anyone feel better about their struggles in life.

And being a psychology grad student, he did a study to test the theory… And he was right. Since that first paper was published in 1986 hundreds of other studies have shown the power of expressive writing to help people. In the thirty-plus years since, many students on the University of Texas at Austin campus have come up to Professor James Pennebaker and said:

“You don’t remember me, but I was in your experiment a year ago. I just wanted to thank you. It changed my life.”

James Pennebaker is the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Pennebaker’s book is: “Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain”

Cheerfulness

My New Year’s resolution is… cheerfulness.

A couple of years ago I cracked optimism. But so many people aren’t – even though it’s a learnable skill – that cheerfulness seems a better common denominator.

I’ll be trying my best to live up to the dictionary definition above.

So my resolution is:

To make it hard for others to be grumpy in the face of my hearty brand of cheerfulness!

What’s not to like?

Whatever else is going on in the world, this is my best contribution. Let the year of cheerfulness begin…

Hilaritas mentis

After a full (and indeed a fulfilling) schedule of festive feasts and gatherings; the final set piece hoves into view – the big one: New Year’s Eve…

Classically the ‘bridge too far’, I usually approach New Year’s Eve with a heavy heart and a bulging acid stomach. But not this year!

Perhaps in part thanks to Josef Pieper and St Thomas Aquinas.

Last night I finished ‘The Four Cardinal Virtues’ and found myself reflecting on temperantia which Wikipedia has thus:

Temperance is defined as moderation or voluntary self-restraint. It is typically described in terms of what an individual voluntarily refrains from doing.

Temperantia, by Luca Giordano (Wikipedia)

But not for Josef Pieper, who offers a typically full blooded rebuttal of this ‘modern’ interpretation:

The meaning of “temperance” has dwindled miserably to the crude significance of “temperateness in eating and drinking.” We may add that this term is applied chiefly, if not exclusively, to the designation of mere quantity, just as “intemperance” seems to indicate only excess.

He continues:

Needless to say, “temperance” limited to this meaning cannot even remotely hint at the true nature of temperantia, to say nothing of expressing its full content.

Temperantia has a wider significance and a higher rank: it is a cardinal virtue, one of the four hinges on which swings the gate of life.

Boom!

Discipline, moderation, chastity, do not in themselves constitute the perfection of man. By preserving and defending order in man himself, temperantia creates the indispensable prerequisite for both the realization of actual good and the actual movement of man toward his goal.

Which kinda makes sense. So what of the gustatory arts? St Augustine offers a very reasonable take:

It is a matter of indifference what or how much a man eats, provided the welfare of those with whom he is associated, his own welfare and the requirements of health be not disregarded; what matters is just one thing, namely, the ease and cheerfulness of heart with which he is able to renounce food if necessity or moral obligation require it.

To which Thomas Aquinas adds pithily.

To oppress one’s body by exaggerated fasting and vigils is like bringing stolen goods as a sacrificial offering.

And furthermore:

If one knowingly abstained from wine to the point of oppressing nature seriously, he would not be free of guilt;”

After all as Pieper points out, the Bible says:

“When you fast, do not shew it by gloomy looks!” (Matt. 6, 16).

Because it transpires, the whole point of temperantia is to keep heart and soul happy and healthy – no more and no less. For as Pieper warns:

All discipline… bears in itself the constant danger of the loss of self-detachment, and of a change into self-righteousness, which draws from its ascetic “achievements” the profit of a solid self-admiration.

And we wouldn’t want that on New Year’s Eve, would we?

Instead, having eaten, drunk and been adequately merry (and stayed on the right side of 11 stone this Xmas) I’ll follow Pieper’s advice and crank out another evening of hilaritas mentis – namely: cheerfulness of heart.

Here’s to temperantia!

Keep on rollin’

Attracted by algorithms some while back, I bought myself this audiobook… it sounded like exactly what I was looking for:

I found it hard going if I’m honest. Listening at 1.25x speed helped.

But while the ‘optimisation problems’ of public parking turned out to be vaguely useful at work, my heart sank a bit the other Saturday when rolling the ‘relevant complexity’ dice served up the answer: ‘Audiobook’…

…Ho hum. But you have to trust the dice.

And sure enough ‘Algorithms to live by’ proved the point; the chapter on ‘Randomness’ validates a lot of what I’ve been trying recently:

Recent work in computer science has shown that there are cases where randomized algorithms can produce good approximate answers to difficult questions faster than all known deterministic algorithms.

One problem they help with is ‘Hill climbing’ and local maxima.

At any point in life – however much you’ve perfected it, the risk is it could still be better. Like a climber in the mist, you know you’re in a good place – but there might be an even better one you can’t see for the fog.

And randomness is the way to find out.

Try something a bit different and you can find out whether you’re at the top of a small hill of possibilities – or surveying the entire range from the highest vantage point.

The truth of life is: you never can know if you’re stuck in a local maximum. But the odd throw of the dice now has the full weight of computer science behind it!

Keep on rollin!

Mere Civility

sɪˈvɪlɪti [noun] – formal politeness and courtesy in behaviour or speech: “I hope we can treat each other with civility and respect.” Courtesy, courteousness, politeness, mannerliness, graciousness, consideration, respect, urbanity, cordiality.

It’s autumn; the clocks have gone back and the nights are getting dark…. So it’s time to start rolling the ‘relevant complexity’ dice again – for audio accompaniment to cooking, cleaning up the kitchen and stacking the dishwasher.

On Tuesday the dice said listen to a Philosophy Bites podcast

So I did; and listened to a fascinating one with Teresa M. Bejan from Oxford University on the topic of civility:

It’s here

Looking for more, I found her book ‘Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration’

As the synopsis rightly says:

Today, politicians and intellectuals warn that we face a crisis of civility and a veritable war of words polluting our public sphere.

In liberal democracies committed to tolerating diversity as well as active, often heated disagreement, the loss of this conversational virtue appears critical.

But is civility really a virtue? Or is it, as critics claim, a covert demand for conformity that silences dissent?

This is exactly what I was talking about with a former colleague of mine, in a lovely walk in the autumn sunshine past the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ yesterday.

Surely the disfiguring scaffolding all over it, is a reminder of how much democracy and civility need bracing in this country – and many others – right now.

Back to ‘Mere Civility’… it turns out that:

Many of the pressing questions facing liberal democracies today – what the proper scope of liberty should be and how to handle partisanship and hate speech – closely recall early modern concerns about the limits of toleration and the dangers posed by sectarianism, evangelical expression, and so-called “persecution of the tongue.”

Then as a now, thinkers appealed to civility as a way to reconcile the tension between diversity and disagreement, but determining what civility requires can be complicated.  While some restraint on expression is surely necessary to make disagreement tolerable, accusations of “incivility” can easily become pretexts for persecution.

The issue with civility is it feels weak and insipid, if it appears to allow bad things to be said. But when institutions close ‘protest’ down, there’s an equal fear that ‘free speech’, the legitimate right to be angry and to demand change is being curtailed.

I’ve spent significant parts of the last few weeks – at my university – writing new policies and procedures which walk this tightrope.

In work, in politics and at home, I’m an advocate for civility – if you’re not even prepared to listen there’s not much hope of reasonable accommodation or collective progress.

But the suffragettes weren’t civil, Malcolm X wasn’t civil and some of the protesters we host at work aren’t either; but the things they were and are fighting for are good things.

Theresa Bejan argues for ‘mere civility‘ – the absolute bare minimum of it:

that allows for rude, rambunctious, honest debate without the disputants attempting to eject each other from society, 

That’s the baseline I’m defending at work; but I must say I’d like to see a bit more civility than we have.

As a middle-aged, middle-class white ‘family man’ that’s easy to say – all society’s norms are tuned to me. If I was a woman, black, gay or poor I might see things very differently.

Perhaps ‘mere civility’ is right – we shouldn’t seek to be too comfortable in a world full of inequality.