William of Ockham

A nice piece I read this morning in Philosophy Now, contains a quote which largely summarises my endeavours at work this week:

It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.

Ascribed to William of Ockham, who lived from c1285 to 1348 – it is as true in the modern world of work as it no doubt was in a medieval monastery.

Here’s a little of what writer Terence Green has to say about Ockham in Philosophy Now [which at just £17 for a year’s subscription would comfortably pass Green’s excise the excess Ockham test]:

William from Ockham (or Occam), an otherwise obscure village in Surrey, England, was the greatest philosopher of the fourteenth century. Known as the Doctor Invincibilis, he didn’t care whom he offended, and with his rough and ready style of argument, he offended plenty of people – which eventually got him into big trouble.

He became a Franciscan monk, an order famous for its commitment to poverty. But this meant he was at risk of having idle hands (one of poverty’s unacknowledged benefits), and so doing the Devil’s work. To avoid this calamity, he wrote widely on logic, physics, and theology.

Today he is most often associated with ‘Ockham’s Razor’, his idea that explanations should be as simple as possible; alternative formulations of this principle include ‘Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity’ and ‘It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer’. Frankly, this is a good rule of thumb whatever you’re thinking about.

Having already been condemned as a heretic in 1326 for having unorthodox views, since he argued against Aquinas’s philosophy, he didn’t help himself when in 1328 he sided with those who argued against the Pope that Jesus and his disciples didn’t own any property. This was obviously a matter of considerable importance to the Pope, who owned a lot of property.

Seeing what was coming (imprisonment and execution), William took refuge with the Holy Roman Emperor in Bavaria. Excommunicated, but feeling a bit safer, he wrote polemics against the Pope’s claim to temporal power, thus emulating Dante.

The invincible teacher was finally beaten around 1347/48, probably by the Black Death. The Pope had died earlier, in 1334, still owning lots of property.

© Terence Green 2019

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.

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!

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.

A funny old game…

It’s a funny old game; the game of life… After a two months of feverish activity I find myself:

1) in a very promising and already rather nice new family home;

2) through the worst of some work travails;

3) a full stone lighter than at the end of May and the trimmest I’ve been since schooldays;

4) two days into a relaxing and rather lovely family holiday in Holland;

5) Downloading a dead German Catholic philosopher’s ‘Four Cardinal Virtues’.

It all goes to show that philo sophos (philosophy’s enduring charms) can be driven into abeyance by the busyness of life; but they are what I come back to when I am at rest.

Josef Pieper came to my attention via Wednesday’s (1st August) chapter of the Daily Stoic. As life progresses and reasonableness seems the only lasting solution to anything, I liked this Pieper quote:

“he alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is.”

The wisdom of the ages in that one.

What better than a German Catholic on a Dutch beach holiday – surely Thomas Aquinas would have approved.

Maximus

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live.”

“Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store.”

“Only an ingrate would fail to see that these great architects of venerable thoughts were born for us and have designed a way of life for us.” —SENECA

Having dabbled and somewhat discarded it once before, I’m greatly warming to Stoicism…

The Daily StoicbyRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman: offers a year’s worth (in 366 date-stamped, bite-sized nuggets) of: “wisdom, perseverance, and the ‘Art of Living’: from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.”

I find a nightly dose is a great way to take the good advice on board… As the foreword sets out:

Stoicism was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life.

But over the centuries, knowledge of this way of thinking, once essential to so many, slowly faded from view.

Except to the most avid seekers of wisdom, Stoicism is either unknown or misunderstood. Indeed, it would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “Stoic.”

To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for “emotionlessness.”

I have to say that’s where I’d largely left Stoicism; an argument for detachment and disengagement. But as ‘The Daily Stoic underlines:

What a sad fate for a philosophy that even one of its occasional critics, Arthur Schopenhauer, would describe as “the highest point to which man can attain by the mere use of his faculty of reason.”

Channelling my ‘inner Buddhist’ and combining it with Aristotle’s worldly Ethics, I now see things very differently. Stoicism is basically the best of both, applied to the secular world…

Holiday and Hanselman agree:

It has been the doers of the world who found that it provides much needed strength and stamina for their challenging lives… as a practical philosophy they found Stoicism perfectly suited to their purposes.

Born in the tumultuous ancient world, Stoicism took aim at the unpredictable nature of everyday life and offered a set of practical tools meant for daily use.

Our modern world may seem radically different than the painted porch (Stoa Poikilê) of the Athenian Agora and the Forum and court of Rome.

But the Stoics took great pains to remind themselves that they weren’t facing things any different than their own forebears did, and that the future wouldn’t radically alter the nature and end of human existence.

One day is as all days, as the Stoics liked to say.

They continue:

Making its way from Greece to Rome, Stoicism became much more practical to fit the active, pragmatic lives of the industrious Romans.

As Marcus Aurelius (above) observed:

“I was blessed when I set my heart on philosophy that I didn’t fall into the sophist’s trap, nor remove myself to the writer’s desk, or chop logic, or busy myself with studying the heavens.”

Instead, he (and Epictetus and Seneca) focused on questions we continue to ask ourselves today:

“What is the best way to live?”

“What do I do about my anger?”

“What are my obligations to my fellow human beings?”

“I’m afraid to die; why is that?”

“How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?”

“How should I handle the success or power I hold?”

Stoics frame their work around three critical disciplines:

The Discipline of Perception (how we see and perceive the world around us)

The Discipline of Action (the decisions and actions we take—and to what end)

The Discipline of Will (how we deal with the things we cannot change, attain clear and convincing judgment, and come to a true understanding of our place in the world)

Master these and you master yourself and your world:

By controlling our perceptions, the Stoics tell us, we can find mental clarity.

In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective.

In utilizing and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.

Far from sombre and sober, Stoics believed:

That by strengthening themselves and their fellow citizens in these disciplines, they could cultivate resilience, purpose, and even joy.

The Daily Stoic Stoic offers some down to earth Roman ‘Maxims’ to add to La Rochefoucauld’s French fancies.

In what has been a very trying week at work, this one certainly helped:

“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.38

But the best and most useful maxim this week, came to me by text message from my old boss:

Worthy of Maximus that one.

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.

Wise Words

The BBC reported this week that two notes written by Albert Einstein, including his theory for happy living, sold for $1.56m.

Given to a courier in Tokyo in 1922 instead of a tip, Einstein (who had just heard that he had won the Nobel prize) told the messenger that, if he was lucky, the notes might become valuable one day.

When the courier came to his room to make a delivery, Einstein didn’t have any money to reward him.

Instead, he handed the messenger a signed note – using stationery of the Imperial Hotel Tokyo – with one sentence, written in German:

“A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it.”

As I hove towards my 50th birthday; and find myself this lunchtime, sat with a nice cup of tea, in the kitchen listening serendipitously to Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on Spotify – I think Einstein had a point…

More of Einstein’s wise words (thanks to the BBC):

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

“We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.”

“When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.”

Sunny

😎

After two house moves in two weeks; last Sunday, post visiting a loved one in terminal decline and absolutely physically and emotionally shattered – I cried for the first time in a decade. It was just too sad.

But five days later the sun has come back out. Life is very simple. Get some sleep, be kind, work hard, do stuff, and crucially (as I’ve recently discovered) ruminate less; and the sun comes out.

My single biggest achievement in the last year – and arguably in my life – has been to train myself to think, act and be more positive. If you’re kind, interested, positive and helpful there is no situation you can’t improve.

For me it is a feat of application, discipline and will. It’s not my natural disposition. But sunny is the best way to be. Today it absolutely was; and I absolutely have been.

: )

The swift flight of a single sparrow

After a couple of weeks of solid change – new house, new office, new term, new school year – I wrote to my old philosophy tutor the other evening.

He has written extensively on the ‘Episodic Life’ – a view that life as a story (the ‘Narrative Life’) isn’t actually how some people experience events; and may actually be something of a self-limiting straitjacket.

I’ve certainly found that a bit of letting go (à la Buddhism) and a bit of consciously setting out to enjoy new ‘episodes’ in life has got me through the last hectic fortnight. In fact I’ve quite enjoyed it!

Here’s what I wrote:

“After much denial I’m coming to the view there’s a lot to be said for the ‘episodic’ life. If Heidegger is right (and I think he is) that we wander as a tiny candle flame briefly through a dark, largely empty and uninterested universe – then why wouldn’t you see what every day on Gaia brings, and let the universe serve you up the answers for what fun to have next.

I’m starting think there’s a spot of hubris in my previous attachment to the ‘narrative’ life. A lot happened before us, little we do really affects the myriad lives and physical processes around us and we’ll all be gone before you know it.

I still think Aristotle’s fundamentally right; happiness is a life well lived – but maybe a slightly more eclectic approach to the journey might save me the angst of Kierkegaard and the earnestness of Bentham and Mill.

Keep writing Galen – I’ll catch up with your beautiful mind one day!”

And here’s what he wrote back – it’s rather lovely:

Thanks John. Heidegger … sounds like the Venerable Bede.

The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) records the story of King Edwin of Northumberland at the hands of the missionary bishop Paulinus.

Edwin was willing to hear the preaching of Paulinus and to convert at once, but he called together a meeting of his council of elders, which included his pagan high priest, Coifi. Paulinus presented the gospel to him, and one of the chief advisors replied with this observation:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors.

In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.

Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.” 

Here’s an article on the ‘Episodic Life’:

https://aeon.co/essays/let-s-ditch-the-dangerous-idea-that-life-is-a-story