Brevity

brɛvɪti – noun

1. Concise and exact use of words in writing or speech.

(Concision, succinctness, economy of language, shortness, briefness, pithiness, incisiveness, crispness, compactness, compression.)

2. Shortness of time.

(Transience, transitoriness, ephemerality, impermanence; e.g. “the brevity of human life.”)

As we process through life, there is ever more we have seen; and a good deal more we have done. It’s easy to forget how much.

Indeed there’s good evidence that’s why older people struggle to remember things – not necessarily cognitive decline; just more to sift through in the back catalogue of the mind.

Still, looking at someone’s CV the other day, I was in sympathy with Marcus Aurelius’ advice:

Don’t be a person of too many words and too many deeds….

The encapsulation of anything – and certainly a person’s CV – should be readily achievable in no more than two pages.

And reflecting on life with perhaps my finest friend this week, Marcus Aurelius’s fuller advice is also well put:

“Don’t act grudgingly, selfishly, without due diligence, or to be a contrarian. Don’t overdress your thought in fine language. Don’t be a person of too many words and too many deeds…. Be cheerful, not wanting outside help or the relief others might bring. A person needs to stand on their own, not be propped up.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 3.5

Enough said.

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.

Gaia 


I’m reading James Lovelock’s famous ‘Gaia’ – the first airing of the hypothesis that the planet (and not just we creatures on it) is itself a self-regulating living system.

Lovelock got plenty of stick for this book. A scientist accused of straying into mysticism and anthropomorphism for personalising Gaia as a ‘being’ or a ‘living thing’; not just a bunch of chemical and physical processes.

He freely admits in the later foreword, that he had to write a much more dull and prosaic version to get anywhere with the scientific community. 

It’s one of those books like ‘On the Origin of Species’ which more people will know of than will read. But I’m glad I picked this out of an otherwise lifeless ‘Science’ shelf in the local library. 

It’s a super read. And even allowing for all that has changed in our knowledge and understanding in the 40+ years since it was written; like ‘On the Origin of Species’, you feel you are witness to a remarkable moment of synthesis. A whole array of concepts and ideas join together in one person’s mind and become a new picture on how the entire planet – and possibly the whole of creation works.

The simple facts of how the ‘perfect’ level of of the supremely reactive ‘vital’ ingredient oxygen (21%) is kept in the atmosphere are fascinating. It simply could not and would not be there without deeply interconnected living systems. 

Similarly the seas – without Gaian processes they’d get saltier and saltier within 80 million years; instead of the aeons at a stable 3.5%, which allows half the earth’s biomass to life in three-quarters of its surface.

It’s a terrific read. A moment in historic and scientific time maybe; but as important a science book as has ever struck the popular conscience. It’s also a book which reminds us that the planet we live on is so much more wonderful than we yet understand.

Habit Forming

  
Is the great Greek wrong on this one… 

I stumbled across  an interesting article in Time – (it quoted an academic from my place of work) which suggests he might be:


So what are habits, really? According to Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a psychologist focusing on habit research at King’s College London, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behaviour with little or no conscious thought.” Habits are simply how the brain learns to do things without deliberation. These impulses can be put to good use, but only certain behaviors can become habits.

Building a habit is relatively simple — just harness the impulse. For new habits to take hold, provide a clear trigger, make the behavior easy to do, and ensure it occurs frequently. For example, by completely removing unhealthy food from my home and eating the same thing every morning, my diet became a healthy habit. I extracted the decision making process out of what I eat at home.

However, if the behavior requires a high degree of intentionality, effort, or deliberation, it is not a habit. Although proponents of habits tout them as miracle cures for doing things we’d rather not do, I’m sorry to say that’s snake oil. All sorts of tasks aren’t habits and never will be. By definition, doing things that are effortful aren’t habits.

Unfortunately, this means behaviors that require hard work and deliberate practice aren’t good candidates for habit-formation. For example, although I make time for it every day, writing is not a habit. Writing is hard work. If I waited for an “impulse” to write, I’d never do it. To get better at writing requires concentration and directed effort to make sense of the words as they go from the research to my head and then to the screen. Similarly, lifting weights isn’t a habit because getting stronger requires working harder.

So if these type of behaviors aren’t habits, what are they? They’re routines. A routine is a series of behaviors regularly practiced. Routines don’t care if you feel an urge or not, they just need to get done. When I finally realized I would never succeed at making going to the gym a habit, I began looking for how to establish a routine instead.

This makes sense, when you think about it. I’ve read elsewhere that as much of 40% of the time we are doing things which have become habitual and have no conscious deliberation – we are on Autopilot.

This suggests three things – all of which I’m trying… Make boring but useful things a habit (taking my vitamin D for example); make things which take some effort but are good for me into a routine (write a blog every Saturday); and more counterintuitively – make sure things which are supposed to be enjoyable, don’t become a habit. 

Why? Because once you stop thinking about them, you’re no longer consciously enjoying them. Not having a drink on Monday or Tuesday has become a habit (good). So sometimes sharing a bottle of prosecco with my other half on a Wednesday, has become a treat (need to be careful it doesn’t become a habit though…)

It’s worth reflecting on what you want to do without thinking, what you can’t do without thinking and what you enjoy doing – and need to think about to consciously enjoy. 

Habits aren’t conscious. They may help to make us excellent; but our best and most enjoyable work and experiences require conscious effort. 

I’m sure Aristotle would buy that.

Rainy Day



Yesterday was a rainy day. And unexpectedly so. Bad start, worse end. Trying to put it in context today (with Bach loud in my ears to block out someone else’s toddler), I googled ‘into every life a little rain must fall’ to find the source…

And the wise words of the final verse Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘Rainy Day’ seemed very wise indeed:

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Chin up, buck up and step up is the answer. The ‘middle years’, viewed from one perspective are one long list of unreasonable and irreconcilable demands. But that’s the price of being at the centre, and fulcrum, of so many people’s lives. 

Watching an older man limping awkwardly in front of me this morning (as I rushed from one kid’s activity to the next) was a reminder there’ll be plenty of years when I’d kill for this life. And those years will one day run out. 

I feel better for a hot chocolate, some Bach and some writing. There is no point ‘repining’; behind the clouds the sun is still shining.

Relevant Complexity

Relevant Complexity Link

Here’s to a brand new year.

And to celebrate I’ve bashed out a new blog, based on what I’ve learned about life, the world and everything since I started Achilles and Aristotle in 2010.

Time flies – or rather it doesn’t; a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. But ‘Relevant Complexity’ was a fairly early discovery, I first wrote about it in January 2012 here.

Like all good things in the writing life, the more you write about it, the more you think about it, the more it changes you and what you do – Aristotle said as much.

I’ll plan to keep both blogs going: this one as a reminder of what I was up to in years to come; the new one to remind me to live for the day and enjoy a life full of ‘Relevant Complexity’.

Obscurantism

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I congratulated a colleague yesterday on some lovely prose. His concise, interesting and informative writing made me happily read about 80 Moments which changed history – learning a lot in the process.

This morning, I read another piece of quasi-Academic writing; but which was much more of a slog. It was saying some important things, but in a rather portentous – even pretentious style. The few key points, could have been made a lot more simply.

Then, by happenstance I moved onto to a super article on ‘Obscurantism’ in the equally super Philosophy Now magazine. The question it poses is: when is being complex and hard to decode legitimate, useful; even necessary – and when is it plain unhelpful.

Here’s some of what Siobhan Lyons has to say:

‘Obscurantism’ can indeed be an effective manoeuvre, provoking greater thought-processes and intellectual investigation.

This couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than in Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with a Curtain (1646). I am less concerned with the religious meanings of this painting than I am about the curtain itself; a seemingly innocuous, pointless part of the work, and yet it provokes the viewer to wonder what lies behind it.

The curtain, blood red and purposefully pulled partly to the side, teases the viewer, offering not even a partial glimpse of what it completely obscures. The Virgin is plainly seen; and there is Joseph, semi-obscured in the background, near the curtain; but whatever is behind the curtain itself is left unanswered.

The painting thus features three forms of creative depiction: the Virgin’s clear visibility, Joseph’s semi-obscured form, and the curtain itself, a symbol of obscurantism, or rather, of the ability of obscurity to be creative, by emphasising the ambiguity that so often confronts us, which may however be the source of great art, and indeed philosophy.

For the greatest philosophies are aware of their own limits – aware of when they cannot answer the questions their philosophers ask. As Wittgenstein stated, language must be beset by certain limits.

So obscurity in language can be seen as not always self-defeating, but, ironically, as sometimes illuminating. Moreover, if language were a purely functional tool for communication, we would cease to have literature as we understand it.

If all curtains in all art were pulled completely aside to expose what lies behind them, then the need for imagination would deteriorate. This also explains why good writers are those who not only have a masterful grasp of language, but who also know how to pull it apart and put it back together in different ways.

Nicely put. Not everything in life, thought or Art can be expressed simply; and some things can’t be expressed at all. The art is in knowing which. But also, I think, in having a try. Only practice makes more perfect.

Cogito ergonomics sum

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I think therefore I am – ‘the cogito’ – is Descartes most famous contribution to philosophy. I might doubt everything else; that I am thinking is a certainty.

But thinking – and doing something about it – requires a comparative absence of distraction and ideally a modicum of comfort. And that’s where design comes in.

One of the reasons I’ve written less in the last few weeks is my new shiny iPhone 5. In many ways a splendid device. But more is sometimes less. And I find I can’t write on it.

It’s too big. I can’t reach the top corner ‘action’ buttons. It feels like it’s constantly going to tip over backwards – and tumble and smash into small, beautifully machined Apple pieces.

So I’m back tapping on the iPhone 4 (which I couldn’t give up despite a generous financial offer from a good friend). Fast, fluid, typing is a doddle again.

Ergonomics matter. Hard to think when you’re uncomfortable, hard to write when your hand hurts.

Technology isn’t always getting better. The iPhone 4 is my perfect writing device. Like Hemingway’s Moleskine or Remington’s typewriter, when it comes to writing iPhone 4 is the classic.

Sunshine

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After the longest winter I can remember, warmth and sunshine break through the never-ending clouds and cold. What a difference the sunshine makes.

Yesterday, in the driving rain, I debated with my daughter whether this country is just too chilly these days. Her view: “This may be the safest country in the world but it is much to cold and wet – really!”

“Yes” I agreed “but we’d miss the seasons if it were always hot – and we’d be eaten by the bugs and the wildlife.” “Hmmm” she said.

This winter has been hard and has set me thinking about my autumn years. How many more long cold grinding winters like this do I want to endure? And rattling about the house doesn’t help.

Should I quit my job and do something different? Aspects are a ball ache, but a lot of it is perfect. I can’t really imagine a much better job in all honesty. Hmmm.

Should I set about fixing our house. It’s pretty chilly, pretty untidy, most stuff’s not where we want it and there’s a thousand and one things I could mend. Hmmm.

Should I write a book – or wait, it’ll give me something to do in a decade or two. But I might peg it before I’ve even got started. Should I start right away? Hmmm.

Should I, should I… Or should I go and sit in the garden, on a kitchen chair, soak up some sunlight and do nothing at all? Well not much anyway, just tap on an iPhone screen.

That’ll do. Simple is best. Sunshine, it’s a wonderful thing.

Winter

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A bit like being winded by a whack in the solar plexus, this poem takes the wind out of your sails – and leaves you gasping.

Clive James’s wit and humour of have always been rapier sharp. But here, his acute observations on his own chronic decline are both a curse and a redemption.

If I appear to be on a morbid streak, I’m not really. But this interminable winter has made me reflect on the seasons of life. I’m ready for another spring in my summer years, so good the sun’s out today.

Holding Court

Retreating from the world, all I can do
Is build a new world, one demanding less
Acute assessments. Too deaf to keep pace
With conversation, I don’t try to guess
At meanings, or unpack a stroke of wit,
But just send silent signals with my face
That claim I’ve not succumbed to loneliness
And might be ready to come in on cue.
People still turn towards me where I sit.

I used to notice everything, and spoke
A language full of details that I’d seen,
And people were amused; but now I see
Only a little way. What can they mean,
My phrases? They come drifting like the mist
I look through if someone appears to be
Smiling in my direction. Have they been?
This was the time when I most liked to smoke.
My watch-band feels too loose around my wrist.

My body, sensitive in every way
Save one, can still proceed from chair to chair,
But in my mind the fires are dying fast.
Breathe through a scarf. Steer clear of the cold air.
Think less of love and all that you have lost.
You have no future so forget the past.
Let this be no occasion for despair.
Cherish the prison of your waning day.
Remember liberty, and what it cost.

Be pleased that things are simple now, at least,
As certitude succeeds bewilderment.
The storm blew out and this is the dead calm.
The pain is going where the passion went.
Few things will move you now to lose your head
And you can cause, or be caused, little harm.
Tonight you leave your audience content:
You were the ghost they wanted at the feast,
Though none of them recalls a word you said.

CLIVE JAMES
(First published in the Times Literary Supplement)