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

Smorgasbord 

Bank Holiday view; spot the nuclear power station… oops.

Feeling a little jaded today after a late night and a long drive back from the Welsh borders – I’m not much looking forward to work tomorrow.

How fortunate to stumble across this rather super smorgasbord of eleven answers to the question: ‘how to live?’ by Carolyn Gregiore from the Huffington Post in 2013. It was rattling about in the inbox I’m slowly tidying.

Get a good night’s sleep is the only other advice that’s missing, I’ll make sure I will tonight.

Aristotle (at number one appropriately…) 

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” Aristotle wrote.

The ancient Greek philosopher came up with one of the most famous definitions of happiness, eudaimonia, or human flourishing. By this theory of self-actualization, personal well-being and happiness are the highest goals that we can strive for.

Martin Heidegger

For German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, a good life could was not possible unless you were living authentically, directing your life on your own terms, rather than following the blueprints set by others.

“Anyone can achieve their fullest potential, who we are might be predetermined, but the path we follow is always of our own choosing,” sais Heidegger. “We should never allow our fears or the expectations of others to set the frontiers of our destiny.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sarte may have been most famous for saying “Hell is other people,” but the French existentialist thinker also had some keen insights on happiness and the meaning of human existence. Freedom, he said, was the highest goal we could aspire to.

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you,” said Sartre.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

To Emerson, the early American Transcendentalist thinker, taking each day in stride — as unburdened as possible by worries about the past and future — was the best route to a life well-lived.

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can,” said Emerson. “Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Albert Camus

For French existential philosopher and novelist, over-thinking and over-analyzing can make us miss the moment.

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of,” said Camus. “You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

Epicurus

“Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends,” said the Hellenic philosopher Epicurus.

The Athenian philosopher believed that friendship, more than anything else, contributed to the development of a healthy and fulfilling life. He lived this notion in his own life, creating a school called “The Garden,” where he and his followers studied philosophy together in a close-knit community.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche may have been a nihilist, but he still believed that there was one thing that truly made life worth living: The creation and enjoyment of art. Nietzsche was particularly fond of music, and loved to go see the operas of his German contemporary Richard Wagner (As he wrote, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”)

He also said, “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”

William James

American psychologist and philosopher William James coined the term “will to believe” to refer to way that we are able to choose our attitudes and beliefs — and in doing so, change our lives.

“Be not afraid of life,” James wrote. “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

Simone de Beauvoir

Feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir — the longtime partner of Jean-Paul Sartre — believed that caring for others was what gave life meaning.

“One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, and compassion,” she wrote.

Thomas Merton

American Catholic thinker and mystic Thomas Merton believed that we could all find happiness — if only we looked to our inner wisdom.

“We have what we seek,” said Merton. “It is there all the time, and if we slow down and be still, it will make itself known to us.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

For the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, cultivating the intellect was essential to the good life. He once said that all you need in life is a garden and a library, and many times waxed poetic about his love of reading.

“Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goest out,” said Cicero. “The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.”

Happy Christmas

I’ve had a Happy Christmas and a joyful start to 2017; not thanks to Santa, but a dead sensible British bloke who has written a book I’d recommend to anyone.

‘The Big Book of Happiness 87 Practical Ideas’ is a no-nonsense guide to how to live.

The point of it all, self limiting beliefs and behaviours, getting organised, writing down and pursuing your goals – and the value of dabbling in things. It’s a cracker.

If you read nothing else this year read this… If Aristotle were around today, it’s the book he’d write.

Concrete or Casuistry?

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casuistry (kazjʊɪstri) noun: the resolving of moral problems by the application of theoretical rules.

As I continue my voyage through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, I also continue to be astonished by the man. Limpid paragraphs of dense and pure meaning, sweeping historical context – and tub thumping Christianity. A heady mix.

But the page which stuck with me this week describes the challenges of Christian ethics; but also the constant challenge of modern organisational life:

“The attempt to define that which is good once and for all has always ended in failure. Either the proposition was asserted in such general and formal terms that it retained no significance as regards its contents, or else one tried to include in it and elaborate the whole immense range of conceivable contents, and thus say in advance what would be good in every single case; this led to a casuistic system so unmanageable that it could satisfy the demands neither of general validity nor of concreteness.”

Pretty much every strategy exercise or major organisational change programme I’ve ever worked on has wrestled with this. As Bonhoeffer puts it, the conflict between the ‘good’ and the ‘real’.

Bonhoeffer argues for concrete not casuistry. Not a bad place to go, not least given how bad things were in his times. But I go with Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’; the ‘good’ is always somewhere in the difficult and constantly contested place in between.


Office 2016

  

Further proof this week (were it needed) that not thinking about things, actually helps you think about things…

After ten days off for Christmas; scarcely thinking at all about work, I arrived in the office on Monday a little dazed and confused. A colleague asked with a smile if I had any blinding new insights to share? I could only answer slightly sheepishly “Nope”

But then, thanks to the miracle of the empty mind, I scribbled with a scratchy pen, on a couple of discarded misprinted sheets of A3 off the printer: the entire scope of my job; and the purpose for me at work for 2016. 

It had all became clear, because I hadn’t been thinking about it…

Later that same day (at bedtime to be precise) the few remaining work-related knots in my head, were smoothed out by a simple but super article in ‘Philosopy Now‘ by Peter Adamson. 

Adamson reminds us that Aristotle gave us the clinching argument against “the proposition that the good life lies acquisition of wealth.” 

He continues: 

Whatever else we say about the happy life, happiness is surely something we deserve for its own sake. You don’t seek to become happy for some further goal. 

Money by contrast, is not something that can sensibly be desired simply for itself. It is valued only for what we can acquire with it, such as security, pleasures and the opportunity to show virtue. 

Therefore a life that seeks to pile up wealth with no other end in view is incoherent.

He continues 

Aristotle has a similarly persuasive case to make against the life devoted to honor: we wish to be honored not just for any old reason, but because we deserve to be honored. 

At most, then, honour comes as a kind of bonus on top of what we really want, which is to be or to have achieved something worthy of the honour.  

Out of the contenders for a happy life, that leaves the life of virtue. And virtue is complemented by pleasure, because the virtuous person takes pleasure in being virtuous; and by honor too, at least if one’s fellow citizens apportion honor rightly.

Of course Aristotle was nothing if not also practical: 

Although Aristotle insisted that the good life is the virtuous life, he cautioned that we need money as well. You can hardly hope to be virtuous without money, if only because generosity is a virtue: you need wealth to give it away.

Common sense also tells you that such things as health, a flourishing family, and friends, belong to the good life, and Aristotle wasn’t against common sense on this score. 

But it’s Adamson’s conclusion which is the clincher:

In these days, when whole countries are faced by economic disaster, ancient advice remains useful: accept money and use it wisely when it comes, but do not sacrifice virtue to get it – and remember that there are things in life compared to which money, in any currency, has zero value.

In sum, don’t seek money or honour for their own sakes; and if they come as a by-product of hard work and a good character, use them wisely.

A timely reminder for 2016 from Adamson that Aristotle’s Ethics are a more than decent guide to working (as well as wider) life.

  
  

Ladybirds

  
After a wonderful week of goodbyes, this morning, I feel my ladybird has begun to peep its head out from the proverbial matchbox (see my leaving card above); to see a bigger world and a brighter future.

I’ve been working in or adjacent to government for nearly 15 years. And while Aristotle felt politics to be the highest of human endeavours, a quick scan through these quotes of his pretty much covers the many pitfalls.

  
Yesterday I crossed a new bridge to work – Waterloo instead of Westminster; and spent the afternoon at a ‘freshers fair’ watching excited new students sign up for everything from touch frisbee to Russian Club. My new university life came to life.

And today the sun is shining. It’s all change – but a good one I feel sure.

Sacks and Seneca

  

A very autumnal feel to this week; in lots of different ways. It’s back to school for all of us: big school for one; a new class for the other; and very soon a whole new place of work for me.

As the kids accelerate forwards, I’ve been mostly looking back this week; at eight years of corporate memory. I’m methodically archiving, filing and mostly deleting my electronic back catalogue. No-one else is going to be that interested. Little that has been done before works exactly the same way again. 

But what sticks – looking at the better part of a decade of pronouncements, presentations, reviews, restructures and change programmes – is that many things have got a whole lot better; but the fundamental issues have hardly changed at all. 

And perhaps that’s the lesson, as I move onto the next; and next week clock up another year closer to 50… most of the big things in human affairs stay pretty much the same over the sweep of history.

A wise associate of mine, sent me the later life and closing thoughts of Oliver Sacks yesterday, from the New York Times; here:

The joy of old age (no kidding).

And 

My own life 

I replied:

“These are incredibly moving. This is how I want to live my older years and then ‘rise, satisfied, from the banquet of life’ as Seneca had it. This is the most important and defining thing of all – how we face death and then make the most of life.”

Easier said than done of course – and shame on me; the ‘banquet of life’ is Aristotle’s quote: 

“It is best to rise from life as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken.”

But Seneca’s reflections ‘on the shortness of life’, precised here, are timeless too:

 Why do we complain of Nature? She has shown herself kindly; life, if you know how to use it, is long. 

But one man is possessed by an avarice that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time. 

Ask about the men whose names are known by heart, and you will see that these are the marks that distinguish them: A cultivates B and B cultivates C; no one is his own master. And then certain men show the most senseless indignation—they complain of the insolence of their superiors, because they were too busy to see them when they wished an audience! But can anyone have the hardihood to complain of the pride of another when he himself has no time to attend to himself? After all, no matter who you are, the great man does sometimes look toward you even if his face is insolent, he does sometimes condescend to listen to your words, he permits you to appear at his side; but you never deign to look upon yourself, to give ear to yourself. There is no reason, therefore, to count anyone in debt for such services, seeing that, when you performed them, you had no wish for another’s company, but could not endure your own.   

Wise words.

σοφία

  

As modern Greece struggles with its economic problems, it’s worth remembering: there isn’t a decent concept for living we don’t have the Greeks to thank for.

With help from Wikipedia, try: 

Prohairesis – προαίρεσις

The ‘moral character’ or prohairesis, was brought to the world by Aristotle in the eminently readable Nicomachean Ethics (which first inspired this blog five years ago). Prohairesis is the capacity to reflect, and not be carried away by what our senses serve up.

For the stoic Epictetus, life is all about prohairesis; separating what we experience from how we choose to feel about it:

“Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses or hits you, but the judgment that these things are insulting.”

“So when someone irritates you, realise that it is your own opinion that has irritated you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be carried away by the impression; for if you once gain time and respite, you will find it easier to control yourself.”

Prosoche – προσοχή

In the Platonic Academy, prosoche referred to the discipline of “attention” – noticing the judgements that we make about ourselves and the world. 

Once observed, the next step is observing whether or not these judgements are in ‘conformity’ with the reality of our situation; and correcting them as needed so as to maintain appropriate behaviour and equilibrium (ataraxia). 

Prosoche is broadly equivalent to the Buddhist disciplines of ‘mindfulness’ as developed through meditation.

A Greek ‘prosoche’ poem sums it up: 

Give me the Serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.

Areté – αρετή

For Aristotle, bravery is the first virtue. It came up at work this week. 

It is, quite simply, consciously choosing to walk the difficult tightrope between fear and courage:

“A brave man is one who faces and fears what he should for the right reason, in the right manner and at the right time. A brave man performs his actions for the sake of what is noble. Those who err by excess with regard to this virtue are called rash, but one who is exceedingly fearful is called a coward.”

“Men who show courage because they are optimistic and they think they will win are not brave, because they do not act for the right reasons, and when the situation does not turn out well, they end up being cowards.”

“Men who are ignorant of danger are also not brave, but only appear to be so because they have no knowledge of the danger.”

Prohairesis, Prosoche and Areté: character, consciousness and choice, all come together in sophia σοφία; the title above, and Greek for ‘wisdom’ – the root of philosophy φιλοσοφία philo-sophia.

Whatever the state of their οἰκονομία (economy), Greeks deserve our enduring thanks; for all they invented in the life of the mind.

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’.

On Anger

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Sometimes you can’t beat going back to the original source. The great philosophers can be a tricky read, but equally, they can be very direct, simple and clear. Aristotle was.

Generally speaking there are many different kinds of afflictive or negative emotions, such as conceit, arrogance, jealousy, desire, lust, closed-mindedness and so on. But out of all these hatred and anger are considered to be the greatest evil, because they are the greatest obstacle to developing compassion and altruism, and they destroy one’s virtue and calmness of mind.

In thinking about anger there can be two types. One type of anger can be positive. This would be mainly due to one’s motivation. There can be some anger that is motivated by compassion or a sense of responsibility. Where anger is motivated by compassion it can be used as an impetus or a catalyst for a positive action.

Under these circumstances, a human emotion like anger can act as a force to bring about swift action. It creates a kind of energy that enables an individual to act quickly and decisively. It can be a powerful motivating factor. So sometimes that kind of anger can be positive.

All too often, however even though that kind of anger can act as a kind of protector and bring one extra energy, it is also blind, so it is uncertain whether it will become constructive or destructive in the end.

So, even though under rare circumstances some kinds of anger can be positive, generally speaking anger leads to ill feeling and hatred. And as far as hatred is concerned, it is never positive. It has no benefit at all. It is always totally negative.

The destructive effects of hatred are very visible, very obvious and immediate. For example, when a very strong or forceful thought of hatred arises within you, at that very instant it totally overwhelms you and destroys your peace of mind, your presence of mind disappears completely.

When such intense anger and hatred arises, it obliterates the best part of our brain, which is the ability to judge between right and wrong, and the long term and short term consequences of our actions. Our power of judgement becomes totally inoperable. It can no longer function. It is almost like you have become insane.

So this anger and hatred tends to throw you into a state of confusion, which just serves to make your problems and difficulties much worse.

Even at the physical level, hatred brings about a very ugly, unpleasant physical transformation of the individual. At the very instant where strong feelings of anger or hatred arise, no matter how hard the person tried to pretend or adopt a dignified pose, it is very obvious that the person’s face looks contorted and ugly. There is a very unpleasant expression and the person gives out a very hostile vibration.

Other people can sense it. It is almost as if they can feel steam coming out of that person’s body. So much so that not only are human brings capable of sensing it, but even animals, pets, would try to avoid that person at that instant. Also when a person harbours hateful thoughts, they tend to collect inside the person.

For reasons such as these, hatred is compared to an enemy. This internal enemy has no other function than causing us harm. It is our true enemy, our ultimate enemy. It has no other function than simply destroying us both in the immediate term and the long term.

This is very different from an ordinary enemy. Although an ordinary enemy, a person whom we may regard as an enemy, may engage in activities that are harmful to us, at least he or she has other functions; that person has got to eat, and that person has got to sleep. So he or she has many other functions and therefore cannot devote twenty-four hours a day of his or her existence to this project of destroying us.

On the other hand hatred has no other function, no other purpose, than destroying us. So by realising this fact, we should resolve that we will never give an opportunity for this enemy, hatred, to arise within us.

Words Aristotle himself could have written. But in fact come from a modern philosopher – the Dalai Lama.

Forget the stereotype of ‘bells and smells’, the condensed wisdom of the Dalai Lama’s lifetime of analysis and thought bears remarkable similarity to Aristotle – develop virtue, moderation and a supple mind. A good recipe for a good life.