Rumination

  
An interesting discovery from Learned optimismis that rumination is the optimist’s worst enemy… Chewing the cud leads to pessimism and inaction.

One thing I’ve learned at work down the years is: ‘if in doubt, do something’

Armed with this new insight I’m even more sure taking and helping others take action – sometimes any action – is my best defence against mine and their pessimism.

And this reminded me to look up Hannah Arendt the great 20th century philosopher, who I seemed to remember was big on action too… 

  

I was right. Here’s a boiled down extract from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:  

“For Arendt, action constitutes the highest realization of the vita activa, via three categories which correspond to the three fundamental activities of our being-in-the-world: labor, work, and action. 

Labor is judged by its ability to sustain human life, to cater to our biological needs of consumption and reproduction.

Work is judged by its ability to build and maintain a world fit for human use.

Action is judged by its ability to [manifest] the identity of the agent and to actualize our capacity for freedom.

Although Arendt considers the three activities of labor, work and action equally necessary to a complete human life, it is clear from her writings that she takes action to be the ‘differentia specifica’ of human beings.

Action distinguishes [us] from both the life of animals (who are similar to us insofar as they need to labor to sustain and reproduce themselves) and the life of the gods (with whom we share, intermittently, the activity of contemplation).”

Nuff said. I made myself a little flowchart last Sunday to remind me, which still seems on the money…

 

In the face of setbacks, troubles and ugliness; don’t ruminate – act. 

In the presence of success, progress and beauty; act – but don’t forget to contemplate too.

Or another way to look at it, less Theo van Doesburg

  

More Franz Marc

 

No more chewing the cud.

Still Life

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Water Jug, Patrick Caulfield: Tate

In a slow meander of a large management meeting, I found myself contemplating a jug of water… How many colours therein? Such scintillations of light; and patches of shade.

How pure. How clean. What pipes and processes got it to this table. How rare in the history and geography of human existence to have water to hand in such pristine abundance. How much rarer – in the universe – to have the temperature and circumstances to sustain this elixir of life?

Art, origins, progress, luck and gratitude – all in a jug. And then back to tasks and voices and faces and work. But a wistful smile at the corners of my mouth perhaps betrayed I’d briefly escaped the mundane – and enjoyed a moment of wonder at the natural world. Life is in the small details sometimes.

Of Angels

20111105-201745.jpgSmarting from the accusation I seldom read the source, I’m wading through Aquinas at present. Corblimey he’s obsessed with some things well beyond my interest. But that’s because I’m reading him for his ethics, and he’s writing a science book as far as he’s concerned.

Summae Theologica is, I come to realise, describing Aquinas’ views on how the world, universe, animals, minds, substance and energy all work – the lot.

Not surprising then he spends considerable time on causation – what causes what, what is primary, what is secondary and what is ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, what is an ‘operation’ what is a ‘state’.

His method is famously rigorous: three or four well sourced views on a theme, his own judgement and an answer to the opening views.

I think he quite carefully integrates a humanist perspective with a religious one. At times he acknowledges tantalisingly what ‘would’ be the case if there was no God – Aristotle ‘would’ be right on human happiness for instance he says.

After Aristotle, he concurs that our ‘end’ is indeed happiness. But we achieve happiness imperfectly in our mortal lives. We achieve it most in contemplation. In contemplation of what though?

For Aquinas, of course, that would be God. But contemplation of God is, he acknowledges, tricky. Not least as He is infinite and Our reason is finite. We’re snookered from the off.

What to do? It could be worse. Animals are even further from God than we are. They lack our intellect and capacity for reason and thought and so can’t contemplate God at all.

Aquinas explicitly acknowledges that nature has fitted us and animals with desires and emotions to further our own survival and that of our species – positively Darwinian. But they are ‘beneath’ us and we are a rung down from – you guessed it – Angels.

God tops Angels of course, but each in the chain comes closer to ‘perfection’ and achieves ‘happiness’ most by ‘touching’ the one above.

I’m not sure how many farm animals would agree they are ‘perfected’ and happier ‘touching’ humans. Perhaps a well trained sheepdog. But we humans can attain greater happiness in the use of our more ‘perfect’ power, namely contemplation. And among the things we can happily contemplate are Angels.

Now this is a thought I can honestly say I have never had. Beyond the one on top of the Christmas Tree and my daughter in the school nativity, I have never spent any time contemplating Angels. Perhaps I should?

But the point I take from Aquinas and Angels is this: contemplation, seeing beauty around us and perfecting and developing our human capacities, skills and aptitudes is where Earthly happiness lies.

Csikszentmihalyi comes to mind. As I said to someone last weekend it’s all about adding ‘relevant complexity’ to our lives and personalities.

And I think this is what Aquinas is getting at too. A life of virtue, self-improvement and integration of the body, soul and mind might mean at the end of it all, the ‘bottled essence’ of us – probably in frail and wizened form – is a shimmering soul ‘touching’ that of an Angel.

The Harp Player

In pursuit of the good life, Aristotle has sent me in a couple of very important directions recently. First the harp. He says that the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. That way fulfilment lies.

He suggests we all have different ‘virtues’ or capacities which it is our life’s work to bring to excellence. Doing what we are good at ‘excellently’ gives us pleasure in the moment and fulfilment over time. An Aristotelian life is a balanced life though. There are eleven different virtues to cultivate not to mention the welfare and good of the many, politics, as he defines it. It’s a lot to fit in and doesn’t leave much time for pleasure. Or does it?

As Aristotle says: To each is pleasant of which he is said to be fond: a horse, for instance, to him who is fond of horses, and a sight to him who is fond of sights: and so in like manner just acts to him who is fond of justice. So then their life has no need of pleasure as a kind of additional appendage, but involves pleasure in itself. 

In fact Aristotle considers the highest human achievement and pleasure lies in contemplation. I now realise that there are many harps I play well enough to give me eudaimonia. I’m good at work, a decent leader and manager. I’m a good father, I love my kids and love being with them. But, above all, I am a good thinker. A life of thought is a pleasant life for me.

This leads me to the second idea, friendship. Aristotle spends a full fifth of his entire work on ethics in defining and describing the nature, types and specificities of friendship. There are transactional friendships and friendships for fun and frivolity. But the highest form of friends are friends for contemplation. These are friends whose excellence of thought, virtue in action and sheer interestingness in what they have to say draw us to them. And the same draws them to us.

Seeing these two things together is a revelation. We all care about our friends, but Aristotle reveals that our highest order friendships define us, enrich us and enable us to engage in the very highest of human achievements and pleasures – contemplation. As a friend of mine said recently ‘friends are a rich indicator’. They are indeed.

This week I told two of my ‘friends in contemplation’ at work how much I now understand they mean to me. I will seek and tell others in other parts of my life. As one of them told me in return, the great American Thomas Jefferson would always ensure he had his truest friends no more than an hour’s ride away. I now understand why. 

The intellectual harp is a wonderful instrument. But it takes a lifetime of practice to master and the company of fellow harp players to play it well.