Amiet, Bruegel and Christmas

An unprecedentedly mild December set me searching for snowy scenes… in the lull between the twin peaks of festive excess, which are Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The chance to spin my wheels is a rare one; but I have put it to good use: a splendid Lego Millennium Falcon is built for my son, turkey soup has been slurped by all and I have a birthday jigsaw belatedly on the go. 

But the post-Christmas peace will be short lived. Soon I will be pressed into activity and jollity, like the skaters in the younger Bruegel’s “Bird Trap”.

   
And once that is done, it will be back to work, fitting more people into less space in the manner of his father’s “Census at Bethlehem”.

  
So I’m enjoying my rare day of solitude. This expanse of white is by Swiss painter Cuno Amiet. It’s his 1904 “Snowy Landscape” discovered on the ever wonderful DailyArt App

  
The tiny figure looks lost. But on closer inspection he (although it could be a she) seems to have a sense of purpose about them. 

The chance to have a mind as blank as Amiet’s snows is a treat indeed – as is cooking up leftovers and piecing together my New York skyline jigsaw in glorious, if temporary solitude.

Still, returning to Brueghel’s “Bird Trap”, no-one would choose an entirely solitary life… As Aristotle famously said.

  
The thin string to the tiny dark window is a reminder that neither poor nor alone, I’m very lucky to have food, friends and family all around at Christmas.

A problem shared

 

Lots to learn and lots to figure out in my new job – I’m dreaming complex organisational structures most nights; and in truth, I’d rather not be. But the most important lesson of all is… even if not halved; a problem shared is a problem better understood.

Three people greatly helped me with my problems this week. Not by changing anything about the real world situation; but by taking time, listening, showing concern and helping me to describe what is happening. 

It’s a rare person indeed who is prepared to properly care; so I’m very lucky indeed to have access to a handful of exceptional people with great life experience and insight who really do. 

None of these people are ‘friends’ in the classic modern description: they’re not people I’ve known since schooldays, inflict my family on or go on holidays with. They’re all people I’ve met in a variety of work situations. 

None of them know each other – I don’t even know if they’d get on. But my life is enriched and any problems I have (and there are usually one or two) are reduced by talking to any one of them.

Someone I also saw this week – whose professional life went badly wrong once – asked me if I had anyone to talk to about where I’m at; any kind of support network? 

I smiled inwardly at that. The answer is an unequivocal yes. I have some very special people, who will always listen and help me to a better place.

A problem shared with these remarkable friends, really is a problem halved.

With a little help from my friends

The song says it all. It can sound cheesy; but it ain’t… This week, I got by with a little help from my friends.

The genuine care, interest, support and love of friends has gently and kindly steered me to a much better place. If last week ended in comparative darkness; this one ended in light.

A good friend briefly home from abroad, walked with me, talked with me and in the process put a supportive arm around my shoulders. The world of men can be a lonely place, but together we stared unblinkingly at the facts. And in so doing he gave me solace and strength – and followed up with a new opportunity.

More joyfully, with my great friend from closer to home, we celebrated our mutual success at goading each other to shed a few pounds – with a big fat gourmet cheeseburger each.

Today I’m wearing a sweatshirt the missus bought me for the Xmas before last – which for the first time in all that time, I fit in; trimly and unselfconsciously. Happy days.

Finally the missus herself. She knows I’ve been struggling and has been there for me all week. A kind word, a cuppa, a conversation – and a great big uninterrupted lie-in this morning.

The moral of the story; we all get by far better with a little help from our friends.

Own Goal

20120304-105436.jpg

20120304-105452.jpgI’m having a jolly football weekend with old friends. But I’m still haunted by Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellent and dark ‘Art of Germany‘ which I watched in the week. The image of the two bleak works of Caspar David Friedrich he presented stick with me. They sit side by side in Berlin: ‘The abbey in the oak forest’ and ‘The monk by the sea’.

Friedrich was seeking a more ‘primal’ and ‘elemental’ God than the one the church then offered. These two pictures suggest he found that search lonely and difficult.

His skies and landscapes are sometimes more hopeful, but these two suggest the crushing difficulty of finding God, on your own, at the turn of the 19th century in Northern Europe. Kierkegaard was on the same intellectual quest at around the same time.

It seems to me you’ll drive yourself mad if you go down this route. Humans ‘huddle’ and if you look for meaning all on your own, you’re lost. People, ‘relevant complexity’ and the here-and-now are what it’s about.

Football and a few beers with friends are a good investment in staying well away from ‘The abbey in the oak forest’.

The Art of Friendship

I listened to a Philosophy Bites podcast this week on the topic of ‘friendship’. It made me think afresh about the balance of ‘duties to all’ versus special treatment for a ‘selected few’ – i.e. our friends.

Alexander Nehamas’ argument is, post Immanuel Kant, many of us have come to believe that privileging our friends over others is less ‘moral’ than treating everyone the same – even strangers and people we’ll never meet. This is Kant’s Categorical Imperative, act in ways you would ‘will’ to be universal laws.

But friends are different than everyone else in our lives. For Aristotle – although he might not recognise the modern version – friends are the purpose of life and our virtue revolves around them.

Nehemas’ suggestion is we should think of friends on different plane than ethics. We should think of them more as we think of art and artists. We are interested in our friends for their ‘specialness’, what is individual and distinctive about them, not for their commonalities. We are friends to co-create distinctive, memorable, pages in our life stories.

And this is why drifting apart from friends hurts them so much. Not only do we reject them as people, we turn over – even tear out – the pages of life we created with them; in favour of new friends and new pages.

This is a very different take on friends – friends as narrative growth, not past history. Is what makes us different and how we are growing what matters most in friendship; more even than what we have in common or did together in the past?

Friends as bringers of difference, individuality and new embroidery in life’s rich tapestry, is a very different way of thinking of them. ‘Individuation’, creativity and art are very different registers from ethics, equivalence and fairness. Friends as ‘works of art’ we have a hand in creating, is a nice way of looking at each other.

Elemental

The late Herbert McCabe wrote with almost scientific beauty on Aristotle and Aquinas. There is a tightness and precision which bespeaks a lifetime’s reflection and contemplation.

The international physics community has just acknowledged two new superheavy elements – 114 and 116 – which can only be made by man. In his book ‘On Aquinas’, McCabe has fused together all the elements in philosophical symmetry from the two historic heavyweights: Aristotle and Aquinas.

He manages some lighter metaphors though. Describing the difference between following rules and developing virtue he draws on football. Learning the rules of football won’t make you a good player, practice alone makes perfect. Similarly our ‘friends’, in the Aristotelian sense, are our purpose, practice and team-mates. Here’s what he has to say:

From the point of view of moral philosophy the game is friendship (philia) in the sense which Aristotle described it as that relationship by which people are fellow-citizens; and it is more than justice. Justice is the minimum proper relationship with foreigners, but, in addition to this, citizenship demands a concern for the flourishing of your friends, a concern, therefore for their virtues and their concern for my virtues. Friendship is both the aim of all the virtues and also the necessary means by which virtues are cultivated, sustained and developed. Virtues can only be taught by friends. Friendship can only be sustained by virtues.

Past thinkers have discovered all the elements of the ethical periodic table. But McCabe showed there are still elegant and beautiful new ways to bring them together.

Poetry in Motion

A few weeks ago, newly enamoured of poetry, I wrote a short ditty to capture what I think increasingly drives my life. It came out quite easily so I guessed it might be quite close. But then I forgot about it. Sat in traffic in the rain today, the last two lines came back to me unbidden. It has clearly lodged in my subconscious. So here it is:

Pay attention to life with bright eyes and keen ears.
Helped by poets and thinkers, refine hopes; master fears.

Embroider each minute and day of my years
with friendship and love and knowledge and ideas.

And the main credits are: for line 1) Montaigne and Aristotle; line 2) Aristotle, Kay, Csikszentmihalyi, Nietzsche, Homer, Armitage, Aquinas, McCabe, Socrates, Stoics, Sceptics; line 3) Me latterly; and line 4) Aristotle, Aquinas, my Friends in Contemplation, my family, reading, writing, work.

I’m not sure I’ll get a poster on the subway for these lines of rhyme, but they are pretty much where Eudaimonia lies for me I think.

Blake’s Proverbs

William Blakes’ Proverbs of Hell are a bit like Jenny Holzer’s Truisms – some you get some you don’t, some resonate some clang. Still thinking about some of the things which I think constitute the good life, four of his proverbs capture something:

When thou seest an Eagle thou sees a portion of Genius, lift up thy head!

What is now proved was once only imagin’d

One thought fills immensity

The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship

Why these four? First I’ve noticed that ‘noticing’ enriches life immensely. One simple trick I’ve stumbled upon is to look up. It generally lifts the spirits. Today I looked up, sat in slow traffic, and saw a beautiful Victorian clock and frontage high above an otherwise grim discount store. There is a little spray of golden flowers and thistles on top of Big Ben which glints in the sun when I cycle past in a morning. I’ve noticed most old buildings have something special adorning their top storey. Look up and there’s light, clouds, planes, Eagles – you get the picture.

Second I’m reading the Greek myths at the moment and it is staggering, as with ancient philosophy and science, how much we knew then of people and their foibles, but how little we knew of science and how the world works. We all carry today an amazing storehouse of knowledge and ideas just because of the era we live in. It would have amazed the ancients.

How lucky we are. But despite all that knowledge there is still so much to learn and discover that one thought can still fill immensity. I learned yesterday we’ve only just discovered that dogs like cats don’t ladle water when they slop it up, they form a tube with their tongues and draw it up though pressure – it takes three laps to create a column of water in the dog’s tongue which connects water to mouth. Amazing. Not sure our old dog ever mastered it given the soggy mess he always made on the kitchen floor.

Finally friends. Aristotle triages them into three types: transactional, fun and friends in contemplation. The third are the very best, but, as I once heard Desmond Tutu say, there is no human without other humans – friends and other people are our human web.

Look up, imagine, think and talk with friends – four principles which, I think, work just as well today as in Aristotle or Blake’s days.

Indignity

Life is full of indignities, small and large. I, like most people, am easily persuaded that life’s indignities have been targeted at me by some malign intent. Human beings are programmed to look for causation. It’s a key survival skill. The moment you move beyond blind instinct, learning from your mistakes and finding patterns and causes is vital. 

It is said that the first religions – pan theistic, animist and shamanic all came from the need for hunter-gatherers and early nomads to find some answer, or cause, for the indignities of storm, drought, disease and death that pre-scientific man had no other method to understand or intellectually control.

These gods brought good, but more often bad. They were quixotic and quick to anger and required regular appeasement and speaking in tongues to commune with and placate. 

Ancient philosophers were not immune to the gods whims. They always paid them homage. But they tended to live in temperate latitudes – comparatively benign environments – which left some time for building civilisations and thinking. 

I’ve recently started reading Epictetus, a famous stoic philosopher from the 2nd century AD. It seems to me he offers a window into an interesting period between ancient philosophy and organised monotheistic congregational religion. 

I’ve not read enough to be sure, but my Bayesian brain guesses that his stoicism is a response to the superficially civilised but dangerously unpredictable indignities of Roman society – from slavery to summary justice.

His stoic answer seems to be to develop a detachment which has much to commend it in ‘coping with the loss of an earthenware pot’ or being ‘splashed and jostled at the bathhouse’. But inviting us to train ourselves to ‘feel nothing’ at the loss of a wife or child (as they are human and death is inevitable) feels plain wrong. For Epictetus the sole true value is our moral character. And all else – including people – are as Oliver Reed said in Gladiator simply ‘shadows and dust’.

I like Epictetus’s advice to recognise what you control and don’t, what you assume and what is real, what is intended and what is accident. His tip to take a moment to reflect before reacting is wise too. But I’m with Aristotle not Epictetus on people we love and the importance of friends.

One such sent me a piece of research which suggests that the value of friendship doesn’t just underpin Aristotle’s vision of happiness, but also the happiness that organised religions bring:

“It is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” according to sociologist Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier” his study shows.

So I go with Aristotle and the big congregational religions, not Epictetus on friends. Friends and social ties are the route to human happiness and eudaimonia. Avoiding them isn’t. 

You can’t control friends. As Epictetus rightly points out ‘the jeering of friends’ often accompanies any attempt at self improvement. There’s no doubt that friends can hurt you, and heap indignity on you too. But you can’t live happily without Friends.