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

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’.

Strawberry

20111113-150850.jpgI’ve discovered Philosophy Now via Kindle. And a find it is too. This month’s edition delves into the Philosophy of Mind which I studied twenty odd years ago. What’s new? Quite a lot. But, also, quite a lot is not.

Neuroscience is the new 200lb gorilla on the scene. Is philosophy, contemplation and introspection irrelevant when you have brain scanners and MRI? The argument cuts both ways. Reductionism says its a simple case of describing something complex. I used to agree, now I’m less sure.

Before cosmology we harboured intuitive, and often mystical, beliefs to explain sun, moon and stars. Then telescopes were invented and we moved on to facts and evidence. Aristotle imagined ‘biles and humours’ drove the body, until medicine discovered intricate circulatory and nervous systems. Reductionists say we’ll get over our belief in ‘consciousness’, ‘intentions’ and ‘ideas’ once the science advances enough to describe ‘brain states’ better.

The alternate thesis – much more where Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche might land – is that describing a TV’s wiring misses what’s on screen. The ’emergent phenomenon’ is a living feeling being, living a unique life, intimately connected to other living feeling beings, all equally unique but interdependent with each other.

It comes down to complexity in the end. A computer or iPhone full of data apparently weighs fractionally more than an empty one. But it is only fractionally more. I read the entire ‘weight’ of data contained in the Internet could easily be stored in the mass of a strawberry. But the ‘knowledge’ exists in myriad computers, data centres and browsers interlinked with myriad minds.

In one way a strawberry already contains a nearly perfect dataset to describe humans. In its DNA it describes carbon-based life, an oxygen rich atmosphere, the rise of flowering plants – and who knows, maybe, some clues to cultivation. It is already bursting with data, just of a ‘natural’ flavour.

And this is the point for me. Let’s imagine we could load the entirety of human culture, knowledge and experience into a strawberry and fire it into space. Billions of years on, when our planet has long since expired, suppose an alien civilisation finds it. From which would they learn more about living as a human being – reading the data locked in the atomic structure of the strawberry, or simply eating it?

Five Minutes

What is time? Judging by my day today, five minutes is the difference between happy and sad, frustration, tears, pressure in the chest cavity and making it just in time – or just too late.

As Kierkegaard said, the demands of the ‘ethical phase’ of life are unlimited. And they lead ultimately to failure and despair. 

But perhaps not. Five minutes is also long enough to clear your thoughts, take a breath and change the internal weather. A smile, a shrug, a stoical thought and a moment’s reflection before marching on. 

It all gets done, and if the demands are unlimited, the rewards are too – a big hug from a small child, a smile of thanks from a good person you’ve helped and the sense of being appreciated, needed and loved.

As the philosopher king and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations:

The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts.

It’s not all bad meeting the insatiable needs of others, so long as you save the odd five minutes for yourself.

Bonhoeffer

I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a friend the other day. Bonhoeffer stood up to the Nazis and perished for it in a concentration camp. He is celebrated (pictured on the right) as a 20th Century martyr in Westmister Abbey.

A Christian theologian and a man of obvious moral courage, Bonhoeffer argued – like Kierkegaard before him – for a more direct spiritual connection with God. One mediated by fewer trappings of religion.

He believed we have a deep moral sense, beyond the reach of rational thought which is both our guide and goad. He said our conscience comes from a “depth which lies beyond a man’s own will and his own reason and it makes itself heard as the call of human existence to unity with itself.”

For Bonhoeffer, guilt is a warning about our ‘doings’ conflicting with our ‘being’. A guilty conscience arises when we lose the unity – what some people call ‘congruence’. Our conscience is, thus, like an alarm bell, warning us of the risk of damage to ourselves.

I’m not sure I agree with Bonhoeffer that conscience lies beyond the ‘event horizon’ of thought and will. I’m more with Aristotle that we simply ‘are what we repeatedly do’. For me, reason, will, our actions and character all come together in an intertwined person. But the Bonhoeffer quote I read out today is still a powerful one:

The man with a conscience fights a lonely battle against the overwhelming forces of inescapable situations which demand moral decisions despite the likelihood of adverse consequences.

Bonhoeffer found himself up against truly overwhelming forces and a tragically inescapable situation – it cost him his life. He took moral decisions despite the likelihood, entirely realised, of very adverse consequences. Whether he found it in faith or forged it through reason, that is moral courage.

For Aristotle, courage is the ‘mean’ between confidence and fear. To respond to ‘overwhelming forces of inescapable situations’ with the courage of Bonhoeffer requires a strength built within – the confidence in the importance of ‘unity with oneself’ overcoming the fear of ‘adverse consequences’ and considering them a price worth paying.

But what’s the practical day to day application here? Like the other 20th century martyrs in Westminster Abbey, Bonhoeffer faced extraordinary challenges. History has judged him simply and kindly. Most of us live with less extreme, more attritional moral challenges and choices – do I say something or keep quiet, do I stand up for something or let it go, do I join in talking someone down or keep my mouth shut. And implicit in Bonhoeffer’s words are the fact that others won’t always understand and won’t always judge you kindly.

The thought that conscience is a warning that expedient ‘doings’ might undermine my ‘being’ is a valuable one. It’s less about carrying guilt and more about making choices. It achieves some of what Bonhoeffer would no doubt have wished for us; a simple internaliseable test of our actions.

For me, I think it may be this simple: if I can look others in the eye and myself in the mirror – even amidst the adverse consequences of inescapable situations – I know my ‘self’ is in ok shape. If not my ‘doings’ are damaging my ‘being’.

Guilt

I was reminded of one of my own ‘mottos at work’ this week – don’t start with an apology. We often start an encounter by excusing ourselves for things that aren’t really our fault. That, or making an unduly self-deprecating comment. Why?

Well when it comes to a big ballsy idea you can’t beat Nietzsche. What say you to this: all our animal instincts that don’t get let out into the real world get turned inside. This is Nietzsche’s idea that our ‘will to power’ is either expressed externally or turned in our ourselves – often as guilt.

Nietzsche is an interesting chap. Unashamedly elitist, cultured, a fine writer. But also discomforting and highly speculative. His punt – based on no particular evidence it must be said – is that there was a time when we were cruel but cheerful. Guilt didn’t exist. Just debts to repay and retribution to enact.

Depending on whether you were owed to or in debt, you were either cheerfully duffing someone up or being duffed up. But there were no hard feelings – even if it was painful and cruel. The nobly savage, jolly, barbarian life.

This reminds me of the Viking laws someone gave me a copy of a couple of years ago:

Be direct, brave and aggressive, grab all opportunities, use varying methods of attack, be versatile and agile, attack one target at a time, don’t plan everything in detail, use top quality weapons, keep weapons in good shape, keep yourself in good shape, find good battle comrades, agree on important points, choose one chief.

Not much introspection there. Sensible organisation, plenty of ‘flow’ potential and a good deal of what we would consider cruelty. I also suspect not much guilt… And by the sounds of it a fair bit of cheerfulness.

And this is what I find interesting in Nietzsche’s thesis. The barbarism and cruelty of dominance and power led to vivid, guilt free lives – nasty brutish and short no doubt, but vivid and guilt free. For Nietzsche, guilt is simply energy we can’t expend elsewhere. So why do we all feel guilty all the time?

Because we can never do enough (Kierkegaard) if anyone could view what we’re doing as wrong then it is wrong (Kant) and even when we do do the ‘right’ things they may turn out wrong (Mill).

Nietzsche asks a perfectly good question; why do we feel so guilty for everything? These days I’m feeling less guilty about spending that energy better elsewhere.

The Feast

I’ve just started reading some Montaigne. He seems a splendid chap, not least as you can get to know him so well through his 1000+ pages of observations on the profound, trivial and mundane. As Wikipedia has it “Montaigne’s stated goal in his [Essays] is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness. He finds the great variety and volatility of human nature (not least his own) to be its most basic feature.”

I’ve temporarily closed the book on Kierkegaard. I’ve certainly enjoyed him, for all his inherently untestable and unprovable ‘leaps of faith’, his requirement for ‘innerness’ and his argument for the complete subjectivity of existence. By comparison the great humanist Montaigne promises to be a refreshing gallop through a more worldly form of ‘existentialism’ – living and documenting a unique and full life.

Whilst out riding one day in his mid thirties, Montaigne had a near death experience. He was badly crushed by another man’s horse. The episode apparently convinced him that death wasn’t worth planning for, or agonising over. Everything you need for the ‘big day’ is already given to you by nature, be you philosopher or peasant. He concluded you never truly ‘meet’ death anyway, as his experience suggested you’re likely to be semi-detached in gentle delirium on the day itself. Stop thinking about it, and get on with living, was his post accident conclusion.

The worlds first ‘essai-ist’ or ‘trier-outer’ in French, Montaigne wrote on everything. Giving up the responsibility to analyse, sense-make or edit, he just wrote about what struck him. A sixteenth century Stephen Fry.

Many have described encountering Montaigne as meeting and making a ‘friend for life’. He is so open, transparent and eclectic, we can all see in him the meandering of our own minds. Mid-way through his life he packed in ‘objectivism’ and seeking to transcend the human condition and got on with the ‘subjectivism’ of living. 

On death, as Seneca had largely observed a millennium before him, Montaigne advises in his essay: That to philosophise is to learn to die:

“Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.”

He says at the start of the essay:

“Let the philosophers say what they will, the main thing at which we all aim, even in virtue itself, is pleasure. It amuses me to rattle in their ears this word.”

His advice, encouragement and goad for living is:

“Why not depart from life as a sated guest from a feast?”

Why not indeed. I suspect Montaigne will turn out to be a lively and engaging companion for my next gallop.

Inner Disposition

Twice this week I made myself feel a lot better by acting to adjust my ‘inner disposition’. Before Christmas I read the Stoic Epictetus’s ‘Handbook’. The translator and expert guide Keith Seddon has produced a simple summary of Stoicism in a flow diagram (above). In the centre is ‘adjusting one’s inner disposition’ which reduces ‘wrong judgements’, ‘debilitating emotions’ and overreaction to ‘external events’ – notably people. The products of an adjusted ‘inner disposition’ are ‘serenity’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘fearlessness’. 

I associate Stoicism with passivity. Shrugging the shoulders, avoiding situations, retreating to the intellectual ‘cave’ and keeping your head down. I conclude from this week it ain’t necessarily so. Why? Because in both cases I ‘adjusted my inner disposition’ by taking action ‘in the moment’, not reflecting on it too much, and in the process letting go of the ‘debilitating emotions’ almost immediately. 

The first instance was easy. I was fuming about my day at work and the inappropriate behaviour I’d been subject to. I put my iPod on and tapped out a rant (which I kept to myself) on my iPhone. Rant written, fave tunes playing, my ‘inner dispositions’ changed in less than 5 mins. I let go and felt better.

In the second instance, I also wrote a rant, but this time hit Send. Risky. And after an hour with no answer, I started regretting it. But like hitting the reset button, or turning a computer on and off, my head and heart were cleared. So when the time came to deal with the consequences of my rant, I had a better ‘inner disposition’ and we changed the air.

Many of the great thinkers draw on Stoicism. Kierkegaard, who I’m enjoying at the moment, places taking responsibility for your own life as part of his ‘ethical’ stage of life. Aristotle advocates thought and action. Like Achilles though, sometimes I have to act – not think – to achieve ‘serenity’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘fearlessness’.

The Daffodil

The Daffodil, or more classically and correctly the Narcissus, perfectly captures my week. 

First my daughter. Three years ago when she started school, I sometimes thought of her as a little snowdrop, a tiny beautiful flower, but gently bowed and diffident. She cried all the way through her first school play, reached out to me with beseeching arms in her second, slightly self-consciously danced a solo in the third; and belted out a song, whilst whipping others into line, in this year’s Christmas special. 

Caring teachers and a lovely little school have straightened her stem, burst open her petals and encouraged a more confident little trumpet in the middle. In recognition, and ending months of parental anxiety, this week she won a place at a super new school. Like the picture above she now has more of the ‘Narcissus Geranium’ about her than the original snowdrop. It’s lovely to see.

The second set of flowers came at work. I found myself talking to a roomful of our people from Alexandria and Cairo (despite the unrest at home), Abuja, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Lahore, Recife and the UK about our Prime Minister’s recent speech on Multiculturalism. I said I think it’s all about how petals and centre – or stigma – relate in the national flower. I drew three flowers. One with petals and no centre, one with a huge centre and ‘teddy bear’s ears’ petals and the last with daffodil-like proportions.

I said, in my view, if there is no shared centre, just independent and separate ‘petals’ of separate cultures who never mix, a society will have tensions. Similarly if the centre is so large that the central culture dominates and excludes ‘outsider’ cultures, beleaguered, excluded groups will live unhappily. What’s needed – and substantially what I believe we have in the UK – is a good balance of centre and petals; things in common and things on which we live with and benefit from difference. 

What was interesting for me was when the woman from Brazil stood up and said, for her, there was a fourth option. Her picture was petals within a circle. That’s how she feels about Brazil, their culture is the sum of their petals. I guess a lot depends on the balance of ‘new’ and ‘old’, ‘migrant’ and ‘indigenous’, ‘history’ and ‘present’. A daffodil culture works for me.

My final Narcissus blossomed in a rich conversation over fish, chips and peas on the balance of Kierkegaardian ‘ethical roles’ and the central self. My interlocutor has impressively re-asserted her central self, to rebalance her life and lessen the competing and narcissistic demands of all those making a claim on her.

This set me thinking, and, as I said, once again the daffodil strikes me as the ideal flower. The ‘daffodil life’ wins over everyone with its ramrod straight ethical stalk, a healthy petal spread of life roles. But, it’s the vivid central trumpet of the self that ‘makes’ the flower – just like my little girl. 

Passing a florist today, me and my boy bought our first daffodils of the year after his Birthday lunch. They are a joyous symbol of spring. A wonderful thing the daffodil.

Personas

I’ve had several prompts recently to think about multiple personas. I’ve got a few different ones, and I was wondering the other morning whether this is good, bad or inevitable. First the prompts – and they are an eclectic bunch 1) Kierkegaard 2) venn diagrams and voluntary redundancy 3) the Portuguese writer Pessoa 4) the iPad 5) a Civil Servant I admire 6) cufflinks 7) a theory of very old age 8) a friend at work

Basically my question to myself as I walked into the office was: “Would I be happier if I was exactly the same person at work as I am at home?” My conclusion is not yet, but maybe one day. Here’s a veritable magpies nest of ideas in support of that thesis:

1) I am almost certainly in Kierkegaard’s ‘Ethical’ stage of life. Kierkegaard defines three stages of life in ‘Stages on life’s way‘: the Aesthetic, the Ethical and the Religious. He writes:

The aesthetic sphere is the sphere of immediacy, the ethical the sphere of requirement (and this requirement is so infinite that the individual always goes bankrupt), the religious the sphere of fulfilment.

In the ethical phase of life we seek to find ourselves in the jobs and roles we hold: father, manager, dog owner, minor pillar of the local community. Each of these roles requires things of us. To be the ‘ideal form’ of any of these roles is hard – to achieve the ideal in all simultaneously is impossible – hence Kierkegaard’s infinite requirement and inevitable bankruptcy. Thus, as I read him, we either reduce the number of roles (Kierkegaard I note spurned his true love to focus on writing) or we face varying degrees of falling short and dissatisfaction, until we give up trying please everyone and find solace in a one to one with God.

2) I’ve written about the salutary experience of seeing senior people leaving my organisation and realising the organisation defines their identity more than anything else in their lives. I conclude it is not wise to find one’s identity in a single role – especially one as fickle as a salaried job.

3) I read this week that Pessoa seemed to be a pretty uninteresting chap until a large chest of papers was discovered after his death with myriad texts written in myriad different identities – his heteronyms as he called them.

4) I don’t take my iPad to work. Partly, given they are still considered ostentatious, to avoid the ‘jeering’, which Epictetus invites us to brace ourselves for when attempting any self improvement. The prime reason though is it has pictures of my kids, my private thoughts and Apps which reveal my passions, idiosyncrasies and neuroses. It’s me and that’s my business not my work’s business.

5) The UK Civil Service distorted me as a person. It made me introverted, glum and bleak. A Civil Servant I admire always keeps his glass half full, despite the burden of being substantially responsible for the criminal justice system. I talked to him about trying blogging the other day – I blog at work too – and then immediately stopped myself. There’s no way he could blog in his job. He’d be leaked, misconstrued and pilloried in the press within hours if he wrote anything interesting. The ‘ideal type’ of the true Civil Servant cannot be entirely candid. The ‘ethical phase’ of his life requires great patience and careful manoeuvring to serve his higher purpose.

6) My daughter chose some heart shaped cufflinks for me for Christmas. I felt bad because I thought they were inappropriate for work. I asked a friend, he agreed. I asked another. He said: “Wear them, it’s who you are”. I wore them to our Management Board this week. Nothing bad happened.

7) My mother-in-law says that, in her experience of others, beyond 90 years of age people become the very essence of themselves. She had a friend who worked in fashion who beyond 90 became interested only in the appearance of others. A friend at work told me a relative who had been a spy became absorbed in a deeply secret mission in her final years. Neither was doolally, both simply became the essence of their prime persona in very old age.

8) A close friend advised me to be ‘me’ first and derive my work persona from the true ‘me’.

My synthesis from these prompts is this:

I have lived through my ‘Aesthetic stage’ and pursued beauty, booze and hedonism. I am now firmly in my ‘Ethical stage’. I have chosen to take on many roles: life partner, dog owner, father, director, volunteer, committee man, ascetic, philosopher and I am seeking fulfilment by chasing the ‘ideal’ in each. At times the demands and circumstances of one jostles the others. And some roles don’t fit me or mess up the others – being a Senior Civil Servant did. But mostly, despite Kierkegaard’s warning, their requirements are being met. I am not yet bankrupted by their demands and thanks to Aristotle and others I’m optimistic I can keep to a modest overdraft in meeting the needs of most of my ecosystem most of the time.

I suspect, at this stage of my life, seeking to fulfil all these roles is an essential part of finding my own essence. None of these entirely define the person I am or will become, some will fit me more or less well. If any of them excessively distort or damage the others I need to redefine the ‘terms of trade’ or stop doing it. Let them all get out of hand and I’ll dip into fatigue or get ill. Let one get too far out of step and dominate, and the others will suffer. Cordon off a secret role and some of what I’m about will disappear into a Pessoan private trunk. And that would be bad, because Kierkegaard advises that the guiding light in the ‘Ethical Stage’ is honesty and transparency.

So who am I? At the moment I am my multiple personas. The essence will be revealed in time, but for now I am simply the sum of my roles, no more no less. And given how important some of those roles are to me, I think that feels fine for now.