spEak You’re bRanes

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I retweeted someone’s prescription for modern times a few months ago:

‘Dance like the photo isn’t being tagged, love like you’ve never been unfriended and tweet like nobody is following.’

My basic social media motto is write what’s right for me and worry not (too much) about the reception. It’s my own form of spEak You’re bRanes, the website dedicated to bizarre ranting.

And on the topic of ranting, I got my first ever proper negative comment last week. Someone wrote “What a load of old B……….s!!!” under one of my posts.

When I read it, I laughed – it was funny. Looked at through a more sceptical eye, my blog was indeed a bit earnest. But it made me think…

There is something about Twitter and blogs which – absent a real person – can make us feel like ranting. It’s a bit like shouting at the telly. But as recent lawsuits in the UK have shown, tweeting what you wouldn’t dare shout at the person in real life, can now cost you big.

A healthy disregard for insults is perhaps the carrying cost of a ‘social’ life. I’m still working on being less thin-skinned. A life’s work I suspect. Good old Montaigne to the rescue, with a motto from 400 odd years ago. And not a bad one for for the modern day:

‘I write my book for few men and for few years.’

Before taking myself and any rude comments too seriously, it’s worth remembering – as Montaigne suggests – that almost all of what’s written will soon mulch into the digital biosphere. Maybe digital rantings – like writings – find the audience they deserve.

Take me to your Leader

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As the Curiosity rover pulled off an improbably complex landing on Mars, I was having a laugh with a friend in the US. I pointed out that it’s the US President’s duty to welcome any extraterrestrial when and if he/she arrives. As I put it to her:

It’s America’s job to have any alien invasion land there. And your job to extend the hand of friendship, attempt to nuke em and then use geek ingenuity to whoop ET’s sorry ass. These are important tests of the CinC plus would you have a beer with him/her.

But as Montaigne wrote 50 years after the discovery of the New World, Europeans did a pretty lousy job of ‘constructive engagement’ when they landed in the Americas:

We have taken advantage of their ignorance and inexperience, with greater ease to incline them to treachery, luxury, avarice, and towards all sorts of inhumanity and cruelty, by the pattern and example of our manners.

So many cities levelled with the ground, so many nations exterminated, so many millions of people fallen by the edge of the sword, and the richest and most beautiful part of the world turned upside down, for the traffic of pearl and pepper?

Montaigne reckons the Ancients would have done it better:

Why did not so noble a conquest fall under Alexander, or the ancient Greeks and Romans; and so great a revolution and mutation of so many empires and nations, fall into hands that would have gently levelled, rooted up, and made plain and smooth whatever was rough and savage amongst them.

And that would have cherished and propagated the good seeds that nature had there produced; mixing not only with the culture of land and the ornament of cities, the arts of this part of the world, in what was necessary, but also the Greek and Roman virtues, with those that were original of the country?

I’m not so sure that ‘up close and personal’ the Greeks and Romans would’ve been quite that benign. But who knows.

A question arises. Having spent the week with my two kids arguing incessantly about fairness and equality, at what point do we give that up and go for dominance, acquisition and accumulation?

Lord Acton the Victorian historian, politician and moralist had a few ideas:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

“Great men are almost always bad men.”

“There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

And with remarkable prescience:

“The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks.”

Plus ça change…

Of Sheds

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Montaigne offers a top tip for he (or she) who would keep themselves sane:

That man, in my opinion, is very miserable, who has not at home where to be by himself, where to entertain himself alone, or to conceal himself from others.

When at home, I a little more frequent my library, whence I overlook at once all the concerns of my family.

Surely this is why men have sheds. A man needs his ‘domain’ however small. Given our postage stamp-sized garden, the kitchen by night largely serves for me. But a shed one day would be nice. As for a library, a man can dream. Lucky old Montaigne.

Narrative or Episodic

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I like (as do many others) the notion of lives as narratives. Interesting then to read a contrary view from my old philosophy tutor Galen Strawson – Against Narrativity.

He poses the question: is there really that much evidence that we are narrative beings? And if not, is it really so desirable – in terms of living a good life – that we seek to be?

What’s wrong with enjoying life as a smorgasbord of varied experiences and events. Does it all have to submit to the tyranny of a unifying narrative?

I was talking about this today. And as so often when you pick-up on something new – it then pops up everywhere. In my inbox this evening I find good old Montaigne on the same subject:

Our chiefest sufficiency is to know how to apply ourselves to divers employments. ‘Tis to be, but not to live, to keep a man’s self tied and bound by necessity to one only course; those are the bravest souls that have in them the most variety and pliancy. Of this here is an honourable testimony of the elder Cato:

“His parts were so pliable to all uses, that one would say he had been born only to that which he was doing.” Livy, xxxix. 49.

I do like the sense of a personal narrative. It helps make sense of it all. And along with the ‘can I look myself in the mirror test’ it keeps me on the right and proper path. But a sense of narrative shouldn’t be to the exclusion of Montaigne’s ‘divers employments’ and mixing it up a bit.

As my old tutor points out, a narrative can be both self-limiting and then dangerously self-fulfilling. Variety is the spice of life – and you only get one shot at it.

Montaigne on Virtue

20120410-112035.jpgThree hundred and one dailylit.com episodes of Essays in and Michel de Montaigne serves up another view I 100% agree with, five centuries on. When it comes to ethics the the answer is staring you in the face – in the bathroom mirror.

To ground the recompense of virtuous actions upon the approbation of others is too uncertain and unsafe a foundation, especially in so corrupt and ignorant an age as this.

“What before had been vices are now manners.” – Seneca

You yourself only know if you are cowardly and cruel, loyal and devout: others see you not, and only guess at you by uncertain conjectures, and do not so much see your nature as your art; rely not therefore upon their opinions, but stick to your own:

“Thou must employ thy own judgment upon thyself; great is the weight of thy own conscience in the discovery of virtues and vices: which taken away, all things are lost.” – Cicero

Or as my son’s preferred sage Master Yoda might say: the keeper of your own conscience are you.

Daubing

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I read a while ago that physicists were arguing over the wisdom of analysing the complete dataset from the latest probe which is measuring the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Why? Because from it we will soon have all the data it is possible for us to have on the origins of the universe. And if we analyse it all, we will have closed the book of history on our ultimate origins – there will be nothing more for future generations of physicists to know.

I was reminded of this by a lively conversation on the history of Western Art the other day. I’ve recently bought myself a primer which takes you from cave paintings to cubism and contemporary modern art.

In the early pages, just how small the sliver is, of what survives from antiquity, becomes obvious. There are no paintings, often no original statues and incredibly few fragments from entire cities, kingdoms and civilisations. The ‘cosmic background radiation’ of western culture is largely mapped. What we have is probably all there is.

But although only a fragment, it has been a treasure trove down the centuries. In the writings of Montaigne, his many references to Plutarch, Seneca, Horace et al were the ‘classical education’ which in his time (or in fact slightly before it as he lamented) were the gold standard. A Renaissance man who knew his ‘Greats’, knew everything that was worth knowing.

Paraphrasing Wikipedia, perhaps there is still something to be said for ‘Philo’s Rule’ of ‘classical education’: preserving those words and ideas which impart intellectual and aesthetic appreciation of “the best, which has been thought and said in the world”.

For the polymath, history is the easiest framework on which to hang intellectual curiosity. The past is finite. But, unlike the cosmic background radiation, the arrow of time for the living is forwards – at least for a few decades.

So, I think there’s a balance to strike between a good investment in “the best” that has been thought, said and painted, and keeping abreast of the ephemera of today. History has winnowed and filtered, but it has also carelessly and randomly mulched, ignored and forgotten.

Time marches on. And who knows which of today’s ‘cave paintings’ will be remembered 10,000 years from now. Daubing is as important as appreciating the daubing of others.

The Fear of Dying

20111224-222302.jpgA good friend’s mother died last week. But we went to the footie together on Wednesday, as we’d planned despite – and because of it.

We didn’t talk much about it, but talking to others, one of the things in anyone’s head when parents die is: who will I turn to when I need some help? Some advice? Some love? Someone to be unconditionally proud of me?

Then there’s the realisation – I’m next. No-one can bear the thought of burying their own child, so the inescapable conclusion has to be that the least worst outcome is – I go next.

When I was worried about cancer 18 months ago I read David Servan-Schrieber’s excellent book Anticancer. Since then I’ve recommended it to four people – two diagnosed, one with a brother diagnosed and one with a terminal friend.

There’s a chapter I’ve mentioned to all four which describes the six worst fears about dying. I found it hard to read – it made my heart beat faster and feeling of anxiety rise in my chest. I knew I’d want to read it again – but couldn’t bring myself to do it, until today, remembering my friend.

Servan-Schreiber himself died this year, which feels strange. In a way he was speaking in the abstract when I read it last – now he’s been there and done it. This time though, the chapter didn’t make me anxious at all. The cloud of cancer has lifted from over my head. But also writing and reading Montaigne and others on death has defused the bomb for me – at least for now.

I feel calmer at the prospect of death, not least because I now have some answers for the six greatest fears:

1) The fear of suffering: as Montaigne convincingly tells, Mother Nature gives us all we need to cope at the end – dehydration, delirium, distance, departure.

2) The fear of nothingness: people and increasingly science concur: Oxygen depletion automatically creates a welcoming white light to which we are drawn, leaving only an eternal moment to reflect on the unique trace on the universe we have left with our lives.

3) The fear of dying alone: Servan-Schreiber quotes someone else’s advice: ‘Escape the prison of positive thinking’, accept time’s up and make your peace with those around you so they can cope with being near.

4) The fear of being a burden: Servan-Schreiber makes a good point, that in death rather than being ‘useless’ we become pioneers and guides for everyone close to us – we’re all going on this journey.

5) The fear of abandoning your children: an enormous amount of resourcefulness has already been carefully placed there – love, confidence, care – which they will draw on their whole lives.

6) The fear of unfinished stories: as Mike Oldfield says in ‘The living years’ – say it now, say it loud. Say the things you always wanted to say and do the things you wanted to do – or get over them. I reckon I’ve already had a good knock and said most of what I need – so far – to say to those who matter the most.

‘Pretty, act young, be fearless’ – as ‘Scorpios’, my choice of funeral music goes. I still have my folks though, so perhaps I’m kidding myself.

Against Idleness

20111129-095156.jpgA friend and I discussed yesterday whether ‘perpetual activity’ is simply a function of my work and life stage – or is it my underlying temperament. In a previous conversation, he put to me, that the ceaseless activity I observe in my daughter might suggest ‘the fruit never falls far from the tree’.

I think of myself as basically liking my rest. I’m just not allowed any. My family all seem to feel me sitting down means they need to spur me to action. Sitting down for them is me signalling a desire to be reactivated. I routinely stay on my feet at home, to keep them from ‘tasking’ me further.

Similarly at work, keeping busy is my way. If things are in good order, I instinctively seek some ‘new’ things to make happen – at times to the chagrin of those around me.

I blame the Emperor Vespasian as quoted by Montaigne in his essay ‘Against Idleness’ which I read the other day:

The Emperor Vespasian, being sick of the disease whereof he died, did not for all that neglect to inquire after the state of the empire, and even in bed continually despatched very many affairs of great consequence; for which, being reproved by his physician, as a thing prejudicial to his health, “An emperor,” said he, “must die standing.”

A fine saying, in my opinion, and worthy of a great prince. The Emperor Adrian since made use of the same words, and kings should be often put in mind of them, to make them know that the great office conferred upon them of the command of so many men, is not an employment of ease; and that there is nothing can so justly disgust a subject, and make him unwilling to expose himself to labour and danger for the service of his prince, than to see him, in the meantime, devoted to his ease and frivolous amusement, and to be solicitous of his preservation who so much neglects that of his people.

Never sitting down and avoiding any whiff of ‘ease’ or ‘frivolous amusement’ in my domestic and working life have become habits. We are what we repeatedly do. Just need to keep standing.

Language

Re-reading a chapter of Herbert McCabe’s ‘On Aquinas’ last night, the outline of a new understanding emerged from the complex conceptual haze of the ‘philosophy of language’.

Language is the means through which we transcend individual experience and share our lives, ideas and culture with others. So far so obvious – Stephen Hawking’s is a brilliant mind but without a twitch sensor and a computer voice he’d be lost to us, alone trapped in his own head.

McCabe, following Aquinas and Wittgenstein considers language as exclusively ‘public’. It exists outside and apart from the sense perceptions of people – it has to otherwise it would not work as a means of sharing understanding.

So while my ‘red’ might look and feel different to yours (although probably not that much) as soon as we name it, it ceases to be my ‘property’ and becomes a shared one. As McCabe points out, my sense perceptions are my own, but my words ‘belong’ to the English language and are public, shared and ‘intersubjective’ – i.e. most people would agree on what they mean, otherwise they wouldn’t work.

Why is this so important? Well as Aristotle said: ‘It us the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’.

Similarly it is the mark of an animal with language to be able to describe, contemplate and imagine actions, not simply to feel, jump and act. Without language there is no reflection, just action and reaction.

For Aristotle, Aquinas, Wittgenstein and McCabe, language is not just a fancy tail feather or ornament on human intellect – it is human intellect. Language is the difference between pure instinct and intelligence, communication and culture.

The penny has dropped for me – something I didn’t ‘get’ when I did philosophy at University. David Hume and others persuaded me that sensations come first and language just describes them. But I now reckon it’s the other way around – language marks off and frames sensations so we can contemplate them. Language is not just communicating, it’s everything.

Language also connects us across boundaries of space and time. Herbert McCabe lives on through his limpid, lively philosophical prose. Like Montaigne, you feel you know the man when you read what McCabe has written. Shrewd, perhaps a little stubborn, quick-witted, sharp – and for a monk, disarmingly worldly and funny.

As Aristotle said, we are we repeatedly do. Perhaps, also, we are what we repeatedly write – poetry, prose or philosophy.

Shame There

Does seeing cruelty make us more or less likely to engage in it? Catalunya has just banned bullfights. But I saw one in Colombia nearly 20 years ago and felt I could see the nobility in it which Hemingway describes in ‘Death in the afternoon’.

Montaigne though thinks cruelty to animals does desensitise us:

Those natures that are sanguinary towards beasts discover a natural proneness to cruelty. After they had accustomed themselves at Rome to spectacles of the slaughter of animals, they proceeded to those of the slaughter of men, of gladiators.

He also points out Karma was alive and kicking in Roman France:

The religion of our ancient Gauls maintained that souls, being eternal, never ceased to remove and shift their places from one body to another; mixing moreover with this fancy some consideration of divine justice, they said that God assigned it another body to inhabit, more or less painful, and proper for its condition:

If it had been valiant, he lodged it in the body of a lion; if voluptuous, in that of a hog; if timorous, in that of a hart or hare; if malicious, in that of a fox, and so of the rest, till having purified it by this chastisement, it again entered into the body of some other man.

But if we think animals deserve our humanity, only, to keep in check our brutality to each other, the story of Koko the Gorilla suggests they are well able to judge us too.

Koko, a 40 year old female Gorilla has mastered the American Sign Language for 2000 words. But like the Border Collie which has learnt the name of 4000 stuffed toys, it’s easy to dismiss this as trial and error ‘behaviourism’ – action for reward with nothing ‘thought’ in between.

The story told by the scientist who oversees Koko suggests differently:

“It happened by accident – someone sent a DVD about primates and I didn’t really look at it, but it was playing when I looked and saw Koko watching a graphic bushmeat scene. I hadn’t previewed it like I should have. The next day Koko picked up an insert from a newspaper and it was a supermarket ad. She held up a section full of pictures of meat and signed “Shame there.”

So simple, but so powerful as a summary of what we’re capable of. As Aristotle said we are the best and worst of animals.