The Houses of Parliament

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Every morning, close to the end of my cycle to work, Westminster Bridge looms ahead. Hardly Mount Ventoux the Tour de France killer but still a thigh sapping incline, before the crest and lethal descent…

Why a lethal descent? Two lanes into three, accelerating downhill, buses cutting across from the inside to the right turn filter, rubble trucks, taxis, motorbikes and assorted cyclists of all abilities – plus three lanes of fast oncoming. Every morning I look at it and think: if I am to day today it will be here. RIP.

Still I’ve survived it for over a decade, so chin up. And a daily reminder of how trivially it could all end helps with Nietzsche’s injunction to ‘live as a work of art’ and Sartre’s to ‘own’ our uniqueness. Wise words.

But the best bit of briefly reprising Tommy Simpson’s epic climb of Ventoux, is the cresting of Westminster Bridge as the Houses of Parliament emerge from the brow of the artificial hill.

What majesty, what poesy, what flights of fancy in decor. Low spring sun glints off the leaded windows and lights the gold adornments. Summer breezes flutter the Union Jack proudly. Even winter fogs progressively reveal its Victorian aspect and evoke ‘pea soupers’ of the Industrial Age.

Turner saw the original burn (his painting from the Tate above) but what a Phoenix rose from those ashes. It cheers me every day and keeps me pedalling in sun, rain or showers.

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Amor Fati

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This week, my mind was briefly boggled by this most detailed ever picture from a space telescope. It purports to show 200,000 galaxies.

Our nearest star – on the most optimistic estimates – would take some 10,000 years to visit. And that’s one star, in the billion, in one galaxy, of the 200,000, you can see in this picture. Make you feel just a little insignificant.

On the same day into my inbox dropped a relevant entry, in the self-styled ‘Intellectual Devotional’ I get by email from dailylit.com. Duff title but there is the odd cracker in there.

‘Transcendent Significance’ is a good one. We all like to think our lives have a transcendent significance. Hence narcissism, religion, artistry, poetry, politics… and Nietzsche.

Why Nietzsche? Because one answer to transcendent significance according to the Intellectual Devotional is:

The doctrine of “eternal recurrence”, which posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur ad infinitum, in a self-similar form. Rooted in Indian and Egyptian philosophy, and taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics, with the fall of antiquity and the spread of Christianity, the concept of was gradually lost.

Enter Nietzsche who gave “eternal recurrence” a second chance, as a reason to affirm life in the face of a world without God:

“My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it… but to love it.”

I’m not sure I can go the whole hog on Nietzsche – and want nothing different in all eternity. But I can have a decent crack at wanting nothing different in the here and now.

Is there a better place in those 200,000 galaxies? Maybe, but probably not. Has there been a better time to live in human history? Almost certainly not. Healthy happy middle age on planet earth in the 21st century has its compensations. Amor fati – what’s not to like?

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?

Cathedral or Cave

I imagine Aristotle, like the Acropolis, as more Cathedral. The reclusive poet Emily Dickinson would be more cave. Montaigne, perhaps old Paris; earthy rumbustious streets and deep reflective catacombs.

I’ve been toying with Nietzsche’s idea that our ‘will to power’ is either expressed in the real world or forcibly turned in. For him, we create a complex inner life in proportion to the scale of our drive we cannot express externally.

It’s an interesting thought. Complex interesting people tend to have a good deal of both – rich inner lives and fulfilling outer ones. But not always. Nietzsche credits civilisation with curbing the capacity to express our animal instincts externally – driving them inwards. This unexpressed energy drives our inner lives – our conscience, guilt and creativity.

I think regularly about the balance of inner and external. I don’t feel I have the ‘will to power’ for a full ‘Cathedral’ in the external world. Too much competition, conflict, one-upmanship and strife in seeking grandeur. I fear I’d lose my health, precious time with my family and my happiness if I allowed a ‘grand projet’ or personal aggrandisement to consume me.

Talking to a friend – who is a decade older than me – this week, I felt a bit guilty. He has real fire in his belly for systemic reform, transformational change and the great debates of public policy. I said I’m just not attracted to any of that right now.

We talked about using your talents and our responsibility to improve the lot of others. He started his career as a lone residential social worker, on a tough housing estate. Beer bottles bounced off the cage that surrounded his outpost all night. That’s where his fire still comes from. It drives him to want to improve the scaffolding and superstructure of the nation’s health and social care system.

I don’t have that. I’m more a family chapel with a good sized intellectual cellar. My projects are more local and small scale – my family, the people around me. But never say never. The world is an unpredictable place. Gaudi started with lampposts and squat schoolhouses, so I suppose you never really know what you might build one brick at a time.

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.

Poetics

Aristotle is always refreshingly plain on a subject. So when I read him, I find it easy to think he’s simply making a useful summary of a well known issue. But often he was creating the entire discipline; the first known thinker to frame or classify it. This makes his clarity and brevity all the more remarkable. And all this in 350 BC.

Among his intellectual inventions was the first setting out of the principles of ‘Poetics’, covering drama, tragedy and a lost volume on comedy.

Here he explains the origins and evolution of poetry:

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.

Poetry, myth and tragedy played important roles in Ancient Greece. According to Nietzsche they were instrumental in maintaining the vitality and optimism of Greek culture. Poetry, myth and tragedy also captured the essence of Ancient History. As Aristotle said:

Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history. For poetry expresses the universal and history only the particular.

Perhaps, like philosophy, poetry is less central to modern culture. But it’s still takes the same courage and skill:

Constantly risking absurdity, whenever he performs above the heads of his audience, the poet like an acrobat climbs on rime. (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1958)

It also connects the sublime with the ridiculous in the human condition:

Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. (Carl Sandburg, 1928)

But philosophy and poetry can still bring happiness, fulfilment and an opportunity to develop our natural gifts – till our ‘rude improvisations’ give birth to our own poetry.

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.

Tragedies

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Simon Armitage’s updating of The Odyssey this week – a rattling good read, in my view. Our hero Odysseus, helped by Athene – and in spite of Poseidon and the only sometimes benign neglect of Zeus – overcomes a decade of trials and torments to return to the arms of his long-suffering Penelope.

Serendipitously, I also heard a Philosophy Bites about Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche argued Greek Tragedies were the perfect human and artistic response to the balance of ‘Dionysian’ chaos and ‘Apollonian’ order in life. The world is chaos and disorder (fickle gods) but humans can briefly rise above that to create pockets and moments of order (depending on the goodwill of the gods).

This tension of chaos and order, it is suggested, energises, drives virtue, excellence and courage and guards us against hubris and vanity. For Nietzsche, tragedies and myths enriched and invigorated Athenian culture, fuelling its dynamism, optimism and creativity – a latter day ‘Yes we can’ despite all evidence to the contrary.

I think he’s onto something. Planet Earth is an extraordinarily delicate life-boat in a cosmos of nothingness occasionally punctuated by ice, fire and crushing gravity. And our world wasn’t always so benign. On hols in France – watching an improbably large stork fly overhead – I was reminded of massive raptors bouyed by high levels of atmospheric oxygen, avoiding the constant vulcanism and raging forest fires which were the Carboniferous era. Pretty Dionysian. As The Odyssey teaches we can be heroic and stoic, but we are mere mortals against primal forces.

Enter Socrates – everything can be learned, mastered and understood by unrelenting reasoned debate and dialogue. The human mind can penetrate the deepest mysteries and bring order to nature’s chaos. And indeed we can to some degree – with a bit of observation and Aristotle’s scientific method thrown in. But like Odysseus, Achilles or Icarus we can all be raised up and brought low by the fates, with only chaos and chance as explanations.

For Nietzsche the pre-Socratic Greeks had it right. Tragedy and myths were the spiritual batteries of their culture – their way of coping with an unpredictable and inhospitable mother nature. But they could, through luck, bravery and virtue, enjoy moments of truimph and joy. Art lifted their spirits and their culture.

But then along came Socrates who badgered us into believing the world was rational. I like the Socratic method – stepping outside your own beliefs to examine them and debate them with others – but not his unintended consequence. Nietzsche accuses Socrates of killing art with reason and, with it, art’s ability to help us live with and laugh in the face of chaos.

I’ve cited Armitage’s Odysseus three times at work this week. It helped me and others understand and deal with our workplace fates and some all too human failings. It made us reflect, laugh a bit and cope better. Art imitating life or life imitating art? Either way, stepping outside our local tragedies to reflect on ancient ones seemed to help.