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.


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.


This week, I advanced my new theory – to a gently sceptical friend – that the brain works (at least partly) like the electronic ink screen of an Amazon Kindle. Blending in the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, my sweeping conclusion was he should get angry more. Here’s why.

Since buying a Kindle, I’ve been impressed that the screen, when you switch it off, maintains a complex picture – a person, a constellation, a painting etc – using no energy at all. It’s simple but impressive. Like a screensaver, but without power. Information and knowledge are thus available to be viewed, at any time, at no energy or processing cost. My theory is the brain has the same capacity.

A few years ago I read that neurones aren’t permanently ‘charged’ like little lightbulbs or LCD pixels but store information passively – more like a physical switch or dial. Energy is used to ‘charge’ them with information, but once they have been ‘set’ with information they store it passively until changed. Good job too, or, given the number of neurones we have, we’d need a nuclear generator to power our heads.

So my emerging thesis is we can ‘poll’ in computer lingo, or rapidly access a snapshot our entire accumulated summary of knowledge and experience in an instant. And in that instant we can act or react subconsciously informed by that summary.

My guess is that none of this requires much in the way of conscious cognitive processes. Like a finger recoiling from a nail or a smile drawing a return smile, we can immediately and effectively respond to people and situations against this dataset. I’m not saying it is innate or preloaded. We are constantly checking, updating and rearranging our vast neuronal data-set. But at any instant, my thesis is, it lies latently ‘there’ encrypted in neurones like the patterns which make a rich picture, or a page of words, out of electronic ink.

Of course we can intervene, ignore, debate or challenge our accumulated data. Any instant ‘gut’ reaction, or action, it may recommend can be overruled. In complex or nuanced circumstances the higher cognitive functions kick in – at least most of the time.

And this connects to my ongoing conversation with my friend on Aquinas’ support for ‘ira’, and the set of passions which include anger. Like Aristotle – in fact far more than him – Aquinas was pro anger in the right circumstances. Surprising for a theologian.

He thought the passions were intrinsic parts of who we are. He thought they were forms of reason, not lower ‘animal’ or ‘bodily’ sensations to be suppressed by our purer ‘mind’ or ‘soul’. Thus, our passions come from our instincts, blended with our default ‘Kindle screen’ summary of experiences, beliefs and our lifetime of accumulated and refined knowledge. They all inform each other.

I’m with Aristotle that we are what we repeatedly do. So we are constantly refining and tuning our passions, our experience dataset and our virtues through action – only some of that helped by conscious reflection. I’m increasingly with Aquinas too, that it all comes together in complex single holistic system – an ‘anima’, aka a person, not a dumb body and a smart, reasonable mind.

As Herbert McCabe points out: for Aquinas the good life is a passionate life; not achieved by the repression of passions, but by passions guided by virtues. Perhaps there’s more to be said for trusting our ‘gut’, allowing moments of ‘ira’ and the occasional incandescence of righteous anger. Once you’ve lived a few decades and developed a bit of virtue, it’s pretty well informed.

The Undiscovered Continent

I discovered a poem I liked by Emily Dickinson in a poetry anthology. Her words seemed fresh, direct and unaffected. So I looked to see whether she was still writing. A surprise then to see she wrote the words in 1862.

I asked my partner who knows more about literature than me. ‘She’s American, I think’ she said. Transpires she is, from Massachusetts. Reclusive and introverted, Emily lived through letters. But, as with many writers throughout history, it only became evident how much she’d written after her death. Thousands of poems.

She lived much of her later life in what she called the ‘undiscovered continent’ of the mind and soul. She seemed to think of it as an almost a physical place you can inhabit and explore.

This set me thinking – puttering through slow traffic today – of Socrates. He thought everything could be discovered by earnest dialogue and reason – the answers are all there to be found in our heads if we are rigourous and vigourous enough.

Or Berkeley the ‘idealist’ philosopher, who argued that everything we see, touch and feel is ‘mind’ not matter. Then there are contemporary philosophers, who tease undergraduates with solipsism, asking ‘Are we sure it’s not all in our heads’.

The ‘undiscovered continent’ of the mind is a tempting destination. But it’s attractions need to be treated with care. Life is enriched by real world observation and experience and is best explored with friends.

A reclusive life might find order. But the beauty and brutality of nature, the intense experiences of life and the fickle gods of chance are in the material world. The ‘undiscovered continent’ is a place I like to visit, but isn’t a place to live I feel.

Here’s the line from Emily Dickinson which drew me to her and her poetry.

I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose, more numerous of windows – superior for doors.