Sacks and Seneca

  

A very autumnal feel to this week; in lots of different ways. It’s back to school for all of us: big school for one; a new class for the other; and very soon a whole new place of work for me.

As the kids accelerate forwards, I’ve been mostly looking back this week; at eight years of corporate memory. I’m methodically archiving, filing and mostly deleting my electronic back catalogue. No-one else is going to be that interested. Little that has been done before works exactly the same way again. 

But what sticks – looking at the better part of a decade of pronouncements, presentations, reviews, restructures and change programmes – is that many things have got a whole lot better; but the fundamental issues have hardly changed at all. 

And perhaps that’s the lesson, as I move onto the next; and next week clock up another year closer to 50… most of the big things in human affairs stay pretty much the same over the sweep of history.

A wise associate of mine, sent me the later life and closing thoughts of Oliver Sacks yesterday, from the New York Times; here:

The joy of old age (no kidding).

And 

My own life 

I replied:

“These are incredibly moving. This is how I want to live my older years and then ‘rise, satisfied, from the banquet of life’ as Seneca had it. This is the most important and defining thing of all – how we face death and then make the most of life.”

Easier said than done of course – and shame on me; the ‘banquet of life’ is Aristotle’s quote: 

“It is best to rise from life as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken.”

But Seneca’s reflections ‘on the shortness of life’, precised here, are timeless too:

 Why do we complain of Nature? She has shown herself kindly; life, if you know how to use it, is long. 

But one man is possessed by an avarice that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth; one man is exhausted by an ambition that always hangs upon the decision of others, another, driven on by the greed of the trader, is led over all lands and all seas by the hope of gain; some are tormented by a passion for war and are always either bent upon inflicting danger upon others or concerned about their own; some there are who are worn out by voluntary servitude in a thankless attendance upon the great; many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own; many, following no fixed aim, shifting and inconstant and dissatisfied, are plunged by their fickleness into plans that are ever new; some have no fixed principle by which to direct their course, but Fate takes them unawares while they loll and yawn—so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time. 

Ask about the men whose names are known by heart, and you will see that these are the marks that distinguish them: A cultivates B and B cultivates C; no one is his own master. And then certain men show the most senseless indignation—they complain of the insolence of their superiors, because they were too busy to see them when they wished an audience! But can anyone have the hardihood to complain of the pride of another when he himself has no time to attend to himself? After all, no matter who you are, the great man does sometimes look toward you even if his face is insolent, he does sometimes condescend to listen to your words, he permits you to appear at his side; but you never deign to look upon yourself, to give ear to yourself. There is no reason, therefore, to count anyone in debt for such services, seeing that, when you performed them, you had no wish for another’s company, but could not endure your own.   

Wise words.

Death Becomes Us

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I’m reading the ‘Death’ edition of the redoubtable Philosophy Now magazine. And a bone-rattlingly good read it is too. Death dissected through metaphor, thought experiments, cool logic and rational argument.

The core issue, this issue: as medical technology advances should we prepare for immortality or stick with three score and ten? Imagine a typical lifetime of 300 years, the necessary absence of children, the ceaseless marinating in one’s own juices.

As always with philosophy there are no easy answers, but plenty of better ways of thinking about the problem. I remember reading the last half chapter of Julian Barnes ‘A history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters‘ at university as suggested by my philosophy tutor.

It perfectly captures the problem of eternal life – and heaven. Once you’ve had sex with everyone, studied and discussed everything, got your golf handicap down to a straight 18 (‘holes in one’ all the way round) and scared yourself at the ‘Hell’ theme park, what’s left to do.

Easy to say with the expectation of a good few years ahead, but I’m with Aquinas – the human animal makes no sense outside or beyond nature’s limits. Philosophy has always wrestled with it, but ‘death becomes us’.

As Seneca said its not so much the shortness of life, it’s not properly filling it, which is the tragedy.

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.

Cross Stitches

I’ve subscribed to Montaigne’s Essais on dailylit.com which breaks him up into comparatively bitesized chunks. Still the discovery that there are 426 daily episodes to look forward to sometimes feels a long haul. I’m up to episode 62.

Some days I skim him, some days I ignore him completely. But sometimes he discusses something with himself, in his meandering way, which speaks to my own day. Whenever I’m close to cancelling my daily dose of Montaigne, something crops up which piques my interest.

The other day I was tickled in Chapter XXV by his discourse on copying, citing and stealing the ideas and expressions of others. He describes the occasion he spotted a piece of stolen intellectual treasure in an otherwise dull read:

…After a long and tedious travel, I came at last to meet with a piece that was lofty, rich, and elevated to the very clouds… and so wholly cut off from the rest of the work, that by the first six words, I found myself flying into the other world, and thence discovered the vale whence I came so deep and low, that I have never had since the heart to descend into it any more.

In some ages quoting and embroidering ones own words with those of others has been considered scholarly. In others a sin. Montaigne is ambivalent, but on balance feels – properly cited – it is good to draw on others: 

…I myself… attempt to equal myself to my thefts, and to make my style go hand in hand with them, not without a temerarious hope of deceiving the eyes of my reader from discerning the difference… Besides, I do not offer to contend with the whole body of these champions, nor hand to hand with anyone of them: ’tis only by flights and little light attempts that I engage them; I do not grapple with them, but try their strength only. 

When I first read Aristotle and indeed almost any of the thinkers I’ve ‘tried the strength of’, it is easy to feel – at least for ethics – that it has all been thought and said. But an insight from Csikszentmihilyi reassures me that it’s still well worth thinking for myself. Like Aristotle, he maintains that there is no reliable guide or recipe for ‘the good life’. There are, at best, principles and then it is the work of every individual to create our own virtuous circle of thought and action. As Aristotle says: we are, what we habitually do.

That we each have a personal Odyssey to navigate, is reason enough to embroider our thoughts with the golden threads of others from all the ages. But Csikszentmihalyi’s further point is, even where great thinkers have distilled the essence of the good life for their age – Aristotle for the Ancients, Epictetus and Seneca for the random cruelty of the Romans, the Apostles for the tough early years Anno Domini, yogis, Confucius, the Buddha and others for their times and places – the times they are a constantly changin’. 

So not only is living ‘the good life’ a personal challenge, but it is a fresh generational challenge for every epoch given our vastly different social, technological and interpersonal contexts. 

It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of the technological difference between me typing on an Apple bluetooth keyboard in 2011 and Montaigne scratching on parchment in 16th Century France. And yet a decent proportion of what drops electronically into my inbox from his pen is in some way pertinent and relevant. I find it remarkable that both Aristotle and Montaigne travel the ages so well. 

And so to my handy consolation from Montaigne for this week. I’ve spent the last couple of days wrestling with the interaction between my two ‘lovely’ children and two other ‘lovely’ children. Of course they are each individually and collectively lovely, and the interactions between them have been mainly delightful. But they have also been occasionally loud, wearing and late one afternoon briefly teetered towards ‘The Lord of the Flies’. Who was it who said other people are hell? They were wrong – it’s children.

Overall though it was lovely – and with no qualifying speech marks. But yesterday morning as temperatures and tempers warmed, it was nice to enjoy a moment of Montaigne on the iPhone, reassuring me that 400+ years ago, Renaissance parents struggled with many of the same challenges: 

We often take very great pains, and consume a good part of our time in training up children to things, for which, by their natural constitution, they are totally unfit.

Nevertheless, I am clearly of opinion, that they ought to be elemented in the best and most advantageous studies, without taking too much notice of, or being too superstitious in those light prognostics they give of themselves in their tender years.

But, in truth, all I understand as to that particular is only this, that the greatest and most important difficulty of human science is the education of children.

Reassuringly parenting down the ages seems much like John Wanamaker’s view of advertising: everyone knows half of it doesn’t work, the problem is no-one knows which half. Much like ‘the good life’, ‘good parenting’ is a fresh challenge for every parent and every age. It is indeed the greatest and most important difficulty of the human sciences, but also – at least most of the time – the most rewarding.

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.

Today

I heard Simon Armitage read his poem ‘Knowing what we know now’ on the Today Programme on Radio 4 on Wednesday. It features an Elf who makes the offer of turning the clock back to a man who is 44 – exactly half-way to the end of his life. It has a twist in its tale which I didn’t welcome but it certainly set me thinking. 

As I’ve written before it’s increasingly likely that I’m at, or close to, what Armitage’s elf calls the ‘tipping point’ – the half way mark. On Saturday morning in an unconnected thought I put it to myself, what am I going to do that will be memorable today? Cue 3 year old. I spent 3 hours doing 3 miles and 3 parks on a scooter with my son. We had great fun on what could otherwise have been a grey day. I love that boy.

Pondering it this evening, I thought to myself; what would be different if I counted life more often in days, not halves or years? Tapping 365 into a calculator, I realised that in the last year or so I’ve passed the milestone of living over 15,000 days. It’s a bit like when all the 9s turn over on another 10,000 on your car milage. That’s a lot of days. And since I reckon I have a reasonable hope of living another 15,000 that’s a lot of great days if I make them so.

And this reminded me of Seneca’s: ‘On the shortness of life‘. At the start he gently criticises Aristotle for bemoaning that nature has given man such a short span of life, for our many and great achievements, when animals have so long for so little. Seneca disagrees:

‘It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste so much of it.’

I listened to a very experienced and senior person describe his career on Friday. He had many thought-provoking things to say. But the one that stuck the most for me was a comparatively obvious one; you’ll spend more time working than doing anything else so make sure you do something you enjoy. He used the word ‘fun’ all the time to describe his work – great, enormous, tremendous… fun. Not a word I use anywhere near enough describe my working life.

And that is the thing I’ve been thinking about this weekend: enjoyment, fun and spontaneity. Thinking I’m half way to death makes me sombre and cerebral. Thinking I’ve got another 40 years, and probably another 20 odd of work, makes me think about my career and mortgage and school fees. Thinking I’ve got another 15,000 days makes me think about today – what’s going to be today’s highlight, what’s going to be today’s memory, what’s going to be today’s fun. 

As Seneca has it, the philosopher makes his life long by recollecting the past, using the present and anticipating the future. The most important of these for me though is remembering to have fun – today. 

Corporate Punishment iv) Too much to say

It is a truism that no-one is more interested in what we have to say than ourselves. On the contrary, it is a common misapprehension that the more you say the more influential you are being. It ain’t necessarily so. As so often in life, less is often more.

As the great Roman stoic Seneca said:

It is a great thing to know the season for speech and the season for silence.

Enough said.