Brain Pickings

5 Guides to Life from Cultural Luminaries

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Finding practical applications for philosophy, or what Ovid can teach us about sex.

One of our favorite unattributed quotes goes as follows: “Life is a test. It is only a test. If this were your actual life, you would have been given better instructions.”

The good news is that guidance is in fact out there, which is why we’ve put together a short list of reads (and one documentary) that gather the best of what we’ve collectively learned about the tricky art of living. Where the self-help genre can be trite, a byproduct of the latest pop-culture trends, there’s comfort in knowing that these picks go deeper in their quest for human self-actualization.

ALL THINGS SHINING

In 2011, we live in an age without existential anchors, a state that leaves many of us feeling adrift in our day-to-day lives. So goes the argument behind All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. Though the book is co-written by academics with burnished credentials, All Things Shining is intended for the general reader, as the authors note in their forward.

[A]nyone who hopes to enrich his or her life by experiencing it in the light of classic philosophical and literary works can hope to find something here. Anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing… anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next.”

From Dante to David Foster Wallace, All Things Shining suggests that non-religious westerners look for sacraments in (sometimes surprising) new places. Places like the football field, as one of the book’s authors proposed during a recent appearance on The Colbert Report. Watch him get genially punted about by Colbert here:

EXAMINED LIFE

Director Astra Taylor has her subjects – and their minds – on the move in Examined Life: Philosophy Is in the Streets. What’s most refreshing about her excellent 2009 documentary is how it portrays today’s greatest living philosophers interacting with the world.

Cornel West expounds on the “funk” of birth from the backseat of a taxi cab driving through the streets of New York; Michael Hardt talks about political revolution while rowing a canoe through Central Park’s reservoir; and Slavoj Zizek holds forth on the Anthropocene while standing in the middle of a landfill. The Real doesn’t get much realer than this.

On the critical issues of justice, Martha Nussbaum (interviewed along Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive) remarks:

The Social Contract tradition is of course an academic, philosophical tradition, but it also has tremendous influence on popular culture and our general public life. Because every day we hear things like ‘those people don’t pay their own way’… So the idea that the good member of society is a producer who contributes advantage to everyone is a very live idea, and it lies behind the decline of welfare programs in this country.”

If their peripatetic musings leave you hungry for more, Taylor also published the complete interviews with eight of our most eminent contemporary minds as a book.

BREAKFAST WITH SOCRATES

In Breakfast with Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day, we were taken on a highly enjoyable tour of the mundane accompanied by the Buddha, Max Weber, and a host of other great thinkers. The book flows chronologically through a typical day, beginning with a chapter called “Waking Up,” logically, since both Descartes and Kant preside over the process of getting out of bed.

Running on the treadmill is an occasion for the following observation:

So let’s say Foucault is right: the gym is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an overtly friendly club on a covert mission to monitor not just your heart rate but your general regularity as a subject. Now turn that argument on its head: the state wouldn’t need to keep bodies docile if they didn’t hold the power to subvert it, which is to reconceive the body as a political weapon, an agent of resistance.”

What we liked most about Breakfast with Socrates was its absorption in the quotidian aspects of life, since, as its epigraph from the writer Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

MORNING, NOON, AND NIGHT

Where Breakfast with Socrates walked us through the diurnal, the new publication Morning, Noon, and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books has nothing less than our entire lives on its itinerary. Its author, Arnold Weinstein, has been teaching literature at Brown University for more than four decades, and he brings a compelling intimacy to his subject.

In Morning, Noon, and Night something quite personal is at stake; namely, Weinstein’s own reckoning with the passing of time. His readings in the book’s latter half are particularly sensitive to the irrefutable phenomenon of mortality. To wit:

Baudelaire and Freud are cartographers of a special sort: they are alive to the temporal destinies of cities and humans. What they tell us, in their own way, is that humans are also historical monuments, replete with stories, memories, scar tissue, and the living pith of days and works.”

Alongside classics like Ulysses, contemporary works from Marjane Satrapi and Jonathan Safran Foer also appear in Weinstein’s existential exigesis.

THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY

No survey of life lessons derived from luminaries would be complete without a pick from writer Alain de Botton. In The Consolations of Philosophy we get his well-established blend of wit and wisdom applied, most comfortingly, to the aspects of life that cause the most anxiety. In a chapter entitled “Consolation for Not Having Enough Money,” de Botton trades on the legacy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Wealth is of course unlikely ever to make anyone miserable. But the crux of Epicurus’s argument is that if we have money without friends, freedom and an analysed life, we will never truly be happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”

Illustrations humorously illuminate de Botton’s other chapters, which draw on Seneca (how to address frustration and loss), Schopenhauer (on healing a broken heart), and Montaigne (for those suffering from feelings of inadequacy).

de Botton’s 2009 TED talk on “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success” has always been one of our favorites; and it touches on much the same anxious territory as The Consolations of Philosophy.

These five items draw deeply and across disciplines from the humanities and the social sciences, reminding us that we have a lot to learn still from those who have labored, lived, and loved before us. Better yet, we also get to be entertained on this long and winding road to enlightenment.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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