Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

21 FEBRUARY, 2013

Bertrand Russell on Human Nature, Construction vs. Destruction, and Science as a Key to Democracy

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On the art of acquiring “a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy.”

In 1926, British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic Bertrand Russell — whose 10 commandments of teaching endure as a timeless manifesto for education, whose poignant admonition is among history’s greatest insights on love, whose message to descendants should be etched into every living heart — penned Education and the Good Life (public library), exploring the essential pillars of building character through proper education and how that might relate to broader questions of politics, psychology, and moral philosophy.

One of Russell’s key assertions is that science education — something that leaves much to be desired nearly a century later — is key to attaining a future of happiness and democracy:

For the first time in history, it is now possible, owing to the industrial revolution and its byproducts, to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of happiness. Physical evil can, if we choose, be reduced to very small proportions. It would be possible, by organization and science, to feed and house the whole population of the world, not luxuriously, but sufficiently to prevent great suffering. It would be possible to combat disease, and to make chronic ill-health very rare. … All this is of such immeasurable value to human life that we dare not oppress the sort of education which will tend to bring it about. in such an education, applied science will have to be the chief ingredient. Without physics and physiology and psychology, we cannot build the new world.

Still, Russell is sure to offer a disclaimer, advocating for the equal importance of the humanities, and asks:

What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?

The humanities, he argues, help develop the imagination which, like many great scientists have attested, is key to progress:

It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; without it, ‘progress’ would become mechanical and trivial.

[…]

Cast-iron rules are above all things to be avoided.

In a mechanistic civilization, there is grave danger of a crude utilitarianism, which sacrifices the whole aesthetic side of life to what is called ‘efficiency.’

Echoing Galileo’s concerns about science and dogma, Russell writes:

Passionate beliefs produce either progress or disaster, not stability. Science, even when it attacks traditional beliefs, has beliefs of its own, and can scarcely flourish in an atmosphere of literary skepticism. … And without science, democracy is impossible.

[…]

Neither acquiescence in skepticism nor acquiescence in dogma is what education should produce. What it should produce is a belief that knowledge is attainable in a measure, though with difficulty; that much of what passes for knowledge at any given time is likely to be more or less mistaken, but that the mistakes can be rectified by care and industry. In acting upon our beliefs, we should be very cautious where a small error would mean disaster; nevertheless it is upon our beliefs that we must act. This state of mind is rather difficult: it requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy. But though difficult it is not impossible; it is in fact the scientific temper. Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility. Both are mistaken, and their errors, when wide-spread, produce social disaster.

In a later chapter, he considers another double-edged sword of dogmatic thinking:

It is a dangerous error to confound truth with matter-of-fact. Our life is governed not only by facts, but by hopes; the kind of truthfulness which sees nothing but facts is a prison for the human spirit.

But one of Russell’s most important assertions, reminiscent of the old Cherokee parable of the two wolves, explores the fundamental predispositions of human nature:

In the immense majority of children, there is the raw material of a good citizen and also the raw material of a criminal.

[…]

The raw material of instinct is ethically neutral, and can be shaped either to good or evil by the influence of the environment.

In a related meditation, Russell articulates beautifully something ineffable yet essential, something we too frequently forget, of which a dear friend recently reminded me, and writes:

Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it. … We construct when we increase the potential energy of the system in which we are interested, and we destroy when we diminish the potential energy. … Whatever may be thought of these definitions, we all know in practice whether an activity is to be regarded as constructive or destructive, except in a few cases where a man professes to be destroying with a view to rebuilding and are not sure whether he is sincere.

[…]

The first beginnings of many virtues arise out of experiencing the joys of construction.

[…]

Those whose intelligence is adequate should be encouraged in using their imaginations to think out more productive ways of utilizing existing social forces or creating new ones.

Education and the Good Life is a remarkable read in its entirety — highly recommended.

Artwork: “Choosing Sides” by Owen Mortensen, courtesy my living room wall

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11 FEBRUARY, 2013

The Quicksand of Existence: Sylvia Plath on Life, Death, Hope, and Happiness

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“The present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead.”

On February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, “an addict of experience” — took her own life at the age of thirty. Though some have argued that Plath has been “flattened into the prototype of the mentally tormented poet, the betrayed woman, the tragic literary blonde,” and suicide is always challenging to talk about in causal terms, Plath’s private writing reveals a complex and, indeed, tormented woman whose constant struggle to understand the meaning of life took an increasingly melancholy turn.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library; UK) — the same volume that gave us the young poet’s exuberant celebration of curiosity and life — also gives us a record of her incessant oscillation between hope and hopelessness. In an entry from the summer of 1950, 18-year-old Plath adds to history’s finest private moments of everyday happiness:

‘We only begin to live when we conceive life as tragedy…’ W. B. Yeats

‘Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past…’ James Joyce

[…]

I may never be happy, but tonight I am content. Nothing more than an empty house, the warm hazy weariness from a day spent setting strawberry runners in the sun, a glass of cool sweet milk, and a shallow dish of blueberries bathed in cream. Now I know how people can live without books, without college. When one is so tired at the end of a day one must sleep, and at the next dawn there are more strawberry runners to set, and so one goes on living, near the earth. At times like this I’d call myself a fool to ask for more…

But in the fall of that year, in a despondent and peculiarly punctuated stream-of-consciousness passage, Plath ponders:

Not to be sentimental, as I sound, but why the hell are we conditioned into the smooth strawberry-and-cream Mother-Goose-world, Alice-in-Wonderland fable, only to be broken on the wheel as we grow older and become aware of ourselves as individuals with a dull responsibility in life? … * to go to college fraternity parties where a boy buries his face in your neck or tries to rape you if he isn’t satisfied with burying his fingers in the flesh of your breast. * to learn that there are a million girls who are beautiful and each day that more leave behind the awkward teen-age stage, as you once did, to embark on the adventure of being loved and petted. * to be aware that you must compete somehow, and yet that wealth and beauty are not in your realm. … * to learn that you can’t be a revolutionary. * to learn that while you dream and believe in Utopia, you will scratch & scrabble for your daily bread in your home town and be damn glad if there’s butter on it. … * to have won $100 for writing a story and not believe that I am the one who wrote it. … * to know that millions of others are unhappy and that life is a gentleman’s agreement to grin and paint your face gay so others will feel they are silly to be unhappy, and try to catch the contagion of joy, while inside so many are dying of bitterness and unfulfillment. * to take a walk with Marcia Brown and love her for her exuberance, to catch some of it, because it’s real, and once again love life day by day, color by color, touch by touch, because you’ve got a body & mind to exercise & use it as much as you can, never mind whose [sic] got a better or worse body & mind, but stretch yours as far as you can.

Another entry bespeaks her dissonant, conflicted relationship with life and death in increasingly poetic, if heartbreaking in retrospect, language:

With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can’t start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It’s like quicksand… hopeless from the start. A story, a picture, can renew sensation a little, but not enough, not enough. Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don’t want to die.

But perhaps most poignant of all is this meditation on the ineffable:

There are times when a feeling of expectancy comes to me, as if something is there, beneath the surface of my understanding, waiting for me to grasp it. It is the same tantalizing sensation when you almost remember a name, but don’t quite reach it. I can feel it when I think of human beings, of the hints of evolution suggested by the removal of wisdom teeth, the narrowing of the jaw no longer needed to chew such roughage as it was accustomed to; the gradual disappearance of hair from the human body; the adjustment of the human eye to the fine print, the swift, colored motion of the twentieth century. The feeling comes, vague and nebulous, when I consider the prolonged adolesence [sic] of our species; the rites of birth, marriage and death; all the primitive, barbaric ceremonies streamlined to modern times. Almost, I think, the unreasoning, bestial purity was best. Oh, something is there, waiting for me. Perhaps someday the revelation will burst upon me and I will see the other side of this monumental grotesque joke. And then I’ll laugh. And then I’ll know what life is.

To celebrate Plath’s life and legacy, I asked my ineffably talented friend Wendy MacNaughton — whose hand-lettered drawings of Susan Sontag on art and on love you might recall — to illustrate Plath’s vortex of literary influences, in the vein of our prior Circles of Influence collaboration. Enjoy:

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17 JANUARY, 2013

Benjamin Franklin on True Happiness

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“Virtue is … the only true happiness of the mind and the best means of preserving the health of the body.”

The secret of happiness has been sought in cultivating optimism, in celebrating everyday moments, in finding one’s creative purpose, and in embracing uncertainty, but it remains forever elusive and forever alluring. Writing in a 1785 essay titled “On True Happiness,” originally printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette and eventually published in On True Happiness and Other Essays (UK; public library), Founding Father Benjamin Franklin — born 307 years ago today — considers the essence of the universal human pursuit that eventually found its way onto the United States Constitution, which Franklin co-signed.

The desire of happiness in general is so natural to us that all the world are in pursuit of it; all have this one end in view, though they take such different methods to attain it, and are so much divided in their notions of it.

Evil, as evil, can never be chosen; and though evil is often the effect of our own choice, yet we never desire it but under the appearance of an imaginary good.

Many things we indulge ourselves in may be considered by us as evils, and yet be desirable; but then they are only considered as evils in their effects and consequences, not as evils at present and attended with immediate misery.

Reason represents things to us not only as they are at present, but as they are in their whole nature and tendency; passion only regards them in their former light. When this governs us we are regardless of the future, and are only affected with the present. It is impossible ever to enjoy ourselves rightly if our conduct be not such as to preserve the harmony and order of our faculties and the original frame and constitution of our minds; all true happiness, as all that is truly beautiful, can only result from order.

Whilst there is a conflict betwixt the two principles of passion and reason, we must be miserable in proportion to the struggle, and when the victory is gained and reason so far subdued as seldom to trouble us with its remonstrances, the happiness we have then is not the happiness of our rational nature, but the happiness only of the inferior and sensual part of us, and consequently a very low and imperfect happiness to what the other would have afforded us.

If we reflect upon any one passion and disposition of mind abstract from virtue, we shall soon see the disconnexion between that and true, solid happiness. It is of the very essence, for instance, of envy to be uneasy and disquieted. Pride meets with provocations and disturbances upon almost every occasion. Covetousness is ever attended with solicitude and anxiety. Ambition has its disappointments to sour us, but never the good fortune to satisfy us; its appetite grows the keener by indulgence, and all we can gratify it with at present serves but the more to inflame its insatiable desires.

The passions, by being too much conversant with earthly objects, can never fix in us a proper composure and acquiescence of mind. Nothing but an indifference to the things of this world, an entire submission to the will of Providence here, and a well-grounded expectation of happiness hereafter, can give us a true satisfactory enjoyment of ourselves. Virtue is the best guard against the many unavoidable evils incident to us; nothing better alleviates the weight of the afflictions or gives a truer relish of the blessings of human life.

What is without us has not the least connexion with happiness only so far as the preservation of our lives and health depends upon it. Health of body, though so far necessary that we cannot be perfectly happy without it, is not sufficient to make us happy of itself. Happiness springs immediately from the mind; health is but to be considered as a condition or circumstance, without which this happiness cannot be tasted pure and unabated.

Virtue is the best preservative of health, as it prescribes temperance and such a regulation of our passions as is most conducive to the well-being of the animal economy, so that it is at the same time the only true happiness of the mind and the best means of preserving the health of the body.

If our desires are to the things of this world, they are never to be satisfied. If our great view is upon those of the next, the expectation of them is an infinitely higher satisfaction than the enjoyment of those of the present.

There is no happiness then but in a virtuous and self-approving conduct. Unless our actions will bear the test of our sober judgments and reflections upon them, they are not the actions and consequently not the happiness of a rational being.

Complement with Francis Bacon on virtue.

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