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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

01 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

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“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on the life of presence, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And yet most of us spend our days in what Kierkegaard believed to be our greatest source of unhappiness — a refusal to recognize that “busy is a decision” and that presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity. I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.

Despite a steadily swelling human life expectancy, these concerns seem more urgent than ever — and yet they are hardly unique to our age. In fact, they go as far back as the record of human experience and endeavor. It is unsurprising, then, that the best treatment of the subject is also among the oldest: Roman philosopher Seneca’s spectacular 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life (public library) — a poignant reminder of what we so deeply intuit yet so easily forget and so chronically fail to put into practice.

Seneca writes:

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Millennia before the now-tired adage that “time is money,” Seneca cautions that we fail to treat time as a valuable resource, even though it is arguably our most precious and least renewable one:

People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.

To those who so squander their time, he offers an unambiguous admonition:

You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!

Nineteen centuries later, Bertrand Russell, another of humanity’s greatest minds, lamented rhetorically, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” But even Seneca, writing in the first century, saw busyness — that dual demon of distraction and preoccupation — as an addiction that stands in the way of mastering the art of living:

No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied … since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn… Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.

In our habitual compulsion to ensure that the next moment contains what this one lacks, Seneca suggests, we manage to become, as another wise man put it, “accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” Seneca writes:

Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who … organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

Seneca is particularly skeptical of the double-edged sword of achievement and ambition — something David Foster Wallace would later eloquently censure — which causes us to steep in our cesspool of insecurity, dissatisfaction, and clinging:

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.

Illustration by Gus Gordon from 'Herman and Rosie.' Click image for more.

This, Seneca cautions, is tenfold more toxic for the soul when one is working for the man, as it were, and toiling away toward goals laid out by another:

Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.

In one particularly prescient aside, Seneca makes a remark that crystallizes what is really at stake when a person asks, not to mention demands, another’s time — an admonition that applies with poignant precision to the modern malady of incessant meeting requests and the rather violating barrage of People Wanting Things:

All those who call you to themselves draw you away from yourself.

[...]

I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself — as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap — in fact, almost without any value.

He suggests that protecting our time is essential self-care, and the opposite a dangerous form of self-neglect:

Nobody works out the value of time: men use it lavishly as if it cost nothing… We have to be more careful in preserving what will cease at an unknown point.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

He captures what a perilous form of self-hypnosis our trance of busyness is:

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favor. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.

But even “more idiotic,” to use his unambiguous language, than keeping ourselves busy is indulging the vice of procrastination — not the productivity-related kind, but the existential kind, that limiting longing for certainty and guarantees, which causes us to obsessively plan and chronically put off pursuing our greatest aspirations and living our greatest truths on the pretext that the future will somehow provide a more favorable backdrop:

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Seneca reframes this with an apt metaphor:

You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow… Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it; so it is with this unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life, which waking or sleeping we make at the same pace — the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his own occupation, Seneca points to the study of philosophy as the only worthwhile occupation of the mind and spirit — an invaluable teacher that helps us learn how to inhabit our own selves fully in this “brief and transient spell” of existence and expands our short lives sideways, so that we may live wide rather than long. He writes:

Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light.

[...]

From them you can take whatever you wish: it will not be their fault if you do not take your fill from them. What happiness, what a fine old age awaits the man who has made himself a client of these! He will have friends whose advice he can ask on the most important or the most trivial matters, whom he can consult daily about himself, who will tell him the truth without insulting him and praise him without flattery, who will offer him a pattern on which to model himself.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Perhaps most poignantly, however, Seneca suggests that philosophy offers a kind of spiritual reparenting to those of us who didn’t win the lottery of existence and didn’t benefit from the kind of nurturing, sound, fully present parenting that is so essential to the cultivation of inner wholeness:

We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too. Nor will this property need to be guarded meanly or grudgingly: the more it is shared out, the greater it will become. These will offer you a path to immortality and raise you to a point from which no one is cast down. This is the only way to prolong mortality — even to convert it to immortality.

On the Shortness of Life is a sublime read in its pithy totality. Complement it with some Montaigne’s timeless lessons on the art of living and Alan Watts on how to live with presence.

Thanks, Liz

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27 AUGUST, 2014

Anne Truitt on Resisting the Label “Artist” and the Difference Between Doing Art and Being an Artist

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“Artists have no choice but to express their lives.”

At the age of fifty-three, the influential artist Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) confronted the existential discomfort any creative person feels in facing a major retrospective of his or her work — the Corcoran Gallery of Art had just staged one of Truitt’s. A retrospective, she felt, forces upon the artist a finite definition — this is what your work is, this who you are. It attempts to make visible and static those invisible, ever-fluid forces that compel an artist to make art.

To tease out her unease, Truitt set out to explore the dimensions of her personality and her creative impulse in a diary, in which she wrote diligently for a period of seven years. It was eventually published as Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — an extraordinary, soul-stretching collection of meditations on the trials, triumphs, and self-transcendence of the creative life.

Truitt once described her art as concerned “with the limen of consciousness, with the threshold at which experience becomes just perceptible,” but it is in the privacy of the diary that she ventures past that threshold and into the furthest frontiers of the psyche — her psyche, the artist’s psyche, the universal human psyche. Trained as a psychologist and with only one year of formal education in art, Truitt made a decision to “ride out the jeopardy of art with as much courage and faith” as possible. From this unusual standpoint, she reaches depths of insight and self-awareness inaccessible to most artists — to most human beings — and pulls out of them luminous wisdom on the love, labor, and life of art.

In one particularly poignant series of journal entries from the summer of 1974, Truitt exorcises the chronic resistance many artists have to the label of “artist” and the perils of letting others define you. On July 2 that year, she writes:

I do not understand why I seem able to make what people call art. For many long years I struggled to learn how to do it, and I don’t even know why I struggled. Then, in 1961, at the age of forty, it became clear to me that I was doing work I respected within my own strictest standards. Furthermore, I found this work respected by those whose understanding of art I valued. My first, instinctive reaction to this new situation was, if I’m an artist, being an artist isn’t so fancy because it’s just me. But now, thirteen years later, there seems to be more to it than that. It isn’t “just me.” A simplistic attitude toward the course of my life no longer serves.

The “just me” reaction was, I think, an instinctive disavowal of the social role of the artist. A life-saving disavowal. I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories. The Renaissance focused this social attention on the artist’s individuality, and the focus persists today in a curious form that on the one hand inflates artists’ egoistic concept of themselves and on the other places them at the mercy of the social forces on which they become dependent. Artists can suffer terribly in this dilemma. It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one’s self that is realistic.

This dilemma, Truitt cautions, is compounded by the contradictions of commercial art and the conflicting forces of authenticity and pragmatism that often force upon artists the choice between creative authenticity and commercial success:

The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their working decisions. Sometime during the course of their development, they have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.

This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that artists are, in this sense, special because they are intrinsically involved in a difficult balance not so blatantly precarious in other professions. The lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze.

But Truitt soon sees another angle of this living-out of the artist — living out not one’s role of being an “artist,” a performance of sorts, but living out one’s immutable experience of doing art:

The terms of the experience and the terms of the work itself are totally different. But if the work is successful — I cannot ever know whether it is or not — the experience becomes the work and, through the work, is accessible to others with its original force.

For me, this process is mysterious. It’s like not knowing where you’re going but knowing how to get there.

A few days later, in an entry reflecting on the work of the celebrated sculptor David Smith and, by extension, on all great art, Truitt writes:

He seemed never to forget that he was an artist. He just plain chose not to.

[...]

Artists have no choice but to express their lives. They have only, and that not always, a choice of process. This process does not change the essential content of their work in art, which can only be their life.

A month after her original resistant contemplation of the label “artist,” Truitt revisits the subject, exercising the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind with an acknowledgment that in order to unblock the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow, one must begin with a submission to the role of artist. On August 6, she writes:

In skirting the role of the artist, I now begin to think that I have made too wide a curve, that I have deprived myself of a certain strength. Indeed, I am not sure that I can grow as an artist until I can bring myself to accept that I am one.

Part of my intense discomfort this past year has been that I was pried out of my place there. I was attached to my secret burrow, which now begins to feel a little stale.

And also egotistic, confined, even imprisoning. I begin to see that by clinging to this position I was limiting what I had to handle in the world to what I could rationalize. As long as I stayed within my own definition of myself, I could control what I admitted into that definition. By insisting that I was “just me,” I held myself aloof. Let others claim to be artists, I said to myself, holding my life separate and unique, beyond all definition but my own.

[...]

The open being: I am an artist. Even to write it makes me feel deeply uneasy. I am, I feel, not good enough to be an artist. And this leads me to wonder whether my distaste for the inflated social definition of the artist is not an inverse reflection of secret pride. Have I haughtily rejected the inflation on the outside while entertaining it on the inside? In my passion for learning how to make true for others what I felt to be true for myself (and I cannot remember, except very, very early on, ever not having had this passion), I think I may have fallen into idolatry of those who were able to communicate this way. Artists.

So to think myself an artist was self-idolatry. In a clear wind of the company of artists this summer, I am gently disarmed. We are artists because we are ourselves.

Daybook is a spectacular read in its entirety, with wisdom on everything from the role of daily routine and environment to the relationship between mental health and creativity. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life and Anna Deavere Smith’s superb Letters to a Young Artist.

Thanks, Dani

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22 AUGUST, 2014

How We Know What We Know: The Art of Adaequatio and Seeing with the Eye of the Heart

By:

A timeless guide to “understanding the truth that does not merely inform the mind but liberates the soul.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry memorably wrote in The Little Prince. Indeed, in our quest to perfect thinking, could we be neglecting those deeper, more intuitive gateways to accessing the essential? Susan Sontag memorably argued that the false polarity of intuition vs. intellect imprisons us, but the question remains — how do we really know what we know? By what mechanism can we truly make sense of the world and our place in it?

A decade after his influential clarion call for prioritizing people over goods and creativity over consumption, British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher turned to this delicate subject in his 1977 essay collection A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — not to be confused with this Werner Herzog gem of the same title — in which Schumacher also explored how to map the meaning of life.

Schumacher considers the concept of adaequatio:

What enables man to know anything at all about the world around him? … Nothing can be known without there being an appropriate “instrument” in the makeup of the knower. This is the Great Truth of “adaequatio” (adequateness), which defines knowledge as adaequatio rei et intellectus — the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing to be known.

Building upon his notion of the five Levels of Being, Schumacher bridges the physical and the metaphysical:

Our five bodily senses make us adequate to the lowest Level of Being — inanimate matter. But they can supply nothing more than masses of sense data, to “make sense” of which we require abilities or capacities of a different order. We may call them “intellectual senses.” Without them we should be unable to recognize form, pattern, regularity, harmony, rhythm, and meaning, not to mention life, consciousness, and self-awareness. While the bodily senses may be described as relatively passive, mere receivers of whatever happens to come along and to a large extent controlled by the mind, the intellectual senses are mind-in-action, and their keenness and reach are qualities of the mind itself.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein' by Jennifer Berne. Click image for more.

He illustrates the spectrum of human ability as it relates to our capacity for adaequatio:

As regards the bodily senses, all healthy people possess a very similar endowment, but no one could possibly overlook the fact that there are significant differences in the power and reach of people’s minds… Beethoven’s musical abilities, even in deafness, were incomparably greater than mine, and the difference did not lie in the sense of hearing; it lay in the mind. Some people are incapable of grasping and appreciating a given piece of music, not because they are deaf but because of a lack of adaequatio in the mind. The music is grasped by intellectual powers which some people possess to such a degree that they can grasp, and retain in their memory, an entire symphony on one hearing or one reading of the score; while others are so weakly endowed that they cannot get it at all, no matter how often and how attentively they listen to it. For the former, the symphony is as real as it was for the composer; for the latter, there is no symphony: there is nothing but a succession of more or less agreeable but altogether meaningless noises. The former’s mind is adequate to the symphony; the latter’s mind is inadequate, and thus incapable of recognizing the existence of the symphony.

This spectrum plays out over and over in every domain of the human experience and, Schumacher argues, making sense of the world in an intelligent way requires that we understand where we fall on the spectrum of adaequatio in every domain of knowledge. Ignorant attitudes, he implies, result from assuming that something is not true or not valuable simply because we lack the adaequatio to grasp it:

For every one of us only those facts and phenomena “exist” for which we posses adaequatio, and as we are not entitled to assume that we are necessarily adequate to everything, at all times, and in whatever condition we may find ourselves, so we are not entitled to insist that something inaccessible to us has no existence at all and is nothing but a phantom of other people’s imaginations.

This pulls into question the notion of capital-T Truth as commonly used and pursued:

People say: “Let the facts speak for themselves”; they forget that the speech of facts is real only if it is heard and understood. It is thought to be an easy matter to distinguish between fact and theory, between perception and interpretation. In truth, it is extremely difficult.

In a sentiment that Philip K. Dick would echo mere months later in asserting that “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away,” Schumacher adds:

When the level of the knower is not adequate to the level (or grade of significance) of the object of knowledge, the result is not factual error but something much more serious: an inadequate and impoverished view of reality.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

But the most important determinants of our access to knowledge, Schumacher argues, are our direction of interest and our existing beliefs — something even truer today, not to mention more dangerous, in our age of filter bubbles, when we have an ever-harder time changing our minds. Schumacher writes:

The level of significance to which an observer or investigator tries to attune himself is chosen, not by his intelligence, but by his faith. The facts themselves which he observes do not carry labels indicating the appropriate level at which they ought to be considered. Nor does the choice of an inadequate level lead the intelligence into factual error or logical contradiction. All levels of significance up to the adequate level — i.e., up to the level of meaning … — are equally factual, equally logical, equally objective, but not equally real.

It is by an act of faith that I choose the level of my investigation; hence the saying “Credo ut intelligam” — I have faith as to be able to understand. If I lack faith, and consequently choose an inadequate level of significance for my investigation, no degree of “objectivity” will save me from missing the point of the whole operation, and I rob myself of the very possibility of understanding.

Our existing beliefs and baseline assumptions, on which our entire capacity for understanding is predicated, is very much a product of our era, cultural context, and what William Gibson so memorably termed our “personal microculture.” Schumacher writes:

The observer depends not only on the adequateness of his own higher qualities, perhaps “developed” through learning or training; he depends also on the adequateness of his “faith” or, to put it more conventionally, of his fundamental presuppositions and basic assumptions. In this respect he tends to be very much a child of his time and of the civilization in which he has spent his formative years; for the human mind, generally speaking, does not just think: it thinks with ideas, most of which it simply adopts and takes over from its surrounding society.

And yet, Schumacher urges, our greatest responsibility in cultivating true understanding is to question precisely those assumptions, directing at them the types of critical-thinking tools Carl Sagan advocated in his timelessly necessary Baloney Detection Kit and Lewis Carroll outlined in his four rules for digesting information. Schumacher notes:

There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought. Everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see. Every thought can be scrutinized directly except the thought by which we scrutinize. A special effort, an effort of self-awareness, is needed: that almost impossible feat of thought recoiling upon itself — almost impossible but not quite. In fact, that is the power that makes man human and also capable of transcending his humanity.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Echoing the Little Prince’s memorable assertion that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” Schumacher writes:

Only through the “heart” can contact be made with the higher grades of significance and Levels of Being.

Cautioning against scientific reductionism, he adds:

For anyone wedded to the materialistic Scientism of the modern age … higher levels of Reality simply do not exist, because his faith excludes the possibility of their existence. He is like a man who, although in possession of a radio receiver, refuses to use it because he has made up his mind that nothing can be obtained from it but atmospheric noises.

Turning to the timeless question of how science and spirituality relate to one another — a question previously addressed by such monumental minds as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Ada Lovelace, Alan Lightman, Buckminster Fuller, and Jane Goodall — Schumacher writes:

Faith is not in conflict with reason, nor is it a substitute for reason. Faith chooses the grade of significance or Level of Being at which the search for knowledge and understanding is to aim. There is reasonable faith and there is unreasonable faith. To look for meaning and purpose at the level of inanimate matter would be as unreasonable an act of faith as an attempt to “explain” the masterpieces of human genius as nothing but the outcome of economic interests or sexual frustration.

Citing 13th-century Persian poet and philosopher Rumi‘s famous line — “the eye of the heart, which is seventy-fold and of which these two sensible eyes are only the gleaners” — Schumacher revisits the notion of perceiving with something other than the intellect:

The power of “the Eye of the Heart,” which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions.

[...]

This is the process of gaining adaequatio, of developing the instrument capable of seeing and thus understanding the truth that does not merely inform the mind but liberates the soul.

[...]

Ideas produce insight and understanding, and the world of ideas lies within us. The truth of ideas cannot be seen by the senses but only by that special instrument sometimes referred to as “the Eye of the Heart,” which, in a mysterious way, has the power of recognizing truth when confronted with it.

A Guide for the Perplexed is a magnificent read in its entirety, the kind that gives more every time, the more you bring to it upon each new rereading. Complement it with Schumacher on how to stop prioritizing goods over people, then revisit Alan Watts on becoming who you really are and John Locke on understanding and the folly of our borrowed opinions.

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