Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

23 JUNE, 2015

Beloved Composer Leonard Bernstein on the Importance of Believing in Each Other and How Art Fortifies Our Mutual Dignity

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“We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man… We must believe, without fear, in people.”

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their prescient 1970 conversation on race, “because we are still each other’s only hope.” It is in such troubled times as ours — times of shootings, beatings, and the only kind of violence there is: the senseless kind — that we most need to heed Baldwin, to be reminded of who we can be to each other, of the tender and tenacious common humanity that undergirds all surface otherness.

Count on legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990) — one of the most lucid and luminous minds of the past century, a man of immense insight into the creative impulse, deep capacity for gratitude, and complex emotional life — to do the reminding.

A decade before the assassination of JFK prompted Bernstein to write his unforgettable speech on the only true antidote to violence, he penned a beautiful and elevating short essay for NPR’s This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — the same altogether magnificent compendium that gave us Thomas Mann on time and features other ennobling reflections from beloved luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.

Leonard Bernstein by Jack Mitchell

Bernstein writes:

I believe in people. I feel, love, need, and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety, or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me. One person fighting for the truth can disqualify for me the platitudes of centuries. And one human being who meets with injustice can render invalid the entire system which has dispensed it.

A century after Thoreau wrote that there is “no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor,” Bernstein kisses awake our capacity for self-transcendence, from which our capacity to change the world springs:

I believe that man’s noblest endowment is his capacity to change. Armed with reason, he can see two sides and choose: He can be divinely wrong. I believe in man’s right to be wrong. Out of this right he has built, laboriously and lovingly, something we reverently call democracy. He has done it the hard way and continues to do it the hard way — by reason, by choosing, by error and rectification, by the difficult, slow method in which the dignity of A is acknowledged by B, without impairing the dignity of C. Man cannot have dignity without loving the dignity of his fellow.

I believe in the potential of people. I cannot rest passively with those who give up in the name of “human nature.” Human nature is only animal nature if it is obliged to remain static. Without growth, without metamorphosis, there is no godhead. If we believe that man can never achieve a society without wars, then we are condemned to wars forever. This is the easy way. But the laborious, loving way, the way of dignity and divinity, presupposes a belief in people and in their capacity to change, grow, communicate, and love.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Neruda’s exquisite metaphor for why we make art, Bernstein considers the power of art as a medium of love that confers dignity upon existence — our own and each other’s:

I believe in man’s unconscious mind, the deep spring from which comes his power to communicate and to love. For me, all art is a combination of these powers; for if love is the way we have of communicating personally in the deepest way, then what art can do is to extend this communication, magnify it, and carry it to vastly greater numbers of people. Therefore art is valid for the warmth and love it carries within it, even if it be the lightest entertainment, or the bitterest satire, or the most shattering tragedy.

Exhorting us to believe “in one another, in our ability to grow and change, in our mutual dignity,” Bernstein echoes John Steinbeck’s memorable assertion that “the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world” and adds:

We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes, or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people.

Complement the wholly wonderful This I Believe with Bernstein on motivation, his beautiful letter of gratitude to his mentor, and his electrifying tribute to JFK, then revisit Viktor Frankl on why it pays to believe in each other.

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22 JUNE, 2015

Desert Solitaire: An Uncommonly Beautiful Love Letter to Solitude and the Spiritual Rewards of Getting Lost

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“Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

“As the desert offers no tangible riches, as there is nothing to see or hear in the desert,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in his exquisite memoir of what the Sahara Desert taught him about the meaning of life, “one is compelled to acknowledge, since the inner life, far from falling asleep, is fortified, that man is first animated by invisible solicitations.” No one captures this invisible animation of inner life more bewitchingly than Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire (public library) — a miraculously beautiful book, originally published in 1968, which I discovered through a passing mention by the wonderful Cheryl Strayed. (How right Laurence Sterne was to call digression “the sunshine of narrative,” and Calvino to consider it, even, a hedge against mortality.)

In the late 1950s, Abbey took a job as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah’s Moab desert. “Why I went there no longer matters; what I found there is the subject of this book,” he writes. Between April and September, between the canyons and the pages of his journal, he found a great many of the things we spend our lives looking for — a Thoreau of the desert, mapping the maze of the interior landscape as he wanders the expanse of the exterior.

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

Abbey writes:

The time passed extremely slowly, as time should pass, with the days lingering and long, spacious and free as the summers of childhood. There was time enough for once to do nothing, or next to nothing, and most of the substance of this book is drawn, sometimes direct and unchanged, from the pages of the journals I kept and filled through the undivided, seamless days of those marvelous summers. The remainder of the book consists of digressions and excursions into ideas and places that border in varied ways upon that central season in the canyonlands…

Abbey’s digressions, to be sure, are oases of meaning — he writes about the ideas that animate his spirit with unsentimental sincerity and deep respect for the aliveness of language itself:

In recording my impressions of the natural scene I have striven above all for accuracy, since I believe that there is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in simple fact… Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite… Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to cecate a world of words in which the desert figures more as medium than as material.

He begins with what is possibly the most charming, disarming disclaimer in all of literature:

I quite agree that much of the book will seem coarse, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, unconstructive — even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely;. at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangled from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.

But make no mistake — his are reflections undergirded not by grouchiness but by immense grace and generosity of spirit. Take, for instance, how he cushions against the potential complaint that the book is too concerned with the appearance of the landscape. (It is not.)

I am pleased enough with surfaces — in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind — what else is there? What else do we need?

There is, however, something else that we need — each of us, Abbey observes, longs for that most beautiful and sacred place where we feel wholly at home. His is this canyon-strewn desert, but these personal idyls are deeply subjective and as varied as our individual interior landscapes:

Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome—there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.

Astronauts, in fact, have since come to describe this peculiar feeling as “the overview effect” — remember, Abbey is writing shortly before the first human foot touched the cratery desert of the moon — but Abbey himself finds this most beautiful of earthly places in the canyonlands, in “the red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky.” He describes one of his first mornings there:

I awake before sunrise, stick my head out of the sack, peer through a frosty window at a scene dim and vague with flowing mists, dark fantastic shapes looming beyond. An unlikely landscape.

[…]

The sun is not yet in sight but signs of the advent are plain to see. Lavender clouds sail like a fleet of ships across the pale green dawn; …the last fogbanks left over from last night’s storm are scudding away like ghosts, fading into nothing before the wind and the sunrise.

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

It is, indeed, an unlikely landscape — one even unlikelier today, itself scudding away like a ghost. Abbey, writing more than half a century ago, rightly describes his book as “not a travel guide but an elegy” — as he recounts getting lost twenty miles into the interior of the desert, completely alone in the 33,000 acres of which he was the “sole inhabitant, usufructuary, observer and custodian,” one is left wondering how many such earthly interiors are left in which to get lost in order to find ourselves, how many such unlikely landscapes in the sacred solitude of which to access our own interiors. One is reminded of Wendell Berry, writing more than two decades later: “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” Or of Thoreau, writing a century earlier: “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit… I cannot easily shake off the village.”

Abbey captures this with piercing profundity:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot — throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?

And yet the tombstone Abbey thrusts into our hands is almost uncontainably vitalizing, emanating an uncommon sense of communion between his humanity — our humanity — and the inanimate yet deeply animating presence of the land; between his smallness — our smallness — and the grandeur of Earth. Over and over, he surrenders to the land’s rhythms and wishes — a great act of faith that requires, manyfold more so now than it did then, relinquishing the many small violences by which we seek to bend nature to our will.

Illustration from 'Flashlight' by Lizi Boyd. Click image for more.

Four decades after Henry Beston’s beautiful love letter to darkness, Abbey considers one such form of surrender:

I have a flashlight with me but will not use it unless I hear some sign of animal life worthy of investigation. The flashlight, or electrical torch as the English call it, is a useful instrument in certain situations but I can see the road well enough without it. Better, in fact.

There’s another disadvantage to the use of the flashlight: like many other mechanical gadgets it tends to separate a man from the world around him. If I switch it on my eyes adapt to it and I can see only the small pool of light which it makes in front of me; I am isolated. Leaving the flashlight in my pocket where it belongs, I remain a part of the environment I walk through and my vision though limited has no sharp or definite boundary.

[…]

The night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.

Abbey is writing two generations before the iPhone, and I find myself wondering whether when we point the illuminating Night Sky app into the night sky — and point it I blissfully do — we might be learning a great deal more about this lowercase marvel but inevitably communing with it a great deal less.

Landscape Arch, in the Devil's Garden Section of Arches National Park, is believed to be the longest stone arch in the world

Public domain photograph by David Hiser, The U.S. National Archives

With great sensitivity to our tendency to mistake grandeur for godliness, Abbey reminds us of the quiet causality with which nature inches toward its most miraculous creations — like the very arches after which his temporary dominion is named:

These are natural arches, holes in the rock, windows in stone, no two alike, as varied in form as in dimension … formed through hundreds of thousands of years by the weathering of the huge sandstone walls, or fins, in which they are found. Not the work of a cosmic hand, nor sculptured by sand-bearing winds, as many people prefer to believe, the arches came into being and continue to come into being through the modest wedging action of rainwater, melting snow, frost, and ice, aided by gravity…

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not — at least there’s nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me.

Through this possessiveness of the landscape Abbey arrives at what he has gone there to find — a kind of spiritual self-repossession:

I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.

This is what makes Desert Solitaire so powerful, so enduring, so fiercely necessary today: Abbey’s writing is both a form of spiritual sustenance and a feat of conservation — for, being human and thus solipsistic, unless we appreciate the value of these experiences to our inner lives, we are rarely moved to honor their sacred value to all life.

Complement this treasure of a book, this packet of loveliness and quiet exultation, with Rebecca Solnit on how we find ourselves by getting lost, Georgia O’Keeffe on the singular mesmerism of the Southwestern sky, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wonderful meditation on the spiritual rewards of the desert.

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19 JUNE, 2015

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth

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“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know…”

“Your intuition and your intellect should be working together… making love,” Madeleine L’Engle asserted in contemplating how creativity works. Ray Bradbury believed that intuition and emotion should guide creative work, the intellect coming in only to revise after the act of creation, and Susan Sontag admonished against buying into this polarity in the first place: “The kind of thinking that makes a distinction between thought and feeling is just one of those forms of demagogy that causes lots of trouble for people.” But it’s hard to deny that in most minds there exists a combination of the two and in very few a perfect balance.

The duality of these two faculties and their interplay is what the great French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662) explores in Pensées (free ebook | public library) — the same masterwork of fragmentary reflections that gave us Pascal on the art of changing minds.

In a passage outlining the difference between the intuitive and the mathematical mind — “mathematical” meaning “logical” or “rational” — he writes:

In the intuitive mind the principles are found in common use, and are before the eyes of everybody. One has only to look, and no effort is necessary; it is only a question of good eyesight, but it must be good, for the principles are so subtle and so numerous, that it is almost impossible but that some escape notice. Now the omission of one principle leads to error; thus one must have very clear sight to see all the principles, and in the next place an accurate mind not to draw false deductions from known principles.

All mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clear sight, for they do not reason incorrectly from principles known to them; and intuitive minds would be mathematical if they could turn their eyes to the principles of mathematics to which they are unused.

Suggesting that it is a greater failure to be unintuitive than to be unanalytical, Pascal adds:

The reason, therefore, that some intuitive minds are not mathematical is that they cannot at all turn their attention to the principles of mathematics. But the reason that mathematicians are not intuitive is that they do not see what is before them, and that, accustomed to the exact and plain principles of mathematics, and not reasoning till they have well inspected and arranged their principles, they are lost in matters of intuition where the principles do not allow of such arrangement. They are scarcely seen; they are felt rather than seen; there is the greatest difficulty in making them felt by those who do not of themselves perceive them. These principles are so fine and so numerous that a very delicate and very clear sense is needed to perceive them, and to judge rightly and justly when they are perceived, without for the most part being able to demonstrate them in order as in mathematics; because the principles are not known to us in the same way, and because it would be an endless matter to undertake it… Mathematicians wish to treat matters of intuition mathematically, and make themselves ridiculous.

Art from 'The Boy Who Loved Math,' a children's book about the life of legendary mathematician Paul Erdos. Click image for more.

But this mathematical (or logical) mind is only a subset of the intellect that stands opposite intuition:

There are then two kinds of intellect: the one able to penetrate acutely and deeply into the conclusions of given premises, and this is the precise intellect; the other able to comprehend a great number of premises without confusing them, and this is the mathematical intellect. The one has force and exactness, the other comprehension. Now the one quality can exist without the other; the intellect can be strong and narrow, and can also be comprehensive and weak.

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Pascal makes a peculiar and rather poignant aside — doubly so in our divisive age of harsh snap-judgments directed at others via soundbites and status updates — suggesting that our inability to appreciate the singular gifts of other people is essentially a failure of our own intelligence, for the prerequisite for appreciation is comprehension:

The greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men. Ordinary persons find no difference between men.

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

Three centuries before the most beloved line from the most beloved children’s book“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Pascal observes:

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know… We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.

Nearly four centuries later, Pensées remains a revelatory read, full of timeless wisdom on everything from navigating uncertainty to the key to eloquence. Complement this particular portion with a fascinating read on the role of intuition in scientific discovery, Carl Sagan on the necessary balance between skepticism and openness, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

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17 JUNE, 2015

A Stop-Motion Love Letter to the Power of Curiosity

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“The more you know, the more you want to know… the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge… the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.”

“It is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown,” wrote pioneering polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in reflecting on the feat that nearly took his life, adding: “The only true failure would be not to explore at all.” This vitalizing power of exploration applies as much to the exterior world we inhabit as it does to the interior. Upon turning eighty and looking back on his extraordinary life, Henry Miller observed: “Perhaps it is curiosity — about anything and everything — that made me the writer I am. It has never left me.” And yet in the century since Shackleton and the decades since Miller, despite the proliferation of access to knowledge, we seem to have lost our appetite for this singular human faculty that propels us forward. We’ve lulled ourselves into a kind of complacency, where too often we’d rather be right than uncertain or — worse yet — wrong, forgetting that “useful ignorance,” to borrow Thoreau’s beautiful term, is precisely what helps us transcend the limits of our knowledge and stretch our ability.

That vital force of self-transcendence is what Arts University Bournemouth student and self-taught animator Georgina Venning explores in her immeasurably delightful stop-motion animation of an excerpt from Ian Leslie’s RSA talk, based on his book Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (public library).

The piece is one of the winners in the Moving Pictures category of the 2015 RSA Student Design Awards, which invite emerging designers and artists to examine social, environmental, and economic issues through compelling visual communication driven by design thinking. The category itself is an offshoot of RSA’s existing series of animated shorts, which has previously given us such gems as Susan Cain on the power of introverts and Brené Brown on vulnerability and the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Venning’s film is impressively meticulous beyond the beautiful papercraft — in order to create consistent natural light throughout the animation, she filmed one frame per day, at the exact same time of day.

Curiosity is a muscle — use it or lose it. It’s something that we consciously have to nurture in ourselves, in our families, in classrooms, at work.

Sometimes I hear that curiosity and creativity are killed by too many facts — but, actually, the opposite is true: The more you know, the more you want to know. Not only that, but the more you know, the more connections you can make between the different bits of knowledge that you have in your head and therefore the more ideas you have, which is why curiosity is really the wellspring of creativity.

Technology is replacing routine work — and that’s what technology replaces first and has done throughout history. So intellectually curious people — people who are capable of learning throughout their career, of asking questions (good questions), of adapting and collaborating with others from different disciplines; people who are capable of really thriving in this world of non-routine work, in other words — are the people who are going to do better.

In the introduction to the book, Leslie considers humanity’s historically contentious relationship with curiosity and writes:

Our oldest stories about curiosity are warnings: Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge, Icarus and the sun, Pandora’s box. Early Christian theologians railed against curiosity: Saint Augustine claimed that “God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.” Even humanist philosopher Erasmus suggested that curiosity was greed by a different name. For most of Western history, it has been regarded as at best a distraction, at worst a poison, corrosive to the soul and to society.

There’s a reason for this. Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point, as everyone from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs could have attested.

A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset. In medieval Europe, the inquiring mind — especially if it inquired too closely into the edicts of church or state — was stigmatized. During the Renaissance and Reformation, received wisdoms began to be interrogated, and by the time of the Enlightenment, European societies started to see that their future lay with the curious and encouraged probing questions rather than stamping on them. The result was the biggest explosion of new ideas and scientific advances in history.

The great unlocking of curiosity translated into a cascade of prosperity for the nations that precipitated it. Today, we cannot know for sure if we are in the middle of this golden period or at the end of it. But we are, at the very least, in a lull.

In the remainder of Curious, Leslie goes on to explore our best strategies for jolting ourselves out of that lull by cultivating more diverse modes of curiosity that ensure our flourishing in an increasingly complex world. Complement it with Isaac Asimov on curiosity and risk-taking and Marie Curie on curiosity, wonder, and the spirit of adventure in science.

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