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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

04 AUGUST, 2014

Henry Miller on Money and How It Gets That Way

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“The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough.”

Henry Miller was not a man shy of strong opinions, having pondered such existential questions as the art of living, the joys of growing old, the future of humanity, and the meaning of life. But there was one inevitable, essential aspect of existence to which he’d never given much thought until his friend Ezra Pound, upon reading Miller’s controversial novel Tropic of Cancer in 1935, inquired about it: Miller received a postcard from Pound, penned “in his usual cabalistic style,” asking if he had ever considered the issue of money, “what makes it and how it gets that way.”

The question, at once simple and riddled with complexities, gave Miller pause. In the year that followed, he collected his “meditations and lucubrations” on the subject in Money and How It Gets That Way, originally published in Paris in 1938 and reissued in America as a limited-edition chapbook of 1,500 copies eight years later, shortly after the end of WWII — a time when the question of money was even more loaded, uncomfortable, and urgently pressing, making Miller’s angle of playfulness and poignancy all the more compelling. Only a few copies of the chapbook, which features illustrations by Jack Wright, are known to survive. The essay was eventually included in the anthology Stand Still Like the Hummingbird (public library), which also gave us Miller on originality.

After a brief history of how money was invented, Miller considers “the axiomatic” nature of the concept:

Money has no life of its own except as money. To the man in the street, unaccustomed to thinking of money in abstract terms, this obvious truism may smack of casuistry. Yet nothing could be more simple and consistent than this reduction to tautology, since money in any period whatever of man’s history has, like life itself, never been found to represent the absence of money. Money is, and whatever form or shape it may assume it is never more nor less than money. To inquire therefore how it comes about that money has become what it now is is as idle as to inquire what makes evolution.

[…]

Money, then, whatever its real nature, reveals itself to us through form. Just as hydrogen and oxygen reveal their presence to us in varying forms and yet are not themselves, either separately or combined, such as water or peroxide, so money, whether in specie or counterfeit, is always something inclusive, coexistent, consubstantial and beyond the thing manifest. In a profound sense money may be said to resemble God Almighty.

This worship of money, Miller argues, effects a particular deterioration of the soul. A man of wide and cross-disciplinary interests, he crafts an apt metaphor out of the biological process of heart-rot — a fungal disease that decays a tree’s trunk and branches from the inside out, which scientists first began studying about a decade before Miller’s treatise. With his signature blend of intellectual wisdom and irreverent wit, he writes:

To borrow an expression from the arboriculturist, we might add that gold has a tendency at times to bring about a condition of “white heart rot.” That is to say that, though outwardly all may seem well, the eye of the forester can detect beneath the bark the disease which lurks in the very heart of the tree and ravages it mercilessly. White-heart-rot has been frequently compared to tuberculosis in the human organism; it is encountered chiefly in metropolitan areas among city trees. In finance it is recognized as “inflation.” If the disease has not completely eaten the tree away cement may be administered to preserve what life is left. With dying currencies the treatment employed is to amass gold, or to ship it frantically from one country to another. Whenever, therefore, gold is amassed in unusual quantities, or when its movements become erratic and frenetic, the indications are that the money of the countries in question is diseased.

This rotting of the psyche, Miller suggests, is rooted in a dynamic that springs from the religious concept of guilt and has to do with the notion of debt:

The evolution of the idea of money is closely associated, for reasons which must be apparent to even the most casual observer, with the development of the notions of sin and guilt. Even in the earliest periods of trade we find rudimentary principles at work such as would lead us to believe that primitive man had evolved methods of exchange which sui generis implied the existence of debt. It was not until Ricardo’s time, however, that a formula was arrived at which expressed the relationship between debtor and creditor beyond all caviling. With almost Euclidian simplicity Ricardo summed it up thus: “a debt is discharged by the delivery of money.”

But what compounds these symbolic complexities is also the fact that money itself has become an abstraction — something Miller argues was brought on by the invention of double-entry bookkeeping, which led money to be “regarded not in terms of pieces of money but as an abstract symbol of wealth”:

With the invention of double-entry bookkeeping … the reality of money began to diminish until in our day it has almost disappeared entirely.

It’s worth pausing here to note that Miller expressed these concerns in 1936, decades before credit and charge cards became the dominant Western mode of payment — practice that further abstracts money and removes it from its source, to say nothing of recent modalities like crypto-currency, abstracting the transactional exchange of goods and services further still.

And yet, noting that money evolved out of the gold standard, Miller laments the “great pity” of the shift away from it, “for gold is capable of making a greater appeal to the imagination than any other symbol known to man.” But perhaps the very allure of concepts like crypto-currency lies in their ability to stir the imagination in new, differently compelling ways. Still, despite this — or because of it — Miller’s words ring with double poignancy today:

To have money in the pocket is one of the small but inestimable pleasures of life. To have money in the bank is not quite the same thing, but to take money out of the bank is indisputably a great joy. The pleasure then is in the handling, not the spending necessarily, as some economists would have us believe. It is very possible, indeed, that the coin or specie came into existence to meet this very human need…

Here, Miller makes an interesting point about the concept of price — perhaps the most artificial abstraction of all:

A price is a piece of goods, a commodity as we say, expressed in gold or any other metal that is acceptable to the public conscience, without the necessity of being weighed on the spot. Price has value only to the extent that there is a mobile cash quantum to back it up. Anything which can inflate to-day and collapse to-morrow has neither weight, substance nor value. It is not even gas, because gas after all answers to all three of these descriptions. This is to my mind the best proof of what thinking in money leads to, which is the collapse of thinking, or, as Sir Isaac Newton expressed it, “a vacuum in extenso.”

And so we get to the difference between money and wealth and the disconnect between being rich and being wealthy. Long before the concept of “the hedonic treadmill” was coined, Miller describes it with immeasurable wisdom and wit:

Money … is only theoretically related to wealth. In the realm of theory it is true that “action and reaction are equal and opposite,” but money is more than a theory, and wealth, even if it is not money, is at any rate something real. What is needed above everything is a clear conception of money.

The dilemma in which we find ourselves today is that no matter how much we increase the purchasing power of the wage-earner he never has enough. If he has enough money to own a Ford he wants a Packard; if he has a Packard he wants a Rolls Royce, and if he has a Rolls Royce he wants an aeroplane… Men imagine that they need money, that if they had it they could satisfy their desires, cure their ills, insure their old age, and so on. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For if it were so that money could accomplish all these miracles, then the happiest man on earth would be the millionaire, which is obviously an untruth. Naturally those who have not enough to eat, nor place to sleep, are just as miserable as the millionaire, perhaps even more miserable, though it is difficult at times to tell with certainty. As always, the golden mean obtains. He is sure to be more happy who has eaten well and slept well and has besides a little money in his jeans. Such men are rare to find for the simple reason that most men are incapable of appreciating the wisdom of such a simple truth. The worker thinks he would be better off if he were running the factory; the owner of the factory thinks he would be better off if he were a financier; and the financier knows he would be better off if he were clean out of the bloody mess and living the simple life.

Money, then, is best used as a dynamic method for inhabiting the present moment, rather than a static symbol of wealth to amass and hold on to for future use — another manifestation of Miller’s philosophy of flux. He writes:

Money is one of the insoluble problems of life. Men of theory will tell you that it is unnecessary, but men of theory are generally very ignorant fellows. Often they have never had any money, and if they had it they wouldn’t know what to do with it. The last thing in the world to occur to their minds would be to spend it. And yet that is the chief satisfaction which money affords. Whoever has money let him put it in circulation!

Money and How It Gets That Way is, sadly, well out of print but well worth the hunt. Complement it with John Armstrong on how to worry less about money and Paul Graham on how to get rich, then revisit Miller on growing old, the meaning of life, and his irreverent notice to visitors.

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25 JULY, 2014

C.S. Lewis on Suffering and What It Means to Have Free Will in a Universe of Fixed Laws

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“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

If the universe operates by fixed physical laws, what does it mean for us to have free will? That’s what C.S. Lewis considers with an elegant sidewise gleam in an essay titled “Divine Omnipotence” from his altogether fascinating 1940 book The Problem of Pain (public library) — a scintillating examination of the concept of free will in a material universe and why suffering is not only a natural but an essential part of the human experience. Though explored through the lens of the contradictions and impossibilities of belief, the questions Lewis raises touch on elements of philosophy, politics, psychology, cosmology, and ethics — areas that have profound, direct impact on how we live our lives, day to day.

He begins by framing “the problem of pain, in its simplest form” — the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that “God” wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we’d have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in “either goodness, or power, or both.”

To be sure, Lewis’s own journey of spirituality was a convoluted one — he was raised in a religious family, became an atheist at fifteen, then slowly returned to Christianity under the influence of his friend and Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. But whatever his religious bent, Lewis possessed the rare gift of being able to examine his own beliefs critically and, in the process, to offer layered, timeless insight on eternal inquiries into spirituality and the material universe that resonate even with those of us who fall on the nonreligious end of the spectrum and side with Carl Sagan on matters of spirituality.

Lewis writes:

There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a “self,” can exist except in contrast with an “other,” a something which is not the self. . . . The freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between. A creature with no environment would have no choices to make: so that freedom, like self-consciousness (if they are not, indeed, the same thing), again demands the presence to the self of something other than the self.

What makes Lewis’s reflections so enduring and widely resonant is that, for all his concern with divinity, he cracks open the innermost kernel of our basic humanity, in relation to ourselves and to one another:

People often talk as if nothing were easier than for two naked minds to “meet” or become aware of each other. But I see no possibility of their doing so except in a common medium which forms their “external world” or environment. Even our vague attempt to imagine such a meeting between disembodied spirits usually slips in surreptitiously the idea of, at least, a common space and common time, to give the co- in co-existence a meaning: and space and time are already an environment. But more than this is required. If your thoughts and passions were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, how should I distinguish them from mine? And what thoughts or passions could we begin to have without objects to think and feel about? Nay, could I even begin to have the conception of “external” and “other” unless I had experience of an “external world”?

In a sentiment that calls to mind novelist Iris Murdoch’s beautiful definition of love (“Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.”), Lewis adds:

The result is that most people remain ignorant of the existence of both. We may therefore suppose that if human souls affected one another directly and immaterially, it would be a rare triumph of faith and insight for any one of them to believe in the existence of the others.

Lewis considers what it would take for us to fully acknowledge and contact each other’s otherness, to bridge the divide between the internal and the external:

What we need for human society is exactly what we have — a neutral something, neither you nor I, which we can both manipulate so as to make signs to each other. I can talk to you because we can both set up sound-waves in the common air between us. Matter, which keeps souls apart, also brings them together. It enables each of us to have an “outside” as well as an “inside,” so that what are acts of will and thought for you are noises and glances for me; you are enabled not only to be, but to appear: and hence I have the pleasure of making your acquaintance.

Society, then, implies a common field or “world” in which its members meet.

'Tree of virtues' by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250, from 'The Book of Trees.' Click image for details.

That “neutral something” might sound a lot like faith, but Lewis is careful to point out the limitations of such traditional interpretations and to examine how this relates to the question of suffering:

If matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own. If a “world” or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes — “trees for his sake would crowd into a shade.” But if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. Nor is it clear that you could make your presence known to me — all the matter by which you attempted to make signs to me being already in my control and therefore not capable of being manipulated by you.

Again, if matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws, not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to the wishes of a given soul, nor all equally beneficial for that particular aggregate of matter which he calls his body. If fire comforts that body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced. Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit. Does this mean an inevitable element of evil (in the form of pain) in any possible world? I think not: for while it may be true that the least sin is an incalculable evil, the evil of pain depends on degree, and pains below a certain intensity are not feared or resented at all. No one minds the process “warm — beautifully hot — too hot — it stings” which warns him to withdraw his hand from exposure to the fire: and, if I may trust my own feeling, a slight aching in the legs as we climb into bed after a good day’s walking is, in fact, pleasurable.

Yet again, if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society. If a man traveling in one direction is having a journey down hill, a man going in the opposite direction must be going up hill. If even a pebble lies where I want it to lie, it cannot, except by a coincidence, be where you want it to lie. And this is very far from being an evil: on the contrary, it furnishes occasion for all those acts of courtesy, respect, and unselfishness by which love and good humor and modesty express themselves. But it certainly leaves the way open to a great evil, that of competition and hostility. And if souls are free, they cannot be prevented from dealing with the problem by competition instead of courtesy. And once they have advanced to actual hostility, they can then exploit the fixed nature of matter to hurt one another. The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbor on the head. The permanent nature of matter in general means that when human beings fight, the victory ordinarily goes to those who have superior weapons, skill, and numbers, even if their cause is unjust.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from 'Waterloo & Trafalgar.' Click image for details.

But looking closer at the possible “abuses of free will,” Lewis considers how the fixed nature of physical laws presents a problem for the religious notion of miracles — something he’d come to examine in depth several years later in the book Miracles, and something MIT’s Alan Lightman would come to echo several decades later in his spectacular meditation on science and spirituality. Lewis writes:

Such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them. All matter in the neighborhood of a wicked man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations. That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behavior of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.

He offers an illustrative example:

In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.

He closes by bringing us full-circle to the concept of free will:

Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it.

The Problem of Pain is a pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement it with Lewis on duty, the secret of happiness, and writing “for children” and the key to authenticity in all writing, then revisit Jane Goodall on science and spirituality.

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24 JULY, 2014

The Poetics of Reverie: Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Dreams, Love, Solitude, and Happiness

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“There are still souls for whom love is the contact of two poetries, the fusion of two reveries.”

“Creative writing, like a day-dream,” Freud observed, “is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.” But how, exactly, does the playful imagination weave dream and storytelling together to frame our creative experience?

Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) is one of the most wonderful — literally: full of wonder — philosophers of the twentieth century, yet one of the most underappreciated. His writings on poetics and the philosophy of science fall — rise, rather — somewhere between the erudite and the enchanting, but never more so than in his 1960 treatise The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (public library), published in English seven years after Bachelard’s death — an exploration of “the remarkable psychic productivity of the imagination” and its relationship to memory, happiness, and our capacity for love, as well as of poetry’s singular ability to catalyze our sense of wonder.

Bachelard writes:

In poetry, wonder is coupled with the joy of speech… The poetic image is in no way comparable, as with the mode of the common metaphor, to a valve which would open up to release pent-up instincts. The poetic image sheds light on consciousness in such a way that it is pointless to look for subconscious antecedents of the image… Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. In trying to sharpen the awareness of language at the level of poems, we get the impression that we are touching the man whose speech is new in that it is not limited to expressing ideas or sensations, but tries to have a future. One would say that poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.

But the greatest power of the poetic image, Bachelard argues, is in its ability to grant us fuller access to the soul, to consciousness, through reverie — a concept that comes closest to, but isn’t entirely equated with, psychology’s notion of “positive constructive daydreaming,” a special flight of the imagination. And yet he makes a necessary distinction between reverie and dreaming:

In contrast to a dream a reverie cannot be recounted. To be communicated, it must be written, written with emotion and taste, being relived all the more strongly because it is being written down.

Illustration by Ohara Hale for 'Love Poem' by Denise Levertov. Click image for more.

In exploring how reverie evokes the realm of “written love,” Bachelard adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of love and reflects:

Written love … is going out of fashion, but the benefits remain. There are still souls for whom love is the contact of two poetries, the fusion of two reveries… To tell a love, one must write… Love is never finished expressing itself, and it expresses itself better the more poetically it is dreamed. The reveries of two solitary souls prepare the sweetness of loving… The reality of love is mutilated when it is detached from all its unrealness.

He returns to the question of dreams — a subject that, despite all the scientific advancements of understanding in the decades since Bachelard’s time, remains a mystery — and reflects:

One might wonder whether there really is a consciousness of dreams. A dream can be so strange that it seems that another subject has come to dream with us. “A dream visited me.” That is certainly the formula which indicates the passivity of great nocturnal dreams. To convince ourselves that they are really ours, we must reinhabit these dreams. Afterwards we make up accounts of them, stories from another time, adventures from another world… The teller of dreams sometimes enjoys his dream as an original work. In it he experiences a delegated originality; and hence he is very much surprised when a psychoanalyst tells him that another dreamer has known the same “originality.” The dream-dreamer’s conviction of having lived the dream he is recounting must not deceive us. It is a reported conviction which is reinforced each time he retells the dream. There is certainly no identity between the subject who is telling and the subject who dreamed.

[…]

Instead of looking for the dream in reverie, people should look for reverie in the dream.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'The Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

Even more powerfully, dream and reverie conspire together to form a gateway to happiness. Bachelard writes:

Reverie illustrates repose for a being… it illustrates well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness.

[…]

The whole universe comes to contribute to our happiness when reverie comes to accentuate our repose. You must tell the man who wants to dream well to begin by being happy. Then reverie plays out its veritable destiny; it becomes poetic reverie and by it, in it, everything becomes beautiful.

[…]

Poetic reverie gives us the world of worlds. Poetic reverie is a cosmic reverie. It is an opening to a beautiful world, to beautiful worlds. It gives the I a non-I which belongs to the I: my non-I. It is this “my non-I” which enchants the I of the dreamer and which poets can help us share.

[…]

Reverie helps us inhabit the world, inhabit the happiness of the world.

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

At its highest potentiality, reverie touches on the cosmic, and in doing so, liberates our solitude — that essential capacity to be alone. Bachelard writes:

The cosmic reverie … is a phenomenon of solitude which has its roots in the soul of the dreamer.

[…]

Cosmic reveries separate us from project reveries. They situate us in a world and not in a society. The cosmic reverie possesses a sort of stability or tranquility. It helps us escape time. It is a state. Let us get to the bottom of its essence: it is a state of mind… Poetry supplies us with documents for a phenomenology of the soul. The entire soul is presented in the poetic universe of the poet.

[…]

The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie… Cosmic images are possessions of the solitary soul which is the principle of all solitude.

Therein lies the greatest gift of poetic reverie:

Reverie gives us the world of a soul [and] a poetic image bears witness to a soul which is discovering its world, the world where it would like to live and where it deserves to live… Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.

[…]

Poets lead us into cosmoses which are being endlessly renewed.

The Poetics of Reverie is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Muriel Rukeyser on how poetry expands our lives, James Dickey on how to read a poem, and Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry.

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