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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

19 AUGUST, 2015

Simone Weil on Attention and Grace

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“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

“Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful elegy for her soul mate, “is only a report.” To fully feel life course through us, indeed, we ought to befriend our own attention, that “intentional, unapologetic discriminator.”

More than half a century before Oliver, another enchantress of the human spirit — the French philosopher Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943), a mind of unparalleled intellectual elegance and a sort of modern saint whom Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our times” — wrote beautifully of attention as contemplative practice through which we reap the deepest rewards of our humanity.

In First and Last Notebooks (public library) — the out-of-print treasure that gave us Weil on the key to discipline and how to make use of our suffering — she writes:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

This piercing thought comes fully abloom in Gravity and Grace (public library) — a posthumous 1952 collection of Weil’s enduring ideas, culled from her notebooks by Gustave Thibon, the farmer whom she entrusted with her writings before her untimely death.

Weil considers the superiority of attention over the will as the ultimate tool of self-transformation:

We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them… Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.

Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.

Weil turns to attention as the counterpoint to this graceless will — where the will contracts the spirit, she argues, attention expands it:

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

Gravity and Grace is one of the most spiritually nourishing texts ever published. Complement it with Weil on temptation and true genius, then revisit writer Melissa Pritchard on art as a form of active prayer and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on reawakening our capacity for attention.

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17 AUGUST, 2015

Louise Bourgeois on Art, Integrity, the Trap of False Humility, and the Key to Creative Confidence

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“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer.”

French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010), nicknamed Spiderwoman for her iconic large-scale spider sculptures, is one of the most influential creative icons of the past century. She survived a traumatic childhood, which — as is often the case for great artists — became the raw material for a lifetime of art, and no less than a lifetime of creative tenacity is what it took for her to attain formal acclaim: Bourgeois had been informally admired in the art world for some time, but she was seventy-one when she received her first major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Celebrated as the founder of confessional art, she mistrusted words as an adequate medium for conveying one’s innermost ideas, yet she began keeping a diary at the age of twelve and never stopped. Dualities permeated her work — destruction and creation, anguish and happiness, violence and tenderness, loneliness and communion — but she was, above all, a woman of crystalline conviction and artistic integrity. Nowhere does this come more blazingly alive than in Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923–1997 (public library) — a remarkable and revelatory volume, which came about after curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist visited Bourgeois in her New York apartment in 1994 for a series of interviews; over the course of them he discovered a trove of previously unpublished notes, letters, fragments, speeches, and poetical writings by this enigmatic, luminous mind.

Bourgeois was also immensely insightful about the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of art, wise beyond her years since an early age — something best captured in the correspondence with her friend and fellow artist Colette Richarme. Although Bourgeois was seven years her friend’s junior, she often took on the role of a mentor and offered advice that was perhaps directed as much at herself as it was at Richarme. In a letter from March of 1938, 26-year-old Bourgeois — still an aspiring artist herself — writes:

You must put the essence of what you want to say into a painting. The rest is arbitrary. Chosen with discernment, but chosen, and choice involves elimination. Once the drawing is established and composed, you compose the other values in the same way.

A few years later, Bourgeois gives herself a more expansive version of the same advice in a barely punctuated passage from her diary:

A painting must not be a battlefield it must be a statement. Set out with something to say and not with the vague desire to say something. Things never simplify themselves they always complicate themselves on the way from the brain to the canvas. Set out, taking your precautions.

[…]

You have to realize that you aren’t working in a blind way for the good of humanity in general. You have to set up a scale of objectives and values and work systematically.

In another letter to Richarme from early 1939, Bourgeois offers a timeless piece of advice on the trap of false humility and the key to creative confidence:

To convince others, you have to convince yourself; and a conciliatory or even an unduly understanding attitude — in that it is inevitably superficial — is not helpful to creativity.

In a letter penned shortly after she moved from Paris to New York at the age of twenty-nine, Bourgeois recounts the transformative experience of visiting a Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art — the very institution that would stage her own first retrospective more than four decades later:

There was an exhibition of 400 paintings by Picasso here (forty years’ work). It was so beautiful, and it revealed such genius and such a collection of treasures that I did not pick up a paintbrush for a month. Complete shutdown. I cleaned brushes, palettes, etc. and tidied everything.

[…]

I’ve seen some things recently that are so beautiful that I can’t find any strength or self-confidence.

Writing of a newly published monograph of Van Gogh’s work, which she had just received, Bourgeois echoes the same sentiment:

What wealth!! What can one add that is new when there is such genius around? If art is for personal satisfaction only, it is too much of a selfish pleasure.

Meanwhile, her native Paris was mere months away from being occupied by the Nazis — a constant backdrop of impending destruction and devastation which Bourgeois, like all artists creating in a wartime climate, had to reconcile with the creative impulse. In the same letter to Richarme, she laments:

I have been listening to political discussions, conversations whose sole aim is to conceal the frightful term “neutrality.” I assure you, it’s useful living abroad: it helps one to understand how propaganda and false information is circulated for whatever secret purposes.

That summer, writing again to her friend as Paris already lay occupied by the Nazis, Bourgeois captures the malady of American media that afflicts us in ever-proliferating forms to this day:

I don’t know what to say about the behavior of the Americans. On the whole they are irresponsible. The newspapers, without exception, are trying to mold public opinion. The news they carry is correct, but the slant they put on events is tendentious — or, most of the time, false.

Bourgeois saw art as the most potent counterpoint to society’s falsehoods — a supreme reach for truth, which she espoused in her own work and found in the work of the artists she most admired. Much like her compatriot André Gide, who extolled the creative value of sincerity, she believed earnestness and integrity were essential to true art. That is why she saw Picasso — an artist who never compromised in his art, a rare beacon of sincerity amid a culture of cynicism — as her “great master.” In a diary entry from March of 1939, she writes:

Picasso paints what is true; true movements, true feelings. He is sane and strong and simple and sensitive… Picasso is an enthusiast. He says so, and that is why his works are young. Skepticism is the beginning of decadence. It’s a form of abdication and bankruptcy.

Like many diarists — including her compatriot, the great painter Delacroix, who used his journal as a form of self-counsel — Bourgeois urges herself:

Never depart from the truth even though it seems banal at first… All movements painted by Picasso have been seen and felt; he is never theatrical. The Surrealists are theatrical. New York painting, the painting that wants to be or is fashionable, is theatrical. Theater is the image of life and Picasso sees life or rather reality! Keep your integrity. You will only count, for yourself and in your art, to the extent that you keep your integrity.

It is astounding how aptly this applies to writing, journalism, and the media industry as well — the very mecca of agenda-driven opinion-manipulation, which Bourgeois had previously lamented. So much of what passes for journalism, triply so in our day, is “theatrical” — from the customary clickbait of headline composition to the glaringly performative gimmicks of cat listicles. In this new context, Bourgeois’s words resonate as an even more powerful incantation for writers, artists, and journalists alike: “Keep your integrity.”

Louise Bourgeois: 'Self Portrait' / Cat. No. 324.2/VIII, variant, 2006 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

But integrity is something that takes place as much within the artist as it does around the artist — it is both a function of one’s interior personal commitment and, to borrow William Gibson’s marvelous term, of the “personal micro-culture” in which one immerses oneself. I have long believed that nothing sustains the creative spirit more powerfully than the sense of belonging to a circle of kindred spirits — something seen in such heartwarming affinities as those between Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, Mark Twain and Helen Keller, and Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak.

Bourgeois, too, intuited this deep connection between artistic integrity and creative kinship. In August of 1984, already well into her seventies, she writes in the diary:

I love all artists and I understand them (flock of deaf mutes in subway). They are my family and their existence keeps me from being lonely.

To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer… Audience is bullshit, unnecessary. Communication is rare; art is a language, like the Chinese language. Who gets it? The deaf mutes in the subway.

Reconciliation is the sweetest feeling.

Louise Bourgeois: 'Mercy Merci,' 1992 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

In another diary entry penned three years later, she revisits the subject with even more piercing poignancy:

You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love. That is why geometrically speaking the circle is a one.

Louise Bourgeois: Writings and Interviews is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover. Complement it with Georgia O’Keeffe on public opinion and what it means to be an artist, Denise Levertov on how great works of art are born, and Henry Miller on why good friends are essential for creative work.

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17 AUGUST, 2015

In Praise of Missing Out: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the Paradoxical Value of Our Unlived Lives

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“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

“In the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation,” Alain de Botton wrote in his meditation on Nietzsche and why a fulfilling life requires difficulty. “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Joan Didion wrote in contemplating the value of keeping a notebook. But we are just as well advised, it turns out, to keep on nodding terms with the people we could’ve been, the people we never were, the people who perished in the abyss between our ideal selves and our real selves. So argues psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (public library) — a fascinating read, acutely relevant to our culture so plagued by the fear of missing out that we’ve shorthanded it to “FOMO.”

Phillips — whom I’ve long considered the Carl Jung of our time, and who has written beautifully about such transfixing psychosocial complexities as how kindness became our forbidden pleasure, balance and the requisite excesses of life, and the necessity of boredom — examines the paradoxical relationship between frustration and satisfaction, exploring how our unlived lives illuminate the priorities, values, and desires undergirding the lives we do live.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Parker Palmer’s magnificent commencement address on the wholehearted life“If the unexamined life is not worth living,” he counseled graduates, “it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining.” — Phillips writes:

The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives — even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available — because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us. Indeed, we have to survive our appetites by making people cooperate with our wanting. We pressurize the world to be there for our benefit. And yet we quickly notice as children — it is, perhaps, the first thing we do notice — that our needs, like our wishes, are always potentially unmet. Because we are always shadowed by the possibility of not getting what we want, we learn, at best, to ironize our wishes — that is, to call our wants wishes: a wish is only a wish until, as we say, it comes true — and, at worst, to hate our needs. But we also learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.

[…]

We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in how we think of loves that never were — “the one that got away” implies that the getting away was merely a product of probability and had the odds turned out differently, the person who “got away” would have been The One. But Phillips argues this is a larger problem that affects how we think about every aspect of our lives, perhaps most palpably when we peer back on the road not taken from the fixed vantage point of our present destination:

We are always haunted by the myth of our potential, of what we might have it in ourselves to be or do… We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.

[…]

Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken. The myth of our potential can make of our lives a perpetual falling-short, a continual and continuing loss, a sustained and sometimes sustaining rage.

Phillips argues that these unlived lives reveal themselves most obviously in our envy of others, the psychology of which Kierkegaard keenly observed a century and a half earlier, and in the demands we place on our children — an idea that furthers the parallel between Phillips with Jung, for it was the great Swiss psychiatrist who famously asserted that what most shapes children’s developing psychological reality are “the unlived lives of the parents.” But where Jung believed that “the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being,” Phillips suggests that it’s equally important to kindle a light in the darkness of non-being, of never-having-been:

We have an abiding sense, however obscure and obscured, that the lives we do lead are informed by the lives that escape us.

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

It is precisely by recognizing our existential incompleteness and our inherent insufficiency, by embracing the fact that we are a cosmic accident, that we can begin to feel the fullness of life — but this is hard to do, Phillips points out, in a culture predicated on inflating the specialness of the self as a singular unit aimed at optimizing and making maximally productive the lived life:

Because we are nothing special — on a par with ants and daffodils — it is the work of culture to make us feel special; just as parents need to make their children feel special to help them bear and bear with — and hopefully enjoy — their insignificance in the larger scheme of things. In this sense growing up is always an undoing of what needed to be done: first, ideally, we are made to feel special; then we are expected to enjoy a world in which we are not… When people realize how accidental they are, they are tempted to think of themselves as chosen. We certainly tend to be more special, if only to ourselves, in our (imaginary) unlived lives.

So it is worth wondering what the need to be special prevents us seeing about ourselves — other, that is, than the unfailing transience of our lives; what the need to be special stops us from being. This, essentially, is the question psychoanalysis was invented to address: what kind of pleasures can sustain a creature that is nothing special? Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life — the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life — the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legitimated by nothing more than the desire to live it. For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full. We become obsessed, in a new way, by what is missing in our lives; and by what sabotages the pleasures that we seek.

To mitigate the wistful vestiges this existential neverland lodges in our psyche, Phillips argues, we create and hold on to various possible selves and possible lives — pockets of possibility that exist no matter how remote the probability of realizing them might be. These improbable possibles, Phillips asserts, come to both reveal and shape who we really are:

We make our lives pleasurable, and therefore bearable, by picturing them as they might be; it is less obvious, though, what these compelling fantasy lives — lives of, as it were, a more complete satisfaction — are a self-cure for. Our solutions tell us what our problems are; our fantasy lives are not — or not necessarily — alternatives to, or refuges from, those real lives but an essential part of them… There is nothing more obscure than the relationship between the lived and the unlived life. (Each member of a couple, for example, is always having a relationship, wittingly or unwittingly, with their partner’s unlived lives; their initial and initiating relationship is between what they assume are their potential selves.) So we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.

With an eye to the philosophy of Albert Camus, Phillips writes:

There is a gap between what we want and what we can have, and that gap … is our link, our connection, to the world… This discord, this supposed mismatch, is the origin of our experience of missing out.

And yet, just like “our solutions tell us what our problems are,” the most ideal of these missed-out-on experiences reveal a great deal about the realest aspects of our lives. In one of many poignant parenthetical asides — one that calls to mind Umberto Eco on why imaginary places captivate us so — Phillips writes:

Our utopias tell us more about our lived lives, and their privations, than about our wished-for lives.

1516 map of Thomas More's island of Utopia, discussed in 'Legendary Lands' by Umberto Eco. Click image for more.

The paradox — and the most important point — is that it is through the privation of not getting what we want, as Nietzsche memorably argued more than a century earlier, that we arrive at the promise of satisfaction:

In our unlived lives we are always more satisfied, far less frustrated versions of ourselves… Our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration; if we can’t let ourselves feel our frustration — and, surprisingly, this is a surprisingly difficult thing to do — we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us pleasure… That frustration is where we start from; the child’s dawning awareness of himself is an awareness of something necessary not being there. The child becomes present to himself in the absence of something he needs.

But it is through our frustrations that we come to know our wants, against the light of which the contour of our personhood is shaded in:

The more we frustrate ourselves in wanting something, the more we value our desire for it… Waiting too long poisons desire, but waiting too little pre-empts it; the imagining is in the waiting… Wanting takes time; partly because it takes some time to get over the resistances to wanting, and partly because we are often unconscious of what it is that we do want. But the worst thing we can be frustrated of is frustration itself; to be deprived of frustration is to be deprived of the possibilities of satisfaction.

Missing Out is an unmissable read in its totality, exploring how the osmosis of frustration and satisfaction illuminates our romantic relationships, our experience of success and failure, and much more. Complement it with Dr. Seuss’s recently revealed parable of FOMO and Meghan Daum on how we become who we are, then revisit Phillips on kindness, balance, and the essential capacity for “fertile solitude.”

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14 AUGUST, 2015

Micromegas: Voltaire’s Trailblazing Sci-Fi Philosophical Homage to Newton and the Human Condition, in a Rare Vintage Children’s Book

By:

“Perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”

When the great French Enlightenment philosopher and satirist Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) was traveling in England as a young man, he met Catherine Barton, Isaac Newton’s niece, who enchanted him with the story of how the trailblazing scientist had discovered gravity. So began Voltaire’s lifelong love affair with Newton’s work.

A few years later, when he met the Marquise du Châtelet — the remarkable woman mathematician with whom he fell in love — he wrote of her: “That lady whom I look upon as a great man … understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.” With help from his beloved, who had translated Newton’s Principia from Latin herself, Voltaire penned Elements of the Philosophy of Newton in 1738 — the first major work bringing Newton’s theories to a popular audience.

But his most unusual and wonderful celebration of Newton’s legacy came more than a decade later. In 1752, he penned Micromégas — a short story notable not only for being a seminal work of science fiction, but for addressing with astonishing prescience an equally astonishing array of issues enormously timely today: He envisions space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life two centuries before the word “astronaut” was coined; he champions animal consciousness a quarter millennium before we came to acknowledge it and study its complexities; above all, he speaks to the redemptive power of humility and critical thinking.

Voltaire tells the story of Micromegas, a brilliant giant from a distant planet, modeled after Newton and quite possibly a play on the great scientist’s famous proclamation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Micromegas voyages across the universe with his slightly less gigantic friend and eventually ends up on Earth, at first unable to see its tiny human inhabitants, then skeptical of their intelligence, and at last amused by their incongruous self-importance. At the heart of the story is a poignant reminder that greatness is always relative and arrogance always misplaced, for however great we are, there is always someone greater out there; and that however much we may wish to outsource the ultimate task of existence, we must discern the meaning of life for ourselves.

In 1967, more than two centuries after Voltaire penned his clever and imaginative allegory, writer Elizabeth Hall adapted it for young readers in Voltaire’s Micromegas (public library) — a marvelous vintage “children’s” book relaying Voltaire’s timeless message for all ages, with breathtaking illustrations by artist Don Freeman.

On one of those planets which revolve around the star named Sirius, there was a very clever young man. He was called Micromegas, a name which suits all big men, for, though they may be huge in their own land, there is always another land where they will find themselves small.

So huge is Micromegas that he stands eight leagues tall, his head twenty miles away from his feet and his intellect commensurate with his size. By the time he reaches adolescence at the age of about 500, he begins conducting scientific experiments that challenge the dogma of the land. Once he publishes his theories, the great ruler of Sirius is so displeased — much like Isaac Newton’s theories had displeased the religious leaders of his day — that he banishes Micromegas from the court for eight hundred years.

Micromegas was only slightly upset at being banished from court. Instead of grieving, he began to travel from planet to planet in order to develop his mind and heart.

On Saturn, he meets the local “dwarves” — only a mile tall — and becomes fast friends with the Secretary of the Academy of Saturn, who joins him on the cosmic voyage. Together, they visit the other planets in the Solar System until they come across an aurora borealis that carries them to Earth and drops them on the northern coast of the Baltic Sea.

After snacking on two snow-capped mountains for breakfast, they set about exploring this tiny world, which they traverse in a matter of hours, looking for signs of life.

They see “the puddle called the Mediterranean” and “that other little pond which is known as the Atlantic Ocean,” but their enormous eyes remain blind to the tiny creatures inhabiting the planet — and so the dwarf concludes that there must be no life on this jagged, irregular piece of rock with its strange rivers, none of which flow in a straight line, and its odd-shaped lakes, neither round nor square. But Micromegas is unconvinced.

“What makes me guess there is no life here is that it seems to me that sensible people would not want to live here,” [said the dwarf].

“Well,” said Micromegas, “perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”

Agitated over their argument, Micromegas accidentally breaks the string of his diamond necklace and discovers — another nod to Newton here — that because of how they are cut, the diamonds make excellent microscope lenses. With that makeshift microscope, the dwarf suddenly sees something moving under the water in the sea — a whale.

He lifted it up very skillfully with his little finger. He put it on his thumbnail. He showed it to the Sirian who began to laugh at the extreme smallness of the inhabitants of our globe.

The Saturnian, now certain that our world was inhabited, immediately imagined it was inhabited only by whales. Since he was a great reasoner, he wanted to guess from where so tiny a speck drew its movement and whether it had a mind and a will.

This upset Micromegas. He examined the animal very patiently. The result of the examination was that there were no reasons for believing that a soul inhabited the tiny whale. The two travelers therefore believed there was no intelligence on our earth.

But just as they’re drawing their conclusion, the two cosmic travelers spot something bigger than the whale floating on the Baltic Sea.

It is known that at this same time a flock of philosophers were returning from the Arctic Circle where they had been making observations. No one had noticed their expedition until that moment. The newspapers later said that their ship ran aground off the coast of Bothnia and that they had great difficulty in escaping.

Intrigued by this supposed new animal, Micromegas picks up the ship ever so gently, greatly alarming the ship’s still-invisible passengers. The commotion registers as a tickle — just enough for Micromegas to sense something moving. But his microscope, barely powerful enough to detect the whale, struggles to reveal these tiny human mites to his eye. Still, he stares intently until he begins to notice these tiny specks, not only moving but seemingly communicating with each other.

Inventive like Newton himself, Micromegas pulls out a pair of scissors — for who would travel the cosmos without one? — and clips off a piece of his nail, which he curls into a funnel to create a huge megaphone. Pointing it to his ear, he can suddenly hear the tiny creatures. Afraid that his great big voice would deafen them, he sticks a toothpick in his mouth to keep a safe distance from the ship, kneels, and lowers his voice to speak to the passengers softly.

After telling the earthlings how sorry he was that they were so tiny, he asked them if they had always been in such a wretched state, so near to not existing at all. The dwarf then asked them what they did on a world which belonged to whales, if they were happy, if they had souls, and a hundred other questions.

One reasoner in the crowd, more daring than the others, was shocked that the dwarf doubted he had a soul. Using his quadrant, he looked at the dwarf several times and said, “You believe, sir, because your head stretches a mile from your feet that you are a…”

The dwarf interrupts in astonishment. Impressed that the tiny human has been able to estimate his height, he concludes that they must surely have both a mind and a soul. Nearly two centuries before the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, in which some of Earth’s real-life leading scientists asserted that nonhuman animals have consciousness, Micromegas declares:

More than ever I see that we must not judge anything by size. If it is possible that there are being smaller than these tiny specks, it is also possible that they have minds superior to those splendid animals I have seen in the sky.

The more Micromegas comes to know Earth and its inhabitants, the more impressed he becomes with their merits — and yet he remains blind to their flaws:

Micromegas suggested that the tiny creatures on earth, having such fine minds and small bodies, must spend their lives in perfect happiness.

All the philosophers shook their heads.

One of them, more courageous than the rest, distills for the celestial visitor the absurdity of every war as Voltaire once again exerts his satirical genius of putting in perspective the grandiose pettiness of the human condition:

“For example,” he said, “do you know that as I am speaking to you, there are one hundred thousand fools wearing hats, who are killing one hundred thousand other animals wearing turbans, or in turn are being massacred by them? And that people have acted in this way for as long as man can remember?”

The Sirian shuddered. He asked what the reason could be for such horrible quarrels among such pitiful animals.

“They are fighting,” said the philosopher, “over a few piles of dirt as big as your heel. They slaughter one another, not for a single straw of the dirt piles, but to decide whether they will belong to a man called Sultan or to another called Caesar. Neither Sultan nor Caesar has ever seen the little bits of dirt.”

Appalled, Micromegas inquires how the philosophers, being among the few wise men who don’t kill others for a living, spend their time:

“We dissect flies,” answered the philosopher. “We measure lines. We study numbers. We agree on two or three points which we understand, and we disagree on two or three thousand which we don’t understand.”

But then, as Micromegas begins inquiring about the things on which the earthlings do agree, Voltaire throws his most piercing spear of cultural critique, satirizing the ludicrous religious dogma which Newton had to combat in his day:

Then, unfortunately, one of the puny earthlings said he knew the secret of the universe. He regarded the two celestial inhabitants from head to toe. Throwing back his head, the better to shout and make himself heard, he said that the visitors’ very selves, their worlds, their suns, their stars, all were made solely for man.

At this speech the two travelers fell on each other, choking with laughter. Their shoulders shook. Their bellies shook. In these convulsions, the ship that the Sirian was balancing on his nail tumbled into the pocket of the dwarf’s trousers.

Micromegas and the dwarf, being kindly and conscientious even in the face of such absurd arrogance, recover the ship from the pocket and gently place it back onto the sea. As a parting gift, before leaping onto another aurora borealis to return home, Micromegas offers the earthlings “a fine book of philosophy” to take to the Academy of Sciences in Paris.

But when the Secretary of the Academy — a Voltaire lookalike — opens the tome, he discovers a book of empty pages. Micromegas has delivered his message: Earthlings must learn philosophy — that is, the art of understanding how to live and how to die — for themselves.

How lamentable that a “children’s” book as imaginative and insightful and full of timeless, ageless wisdom as Voltaire’s Micromegas should go out of print — perhaps a publisher with a good heart and a good head on her shoulders would consider bringing it back for today’s young readers, who need Voltaire’s message of humility and critical thinking perhaps more than ever. In the meantime, used copies do exist and are very much worth the used-book hunt or the trip to the library.

Complement it with David the Dreamer, another unusual vintage children’s book illustrated by Freud’s eccentric niece, and The Hole, a contemporary Scandinavian counterpart that enchants young readers with existential questions, then revisit Voltaire on how to write well and stay true to your creative vision and the story of how he fell in love with the brilliant Marquise.

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