Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

19 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Science and Philosophy of Friendship: Lessons from Aristotle on the Art of Connecting

By:

“Friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons.”

“A principal fruit of friendship,” Francis Bacon wrote in his timeless meditation on the subject, “is the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.” For Thoreau, friendship was one of life’s great rewards. But in today’s cultural landscape of muddled relationships scattered across various platforms for connecting, amidst constant debates about whether our Facebook “friendships” are making us more or less happy, it pays to consider what friendship actually is. That’s precisely what CUNY philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci explores in Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (public library), which also gave us this provocative read on the science of what we call “intuition.”

Philosophers and cognitive scientists agree that friendship is an essential ingredient of human happiness. But beyond the dry academic definitions — like, say, “voluntary interdependence between two persons over time, which is intended to facilitate socio-emotional goals of the participants, and may involve varying types and degrees of companionship, intimacy, affection and mutual assistance” — lies a body of compelling research that sheds light on how, precisely, friendship augments happiness. Pigliucci writes:

Happiness is influenced, as one might expect, by all of the “big five” personality traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness. … As research conducted by Meliksah Demir and Lesley Weitekamp also clearly shows, however, friendship augments happiness above and beyond the basic effect of personality.

Maurice Sendak illustration from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me,' a vintage ode to friendship by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

The way friendship enhances well-being, it turns out, has nothing to do with quantity and everything to do with quality — researchers confirm that it isn’t the number of friends (or, in the case of Facebook, “friends”) we have, but the nature of those relationships:

In particular, what makes for a good happiness-enhancing friendship is the degree of companionship (when you do things together with your friends) and of self-validation (when your friends reassure you that you are a good, worthy individual).

This is where Aristotle comes in: He recognized three types of love — agape, eros, and philia — which endure as an insightful model for illuminating the nature of our relationships. Pigliucci describes the taxonomy:

Agape is a broad kind of love, the kind that religious people feel that God has for us, or that a secular person may have for humanity at large. Eros, naturally, is more concerned with the type of love we have for sexual partners, though the Greeks meant it more broadly than we do. Philia is the type of love that concerns us here because it includes the sort of feelings we have for friends, family, and even business partners.

Maurice Sendak illustration from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me,' a vintage ode to friendship by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

But this poses the obvious question of what separates love, or eros (itself a complex phenomenon nearly impossible to define, despite history’s ample attempts) from friendship, or philia — a conundrum young E. B. White and James Thurber famously considered and Sartre ultimately failed at resolving. Pigliucci explains:

The obvious answer is that typically (though certainly not necessarily) you have sex with your eros partner but not with your philia friends. More subtly, however, philosophers have pointed out that love is an evaluative attitude, while friendship is a relational one. It makes perfect sense that you could be in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate your feeling, but it is incoherent to say that one has a nonreciprocal friendship.

Aristotle further classified friendships into three distinct categories: of pleasure, of utility, and of virtue:

In friendships of pleasure, you and another person are friends because of the direct pleasure your friendship brings — for instance, you like and befriend people who are good conversationalists, or with whom you can go to concerts, and so on. Friendships of utility are those in which you gain a tangible benefit, either economic or political, from the relationship. Exploitation of other people is not necessarily implied by the idea of utility friendships — first, because the advantage can be reciprocal, and second, because a business or political relation doesn’t preclude having genuine feelings of affection for each other. For Aristotle, however, the highest kind of friendship was one of virtue: you are friends with someone because of the kind of person he is, that is, because of his virtues (understood in the ancient Greek sense of virtue ethics [and] not in the much more narrow modern sense, which is largely derived from the influence of Christianity.)

Maurice Sendak illustration from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me,' a vintage ode to friendship by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

But what it really boils down to is that friendship affords us a more dimensional way of looking at ourselves and at the world, thus enhancing our understanding of the meaning of life. Once again, Pigliucci takes us back to Aristotle:

Aristotle’s opinion was that friends hold a mirror up to each other; through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons. Friends, then, share a similar concept of eudaimonia [Greek for “having a good demon,” often translated as “happiness”] and help each other achieve it. So it is not just that friends are instrumentally good because they enrich our lives, but that they are an integral part of what it means to live the good life, according to Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers (like Epicurus). Of course, another reason to value the idea of friendship is its social dimension. In the words of philosopher Elizabeth Telfer, friendship provides “a degree and kind of consideration for others’ welfare which cannot exist outside

Answers for Aristotle is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with some heartening famous friendships, like those between Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak, and Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

13 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Henry Builds a Cabin: Thoreau’s Joyfully Minimalist Life at Walden, Illustrated for Kids and Full of Wisdom for All

By:

“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a one as their neighbors have.”

In September of 1992, a young man by the name of Chris McCandless perished in the wilderness after resolving to live outside of consumer culture, as close to nature as possible. His story, still the source of ongoing controversy, became the book Into the Wild, which then became the movie of the same title, which gave us one of the best film soundtracks ever. Despite its tragic ending, McCandless’s tale is infused with the ideas and ideals of another man who left the city for the woods to attempt a simple life more than a century earlier: Henry David Thoreau. In the forest around the shores of Walden Pond, he built himself a tiny cabin 10 feet wide and 15 feet long, snugly containing only his bed, a writing desk, and a table with three chairs. He built it himself, with the help of a few friends, using old boards and bricks. The total cost was only $28.12½ — a masterpiece of material minimalism in every sense.

Henry Builds a Cabin (public library), the sequel to artist and author D. B. Johnson’s infinitely delightful Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, adapts the tale of Thoreau and his cabin in vibrant illustrations, once again casting the beloved transcendentalist as a lovable bear named Henry. The story is inspired by this famous passage from Thoreau’s Walden, presaging the notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” by a century:

Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think they must have such a one as their neighbors have.

Johnson’s vibrant, distinctive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations invite us to spy on Henry while he builds his cabin as his friends, one by one, question his modest choices.

First, his friend Emerson, who helps Henry raise the beams, questions the size of his dining area:

“Henry,” he said, “your cabin looks too small to eat in!”
“It’s bigger than it looks,” said Henry.

Henry leads Emerson to a bean patch he has planted behind the cabin and proclaims:

When it’s finished, this will be my dining room.

Then, as Henry is nailing the boards on the roof, his friend Alcott arrives and brings his own skepticism.

“Henry,” he said, “your cabin looks too dark to read in!”
“It’s brighter than it looks,” said Henry.

Henry leads him to a sunny spot next to the cabin and exalts:

When it’s finished, this will be my library.

With more visitors come more questions about the comfort and practicality of the cabin, but Henry refutes each with his cheerful resourcefulness. Finally, on July 4, 1845, he moves into his cabin and blissfully munches on beans in his “dining room,” enjoys a good book in his “library,” and takes pride in his tiny cabin built with heart and humility.

The end of the book features this endearing breakdown of Thoreau’s cabin construction budget:

  • Boards $8.03½
  • Used shingles $4.00
  • Laths $1.25
  • Two second-hand windows $2.43
  • One thousand old bricks $4.00
  • Two casks of Lime* $2.40
  • Hair* $0.31
  • Mantle-tree iron $0.15
  • Nails $3.90
  • Hinges and screws $0.14
  • Latch $0.10
  • Chalk $0.01
  • Transportation $1.40
    • TOTAL: $28.12½

      *lime and hair were used to make plaster

Complement Henry Builds a Cabin with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, then revisit some of Thoreau’s timeless philosophy for grown-ups.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

09 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Leo Tolstoy on Emotional Infectiousness and What Separates Good Art from Bad

By:

“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.”

By 1897, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) was already a literary legend of worldwide acclaim and a man deeply invested in his ultimate quest to unravel the most important wisdom on life. But he shocked the world when he published What Is Art? (public library; public domain) that year — an iconoclastic , which gave us Tolstoy’s addition to history’s finest definitions of art and which pulled into question the creative merits of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and even his very own Anna Karenina. Underneath his then-radical and controversial reflections, however, lies a rich meditation on the immutable, eternal question of what art — especially “good art” — actually is, and how to tell it from its impostors and opposites.

Tolstoy puts forth a sentiment Susan Sontag would come to echo decades later in asserting that “art is a form of consciousness,” and frames the essential role of art as a vehicle of communication and empathy:

In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.

Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression.

[…]

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. … And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.

This core quality of art Tolstoy calls its “infectiousness,” and upon the artist’s ability to “infect” others depends the very recognition of something as art:

If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art.

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling — this is the activity of art.

Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.

Tolstoy defies the academy’s intellectualizations of art:

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.

More than a bridge from person to person, he argues, art is a bridge across eras, cultures, and lifetimes — a kind of immortality:

As, thanks to man’s capacity to express thoughts by words, every man may know all that has been done for him in the realms of thought by all humanity before his day, and can in the present, thanks to this capacity to understand the thoughts of others, become a sharer in their activity and can himself hand on to his contemporaries and descendants the thoughts he has assimilated from others, as well as those which have arisen within himself; so, thanks to man’s capacity to be infected with the feelings of others by means of art, all that is being lived through by his contemporaries is accessible to him, as well as the feelings experienced by men thousands of years ago, and he has also the possibility of transmitting his own feelings to others.

If people lacked this capacity to receive the thoughts conceived by the men who preceded them and to pass on to others their own thoughts, men would be like wild beasts… And if men lacked this other capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still, and, above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another.

An illustration by Maurice Sendak from a 1963 edition of 'Nikolenka's Childhood' by Tolstoy. Click image for more.

Lamenting the growing perversion of the art world, which has warped our ability to tell good art from bad, Tolstoy insists that the only way to distinguish true art from its counterfeit is by this very notion of infectiousness:

If a man, without exercising effort and without altering his standpoint on reading, hearing, or seeing another man’s work, experiences a mental condition which unites him with that man and with other people who also partake of that work of art, then the object evoking that condition is a work of art. And however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it).

[…]

The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist — not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.

Infectiousness, however, is not a mere binary quality. Tolstoy argues that, much as in Samuel Delany’s distinction between good writing vs. talented writing, the degree of infectiousness is what separates good art from excellent art. He offers three conditions that determine the degree of infectiousness:

The stronger the infection, the better is the art as art, speaking now apart from its subject matter, i.e., not considering the quality of the feelings it transmits. And the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions:

  1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
  2. on the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
  3. on the sincerity of the artist, i.e., on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he transmits.

The more individual the feeling transmitted the more strongly does it act on the receiver; the more individual the state of soul into which he is transferred, the more pleasure does the receiver obtain, and therefore the more readily and strongly does he join in it.

The clearness of expression assists infection because the receiver, who mingles in consciousness with the author, is the better satisfied the more clearly the feeling is transmitted, which, as it seems to him, he has long known and felt, and for which he has only now found expression.

But most of all is the degree of infectiousness of art increased by the degree of sincerity in the artist. As soon as the spectator, hearer, or reader feels that the artist is infected by his own production, and writes, sings, or plays for himself, and not merely to act on others, this mental condition of the artist infects the receiver; and contrariwise, as soon as the spectator, reader, or hearer feels that the author is not writing, singing, or playing for his own satisfaction — does not himself feel what he wishes to express — but is doing it for him, the receiver, a resistance immediately springs up, and the most individual and the newest feelings and the cleverest technique not only fail to produce any infection but actually repel.

I have mentioned three conditions of contagiousness in art, but they may be all summed up into one, the last, sincerity, i.e., that the artist should be impelled by an inner need to express his feeling. That condition includes the first; for if the artist is sincere he will express the feeling as he experienced it. And as each man is different from everyone else, his feeling will be individual for everyone else; and the more individual it is — the more the artist has drawn it from the depths of his nature — the more sympathetic and sincere will it be. And this same sincerity will impel the artist to find a clear expression of the feeling which he wishes to transmit.

Therefore this third condition — sincerity — is the most important of the three. It is always complied with in peasant art, and this explains why such art always acts so powerfully; but it is a condition almost entirely absent from our upper-class art, which is continually produced by artists actuated by personal aims of covetousness or vanity.

Such are the three conditions which divide art from its counterfeits, and which also decide the quality of every work of art apart from its subject matter.

[…]

The presence in various degrees of these three conditions — individuality, clearness, and sincerity — decides the merit of a work of art as art, apart from subject matter. All works of art take rank of merit according to the degree in which they fulfill the first, the second, and the third of these conditions. In one the individuality of the feeling transmitted may predominate; in another, clearness of expression; in a third, sincerity; while a fourth may have sincerity and individuality but be deficient in clearness; a fifth, individuality and clearness but less sincerity; and so forth, in all possible degrees and combinations.

Thus is art divided from that which is not art, and thus is the quality of art as art decided, independently of its subject matter, i.e., apart from whether the feelings it transmits are good or bad.

Complement What Is Art? with Tolstoy’s timeless Calendar of Wisdom and this rare recording of the author reading from the latter in English shortly before his death.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.