Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

04 MAY, 2015

The Great Zen Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on How to Do “Hugging Meditation”

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“When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings.”

“I embrace you with all my heart,” Albert Camus wrote in his beautiful letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher shortly after winning the Nobel Prize. To embrace one another with our whole hearts is perhaps the greatest act of recognition and appreciation there is. To do so in more than words is the ultimate gift of our shared humanity. And yet despite this awareness — or perhaps precisely because of it; because of its enormity — we rarely give each other this gift.

How to perform this highest act of generosity is what legendary Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (b. October 11, 1926) explores in How to Love (public library), his luminous meditation on the art of “interbeing.”

“Spirituality doesn’t mean a blind belief in a spiritual teaching,” Nhat Hanh writes. “Spirituality is a practice that brings relief, communication, and transformation.” One of the most transformative forms of secular spirituality is communication itself, in its most sincerest semblance — the intimate bravery of letting ourselves be seen, of connecting with our fellow human beings with the vulnerability necessary for openhearted living.

In the late 1960s, Nhat Hanh invented — in the most organic and inadvertent way — a simple practice that brings embodied form to the communion and mutual understanding at the heart of this spiritual intimacy. With his signature good-humored warmth, he recounts:

In 1966, a friend took me to the Atlanta Airport. When we were saying good-bye she asked, “Is it all right to hug a Buddhist monk?” In my country, we’re not used to expressing ourselves that way, but I thought, “I’m a Zen teacher. It should be no problem for me to do that.” So I said, “Why not?” and she hugged me, but I was quite stiff. While on the plane, I decided that if I wanted to work with friends in the West, I would have to learn the culture of the West.

To surmount this cultural barrier of communication, Nhat Hanh devised a fusion of East and West furnishing a universal human language for what everybody needs — a practice he called “hugging meditation,” which, in requiring that we disarm all of our chronic cynicisms, appears at first intolerably awkward but blossoms into deeply rewarding:

According to the practice, you have to really hug the person you are holding. You have to make him or her very real in your arms, not just for the sake of appearances, patting him on the back to pretend you are there, but breathing consciously and hugging with all your body, spirit, and heart. Hugging meditation is a practice of mindfulness. “Breathing in, I know my dear one is in my arms, alive. Breathing out, she is so precious to me.” If you breathe deeply like that, holding the person you love, the energy of your care and appreciation will penetrate into that person and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower.

Illustration from 'Hug Me' by Simona Ciraolo. Click image for more.

At the heart of hugging meditation, Nhat Hanh points out, are the core Zen principles of interconnectedness and “interbeing,” with each other as well as with the universe. With the great simplicity and sincerity of Zen writings, he considers both the interpersonal and the intrapersonal rewards of the practice:

When we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings. Hugging with mindfulness and concentration can bring reconciliation, healing, understanding, and much happiness. The practice of mindful hugging has helped so many people to reconcile with each other — fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends and friends, and so many others.

Illustration by Ben Shecter for 'The Hating Book' by Charlotte Zolotow. Click image for more.

But beyond the action itself the most important commitment — an intention of absolute presence with the other and with the moment’s ephemeral aliveness, which is perhaps the task most challenging yet most sorely needed for our spiritual survival in the modern world. Nhat Hanh outlines both the philosophical foundations and practical steps to mastering this delicate art of holding one another’s wholeness while fully inhabiting that blink of existence:

Hugging is a deep practice; you need to be totally present to do it correctly. When I drink a glass of water, I invest one hundred percent of myself in drinking it. You can train yourself to live every moment of your daily life like that.

Before hugging, stand facing each other as you follow your breathing and establish your true presence. Then open your arms and hug your loved one. During the first in-breath and out-breath, become aware that you and your beloved are both alive; with the second in-breath and out-breath, think of where you will both be three hundred years from now; and with the third in-breath and out-breath, be aware of how precious it is that you are both still alive.

When you hug this way, the other person becomes real and alive. You don’t need to wait until one of you is ready to depart for a trip; you may hug right now and receive the warmth and stability of your friend in the present moment.

Complement How to Love, more of which you can read here, with Jack Kerouac on how to meditate and Sam Harris on the paradox of meditation.

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01 MAY, 2015

JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time

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“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested that the poet Robert Frost participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. Eighty-six-year-old Frost telegrammed Kennedy with his signature elegance of wit: “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration.” He proceeded to deliver a beautiful ode to the dream of including the arts in government, which touched Kennedy deeply.

Frost died exactly two years later, in January of 1963. That fall, Amherst College invited the President to speak at an event honoring the beloved poet. On October 26, Kennedy took the podium at Amherst and delivered a spectacular speech mirroring back to Frost that deep dedication to the arts and celebrating the role of the artist in society. Perhaps more than any other public address, it affirmed JFK as that rare species of politician who is equally a poet and prophet of the human spirit.

The speech was eventually included in the altogether superb Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time (public library) — a compendium of breathtaking adieus to cultural icons like Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emily Dickinson, Keith Haring, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Schulz, and Virginia Woolf, delivered by those who knew them best.

This original recording of the speech, while short in length, is endlessly ennobling in substance. Highlights below — please enjoy:

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.

[…]

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…

If sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

Typed draft of the speech, edited in Kennedy's own hand (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library)

But as notable as the speech itself — for reasons both poetical and political — are the parts Kennedy edited out in his own hand, including this heartbreaking-in-hindsight passage from the second page:

We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Three weeks later, one of history’s ugliest and most arrogant misuses of brute power took place as JFK was assassinated, prompting Leonard Bernstein to pen his timelessly moving address on the only true antidote to violence. But the message at the heart of Kennedy’s speech continued to resonate even as his voice was silenced by brutality. Less than two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts — the very dream that Frost had dreamt up at JFK’s inauguration.

Complement with two more titans of poetry on the role of the artist in culture: E.E. Cummings on the agony and salvation of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society.

The JFK speech appears as the opening track on composer Mohammed Fairouz’s spectacular album Follow Poet — titled after a line from W.H. Auden’s beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats — and can be heard in Fairouz’s wholly fantastic On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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30 APRIL, 2015

The Miraculous in the Mundane: Annie Dillard on Reclaiming Our Capacity for Joy and Wonder

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“The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.”

Annie Dillard (b. April 30, 1945) has a way of coaxing the miraculous out of the mundane with such commanding gentleness that ordinary life has no choice but to unmask its extraordinary dimensions. She does this over and over in her 1974 masterwork Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (public library) — one of the most beautiful books to bless a lifetime with, which also gave us her magnificent meditation on the art of seeing and the two ways of looking.

I find myself returning to one particular passage that strikes with the grandeur Dillard is able to extract from the humblest of acts and the most middling of moments. She writes:

When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from 'Sidewalk Flowers' by JonArno Lawson, a wordless ode to living with presence. Click image for more.

The joy of this, of course, comes not from reveling in the self-appointed godliness of orchestrating a mundane micro-miracle — it comes, rather, from the unexpected grace of allowing such an unremarkable event to fill the soul with such remarkable delight. But the very act of allowing is something we unlearn as we go through life and forget what it means to be truly awake. To relearn it, Dillard suggests, is to reclaim our capacity for joy and wonder:

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?

[…]

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.

After all, as Dillard herself has written elsewhere, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Complement Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is as much a life-changing read as it is a life-changing reread every time, with Dillard on writing.

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29 APRIL, 2015

David Whyte on the True Meaning of Friendship, Love, and Heartbreak

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“Heartbreak is how we mature… There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.”

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf asserted in the only surviving recording of her voice. But words also belong to us, as much as we belong to them — and out of that mutual belonging arises our most fundamental understanding of the world, as well as the inescapable misunderstandings that bedevil the grand sensemaking experiment we call life.

This constant dialogue between reality and illusion, moderated by our use of language, is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a most remarkable book “dedicated to WORDS and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty.” Whyte — who has previously enveloped in his wisdom such intricacies of existence as what happens when love leaves and how to break the tyranny of work-life balance — constructs an alternative dictionary inviting us to befriend words in their most dimensional sense by reawakening to the deeper and often counterintuitive meanings beneath semantic superficialities and grab-bag terms like pain, beauty, and solace. And he does it all with a sensibility of style and spirit partway between Aristotle and Anne Lamott, Montaigne and Mary Oliver.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Whyte chooses 52 such ordinary words, the same number as the playing cards in a standard deck — perhaps a subtle suggestion that words, like cards, are as capable of illusion as they are of magic: two sides of the same coin, chosen by what we ourselves bring to the duality. Indeed, dualities and counterpoints dominate the book — Whyte’s short essays examine ambition and disappointment, vulnerability and courage, anger and forgiveness.

Among the words Whyte ennobles with more luminous understanding are those connoting the most complex conversations between human hearts: friendship, love — both unconditional and unrequited — and heartbreak. Of friendship — which Emerson considered the supreme fruit of “truth and tenderness,” Aristotle the generous act of holding up a mirror to each other, Thoreau a grand stake for which the game of life may be played, and C.S. Lewis “one of those things which give value to survival” — Whyte writes:

FRIENDSHIP is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

Echoing Anne Lamott’s beautifully articulated conviction that friendship is above all the art of allowing the soft light of love to fall upon even our darkest sides, Whyte adds:

In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.

And yet friendship is a merited grace, one that requires of us the unrelenting commitment of showing up for and bearing witness to one another, over and over:

The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.

[…]

But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.

Whyte argues that friendship helps us “make sense of heartbreak and unrequited love” — two concepts to which he dedicates entire separate word-meditations. He writes of the former:

HEARTBREAK is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.

And yet while heartbreak has this immense spiritual value, and even an evolutionarily adaptive one, we still treat it like a problem to be solved rather than like the psychoemotional growth-spurt that it is. Whyte writes:

Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream… But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.

[…]

There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.

Illustration by Roger Duvoisin from 'Petunia, I Love You.' Click image for more.

Stripped of the unnecessary negative judgments we impose upon it, heartbreak is simply a fathometer for the depth of our desire — for a person, for an accomplishment, for belonging to the world and its various strata of satisfaction. Whyte captures this elegantly:

Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope but as the close embrace of the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose.

[…]

Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is an introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable and often beautiful question, something and someone that has been with us all along, asking us to be ready for the ultimate letting go.

One of the most common sources of heartbreak, of course, is unrequited love. But, once again, Whyte shines a sidewise gleam on the obscured essence of another experience we mistake for a failure rather than a triumph of our humanity — for unrequited love is the only kind of love there is, in any real sense:

UNREQUITED love is the love human beings experience most of the time. The very need to be fully requited may be to turn from the possibilities of love itself. Men and women have always had difficulty with the way a love returned hardly ever resembles a love given, but unrequited love may be the form that love mostly takes; for what affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? … And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?

[…]

The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox and Me,' a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre. Click image for more.

Indeed, most of our dissatisfaction with life stems from wishing for the present moment to be somehow different, somehow better-conforming to the rigid expectation we set for it at some point in the past. And yet nowhere is this rigidity of requirement more stifling than in love — that glorious “dynamic interaction” of souls responsive to one another, which requires a constant learning and relearning of a common language. Whyte considers what it is we really fear when we hide behind the merciless moniker of “unrequited” love:

We seem to have been born into a world where love, except for brilliant, exceptional moments, seems to exist from one side only, ours — and that may be the difficulty and the revelation and the gift — to see love as the ultimate letting go and through the doorway of that affection, make the most difficult sacrifice of all, giving away the very thing we want to hold forever.

Norwegian for 'the inescapable euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love,' from 'Lost in Translation' by Ella Frances Sanders. Click image for more.

Paradoxically, our notion of “unconditional love” is beset by the same self-defeating absolutism of expectation. Arguing that the very concept of it is a “beautiful hoped for impossibility,” Whyte writes:

Love may be sanctified and ennobled by its commitment to the unconditional horizon of perfection, but what makes love real in the human world seems to be our moving, struggling conversation with that wanted horizon rather than any possibility of arrival. The hope for, or the declaration of a purely spiritual, unconditional love is more often a coded desire for immunity and safety, an attempt to forgo the trials of vulnerability, powerlessness and the exquisite pain to which we apprentice ourselves in a relationship, a marriage, in raising children, in a work we love and desire.

[…]

The hope for unconditional love is the hope for a different life than the one we have been given. Love is the conversation between possible, searing disappointment and a profoundly imagined sense of arrival and fulfillment; how we shape that conversation is the touchstone of our ability to love in the real inhabited world. The true signature and perhaps even the miracle of human love is helplessness, and all the more miraculous because it is a helplessness which we wittingly or unwittingly choose; in our love of a child, a partner, a work, or a road we have to take against the odds.

In the remainder of Consolations, which is immeasurably enlivening in its entirety, Whyte goes on to unpeel such concepts as shyness, vulnerability, honesty, and genius. Complement it with his equally ennobling writings on the three commitments of a fulfilling life, then treat yourself to these beautifully untranslatable words from around the world — a testament to those complexities we are yet to learn naming.

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27 APRIL, 2015

Einstein on the Common Language of Science in a Rare 1941 Recording

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“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem — in my opinion — to characterize our age.”

What makes Albert Einstein endure as “the quintessential modern genius” isn’t merely his monumental contribution to science but also his unflinching faith in the human spirit and in our civilizational capacity for good even in the face of undeniable evil. At the peak of WWII — exactly a decade after his little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on racial justice and exactly a decade before his letter to a disheartened young woman (incidentally, a Brain Pickings reader’s mother) affirming why we are alive — Einstein penned a piece titled “The Common Language of Science,” which aired as a radio broadcast for London’s Science Conference in September of 1941 and was soon published in the journal Advancement of Science. It was eventually included in the altogether indispensable anthology Ideas and Opinions (public library), which also gave us Einstein’s views on the value of kindness and the combinatory nature of creativity.

Einstein traces how language developed as a tool of transmuting thought into acoustic expression and evolved into “an instrument of reasoning,” then argues that science is the most international language there is — humanity’s sole shared instrument of reasoning — but the scientific method alone, without moral direction, is insufficient in assuring our civilizational welfare.

But there is another, subtler aspect of the recording that makes it profoundly pause-giving — perhaps one more discernible to those of us who live and think in a language not our native: Here is one of humanity’s most extraordinary minds, struggling to articulate its brilliant contents in a foreign language — slowly, imperfectly, with painfully measured words. There is no more jarring a reminder of our chronic tendency to mistake the presence of an accent for the absence of acumen — how often do people, even well-meaning and educated people, hear such verbal delivery by a stranger and immediately judge her intelligence as inferior to their own?

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [or else] you are in trouble,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their superb conversation on identity and the immigrant experience. And yet a central source of trouble in the immigrant experience is precisely the world’s inability to unbridle what you are saying from how you are saying it. It is wholly reasonable to surmise that even Einstein — who was once a little boy reticent to use even his native language — felt the weight of the unconscious social biases to which we are all susceptible.

This original recording of the piece, in Einstein’s own wonderfully accented voice, is nothing short of a cultural treasure. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

The mental development of the individual and his way of forming concepts depend to a high degree upon language. This makes us realize to what extent the same language means the same mentality. In this sense thinking and language are linked together.

What distinguishes the language of science from language as we ordinarily understand the word? How is it that scientific language is international? What science strives for is an utmost acuteness and clarity of concepts as regards their mutual relation and their correspondence to sensory data.

[…]

The supernational character of scientific concepts and scientific language is due to the fact that they have been set up by the best brains of all countries and all times. In solitude, and yet in cooperative effort as regards the final effect, they created the spiritual tools for the technical revolutions which have transformed the life of mankind in the last centuries. Their system of concepts has served as a guide in the bewildering chaos of perceptions so that we learned to grasp general truths from particular observations.

What hopes and fears does the scientific method imply for mankind? I do not think that this is the right way to put the question. Whatever this tool in the hand of man will produce depends entirely on the nature of the goals alive in this mankind. Once these goals exist, the scientific method furnishes means to realize them. Yet it cannot furnish the very goals. The scientific method itself would not have led anywhere, it would not even have been born without a passionate striving for clear understanding.

Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem — in my opinion — to characterize our age. If we desire sincerely and passionately the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their superiority will prove itself in the long run.

Complement with the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice and this rare 1929 recording of A.A. Milne reading from Winnie the Pooh, then revisit Einstein’s answer to a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray and his correspondence with Freud on war, peace, and human nature.

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