What Aristotle has to do with Tiger Woods and the story of the world.
The dichotomy of good and evil is as old as the story of the world, and timeless in its relevance to just about everything we do in life, from our political and spiritual views to our taste in music, art and literature to how we think about our simple dietary choices. But while most of us recognize that these concepts of good and bad aren’t always black-and-white categories, we never cease to be surprised when someone or something we’ve perceived as “good” does or becomes something we perceive as “bad,” from an esteemed politician’s transgression to a beloved celebrity’s slip into addiction or scientology or otherwise socially undesirable behavior.
In Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us, researchers David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo explore this curious disconnect through the rigorous lens of science. Drawing on their research at the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University, the authors offer a fascinating yet highly readable perspective on the psychology of the hero/villain spectrum of human character, inviting us to reconceive personality, both our own and that of others, with a more balanced moral view that reflects the fluidity of human psychology.
The derivation of the word ‘character’ comes from an ancient Greek term referring to the indelible marks stamped on coins. Once character was pressed into your mind or soul, people assumed it was fixed. But what modern science repeatedly shows is that this just isn’t the case. As we discuss in our book, everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted.” ~ David DeSteno
In this excellent talk from Northeastern’s Insights series, DeSteno reveals some of the fascinating research behind the book and the illuminating insights that came from it.
The analogy of color is an interesting way to think about [character]. Most of us think that colors are very discrete things — something’s red, it’s got redness; something’s blue, it’s got blueness. But we are creating these categories. They’re not natural kinds, they’re not given in ways that represent fundamentally distinct things. Ultimately, what determines what colors we see are the frequencies of light waves entering our eyes, so it’s along a continuum. It’s kind of the same with character. Things blend. We assume that if someone is good, that we’ve characterized them as good, that’s a discrete category, they can’t be bad. And when they are, our categories shatter. That’s because we have this illusory, arbitrary idea of what vice and virtue mean” ~ David DeSteno
What pie, cats and giant cheese have to do with life’s most elusive aspiration.
Happiness is a frequent subject here, from culling the most essential books on the art and science of happy to exploring variousartists’attempts to capture what lies at the heart of happiness. It’s safe to say the pursuit of happiness isn’t merely a constitutional right, but a human preoccupation as old as the world’s collective memory, yet we still don’t have even a remotely precise understanding of what truly makes us happy. That’s exactly what SVA student Catherine Young explores with DrawHappy — an ongoing global art project inviting people to draw what makes them happy.
The project began in Iceland, consistently listed as one of the happiest places in the world, where Catherine began asking people, both locals and tourists, what made them happy.
I realized that one of the most universal and clearest ways to record their responses was to ask them to draw what made them happy. Drawing is one of the earliest skills we learn; its basic elements are comprehensible to people of all ages, cultures and nations. I reasoned that if people knew that they were happy, they should be able to identify the source and moreover, visually embody this joy.” ~ Catherine Young
With its incredible cast of characters, from a theology-student-slash–dancer to a conservation-engineer-turned-hostel-housekeeper to a security-guard-slash-2D-animator, and its wide spectrum of happiness-markers ranging from the simple and poetic (“friends, family, love, cats, traveling, sunshine”) to the somewhat worrisome (“control, attention”), the project is an absolute delight of voyeurism and shared humanity.
House on a Hill
Okami Landa, 28 years old, New York, USA and Colombia; security guard, 2D animator, editor
Repeat, repeat, repeat
'I am happy when I feel the routine of everyday stuff. Repeat, repeat, and repeat.'
Sebastian Vidal, 32 years old; interior designer from Argentina but living in Barcelona
Britt, 36 years old, brand strategist; Atlanta, Georgia, now in New York
Me on a sailing cheese
'That's me on a piece of cheese, so I’ll never be hungry.'
Swantje, 26 years old, film student and receptionist; born in Germany, living in Iceland
Long leisurely dinner with family
'Having a long leisurely dinner with my close family in my lovely garden.'
Sif ,45 years old, director; Reykjavik, Iceland
'Cats make me happy. I love them. And having enough money makes me also happy.'
Ingibjörg Birna Steingrimsdottir, 52 years old, works in a museum; Reykjavik, Iceland
Stars, sky, books, dancing, dreaming, family
'The stars and the sky make me happy. Reading books makes me happy. Dancing and dreaming make me happy. My family makes me happy.'
Margrét Lilja Vilmundardóttir, 25 years old, theology student and dancer; Iceland
Colors, diversity, good energies
Zsofia, 26 years old; born in Hungary, living in Iceland studied nature conservation engineering, photography and furniture making; hostel housekeeper
After the 106th submission, Catherine decided to visualize the learning from the project thus far:
We found this Maslowian extrapolation most fascinating:
Submit your own drawing and join this wonderful global exercise in deconstructing life’s most elusive aspiration.
Finding practical applications for philosophy, or what Ovid can teach us about sex.
One of our favorite unattributed quotes goes as follows: “Life is a test. It is only a test. If this were your actual life, you would have been given better instructions.”
The good news is that guidance is in fact out there, which is why we’ve put together a short list of reads (and one documentary) that gather the best of what we’ve collectively learned about the tricky art of living. Where the self-help genre can be trite, a byproduct of the latest pop-culture trends, there’s comfort in knowing that these picks go deeper in their quest for human self-actualization.
[A]nyone who hopes to enrich his or her life by experiencing it in the light of classic philosophical and literary works can hope to find something here. Anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing… anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next.”
From Dante to David Foster Wallace, All Things Shining suggests that non-religious westerners look for sacraments in (sometimes surprising) new places. Places like the football field, as one of the book’s authors proposed during a recent appearance on The Colbert Report. Watch him get genially punted about by Colbert here:
Director Astra Taylor has her subjects – and their minds – on the move in Examined Life: Philosophy Is in the Streets. What’s most refreshing about her excellent 2009 documentary is how it portrays today’s greatest living philosophers interacting with the world.
Cornel West expounds on the “funk” of birth from the backseat of a taxi cab driving through the streets of New York; Michael Hardt talks about political revolution while rowing a canoe through Central Park’s reservoir; and Slavoj Zizek holds forth on the Anthropocene while standing in the middle of a landfill. The Real doesn’t get much realer than this.
On the critical issues of justice, Martha Nussbaum (interviewed along Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive) remarks:
The Social Contract tradition is of course an academic, philosophical tradition, but it also has tremendous influence on popular culture and our general public life. Because every day we hear things like ‘those people don’t pay their own way’… So the idea that the good member of society is a producer who contributes advantage to everyone is a very live idea, and it lies behind the decline of welfare programs in this country.”
If their peripatetic musings leave you hungry for more, Taylor also published the complete interviews with eight of our most eminent contemporary minds as a book.
Running on the treadmill is an occasion for the following observation:
So let’s say Foucault is right: the gym is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an overtly friendly club on a covert mission to monitor not just your heart rate but your general regularity as a subject. Now turn that argument on its head: the state wouldn’t need to keep bodies docile if they didn’t hold the power to subvert it, which is to reconceive the body as a political weapon, an agent of resistance.”
What we liked most about Breakfast with Socrates was its absorption in the quotidian aspects of life, since, as its epigraph from the writer Annie Dillard reminds us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
In Morning, Noon, and Night something quite personal is at stake; namely, Weinstein’s own reckoning with the passing of time. His readings in the book’s latter half are particularly sensitive to the irrefutable phenomenon of mortality. To wit:
Baudelaire and Freud are cartographers of a special sort: they are alive to the temporal destinies of cities and humans. What they tell us, in their own way, is that humans are also historical monuments, replete with stories, memories, scar tissue, and the living pith of days and works.”
Alongside classics like Ulysses, contemporary works from Marjane Satrapi and Jonathan Safran Foer also appear in Weinstein’s existential exigesis.
THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY
No survey of life lessons derived from luminaries would be complete without a pick from writer Alain de Botton. In The Consolations of Philosophy we get his well-established blend of wit and wisdom applied, most comfortingly, to the aspects of life that cause the most anxiety. In a chapter entitled “Consolation for Not Having Enough Money,” de Botton trades on the legacy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.
Wealth is of course unlikely ever to make anyone miserable. But the crux of Epicurus’s argument is that if we have money without friends, freedom and an analysed life, we will never truly be happy. And if we have them, but are missing the fortune, we will never be unhappy.”
Illustrations humorously illuminate de Botton’s other chapters, which draw on Seneca (how to address frustration and loss), Schopenhauer (on healing a broken heart), and Montaigne (for those suffering from feelings of inadequacy).
These five items draw deeply and across disciplines from the humanities and the social sciences, reminding us that we have a lot to learn still from those who have labored, lived, and loved before us. Better yet, we also get to be entertained on this long and winding road to enlightenment.
Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.
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