Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘public domain’

22 MAY, 2015

Body, Soul, and the Elusive Seedbed of Our Identity: Lewis Carroll on the Material and Immaterial Forces of Life, in a Letter to a Little Girl

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The perplexity of why your identity endures even if all the cells in your body are wholly replaced every seven years.

“I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” Rilke wrote in a beautiful 1921 letter, “since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” The relationship between the material and immaterial forces of life has occupied poets and physicists like for as long as we humans have been aware of our mortality and able to articulate that awareness. More recently, it has prompted philosophers to pose such fascinating questions as how we know who we are if our present selves are unrecognizably different from past ones.

That immutable inquiry is what mathematician and writer Charles Dodgson, better-known as Lewis Carroll (January 27, 1832–January 14, 1898), explores in one of the many witty and wise missives collected in The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — the indispensable volume that also gave us Carroll on how to alleviate our discomfort with change and his three tips for overcoming creative block.

In the fall of 1885, one of Carroll’s “child-friends” — he had many largely epistolary friendships with children throughout his life, including the real-life little girl who inspired his Wonderland — wrote to him after reading Thomas Carlyle’s 1836 philosophical novel Sartor Resartus and finding herself particularly captivated by Carlyle’s treatment of the relationship between the body and the soul. The subject — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the profound transcendentalist undertones of Alice in Wonderland, published two decades earlier — was also of deep interest to Carroll, who wrote to his young friend:

My dear Edith, —

One subject you touch on — “the Resurrection of the Body” — is very interesting to me, and I have given it much thought (I mean long ago). My conclusion was to give up the literal meaning of the material body altogether. Identity, in some mysterious way, there evidently is; but there is no resisting the scientific fact that the actual material usable for physical bodies has been used over and over again — so that each atom would have several owners. The mere solitary fact of the existence of cannibalism is to my mind a sufficient reductio ad absurdum of the theory that the particular set of atoms I shall happen to own at death (changed every seven years, they say) will be mine in the next life — and all the other insuperable difficulties (such as people born with bodily defects) are swept away at once if we accept S. Paul’s “spiritual body ,” and his simile of the grain of corn. I have read very little of “Sartor Resartus,” and don’t know the passage you quote: but I accept the idea of the material body being the “dress” of the spiritual — a dress needed for material life.

Complement The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, which is nothing short of addictive in its totality, with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and his tips for making email more civil, then revisit Carl Sagan’s timeless treatise on science and spirituality and Rebecca Goldstein on the perplexity of why you and your childhood self are the same person despite a lifetime of material changes.

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21 MAY, 2015

Montaigne on “Curation,” the Illusion of Originality, and How We Form Our Opinions

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“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

I often think of reading not as the acquisition of static knowledge but as the active springboard for thinking and dynamic contemplation — hence the combinatorial, LEGO-like nature of creativity, wherein we assemble building blocks of existing knowledge into new formations of understanding that we consider our original ideas. But long before our contemporary conceptions of how creativity works, French Renaissance polymath and proto-blogger Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533–September 13, 1592) articulated this magpielike quality of the mind, so very central to ideation.

In Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays (public domain; public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us the great philosopher’s ideas on death and the art of living — he writes:

A competent reader often discovers in other men’s writings other perfections than the author himself either intended or perceived, a richer sense and more quaint expression.

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne by Salvador Dalí, 1947. Click image for details.

Half a millennium before Mark Twain proclaimed that “substantially all ideas are second-hand” and long before we drained the term “curation” of meaning by compulsive and indiscriminate application, Montaigne observed:

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.

But what makes Montaigne’s meditation so incisive — and such an urgently necessary fine-tuning of how we think of “curation” today — is precisely the emphasis on the thread. This assemblage of existing ideas, he argues, is nothing without the critical thinking of the assembler — the essential faculty examining those ideas to sieve the meaningful from the meaningless, assimilating them into one’s existing system of knowledge, and metabolizing them to nurture a richer understanding of the world. Montaigne writes:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We are in this very like him, who having need of fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any with him home… What good does it do us to have the stomach full of meat, if it do not digest, if it be not incorporated with us, if it does not nourish and support us?

Three centuries later, Thoreau — another of humanity’s most quotable and overquoted minds — made a similar point about the perils of mindlessly parroting the ideas of those who came before us, which produces only simulacra of truth. The mindful reflection and expansion upon existing ideas and views, on the other hand, is a wholly different matter — it is the path via which we arrive at more considered opinions of our own, cultivate our critical faculties, and inch closer to truth itself. Montaigne writes:

Aristotle ordinarily heaps up a great number of other men’s opinions and beliefs, to compare them with his own, and to let us see how much he has gone beyond them, and how much nearer he approaches to the likelihood of truth; for truth is not to be judged by the authority and testimony of others; which made Epicurus religiously avoid quoting them in his writings. This is the prince of all dogmatists, and yet we are told by him that the more we know the more we have room for doubt.

Complement Montaigne’s Complete Essays — a timeless trove of wisdom on such diverse facets of existence as happiness, education, fear, and the imagination — with his enduring wisdom on how to live and Salvador Dalí’s rare and whimsical illustrations for his essays.

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20 MAY, 2015

How to Change Minds: Blaise Pascal on the Art of Persuasion

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“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

If it weren’t for the “backfire effect” — the strange psychological phenomenon behind our propensity for self-righteousness — changing people’s minds wouldn’t be such an uncomfortable luxury. One might even say that moving minds — our own as well as those of others — is among the most effortful labor there is.

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the three elements of persuasion — attunement, buoyancy, and clarity — French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662) intuited this mechanism as he arrived at a great truth about the secret of persuasion: Pascal came to see that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

In Pensées (free ebook | public library) — his foundational masterwork consisting of 923 fragmentary philosophical and theological meditations — Pascal examines the best strategy for changing people’s minds, distilling the art of persuasion to its essence:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.

Long before we invented psychology and learned to apply it in reverse, Pascal adds:

People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.

In a sentiment that David Foster Wallace would come to echo centuries later in his enduring definition of what makes a great leader, Pascal frames persuasion not as a factor of control but as something predicated first and foremost on empathy — on empathic insight into the context and concerns that animate the other person’s mind:

Eloquence … persuades by sweetness, not by authority… Eloquence is an art of saying things in such a way — (1) that those to whom we speak may listen to them without pain and with pleasure; (2) that they feel themselves interested, so that self-love leads them more willingly to reflection upon it.

It consists, then, in a correspondence which we seek to establish between the head and the heart of those to whom we speak on the one hand, and, on the other, between the thoughts and the expressions which we employ. This assumes that we have studied well the heart of man so as to know all its powers, and then to find the just proportions of the discourse which we wish to adapt to them. We must put ourselves in the place of those who are to hear us, and make trial on our own heart of the turn which we give to our discourse in order to see whether one is made for the other, and whether we can assure ourselves that the hearer will be, as it were, forced to surrender.

Ultimately, Pascal suggests, the art of persuasion by eloquence is not one that grants permission for prettifying falsehoods but one that invites the beauty of reality to reveal itself:

[Eloquence] requires the pleasant and the real; but the pleasant must itself be drawn from the true.

[…]

Eloquence is a painting of thought; and thus those who, after having painted it, add something more, make a picture instead of a portrait.

Pensées is rife with Pascal’s eloquent revelations about the human experience, exploring everything from morality to the myth of originality to the relationship between intuition and the intellect. Complement this particular except with contemporary psychology’s lens on why changing minds is so challenging, Daniel Pink on how to move people with integrity, and Kahlil Gibran’s breathtakingly beautiful poem about the absurdity of our self-righteousness.

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08 APRIL, 2015

Stunning Victorian Cyanotypes of Sea Algae by Anna Atkins, the First Female Photographer and a Pioneer of Scientific Illustration

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Beautiful blueness from a trailblazing woman in science.

English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (March 16, 1799–June 9, 1871) is considered the first woman to take a photograph and the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. This she accomplished in an era when women’s formal foray into science was yet to come.

Less than a year after the great polymath Sir John Herschel invented the cyanotype photographic process — one of the 100 ideas that changed photography, which was originally used for architectural sketches and which lent its azure tint to the origin of the word “blueprint” — 44-year-old Atkins began applying the technique to sea algae, determined to overcome “the difficulty of making accurate drawings” of these marine species and ushering in a whole new medium for scientific illustration. In October of 1843, she self-published the resulting images in the pioneering volume Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, dedicating the book to her father — the British chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist John George Children, who had given her a scientific education uncommon for women at that time. “To my dearest Father this attempt is affectionately inscribed,” read the first page.

Over the decade that followed, Atkins produced and self-published three volumes of these simple yet strangely beautiful algae illustrations. Today, the original books are extremely rare — only seventeen are known to survive: a few are held by some of the world’s great cultural institutions, including the British Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a private copy occasionally surfaces at a rare books auction to be sold for a six-figure sum. All reproductions of the cyanotype plates, however, are in the public domain and were eventually included with the rest of Atkins’s major work in the altogether stunning posthumous monograph Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms (public library).

Here are some of the most mesmerizing, generously digitized by the New York Public Library, which houses one of the surviving copies.

In this wonderful episode of Objectivity, host Brady Haran joins Rupert Baker of The Royal Society to take an intimate look at one of the surviving copies of Atkins’s masterwork:

Complement the luminously beautiful Sun Gardens with 500 years of stunning scientific illustrations from the Rare Books Collections of the American Museum of Natural History, then revisit astronomer Maria Mitchell’s trailblazing crusade for women in science.

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16 FEBRUARY, 2015

Lewis Carroll on Happiness and How to Alleviate Our Discomfort with Change

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“There’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself.”

I am the frequent and fortunate recipient of wonderful letters from readers, many of whom share deeply personal stories of their struggles and triumphs. But few have moved me more than a recent one from a 61-year-old woman from Santa Fe, who has been living with Stage IV cancer for nearly twenty-six years — something she revealed not as a centerpiece of the letter, and not as self-pity or even a complaint, but as a mere factual report for context. She went on to describe all the enlivening ways she has found for leading a rich, creative, and rewarding life as she adjusted to her progressively diminishing physical faculties. Astounded at first by her resilience and optimism given the cards she had been dealt, I was reminded of a now-legendary 1978 adaptation theory study (PDF), which found that both lottery winners and people rendered paraplegic by an accident not only return to their baseline happiness level within a few months but also have similar baselines overall, regardless of whether they had great or terrible fortune.

And yet most of us find this difficult to believe because, despite what we may know about the psychology of resilience and our hardwired optimism bias, we dread change enormously. Change — be it negative, neutral, or even positive — is hard; more than that, it’s usually unwelcome — in no small part because we’re stitched together by our routines and rituals. But change is also how we stretch ourselves and grow, and in the tension between the resistance and the necessity lies one of the great paradoxes of the human condition.

The wisest advice I’ve ever encountered on how to assuage our deep discomfort with change comes from Lewis Carroll — a man of timeless and timely insight on so many facets of daily life: In his nine commandments of letter-writing we find guidelines to making modern digital communication more civil, and in his rules for digesting information we find solace for our present state of information overload.

Although Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland is a story about befriending the disorienting strangeness of change, he addressed the subject directly two decades later. In an August 1885 letter included in the altogether addictive The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (public library; free download) — which also gave us Carroll’s three tips for overcoming creative block — he writes to a young friend named Isabel Standen, who had written to him lamenting her loneliness and unhappiness in a new environment:

I can quite understand, and much sympathize with, what you say of your feeling lonely, and not what you can honestly call “happy.” Now I am going to give you a bit of philosophy about that — my own experience is, that every new form of life we try is, just at first, irksome rather than pleasant. My first day or two at the sea is a little depressing; I miss [my usual] interests, and haven’t taken up the threads of interest here; and, just in the same way, my first day or two, when I get back [home], I miss the seaside pleasures, and feel with unusual clearness the bothers of business-routine. In all such cases, the true philosophy, I believe, is “wait a bit.” Our mental nerves seem to be so adjusted that we feel first and most keenly, the dis-comforts of any new form of life; but, after a bit, we get used to them, and cease to notice them; and then we have time to realize the enjoyable features, which at first we were too much worried to be conscious of.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Tove Jansson. Click image for more.

Almost a century before that famous adaptation theory study, Carroll illustrates his point with a strikingly similar example:

Suppose you hurt your arm, and had to wear it in a sling for a month. For the first two or three days the discomfort of the bandage, the pressure of the sling on the neck and shoulder, the being unable to use the arm, would be a constant worry. You would feel as if all comfort in life were gone; after a couple of days you would be used to the new sensations, after a week you perhaps wouldn’t notice them at all; and life would seem just as comfortable as ever.

So my advice is, don’t think about loneliness, or happiness, or unhappiness, for a week or two. Then “take stock” again, and compare your feelings with what they were two weeks previously. If they have changed, even a little, for the better you are on the right track; if not, we may begin to suspect the life does not suit you. But what I want specially to urge is that there’s no use in comparing one’s feelings between one day and the next; you must allow a reasonable interval, for the direction of change to show itself. Sit on the beach, and watch the waves for a few seconds; you say “the tide is coming in “; watch half a dozen successive waves, and you may say “the last is the lowest; it is going out.” Wait a quarter of an hour, and compare its average place with what it was at first, and you will say “No, it is coming in after all.” …

With love, I am always affectionately yours,

C.L. Dodgson

The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll is a treasure trove of humorous and heartening treats in its entirety. Complement it with Carroll on how to feed the mind, his four rules for digesting information, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland.

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