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06 AUGUST, 2014

Margaret Mead on Female vs. Male Creativity, the “Bossy” Problem, Equality in Parenting, and Why Women Make Better Scientists

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“In the long run it is the complex interplay of different capacities, feminine and masculine, that protects the humanity of human beings.”

Margaret Mead is celebrated as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, having not only popularized anthropology itself but also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. She brought the essential tools of anthropology — the art of looking, coupled with a great capacity for listening, for asking and answering questions — to her prolific university lectures, public talks, and presentations at various organizations that claimed her time and thought. In the sixteen-year period between 1963 and January of 1979, Redbook Magazine published Mead’s answers to the best questions she had received from audience members over her extensive career — questions about love, sex, religion, politics, social dynamics, gender equality, personal choices, and the human condition.

After Mead’s death in late 1978, her partner for the last twenty-two years, the anthropologist and Redbook editor Rhoda Metraux, collected the best of these questions and answers in Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library). As Metraux writes in the foreword, “Margaret Mead’s most winning gift was surely her capacity for immediate, zealous response… She took for granted that a sophisticated question required a sophisticated answer, but she never rebuffed the person who had to struggle to find words. One thing exasperated her: without hesitation she pricked the balloon of the pompous, pretentious questioner.”

With her characteristic blend of scientific rigor, humanistic wisdom, and strong personal conviction, Mead addresses a number of issues all the timelier today, but none with more prescience than the question of the shifting social norms and responsibilities for women and men.

In 1963, she offers a wonderfully dimensional answer to a question about why “the most outstanding creative people in all fields have been predominantly men,” folding into her rationale the still-radical assertion that women make naturally better scientists:

There are three possible positions one can take about male and female creativity. The first is that males are inherently more creative in all fields. The second is that if it were not for the greater appeal of creating and cherishing young human beings, females would be as creative as males. If this were the case, then if men were permitted the enjoyment women have always had in rearing young children, male creativity might be reduced also… The third possible position is that certain forms of creativity are more congenial to one sex than to the other and that the great creative acts will therefore come from only one sex in a given field.

There is some reason to believe that males may always excel — by just the small degree that makes the difference between good capacity and great talent — in such fields as music and mathematics, where creativity involves imposing form rather than finding it. There is also reason to believe that women have a slightly greater potential in those fields in which it is necessary to listen and learn, to find forms in nature or in their own hearts rather than to make entirely new ones; these fields could include certain areas of literature, and some forms of science that depend on observation and recognition of pattern, such as the study of living creatures or children or societies.

But Mead argues that the capacity for achievement is, above all, a matter of context, which is invariably a social construct — something that only intensifies our responsibility in creating a cultural context that allows all creative abilities to shine:

When women work in a creative field, even one that is particularly congenial to them, they must generally work with forms that were created by men, or else struggle against special odds to develop new forms. Until we have an educational system that permits enough women to work within any field — music, mathematics, painting, literature, biology and so on — so that forms which are equally congenial to both sexes are developed, we shall not have a fair test of this third possibility.

We do not know that what one sex has developed, members of the other sex can learn — from cookery to calculus. In those countries of the Eastern bloc in which women are expected to play an equal part with men in the sciences, great numbers of women have shown a previously unsuspected ability. We run a great risk of squandering half of our human gifts by arbitrarily denying any field to either sex or by penalizing women who try to use their gifts creatively.

In another question from December of the same year, Mead returns to the cultural differences across the Iron Curtain. A few months earlier, in June of 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had become the world’s first woman in space. It would be twenty years until the second, American astronaut Sally Ride, launched into the cosmos. Considering the cultural context Russian vs. American women have for achievement in space exploration, Mead writes:

On the question of woman cosmonauts, the Russians have been able to be realistic and practical. If we are going to do anything important with space, especially with space colonization, then we need to know at once how well women can withstand the new conditions. The American tendency to protect men’s sense of masculinity by keeping women out of things results — as does our handling of race — simply in an American loss.

Illustration from 'Blast-Off,' a visionary 1973 children's book celebrating gender equality and ethnic diversity in space exploration. Click image for more.

In November of 1965, Mead answers a question about women’s evolving identity outside “their purely feminine role” and how they are to seek fulfillment beyond the qualities of beauty and charm traditionally rewarded as the height of female accomplishment:

It is probable that far more women can achieve lasting contentment … where a woman can be honored as a person because she has borne and cared for children, has taught in a school or cared for the sick, has managed a business, has practiced a profession, has written poems.

[...]

When marriage was for life and when death was likely to come early, a woman’s career as wife and mother was often completely circumscribed by her husband’s career as provider and achiever.

Today, however, this is no longer true. We educate girls so that they are capable of greater intellectual accomplishment than our form of marriage and housekeeping permits them to use. Marriages are not always for life. And child rearing takes up only part of a woman’s adult life. These three major changes have refocused our attention on the question of woman’s identity and the relationship between the feminine arts and feminine accomplishments.

But as these changes were afoot in the 1960s — the cusp of monumental cultural change, propelled by such landmark events as the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the introduction of the oral contraceptive pill in the early 1960s — many bemoaned the “defeminization” of society. Mead handles this term with enormous semantic skepticism and addresses it in answering a question from March of 1966:

Defeminization [may] refer to role. Where men have been the traditional breadwinners, initially it seems defeminizing when women go out to earn their living. Where all secretaries were men, as at one time they were in the English-speaking world, it was defeminizing for a woman to take a position as a secretary. Most roles of this kind are a matter of convention in a particular society at a given time. Their specific definitions as “masculine” or “feminine” often have very little to do with the capacities of men and women.

There is a sense, however, in which certain changes in women’s roles may be regarded as dehumanizing. Traditionally women have had to consider their children’s long-time protection and well-being to be their central goal. Where a society, by its moral conventions and standards of living or by various coercive rules and regulations,* forces women to neglect any of the necessary forms of prenatal and maternal behavior, there may be a dehumanizing effect on the members of that society — both men and women.

Before WWII, pink was a color associated with masculinity, considered a watered-down red symbolizing the power generally associated with that color. Photographs from Korean visual artist JeongMee Yoon's 'Pink and Blue Projects.' Click image for details.

Mead’s words ring with particular poignancy half a century later, in the Lean In era and its crusade against “bossy”, as she considers how women can counter these claims of “defeminization,” rooted in old values and male ideals, by claiming a new context of evaluation:

Whenever women become part of an organization or an activity that is defined as aggressively and ruthlessly competitive, they must develop a style of behavior different from that of men in the same occupation if they are not to become “defeminized.” … In the conference room, women do better to insist on high standards of courtesy, comfort and consideration in a mixed group of which they are an integral part. In the long run it is the complex interplay of different capacities, feminine and masculine, that protects the humanity of human beings.

Mead’s prescience doesn’t end there — half a century before Shonda Rhimes addressed the issue in her superb commencement address, Mead considers the impossible standards for women as they try to reconcile inhabiting their capacities fully with fulfilling traditional roles. In June of 1967, upon being asked whether modern women are becoming “increasingly narcissistic,” Mead offers a brilliant answer at once thoughtful and feisty:

The ideal of the all-purpose wife is perhaps the most difficult any society has set for its women.

[...]

It is taken for granted that [a woman] ought to be able to do everything, however hard and tedious, and still give the impression that she spends her days pleasantly and restfully, that she has the leisure to keep her hair shining and smoothly waved, her skin soft and glowing, her clothes fashion-model perfect and her smile warm and welcoming.

[...]

Educated women have never before been asked to pay so high a price for the right to be wives and mothers. The demand that in spite of their hard work they should be soignée, perfectly turned out and always charming puts an almost intolerable burden on them. Calling them narcissistic adds insult to injury.

All of this brings up an inevitable question: In June of 1967, nearly fifty years before our present age of “Be a man. Take paternity leave,” Mead explores the changing role of men in parenting:

We are evolving a new style of fatherhood, in which young fathers share very fully with mothers in the care of babies and little children… One question one can ask is what effect this is likely to have on the next generation and the life of the wider community.

Illustration by Øyvind Torseter from 'My Father's Arms Are a Boat' by Stein Erik Lunde. Click image for details.

Noting that the invention of bottle feeding and instant baby food has enabled fathers to do for their children everything mothers can physically do, she peers into the broader cultural liberation that equal parenting makes possible, returning to the question of male and female creative achievement:

Perhaps we are in the process of developing a style of parenthood that has never before been attempted by a civilized people, a style that will set children of both sexes free of some of the constraints that have forced on them narrow occupational and personality choices because of narrow sex identification. On the other hand, we may be destroying the set of motives that have made men the great achievers and innovators of civilization. At the same time we may not be developing enough ambitious and highly motivated women to take the place of the men whose chief delight is their children. It is still an open question how our children, as adults, will respond to the challenges of the wider society to become active in its concerns and interests.

In answering two questions in August of 1975, Mead considers the necessary shifts in gender dynamics that would help both men and women ease into such cultural change rather than tensing against it. Once again, her words resound with extraordinary prescience and emanate the bittersweet reminder that however far we may have come in resolving these issues, they still gape raw and vulnerable for both sexes. Mead writes:

It will take genuine commitment, not to labels such as chauvinist or liberationist, but to the value of human relationships to work out new ways for men and women to live together.

[...]

It isn’t really a question of men’s “getting over” [the liberation of women], but of men’s and women’s finding a new balance in their relationships.

Illustration from the parodic 1970 children's book 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!' by New Yorker cartoonist Whitney Darrow, Jr. Click image for details.

Mead examines the broader social dynamics underpinning the shift, which apply equally to other, present-day areas of resistance to social change, from immigration to marriage equality:

Whenever there are changes in the way tasks and roles, obligations and privileges, opportunities and responsibilities are apportioned between the sexes, among people of different ages or among people of different national backgrounds or races, some group is bound to feel threatened. But the curious thing is that those who are proposing — insisting on — change tend to believe that those who feel threatened must be hostile, and often they themselves become hostile in response to what they believe they perceive.

I emphasize these feelings of threat and counterthreat because I think that today, in the face of the Women’s Liberation Movement, we are making far too much of the point of necessary anger on the part of women and inevitable hostility on the part of men.

Roles are changing for both women and men. Women are being pressured on every side to insist on living in a different way and to believe that their past status was brought about by male oppression. At the same time men who thought that they were being good husbands and fathers and were working hard to care for and protect the mothers of their children are being accused of being oppressors — and angry oppressors at that. The whole process of change is taking place in an atmosphere of the greatest bad temper and a tremendous amount of secondary hostility is being generated that in itself poses a threat to a good outcome.

[...]

We should begin to realize that both men and women need liberation from a life-style that is stultifying and destructive to both sexes.

But despite the challenges of her time — challenges still very much present today — Mead saw the future of gender dynamics with unflinching optimism:

I believe we are already beginning to create new manly and womanly roles that will permit a great deal more individual choice as well as better health for men and a fuller, more gratifying sense of themselves for women.

Above all, she championed a vision for unmooring human potentiality from imprisoning stereotypes about gendered creative ability — something Susan Sontag memorably echoed a decade later — and creating the best possible conditions for individual gifts, male and female, to blossom:

There is encouraging evidence [that society] is moving — gradually, at least — toward recognition of individual aptitudes and inclinations, away from the automatic assignment of tasks based on stereotyped expectations of the capacities of either sex.

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is excellent in its entirety, brimming with Mead’s farsighted wisdom on culture and society. Complement it with her equally prescient views on same-sex love and her symbolic dream about the meaning of life.

* Mead is most likely referring to anti-abortion laws, which she consistently condemned for forcing girls and women into motherhood who may be unfit, unwilling, or socioeconomically unequipped to be mothers. In answering a question on the subject in 1963, she asserted: “I believe that our abortion laws should be changed… I believe that we should not prescribe the conditions under which abortion is permissible… Wherever abortion is illegal, unnumbered girls and women, married and unmarried, run frightful risks…”

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06 AUGUST, 2014

Andy Warhol on the Joys of Virtual Relationships

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“It’s a wonderful arrangement: We don’t have to get each other’s bad morning breath, yet we have wonderful breakfasts together every morning like every other happy couple.”

When my mother was a high school student in a small town in Bulgaria, she had a long tele-romance with a boy she’d never met who lived a few neighborhoods over. They talked on the phone every evening, for hours on end, and wrote each other the kind of intensely emotional letters of which teenagers in love are capable. The distance between them was short, but it was a distance nonetheless — the kind of empty space full of possibility, in which a fantasy of love can grow. They could have easily met up, but chose not to. Then, after more than a year of this “virtual” romance, they finally decided to make a date in one of the town’s two cafés. The minute my mother walked in, before having even laid eyes on the boy, she knew the fantasy was over. After their real-life date, they never spoke again. The buildup of fantasy had been too great to withstand any reality. They had experienced an upside-down, inside-out version of Stendhal’s theory of “crystallization” in love.

Andy Warhol (August 6, 1928–February 22, 1987) describes something quite similar in his sort-of-memoir The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (public library) — the same 1975 compendium of reflections that gave us Warhol on love and sex. He describes his own pre-internet “virtual relationship”:

I have a telephone mate. We’ve had an on-going relationship over the phone for six years. I live uptown and she lives downtown. It’s a wonderful arrangement: We don’t have to get each other’s bad morning breath, yet we have wonderful breakfasts together every morning like every other happy couple. I’m uptown in the kitchen making myself peppermint tea and a dry, medium-to-dark English muffin with marmalade, and she’s downtown waiting for the coffee shop to deliver a light coffee and a toasted roll with honey and butter — heavy on the light, honey, butter, and seeds. We while and talk away in the sunny morning hours with the telephone nestled between head and shoulders and we can walk away or even hang up whenever we want to. We don’t have to worry about kids, just about extension phones. We have an understanding. She married a staple-gun queen twelve years ago and has been more or less waiting for the annulment to come through ever since, although she tells people who ask that he died in a mudslide.

Andy Warhol on Silver Factory telephone, 1966. Photograph by Billy Name.

The cynic might find it tragicomic, absurdist, pathetic even, but Warhol’s account is above all deeply human, brimming with the same conflicted desires that make us form relationships real and virtual in every sense of the word — from intense bonds to “strangers” we’ve encountered online but never in person to infatuations shrouded in fantasy that crumble as soon as the rays of reality penetrate them. The spectrum between our wants and our needs is vast, suffused with desires we are not ready, or willing, or able to fully feel. Who is to judge what makes one relationship “real” and one “virtual,” “unreal”? At the end of the day, we all just want to matter to one another — to another human being — and we go about it in our own, wonderfully varied ways, our right to which is sacred.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol contains many more of his musings on art, beauty, food, fashion, money, success, and more. Complement it with a graphic biography of Warhol, the illustrated cookbook on which he collaborated with his mother, his little-known 1959 children’s book, and this rare BBC interview with the artist.

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05 AUGUST, 2014

A Guide for the Perplexed: Mapping the Meaning of Life and the Four Levels of Being

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How to harness the uniquely human power of “consciousness recoiling upon itself.”

“Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her sublime meditation on how the art of getting lost helps us find ourselves, “and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.” But the maps we use to navigate that terra incognita — maps bequeathed to us by the dominant beliefs and standards of our culture — can often lead us further from ourselves rather than closer, leaving us discombobulated rather than oriented toward the true north of our true inner compass. A decade after his influential meditation on “Buddhist economics,” British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher set out to explore how we can improve those maps and use them to better navigate the meaning of life in his magnificent 1977 essay collection A Guide for the Perplexed (public library).

Schumacher begins with an apt anecdotal metaphor for how these misleading maps are handed to us:

On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “This is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a ‘living church.’ It is only the ‘living churches’ we don’t show.”

It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map that failed to show many of the things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance for the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity was complete; and no interpreter came along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.

Map of Palmanova, from Umberto Eco's 'Legendary Lands.' Click image for more.

Instead, Schumacher set out to “look at the whole world and try to see it” — which requires examining what it really means to map knowledge and meaning in life, including its invisible, unprovable layers. Peering into the history of “philosophical mapmaking,” he writes:

The maps of real knowledge, designed for real life, showed nothing except things which allegedly could be proved to exist. The first principle of the philosophical mapmakers seemed to be “If in doubt, leave it out,” or put it into a museum. It occurred to me, however, that the question of what constitutes proof was a very subtle and difficult one. Would it not be wiser to turn the principle into its opposite and say: “If in doubt, show it prominently“? After all, matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.

To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error but I maximize, at the same time, the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life.

'Isle of Knowledge' by Marian Bantjes. Click image for details.

To do that, however, we need a tolerance for doubt — more than that, an active embrace of uncertainty. Corroborating the idea that our compulsion for plans limits us, Schumacher cites the famous José Ortega y Gasset line that “life is fired at us point-blank” and writes:

We cannot say: “Hold it! I am not quite ready. Wait until I have sorted things out.” Decisions have to be taken that we are not ready for; aims have to be chosen that we cannot see clearly. This is very strange and, on the face of it, quite irrational. Human beings … hesitate, doubt, change their minds, run hither and thither, uncertain not simply of how to get what they want, but above all of what they want.

Mapping our wants is a core part of the human journey. If we don’t do that, Schumacher argues, we are “left in total perplexity.” But the art of existential mapmaking is a delicate one:

Mapmaking is an empirical art which makes use of a high degree of abstraction but none the less clings to reality with something akin to self-abandonment. Its motto, in a sense, is “Accept everything; reject nothing.” If something is there, if it has any kind of existence … it must be indicated on the map, in its proper place.

Graphic for Skepticism from 'Philographics,' a visual dictionary of philosophy. Click image for more.

But as Rationalism and Skepticism rose to power in philosophy, Schumacher argues they wrought a “very great impoverishment” in the ability to map abstraction, because these movements “strove with determination, not to say fanaticism, to get rid of the vertical dimensions [of being],” the distinction between lower- and higher-order ideals that traditional wisdom distinguished between. He writes:

Thus the maps ceased to be of any help to people in the awesome task of picking their way through life.

[...]

The loss of the vertical dimension meant that it was no longer possible to give an answer, other than a utilitarian one, to the question, “What am I to do with my life?” The answer could be more individualistic-selfish or more social-unselfish, but it could not help being utilitarian: either “Make yourself as comfortable as you can” or “Work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

[...]

Without the qualitative concepts of “higher” and “lower” it is impossible to even think of guidelines for living that lead beyond individual or collective utilitarianism and selfishness.

To remedy this flattening, Schumacher maps out four essential “Levels of Being” and proposes a model — a formula of sorts — for how they relate to one another and where they belong on the philosophical map: m marks the “mineral level” of inorganic matter; x is the “life force” of organic matter, which animates plants and animals, setting them apart from rocks; y denotes consciousness, which distinguishes a cat from catnip (though it has been argued, since Schumacher’s time, that plants may have a consciousness-like capacity); and z, which denotes the human capacity for self-awareness. Schumacher considers this uniquely human — though, one could presently argue, questionably so — faculty:

This power z has undoubtedly a great deal to do with the fact that man is not only able to think but is also able to be aware of his thinking. Consciousness and intelligence, as it were, recoil upon themselves. There is not merely a conscious being, but a being capable of being conscious of its consciousness; not merely a thinker, but a thinker capable of watching and studying his own thinking. There is something able to say “I” and to direct consciousness in accordance with its own purposes, a master or controller, a power at a higher level than consciousness itself. This power z, consciousness recoiling upon itself, opens up unlimited possibilities of purposeful learning, investigating, exploring, and of formulating and accumulating knowledge.

[...]

We must, however, take great care always to remember that such a word label is merely (to use a Buddhist phrase) “a finger pointing to the moon.” The “moon” itself remains highly mysterious and needs to be studied with the greatest patience and perseverance if we want to understand anything about man’s position in the Universe.

By this model, then, a rock is described as m, a plant as m + x, an animal as m + x + y, and a human being as m + x + y + z. Where scientific reductionism and philosophies like Skepticism fall short, Schumacher argues, is in dealing with the lowest level, m, and pretending the rest don’t exist. He writes:

To say that life is nothing but a property of certain peculiar combinations of atoms is like saying that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nothing but a property of a peculiar combination of letters. The truth is that the peculiar combination of letters is nothing but a property of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Illustration from 'Geometrical Psychology,' Benjamin Betts's 19th-century mathematical diagrams of consciousness. Click image for more.

It is from the ineffable power of z — “consciousness recoiling upon itself” — that our core humanity springs, and it is through harnessing this power that we can reach our highest potentiality along the vertical dimension:

Because of the power of self-awareness (z), [the human] faculties are indeed infinite; they are not narrowly determined, confined, or “programmed”… Once a human potentiality is realized, it exists. . . .

This “open-endedness” is the wonderful result of the specifically human powers of self-awareness (z), which, as distinct from the powers of life and consciousness, have nothing automatic or mechanical about them. The powers of self-awareness are essentially a limitless potentiality rather than an actuality. They have to be developed and “realized” by each human individual if he is to become truly human, that is to say, a person.

[...]

Self-awareness is the rarest power of all, precious and vulnerable to the highest degree, the supreme and generally fleeting achievement of a person, present one moment and all too easily gone the next.

But self-awareness, Schumacher implies, also makes us invariably aware of the other — of our fellow human beings — without whom our individual experience would be vacant of meaning. Once again, he rebels against reductionism:

The most “real” world we live in is that of our fellow human beings. Without them we should experience a sense of enormous emptiness; we could hardly be human ourselves, for we are made or marred by our relations with other people. The company of animals could console us only because, and to the extent to which, they were reminders, even caricatures, of human beings. A world without fellow human beings would be an eerie and unreal place of banishment; with neither fellow humans nor animals the world would be a dreadful wasteland, no matter how luscious its vegetation. To call it one-dimensional would not seem to be an exaggeration. Human existence in a totally inanimate environment, if it were possible, would be total emptiness, total despair. It may seem absurd to pursue such a line of thought, but it is surely not so absurd as a view which counts as “real” only inanimate matter and treats as “unreal,” “subjective,” and therefore scientifically nonexistent the invisible dimensions of life, consciousness, and self-awareness.

He returns to the progression between the levels and considers our ultimate human potentiality:

At the level of animal … the power of doing, organizing and utilizing is immeasurably extended; there is evidence of an “inner life,” of happiness and unhappiness, confidence, fear, expectation, disappointment and so forth. Any being with an inner life cannot be a mere object: it is a subject itself, capable even of treating other beings as mere objects, as the cat treats the mouse.

At the human level, there is a subject that says “I” — a person: another marked change from passivity to activity, from object to subject. To treat a person as if he or she were a mere object is a perversity, not to say a crime. No matter how such a person may be weighed down and enslaved by circumstances, there is always the possibility of self-assertion and rising above circumstances… There is no definable limit to his possibilities, even though there are practical limitations which he has to recognize and respect.

Illustration from Ralph Steadman's visual biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Click image for more.

A Guide for the Perplexed is excellent in its entirety. Pair it with Schumacher on how to stop prioritizing goods over people and Alan Watts on becoming who you really are.

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