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16 OCTOBER, 2014

The History Manifesto: How to Eradicate the Epidemic of Short-Termism and Harness Our Past in Creating a Flourishing Future

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A beautiful case for why our flourishing requires that we move from pursuing value to cultivating values.

I spend a significant amount of time on ideas at the intersection of the timeless and the timely, something I find to be of growing urgency in a culture such as ours, where the tyrannical reverse-chronology of newsfeeds implies that the latest, being literally at the top, is also of the greatest importance and meaning. We often lump the thinkers of the past under the grab-bag term “history” — a term that has come to be increasingly dismissive as irrelevant amid our novelty-fetishism. And yet some of humanity’s greatest thinkers, who have been dead for decades or centuries or millennia, have explored with remarkable prescience and insight issues of intense importance today — be it Seneca on busyness two thousand years before our present cult of productivity or Susan Sontag on the dynamics of visual culture online decades before the modern social web existed or Kierkegaard on the psychology of bullying and cybertrolling in 1847 or Tolstoy and Gandhi on the truth of the human spirit. Asking the eternal questions — about happiness, about justice, about how to live a meaningful life — is an immutable part of the human experience. To presume that we and we alone, perched atop our tiny slice of history, have the most valid answers is to cheat ourselves of the rich and ennobling record of human experience upon which our civilization is founded.

That’s precisely what Brown University history professor Jo Guldi and Harvard historian David Armitage explore in The History Manifesto (public library) — a beautifully argued case for why we need to eradicate the present epidemic of short-termism, a disease that “has many practitioners but few defenders,” and shift to long-view narratives that ensure not only the survival but also the creative, intellectual, political, environmental, and spiritual flourishing of our civilization. (Although the manifesto may celebrate the value of the past, it isn’t beholden to yesteryear’s baggage — the book is also available as a free digital text under a Creative Commons license.)

Guldi and Armitage open unambiguously:

A specter is haunting our time: the specter of the short term.

We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterized by the shortage of long-term thinking… Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years. There are few opportunities to shake those projects loose from their short-term moorings. It can hardly seem worthwhile to raise questions of the long term at all.

'The Histomap' by John Sparks (1931) from 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

They cite legendary futurist Steward Brand’s founding statement for The Long Now Foundation, of which I am a proud supporter:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed — some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “the long term” is measured at least in centuries.

A proper relationship with the past, Guldi and Armitage argue, empowers the essential elasticity of time that is so central to free will and to our ability to make sound decisions, in business and in life:

Nimble people, whether activists or entrepreneurs … depend on an instinctual sense of change from past to present to future as they navigate through their day-to-day activities… Regardless of age or security of income, we are all in the business of making sense of a changing world. In all cases, understanding the nexus of past and future is crucial to acting upon what comes next.

Educational institutions, they argue, are both uniquely situated as bastions of long-term thinking and particularly vulnerable to the epidemic of short-termism. Nalanda University in India, founded as a Buddhist institution more than 1,500 years ago, may still be a hearth of learning, but it also must exist in a culture where the average lifespan of a modern corporation is a mere 75 years and the vast majority of startups don’t survive past their fifth year. That universities are increasingly subjected to the expectations of businesses, Guldi and Armitage suggest, is of enormous cultural peril:

Universities … are the carriers of traditions, the guardians of deep knowledge. They should be the centers of innovation where research takes place without regard to profit or immediate application.

[...]

The peculiar capacity of the university to foster disinterested inquiries into the long term may be as endangered as long-term thinking itself… As the medieval university mutated into the modern research university, and as private foundations become subject to public control and funding, the goals of the humanities were increasingly tested and contested. For at least the last century, wherever the humanities have been taught or studied there has been debate about their “relevance” and their “value.” Crucial to the defense of the humanities has been their mission to transmit questions about value — and to question values — over hundreds, even thousands, of years. Any search for antidotes to short-termism must begin with them.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic (1780) from 'The Book of Trees.' Click image for details.

In the third chapter, titled “The Proliferation of Mythology,” Guldi and Armitage point to one particularly perilous aspect of our cultural narrative — that of reductionist and misleading myths. (The great Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner memorably captured the power of myth in 1962, calling it “at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man” and a “ready-made means of externalizing human plight.”) The authors write:

The abundance of false stories in our time is one of the major reasons that we are in a crisis of short-term thinking. In an era of simplistic solutions to problems with rising sea-levels, governance, or inequality, few people can talk authoritatively about the big picture. The proliferation of reductionist stories about the past has a history, like anything else. Nightmare scenarios and fundamentalist mythologies about climate, governance, and inequality began to proliferate around the same time that historians began to retreat to shorter and shorter time scales.

As the Short Past came to dictate conversations about history, longue-durée understanding began to look, by contrast, like an antique mode of story-telling, something performed only by patriarchs or amateurs, unsuited to a modern student adept at using evidence or argument. This led to the charge that social history had abandoned all interest in politics, power, and ideology, leading its practitioners instead to “sit somewhere in the stratosphere, unrooted in reality.” Increasingly, the Short Past was defined as not only one way to look at history, but the only way to look at history.

'A New Chart of History' by Joseph Priestley (1769) from '100 Diagrams that Changed the World.' Click image for details.

Particularly since the 1970s, Guldi and Armitage argue, such short-termism has resulted in nothing short of a moral crisis, blinding us to alternative futures and producing “habits of microscopic attention that culminated in a sense of practical irrelevance” and that caused the mutual abandonment of the humanities (which are, after all, what makes us human) and the public.

As somebody particularly drawn to mid-twentieth-century thinkers like Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, and Alan Watts, I find particularly pause-giving Guldi and Armitage’s observation that during that period, historians and intellectuals played an active role in the public sphere — something that undoubtedly not only benefited public life, but also enriched these thinkers’ ideas to make them precisely as enduring as they are. Today, the notion of a “public intellectual” is, outside of a small coterie, practically paradoxical. Our idols are not scholars and people who think for a living but performers and entrepreneurs, people who do for a living, and do at a rapid pace, with productive immediacy. No wonder short-termism is the monoculture of our time.

Guldi and Armitage advocate for a new breed of historians and history-minded thinkers who are concerned with “restoring the tight-woven cloak of stories that helps to shelter a culture with a sophisticated understanding of its past” and who use the past to illuminate the future and speak truth to present power:

The new historians of the longue durée should be inspired to use history to criticize the institutions around us and to return history to its mission as a critical social science. History can provide the basis for a rejection of anachronisms founded on deference to longevity alone. Thinking with history — but only with long stretches of that history — may help us to choose which institutions to bury as dead and which we might want to keep alive.

[...]

History, with its rich, material understanding of human experience and institutions and its apprehension of multiple causality, is reentering the arena of long-term discussions of time where evolutionary biologists, archaeologists, climate scientists, and economists have long been the only protagonists. Today, we desperately need an arbiter for these mythological histories, capable of casting out prejudice, reestablishing consensus about the actual boundaries of the possible, and in so doing opening up a wider future and destiny for modern civilizations. History as a discipline can be that referee.

A visual history of Nobel Prizes and laureates. Click image for details.

In the final section, Guldi and Armitage capture precisely what is at stake and why the role of history in shaping the future is so full of promise and possibility:

Responding to the call for a public future demands some rethinking the way we look at the past… Answering the call for a public future also means writing and talking about the past and the future in public, in such a way that ideas can be easily shared.

They outline the three things essential for writing such future-forward history:

  1. A need for new narratives capable of being read, understood, and engaged by non-experts
  2. An emphasis on visualization and digital tools
  3. A fusion between the big and the small, the “micro” and the “macro,” that harnesses the best of archival work on the one hand and big-picture work about issues of common concern on the other

Seven decades after Vannevar Bush presaged the rise of “a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” Guldi and Armitage write:

History’s relationship with the public future lies in developing a longue-durée contextual background against which archival information, events, and sources can be interpreted… [This] requires the services of scholars trained in looking at the past, who can explain where things came from, who can examine the precise evidence of the Short Past and the broader picture of big data and the longue durée, and who are dedicated to serve the public through responsible thinking about the nexus of past, present, and future.

Illustration from the graphic biography of Karl Marx. Click image for details.

But rather than nihilistic criticism of contemporary culture, the book is above all a clarion call for taking action, for our era is uniquely positioned to cultivate a sound and nourishing relationship with the past:

An era defined by a crisis of short-termism may be a particularly good time to start rethinking attitudes towards the past. Many histories have been written with the express purpose of offering a window into the future, and some — especially long-term histories of capitalism and the environment — are very clear about what they offer.

This, Guldi and Armitage argue, would require the dedication of people “unafraid of generating and circulating digestible narratives” — for, lest we forget, the disseminators of ideas are the unsung heroes of innovation and progress — who would respond to “a public need to make sense of our common past.” These people, they point out, need not be professional historians — we ought to, as legendary humanist John Franklin Jameson put it in 1912, think of history “not as the property of a small guild of professional colleagues, but as the rightful heritage of millions.”

The History Manifesto is excellent and urgently necessary in its totality. Complement it with Judith Butler’s fantastic commencement address on the value of the humanities.

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07 OCTOBER, 2014

Marcus Aurelius on What His Father Taught Him About Humility, Honor, Kindness, and Integrity

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What it takes to attain “the mark of a soul in readiness.”

Marcus Aurelius is considered the last of Ancient Rome’s Five Good Emperors, but he is perhaps best remembered for his contributions to philosophy as one of the most influential Stoics. His proto-blog Meditations (public library; free download) is as much a portal into his inner life as a record of his “personal micro-culture” — the myriad influences he absorbed and integrated into what became his own philosophical ideas, which endure as pillars of Western thought.

From his greatest teacher, Quintus Junius Rusticus, he learned “to read attentively” rather than skimming and not to be satisfied with superficial knowledge; from the politician Claudius Maximus, another one of his mentors, “a personality in balance: dignity and grace together”; from his brother Severus, “to help others and be eager to share, not to be a pessimist, and never to doubt your friends’ affection for you”; from his mother, generosity and an “inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it.” But perhaps his greatest influence was his adopted father — after his biological father’s death, Aurelius was raised by his paternal grandfather Marcus Annius Verus, whom he came to consider his father and whose values of humility, honor, nonjudgmental kindness, and personal integrity made a lifelong impression on the young man.

Aurelius enumerates his father-figure’s virtues:

Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence.

Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public good.

His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved.

A sense of when to push and when to back off.

[...]

His ability to feel at ease with people — and put them at their ease, without being pushy.

Aurelius makes a special note of his fatherly grandfather’s dedication to true critical thinking and his refusal to let people-pleasing warp his integrity:

His searching questions at meetings. A kind of single-mindedness, almost, never content with first impressions, or breaking off the discussion prematurely.

[...]

His restrictions on acclamations — and all attempts to flatter him… And his attitude to men: no demagoguery, no currying favor, no pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or a prey to fads.

A related virtue, one at least as rare today as it was in Ancient Rome, was that he neither glorified privilege nor romanticized poverty:

Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness

[...]

The way he handled the material comforts that fortune had supplied him in such abundance — without arrogance and without apology. If they were there, he took advantage of them. If not, he didn’t miss them.

No one ever called him glib, or shameless, or pedantic. They saw him for what he was: a man tested by life, accomplished, unswayed by flattery, qualified to govern both himself and them.

Those who suffer from debilitating chronic pain would appreciate this particular superhuman feat:

The way he could have one of his migraines and then go right back to what he was doing — fresh and at the top of his game.

Aurelius summarizes his father’s virtues:

You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness — indomitable.

Meditations, particularly the translation by Gregory Hays, is excellent in its entirety. An inferior translation is in the public domain and thus available as a free download. Complement it with Montaigne on how to live, a similarly timeless trove of wisdom some fifteen centuries after Marcus Aurelius, then revisit Seneca on the shortness of life — perhaps the greatest Stoic meditation of all.

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03 OCTOBER, 2014

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Three Rules of Writing and Four Elements of Style: Timeless Advice from 1914

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“Persuasion — the highest form of persuasion at any rate — cannot be achieved without a sense of beauty.”

Between 1913 and 1914, British writer, critic, and literary tastemaker Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, better known under the pseudonym Q, delivered a series of twelve lectures on writing at Cambridge University, where he had been appointed to the King Edward VII Professorship of English Literature the previous year. (Fittingly, his rooms in the university’s First Court were known as the “Q-bicle.”) His inaugural lectures, spanning everything from style to ethics and concerned with making “appropriate, perspicuous, accurate, persuasive writing” a hallmark of a worthy literary education, were eventually published as On the Art of Writing (public library) — a compendium of some of the most lucid and timeless advice on writing ever put into words, also available as a free ebook, and a fine addition to famous authors’ best advice on the craft.

Playing off a phrase from Francis Bacon’s famous essay on studies“reading maketh a full man” — Quiller-Couch begins by considering the value of reading to young minds:

Literature is a nurse of noble natures, and right reading makes a full man in a sense even better than Bacon’s; not replete, but complete rather, to the pattern for which Heaven designed him. In this conviction, in this hope, public spirited men endow Chairs in our Universities, sure that Literature is a good thing if only we can bring it to operate on young minds.

Acknowledging that “some doubt does lurk in the public mind” as to whether writing and the art of literature “can, in any ordinary sense, be taught,” Quiller-Couch counters:

That the study of English Literature can be promoted in young minds by an elder one, that their zeal may be encouraged, their tastes directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged — this, I take it, no man of experience will deny.

Portrait of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch by Henry Lamb (Royal Institution of Cornwall)

He goes on to outline three guiding principles that make this quickening and enlargement of vision possible.

1. SURRENDER TO THE WORK ABSOLUTELY

In studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely; that is to say, with minds intent on discovering just what the author’s mind intended; this being at once the obvious approach to its meaning … and the merest duty of politeness we owe to the great man addressing us. We should lay our minds open to what he wishes to tell, and if what he has to tell be noble and high and beautiful, we should surrender and let soak our minds in it.

With a wink to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism about education and knowledge, Quiller-Couch makes an aside of remarkable prescience in our present age of lazy and indignant quasi-opinions:

There is no surer sign of intellectual ill-breeding than to speak, even to feel, slightingly of any knowledge oneself does not happen to possess… That understanding of literature which we desire in our … gracefully-minded youth will include knowledge in varying degree, yet is itself something distinct from knowledge.

'Flights of Mind' by Vita Wells from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

Returning to his first principle of absolute surrender to a work of art, Quiller-Couch cites Emerson’s famous remark that great writers make us “feel most at home” and, lamenting “the memorizing of much that passes for knowledge,” further considers the true value of a literary education:

As we dwell here between two mysteries, of a soul within and an ordered Universe without, so among us are granted to dwell certain men of more delicate intellectual fibre than their fellows — men whose minds have, as it were, filaments to intercept, apprehend, conduct, translate home to us stray messages between these two mysteries, as modern telegraphy has learnt to search out, snatch, gather home human messages astray over waste waters of the Ocean.

If, then, the ordinary man be done this service by the poet, that (as Dr Johnson defines it) ‘he feels what he remembers to have felt before, but he feels it with a great increase of sensibility‘; or even if, though the message be unfamiliar, it suggests to us, in Wordsworth’s phrase, to ‘feel that we are greater than we know,’ I submit that we respond to it less by anything that usually passes for knowledge, than by an improvement of sensibility, a tuning up of the mind to the poet’s pitch; so that the man we are proud to send forth from our Schools will be remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit for knowledge, than for being something, and that ‘something,’ a man of unmistakable intellectual breeding, whose trained judgment we can trust to choose the better and reject the worse.

2. BREAK FREE OF LIMITING RULES AND DOGMAS

In a sentiment that John Steinbeck would come to echo decades later in the disclaimer to his six rules of writing, Quiller-Couch turns to the second of his three principles — the idea that even though style, “that curiously personal thing,” can’t be “readily brought to rule-of-thumb tests,” we ought to study the elements of its most sublime manifestations without subscribing to any dogmatic rules about those elements. He writes:

[Even though style may be] so easily be suspected of evading all tests, of being mere dilettantism… I rebuke this suspicion by constantly aiming at the concrete, at the study of such definite beauties as we can see presented in print under our eyes; always seeking the author’s intention, but eschewing, for the present at any rate, all general definitions and theories, through the sieve of which the particular achievement of genius is so apt to slip… Definitions, formulae (some would add, creeds) have their use in any society in that they restrain the ordinary unintellectual man from making himself a public nuisance with his private opinions. But they go a very little way in helping the man who has a real sense of prose or verse. In other words, they are good discipline for some thyrsus-bearers, but the initiated have little use for them.

With this, he arrives at the heart of literature:

Literature is not an abstract Science, to which exact definitions can be applied. It is an Art rather, the success of which depends on personal persuasiveness, on the author’s skill to give as on ours to receive.

3. HONOR THE ALIVENESS OF LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE

Quiller-Couch’s third and final principle builds on the second. Admonishing against the human tendency to “treat all innovation as suspect” — a fear frequently channeled through dogmatic rules about right and wrong, and certainly something central to the techno-alarmism to which every age is prone — points to “the courage of the young” as the hopeful antidote to this tendency and writes:

As Literature is an Art and … not to be pondered only, but practiced, so ours is a living language and therefore to be kept alive, supple, active in all honorable use.

'Paper Typewriter' by Jennifer Collier from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment particularly prescient in the context of today’s seemingly unending death tolls for the novel, he adds:

I would warn you against despising any form of art which is alive and pliant in the hands of men… You may or may not deplore the forms that literature is choosing now-a-days; but there is no gainsaying that it is still very much alive… Believe, and be glad that Literature and the English tongue are both alive.

The celebration and preservation of that aliveness, he argues, is our shared responsibility:

Carlyle, in his explosive way, once demanded of his countrymen, ‘Shakespeare or India? If you had to surrender one to retain the other, which would you choose?’ … In English Literature, which, like India, is still in the making, you have at once an Empire and an Emprise. In that alone you have inherited something greater than Sparta. Let us strive, each in his little way, to adorn it.

[...]

English Literature being (as we agreed) an Art, with a living and therefore improvable language for its medium or vehicle, a part — and no small part — of our business is to practice it.

In another lecture, Quiller-Couch considers the best practices of this living art:

The perfection of style is variety in unity, freedom, ease, clearness, the power of saying anything, and of striking any note in the scale of human feelings, without impropriety… Your gamut needs not to be very wide, to begin with. The point is that within it you learn to play becomingly.

Returning to his original ideal of “appropriate, perspicuous, accurate, persuasive writing,” he points out that the desire for Appropriateness is so obvious that it warrants no explanation and turns to the other three epithets, beginning with Perspicuity:

I shall waste no words on the need of this: since the first aim of speech is to be understood. The more clearly you write the more easily and surely you will be understood… Further … the more clearly you write the more clearly you will understand yourself.

He writes of Accuracy:

After all, what are the chief differentiae between man and the brute creation but that he clothes himself, that he cooks his food, that he uses articulate speech? Let us cherish and improve all these distinctions.

By perusing “these twin questions of perspicuity and accuracy,” Quiller-Couch argues, “we may almost reach the philosophic kernel of good writing.” And yet his final ideal, Persuasiveness, is also the one that binds the parts together into the potent totality of great writing:

Persuasiveness … embraces the whole — not only the qualities of propriety, perspicuity, accuracy … but many another, such as harmony, order, sublimity, beauty of diction; all in short that — writing being an art, not a science, and therefore so personal a thing — may be summed up under the word Charm. Who, at any rate, does not seek after Persuasion? It is the aim of all the arts and, I suppose, of all exposition of the sciences; nay, of all useful exchange of converse in our daily life. It is what Velasquez attempts in a picture, Euclid in a proposition, the Prime Minister at the Treasury box, the journalist in a leading article, our Vicar in his sermon. Persuasion, as Matthew Arnold once said, is the only true intellectual process. The mere cult of it occupied many of the best intellects of the ancients, such as Longinus and Quintilian, whose writings have been preserved to us just because they were prized. Nor can I imagine an earthly gift more covetable by you … than that of persuading your fellows to listen to your views and attend to what you have at heart.

But persuasion, Quiller-Couch suggests, is an art rather than an act and it cannot be mastered before coming to terms with its very artness:

Persuasion — the highest form of persuasion at any rate — cannot be achieved without a sense of beauty.

The sense of beauty he speaks of, however, is a disposition of the spirit rather than a concern with superficial ornamentation. In fact, in his final lecture — the source of the oft-cited “murder your darlings” aphorism, often misattributed to William Faulkner — Quiller-Couch admonishes against mistaking the beauty of style for mere decoration:

Style … is not — can never be — extraneous Ornament… If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

A century later, all twelve lectures in On the Art of Writing remain absolutely indispensable. Complement them with this evolving library of notable wisdom on the craft, including George Orwell on the four questions a great writer must ask herself, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller, Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style.

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