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Joseph Brodsky on the Greatest Antidote to Evil

“What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”

Joseph Brodsky on the Greatest Antidote to Evil

“One has to assume that every man is a thinking reed and a noble nature, even if only part-time,” Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt in their poignant correspondence about good, evil, and human nature. Looking back on ten years of Brain Pickings and the ten most important things I learned in this decade of reading, writing, and living, I not only agree with McCarthy wholeheartedly, but would raise her and insist that we must assume a basic human goodness in everyone, as an existential imperative. And yet evil undeniably exists. So how do we reconcile these parallel truths and continue to live with radiance not only undimmed by the existence of darkness but defiantly intent on increasing the world’s store of light?

That’s what the Nobel-winning Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940–January 28, 1996) explored when he faced the Williams College graduating class of 1984. A century after his compatriot Dostoyevsky made his case for why there are no people — a century that had seen two world wars and Russia’s descent into a communist dictatorship — Brodsky considers evil and its most powerful antidote. The speech, eventually included in the 1987 Brodsky anthology Less Than One: Selected Essays (public library), has only swelled in timeliness in the decades since, as we watch evil attempt to grab power and we strain every nasty nerve to counter it.

Joseph Brodskly
Joseph Brodskly

Brodsky addresses the next generation:

No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” That, of course, indicates its secondary nature, but the comfort one may derive from this observation gets dulled by its frequency.

In a sentiment informed in large part by his longing for a counterpoint to the dictatorial communist groupthink that had consumed his homeland, as it had mine, Brodsky adds:

The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin — not even by a minority.

Bearskin by Maurice Sendak, from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Brodsky believes the most robust mode of resistance to evil is what he irreverently refers to as “the famous business of turning the other cheek” — those verses from the Sermon on the Mount, which influenced the three titans of nonviolence: Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, who discussed these principles in their fantastic forgotten correspondence about violence and human nature, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who built upon them his ethic of love and nonviolent resistance. In a passage of acute timeliness today, Brodsky considers why these timeless tenets of unrelenting goodwill have fallen out of favor in the modern world:

The fact that the world today is what it is suggests, to say the least, that this concept is far from being cherished universally. The reasons for its unpopularity are twofold. First, what is required for this concept to be put into effect is a margin of democracy. This is precisely what 86 percent of the globe lacks. Second, the common sense that tells a victim that his only gain in turning the other cheek and not responding in kind yields, at best, a moral victory, i.e., quite immaterial. The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of your body to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort of conduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that moral victory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity.

In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas on agency and victimhood, and one which Brodsky would expand upon four years later in what remains the greatest commencement address of all time, he adds:

The moral victory itself may not be so moral after all, not only because suffering often has a narcissistic aspect to it, but also because it renders the victim superior, that is, better than his enemy. Yet no matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.

(Or, as the case has been in the overwhelming majority of human history, when one man starts to think that he is better than one woman — or, even more alarmingly, than the whole of womankind.)

Brodsky argues that such warping of intention and outcome arises from a misinterpretation and misapplication of the Sermon on the Mount. He cites three verses in particular, tied by moral and logical cohesion:

But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Brodsky peers into the deeper implication:

The meaning of these lines is anything but passive for it suggests that evil can be made absurd through excess; it suggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance, which devalues the harm. This sort of thing puts a victim into a very active position, into the position of a mental aggressor. The victory that is possible here is not a moral but an existential one.

Art by Shaun Tan from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy talesr

Writing two decades after Susan Sontag’s abiding admonition against interpretation, Brodsky considers the perils of our long cross-cultural history of misinterpreting these verses and reappropriating their intended meaning:

Ethics based on this faultily quoted verse have changed nothing in post-Gandhi India, save the color of its administration. From a hungry man’s point of view, though, it’s all the same who makes him hungry. I submit that he may even prefer a white man to be responsible for his sorry state if only because this way social evil may appear to come from elsewhere and may perhaps be less efficient than the suffering at the hand of his own kind. With an alien in charge, there is still room for hope, for fantasy.

Similarly in post-Tolstoy Russia, ethics based on this misquoted verse undermined a great deal of the nation’s resolve in confronting the police state. What has followed is known all too well: six decades of turning the other cheek transformed the face of the nation into one big bruise, so that the state today, weary of its violence, simply spits at that face. As well as at the face of the world.

Ever the master of nuance, Brodsky uses this cautionary tale of misconstruing the notion of turning the other cheek to returns to his central point about countering evil:

I must admit that I feel somewhat uneasy talking about these things: because turning or not turning that other cheek is, after all, an extremely intimate affair. The encounter always occurs on a one-to-one basis. It’s always your skin, your coat and cloak, and it is your limbs that will have to do the walking. To advise, let alone to urge, anyone about the use of these properties is, if not entirely wrong, indecent. All I aspire to do here is to erase from your minds a cliché that harmed so many and yielded so little. I also would like to instill in you the idea that as long as you have your skin, coat, cloak, and limbs, you are not yet defeated, whatever the odds are.

Complement this particular portion of Brodsky’s wholly terrific Less Than One with Maya Angelou on courage and facing evil and Plato’s abiding wisdom on how to negotiate our parallel capacities for good and evil, then revisit Brodsky on how to develop your taste in reading and his six rules for playing the game of life like a winner.

Find other enduringly ennobling commencement addresses in this ongoing archive, which includes masterpieces like Toni Morrison on the rewards of true adulthood (Wesleyan, 2004), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Tom Wolfe on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual (Boston University, 2000), and Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the meaningful life (Naropa University, 2015).


Goethe’s Graphically Daring Diagrams of Color Perception

How a misguided refutation of Newton inspired artists and philosophers with a new visual aesthetic.

“To harmonize the whole is the task of art,” Wassily Kandinsky wrote in 1910 as he contemplated the spiritual element in art and the three tasks of the artist. This notion of harmony was more than a metaphor for Kandinsky — he argued for an actual sonic quality of color, in which he believed absolutely: “The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would try to express bright yellow in the bass notes, or dark lake in the treble.”

Kandinsky’s conviction was inspired by Goethe’s theory of color and emotion, published exactly a century earlier as part of the great German poet’s polymathic explorations of art and science. (A few years earlier, those explorations had led Goethe to use poetry to popularize the cloud classification system, which we continue to use today.)


Goethe’s ideas about color were an attempt to refute Newton’s theory. Although most of them were eventually invalidated by science, their creative value remained of intense interest to artists like Kandinsky and philosophers like Wittgenstein.


Perhaps most important, they paved the way for a new aesthetic of visual representations of scientific concepts and phenomena, soon reflected in visionary works like Popular Science founder Edward Livingston Youmans’s 1854 diagrams of how chemistry works and the eccentric Victorian mathematician Oliver Byrne’s graphic interpretation of Euclid’s elements.

Color wheel designed by Goethe in 1809

Goethe believed that there were only two pure colors, blue (“a darkness weakened by light”) and yellow (“a light which has been dampened by darkness”), but he was particularly interested in morphology — the study of forms. His theories of color were also heavily rooted in morphology — from his color wheel, a symmetrical arrangement of six colors against Newton’s asymmetry of seven, to his geometric diagrams of how the relationship between darkness and light shapes color.



More than a century before Fritz Kahn pioneered infographics and long before graphic design emerged as a discipline, Goethe’s diagrams, recently digitized by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and Sweden’s Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, stand as a graphic voice far ahead of its time.


Complement with Goethe’s timely thoughts on the discipline of discernment in your media diet, then revisit the story of how contemporary color pioneer Josef Albers revolutionized visual culture and the art of seeing.

HT Open Culture


10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings

Fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.

10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings

I remember my first awareness of mortality as a child in Bulgaria. I was nine and my father was relaying an anecdote from his youth. I asked him when it had taken place. With unconcerned casualness, he replied: “About a decade ago.” I was astonished that people could segment their lives into blocks this big — my own life hadn’t yet lasted a decade. In realizing that “a decade ago” I hadn’t existed — the self I now so vividly experienced daily was then a nonentity — I also realized that in several more of those ten-year blocks, my dad, and eventually I, will cease to exist.

With dad, year 0
With dad, year 0

After one such time-block, I left Bulgaria for America, lured by the liberal arts education promise of being taught how to live. As the reality fell short of that promise, I began keeping my own record of what I was reading and learning outside the classroom in mapping this academically unaddressed terra incognita of being.

All the while, I was working numerous jobs to pay my way through school. What I was learning at night and on weekends, at the library and on the internet — from Plato to pop art — felt too uncontainably interesting to keep to myself, so I decided to begin sharing these private adventures with my colleagues at one of my jobs. On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. Halfway through my senior year of college, juggling my various jobs and academic course load, I took a night class to learn coding and turned the short weekly email into a sparse website, which I updated manually every Friday, then, eventually, every weekday.

The site grew as I grew — an unfolding record of my intellectual, creative, and spiritual development. At the time, I had no idea that this small labor of love and learning would animate me with a sense of purpose and become both my life and my living, nor that its seven original readers would swell into several million. I had no idea that this eccentric personal record, which I began keeping in the city where Benjamin Franklin founded the first subscription library in America, would one day be included in the Library of Congress archive of “materials of historical importance.”

And now, somehow, a decade has elapsed.

Because I believe that our becoming, like the synthesis of meaning itself, is an ongoing and dynamic process, I’ve been reluctant to stultify it and flatten its ongoing expansiveness in static opinions and fixed personal tenets of living. But I do find myself continually discovering, then returning to, certain core values. While they may be refined and enriched in the act of living, their elemental substance remains a center of gravity for what I experience as myself.

I first set down some of these core beliefs, written largely as notes to myself that may or may not be useful to others, when Brain Pickings turned seven (which kindred spirits later adapted into a beautiful poster inspired by the aesthetic of vintage children’s books and a cinematic short film). I expanded upon them to mark year nine. Today, as I round the first decade of Brain Pickings, I feel half-compelled, half-obliged to add a tenth learning, a sort of crowning credo drawn from a constellation of life-earned beliefs I distilled in a commencement address I delivered in the spring of 2016.

Here are all ten, in the order that they were written.

From year seven:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

    Most important, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as important, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

From year nine:

  1. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.

And as I round the decade:

  1. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that great Rilkean life-expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive. Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order. Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.

Since such a time machine of reflection would get nowhere without the substance that fueled it, here are ten of the things I most loved reading and writing about in this first decade of Brain Pickings:

  1. Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

  2. Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity

  3. Telling Is Listening: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Magic of Real Human Conversation

  4. James Baldwin on Freedom and How We Imprison Ourselves

  5. Cry, Heart, But Never Break: A Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Loss and Life

  6. Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers

  7. James Gleick on How Our Cultural Fascination with Time Travel Illuminates Memory, the Nature of Time, and the Central Mystery of Human Consciousness

  8. The Magic of the Book: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will

  9. Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss

  10. What Makes a Person: The Seven Layers of Identity in Literature and Life


Abraham Lincoln on Living with Loss: His Magnificent Letter of Consolation to a Grief-stricken Young Woman

On trusting that time will transmute the unbearable pain of grief into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.”

Abraham Lincoln on Living with Loss: His Magnificent Letter of Consolation to a Grief-stricken Young Woman

One of the noblest leaders in Western civilization, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) led a difficult life punctuated by tragedy — his mother’s death when he was only nine, the death of two sons in his lifetime, and his own assassination at the dawn of his second term as president, slain by a Confederate fundamentalist shortly after a speech announcing Lincoln’s intention to advance African Americans’ right to vote.

In February of 1862, just as Lincoln was making major progress on the abolition of slavery, his beloved eleven-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever — a plague-like bacterial infection the vaccine for which was still decades away. Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave then employed as chief designer for Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe and close to the family, would later recall watching the president stand “in silent, awe-stricken wonder” at the foot of the enormous rosewood bed where the boy lay lifeless, Lincoln’s “genius and greatness weeping over love’s idol lost.”

That December, just after the Emancipation Proclamation for which Lincoln had fought so hard was finally issued, loss struck again when one of his dearest friends, William McCullough, was killed during a night charge in Mississippi.


A vital characteristic of a great spiritual, civic, or political leader is the ability — or is it the unrelenting willingness? — to transcend one’s own experience, even at its most acute, and rise from the depths of personal pain in the service of another’s welfare. That’s precisely what Lincoln did for his country, and what he did in his magnificent letter of consolation to Fanny McCullough, William’s daughter. Later included in the altogether indispensable Library of America anthology Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (public library), the letter is a masterwork of sympathetic solace on par with Einstein’s moving letter to the bereaved queen of Belgium.

Drawing on his own lifelong dance with love and loss, 53-year-old Lincoln writes to the bereaved young woman on December 23, 1862:

Dear Fanny

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend
A. Lincoln

Complement with Meghan O’Rourke on the messiness of mourning and learning to live with loss and Cry, Heart, But Never Break, an uncommonly tender Danish illustrated meditation on loss and life, then revisit a great Zen teacher’s advice on navigating grief.


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