Alan Watts: Why Modern Civilization is a Vicious Circle

Alan Watts The Wisdom of Insecurity

“When we compare human with animal desire,” writes philosopher Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, “we find many extraordinary differences.” Watts offers an interesting perspective on an age-old argument — that our society has its priorities messed up, that we need to live in the moment.

The animal tends to eat with its stomach, and the man with his brain. When the animal’s stomach is full, he stops eating, but the man is never sure when to stop. When he has eaten as much as his belly can take, he still feels empty, he still feels an urge for further gratification. This is largely due to anxiety, to the knowledge that a constant supply of food is uncertain. Therefore eat as much as you can while you can. It is due, also, to the knowledge that, in an insecure world pleasure is uncertain. Therefore the immediate pleasure of eating must be exploited to the full, even though it does violence to the digestion.

Human desire tends to be insatiable. We are so anxious for pleasure that we can never get enough of it. We stimulate our sense organs until they become insensitive, so that if pleasure is to continue they must have stronger and stronger stimulants. In self-defence the body gets ill from the strain, but the body wants to go on and on. The brain is in pursuit of happiness, and because the brain is much more concerned about the future than the present it conceives happiness as the guarantee of an indefinitely long future of pleasures. Yet the brain also knows that it does not have an indefinitely long future, so that, to be happy, it must try to crowd all of the pleasures of paradise and eternity into the span of a few years.

This is why modern civilization is in almost every respect a vicious circle.

The root of this frustration is that we live for the future. Yet the future is never, as we move forward it becomes the present.

To pursue (the future) is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

Thus the “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse-providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions.

Watts argues that one of the ills of modern society is that we believe sleep to be a waste of time, that life is short. Interestingly, we’d rather watch TV and chase our fantasies than rest.

Animals spend much of their time dozing and idling pleasantly, but, because life is short, human beings must cram into the years the highest possible amount of consciousness, alertness, and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure.

Our quest for never-ending stimulation comes with a high cost. We become “incapable of real pleasure, insensitive to the most acute and subtle joys of life.” The more common the pleasure the less it interests us. We’d rather watch TV.

Watts tears into our wants and makes us question our desires.

Generally speaking, the civilized man does not know what he wants. He works for success, fame, a happy marriage, fun, to help other people, or to become a “real person.” But these are not real wants because they are not actual things. They are the by-products, the flavours and atmospheres of real things-shadows which have no existence apart from some substance. Money is the perfect symbol of all such desires, being a mere symbol of real wealth, and to make it one’s goal is the most blatant example of confusing measurements with reality.

Based on this we cannot, says Watts, call ourselves materialistic. We are in love with not things, but “measures, not solids but surfaces.”

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is one of those books that makes you question not only yourself but the fabric of civilization.

John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books

“You know that I voluntarily communicated this method to you, as I have done to many others, to whom I believed it would not be unacceptable.” 

In 1685 English physician and philosopher John Locke published “Méthode nouvelle de dresser des recueils,” which explains his unique method of indexing his common-place book. Later translated from French into English as A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, with a preface by Monsieur Le Clerc, who augments and clarifies the work.

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Locke’s Method

Locke first began keeping common place books in 1652, his first year at Oxford. His system, as unique at the time as it is today, can be found on pages [vi] and [1] in A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books (image below).

In his letter to Monfieur Toinard, which serves as the basis for A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, he explains the index, which contains a line for every letter of the alphabet and a subdivision along the lines of vowels:

I take a white paper book of what size I think fit, I divide the two first pages which face one another, by parallel lines, into five and twenty equal parts, with black lead; after that, I cut them perpendicular by other lines, which I draw from the top of the page to the bottom, as you may see (below) … Afterwards I mark with ink every fifth line of the twenty five that I just now spoke of. … I put at the beginning of every fifth space, or before the middle, one of the twenty letters which are defign’d for this use; and a little farther in every space one of the vowels in their natural order. This is the index or table of the whole volume, be it of what size forever.

John Locke
John Locke

Locke continues:

” If I would put anything in my Common-place Book, I find out a head to which I may refer it. Each head ought to be some important and essential word to the matter in hand; and in that word regard is to be had to the first letter, and the vowel that follows it; for upon these two letters depends the use of the index.

[...]

When I meet with any thing worth putting into my Common-Place-Book, I presently look for a proper Head. Suppose for Example, the Head were Epistola; I look in the Index the First Letter which the Vowel that follows, which in this Case E I. If there is found any Number in the Space marked E I, that shows me the space designed for Words which begin with E, and whose Vowel that immediately follows is I, I must refer to the word Epistola in the Page what I have to take notice of, I write the Head in pretty large Letters, so that the principal Word is found in the Margin, and I continue the Line in writing on what I have to remark. I constantly observe this Method, that nought but the Head appear in the Margin, and on and on without carrying the Line again into the Margin. When one has thus preserv’d the margin clear, the Heads, present themselves at First Sight.”

[...]

When the two pages designed for one class are full, I look forwards for the next backside of a leaf that is blank. … At the tip of this new backside of a leave, I set down the number of the page I filled last. By these numbers, which refer to one another, the first whereof is at the bottom of one page, and the second is at the beginning of another, one joins matter that is separated, as if there was nothing between them.

[...]
Every time I put a number at the bottom of a page, I put it also into the index; but when I put only a V, I make no addition to the index; the reason whereof is plain. If the head is a monosyllable, and begins with a vowel, that vowel is at the same time both the first letter of the word and the characteristic vowel. Therefore I write the word Ars in A a, and Os in O o.

People in the Renaissance broke texts into fragments and used these to assemble and connect. It was, perhaps, the original remix culture and ultimate foundation of creativity.

Locke also advises having several books, “one for each science upon which one makes collections, at least two for the heads, to which we may refer to all of our knowledge, viz. , moral philosophy and natural; and perhaps a third, which may be called the knowledge of signs, which relates to the use of words, and is much more extent than mere criticism.”

At the time Locke’s method offered a solution to one of the biggest problems of commonplace books: how many pages to assign in a blank notebook to a new subject. By means of an example, one of Newton’s notebooks, “Certain Philosophical Questions,” which he began at Cambridge in 1664, listed 37 heads with a rather unsuccessful guess at the number of pages each would require. Locke’s method required no pre-assigned pages, which made it more useful for both the diversity of information one kept and the size of the repository.

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Not all were fans of Locke’s Method

In a paper read before the Statistical Society at the close of the year 1840, and published in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Henry John Porter, commented:

It is strange, indeed, that such a man as Locke, impressed with the value of method, should ever have adopted so imperfect and arbitrary a plan, or having once adopted it, that he should not have improved upon it’ for, surely, nothing can be more opposed to all method than the grouping of subjects together without any other bond of connection than an initial letter and a first vowel.

[...]

The object to Locke’s “Common-place book” is this,—that a number of totally different subjects are entered in the same page, or succession of pages, which subjects are held together by no other relation than that of an initial letter and first vowel. It is true, that so long as these entries are few in number, there is little loss of time in refereeing to them’ but if they become very numerous, many pages may be passed in review before the desired passage meets the eye. But even this inconvenience is not of sufficient moment to require the adoption of an improved method, where each of the several entries refers to a different subject. It is only from a great number of passages referring to the same topic as scattered through a succession of pages that the inconvenience of this plan is severely felt. It was this obvious inconvenience which induced me to adopt the improvement of devoting a separate page, or series of pages, to each separate subject. But even here I soon found the same objection to apply which lay against the common-place book of Locke. As long as the entries referring to any particular topic were few in number, my common-place book answered well-enough; but when the subject began to occupy many pages, I found that if I wanted to make use of it, to digest the materials which I had collected, to analyze them, or to write about them, I had to re-arrange the whole, and to place extracts or facts of my own observing which related to one part of my subject, or threw light upon any isolated question connected with it, by themselves, that by viewing them in connection I might better understand their bearing, and estimate their value. Thus the initial labour of inscribing the several extracts or facts in my common-place book had to be repeated with regard to all those parts of my subject to which I was induced to pay particular attention.

 

Locke’s method was used for at least one hundred years.

Michel Foucault on the Panopticon Effect

(The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. Bowring, vol. lV. 1843. 172– 3).
Plan of the Panopticon

In his study of the origins of the prison, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault explored the invention of the Panopticon, a way for a guard to see others without being seen himself.

Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery.

[...]

He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.

This permanent visibility became a way to exercise power and in so doing induce “in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility.” Foucault writes:

Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow …

You need not force, only observe to “constrain the convict to good behaviour, the madman to clam, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to observation of the regulations.”

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

Eventually guards discovered that, after a period of consistent monitoring and prompt punishment against perpetrators, inmates began to regulate their own behaviour. They couldn’t see a guard and yet they were regulated by conscience itself. An external reality had thus become internalized and became habitual.

Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison is a fascinating study into the origins of the prison.

Commonplace Books as a Source for Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity

Common Place Book

There is an old saying that the truest form of poverty is “when if you have occasion for any thing, you can’t use it, because you know not where it is laid.”

The flood of information is nothing new.

“In fact,” the Harvard historian Ann Blair writes in her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, “many of our current ways of thinking about and handling information descend from patterns of thought and practices that extent back for centuries.” Her book explores “the history of one of the longest-running traditions of information management— the collection and arrangement of textual excerpts designed for consultation.” She calls them reference books.

Large collections of textual material, consisting typically of quotations, examples, or bibliographical references, were used in many times and places as a way of facilitating access to a mass of texts considered authoritative. Reference books have sometimes been mined for evidence about commonly held views on specific topics or the meanings of words, and some (encyclopedias especially) have been studied for the genre they formed.

[...]

No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new. Nonetheless, the basic methods we deploy are largely similar to those devised centuries ago in early reference books. Early compilations involved various combinations of four crucial operations: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing, which I think of as the four S’s of text management. We too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but now we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques.

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Florilegium and Common Places

One of the original methods to keep, share, and remix ideas was the florilegium, which were compilations of excerpts from other writings taken mostly from religion, philosophy, and sometimes classical texts. The word florilegium literally means a gathering of flowers — flos (flowers) and legere (to gather).

The leading Renaissance humanists, who experienced perhaps the first wave of information overload, were fans of common place books as a method of study and note-taking. Generally these notebooks were kept private and filled with the likes of the classical Roman authors such as Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca.

“In his influential De Copia (1512),” writes professor Richard Yeo, “Erasmus advised that an abundant stock of quotations and maxims from classical texts be entered under various loci (places) to assist free-flowing oratory.”

Arranged under ‘Heads’ and recorded as ‘common-places’ (loci communes), these commonplace books could be consulted for speeches and written compositions designed for various situations — in the law court, at ceremonial occasions, or in the dedication of a book to a patron. Typical headings included the classical topics of honour, virtue, beauty, friendship, and Christian ones such as God, Creation, faith, hope, or the names of the virtues and vices.”

Regurgitation wasn’t the aim but rather combinatorial creativity as people were encouraged to improvise on themes and topics. Gathering raw material alone, in this case information, is not enough. We must transform it into something new. It is in this light that Seneca advised copying the bee and Einstein advised combinatorial play.

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A move away from Memory

Yeo comments:

In all sorts of learning, and especially in the study of languages, the memory is the treasury or store-house but the judgment the disposer, which ranges in order whatever it hath drawn from memory: but left the memory should be oppressed or over-burden’d then by too many things, order and method are to be called into its assistance. So that when we extract any thing out of an author which is like to be of future use, we may be able to find it without any trouble. For it would be to little purpose to spend our time in the reading of books, if we could not apply what we read to our life.

Commonplace books, during the Renaissance, were used to enhance the memory.

This reflected the ancient Greek and Roman heritage. In his Topica, Aristotle formulated a doctrine of ‘places’ (topoi or loci) that incorporated his ten categories. A link was soon drawn between this doctrine of ‘places’ (which were, for Aristotle, ‘seats of arguments’, not quotations from authors) and the art of memory. Cicero built on this in De Oratore, explaining that ‘it is chiefly order that gives distinctness to memory’; and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria became an influential formulation. This stress on order and sequence was the crux of what came to be known as ‘topical memory’, cultivated by mnemonic techniques (‘memoria technica’) involving the association of ideas with visual images. These ideas, forms of argument, or literary tropes were ‘placed’ in the memory, conceived in spatial terms as a building, a beehive, or a set of pigeon holes. … In the ancient world, the practical application of this art was training in oratory; yet Cicero stressed that the good orator needed knowledge, not just rhetorical skill, so that memory had to be trained to store and retrieve illustrations and arguments of various kinds. Although Erasmus distrusted the mnemonic arts, like all the leading Renaissance humanists, he advocated the keeping of commonplace books as an aid to memory.

While calling memory ‘the store-house of our ideas,’ John Locke recognized its limitations. On the one hand it was an incredible source of knowledge. Yet, on the other, it was weak and fragile. He knew that over time it faded and became harder to retrieve, which made it less valuable. In something the internet age would be proud of, Locke’s focus is retrieval, not recall. His system was a form of pre-industrial Google.

Locke saw commonplace books, not as a means to improve memory but as an aid to assist recollection of complex information gathered over years from multidisciplinary subjects. If only Farnam Street existed in his day.

Yoo writes:

Locke sometimes refers to his bad memory. This might seem to endorse the humanist conception of commonplace books as memory aids, but Locke does not believe that memory can be trained in ways that guarantee transfer across subjects and situations. This separates him from many of his near contemporaries for whom the commonplace book was still a stimulus in training memory to recall and recite selected quotations.

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Creativity

In his essay, Extraordinary Commonplaces, Robert Darnton comments on the practice at the time which was to copy pithy passages into notebooks, “adding observations made in the course of daily life.”

Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. … The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite.

Common place books are thus to be mined for information, not only on how people thought but also as a source of creativity. Darnton continues:

By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. The elective affinities that bound their selection into patterns reveal an epistemology — a process of knowing — at work below the surface

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The Art of Putting Things in Order

As for what to write in the common place books themselves, Le Clerc advised that we: (1) extract only those things which are “choice and excellent,” either for the substance or the expression; and (2) don’t write out too much and mark the place where we found it so we can come back to it:

At the entrance indeed upon any study, when the judgment is not sufficiently confirm’d, nor the stock of knowledge over large, so that the students are not very well acquainted with what is worth collecting, scarce anything is extracted, but what will be useful but for a little while, because as the judgment grows ripe, the things are despis’d which before were had in esteem. Yet it is of service to have collections of this kind, both that students may learn the art of putting things in order, as also the better retain what they read.

But here are two things carefully to be observed; the first is, that we extract only those things which are choice and excellent, either for the matter itself or else for the elegancy of the expression, and not what comes next; for that labour would abate our desire to go on with our readings; neither are we to think that all those things are to be writ out which are called … sentences. Those things alone are to be picked out, which we cannot so readily call to mind, or for which we should want proper words and expressions.

The second thing which I would have taken notice of, is, that you don’t write out too much, but only what is most worthy of observation, and to mark the place of the author from whence you extracted it, for otherwise it will cause the loss of too much time.

Neither ought anything to be collected whilst you are busied in reading; if by taking the pen in hand the thread of your reading be broken off, for that will make the reading both tedious and unpleasant.

The places we design to extract from are to be marked upon a piece of paper, that we may do it after we have read the book out; neither is it to be done just after the first reading of the book, but when we have read it a second time.

These things it’s likely may seem minute and trivial, but without ‘em great things cannot subsist; and these being neglected cause very great confusion both of memory and judgment, and that which above all things is most to be valued, loss of time.

Some who otherwise were men of most extraordinary parts, by the neglect of these things have committed great errors, which if they had been so happy as to have avoided, they would have been much more serviceable to the learned world, and so consequently to mankind.

And in good truth, they who despise such things, do it not so much from any greater share of wit that they have than their neighbours, as from what of judgment; whence it is that they do not well understand how useful things order and method are.

Locke also advised “to take notice of a place in an author, from whom I quote something, I make use of this method: before I write anything, I put the name of the author in my common-place book, and under that name the title of the treatise, the size of the volume, and the time and place of its edition, and the number of pages that the whole book contains.”

This number of pages serves me for the future to mark the particular treatise and the edition I made use of. I have no need to make the place, otherwise than in setting down the number of the page from whence I have drawn what I have wrote, just above the number of pages contained in the whole volume.

(Image source)

Seneca on Gathering Ideas And Combinatorial Creativity

Bees

“Combinatory play,” said Einstein, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

Ruminating on the necessity of both reading and writing, so as not to confine ourselves to either, Seneca in one of his Epistles, advised that we gather ideas, sift them, and combine them into a new creation.

We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says,

Pack close the flowing honey,
And swell their cells with nectar sweet.

It is not certain whether the juice which they obtain from the flowers forms at once into honey, or whether they change that which they have gathered into this delicious object by blending something therewith and by a certain property of their breath. For some authorities believe that bees do not possess the art of making honey, but only of gathering it … Certain others maintain that the materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation,— whereby separate elements are united into one substance.

But I must not be led astray into another subject than that which we are discussing. We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us,— in other words, our natural gifts,— we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.

Montaigne, perhaps echoing Seneca, reasoned that we must take knowledge and make it our own, Seneca comments:

We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power. Let us loyally welcome such foods and make them our own, so that something that is one may be formed out of many elements, just as one number is formed of several elements whenever, by our reckoning, lesser sums, each different from the others, are brought together. This is what our mind should do: it should hide away all the materials by which it has been aided, and bring to light only what it has made of them. Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.

The Loeb Classic Library collection of Seneca’s Epistles in three volumes (1-65, 66-92, and 92-124), should be read by all in its entirety. Of course, if you don’t have time to read them all, you can read a heavily curated version of them.

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Sir William Osler: A Way of Life

"No mind, however dull, can escape the brightness that comes from steady application."
“No mind, however dull, can escape the brightness that comes from steady application.”

In several of his speeches, Charlie Munger has referred to Sir William Osler, the Canadian physician and co-founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital. The first to bring medical students out of the classroom and directly into the hospital for clinical training, he is often described as the “Father of Modern Medicine.”

Osler was a fascinating, accomplished, and erudite man who liked to quote Thomas Carlyle’s prescription that “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly in the distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.”

As I followed up on Osler, I quickly came to his speech “A Way of Life,” delivered to students at Yale University in 1913. True to Carlyle’s prescription, Osler proposes that men work steadily towards success and fulfillment in life by taking the world in strict 24-hour increments, letting neither yesterday nor tomorrow be a worry today. (He called it “Life in day-tight compartments.”)

Below are some of my favorite excerpts from this wonderful talk. I recommend you read it slowly and read it twice.

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While we are all fools to some extent, Osler expounds on the value of putting one foot in front of the other and slowly progressing.

I wish to point out a path in which the way-faring man, though a fool, cannot err; not a system to be worked out painfully only to be discarded, not a formal scheme, simply a habit as easy or as hard to adopt as any other habit, good or bad … The way of life that I preach is a habit to be acquired gradually by long and steady repetition: It is the practice of living for the day only, and for the day’s work; Life in day-tight compartments.

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Tomorrow is uncertain and yesterday is history. Osler advises that we need to find peace in the moment.

The workers in Christ’s vineyard were hired by the day; only for this day are we to ask for our daily bread, and we are expressly bidden to take no thought for the morrow.

To the modern world, these commands have an Oriental savor, counsels of perfection akin to certain of the Beatitudes, stimuli to aspiration, not to action. I am prepared on the contrary to urge the literal acceptance of the advice … since the chief worries of life arise from the foolish habit of looking before and after. As a patient with double vision from some transient unequal action of the muscles of the eye finds magical relief from well-adjusted glasses, so, returning to the clear binocular vision of today, the over-anxious student finds peace when he looks neither backward to the past nor forward to the future.

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In De Oratore, Cicero tells the story of how Temistocles was approached by someone offering to teach him the “art of memory,” which would enable him to remember everything. Temistocles, however, tells the man that he would be more grateful if the man could tell him how to forget. In a similar vein Osler advises unshackling yourself from the daily problems of life.

As a vaccine against all morbid poisons left in the system by the infections of yesterday, I offer “a way of life.” Undress your soul at night; not by self-examination, but by shedding, as you do your garments, the daily sins, whether of omission or of commission, and you will wake a free man, with a new life.

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Long before grit became a subject of study, Osler echoed the advice of Tyler Cowen, that one of the keys to success is the ability to sit and focus your attention and wrestle with your problems.

Realise that you have sixteen waking hours, three or four of which at least should be devoted to making a silent conquest of your mental machinery. Concentration, by which is grown gradually the power to wrestle successfully with any subject, is the secret of successful study. No mind, however dull, can escape the brightness that comes from steady application … Shut closer in hour-tight compartments, with the mind directed intensely upon the subject in hand, you will acquire the capacity to do more and more, you will get into training; and once the mental habit is established, you are safe for life … Concentration is an art of slow acquisition, but little by little the mind is accustomed to habits of slow eating and careful digestion …

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Osler counselled living a quiet and peaceful life, as this would help you with your responsibilities.

The quiet life in day-tight compartments will help you to bear your own and others’ burdens with a light heart.

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Want more Osler? Check out this collection of his addresses and letters, and this biography.

Ruth Chang: How to Make Hard Choices

"A world full of only easy choices would enslave us to reasons."
“A world full of only easy choices would enslave us to reasons.”

Ruth Chang is a philosopher at Rutgers University with an interesting background. After graduating with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and dipping her toe into the legal world, she went off to Oxford University to study philosophy. Her work focuses on how we make the decisions that shape our lives.

In her recent TED talk (video below), she talks about how we make hard choices and in the process offers a framework for making decisions consistent with who we truly are.

What makes a hard choice hard is the way alternatives relate.

In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall. You agonize over whether to stay in your current job in the city or uproot your life for more challenging work in the country because staying is better in some ways, moving is better in others, and neither is better than the other overall. We shouldn’t think that all hard choices are big. Let’s say you’re deciding what to have for breakfast. You could have high fiber bran cereal or a chocolate donut. Suppose what matters in the choice is tastiness and healthfulness. The cereal is better for you, the donut tastes way better, but neither is better than the other overall, a hard choice. Realizing that small choices can also be hard may make big hard choices seem less intractable. After all, we manage to figure out what to have for breakfast, so maybe we can figure out whether to stay in the city or uproot for the new job in the country.

In hard choices we tend to prefer the safest option.

… I can tell you that fear of the unknown, while a common motivational default in dealing with hard choices, rests on a misconception of them. It’s a mistake to think that in hard choices, one alternative really is better than the other, but we’re too stupid to know which, and since we don’t know which, we might as well take the least risky option. Even taking two alternatives side by side with full information, a choice can still be hard. Hard choices are hard not because of us or our ignorance; they’re hard because there is no best option.

Now, if there’s no best option, if the scales don’t tip in favor of one alternative over another, then surely the alternatives must be equally good, so maybe the right thing to say in hard choices is that they’re between equally good options. That can’t be right. If alternatives are equally good, you should just flip a coin between them, and it seems a mistake to think, here’s how you should decide between careers, places to live, people to marry: Flip a coin. There’s another reason for thinking that hard choices aren’t choices between equally good options.

Our search for physics like exactitude and our desire to quantify everything into scientific thinking combine to lead us astray.

We unwittingly assume that values like justice, beauty, kindness, are akin to scientific quantities, like length, mass and weight. Take any comparative question not involving value, such as which of two suitcases is heavier? There are only three possibilities. The weight of one is greater, lesser or equal to the weight of the other. Properties like weight can be represented by real numbers — one, two, three and so on — and there are only three possible comparisons between any two real numbers. One number is greater, lesser, or equal to the other. Not so with values. As post-Enlightenment creatures, we tend to assume that scientific thinking holds the key to everything of importance in our world, but the world of value is different from the world of science. The stuff of the one world can be quantified by real numbers. The stuff of the other world can’t.

Another way to see things is that they are in the same ball-park. This is what happens in hard choices, the alternatives are “on a par.”

When alternatives are on a par, it may matter very much which you choose, but one alternative isn’t better than the other. Rather, the alternatives are in the same neighborhood of value, in the same league of value, while at the same time being very different in kind of value. That’s why the choice is hard.

From the Independent on Sunday, Feb 19, 1995
From the Independent on Sunday, Feb 19, 1995

We create reasons.

Understanding hard choices in this way uncovers something about ourselves we didn’t know. Each of us has the power to create reasons. Imagine a world in which every choice you face is an easy choice, that is, there’s always a best alternative. If there’s a best alternative, then that’s the one you should choose, because part of being rational is doing the better thing rather than the worse thing, choosing what you have most reason to choose. … A world full of only easy choices would enslave us to reasons. … (However) when alternatives are on a par, the reasons given to us, the ones that determine whether we’re making a mistake, are silent as to what to do. It’s here, in the space of hard choices, that we get to exercise our normative power, the power to create reasons for yourself …

When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. … This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.

When you face hard choices you need to look inside yourself.

… Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us.

If you don’t exercise your normative powers you become a drifter.

Drifters allow the world to write the story of their lives. They let mechanisms of reward and punishment — pats on the head, fear, the easiness of an option — to determine what they do. So the lesson of hard choices reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for, and through hard choices, become that person.

Hard choices are part of what makes us human.

Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition, that the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and it is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that’s why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.

Here is Ruth’s full TED talk:

Stephen Cave: The Four Stories we tell Ourselves About Death

Stephen Cave
In a great interview with NPR, Philosopher Stephen Cave delves into the simple question: Why are human beings afraid to die?

In answering Cave, the author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, illuminates the four stories we tell ourselves about death.

I think all children are philosophers. All children are asking themselves these questions. We make sense of the world by telling ourselves stories. And in particular, we tell ourselves stories to make sense of things that don’t otherwise seem to make sense, that defy understanding.

And one of the big problems is of course death. So we tell ourselves these stories to help us cope with the fear of death.

Specifically, we tell ourselves 4 stories.

1. The Elixir Story

… in every culture in human history there is some story of an elixir of life or a fountain of youth that promises we can live forever. But actually if we look back through history, the one thing that all elixir drinkers have in common is they’re all now 6-foot under.

2. The Resurrection Story

It accepts that I’m going to have to die, but says despite that I can rise up and I can live again. But our desire to believe this story is so deeply embedded that we are reinventing it again for the scientific age.

3. The Soul Story

But some people are skeptical about the idea of living on as a body, it’s so messy. Instead they dream of living on as a soul. Now this is the third basic kind of immortality story, the idea that when you die you can leave your body behind and live on as a spirit.

4. The Immortality Story

Like Achilles, for example. The great Greek warrior who fought and died in Troy knowing that if he did so he would still be spoken about in years to come. And here we are 3,000 years later telling his story. Or for example, the idea that you can live on through your children or through your nation or through your gene pool.

The fear of death is always there, despite these stories.

… these worries go through our minds all the time, there’s no question there. And it’s a struggle to keep them in perspective. To separate the fear that is natural from the fear that is actually rational. I mean, if you think, for most of the evolution of our species we were in the forest or in the jungle in dangerous situations where really every single day could be our last. We’re built to be scared. But because we’ve got these massive brains, we can generalize and abstract and so we can worry about things that aren’t even right in front of us. And so the sense that one day it’s all going to be over is always with us.

Cave believes it’s helpful to see life as being like a book. In his TED talk (below) he says:

Just as a book is bounded by its covers by a beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death. And even though a book is limited by a beginning and end, it can encompass distant landscapes, exotic figures, fantastic adventures. And even though a book is limited by a beginning and end, the characters within it know no horizons.

They only know the moments that make up their story, even when the book is closed. And so the characters of a book are not afraid of reaching the last page. Long John Silver is not afraid of you finishing your copy of “Treasure Island.” And so it should be with us. Imagine the book of your life, its covers, its beginning and end, your birth and your death. You can only know the moments in between, the moments that make up your life.

It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.

Still curious? Cave is the author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, an inquiry into humanity’s irrational resistance to the inevitability of death.