Commonplace Books as a Source for Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity

Common Place Book

“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.”

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.


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.

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.


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

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.

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Seneca on Gathering Ideas And Combinatorial Creativity


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

Ruminating on the 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 …


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.


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.

Epictetus on our Attachment to our Own Interest


A memorable passage from Epictetus in The Discourses.

Be not deceived, every animal is attached to nothing so much as to its own interest. Whatever then seems to hinder his way to this, be it a brother or a father or a child, the object of his passion or his own lover, he hates him, guards against him, curses him. For his nature is to love nothing so much as his own interest; this is his father and brother and kinsfolk and country and god. At any rate, when the gods seem to hinder us in regard to this we revile even the gods and overthrow their statues and set fire to their temples, as Alexander ordered the shrines of Asclepius to be burnt when the object of his passion died. Therefore if interest, religion and honour, country, parents and friends are set in the same scale, then all are safe; but if interest is in one scale, and in the other friends and country and kindred and justice itself, all these are weighed down by interest and disappear. For the creature must needs incline to that side where ‘I’ and ‘mine’ are; if they are in the flesh, the ruling power must be there; if in the will, it must be there; if in external things, it must be there.

If then I identify myself with my will, then and only then shall I be a friend and son and father in the true sense. For this will be my interest—to guard my character for good faith, honour, forbearance, self-control, and service of others, to maintain my relations with others. But if I separate myself from what is noble, then Epicurus’ statement is confirmed, which declares that ‘there is no such thing as the noble or at best it is but the creature of opinion’.

Maya Angelou: The Most Important Virtue

"I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it."
“I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it.”

The legendary poet and writer Maya Angelou passed recently at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was 86.

I first came across Angelou because of an odd habit she had: she liked to work in dirty hotel rooms. Sadly it took her passing for me to look a little deeper.

In a 1977 interview by journalist Judith Rich, found in Conversations with Maya Angelou, she reflects on the meaning of life and the most important virtue.

I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it. You must live and life will be good to you, give you experiences. They may not all be that pleasant, but nobody promised you a rose garden. But more than likely if you do dare, what you get are the marvelous returns. Courage is probably the most important of the virtues, because without courage you cannot practice any of the other virtues, you can’t say against a murderous society, I oppose your murdering. You got to have courage to do so. I seem to have known that a long time and found great joy in it.

Still curious? Check out: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou.

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

"Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less."
“Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less.”

Morality fascinates us. The stories we enjoy the most, whether fictional (as in novels, television shows, and movies) or real (as in journalism and historical accounts), are tales of good and evil. We want the good guys to be rewarded— and we really want to see the bad guys suffer.

So writes Paul Bloom in the first pages of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. His work, proposes that “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. They do not come from the mother’s knee … ”

What is morality?

Even philosophers don’t agree on morality. In fact, a lot of people don’t believe in morality at all.

To settle on some working terminology, Bloom writes:

Arguments about terminology are boring; people can use words however they please. But what I mean by morality—what I am interested in exploring, whatever one calls it— includes a lot more than restrictions on sexual behavior. Here is a simple example (of morality):

A car full of teenagers drives slowly past an elderly woman waiting at a bus stop. One of the teenagers leans out the window and slaps the woman, knocking her down. They drive away laughing.

Unless you are a psychopath, you will feel that the teenagers did something wrong. And it is a certain type of wrong. It isn’t a social gaffe like going around with your shirt inside out or a factual mistake like thinking that the sun revolves around the earth. It isn’t a violation of an arbitrary rule, such as moving a pawn three spaces forward in a chess game. And it isn’t a mistake in taste, like believing that the Matrix sequels were as good as the original.

As a moral violation, it connects to certain emotions and desires. You might feel sympathy for the woman and anger at the teenagers; you might want to see them punished. They should feel bad about what they did; at the very least, they owe the woman an apology. If you were to suddenly remember that one of the teenagers was you, many years ago, you might feel guilt or shame.

Punching someone in the face.

Hitting someone is a very basic moral violation. Indeed, the philosopher and legal scholar John Mikhail has suggested that the act of intentionally striking someone without their permission— battery is the legal term —has a special immediate badness that all humans respond to. Here is a good candidate for a moral rule that transcends space and time: If you punch someone in the face, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

Not all morality has to do with with what is wrong. “Morality,” Bloom says, “also encompasses questions of rightness.”

Morality from an Evolutionary Perspective

If you think of evolution solely in terms of “survival of the fittest” or “nature red in tooth and claw,” then such universals cannot be part of our natures. Since Darwin, though, we’ve come to see that evolution is far more subtle than a Malthusian struggle for existence. We now understand how the amoral force of natural selection might have instilled within us some of the foundation for moral thought and moral action.

Actually, one aspect of morality , kindness to kin, has long been a no-brainer from an evolutionary point of view. The purest case here is a parent and a child: one doesn’t have to do sophisticated evolutionary modeling to see that the genes of parents who care for their children are more likely to spread through the population than those of parents who abandon or eat their children.

We are also capable of acting kindly and generously toward those who are not blood relatives. At first, the evolutionary origin of this might seem obvious: clearly, we thrive by working together— in hunting, gathering, child care, and so on— and our social sentiments make this coordination possible.

Adam Smith pointed this out long before Darwin: “All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.”

This creates a tragedy of the commons problem.

But there is a wrinkle here; for society to flourish in this way, individuals have to refrain from taking advantage of others. A bad actor in a community of good people is the snake in the garden; it’s what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls “subversion from within.” Such a snake would do best of all, reaping the benefits of cooperation without paying the costs. Now, it’s true that the world as a whole would be worse off if the demonic genes proliferated, but this is the problem, not the solution— natural selection is insensitive to considerations about “the world as a whole.” We need to explain what kept demonic genes from taking over the population, leaving us with a world of psychopaths.

Darwin’s theory was that cooperative traits could prevail if societies containing individuals who worked together peacefully would tend to defeat other societies with less cooperative members— in other words, natural selection operating at the group, rather than individual, level.

Writing of a hypothetical conflict between two imaginary tribes, Darwin wrote (in The Descent of Man): “If the one tribe included … courageous, sympathetic and faithful members who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other.”

“An alternative theory,” Bloom writes, “more consistent with individual-level natural selection:”

is that the good guys might punish the bad guys. That is, even without such conflict between groups, altruism could evolve if individuals were drawn to reward and interact with kind individuals and to punish— or at least shun —cheaters, thieves, thugs, free riders, and the like.

The Difference Between Compassion and Empathy

there is a big difference between caring about a person (compassion) and putting yourself in the person’s shoes (empathy).

How can we best understand our moral natures?

Many would agree … that this is a question of theology, while others believe that morality is best understood through the insights of novelists, poets, and playwrights. Some prefer to approach morality from a philosophical perspective, looking not at what people think and how people act but at questions of normative ethics (roughly, how one should act) and metaethics (roughly, the nature of right and wrong).

Another lens is science.

We can explore our moral natures using the same methods that we use to study other aspects of our mental life, such as language or perception or memory. We can look at moral reasoning across societies or explore how people differ within a single society— liberals versus conservatives in the United States, for instance. We can examine unusual cases, such as cold-blooded psychopaths. We might ask whether creatures such as chimpanzees have anything that we can view as morality, and we can look toward evolutionary biology to explore how a moral sense might have evolved. Social psychologists can explore how features of the environment encourage kindness or cruelty, and neuroscientists can look at the parts of the brain that are involved in moral reasoning.

What are we born with?

Bloom argues that Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote in a letter to his friend Peter Carr: “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.” This view, that we have an ingrained moral sense, was shared by enlightenment philosophers of the Jefferson period, including Adam Smith. While Smith is best known for his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, he himself favored his first book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The pages contain insight into “the relationship between imagination and empathy, the limits of compassion, our urge to punish others’ wrongdoing,” and more.

Bloom quotes Smith’s work to what he calls an “embarrassing degree.”

What aspects of morality are natural to us?

Our natural endowments include:

  • a moral sense— some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions
  • empathy and compassion— suffering at the pain of those around us and the wish to make this pain go away
  • a rudimentary sense of fairness— a tendency to favor equal divisions of resources
  • a rudimentary sense of justice— a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished

Bloom argues that our goodness, however, is limited. This is perhaps best explained by Thomas Hobbes, who in 1651, argued that man “in the state of nature” is wicked and self-interested.

We have a moral sense that enables us to judge others and that guides our compassion and condemnation. We are naturally kind to others, at least some of the time. But we possess ugly instincts as well, and these can metastasize into evil. The Reverend Thomas Martin wasn’t entirely wrong when he wrote in the nineteenth century about the “native depravity” of children and concluded that “we bring with us into the world a nature replete with evil propensities.”

In The End …

We’re born with some elements of morality and others take time to emerge because, they require a capacity for reasoning. “The baby lacks a grasp of impartial moral principles—prohibitions or requirements that apply equally to everyone within a community. Such principles are at the foundation of systems of law and justice.”

There is a popular view that we are slaves of the passions …

that our moral judgments and moral actions are the product of neural mechanisms that we have no awareness of and no conscious control over. If this view of our moral natures were true, we would need to buck up and learn to live with it. But it is not true; it is refuted by everyday experience, by history, and by the science of developmental psychology.

It turns out instead that the right theory of our moral lives has two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.


Still Curious? Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil goes on to explore some of the ways that Hobbes was right, among them: our indifference to strangers and our instinctive emotional responses.