A Lesson in Friendship

Around 10:00 pm one night when I was 16 my cell phone rang. My best friend was barely able to remain calm enough to get words out of his mouth.

After a bit of time, I figured out that he was at his girlfriend’s high school dance. A few things happened and a bunch of the local hooligans were gonna jump him when the dance was over at 11.

So I dutifully snuck out of the house, took the car, and drove to meet him. If he’s going down, I’m going down with him.

When I look back on this moment I can’t decide if it was a brilliant act of friendship or teenage stupidity.

The now older me asks what causes someone to drive to a near-certain walloping. The younger me still answers: friendship. If you won’t lay it on the line for your friends, who will you lay it on the line for?

I tend to agree with Henry Miller, who wrote: “Next to love friendship, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing life has to offer.”

But I never really thought about what makes a good friend.

When the chips are down and the odds are nearly impossible, I wanted people to be able to count on me. I might not be at your Super Bowl party, but if you needed help I would drop everything and be there in an instant.

This was the type of friend I wanted to be and to a large extent that’s the friend I still am.

Those Super Bowl parties, however, are way more important than I thought.

All through my life my friends have confessed their deepest struggles and conflicts with me. If you polled them, I’d probably be the first person they would call if they killed someone and needed to bury the body. In the words of Dr. Dre, “Well if you ever kill … I’ll show you where the ocean is.”

I was the wartime consigliere. However in times of peace — which is the vast majority of friendships — I wasn’t the first person people called. I was missing something that didn’t really dawn on me until recently.

No matter what was going on in my life – no matter my struggles, errors, or mistakes, I never called them. I wanted to be self-sufficient.

“The wise man is self-sufficient,” said Lucilius. He wants for nothing. He needs nothing. Chrysippus declared that the wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool.”

I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve ever called anyone and said something to the effect of: I really need you right now.

I never knew how many of these cards you’d get in a lifetime and I certainly didn’t want to waste one on whatever was troubling me at the moment. This has been one of my biggest shortcomings.

Seneca has some good thoughts on the matter. In epistle III, he writes:

There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters, which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe.

If I had struggles in my life my friends would sometimes never know. I’m not entirely sure if I was hiding these things from them or hiding them from myself.

A few days ago when I told one of my best friends some big news, he replied saying something to the effect of ‘as with many things in your life Shane, I had no idea.’ The message between the lines was clear: I would have been here for you, why didn’t you let me be there for you?

In that instant it hit me. I wasn’t the friend I needed to be because friendship is more than being there for them it’s also allowing them to be there for you.

For the longest time I thought that avoiding being vulnerable to people was strength. It’s not. It takes a lot more strength to make yourself vulnerable than it does to keep the walls up and stay protected.

Since this blog is about learning the best of what other people have figured out, I wanted to share this personal lesson with you.

Lincoln on Leadership

A Lincoln

Fight the Good Fight

The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.

Try Honey Before Vinegar

If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. On the contrary … mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all avenues to his head and his heart; and tho’ your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall no more be able to pierce him than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.

Work Hard, Then Work Harder

The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today. Never let your correspondence fall behind. Whatever price of business you have in hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it which can then be done.

Believe In Yourself

Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.

The Idea of Democracy

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy—Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference is no democracy.

Stay Committed

I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.

Know Your Friends

I distrust the wisdom if not the sincerity of friends who would hold my hands while my enemies stab me.

Heal Their Wounds

On the whole, my impression is that mercy bears richer fruits than any other attribute.

Accept Lessons As They Come

In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.

​​(h/t historynet.com)

Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Journalists, and Others

Jamie Whyte

A lot of our day is spent trying to convince people of something. To do this we often make arguments as to why our product or service is better, or, more commonly why our own opinion is right and yours is wrong. But few of us understand the art of argumentation.

Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders, a book by Jamie Whyte, “aims to help fill the gap left by the education system,” in the ways that our reasoning can go wrong. “The logic equivalent of one of those troubleshooting guides in your car or computer manual.”

Errors in logic are not visible.

When a car breaks down, anyone can see that it has even if he knows nothing about how cars work. Reasoning is different. Unless you know how reasoning can go wrong, you can’t see that it has. The talking doesn’t stop, no steam emerges from the ears, the eyes don’t flash red.

Until Google invents a device that exposes our errors in reasoning we need to rely on ourselves. And most of us don’t know a lot about the ways that reasoning can go wrong. Whyte argues that we’ve become a nation of suckers.

Schools and universities pack their minds with invaluable pieces of information— about the nitrogen cycle, the causes of World War II, iambic pentameter, and trigonometry— but leave them incapable of identifying even basic errors of logic. Which makes for a nation of suckers, unable to resist the bogus reasoning of those who want something from them, such as votes or money or devotion.

Often, when we can’t tell good logic from bad we turn to cynicism, “discounting everything said by anyone in a position of power or influence.”

But cynicism is a poor defense, because it doesn’t help to tell good reasoning from bad. Believing nothing is just as silly as believing everything. Cynicism, like gullibility, is a symptom of underdeveloped critical faculties.

The Irrelevant Right

Jack has offered some opinion— that President Bush invaded Iraq to steal its oil, let’s say—with which his friend Jill disagrees. Jill offers some reasons why Jack’s opinion is wrong and after a few unsuccessful attempts at answering them, Jack petulantly retorts that he is entitled to his opinion.

The fallacy lies in Jack’s assumption that this retort is somehow a satisfactory reply to Jill’s objections, while, in fact, it is completely irrelevant.

Jack is just changing the subject to one of rights, not addressing the issue. Here is a simple way of putting it.

The fallacy lies in Jack’s assumption that this retort is somehow a satisfactory reply to Jill’s objections, while, in fact, it is completely irrelevant.

We consider our opinions to be sacred.

Many people seem to feel that their opinions are somehow sacred, so that everyone else is obliged to handle them with great care. When confronted with counterarguments, they do not pause and wonder if they might be wrong after all. They take offense.

So the next time someone says you have a right to your own opinion, mentally go back and see if they are addressing your argument or just changing the subject. If you really want to have fun, you can ask them what duties do rights impose on others?

Motives

When my sister was fifteen, she thought she had fat thighs. Occasionally, she would demand to know, “My thighs are fat, aren’t they?”

“No darling,” my parents would reply, “you have nice thighs; you’re a beautiful girl.”

Well, that confirmed it. “You’re just saying that!” was the constant refrain as my sister took our parents’ protestations to the contrary to confirm all her worst fears.

My sister was committing the Motive Fallacy. She thought that by exposing our parents’ motives for expressing an opinion— to make her feel better and shut her up— she had shown the opinion to be false. But she hadn’t. It is perfectly possible to have some interest in holding or expressing an opinion and for that opinion to be true. A man may stand to gain a great deal of peace and quiet from telling his wife that he loves her. But he may really love her nevertheless. It suits most to believe they are of better than average looks, and at least 44 percent of the 90 percent who believe this actually are. My sister’s legs were not fat. In other words, you don’t show someone’s opinion false just by showing that he has a motive for holding it.

This happens when billions of dollars are at risk too.

The motive fallacy is another way that we end a debate. You don’t actually refute the positions of the other person, you simply change the subject.

First, you are discussing some issue, such as whether my sister has fat thighs, and then, after the fallacy is committed, you find yourself talking about the motives of those involved in the discussion. Perhaps this is why the fallacy is so popular. It turns all discussions— be they about economic policy, religion, or thighs— into discussions about our alleged motives and inner drives.

Authority

The fallacy lies in confusing two quite different kinds of authority. There is the kind of authority your parents, football referees, and parking attendants have: the power to decide certain matters. For example, your parents have the power to decide when you will go to bed. Hence, in answer to the question “Why is 8:00 P.M. my bedtime?” the answer “Because I say so” is quite right; your parents are, quite literally, the authors of your bedtime. But it is not up to them whether or not Jesus was conceived without the help of sexual intercourse. Mary’s being a virgin at the time of Jesus’s birth is beyond the will of your parents, or indeed anybody else’s (with the possible exception of Jesus’s parents). So your father’s answer “Because I say so” is quite wrong when the question is “Why should I believe in the virgin birth?” The matter exceeds the scope of his parental authority.

Yet, there is another metaphorical sense of “authority” on which the answer “Because I say so” is sometimes reasonable, even when literal authority is absent, namely, the expert kind of authority. If someone is an expert on some subject (or an authority on the topic, as it is often put) then his opinion is likely to be true— or, at least, more likely to be true than the opinion of a non-expert. So, appealing to the opinion of such an authority— i.e., an expert— in support of your view is perfectly OK. It is indirect evidence for your opinion.

We can’t all be experts on everything. When laypeople sit around debating evolutionary biology, quantum physics, developmental economics, and the like, as the government’s reckless education policies mean they increasingly do, one of the best pieces of evidence likely to be put forward is simply “Because Nobel laureate Joe Bloggs says so.” …

The Authority Fallacy should now be clear. It occurs when the first literal type of authority, whereby someone has the power to make certain decisions, is confounded with the second metaphorical type, whereby someone is an expert and so likely to be right about some matter of fact.

Relating this to government and democracy, Whyte points out the power of the people also comes with the ability to make the wrong choices.

All democratic politicians agree that ultimate political authority lies with The People. On other matters they may disagree. One may think private schools an abomination, the other that the state should have no role in education. Each tries to convince the public that her view is right, knowing that popular opinion will decide the matter. But, “decide the matter” does not mean determine who is right. The People cannot do that; no one can by mere decision make a state monopoly on education superior to a private system, or vice versa. Public opinion decides the matter only insofar as it chooses which policy will be adopted. And the public is perfectly capable of choosing the inferior policy. If it were not, if popular opinion were invariably correct, then politicians would have no serious leadership role to play; government could be conducted by a combination of opinion pollsters and bureaucrats.

Spotting this fallacy is easy, simply ask yourself if the source offered up as an authority is indeed an expert on the matter in question. If not, ask them to explicitly walk you though the argument.

Crimes Against Logic goes on to introduce you to other logical fallacies that you and others use every day. If you’re interested in improving your own arguments and spotting errors in the arguments of others, this is a good starting place.

Marcus Aurelius: Debts and Lessons

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius has been read for 1800 or so years now and he’s arguably just as relevant today as he was when he was ruler of the Roman Empire.

Plato

Aurelius, the ruler of the Roman Empire for almost two decades, was also the author of the immortal Meditations. “Yet the title,” writes Gregory Hays in the introduction, “is one that Marcus himself would surely have rejected. He never thought of himself as a philosopher. He would have claimed to be, at best, a diligent student and a very imperfect practitioner of a philosophy developed by others.” Everyone who reads Meditations—from elementary school children to presidents—takes away some lessons. Be wary though, the book presents a dim view of human life.

To understand Meditations, we must first understand the role of philosophy in ancient life.

While there was certainly an academic side to philosophy back then it also had a more practical side expected to provide a design for living—”a set of rules to live one’s life by.” A need not met by ancient religion, “which privileged ritual over doctrine and provided little in the way of moral and ethical guidelines.” Philosophy was expected to fill the gap.

“The questions that Meditations tries to answer are metaphysical and ethical ones,” Hays writes. These are timeless questions that we are still asking. Why are we here? How can I cope with the stresses and pressures of daily life? How can I do what is right? How can I cope with loss and pain? How can I handle misfortune? How do we live when we know that one day we won’t?

Book one, a special section entitled Debts and Lessons, is “distinguished from the rest of the work by its autobiographical nature.” It consists of seventeen entries in which Aurelius reflects upon what he has learned from various influential individuals in his life.

Here are some lessons we can draw from book one.

Do Your Own Work

(From my first teacher): Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter or that in the games. To put up with discomfort and not make demands. To do my own work, mind my own business, and have no time for slanderers.

Read Attentively

(From Rusticus) To read attentively-not to be satisfied with “just getting the gist of it.” And not fall for every smooth talker.

The Greatest Compliment

(From Sextus) … To show intuitive sympathy for friends, tolerance to amateurs and sloppy thinkers. His ability to get along with everyone: Sharing his company was the highest of compliments.

The Ruthlessness of Good Families

(From Fronto) … To recognize the malice, cunning, and hypocrisy that power produces, and the peculiar ruthlessness often shown by people from “good families.”

Staying on the Path

(From Maximus) … The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than being kept on it.

From his adopted father, Aurelius learned:

Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence. Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public good. His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved. A sense of when to push and when to back off. … His searching questions at meetings. A kind of single-mindedness, almost, never content with first impressions, or breaking off the discussion prematurely. His consistency to friends-never getting fed up with them or playing favorites. Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness. And his advanced planning (well in advance) and his discreet attention to even minor things. His restrictions on acclamations-and all attempts to flatter him. … His stewardship of the treasury. His willingness to take responsibility—and blame—for both. … And his attitude to men: no demagoguery, no currying favor, no pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or a prey to fads.

[...]

The way he kept public actions within reasonable bounds-games, building projects, distributions of money and so on-because he looked to what needed doing and not the credit to be gained from doing it.

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

Still curious? Meditations is part of the Stoic Reading List.

Henry Miller on Turning 80, Fighting Evil, And Why Life is the Best Teacher

Henry Miller On Turning Eighty

Only 200 copies of Henry Miller’s 1972 chapbook, On Turning Eighty, were ever printed; each hand-numbered and signed. How I ended up with copy 48 is a story for another day. The book contains 3 essays, one of which is on aging and living a fulfilling life. Learning life-lessons from some of the wisest people has long fascinated me. And Miller’s short essay is full of them.

Henry Miller Chapbook

Reflecting back on his many lessons he reframes success into the little things.

If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power. If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on the way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss — under your breath, of course — “Fuck you, Jack! You don’t own me!” … If you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.

It’s the little things that matter, not fame, success, wealth.

He also colorfully comments on the fundamental nature of people and our relatively unchanging views on them.

Despite the knowledge of the world which comes from wide experience, despite the acquisition of a viable everyday philosophy, one can’t help but realize that the fools have become even more foolish and the bores more boring.

[...]

One thing seems more and more evident to me now — people’s basic character does not change over the years. … Far from improving them, success usually accentuates their faults or short-comings. The brilliant guys at school often turn out to be not so brilliant once they are out in the world. If you disliked or despised certain lads in your class you will dislike them even more when they become financiers, statesmen or five star generals. Life forces us to learn a few lessons, but not necessarily to grow.

In a passage that reminds me of Alan Watts, Miller praises living in the here and now and reflects on the cheerfulness of old age.

The future of the world is something for philosophers and visionaries to ponder on. All we ever really have is the present, but very few of us ever live it. I an neither a pessimist nor an optimist. To me the world is neither this nor that, but all things at once, and to each according to his vision.

Marcus Aurelius

At eighty I believe I am a far more cheerful person than I was at twenty or thirty. I most definitely would not want to be a teenager again. Youth may be glorious, but it is also painful to endure. Moreover, what is called youth is not youth in my opinion, it is rather something like premature old age.

I was cursed or blessed with a prolonged adolescence; I arrived at some seeming maturity when I was past thirty. It was only in my forties that I really began to feel young. By then I was ready for it. (Picasso once said: “One starts to get young at the age of sixty, and then it’s too late.”) By this time I had lost many illusions, but fortunately not my enthusiasm, nor the joy of living, nor my unquenchable curiosity. Perhaps it was this curiosity—about anything and everything—that made me the writer I am. It has never left me. Even the worst bore can elicit my interest, if I am in the mood to listen.

With this attribute goes another which I prize above everything else, and that is the sense of wonder. No matter how restricted my world may become I cannot imagine it leaving me void of wonder. In a sense I suppose it might be called my religion. I do not ask how it came about, this creation in which we swim, but only to enjoy and appreciate it.

Henry Miller

Reflecting on the value of learning from idiots, Miller writes that life is the ultimate teacher.

I think the teacher (with a capital T) ranks with the sage and the seer. It is our misfortune not to be able to breed such animals. What is called education is to me utter nonsense and detrimental to growth. Despite all the social and political upheavals we have been through the authorized educational methods throughout the civilized world remain, in my mind at least, archaic and stultifying. They help to perpetuate the ills which cripple us. William Blake said: “The tigers of wrath are wider than the horses of instruction.” I learned nothing of value at school. I don’t believe I could pass a grammar school test on any subject even today. I learned more from idiots and nobodies than from professors of this and that. Life is the teacher, not the Board of Education.

Part of living in the present is an Epicurean desire for enjoyment and making a conscious choice, in old age, to not know certain ills.

I don’t believe in health foods or diets either. I have probably been eating all of the wrong things all of my life — and I have thrived on it. I eat to enjoy my food. Whatever I do I do first for enjoyment. I don’t believe in regular check-ups. If there is something wrong with me, I’d rather not know about it, because then I could only worry about it and aggravate the condition. Nature often remedies our ills better than the doctor can. I don’t believe there is a prescription for a long life. Besides, who wants to live to be a hundred? What’s the point of it? A short life and a merry one is far better than a long life sustained by fear, caution and perpetual medical surveillance. With all the progress medicine has made over the years we still have a pantheon of incurable diseases. The germs and microbes seem to have the last word always. When all else fails the surgeon steps in, cuts us to pieces, and clears us out of our last penny. And that’s progress for you.

The best part about growing old is the sense of context that allows you to really learn what is truly important.

Perhaps the most comforting thing about growing old gracefully is the increasing ability not to take things too seriously. One of the big differences between a genuine sage and a preacher is gayety. When the sage laughs it is a belly laugh; when the preacher laughs, which is all too seldom, it is on the wrong side of the face. …

With advancing age my ideals, which I usually deny possessing, have definitely altered. My ideal is to be free of ideals, free of principles, free of isms and ideologies. I want to take to the ocean of life like a fish takes to the sea. As a young man I was greatly concerned about the state of the world, today, though I still rant and rave, I am content simply to deplore the state of affairs. It may sound smug to speak thus but in reality it means that I have become more humble, more aware of my limitations and those of my fellow man. I no longer try to convert people to my view of things, nor to heal them. Neither do I feel superior because they appear to be lacking in intelligence.

He continues with perhaps my favorite passage …

One can fight evil but against stupidity one is helpless. … I have accepted the fact, hard as it may be, that human beings are inclined to behave in ways that would make animals blush. The ironic, the tragic thing is that we often behave in ignoble fashion from what we consider the highest motives. The animal makes no excuse for killing his prey; the human animal, on the other hand, can invoke God’s blessing when massacring his fellow men. He forgets that God is not on his side but at his side.

On Turning Eighty, is a wonderfully fascinating read on the perspective that 80 years gives you.

Henry Miller on Friendship

Henry Miller Chapbook

Shortly after his 80th birthday, Henry Miller wrote an essay on aging. More of a treatise on living life, it was published in 1972 in a chapbook titled On Turning Eighty. Only 200 copies of the book were ever made, with each signed and numbered by the author.

In one section, Miller comments on the complicated relationship between aging and friendship.

What most people fear when they think of old age is the inability to make new friends. If one ever had the faculty of making friends one never loses it however old one grows. Next to love friendship, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing life has to offer. I have never had any trouble making friends, in fact, it has sometimes been a hindrance, this facility for making friends. There is an adage which says that one may judge a man by the company he keeps. I often wonder about the truth of this. All of my life I have been friends with individuals belonging to vastly different worlds. I have had, and still have, friends who are nobodies, and I must confess they are among my best friends. I have been friends with criminals and with the despised rich. It is my friends who have kept me alive, who have given me the courage to continue, and who have also often bored me to tears. The one thing I have insisted on with all of my friends, regardless of class or station in life, is to be able to speak truthfully. If I cannot be open and frank with a friend, or he with me, I drop him.

On love and friendship, Miller writes:

The ability to be friends with a woman, particularly the woman you love, is to me the greatest achievement. Love and friendship seldom go together. … In all of my life I have known only a few couples who were friends as well as lovers.

Although the most expensive book I’ve ever purchased, On Turning Eighty, was a wonderfully fascinating read.

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.

***
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.