Tag Archives: Philosophy

To Sacrifice the Joy of Life is to Miss the Point

Your ability to get things done and be productive is not always a function of hours.

Working more doesn’t always mean you’re working better or harder. It doesn’t mean you’re doing your best. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re going to live a more meaningful life. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you’re going to finish your project faster.

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz tells the story of a man who wanted to transcend his suffering. So he goes to a Buddhist temple to find a Master to help. He asks the master “Master, if I meditate four hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?”

The Master looked at him and said, “If you meditate four hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in ten years.”

Thinking he could do better, the man then said, “Oh Master, what if I meditated eight hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?”

The Master looked at him and said, “If you meditate eight hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in twenty years.”

“But why will it take me longer if I meditate more?” the man asked.

The Master replied, “You are not here to sacrifice your joy or your life. You are here to live, to be happy and to love. If you can do your best in two hours of meditation, but you spend eight hours instead, you will only grow tired, miss the point, and you won’t enjoy your life.”

Working harder often misses the point.

When interviewed, those nearing the end of their lives did not say they wished they’d worked harder. Rather, they encouraged being willing to make sacrifices to spend time doing things that bring enjoyment.

Just to be clear, I’m not in the The 4-Hour Workweek camp. Farnam Street Media is 60+ a week.

However, it’s not a simple ask coming up with work life balance. As David Whyte argues, that is a flawed lens.

Questions about work and its interaction with the joy of living are personal and significant. We often only think about them toward the end of our life, when it’s too late to make changes.

Start asking yourself these questions today. And if you need a break, join me for a thinking/reading week in Hawaii this March.

The Difference Between Truth and Honesty: What Law School Teaches us About Insight, Logic, and Thinking

“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”
— Anaïs Nin

***

Matthew Frederick‘s series of 101 things I learned in {Business School, Law School, Architecture School, Engineering School} attempts to distill the key learnings from these disciplines and offer them in a bite-sized package.

In 101 Things I Learned in Law School he teams up with California-based attorney Vibeke Norgaard Martin. Together they deliver a noteworthy book for the armchair lawyer in all of us. Despite the title, readers will find the selection of insights below connect to a lot of the ideas on this site.

Consider this bit on the difference between truth and honesty.

Lawyers must be honest, but they don’t have to be truthful. Honesty and truthfulness are not the same thing. Being honest means not telling lies. Being truthful means actively making known all the full truth of a matter. Lawyers must be honest, but they do not have to be truthful. A criminal defence lawyer, for example, in zealously defending a client, has no obligation to actively present the truth. Counsel may not deliberately mislead the court, but has no obligation to tell the defendant’s whole story.

Insight doesn’t arrive head on — echoing William Deresiewicz they write:

Be suspicious of the person who sizes up a new situation very quickly, claims understanding, and stakes out an ironclad position. Insight usually requires long periods of discussion, research, analysis, rationalization, and counter-argument, and it rarely arrives while attacking a matter directly or on a first pass. If one occasionally is able to quickly understand a complex matter, he or she is far more likely to misunderstand it.

Thinking means ragging at problems long enough to understand them — something less and less common in our fast-paced world. Most people won’t or can’t do the work to understand the problem. Our first thoughts are most often the thoughts of someone else and represent conventional wisdom.

Writing is thinking on the page.

A well-constructed argument rarely, if ever, resembles what one started with. Writing effectively isn’t recording the argument one wishes to make; it is a process of discovering what one’s argument needs to be. Through writing, thinking, researching, rewriting, rethinking, and rewriting again, an argument is discovered and clarified.

You don’t have to be right. You just have to be better than the alternative.

It is always possible to make at least some arguments for or against a legal position. An argument requires logic, but legal argument is not a purely logical form of argument that promises a universal, absolute conclusion. Rather, it is a practical form of argument that aims to establish one claim as more probable or reasonable than another.

Make a logical argument. There are two types of logic: deductive and inductive.

Deductive logic: usually works from broadly accepted truths toward demonstrating a truth in a specific situation, although more properly it is any argument in which the premises guarantee that their logical outcome is a truth.

Inductive logic: tends to work from specific examples of truth toward demonstration of a larger truth, but can be any argument whose conclusion, while not guaranteed, is a likely or higher probability outcome of the premises. Successful inductive reasoning requires a convincingly large sample size.

Large sample sizes are not only important in inductive reasoning but they also offer a guide for how to spend our time reading and learning. Peter Kaufman offers some insight on the three largest sample sizes.

Every statistician knows that a large, relevant sample size is their best friend. What are the three largest, most relevant sample sizes for identifying universal principles? Bucket number one is inorganic systems, which are 13.7 billion years in size. It’s all the laws of math and physics, the entire physical universe. Bucket number two is organic systems, 3.5 billion years of biology on Earth. And bucket number three is human history, you can pick your own number, I picked 20,000 years of recorded human behavior. Those are the three largest sample sizes we can access and the most relevant.

Arguments, however, are about more than rationality and sample sizes. We are human after all. Passion comes into play.

Rationality is cool; passion is warm. Rationality provides logical justification for a position, while passion provides a human connection to it. Both are needed to advance an argument; an abundance of one will not compensate for a dearth of the other. An argument may be extraordinarily rational, but its correctness alone is unlikely to compel others to care enough to right the wrongs behind. it. An extremely passionate argument may initially attract sympathy, but unmitigated displays of emotion at the expense of rationality will wear thin and eventually prompt others to tune out your message. Rationality makes an argument worthy. Passion makes it worthwhile.

Show me a company governed by rules and I will show you a dying company — the extent to which rules govern culture offers an indication of how fast. Despite our attempts to reduce everything to an efficient systems of rules there are always exceptions. The wise know the exceptions to the rules. One could argue that you don’t know the rule until you know its exceptions.

A presumption of all court testimony is that the opposing side may cross-examine its source. If a witness quotes someone who is not available for cross examination, the statement, if objected to by the opposing attorney,  might be ruled hearsay and be forbidden. The rule against hearsay testimony has about thirty exceptions. In order to get a statement made outside court into court when its originator is unavailable to testify, one has to determine how to fit it into at least one of the exceptions. In practice, the exceptions to the rule are the rule.

Echoing the Kantian Fairness Tendency, the integrity of a system is more important than the fairness in one case.

A trial’s search for truth is invariably imperfect because it cannot be conducted in a way that introduces unfairness into the legal system. If a piece of evidence was improperly acquired or mishandled by the prosecution, it may be excluded from trial even if it provides an incontrovertible link between the defendant and the crime, because evidence in future cases could be similarly abused. If this allows a guilty person to go free, it is not because the court is not interested in the truth of the case; it is because it accepts that the truth must take some small lumps in the short run so the court gets better at finding the truth in the long run.

101 Things I Learned in Law School goes on to discuss how to explain your argument, language, why an hour can have 116 minutes and more.

Religion and History: Will Durant on the Role of Religion and Morality

“Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age.”

***

Will and Ariel Durant have written a masterpiece in The Lessons of History. Inside the book, which is a condensed version of his life work, you can find an interesting chapter entitled Religion and History that explores the role of religion throughout history. 

Scientists often question the value of religion. Durant demurs:

To the unhappy, the suffering, the bereaved, the old, it has brought supernatural comforts valued by millions of souls as more precious than any natural aid. It has helped parents and teachers to discipline the young. It has conferred meaning and dignity upon the lowliest existence, and through its sacraments has made for stability by transforming human covenants into solemn relationships with God. It has kept the poor (said Napoleon) from murdering the rich. For since the natural inequality of men dooms many of us to poverty or defeat, some supernatural hope may be the sole alternative to despair. Destroy that hope, and class war is intensified. Heaven and utopia are buckets in a well: when one goes down the other goes up; when religion declines Communism grows.

The role of religion and morality is not clear at first. According to Petronius, who echoed Lucretius, “it was fear that first made the gods.” The fear he was talking about was a fear of the unexplainable — fear of hidden forces in the earth, oceans, skies, and rivers.

Religion became the propitiatory worship of these forces through offerings, sacrifice, incantation, and prayer. Only when priests used these fears and rituals to support morality and law did religion become a force vital and rival to the state. It told the people that the local code of morals and laws had been dictated by the gods.

In the eyes of the Durants, the effect of this new moral law was to dampen the worst of moral disorder—sensuality, drunkenness, coarseness, greed, dishonesty, robbery, and violence.

"Gregory VII saying Mass" (Via Wikipedia)
“Gregory VII saying Mass” (Via Wikipedia)

 

“Though the Church served the state,” they write, “it claimed to stand above all states, as morality should stand above power.” The idea of a moral superstate briefly come to fulfillment in the century after The Emperor Henry IV submitted to Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in 1077. The dream crumbled, however, under attacks of nationalism, skepticism and human frailty.

The Church, after all, was manned with men who proved all too human in their failings of greed and power. As states became stronger and wealthier they made the papacy a political tool. “Kings,” the Durants write, “became strong enough to compel a pope to dissolve the Jesuit order which had so devotedly supported the popes.” In response, the Church stooped to fraud. Increasingly the religious hierarchy spent time promoting orthodoxy rather than morality. The Inquisition almost killed the Church.

Even while preaching peace the Church fomented religious wars in sixteenth-century France and the Thirty Years’ War in seventeenth-century Germany. It played only a modest part in the outstanding advance of modern morality— the abolition of slavery.

This allowed the philosophers to take the lead in the humanitarian movements that “alleviated the evils of our time.”

History has justified the Church in the belief that the masses of mankind desire a religion rich in miracle, mystery, and myth. Some minor modifications have been allowed in ritual, in ecclesiastical costume, and in episcopal authority; but the Church dares not alter the doctrines that reason smiles at, for such changes would offend and disillusion the millions whose hopes have been tied to inspiring and consolatory imaginations. No reconciliation is possible between religion and philosophy except through the philosophers’ recognition that they have found no substitute for the moral function of the Church, and the ecclesiastical recognition of religious and intellectual freedom.

Does history support a belief in God?

If by God we mean not the creative vitality of nature but a supreme being intelligent and benevolent, the answer must be a reluctant negative. Like other departments of biology, history remains at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive. Add to the crimes, wars, and cruelties of man the earthquakes, storms, tornadoes, pestilences, tidal waves, and other “acts of God” that periodically desolate human and animal life, and the total evidence suggests either a blind or an impartial fatality, with incidental and apparently haphazard scenes to which we subjectively ascribe order, splendor, beauty, or sublimity. If history supports any theology this would be a dualism like the Zoroastrian or Manichaean: a good spirit and an evil spirit battling for control of the universe and men’s souls. These faiths and Christianity (which is essentially Manichaean) assured their followers that the good spirit would win in the end; but of this consummation history offers no guarantee. Nature and history do not agree with our conceptions of good and bad; they define good as that which survives, and bad as that which goes under; and the universe has no prejudice in favor of Christ as against Genghis Khan.

Our Place in the Cosmos

Bronze statue of Bruno by Ettore Ferrari at Campo de' Fiori, Rome.
Bronze statue of Bruno by Ettore Ferrari at Campo de’ Fiori, Rome.

 

As science further develops, it shows our minuscule place in the cosmos. This knowledge further impairs Religion. We can date the beginning of the decline with Giordano Bruno and then with Copernicus (1543). In 1611 John Donne was “mourning that the earth had become a mere suburb in the world.” All was thrown into doubt. Francis Bacon proclaimed that science was the religion of the modern man. This was the generation that began the  “death of God” as an external deity.

So great an effect required many causes besides the spread of science and historical knowledge. First, the Protestant Reformation, which originally defended private judgment. Then the multitude of Protestant sects and conflicting theologies, each appealing to both Scriptures and reason. Then the higher criticism of the Bible, displaying that marvelous library as the imperfect work of fallible men. Then the deistic movement in England, reducing religion to a vague belief in a God hardly distinguishable from nature. Then the growing acquaintance with other religions, whose myths, many of them pre-Christian, were distressingly similar to the supposedly factual bases of one’s inherited creed. Then the Protestant exposure of Catholic miracles, the deistic exposure of Biblical miracles, the general exposure of frauds, inquisitions, and massacres in the history of religion. Then the replacement of agriculture— which had stirred men to faith by the annual rebirth of life and the mystery of growth— with industry, humming daily a litany of machines, and suggesting a world machine. Add meanwhile the bold advance of skeptical scholarship, as in Bayle, and of pantheistic philosophy, as in Spinoza; the massive attack of the French Enlightenment upon Christianity; the revolt of Paris against the Church during the French Revolution. Add, in our own time, the indiscriminate slaughter of civilian populations in modern war. Finally, the awesome triumphs of scientific technology, promising man omnipotence and destruction, and challenging the divine command of the skies.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Via wikipedia)
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Via wikipedia)

In a way Christianity lent a hand to its reduced place, by fostering a moral sense in believers that could no longer tolerate the vengeful God of traditional Theology.

The idea of hell disappeared from educated thought, even from pulpit homilies. Presbyterians became ashamed of the Westminster Confession, which had pledged them to belief in a God who had created billions of men and women despite his foreknowledge that, regardless of their virtues and crimes, they were predestined to everlasting hell. Educated Christians visiting the Sistine Chapel were shocked by Michelangelo’s picture of Christ hurling offenders pell-mell into an inferno whose fires were never to be extinguished; was this the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” who had inspired our youth?

The industrial revolution replaced Christian with secular institutions.

That states should attempt to dispense with theological supports is one of the many crucial experiments that bewilder our brains and unsettle our ways today. Laws which were once presented as the decrees of a god-given king are now frankly the confused commands of fallible men. Education, which was the sacred province of god-inspired priests, becomes the task of men and women shorn of theological robes and awe, and relying on reason and persuasion to civilize young rebels who fear only the policeman and may never learn to reason at all. Colleges once allied to churches have been captured by businessmen and scientists. The propaganda of patriotism, capitalism, or Communism succeeds to the inculcation of a supernatural creed and moral code.

But one lesson of history is that religion adapts and has a habit of resurrection. Often in the past it has nearly died only to be reborn.

Generally religion and puritanism prevail in periods when the laws are feeble and morals must bear the burden of maintaining social order; skepticism and paganism (other factors being equal) progress as the rising power of law and government permits the decline of the church, the family, and morality without basically endangering the stability of the state. In our time the strength of the state has united with the several forces listed above to relax faith and morals, and to allow paganism to resume its natural sway. Probably our excesses will bring another reaction; moral disorder may generate a religious revival; atheists may again (as in France after the debacle of 1870) send their children to Catholic schools to give them the discipline of religious belief.

Religion and Morality

If we are wondering whether history warrants the conclusion that religion is necessary for morality — “that natural ethic is too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization and emerges in our dreams, crimes, and wars” — we need look no further than the answer given by Joseph de Maistre who said: “I do not know what the heart of a rascal may be; I know what is in the heart an an honest man; it is horrible.” Whether religion must be the force to temper the hearts of future men and women, the Durants think that’s certainly been the case in the past:

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion. France, the United States, and some other nations have divorced their governments from all churches, but they have had the help of religion in keeping social order. Only a few Communist states have not merely dissociated themselves from religion but have repudiated its aid; and perhaps the apparent and provisional success of this experiment in Russia owes much to the temporary acceptance of Communism as the religion (or, as skeptics would say, the opium) of the people, replacing the church as the vendor of comfort and hope. If the socialist regime should fail in its efforts to destroy relative poverty among the masses, this new religion may lose its fervor and efficacy, and the state may wink at the restoration of supernatural beliefs as an aid in quieting discontent. “As long as there is poverty there will be gods.”

The Lessons of History is full of condensed wisdom on the meaning of history, the age of play, the lessons of biological history, and more.

 

Our Yearning for Immortality: Alan Lightman on one of the most Profound Contradictions of Human Existence

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.

***

“Be not deceived,” Epictetus writes in The Discourses, “every animal is attached to nothing so much as to its own interest.” Few things are more in our nature than our yearning for permanence. And yet all evidence argues against us.

This profound human contradiction is what physicist Alan Lightman — the first person to receive dual appointments in sciences and humanities at MIT — explores in one of the essays in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.

Alan Lightman (Photo via MIT)
Alan Lightman (Photo via MIT)

The Accidental Universe

In the foreword to The Accidental Universe, Lightman tells a story of attending a lecture given by the Dalai Lama at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among other things, the Dalai Lama spoke on the Buddhist concept of sunyata, which translates as “emptiness.” More specifically this doctrine means that objects in the physical universe are empty of inherent meaning — objects only receive meaning when we attach it to them with our thoughts and beliefs. This calls into question what is real.

As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealousy or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. The mind is certainly its own cosmos.

As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “It [the mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.”

In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.

[…]

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.

We often think of the world as the totality of physical reality.

The word “universe” comes from the Latin unus, meaning “one,” combined with versus, which is the past participle of vertere, meaning “to turn.” Thus the original and literal meaning of “universe” was “everything turned into one.”

In the first essay “The Accidental Universe,” Lightman argues there is a possibility of multiple universes and multiple space-time continuums. But even if there is only a single universe, “there are many universes within our one universe, some visible and some not.” It all depends on your vantage point.

The challenge arises from explaining what we cannot see in a physical sense but can reason from deductions. We are like a pilot — relying our our incomplete mental instruments to guide us. We must believe what we cannot see and to a large extent we must believe what we cannot prove.

The Temporary Universe

In, The Temporary Universe, one of the best essays in the collection, Lightman sets out to explore our attachment to youth, immortality, and the familiar, despite their fleeting nature. The essay explores a profound contradiction of human existence — our longing for immortality.

I don’t know why we long so for permanence, why the fleeting nature of things so disturbs. With futility, we cling to the old wallet long after it has fallen apart. We visit and revisit the old neighborhood where we grew up, searching for the remembered grove of trees and the little fence. We clutch our old photographs. In our churches and synagogues and mosques, we pray to the everlasting and eternal. Yet, in every nook and cranny, nature screams at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away. All that we see around us, including our own bodies, is shifting and evaporating and one day will be gone. Where are the one billion people who lived and breathed in the year 1800, only two short centuries ago?

[…]

Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself toward a condition of maximum disorder. It is a question of probabilities. You start from a situation of improbable order, like a deck of cards all arranged according to number and suit, or like a solar system with several planets orbiting nicely about a central star. Then you drop the deck of cards on the floor over and over again. You let other stars randomly whiz by your solar system, jostling it with their gravity. The cards become jumbled. The planets get picked off and go aimlessly wandering through space. Order has yielded to disorder. Repeated patterns to change. In the end, you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.

 

We can’t live forever. Our lives are controlled by our genes in each cell. The raison d’être for most of these genes is to pass on instructions for how to build.

Some of these genes must be copied thousands of times; others are constantly subjected to random chemical storms and electrically unbalanced atoms, called free radicals, that disrupt other atoms. Disrupted atoms, with their electrons misplaced, cannot properly pull and tug on nearby atoms to form the intended bonds and architectural forms. In short, with time the genes get degraded. They become forks with missing tines. They cannot quite do their job. Muscles, for example. With age, muscles slacken and grow loose, lose mass and strength, can barely support our weight as we toddle across the room. And why must we suffer such indignities? Because our muscles, like all living tissue, must be repaired from time to time due to normal wear and tear. These repairs are made by the mechano growth factor hormone, which in turn is regulated by the IGF1 gene. When that gene inevitably loses some tines … Muscle to flab. Vigor to decrepitude. Dust to dust.

Most of our bodies are in a constant cycle of dying and being rebuilt to postpone the inevitable. The gut is perhaps the most fascinating example. As you can imagine it comes in contact with a lot of nasty stuff that damages tissues.

To stay healthy, the cells that line this organ are constantly being renewed. Cells just below the intestine’s surface divide every twelve to sixteen hours, and the whole intestine is refurbished every few days. I figure that by the time an unsuspecting person reaches the age of forty, the entire lining of her large intestine has been replaced several thousand times. Billions of cells have been shuffled each go-round. That makes trillions of cell divisions and whispered messages in the DNA to pass along to the next fellow in the chain. With such numbers, it would be nothing short of a miracle if no copying errors were made, no messages misheard, no foul-ups and instructions gone awry. Perhaps it would be better just to remain sitting and wait for the end. No, thank you.

Despite the preponderance of evidence against it, our culture strives for immortality and youth. We cling to a past that was but a moment in time in Heraclitus river— photographs, memories of our children, old wallets and shoes. And yet this yearning for youth and immortality, the “elixir of life,” connects us to every civilization that has graced the earth. But it’s not only our physical bodies that we want to remain young. We struggle against change — big and small.

Companies dread structural reorganization, even when it may be for the best, and have instituted whole departments and directives devoted to “change management” and the coddling of employees through tempestuous times. Stock markets plunge during periods of flux and uncertainty. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Who among us clamors to replace the familiar and comfortable incandescent lightbulbs with the new, odd-looking, “energy-efficient” compact fluorescent lamps and light-emitting diodes? We resist throwing out our worn loafers, our thinning pullover sweaters, our childhood baseball gloves. A plumber friend of mine will not replace his twenty-year-old water pump pliers, even though they have been banged up and worn down over the years. Outdated monarchies are preserved all over the world. In the Catholic Church, the law of priestly celibacy has remained essentially unchanged since the Council of Trent in 1563.

I have a photograph of the coast near Pacifica, California. Due to irreversible erosion, California has been losing its coastline at the rate of eight inches per year. Not much, you say. But it adds up over time. Fifty years ago, a young woman in Pacifica could build her house a safe thirty feet from the edge of the bluff overlooking the ocean, with a beautiful maritime view. Five years went by. Ten years. No cause for concern. The edge of the bluff was still twenty-three feet away. And she loved her house. She couldn’t bear moving. Twenty years. Thirty. Forty. Now the bluff was only three feet away. Still she hoped that somehow, some way, the erosion would cease and she could remain in her home. She hoped that things would stay the same. In actual fact, she hoped for a repeal of the second law of thermodynamics, although she may not have described her desires that way. In the photograph I am looking at, a dozen houses on the coast of Pacifica perch right on the very edge of the cliff, like fragile matchboxes, with their undersides hanging over the precipice. In some, awnings and porches have already slid over the side and into the sea.

One constant over Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history is upheaval and change.

The primitive Earth had no oxygen in its atmosphere. Due to its molten interior, our planet was much hotter than it is now, and volcanoes spewed forth in large numbers. Driven by heat flow from the core of the Earth, the terrestrial crust shifted and moved. Huge landmasses splintered and glided about on deep tectonic plates. Then plants and photosynthesis leaked oxygen into the atmosphere. At certain periods, the changing gases in the air caused the planet to cool, ice covered the Earth, entire oceans may have frozen. Today, the Earth continues to change. Something like ten billion tons of carbon are cycled through plants and the atmosphere every few years— first absorbed by plants from the air in the form of carbon dioxide, then converted into sugars by photosynthesis, then released again into soil or air when the plant dies or is eaten. Wait around a hundred million years or so, and carbon atoms are recycled through rocks, soil, and oceans as well as plants.

Eta Carinae
The Doomed Star, Eta Carinae, may be about to explode. But no one knows when – it may be next year, it may be one million years from now. Eta Carinae’s mass – about 100 times greater than our Sun – makes it an excellent candidate for a full blown supernova. (Photo via NASA)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar says to Cassius:

“But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.”

We can forgive his lack of knowledge on modern astrophysics or the second law of thermodynamics. The North Star, like all stars, including the sun, is slowing dying as they consume fuel. They too will eventually explode or fade into the universe. The only reminders of existence will be cold embers floating in space.

The Three Signs of Existence

Buddhists have long been aware of the evanescent nature of the world.

Anicca, or impermanence, they call it. In Buddhism, anicca is one of the three signs of existence, the others being dukkha, or suffering, and anatta, or non-selfhood. According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, when the Buddha passed away, the king deity Sakka uttered the following: “Impermanent are all component things. They arise and cease, that is their nature: They come into being and pass away.” We should not “attach” to things in this world, say the Buddhists, because all things are temporary and will soon pass away. All suffering, say the Buddhists, arises from attachment.

If only we could detach. “But,” Lightman argues, “even Buddhists believe in something akin to immortality. It is called Nirvana.”

A person reaches Nirvana after he or she has managed to leave behind all attachments and cravings, after countless trials and reincarnations, and finally achieved total enlightenment. The ultimate state of Nirvana is described by the Buddha as amaravati, meaning deathlessness. After a being has attained Nirvana, the reincarnations cease. Indeed, nearly every religion on Earth has celebrated the ideal of immortality. God is immortal. Our souls might be immortal.

Lightman argues that either we are delusional or nature is incomplete. “Either I am being emotional and vain in my wish for eternal life for myself …. or there is some realm of immortality that exists outside nature.”

If the first alternative is right, then I need to have a talk with myself and get over it. After all, there are other things I yearn for that are either not true or not good for my health. The human mind has a famous ability to create its own reality. If the second alternative is right, then it is nature that has been found wanting. Despite all the richness of the physical world— the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies— nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. Such exquisite stuff could not be made from matter, because all matter is slave to the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space. Perhaps it is God. Perhaps it is what made the universe.

Of these two alternatives, I am inclined to the first. I cannot believe that nature could be so amiss. Although there is much that we do not understand about nature, the possibility that it is hiding a condition or substance so magnificent and utterly unlike everything else seems too preposterous for me to believe. So I am delusional. In my continual cravings for eternal youth and constancy, I am being sentimental. Perhaps with the proper training of my unruly mind and emotions, I could refrain from wanting things that cannot be. Perhaps I could accept the fact that in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished, my “I-ness” dissolved in an infinite cavern of nothingness. But I cannot accept that fate even though I believe it to be true. I cannot force my mind to go to that dark place.

“A man can do what he wants,” said Schopenhauer, “but not want what he wants.”

If we are stuck with mortality can we find a beauty in this on its own? Is there something majestic in the brevity of life? Is there a value we can find from its fleeting and temporary duration?

I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer its flower opens to reveal silky white petals, which encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.

The Accidental Universe is an amazing read, balancing the laws of nature and first principles with a philosophical exploration of the world around us.

Mindfulness versus Concentration

Mindfulness versus Concentration

From the excellent Mindfulness in Plain English:

Concentration and mindfulness are distinctly different functions. They each have their role to play in meditation, and the relationship between them is definite and delicate. Concentration is often called one-pointedness of mind. It consists of forcing the mind to remain on one static point. Please note the word force. Concentration is pretty much a forced type of activity. It can be developed by force, by sheer unremitting willpower. And once developed, it retains some of that forced flavor. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a delicate function leading to refined sensibilities. These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one. It notices things. Concentration provides the power. It keeps the attention pinned down to one item. Ideally, mindfulness is in this relationship. Mindfulness picks the objects of attention, and notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady on that chosen object. If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.

Concentration could be defined as that faculty of the mind that focuses single-pointedly on one object without interruption. It must be emphasized that true concentration is a wholesome one-pointedness of mind. That is, the state is free from greed, hatred, and delusion. Unwholesome one-pointedness is also possible, but it will not lead to liberation. You can be very single-minded in a state of lust. But that gets you nowhere. Uninterrupted focus on something that you hate does not help you at all. In fact, such unwholesome concentration is fairly short-lived even when it is achieved— especially when it is used to harm others. True concentration itself is free from such contaminants. It is a state in which the mind is gathered together and thus gains power and intensity. We might use the analogy of a lens. Parallel waves of sunlight falling on a piece of paper will do no more than warm the surface. But if that same amount of light, when focused through a lens, falls on a single point, the paper bursts into flames. Concentration is the lens. It produces the burning intensity necessary to see into the deeper reaches of the mind. Mindfulness selects the object that the lens will focus on and looks through the lens to see what is there.

Concentration should be regarded as a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill. A sharp knife can be used to create a beautiful carving or to harm someone. It is all up to the one who uses the knife. Concentration is similar. Properly used, it can assist you toward liberation. But it can also be used in the service of the ego. It can operate in the framework of achievement and competition. You can use concentration to dominate others. You can use it to be selfish. The real problem is that concentration alone will not give you a perspective on yourself. It won’t throw light on the basic problems of selfishness and the nature of suffering. It can be used to dig down into deep psychological states. But even then, the forces of egotism won’t be understood. Only mindfulness can do that. If mindfulness is not there to look into the lens and see what has been uncovered, then it is all for nothing. Only mindfulness understands. Only mindfulness brings wisdom.

The Two Sides of Seneca and A Lesson on Human Fallibility

The death of Seneca, as depicted by Rubens in the early seventeenth century.
The death of Seneca, as depicted by Rubens in the early seventeenth century.

 

If you can withhold moral judgement, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero is a great historical account of making decisions in complex situations.

Here is one way to describe the career of the stoic thinker, writer, poet, and moralist Seneca:

By a strange twist of fate, a man who cherished sobriety, reason, and moral virtue found himself at the centre of Roman politics. He did his best to temper the whims of a deluded despot, while continuing to publish the ethical treatises that were his true calling. When he could no longer exert influence in the palace, he withdrew and in solitude produced his most stirring meditations on virtue, nature, and death. Enraged by his departure, the emperor he had once advised seized on a pretext to force him to kill himself. His adoring wife tried to join him in his sober, court genus suicide, but imperial troops intervened to save her.

And here is another way to describe the very same life:

A clever manipulator of undistinguished origin connived his way into the centre of Roman power. He used verbal brilliance to represent himself as a sage. He exploited his vast influence to enrich himself and touched off a rebellion in Britain by lending usuriously to its inhabitants. After conspiring in, or even instigating, the palace’s darkest crimes, he tried to rescue his reputation with carefully crafted literary self-fashioning. When it was clear that the emperor’s enmity posed a threat, he sought refuge at the altar of philosophy even while leading an assassination plot. His final bid for esteem was his histrionic suicide, which he browbeat his unwilling wife into sharing.

These are the opposing frames by which Romans of the late first century A.D. regarded Seneca. Tacitus, perhaps the greatest Roman historian and by far the best source we have today for Nero’s era, stood between these extremes.

Tacitus, a shrewd student of human nature, was fascinated by the sage who extolled a simple, studious life even while amassing wealth and power. But ultimately Seneca posed a riddle he could not solve.

Tacitus made Seneca the principal character in the last three surviving books of his Annals, creating a portrait of great richness and complexity. But the tone of that portrait is hard to discern. Tacitus wavered, withheld judgment, or became ironic and elusive. Strangely, though aware of Seneca’s philosophic writings, Tacitus made no mention of them, as though they had no bearing on the meaning of his life. And he passed no explicit judgment on Seneca’s character, as he often did elsewhere. Our most detailed account of Seneca, in the end, is ambivalent and sometimes ambiguous.

But isn’t this the case with all of us?

Well-intended actions can be viewed through a lens of deception and manipulation just as outright manipulation can be viewed as aid. The truth is more complicated than binary answers. Debates about outright altruism still carry on today.

The truth is we all live complicated lives. Most of our actions fall somewhere between evil and good, failing to land on either extreme. Of course we have problems seeing ourselves as others do. In our minds we are the hero.

Laying complexity on top of this is the nature of the situations. Seneca was in exile and flattering Nero was his only hope to return. Perhaps it was hope that he could impact the world and perhaps he just wanted to come home from exile. We will never know as motivations are inherently complicated.

Seneca, it’s interesting to note, leaves his political successes and failures out of his writing beyond a few passages in Letters, suggesting “the failures weighed on him heavily.”

The Pursuit of Power

What prompted the committed Stoic, “a man who thought happiness came from Nature and Reason, to also pursue death and rule?”

Seneca never answered these questions directly but he pondered them in a mythical parallel: Thyestes.

The tragedy was likely composed during his time at Nero’s court or shortly thereafter.

Seneca used the conflict between two royal brothers—Atreus, a bloody autocrat possessed by spirits of Hell, and Thyestes, a gentle sage trying to stay out of politics—to wrestle with questions that his own strange journey had raised.

In the beginning, Atreus is the ruler of Argos, solely in command. The complication becomes that he was supposed to rule in turns with his brother Thyestes.

Thyestes has gone into an exile that Seneca depicts as a philosophic retreat, a communion with Nature such as he himself had claimed to enjoy on Corsica. But Atreus, infected by the demonic spirit of his grandfather Tantalus, is bent on destroying his brother, whom he regards as a threat. He sets out to lure Thyestes back to Argos, then enact a diabolic plan: to feed his brother a banquet of his murdered children’s flesh.

The conflict is neither a coded version of Seneca’s relationship with Nero, nor an allegory contrasting political ambition with philosophic detachment, but it contains elements of both.

A henchman challenges Atreus to say how he will ensnare Thyestes from such a great distance. Atreus replies:

He could not be caught—unless he wants to be caught. He yet covets my kingdom.

With the omniscient insight of the criminally insane, Atreus seems to look straight into the heart of his brother—and Seneca’s heart too. The will to power, Atreus implies, lurks in even the most detached, self-contented sage.

Thyestes now enters the scene, walking toward the trap we know is waiting. Seneca portrays him as a virtuous Stoic, disgusted by the world he long ago renounced:

How good it is
to be in no ones way, to eat safe meals
stretched out on open ground. Hovels don’t house crimes; a narrow table holds a wholesome feast;
it’s the gold cup that’s poisoned—I’ve seen, I know.

Thyestes faced the same choice that Seneca faced on Corsica. This is perhaps the best insight into the nature of Seneca’s conflict.

Why does Thyestes return to Argos, while claiming to hate what he will find there? He makes his choice passively, almost fatalistically. As his children urge him onward, he appears to surrender: “I follow you, I do not lead,” he tells them. He has resisted long enough to satisfy his own conscience. He will resist further when Atreus offers him the sceptre, but he accepts this as well; it was, as Atreus had divined and as Seneca finally makes clear, what he had wanted all along.

Rather than staying in virtuous exile,Thyestes opts to return. A choice that would have been familiar to Seneca. Thyestes’ nature was human.

“All of us have done wrong,” Seneca wrote in De Clement; “some have stood by our good designs not firmly enough and have lost our guiltlessness, unwillingly, while trying to keep our grasp on it.”

While Seneca depicts Thyestes as trying, his effort falls short.

Seneca’s prose works offer forgiveness, but in the bleak world of the tragedies, the sin of weakness comes back on the sinner’s head a thousand fold. In a gruesome messenger speech, we hear how Atreus butchered, filleted, and stewed Thyestes’ children. Then we watch as Thyestes unknowingly consumes the horrid casserole.

In the play’s final act, a gleeful, drunken Thyestes revels over his meal and, significantly, curses his former poverty; he has gone over to the world of pleasure and power that he once renounced. Atreus now enters to deliver the crowning blow. He reveals the severed heads of the sons on whom Thyestes has feasted. No deities have intervened to prevent this atrocity, and none care that it happened, as Seneca suggests in his nightmarish closing lines:

THYESTES: Gods will come to avenge me;
To them I entrust your punishment.
ATREUS: And I entrust your punishment—to your children.

After the cannibal banquet, the plays chorus members, the citizens of Argos, envision

Are we, out of all generations,
deserving of the sky’s collapse,
its axis knocked from beneath its dome?
Is it on us the last age comes?
A harsh destiny has brought us to this:
Wretches, either we lost our sun, Or else we drove it away.

In these words we hear Seneca’s voice. The sky had become black and the only way out was death and yet he lived on. The last words of the play’s apocalyptic chorus mention a theme that would occupy Seneca in his last years: Suicide.

Greedy for life is he who declines to die, along with the dying world.

***

Part biography, part narrative history, and part exploration of Seneca’s writings, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero is an effort to bring the two conflicting views of Seneca into a single personality.

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