We are a culture of explainers. You’ve met them and so have I—the people who think they’re more informed than the experts, always happy to share their thoughts with anyone who will listen. Such people sometimes were considered quirky, even endearing, because they meant well and were usually few and far between. However, “the public space is increasingly dominated by a loose assortment of poorly informed people,” writes Tom Nichols in his excellent book The Death of Expertise.
There is an intellectual Gresham’s Law emerging, as misinformation overtakes knowledge. But this isn’t really a new thing. The conflict between people who know and people who believe they know isn’t always so obvious, but as the gap between experts and the general citizenry grows, so too does the mistrust.
In some cases, ignorance has become hip. Consider the flat Earth movement, vaccines, or the raw milk craze of a few years ago. Rejecting the advice of experts has become a cultural symbol. Why listen to doctors about vaccines, or the Center for Disease Control about the hazards of raw milk? And don’t even get me started on the shape of the Earth.
The following essay was chosen as the winner of the Brooklyn Public Library’s 2019 Night of Philosophy Op-Ed Contest.
Ideals of greatness cut across the American political spectrum. Supporters of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and believers in Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” for instance, may find themselves at odds, but their differences lie in the vision of what constitutes greatness, not whether greatness itself is a worthy goal. In both cases — and in most any iteration of America’s idea of itself — it is.
The desire for greatness also unites the diverse philosophical camps of Western ethics. Aristotle called for practicing the highest virtue. Kant believed in an ethical rule so stringent not even he thought it was achievable by mortals. Bentham’s utilitarianism is about maximizing happiness. Marx sought the great world for all. Modern-day libertarians will stop at nothing to increase personal freedom and profit. These differences surely matter, but while the definition of greatness changes, greatness itself is sought by each in his own way.
Swimming against the tide of greatness is a counter-history of ethics embodied by schools of thought as diverse as Buddhism, Romanticism and psychoanalysis. It is by borrowing from D.W. Winnicott, an important figure in the development of psychoanalysis, that we get perhaps the best name for this other ethics: “the good-enough life.” In his book “Playing and Reality,” Winnicott wrote about what he called “the good-enough mother.” This mother is good enough not in the sense that she is adequate or average, but that she manages a difficult task: initiating the infant into a world in which he or she will feel both cared for and ready to deal with life’s endless frustrations. To fully become good enough is to grow up into a world that is itself good enough, that is as full of care and love as it is suffering and frustration.
Free verse by jay
How happy are Ageing absent!
Are you upset by how old they are?
Does it tear you apart to see the absent so senescent?
I cannot help but stop and look at the Anti-Ageing, odd omission.
Does the odd omission make you shiver?
One afternoon I said to myself,
“Why aren’t obvious omissions more nonfat?”
Obvious omissions are adipose. obvious omissions are superfatted,
obvious omissions are rounded, however.
How happy are yellow, polemical prefaces!
Down, down, down into the darkness of the polemical prefaces,
Gently they go – the old, the white-livered, the chickenhearted.
How happy are Life, little left!
Do little left make you shiver?
How happy is the Anti-Life been!
Does the been make you shiver?
“For to age is to live and to live is to age, and being anti-age is tantamount to being anti-life.” — Anne Kapf
welcome to this week’s edition of the brainpickings.org newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s digest — Neil Gaiman’s stunning ode to the courage of speaking truth to power, Iris Murdoch on art as resistance, Melville’s electric love letters to Hawthorne — you can catch up right here. And if you are enjoying this labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU. (On a marginally related note, I wrote a book. If you enjoy Brain Pickings, you might enjoy it, too.)
Thoreau on the Long Cycles of Social Change and the Importance of Not Mistaking Politics for Progress
“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin insisted in examining the building blocks of a juster future. “The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote across the Atlantic as she was advancing the era’s other great human rights cause.
A century before Baldwin and De Beauvoir, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explored this question of how the choices we make in the present liberate the future from the past and make the world over in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library) — his first book, published when he was only thirty-two, a disaffected public school teacher who had become one of the country’s most promising young writers with the stern yet generous guidance of his first and best editor, Margaret Fuller.
This was an era of immense cultural upheaval, in which the air of revolution was saturated with the urgencies of abolition and women’s emancipation. Ensconced in the woods of Concord, attuned to the elements that far predated and would far outlive the turmoils of the present — the trees, the rivers, the cycles of the seasons — Thoreau spent his days contemplating the most elemental questions of human existence and our civilizational conscience. It was with this widest possible perspective that he focused his precocious wisdom on the pressing issues of social change, using this long lever of insight to make the present a fulcrum for elevating the future.
Bedeviled by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War, having just modeled for his country how to use civil disobedience to advance justice — a model that would come to influence Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — he considers the tectonics of change on the scale of society and civilization:
As in geology, so in social institutions, we may discover the causes of all past change in the present invariable order of society. The greatest appreciable physical revolutions are the work of the light-footed air, the stealthy-paced water, and the subterranean fire… We are independent of the change we detect. The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion. It is the slowest pulsation which is the most vital. The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.
If history teaches us one thing about the origins and originators of the greatest social change — an animating question in Figuring — it is that those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves often blind to their own spark. Thoreau’s contemporary and kindred revolutionary spirit Elizabeth Barrett Browning would articulate this with stunning succinctness in her groundbreaking 1956 book-length poem Aurora Leigh:
The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do…
The young Thoreau channels this sentiment in his own lyrical prose, suspended as always between the buoyant and the melancholy:
A man is not his hope, nor his despair, nor yet his past deed. We know not yet what we have done, still less what we are doing. Wait till evening, and other parts of our day’s work will shine than we had thought at noon, and we shall discover the real purport of our toil. As when the farmer has reached the end of the furrow and looks back, he can tell best where the pressed earth shines most.
One of Thoreau’s most countercultural yet incisive points is that true social reform has little to do with politics, for genuine cultural change operates on cycles far longer and more invisible than the perpetual churning of immediacies with which the political state and the political conscience are occupied. Rather than dueling with petty surface facts, as politics is apt to, the true revolutionary and reformer dwells in humanity’s largest truths, aiming to transfigure the deepest strata of reality. In consonance with the need for a telescopic perspective, Thoreau writes:
To one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things, the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever. It is unreal, incredible, and insignificant to him, and for him to endeavor to extract the truth from such lean material is like making sugar from linen rags, when sugar-cane may be had. Generally speaking, the political news, whether domestic or foreign, might be written to-day for the next ten years, with sufficient accuracy. Most revolutions in society have not power to interest, still less alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine dying out in the country, and I might attend. Most events recorded in history are more remarkable than important, like eclipses of the sun and moon, by which all are attracted, but whose effects no one takes the trouble to calculate.
Change, Thoreau reminds us, begins when we finally choose to critically examine and then recalibrate the ill-serving codes and conventions handed down to us, often unquestioned, by the past and its power structures. It is essentially an act of the imagination first. Long before Ursula K. Le Guin asserted that “we will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Thoreau calls for imagining nobler alternatives to the dicta and mindsets we have inherited:
In my short experience of human life, the outward obstacles, if there were any such, have not been living men, but the institutions of the dead. It is grateful to make one’s way through this latest generation as through dewy grass. Men are as innocent as the morning to the unsuspicious… I love man-kind, but I hate the institutions of the dead un-kind. Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.
A century before Hannah Arendt considered the most extreme and gruesome manifestation of this tendency in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, informed by the Holocaust and its incomprehensible phenomenon of ordinary people “just following orders” to murder, Thoreau writes:
Herein is the tragedy; that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery in; and what else may not come in by this opening? But certainly there are modes by which a man may put bread into his mouth which will not prejudice him as a companion and neighbor.
Most of our errors, Thoreau observes, stem not from being unwitting of the right choice but from being unwise in the willingness or unwillingness to choose it:
Men do not fail commonly for want of knowledge, but for want of prudence to give wisdom the preference. What we need to know in any case is very simple.
To unmoor ourselves from the burdens of the past, he reminds us, we must be engaged in an act of continual and conscious self-renewal:
All men are partially buried in the grave of custom, and of some we see only the crown of the head above ground. Better are the physically dead, for they more lively rot. Even virtue is no longer such if it be stagnant. A man’s life should be constantly as fresh as this river. It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant.
A century later, Bertrand Russell — himself a humanist of the highest order and a rare seer of elemental truth — would liken the optimal human existence to a river.
Couple this particular fragment of Thoreau’s abidingly insightful A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers — which also gave us his wisdom on the difference between an artisan, an artist, and a genius — with his contemporary Frederick Douglass on art as a tool of social change, then revisit Thoreau on nature as prayer, the myth of productivity, knowing vs. seeing, and defining your own success.
Otherness, Belonging, and the Web of Life: The Great Nature Writer Henry Beston on Our Fellow Creatures and the Dignity of Difference
“Our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom,” naturalist Sy Montgomery wrote in her lyrical reflection on what thirteen animals taught her about how to be a good creature. And yet, for millennia, we left this old, shimmering world unfathomed — for all but the last blink of our species’ history, non-human animals have been little more than a preying feast for the human body and fertile metaphors for the human mind. Not until Jane Goodall upended the conceit that we are the only tool-wielding animals, against enormous tides of resistance from the scientific establishment, did we slowly and reluctantly begin shunning the specter of Descartes, haunting us for centuries with the haughty dogma that we alone are in possession of minds, while other animals are mere automata — moving machines, governed by instinct alone. Our definitions of what it means to be human have always perched atop a constructed hierarchy of beings, casting the otherness of other creatures as inferior. And yet even Darwin, who radicalized our understanding of nature by demonstrating the evolutionary ladder of life, scribbled in the margins of a natural history book: “Never say higher or lower. Say more complicated.”
The beauty of that unfathomed complexity and its attendant cry for a new way of apprehending non-human animals are what Henry Beston (June 1, 1888–April 15, 1968) — one of the most lyrical nature writers our species has produced, and Rachel Carson’s greatest literary hero — examines a lovely passage from his 1928 classic The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (public library).
In a chapter titled “Autumn, Oceans, Birds,” Beston writes:
No aspect of nature on this beach is more mysterious to me than the flights of these shorebird constellations. The constellation forms… in an instant of time, and in that same instant develops its own will. Birds which have been feeding yards away from each other, each one individually busy for his individual body’s sake, suddenly fuse into this new volition and, flying, rise as one, coast as one, tilt their dozen bodies as one, and as one wheel off on the course which the new group will has determined… By what means, by what methods of communication does this will so suffuse the living constellation that its dozen or more tiny brains know it and obey it in such an instancy of time? Are we to believe that these birds, all of them, are machina, as Descartes long ago insisted, mere mechanisms of flesh and bone so exquisitely alike that each cogwheel brain, encountering the same environmental forces, synchronously lets slip the same mechanic ratchet? or is there some psychic relation between these creatures?
From this constellating marvel bordering on magic, Beston wrests a poetic antidote to our anthropocentrism — part requiem for our misplaced millennia-old hubris, part prescient and largehearted invitation to regard the otherness of this living world as a sovereign splendor measured not against but alongside and apart from our own.
Nearly a century before the poet Mary Oliver insisted that “the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion [and] standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart,” Beston writes:
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
Complement this fragment of The Outermost House— which also gave us Beston on how the beauty of night nourishes the human spirit — with poet Campbell McGrath’s stunning tribute to Jane Goodall’s revolutionary work and Christopher Hitchens on animal rights, then revisit Beston on seasonality and the human spirit, the limits of scientific knowledge, happiness, simplicity, and the sacredness of smallness, and his beautiful manifesto for relearning to be nurtured by nature.
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster,”James Baldwin wrote in a staggeringly prescient piecefrom 1953. And yet shutting our eyes is how we humans have coped, again and again, with our own discomfort and helplessness in the face of inconvenient realities — indeed, it could be said that our existential eyelids evolved precisely for this survivalist function, maladaptive and supremely adaptive at the same time. Virginia Woolf articulated the intoxicating chill of this truth: “Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades.”
Our illusions are self-cast enchantments that sever our contact with truth by paralyzing what Bertrand Russell called “the will to doubt” — the vital moral faculty that protects us from manipulation and from the credulity Russell considered our “intellectual original sin.” It is a vicious cycle of delusion — one which W.H. Auden described in his incisive meditation on enchantment: “We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny… The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.”
To break the spell of self-deception, then, is one of the greatest moral triumphs a human being — or a society, or a civilization — can claim.
That is what the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran(April 8, 1911–June 20, 1995) — whom Susan Sontagcelebrated as one of the most lucid, powerful, and nuanced thinkers of the twentieth century, a writer concerned with “consciousness tuned to the highest pitch of refinement” — explores in a passage from his arrestingly titled and arrestingly argued 1956 book The Temptation to Exist (public library).
Echoing Woolf’s insight into the necessity and convenience of illusions — even harmful illusions — Cioran writes:
The destruction of idols involves that of prejudices. Now, prejudices — organic fictions of a civilization — assure its duration, preserve its physiognomy. It must respect them: if not all of them, at least those which are its own and which, in the past, had the importance of a superstition, a rite. If a civilization entertains them as pure conventions, it will increasingly release itself from them without being able to replace them by its own means. And what if it has worshipped caprice, freedom, the individual? A high-class conformism, no more. Once it ceases to “conform,” caprice, freedom, and the individual will become a dead letter.
Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity
It is hard to miss the parallels between the civilizational and the social, the political and the personal — we are as susceptible, or perhaps even more susceptible, to such distortions of reality in our private lives. Too often, we frame our emotional motives as moral motives, inflicting our illusions upon others with an air of self-righteousness — the most noxious of self-delusion’s fumes. These tendencies creep up to every level of society as our individual decisions coalesce into collective actions, which are then codified into the stories, policies, and selective memories of events we call history. Cioran writes:
A minimum of unconsciousness is necessary if one wants to stay inside history. To act is one thing; to know one is acting is another. When lucidity invests the action, insinuates itself into it, action is undone and, with it, prejudice, whose function consists, precisely, in subordinating, in enslaving consciousness to action. The man* who unmasks his fictions renounces his own resources and, in a sense, himself. Consequently, he will accept other fictions which will deny him, since they will not have cropped up from his own depths. No man concerned with his equilibrium may exceed a certain degree of lucidity and analysis. How much more this applies to a civilization, which vacillates as soon as it exposes the errors which permitted its growth and its luster, as soon as it calls into question its own truths!
Around the time Baldwin was exhorting his compatriots to wake up and own up to their own monstrosities and ugly truths, Cioran bellows prophetically from the poorest reaches of Eastern Europe, just north of where I was born, in a country centuries the United States’ senior:
America stands before the world as an impetuous void, a fatality without substance. Nothing prepared her for hegemony; yet she tends toward it, not without a certain hesitation. Unlike the other nations which have had to pass through a series of humiliations and defeats, she has known till now only the sterility of an uninterrupted good fortune. If, in the future, everything should continue to go as well, her appearance on the scene will have been an accident without influence. Those who preside over her destiny, those who take her interests to heart, should prepare for bad times; in order to cease being a superficial monster, she requires an ordeal of major scope. Having lived, hitherto, outside hell, she is preparing to descend into it. If she seeks a destiny for herself, she will find it only on the ruins of all that was her raison d’etre.