The Marginalian Newsletter


This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — losing love, finding love, and how to live with the fragility of it all; a 4-year-old’s animated poem about how to fix a world; Lewis Thomas on life — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for more than fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive (as have I) thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

Cosmic Consolation for Human Hardship: The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on How to Live with Life

In those seasons of being when life boughs you down low with world-weariness, when the sun of your soul is collapsing into a black hole, when you despair of humanity’s twin capacity for inhumanity and are no longer able to hold without heartache Maya Angelou’s eternal observation that we are creatures “whose hands can strike with such abandon that in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness” — in those seasons of being, there is great solace in remembering that what we call human nature, with all of its terrors and transcendences and violent contradictions, is a humble subset of nature itself: In nature, where stars are always being born and die and give us life, creation and destruction are always syncopating; in nature, the seasons are always changing; in nature, every loss reveals what we are made of, and that is a beautiful thing.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

There is great comfort and calibration in trusting, not with the faith of the pious but with the faith of the naturalist, that even the bleakest seasons pass, and even the most violent forces are counterbalanced by the forces of vitality — cosmic calculus of which the very existence of life is living proof.

Such awareness is not a negation of the need for morality, of our moral calling as human beings to right the forces that violate life, but an affirmation of it — for morality would not exist if suffering did not exist.

We are human because we are sensitive to both, susceptible to both, moved by both.

That is what the great naturalist and prose-poet of nature John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) explores in an exquisite 1904 essay reflection titled “An Outlook upon Life,” included a century later in The Art of Seeing Things: Essays by John Burroughs (public library).

In the closest Burroughs came to formulating a personal philosophy, distilling his vast view of life into a kind of credo worth borrowing, he writes:

I was born under happy stars, with a keen sense of wonder, which has never left me… and with no exaggerated notion of my own deserts. I have shared the common lot, and have found it good enough for me.

John Burroughs

Echoing Whitman — who owes his cultural reverence to Burroughs and who, in the wake of his paralytic stroke, considered what makes life worth living and counseled to “tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies” — Burroughs adds:

Unlucky is the man who is born with great expectations, and who finds nothing in life quite up to the mark.

One of the best things a man can bring into the world with him is a natural humility of spirit. About the next best thing he can bring, and they usually go together, is an appreciative spirit — a loving and susceptible heart.

A century and an epoch of discoveries before physicist Freeman Dyson observed that “our universe is the most interesting of all possible universes, and our fate as human beings is to make it so,” Burroughs exclaims that this world is “a mighty interesting place to live in” and invites the reader into the cosmic reverie that seems to have been the all-suffusing atmosphere of his own life:

If I had my life to live over again, and had my choice of celestial bodies, I am sure I should take this planet, and iI should choose these men and women for my friends and companions. This great rolling sphere with its sky, its stars, its sunrises and sunsets, and with its outlook into infinity — what could be more desirable? What more satisfying? Garlanded by the seasons, embosomed in sidereal influences, thrilling with continents — one might ransack the heaves in vain for a better or more picturesque abode.

Art by Daniel Bruson for The Universe in Verse: My God, It’s Full of Stars.

Half a century before the Nobel-winning founding father of quantum mechanics Erwin Schrödinger’s dazzling illumination of consciousness as a function of the universe, Burroughs adds:

We may fancy that there might be a better universe, but we cannot conceive of a better, because our minds are the outcome of things as they are, and all our ideas of value are based upon the lessons we learn in this world.

More than the unsurpassable beauty of the planet, however, Burroughs celebrates the sheer sense of belonging to a world — to a totality of being across species and landscapes, a totality the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel had given the name ecology when Burroughs was just beginning his literary life while working as a treasury clerk. He exults:

O to share the great, sunny, joyous life of the earth! to be as happy as the birds are! as contented as the cattle on the hills! as the leaves of the trees that dance and rustle in the wind! as the waters that murmur and sparkle to the sea! To be able to see that the sin and sorrow and suffering of the world are a necessary part of the natural course of things, a phase of the law of growth and development that runs through the universe, bitter in its personal application, but illuminating when we look upon life as a whole!

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

A generation after the grief-savaged Darwin solaced his personal loss in the scientific knowledge that the death of the individual is what propels the evolution of the species, and an epoch before science equipped us its cosmic consolation of what happens when we die, Burroughs adds:

Without death and decay, how could life go on? Without what we call sin (which is another name for imperfection) and the struggle consequent upon it, how could our development proceed?

[…]

Look at the grass, the flowers, the sweet serenity and repose of the fields — at what price it has all been bought, of what warring of the elements, of what overturnings and pulverizings and shiftings of land and sea… We deplore the waste and suffering, but these things never can be eliminated from the process of evolution. As individuals we can mitigate them; as races and nations we have to endure them… and the evolution of life on the globe, including the life of man, has gone on and still goes on, because, in the conflict of forces, the influences that favored life and forwarded it have in the end triumphed.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s nineteenth-century astronomical drawings, observed through the era’s most powerful telescope. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In a lovely antidote to human exceptionalism, Burroughs celebrates our shared inheritance with the rest of life, itself exceptional — a bright gift of chance against the staggering cosmic odds of nonexistence:

Our good fortune is not that there are or may be special providences and dispensations, as our [ancestors] believed, by which we may escape this or that evil, but our good fortune is that we have our part and lot in the total scheme of things, that we share in the slow optimistic tendency of the universe, that we have life and health and wholeness on the same terms as the trees, the flowers, the grass, the animals have, and pay the same price for our well-being, in struggle and effort, that they pay. That is our good fortune. There is nothing accidental or exceptional about it. It is not by the favor or disfavor of some of some god that things go well or ill with us, but it is by the authority of the whole universe, by the consent and cooperation of every force above us and beneath us.

[…]

If we or our fortunes go down prematurely beneath the currents, it is because the currents are vital, and do never and can never cease nor turn aside.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage woodblock prints. (Available as a print.)

Rachel Carson — the twentieth century’s great prose-poet of nature, recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the Nobel of nature writing — would echo this sentiment in her sublime meditation on the ocean and the meaning of life; James Baldwin — the twentieth century’s great prose-poet of human nature — would echo it in his classic insistence that we must “say Yes to life and embrace it whenever it is found” because “the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, [and] the sea does not cease to grind down rock.” A century before Maya Angelou serenaded our shared destiny on this “lonely planet” adrift “past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns,” Burroughs adds:

Nature is as regardless of a planet or a sun as of a bubble upon the river, has one no more at heart than the other. How many suns have gone out? How many planets have perished?… She has infinite worlds left, and out of old she makes new… Nature wins in every game because she bets on both sides. If her suns or systems fail, it is, after all, her laws that succeed. A burnt-out sun vindicates the constancy of her forces… In an orchard of apple trees some of the fruit is wormy, some scabbed, some dwarfed, from one cause or another; but Nature approves of the worm, and of the fungus that makes the scab, and of the aphid that makes the dwarf, just as sincerely as she approves of the perfect fruit. She holds the stakes of both sides; she wins, whoever loses… Peace, satisfaction, true repose, come only through effort, and then not for long.

Another of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s nineteenth-century astronomical drawings. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

With this, Burroughs returns to the animating question of his reflection — what, amid the universe’s ceaseless dance of dissolution, makes human life worth living and what, amid nature’s indifference to our notions of good and evil, backbones a good life:

To have a mind eager to know the great truths and broad enough to take them in, and not get lost in the maze of apparent contradictions, is undoubtedly the highest good.

Complement with Marcus Aurelius on the good luck of your bad luck and Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, then revisit Mary Shelley — envisioning a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, from a nineteenth-century world savaged by the decade-long Napoleonic Wars — on nature’s consolations and what makes life worth living.

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How to Make Difficult Decisions: Benjamin Franklin’s Pioneering Pros and Cons Framework

When the 29-year-old Charles Darwin made his endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage, he was applying a now common decision-making technique pioneered half a century earlier by another revolutionary mind on the other side of the Atlantic: America’s polymathic Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706–April 17, 1790).

Not since the Stoics had there been so prolific a prophet of self-improvement as Franklin. From the list of thirteen virtues he penned when he was only twenty to his staggering daily routine to his clever trick for disarming haters, he continually devised and applied various psychological frameworks to just about every problem of existence. By middle age, Franklin’s reputation as a formidable sage of practical wisdom rendered him on the receiving end of countless pleas for advice, many of which he generously and thoughtfully obliged.

Benjamin Franklin (Portrait by David Martin, 1767)

In the late summer of 1772, Franklin received one such plea from a friend — the English scientist, theologian, and liberal political theorist Joseph Priestley, at the time working as minister of the famed Unitarian church Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds. On Franklin’s recommendation, the Earl of Shelburne had offered the 39-year-old Priestley a lucrative position as his general assistant, tasked with managing his library and educating his children. Priestley was torn — the appointment would grant him financial stability for the first time in his life and would leave ample time for his scientific investigations, but it would require that he relinquish his ministry and move his family to the Earl’s estate near Bath. Unsure how to proceed, he turned to Franklin for help in navigating the high-stakes conundrum.

Joseph Priestley (Portrait by Ellen Sharp, 1794)

Rather than telling his friend what to choose, Franklin taught him how to choose. His letter, cited in Steven Johnson’s excellent book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most (public library), outlined a sort of worksheet for the moral mathematics of decision-making — the first known instance of a pros and cons framework.

Franklin writes:

In the Affair of so much Importance to you, wherein you ask my Advice, I cannot for want of sufficient Premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how.

When these difficult Cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under Consideration all the Reasons pro and con are not present to the Mind at the same time; but sometimes one Set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of Sight. Hence the various Purposes or Inclinations that alternately prevail, and the Uncertainty that perplexes us.

To get over this, my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.

Priestley accepted the position, which proved to be a turning point in the history of science. Less than three years later, in the laboratory the Earl of Shelburne built for him, he went on to conduct the famous experiment in which he focused the sun’s rays on a sample of mercuric oxide through a burning glass and discovered oxygen, O2 — a new kind of air Priestley marveled was “five or six times better than common air for the purpose of respiration, inflammation, and, I believe, every other use of common atmospherical air.”

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether insightful Farsighted with Descartes on the cure for indecision, Milan Kundera on knowing what we really want, Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman on how our intuitions mislead us, and Oliver Burkeman on the psychology of why overplanning and excessive goal-setting limit our happiness and success, then revisit Franklin on the truest source of happiness.

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Neither Victims Nor Executioners: Albert Camus on the Antidote to Violence

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her spectacular essay on optimism and despair. Seventy years earlier, just after the close of World War II, another genius of the times addressed this predicament and its attendant question of what reimagining progress looks like as we behold the future from the precarious platform of the present.

In November of 1946, a decade before he became the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for work that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times,” Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) wrote a series of short essays for the journal of the French Resistance, which were later published as Neither Victims nor Executioners: An Ethic Superior to Murder (public library).

Albert Camus, 1946 (Photograph: Cecil Beaton)

At the outset of the war, Camus considered what it means to have strength of character in difficult times. Now, at its grim end, he examines what it takes to maintain that strength and make it a heritage to future generations in the aftermath of extreme moral weakness at the level of a whole civilization. He begins his final installment in the series, titled “Toward Sociability,” with an inquiry into the vital interplay of reason and emotion in inciting the movements that bring about social change:

Yes, we must raise our voices. Up to this point, I have re­frained from appealing to emotion. We are being torn apart by a logic of History which we have elaborated in every detail — a net which threatens to strangle us. It is not emotion which can cut through the web of a logic which has gone to irrational lengths, but only reason which can meet logic on its own ground. But I should not want to leave the impression, in con­cluding, that any program for the future can get along without our powers of love and indignation. I am well aware that it takes a powerful prime mover to get men into motion and that it is hard to throw one’s self into a struggle whose objectives are so modest and where hope has only a rational basis — and hardly even that. But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that they be made to understand clearly what they are doing.

In a sentiment he would later ferment into the assertion that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” Camus counters the dangerous notion that the present must be made a sacrificial offering to some abstract ideal future:

To save what can be saved so as to open up some kind of future — that is the prime mover, the passion and the sacrifice that is required. It demands only that we reflect and then decide, clearly, whether humanity’s lot must be made still more miserable in order to achieve far-off and shadowy ends, whether we should accept a world bristling with arms where brother kills brother; or whether, on the contrary, we should avoid bloodshed and misery as much as possible so that we give a chance for survival to later generations better equipped than we are.

A decade before he reached a warm hand across the Iron Curtain of the Cold War in his beautiful letter of cross-cultural solidarity to Boris Pasternak, Camus writes:

We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to make such a choice. Those who really love the Russian people, in gratitude for what they have never ceased to be — that world leaven which Tolstoy and Gorky speak of — do not wish for them success in power-poli­tics, but rather want to spare them, after the ordeals of the past, a new and even more terrible bloodletting. So, too, with the American people, and with the peoples of unhappy Eu­rope. This is the kind of elementary truth we are liable to forget amidst the furious passions of our time.

Art by Eugenio Carmi from The Three Astronauts, Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s book about world peace

Five years before Hannah Arendt considered loneliness as the common ground for terror and how dictators use isolation as a weapon of oppression in her own postmortem of WWII, Camus adds:

Yes, it is fear and silence and the spiritual isolation they cause that must be fought today. And it is sociability (“le dialogue”) and the universal intercommunication of men that must be defended. Slavery, injustice and lies destroy this inter­course and forbid this sociability; and so we must reject them.

Exactly forty years later, in his magnificent Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel would echo Camus and insist that “silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Half a century after Tolstoy asserted in his forgotten correspondence with Gandhi about violence and human nature that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from its ills,” Camus argues that framing the violence of the present as a necessary evil of what will eventually be “History” is a grave disservice to posterity:

Modern nations are driven by powerful forces along the roads of power and domination. I will not say that these forces should be furthered or that they should be obstructed. They hardly need our help and, for the moment, they laugh at at­tempts to hinder them. They will, then, continue. But I will ask only this simple question: what if these forces wind up in a dead end, what if that logic of History on which so many now rely turns out to be a will o’ the wisp? What if, despite two or three world wars, despite the sacrifice of several generations and a whole system of values, our grandchildren — supposing they survive — find themselves no closer to a world society? It may well be that the survivors of such an experience will be too weak to understand their own sufferings. Since these forces are working themselves out and since it is inevitable that they con­tinue to do so, there is no reason why some of us should not take on the job of keeping alive through the apocalyptic histor­ical vista that stretches before us, a modest thoughtfulness which, without pretending to solve everything, will constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life. The essential thing is that people should carefully weigh the price they must pay.

A year after he contemplated the three antidotes to the absurdity of life, Camus concludes the essay with a mighty reminder that we choose our future with our actions in the present — and that violence is a choice, as is its counterpoint:

All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those who accept the conse­quences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist, it will be a gain if it be clearly marked. Over the expanse of five continents throughout the coming years an endless strug­gle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly per­suasion, a struggle in which, granted, the former has a thou­sand times the chances of success than has the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.

Complement Neither Victims nor Executioners with Camus on happiness, despair, and the love of life, consciousness, the most important question of existence, and what it really means to be a rebel, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on resisting the defeatism of easy despair and Toni Morrison on the artist’s task through turbulent times.