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By Namit Arora | Dec 2001 | Comments
I first thought of writing this after an interview in which an author was reverentially asked, ‘Sir, what would be your advice to a young artist?’ The author turned his nose up and gave a pat, patronizing answer but the question stayed with me. How would I answer it? I didn’t have an audience of young artists in mind. I began with little notes and they grew organically. I considered naming this, more aptly, Notes to Myself, but then opted in favor of honoring the inspiration. I wrote and abandoned the first draft in 1997. Such writing is best thought of as ‘under construction’; still, with some reluctance, I publish here an updated version accrued over a few years. I trust it’ll serve as a quiet record of a personal history. ( —Dec 2001)
‘Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live.’ — Hezekiah (king of Judah at Jerusalem, 8th century BCE)
Perhaps you too will begin your artistic journey with memories of innocence, a private rage, or a heartfelt lament — you’ll offer yourself to the world; you’ll be sincere and you’ll complain too much; you’ll worry about nobility of thought, form and proportion, elegance and universality; you’ll see disproportionate value in early discoveries and have too many answers; you’ll judge readily, parade second-hand truths, won’t recognize your own clichés; with applause from certain quarters you may even think it deserved; you’ll wallow in the heady voluptuousness of absurdity and freedom, propagate unexamined biases, glorify alien traditions, or your own.
Unfortunately, the result would be less akin to art, more to the dynamics of masturbation. With some luck, and horror, you’ll realize your immense mediocrity. Do not despair, or indulge in self-pity—reconcile and improve your mind; get that old-fashioned self-knowledge thing going. In this long ramble, I offer my two pesos worth on the matter. Be warned, tomorrow is another day—these are tentative ruminations, not an attempt to bell the cat!
Culture, according to historian Jacob Burckhardt, ‘is the sum of all that has spontaneously arisen for the advancement of material life and as an expression of spiritual and moral life—all social intercourse, technologies, arts, literature, and sciences. It is the realm of the variable, free, not necessarily universal, of all that cannot lay claim to compulsive authority.’ Culture is nothing but a collective response in a particular time and place, including not only its visible side but also its elusive underside—myths, anxieties, humor, repressions, prejudices.  Examine the prodigious multiplicity of cultural expression. You may find that, beneath them, there are only a handful of elemental responses. Consider this carefully: are some responses better than others? Why?
Peoples and nations routinely create fictional identities for others, rarely without value judgments—some more dehumanizing than others. This often springs from a need for self-affirmation than from representing others fairly. Over time, this fiction becomes a kind of popular truth, framed around an us and them. Differences of culture and values are equated with innate good and bad in our and their natures: this is prejudice. It lurks within us all and it takes enormous conscious effort, of education and experience, to correct it. Cultural relativism too is disingenuous for it’s not that criticism of cultural practices is improper but that it must be done with learning, and without any prejudice rooted in a silent belief that people are built differently, apart from the historical process. Prejudice is born when we accept a prettified, blinkered history of ‘our people’, and believe it was inevitable; or when we’re inclined to opinion but loathe to revision. In them, we fail to recognize cultural practices that are variations of our own, we deny them our virtues. With invisible pegs we impose visible borders.
So for instance, the mass media in the West continues to propagate an atavistic stereotype of Islam. An average man from modern Cairo, Baghdad or Damascus is variously imagined as — paraphrasing Edward Said from Orientalism — a Bedouin on a camel, a religious extremist simply because he adheres to Islam, a mustachioed sheik leering from behind an oil pump, someone who routinely abuses two of his three wives, a gun toting terrorist, and the like. Essentially, someone primitive, incapable of nuanced thought, irrational, lecherous, cruel, a colorful scoundrel in strange clothes, an over-sexed fiend lusting for wholesome white flesh. In short, a lesser human being. Them less civilized than Us. The heart of darkness lies elsewhere! This is not just a Western malady and casteism is not just an Indian one. Hasty, reductive judgment of people based on speech, custom, faith, sex, etiquette, profession, nationality, or place of origin is endemic — altogether, a nefarious corruption of the soul. People uniquely mix faults and merits; they’re indeed a function of their givens but not entirely determined by it, and always capable of a functional morality. Learn, therefore, to see each person with fresh eyes.
Decolonization of the mind takes time; don’t let your history remain a burden, or a false prop. Live many cultures, be of many cultures, aspire to being a citizen of the world. Reduce your emotional distance from as many peoples as possible, not just from the historically deprived. Travel to know the character of many places, in the process refine your own—what they call the inner journey. Indulge your nomadic urges, succumb to the lure of faraway places, let a million pictures riot in your brain. ‘[T]ravel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.’ Understand how others see themselves and the impact history has on people. Neither homeliness, nor the rootless state, is worth glorifying per se. Examine the cultural heritage that your upbringing denied you; attempt to understand moral worlds different from your own. This’ll teach you more about when to say a story is good.
Personal identity is shaped by unique, subjective factors. Supplant your need to judge with a need to understand the multiplicity of truth. This’ll lead you to a weathered sort of liberalism; your urge to take sides on every local debate will reduce; at times, you’ll see less value in the answers. Life is not this thing, or that thing, or one thing, or another thing. Unlike the capacity to choose sides in a conflict, the ability to live amid contradictions requires character. Learn to accept, if with disquiet, that you’ll contain contradictions in your own thought and conduct. Perhaps why Whitman proclaimed: ‘I’m large, I contain multitudes.’
If you’re denied assimilation through dislocations of place, language, and social codes, don’t let your identity turn too narrow, for it’ll infect your inner life. Your life is a story you write each day with the difference that you cannot start over. In many ways, you’ll remain a function of your history and culture, past choices and events—not bad per se. But resist determinism, and avoid inherited notions of pride or kinship in things you did not choose: race, caste, socioeconomic station, culture, language, gender. Remain open to new affiliations based on your shifting views and subjective feelings. The burden of unexamined loyalties can become stifling; choosing the same with conscious clarity is a much different thing.
3. On history, subjective truth, historians
‘To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born,’ Cicero declared, ‘is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?’ A good historian begins with the hard facts on public events and fragments of cultural life. But it takes more than what can be taught to be a great historian. He must also possess sensitivity, imagination, depth of perception, adequate distance, and that uncanny ability to synthesize vast bits of knowledge, the kind found in great novelists. He must attempt to enter the society he studies, to see the world as its members saw it, and understand, to the extent possible, what it was like to live in it. He must examine the psychology, morals, aspirations, and assumptions of ordinary people.
The conception of man as an actor, a purposive being, moved by his own conscious aims as well as causal laws, capable of unpredictable flights of thought and imagination, and of his culture as created by his effort to achieve self-knowledge and control of his environment in the face of material and psychic forces which he may use but cannot evade—this conception lies at the heart of all truly historical study. [—Isaiah Berlin]
The present indeed derives from the past but its course remains ever fluid, non-linear, pliable yet unpredictable. However, it’s not entirely a random walk in the contingent—culture renders some steps likelier than others. People come into a world, inherit ideas and traditions, project themselves in time, and die. Cultures consist of ideas, beliefs, values that shape people but people shape these same ideas, beliefs, values. In this sense, it is simultaneously true that history creates people and that people create history (in doing so, some are deemed great men, or villains). Inseparable from all narratives is a particular instantiation of politics, identity, and culture. There’s no impartial and omniscient chronicler of events, no ‘scientific’ history. Facts are one thing, their interpretation another; only the former can be objective. As in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, there are only particular interpretations of most facts, which may, of course, coincide at times. The louder or the more articulate frequently prevail. We are fortunate to have Herodotus’ account of the ancient Greco-Persian war, an account that nevertheless led the non-Athenians to declare its Athenian author a ‘father of lies’.
‘What the historian says will, however careful he may be to use purely descriptive language, sooner or later convey his attitude’, wrote Isaiah Berlin. ‘Detachment is itself a moral position. The use of neutral language (‘Himmler caused many persons to be asphyxiated’) conveys its own ethical tone.’ History will continue to be rewritten, in response to new biases and grievances. Howard Zinn, for instance, outlines his own approach in A People's History of the United States,
... in telling the history of the United States ... we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities [pretending to a common interest] and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people ... not to be on the side of executioners.
Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of Philippines as seen by the black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by the socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by the peons in Latin America ... to the limited extent that any one person ... can ‘see’ history from the standpoint of others.
My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate ... turn on other victims ... as they are jammed together into the boxcars of the system ...
In The Idea of History (1946), RG Collingwood wrote: ‘All history is contemporary history: not in the ordinary sense of the word, where contemporary history means the history of the comparatively recent past, but in the strict sense: the consciousness of one’s own activity as one actually performs it. History is thus the self-knowledge of the living mind. For even when the events which the historian studies are events that happened in the distant past, the condition of their being historically known is that they should vibrate in the historian’s mind.’ Does this not render the very idea of a bygone golden age problematic?
4. On art, truth, knowledge, solitude, joy
The entire intellectual tradition of the world is yours by birthright. Read widely, learn how others have answered your questions. Read, as Kafka said, ‘the kind of books that wound and stab us … that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.’
Homer the bard offered this hard-won insight: It is always the latest song that an audience applauds the most. Much of what masquerades as art today will fade into obscurity tomorrow. All art is autobiographical, not in the sense of proximity to events in the artist’s life, but in being singular and subjective—as is the truth and beauty one finds in art. Art transcends medium and technique. It lies in the stories it tells, in the insight it reveals into the heart of the matter. Great art reflects the very depth of our being and experience. While an art’s form may remain tied to a cultural milieu, its content can evoke universal appeal. Czeslaw Milosz however believes that today ‘we have become indifferent to content, and react, not even to form, but to technique, to technical efficiency itself.’
Of a Manichean teacher, St. Augustine wrote, ‘What I had already been told he presented with a smoother line—but how was serving things up in fancier cups going to ease my thirst?’ This applies to art as well. Good critics too are as rare as good artists—no degree of dullness or imitation can safeguard a work against the determination of critics to find it interesting. Distrust the zeitgeist, its affiliations and yardsticks. Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, Mark Twain said, it is time to pause and reflect. Prefer understanding others to judging them. Eudora Welty strived ‘not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.’
Recognize the output of unreason, ignorance, naiveté or hokey sentiment; sincerity, effort, confidence, craft or packaging rarely ever conceal a mediocre vision. Art is, and always was, at the service of man, wrote Achebe, our ancestors created their myths and told their stories for a human purpose. But grant no points for merely trying—it is important to be right, to employ both craft and authenticity. Do not idolize artists too readily—probing may reveal a seamier side to their aesthetics. Can one dislike an artist’s everyday worldview but still like his work? Question all orthodoxies, even the liberal, feel-good ones—truth alone can set you free. Truth is rarely beautiful, says Gordimer, but the search for it is. As Wittgenstein wrote, you can’t be reluctant to give up your lie and still tell the truth.
Do not let your hubris trample, without good reason, the harmless certitude, faith, and abstractions that sustain others. Is a measure of ignorance, forgetting, and blindness not necessary for us to make life tolerable? As Raskolnikov discovered, life, rooted in both fiction and fact, comes to take the place of dialectics. Prefer integrity to mere truthfulness—the difference is generosity. Careless words, or a lack of words at times, can render the deepest hurt. Do not speak of your happiness to one less fortunate than you.
Examine people’s guiding principles: what they avoid, what they pursue. Plutarch noted, ‘It isn’t always in the most distinguished achievements that men’s virtues or vices may be best discovered: but very often an action of small note, a short saying, or a jest, shall distinguish a person’s real character more than the greatest sieges, or the most important battle.’ Distrust strong emotions, doubt passionate conclusions. If commitment to a trade or cause seems onerous, it’s not bad per se. But if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it well. Save for the rainy day, value good health, use your surpluses to acquire time and choices.
Distrust your abstract, romantic love of humanity. The same people who brought him fame, Voltaire felt, might come to witness his execution some day. So in a world where people promote their interests to the exclusion of others’, keep a keen eye on your own and pay attention to the motivations of others. Alexander the Great once seized a pirate. When the king asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.’ Thucydides’ insight remains timeless: ‘Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ In other words, the best protection from the powerful who are not wise is to be powerful yourself.
Discover the joys of solitude. James Baldwin believed that the artist actively cultivates that state which most men avoid: the state of being alone. Yet solitude is less about being alone than being in a state of alert calm. Nietzsche clarified, ‘Solitude is / not pain but ripening – / For which the sun must be your friend.’ Do not strive to avoid the uncertain—the path of least resistance isn’t too interesting and adversity may even build character. Rumi said, ‘do not seek water, seek thirst.’ Seneca noted, ‘we must leave the crowd if we would be happy: for the question of a happy life is not to be decided by vote.’ What next? should remain a question. Pursue knowledge — not just information about this or that, but learning why things are the way they are. Pay no less attention to eternal debates than current ones. This’ll help you make better choices and accept failure with grace.
One school of thought however says: he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Another claims that it makes the highs higher and the lows lower. Yet another maintains that while clarity profits the intellect, it damages the will — can a lucid and self-aware mind lead a social revolution? Or produce the heroism of epic imagination? Nirad Chaudhury wrote, ‘Thus, on the one hand, I have been disenthralled by knowledge. On the other, I have believed to understand, and have been rewarded with joy. I have found that to sit by the rivers of Babylon is not necessarily to weep in Hebraic sorrow.’
Small everyday pleasures are not inferior to grand narratives, celebrate them without being consumed by them. ‘... in the small sensual joys, there is the hint of a larger, nobler satisfaction, a joy that will endure to quench a deeper thirst, to feed a greater hunger. There is yet another voice. Quiet and tranquil, yet persistent and pervading, it has sought to be heard in the quiet moments of despair, in the restless moments of anxiety, as well as in the small but fleeting joys of beauty and laughter. Pursue it we must! This is the voice of life, this living, this wonder at being conscious, of seeing at every breath the birth and death of possibility, of feeling resonance fleetingly, vanishingly with the unhearable symphony of the universe, knowing as soon as one hears it fleetingly that it will again be gone. This tranquil wonder, this fleeting discovery and certain loss, is joy.’ Walker Percy once said, ‘the best despair and the beginning of hope is to be conscious of despair in the very air we breathe, and to look around for something better.’
5. On justice, pessimism, charity, faith
The ends of men are many, wrote Isaiah Berlin, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other; the possibility of conflict—and of tragedy—can never be wholly eliminated from human life, either personal or social. Reduce your misplaced guilt over wider social inequities but never ignore their presence or impact. The lines are not always as clear as some insist; in fact, their causes may lie embedded in a society’s values, or in the very makeup of the human animal. Don’t let what you did not cause, or what you cannot change, bring maudlin grief to you. But lack of clarity need not foster indifference. What one can react to with greater clarity is the willful abuse of authority, power, and public trust.
Unfairness may well be inseparable from life. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes 9:11 laments, ‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.’ The gravest tragedy, Schopenhauer believed, occurs when ‘characters of ordinary morality, under circumstances such as often occur, are so situated with regard to each other that their position compels them, knowingly and with their eyes open, to do each other the greatest injury, without any one of them being entirely in the wrong.’ For a keener insight into justice, reflect on everyday events, culture and history, the notion of rights and responsibility. It might help you resurrect a moral universe upon the ashes of the absurd.
We exist, says Foucault, amid an intricate web of power relations, in both public and private life. Besides those that produce domination, other power relations often enable us to come together to live, work, play, and wherein we accept varying degrees of subordination—what we accept lies in the subjective realm, individual and collective. Since no social arrangement can avoid unequal power relations, the struggle for social justice is not to be waged in the name of an ideal, ‘true’, universal justice, nor to provoke all unequal power relations, but against those that produce resentful domination.
Yet, the road to changing the world begins within you. Should it also end within you, for when you change the way you see the world, you change the world? Or is this sophistic reasoning? Here is a terrific exercise: if you were omnipotent, what changes would you make to make a better world? There may be enough ‘going wrong’ but avoid the mushy, carping, chic variety of pessimism—it’ll only fill you up with resentments, make you rant and rave at what others do, or fail to do, perhaps even become the reason for your not taking charge of your own life. Herzen believed that to assume such a stance with regard to the world is 
... not merely vanity—it is immense cowardice ... fear of discovering the truth makes many prefer suffering to analysis. Pain distracts, absorbs, comforts ... yes, yes, it comforts, and above all, like every occupation, it prevents men from looking into themselves, into life ... The pessimists, and the optimists ... [are] brothers under the skin, equally motivated by a secret fear of confronting the fact that they are not central to the cosmic scheme of things and equally cavalier in their disregard for evidence that does not suit their purposes ... [the pessimists] are just as stubbornly egotistical as monks who can stand any privations, but never forget themselves, their personality, the reward.
[Herzen tells a pessimistic idealist] You believe that there is no salvation for the world except along the paths you have found ... [pessimistic idealists] are besides themselves with anger because life does not obey their haughty commands, their private whims. You, for instance, expected from life something quite different from what it gave you; instead of appreciating what it has given, you are angry with it. [You are irritated] because nations don’t fulfill the conception that is dear and clear to you, because they are unable to save themselves with the weapons you offer them and to cease suffering. [These are the] tantrums of a sulky lover ... why do you think that the nation is obliged to fulfill your conception and not its own, and precisely at this time and not another? [This] didactic, pontifical attitude ... casts us for the stock role of the disillusioned.
I am neither a pessimist, nor an optimist; I watch, I examine, without any preconceived notion, without any prepared idealism, and I am in no hurry to reach a verdict ... I prize every fleeting pleasure, every minute of joy, for there are fewer and fewer of them ... I should not say that my present point of view is a particularly consoling one, but I have grown calmer; I have stopped being angry with life because it does not give what it cannot give.
How does compassion relate to the moral? Both often share a common source: seeing in others our own human essence (is there a worthier basis for morality?). Charity done with the hopeful logic, ‘if only more people sacrificed more drops it’d make an ocean!’ is often naïve (like the belief that the good will get their reward in this world); but there’s no virtue in withholding it either, citing this logic as justification. Embrace this thought: small differences are all you’ll likely ever make, and that’s not bad at all. Weigh your ambition to be celebrated for a work of art against the quiet anonymity of gestures that soothe suffering and sorrow in a microcosm. Consider those who, without pomp or sweat, remain frequently selfless. Discern genuine need from kindly appraisals. An unequivocal moral imperative is to help ease, whenever possible, the suffering caused by human catastrophes: mass starvation, epidemics, natural disasters.
Religion has two faces as illustrated by these two viewpoints: a) ‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction’ b) ‘Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.’ And while faith may flourish in many forms, with the demise of tolerance, saintliness dies. Mahatma Gandhi once said to an Englishman, ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians; your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’
6. On society, politics, economics
Society, like language, implies change. Glorifying past generations from postmodern nostalgia is suspect—their imagined virtues may be phantoms of our mind. This is nothing new; people throughout history have glorified a ‘golden past’, perhaps in response to the perceived decadence of their own age. Horace sang: ‘Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are even viler, and we shall bring forth a progeny more degenerate still.’ But the truth is that those who lived before were not, on average, more happy or just. At best, they were more innocent, led simpler lives rooted in nature and tradition, and had fewer needs and aspirations. They also died early and randomly, believed in witches and demons, and led fearful, stunted lives suffused with unholy ignorance. View change as a natural law. Even the idea of universal human equality is subject to change. Equality of what: rights, opportunities, results? The answers span the political spectrum.
Power is something of which there is no innocence this side of the womb —an insight shared by the Hellenistic Greeks, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the mystics, and the Christians. They cautioned against the vile, irrational forces humans were seen to succumb to easily and emphasized the dangers of inflating egoistic aspirations in men: lust for power, glory, fame, acquisition, achievement. This perhaps sprang from disquieting observations of the kind that compel bored children, on a perfectly good summer afternoon, to combine forces to torture the cat. They focused on spiritual rather than political philosophy. Their stance was patently defensive—better to discourage egotistical individualism than to suffer its unsavory excesses (and thereby also forego any common good that may come of it). The task of political philosophy then is to propose systematic models for ordering society in light of the Hobbesian instincts of man.
The Enlightenment began admirably by liberating men from despotic rulers, slavery, and serfdom, reducing superstition, the abject hold of religion, and creating the notion of human rights—its legacy is evident in present day social struggles. Inspired in part by the newly acquired scientific method, it also suggested that history can have a design, that it can converge to a universal civilization where men would come to acquire the same values, only error and prejudice block the path to the perfect society. It nurtured the ideas of linear progress and ‘perfectibility’ of man. People can live by reason alone, once they give up superstition and fanaticism; mathematics and natural science will ultimately yield solutions to the moral, social, political and economic problems of humankind; scientific and ‘objective’ principles can steer history towards compatible, rational ends. Many contend that such urges underlie communism and numerous other excesses of secular faith. An immoderate love of social ideals, particularly in the name of progress or reason, often breeds its own tyrannies.
Romanticism rebelled against the ideological optimism of the Enlightenment: none can live by reason alone; people are also shaped by their roots, homeland, experiences, ties of blood and marriage, temperament and tradition—and other submerged suprarational forces integral to humans — which inform their various, at times, incommensurate ends. The logic of science does not extend to human behavior, nor can anyone truly understand another. ‘Values are not discovered, they are created; not found, but made by an act of imaginative, creative will, as works of art, as policies, plans, patterns of life are created.’ Diversity calls for celebration — there is merit in the age-old corporate solidarities and cultural mores by which human society holds together. It championed plurality of values, cultural history, and rejected the evaluation of civilizations by a single yardstick. This was a blow to the central Western belief thus far—religious or secular—that true human values are universal, immutable, timeless, that a perfect society was, in principle, realizable. Alas, in preaching tolerance for the diversity of values and aspirations, Romanticism, at times, swung towards extreme forms of relativism, nationalism, chauvinism and irrationalism.
We’re the children of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism, shift back and forth between them. Mine-fields lie at the extremes of each. The artist ought to tread the middle ground, survey the fault lines. In his celebrated works, Dostoevsky rationally interrogated the Reason of the Enlightenment, effectively asking, to use Foucault’s words: ‘What is this Reason that we use? What are its historical effects ... limits ... dangers? How can we exist as rational beings, fortunately committed to practicing a rationality that is unfortunately crisscrossed by intrinsic dangers? [This question is] both central and extremely difficult to resolve. In addition, if it is extremely dangerous to say that Reason is the enemy that should be eliminated, it is just as dangerous to say that any critical questioning of this rationality risks sending us into irrationality.’ Only the exercise of reason, for instance, reveals the dangers in schemes that aim to rationalize society (or our conduct). Here are some worthy quotes:
Those who believe that final truths may be reached, that there is some ideal order of life on earth which may be attained, will, however benevolent their desires, however pure their hearts, however noble and disinterested their ideals, always end by repressing and destroying human beings in their march toward the Promised Land. [—Isaiah Berlin, 17]
Too often the excessive pursuit of one ideal leads to the exclusion of others, perhaps all others; in our eagerness to realize justice we come to forget charity, and a passion for righteousness has made many a man hard and merciless. There is, indeed, no ideal the pursuit of which will not lead to disillusion; chagrin waits at the end for all who take this path. Every admirable ideal has its opposite, no less admirable. Liberty or order, justice or charity, spontaneity or deliberateness, principle or circumstance, self or others, these are the kinds of dilemma with which this form of the moral life is always confronting us, making us see double by directing us always to abstract extremes, none of which is wholly desirable. [—Michael Oakeshott, 18]
... each man hears and understands the promptings of some allegiances more clearly than others. As the ancient Greek well knew, to honor Artemis might entail the neglect of Aphrodite ... That there should be many such [moral] languages in the world, some perhaps with familial likenesses in terms of which there may be profitable exchange of expressions, is intrinsic to their character. This plurality cannot be resolved by being understood as so many contingent and regrettable divergences from a fancied perfect and universal language of moral intercourse (a law of God, a utilitarian ‘critical’ morality, or a so-called ‘rational morality’). But it is hardly surprising that such a resolution should have been attempted: human beings are apt to be disconcerted unless they feel themselves to be upheld by something more substantial than the emanations of their own contingent imaginations. This unresolved plurality teases the monistic yearnings of the muddled theorist, it vexes a moralist with ecumenical leanings, and it may disconcert [one who looks] ... for uncontaminated ‘rational’ principles out of which to make it. [—Michael Oakeshott, 18]
Pluralism without relativism, then, seems like a compelling political attitude. It admits the multiplicity of ideas, beliefs, values, yet does not call them equivalent. But debate inevitably continues on the boundaries between pluralism and relativism. The best kind of politics strives to mitigate the tyranny of groups against groups but with room enough for them to pursue their own idiosyncratic ends. Even so, if some values in a plural society prove incompatible, tragedy may be unavoidable (e.g., theocratic vs. secular, fascist vs. egalitarian). History warns against radical social experiments: better the change and progress attained via local negotiation, awareness and activism. Sociopolitical change is best when organic—rising from the bottom rather than imposed from the top—the odds of assimilation improve dramatically. Representative rule, transparent and accountable, backed by law enforcement and a judiciary, i.e., democracy, may well be the least imperfect political system for modern, plural societies. Yet, can it be imported and made to flourish in not yet fertile terrain?
Can any of these be a primary end: liberty, equality, justice? All three cannot be realized in full measure simultaneously. In practice, ‘people who want to govern themselves must choose how much liberty, equality, and justice they seek and how much they can let go. The price of a free society is that sometimes, perhaps often, we make bad choices.’ Choice in a free society is inherently tragic—not all desirable virtues can coexist in full measure. Take choices in the economic realm for instance. We now widely approve of (economic) inequality to better accommodate current notions of liberty and justice.
‘Wealth, as Mr. Hobbes says, is power,’ admitted Adam Smith. JM Keynes noted, ‘[Capitalism] is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous ... [it] is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone ... In short, we dislike it, and we are beginning to despise it. But when we wonder what to put in its place, we are extremely perplexed.’ Here are more worthy quotes:
Competition, heralded by Adam Smith ... is still the dominant idea of our time. I wish here to notice the fallacies involved in the current arguments on the subject. In the first place, it is assumed that all competition is a competition for existence, that this struggle for existence is a law of nature, and that therefore all human interference with it is wrong. To that I answer that the whole meaning of civilization is interference with this brute struggle. Society strives to modify the violence of the fight, and to prevent the weak from being trampled under foot ... Competition, no doubt, has its uses ... progress comes chiefly from ... external pressure which forces men to exert themselves. But we must distinguish between competition in production and competition in distribution. For the struggle of men to outvie one another in production is beneficial ... their struggle over the division of the joint produce is not. The stronger side will dictate its own terms ... [—Arnold Toynbee, 19]
The objection ordinarily made to a system of community of property and equal distribution of the produce, that each person would be incessantly occupied in evading his fair share of the work, points, undoubtedly, to a real difficulty. But those who urge this objection forget to how great an extent the same difficulty exists under the system on which nine tenths of the business of society is now conducted. The objection supposes that honest and efficient labor is only to be had from those who are themselves individually to reap the benefit of their own exertions. But how small a part of all labor performed in England, from the lowest paid to the highest is done by persons working for their own benefit. [—John Stuart Mill]
Democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power. One believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man, one vote’, while the other believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into economic extinction. ‘Survival of the fittest’ and inequalities in purchasing power is what capitalist efficiency is all about. [—Lester Thurow, 20]
The bird’s eye view today records fast proliferating playing-fields in every sphere of human life. Competition draws humans closer to the state of nature where the strong exploit the weak. It is the penchant of the strong to pitch competition as a virtue. While it does promote material progress and human achievement, competition also imposes new burdens on society; it injects disparities and related strife. Its adverse impact can be mitigated with a leveling of opportunity and a safety net—slowing down to convey more people to wherever history is going. Is this a humane and decent thing to do? It may well be necessary for peace and social order. On this matter, JK Galbraith sees the conservatives of his adopted country ‘engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.’
It is fanciful to think that ‘class struggle, rational planning, peasant revolutions, economic growth, the welfare state, decolonization, or even democratization would provide ultimate solutions to the age-old problems of politics.’ At the end of the day, the most precious social asset is a ‘sober decency’ in public life—hard to acquire, easy to lose. How secure can human rights remain, for instance, without the virtues of tolerance and kindness?
7. On human dignity, human rights, personal responsibility
A good question to ask is: where do human dignity and human rights come from? Coetzee reminds us in his Essays on Censorship that human dignity itself is,
... a foundational fiction to which we more or less wholeheartedly subscribe, a fiction that may well be indispensable for a just society, namely, that human beings have a dignity that sets them apart from animals and consequently protects them from being treated like animals ... [it] helps to define humanity and the status of humanity helps to define human rights ... an affront to our dignity strikes at our rights. Yet when, outraged at such affront, we stand on our rights and demand redress, we would do well to remember how insubstantial the dignity is on which those rights are based ...
Human dignity is a human construct; its prehistoric roots perhaps lie in the universal human aversion to pain and humiliation. Animals too suffer, but humans, with their superior consciousness and cognition, could act to reduce it. When they did so collectively, a notion of human dignity was implicitly adopted—the birth of civilization. The edifice of rights was built upon this foundation of dignity. The right to life is the earliest of human rights. Notably, the Hindus, the Buddhists, and the Jains extended this right to animals too, unlike the Greco-Romans and the monotheists. The equality of the right to life is a more recent idea and a higher order abstraction still. ‘A secular defense of human rights depends on the idea of moral reciprocity: that we cannot conceive of any circumstances in which we or anyone we know would wish to be abused in mind or body.’
Human rights today include the equality of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Without a ‘higher’ or objective truth to derive human rights from, all depends on a peoples’ gallant embrace of principles. How wondrous, then, to contemplate our distance from our cannibalistic past, a past that has been recorded on all continents! Yet rights can be easily undermined by centrifugal traits in human nature (rooted as it is in the animal kingdom and worsened swiftly by sociopolitical turmoil), or by autocrats in the name of culture, order or tradition. In fact, consensus on precisely what rights all humans deserve in a world with a diversity of histories, remains unsettled. Then there are practical challenges—how do we match the high-minded language of universal rights with equally high-minded enforcement? What do we make of those who consent to being abused in mind or body, cease to think of it as abuse, and settle for other benefits?
The exercise of rights and freedom can also get divorced from personal responsibility—a dangerous condition. In his keenly observant and prophetic work, The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega y Gassett wrote in the 1920s that life in the modern West ‘as a program of possibilities [for all] is magnificent, exuberant, superior to all others known to history. But by the very fact that its scope is greater, it has overflowed all the channels, principles, norms, ideals handed down by tradition.’ Furthermore, our age is stamped by the arrival of the self-satisfied, indocile, mass-man, a drifter without history, saved from the pre-modern age’s harsh life and exacting gods. He now sees no need to make real demands on himself, wants and receives as entitlement all the rights, freedoms and comforts of the modern age but accepts none of the obligations, limits and standards vital to civilized life. Even the modern professional who leads the mass-man behaves no better outside his narrow domain. Ortega y Gassett called this a ‘vertical invasion of the barbarians ... as if through the trapdoors ... the commonplace mind knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.’ Kierkegaard cynically quipped, ‘people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they never use.’
This drift in modern culture towards the least common denominator is perhaps what today makes many perceive in it a strong sense of decadence. ‘We are witnessing the gigantic spectacle of innumerable human lives wandering about lost in their own labyrinths, through not having anything to which to give themselves.’ Fearful of the worst, many artists adopt humorless, neo-luddite attitudes. They say that modernity has ushered in a more abrasive social milieu, that science and technology has given more power to man than he can handle with grace; they glorify the past out of postmodern nostalgia. But aren’t the imagined virtues of the past only phantoms of our mind? We can learn from the past but we cannot go back to reclaim it; our unique age must find its own destiny. Let us recall this cautiously optimistic verse by the 6th century BCE Greek poet, Xenophanes of Colophon,
The gods did not enrich man
8. On the yin and yang
The dichotomy between an urbane intellectual and an animal in lust is an ancient one. Meditate on the nature of appetite, infatuation, loneliness, boredom, jealousy, affection, trust. Sometimes you’ll crave to be asexual, at other times you may find your bit of paradise in the other. For greater peace of mind, minimize ownership of lovers. Loneliness is not a state of grace; but learn to be graceful when alone. Some of the most intense moments of rapture are solitary, as are those of wretchedness. Libido is abrasive; it’ll often embarrass you with its demands. Lighten up, for it also makes the most universal of comedies!
Of all the things that make life entirely happy, wrote Epicurus, much the greatest is the possession of friendship. Recognize the precious in your relationships: that which is freely given and taken, and the not so precious: expectations and demands prompted by personal insecurities. Predictability and comfort too have intangible costs; in reality, there’ll be a cost to whatever choices you make, the tricky part is estimating it prudently and handling it with grace. Few can escape ‘the incompleteness of life, its inherent messiness, the necessity of making do.’ Orwell once wrote,
The essence of being human [rather than a saint] is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.
‘Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great unending experience, which is given us, a knowing of the world, the fullness and the glory of all knowing. And not our acceptance of it is bad; the bad thing is that most people misuse and squander this experience and apply it as a stimulant at the tired spots of their lives and as distraction instead of a rallying toward exalted moments.’ That’s Rilke in an expansive mood.
‘The curse which lies upon marriage is that too often the individuals are joined in their weakness rather than in their strength — each asking from the other instead of finding pleasure in giving. It is even more deceptive to dream of gaining through the child a plenitude, a warmth, a value, which one is unable to create for oneself; the child brings joy only to the woman who is capable of disinterestedly desiring the happiness of another, to one who, without being wrapped up in self, seeks to transcend her own existence.’ That’s Simone de Beauvoir in an expansive mood. In a sense, ‘the child’ is also figurative.
Pythagoras of Samos once teased a man who took great care to keep his body in a flourishing condition and to pamper it constantly, ‘Thou art not lazy in building thy prison and making thy fetter as strong as possible.’ Epictetus said, ‘No man is free who is not master of himself.’ How often are we held hostage by our tortured sexuality, wallowing in heady passions, games and rituals built around mating—slaves to the pleasure zones and biological functions of the body. Genuine hedonism is demanding; it thrives alongside tranquility, joy, health, humor; its primary source is the mind rather than the body. According to Epicurus,
When we say that pleasure is the goal, we mean ... being neither pained in the body nor troubled in the soul ... it is not possible to live pleasurably without living sensibly and nobly and justly. A just man is least troubled but an unjust man is loaded with troubles ... the pleasant life is produced not by a string of drinking-bouts and revelries, nor by the enjoyment of boys and women, nor by fish and other items on an expensive menu, but by sober reasoning.
Finally, distrust all self-righteous counsel on this topic. A seemingly dismayed Saint Augustine noted, ‘at times, without intention, the body stirs on its own, insistent. At other times, it leaves a straining lover in the lurch, and while desire sizzles in the imagination, it is frozen in the flesh.’ From this loss of unison, of the will and intellect, none are immune. He is also known to have sent a priest and a monk, accused of homosexuality, to pray and receive God’s judgment while telling his parishioners to suspend judgment where they do not know the secret of others’ souls.
9. On the greatest wonder
A worthy counter-cultural act is chasing clarity of thought and purpose. To better understand what it means to be human, reflect on the timeless stories across civilizations. The greatest wonder of all, observed Yudhisthara, is that each day death strikes, and we live as though we were immortal. Yet most of us remain too immersed in, nay drugged by, the perennial minutiae of existence. ‘Like a rustic at a fair, we are full of amazement and rapture, and have no thought of going home, or that it will soon be night.’ Few wonder that they are as they are, that they are there at all, and oh so ephemeral. Lucid wonder is indeed the fount of beauty and joy, mistaken often for a titillation of instinct. Joy springs from a particular quality of life, a state of mind, an attitude.
The cradle rocks above an abyss, wrote Nabokov, ‘and commonsense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).’ The variety of responses peoples and cultures have had to this abyss is quite fascinating. Here is, for instance, a mystical fragment from the Canaanite epic, The Legend of Keret, written c.1500 BCE:
Grand the plans of gods and man,
And this advice to Gilgamesh, the great king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia who did not want to die. The king is overcome with sorrow when his dear friend Enkidu, who had accompanied him in many heroic ventures, dies. It is then he resolves to undertake an arduous journey in search of immortality. The legend, committed to writing c.2200 BCE, is based on the historical figure of Gilgamesh who ruled southern Iraq c.2700 BCE. The story was extant throughout the ancient near east for over two thousand years.
Remember always, mighty king, that gods decreed the fates of all
The Carvaka, or the materialistic school of heterodox Indian philosophy of mid-first millennium BCE, embraced religious indifferentism, skepticism, and logical fatalism. The soul is only the body qualified by intelligence. It has no existence apart from the body, only this world exists, there is no beyond—the Vedas are a cheat; they serve to make men submissive through fear and rituals. Nature is indifferent to good and evil; history does not bear witness to Divine Providence. Pleasure and pain are the central facts of life. Virtue and vice are not absolute but mere social conventions. The Carvaka suggested,
While life is yours, live joyously;
Here is another message from the Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations—a private diary he kept in Greek in his last years (d. 180 CE) during long stretches on campaign along the marshlands of the Danube fighting the German tribes, and which came on the heels of a devastating plague in Rome that raged on for years. For a man who lived without hope, his personal nobility and dedication have seemed remarkable to many.
Think continually how many physicians are dead after often fretting over the sick; and how many astrologers after predicting with great pretensions the deaths of others; and how many philosophers after endless discourses on death or immortality; how many heroes after killing thousands; and how many tyrants who have used their power over men’s lives with terrible insolence as if they were immortal; and how many cities are entirely dead, so to speak, Helice and Pompeii and Herculaneum, and innumerable others. Add to the total all whom you have known, one after another. One man after burying another has been laid out dead, and another buries him: and all this in a short time. To conclude, always observe how ephemeral human things are, and what was yesterday a little mucus tomorrow will be a mummy or ashes. Pass then through this little space of time in the way of nature, and end your journey in contentment, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe ...
An empty pageant; a stage play; flocks of sheep, herds of cattle; a tussle of spearmen; a bone flung among a pack of curs; a crumb tossed into a pond of fish; ants, loaded and laboring; mice, scared and scampering; puppets, jerking on their strings—that is life. In the midst of it all you must take your stand, good-temperedly and without disdain, yet always aware that a man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his preoccupations.
10. On skepticism, science, metaphysics, morality, self-knowledge
It is proper to doubt, said the Buddha, ‘do not be led by Holy Scriptures, or by mere logic or inference, or by appearances, or by the authority of religious teachers. But when you realize that something is unwholesome and bad for you, give it up. And when you realize that something is wholesome and good for you, do it.’ Truths are a means to crossover. Do not hold on to them from habit once you’ve arrived. As the Buddha put it, ‘when you come to a river in your path, build a boat to assist you. When you’re across, leave the boat behind. This is the best use for it, as it is for all truths. Be prepared to let go of even the most profound insight or the most wholesome teaching. Be a lamp to yourself. Be your own confidence. Hold to the truth within yourself, as to the only truth.’
Two thousand years later, Descartes concurred: ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ Voltaire added, ‘Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is an absurd one.’ Chuang Tzu, the Chinese Taoist master, philosopher and comedian of the fourth-century BCE, described his moment of comic doubt:
Once Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly, fluttering around, happy with himself, absolutely carefree. He didn’t know that he was Chuang Tzu. Suddenly he woke up: there he was in the flesh, unmistakably Chuang Tzu. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Tzu who had just dreamt that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu.
An ancient, anonymous Indian poet said, ‘The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom / know that which is, is kin to that which is not.’ Feelings complement reason—most personal ‘truths’ spring from a private synthesis. A sincere, good-humored self-justification of our choices is more practical than a (futile) search for eternal standards; our lot cannot be understood from an absolute standpoint outside the limits of experience. Most voyages of the mind you should navigate on your own, utilizing, of course, the best counsel on board. There are no shortcuts — the discovery of purpose and meaning, or its lack thereof, is each thinking person’s hard road; discipline and focus are essential on this journey.
Moral ambiguity is less of a disadvantage than is lack of examination. There is no contradiction in believing that morality is subjective while searching for a binding one for your own personal use. The sciences greatly further self-knowledge but face a seemingly ‘unbridgeable gulf between is questions and ought questions.’ Metaphysics, on the other hand, is a larger inquiry for purpose and meaning in the light of the sciences, and in the light of everyday experiences. It constitutes ideas, beliefs, values that have, at times, profoundly shaped the course of not only private lives but of entire civilizations. It attempts a broad interpretation of reality that science cannot provide; it answers perennial questions: how to live? what to believe in? what to strive for?
But metaphysical systems—whether revealed-orthodox, mystical-spiritual, or ‘rational’—don't make it any easier by furthering divergent conclusions and recipes: pleasure or virtue, self or others, observation or action, temporal or spiritual, pessimism or optimism, self-effacement or self-assertion. Except when a system contradicts empirical data, can we objectively pronounce one superior to another? What one promotes or adopts depends on subjective factors: one’s culture, experiences, psychological makeup, etc. This applies even to the so-called rational metaphysicians (for e.g., Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Herzen furthered vastly different prescriptions ). Objective assessment is impossible without an established, or agreed upon, existential purpose or end.
The eleventh-century Persian Sufi al-Ghazali concluded (as did Pascal) that persistent inquiry leads to total skepticism. Beyond universal, verifiable truths, metaphysics becomes kin to balm, poetry, music, ‘a language game without a final answer’. Philosophy, then, is nothing but ‘a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’ For our own interconnected world, is there a set of ideas, beliefs, values—a secular morality and the institutions to safeguard it—that ought to be promoted universally, and the rest left alone in the interests of truth, liberty, diversity? This is perhaps what animates the recurrent ‘pluralism vs. relativism’ and the ‘Enlightenment vs. Romanticism’ debates.
Life, says Erasmus’s Folly, is theater: we each have lines to say and a part to play. One kind of actor, recognizing that he is in a play, will go on playing nevertheless; another kind of actor, shocked to find he is participating in an illusion, will try to step off the stage and out of the play. The second actor is mistaken. For there is nothing outside the theater, no alternative life one can join instead. The show is, so to speak, the only show in town. All one can do is to go on playing one’s part, though perhaps with a new awareness, a comic awareness. [—JM Coetzee]
Know Thyself, read the inscription on the frieze of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Self-knowledge enables us to also accept the world as it really is, in all its tainted splendor. Our transience and cosmic insignificance become part of our bones, then cease to be tragic. We become one with this world of perennial change, gaining relief from undue anxiety over personal destiny and sentimental bonds. We begin to watch and marvel at the theater of our lives. We begin to court the serene and joyful, amid all the clamor of the world. The man who is aware of himself, wrote Virginia Woolf, is henceforward independent; and he is never bored, and life is only too short, and he is steeped through and through with a profound yet temperate happiness.
Whatever choices you make, stay intellectually nimble and honest; seek new learning and learn from your mistakes but do not habitually depend on others to improve your lot. As Camus said, ‘if one decides not to opt out of the exasperating mystery of creation by committing suicide, one should cram as much lyrical experience as possible into one’s existence.’ Live consciously — worldly yet above saccharine sentiment — alert to the motive forces in private and social lfe and your limited time on earth. ‘Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible ... But it is there, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.’ 
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