Great Minds, Small Minds

Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.

mis-attributed quotationThat quote has been attributed online to Eleanor Roosevelt in the images shared by people too lazy to check the facts. And like so many other quotations that circulate on social media, it’s not by the person claimed. As far as has been determined, she never used those words.

The saying offers a valid point, especially when it comes to local bloggers, but it was made by someone else, not the wife of the former U.S. president.

Who, then, gave us these pithy lines? Wikiquote – one of the very rare authoritative online sources of quotations* – tells us that one printed source was an American admiral, writing in a magazine, who made it popular, although he himself did not take credit for it:

There are many published incidents of this as an anonymous proverb since at least 1948, and as a statement of Eleanor Roosevelt since at least 1992, but without any citation of an original source. It is also often attributed to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, but though Rickover quoted this, he did not claim to be the author of it; in “The World of the Uneducated” in The Saturday Evening Post (28 November 1959), he prefaces it with “As the unknown sage puts it…”

Was there really an ‘unknown sage’ behind the saying,? Or was it created, whole cloth, in 1959? Ah, the tale is older than that.

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Survival of the Fittest

Herbert SpencerCharles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.

But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.

It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath:  philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.

He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:

“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.

In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.

It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869  fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:

“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*

Survival of the FittestFittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.

It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.

It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:

Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.

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Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much

Not a Lao Tzu quotePoor Lao Tzu. He gets saddled with the most atrocious of the New Age codswallop. As if it wasn’t enough to be for founder of one of the most obscure  philosophies (not a religion, since it has no deity), he gets to be the poster boy for all sorts of twaddle from people who clearly have never read his actual writing.

This time it’s a mushy feel-good quote on Facebook (mercifully without kittens or angels) that reads,

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Well, it’s not by Lao Tzu. Or more properly, Laozi. That’s not his name, by the way: it’s an honorific, a title that roughly translates to “Old Master.” His real name was likely Li Er, Wikipedia tells us. But his name doesn’t matter: it’s the single book he left us that is relevant.

That book – the Tao Teh Ching – consists of 81 short “chapters” – although they’d be better described as poems. Or pithy epithets. It can be ready cover to cover in an hour.

For all its brevity, the Tao Teh Ching is a weighty work. It’s the underpinning of an entire school of  Chinese metaphysics and philosophy: Taoism, that dates back to the Axial Age, circa 500 BCE. That makes Lao Tzu contemporary with Confucius and in the same rough time frame as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lap Tzu was clearly a deep thinker, which makes it all the more ironic that he gets accused of spouting all sorts of saccharine New Age piffle.

One of the stories of how the book came about goes like this: Lao Tzu was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. Late in his life, he wearied of the intrigues, the corruption and the crassness of life at court. He decided to go live the remainder of his life as a hermit in the mountains. At the city gate, the sentry asked him to write down his wisdom. The result was the Tao Teh Ching.

Like with many religious, political or philosophical figures, take any story or claims with a grain of salt. Stories get embellished by both supporters and enemies over the centuries.*

Others say the work is really a collection of sayings by many people, collated into a single work. Since the earliest copy of the text is at least 100 years younger than Lao Tzu, and there are no verifiable records that identify him as the sole author, this theory strikes me as having some merit.

After all, every single religious work I can think of has been edited, added to, cut away from and interpreted by hundreds of human hands in the interim since it was first penned. Why not this one?

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The Unknown Monk Meme

Cisterian monksThis pseudo-poem popped up on Facebook today. It’s been around the Net for a few years, without any source attributed to the quote, but it seems to be making its comeback in the way these falsely-attributed things do:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town.
I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself,
and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself,
I could have made an impact on my family.
My family and I could have made an impact on our town.
Their impact could have changed the nation and
I could indeed have changed the world.

It’s recently credited to an “unknown monk” from 1100 CE, and sometimes just to “anonymous.” Since the latter can be anyone, any time, anywhere, it’s less than helpful. Citing the source – at the very least where you found it – is helpful. Anonymous could as easily be one of those crank posters who reply to news stories with snippets about the New World Order or conjure up conspiracies about the local rec facilities.

And the monk from 1100 CE? Not likely. It reads to me like New Age piffle, something regurgitated without understanding.

So let’s look at the attribution. First 1100 CE is in the High Middle Ages. It was shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, so if the monk was in England it was a time of chaos, while the Normans dispossessed the English aristocracy (those few left) and took the lands for themselves.

Not as much secular literature survives from that era as religious writing, in large part because the majority of literate people were in the church. Keep in mind that everything was handwritten, mostly on sheepskin: vellum or parchment. Printing was another 450 years away.

The 12th century literature shows nothing like this “poem” anywhere.

Second, a monk would have practiced asceticism, a lifestyle…

…characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals.

Celibacy was one of those practices. Hence the monk would not likely have had his own family – wife and children. Parents of course, but likely left behind at an early age to be a novice initiate. How much “impact” – a word that didn’t appear in English until 1601, derived from the Latin impactus: to push against (not the same meaning as today’s usage) – a child could have had on his family is unclear, but I’m guessing little.

We of course don’t know if this alleged monk came from a wealthy or poor family. If the latter, their impact on their town – more likely a village  at that time – would likely have been minimal at best, non-existent at worst. Twelfth century village life isn’t what we think of today. There was no central governing body like a municipal council. All land was owned by the lord, and villagers rented from him. Those who were free and not bound to service:

The 12th Century society and village
What defined your status in medieval England was whether you were free or unfree, and how much land you had.
Some rough proportions: About –
15% of people were free
40% of people were Villani (villeins) – they had substantial land (c. 30 acres) but owed service
35% were cottars or bordars – unfree, less land
10% were slaves or as near as darn it
Not all villages were the nucleated village that we think of today – but it’s far and away the most common model. Each village was composed of a number of tofts (or crofts) – areas of 1/4 – 1 Acre, rented from the lord. each croft held the medieval house – typically 24 x 12 feet, 2 rooms, 5+ people and not a lot else.

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Teddy’s Words of Wisdom

Roosevelt quote
I’m not a great student of American history – my tastes run to other places and people: Napoleon, Casanova, Elizabeth I, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, China…. but I do read about it. Most recently Rick Perlstein’s history of the American Sixties, Nixonland. And in that book I came across a powerful, moving quotation from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt that I wanted to share because it still resonates today:

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.

Roosevelt said this in a speech called “Citizenship in a Republic,” made at the Sorbonne, Paris, France,  23 April, 1910. Source: Wikiquote.

I would write it in stone and place it in front of each member of council at the table as a reminder at every meeting that we do our best and that’s what matters. We may stumble, we may even fall now and then, but we stay in the ring, we finish what we started, and we do what we believe is right, what is best for everyone.

I know how much each of you at the table care, how hard you work, how much you ponder and worry over the questions we must all answer, and how much it means to each of you to have the best community we possibly can. You do the work, you stand in the ring and take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but you hang in because you care. And I know how much it hurts to have outsiders tear at you, to belittle and mock you, to denigrate your efforts. To try and hurt without offering to help.

At the end of the day, you can take pride in your accomplishments and your values. You are in the arena, where it counts most.

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