10/19/14

Skepticism Too Easily Slides Into Cynicism


CynicismYears spent in the media, plus decades of independent practice as a writer and social critic honed my native skepticism into a protective psychological barrier against a wide range of social ailments and inappropriate, often dangerous beliefs. It has made me question motives, statements, logic and conclusions, and search for the underlying truths. It motivated me to explore, to examine, to dig deep. To try to understand, not simply deny.

It’s an easy slide, however, from a healthy skepticism to a soul-destroying cynicism – using the modern sense of the word. Modern cynicism encourages acceptance of the notion that everything is bad, rotten and evil except the viewer; cynics become too lazy, too self-assured of their own faith and beliefs to investigate further. They draw conclusions from surface appearances without going deeper; and blanket everything with negativism.

Skeptics, however, keep enough of an open mind to continue asking questions. Healthy skepticism is often paired with conscious awareness, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion:

In order to have more freedom and empowerment in our lives we need conscious awareness, healthy skepticism, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion. The more we practice these skills, the less we’ll be subject to manipulation and exploitation and the more unencumbered we’ll be in pursuing true happiness and fulfillment…
Our skepticism will bring out the best in the upstanding people and institutions and will bring out the worst in those that are dishonest and corrupt. By asking questions and observing the reactions and responses of those we’re questioning, we’re able to discover who we’re really dealing with and make informed choices with respect to them.
To question things is to take back control of our lives, because knowledge and understanding bring us power and choice and enable us to act on our own behalf in the best, most informed manner. Not accepting everything at face value and being skeptical about the underlying motivations of those who want to lead us, advise us or profit from us is a wise course of action for all the above reasons.

Cynics simply don’t believe in anything but their own surety. They don’t feel the need to go looking for the roots and the causes that skeptics hunt and wrestle with. Cynics are negative, skeptics are searching for answers. Cynics don’t have to take responsibility for things because they’ve already decided the world is against them: skeptics look for answers and meaning to make things connect and work.

You cannot shed light into the darkness if you’re convinced that there’s some ulterior motive behind the light. That’s why conspiracy theorists are for the most part cynics in the dark. Scientists, on the other hand, are generally skeptics with candles.

I’ve tried, through my life, to keep my skepticism healthy and active; a tool to fuel my curiosity, while dampening the trend to assume a cynical approach. I have tried to use skepticism in the way of free inquiry, as taught in the Kalama Sutra. After all, the word comes from the Greek skepsis, meaning “inquiry.” Not doubt.

I’m not always successful in avoiding the cascade into cynicism – it’s easier and faster, requires less effort and thought, especially with social media, but overall I believe I have stayed above it.

The philosopher Denis Diderot wrote in Pensées Philosophiques (1746):

Scepticism is the first step towards truth.

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10/15/14

“A” Personalities: A Theory


GoodreadsWhen someone tells me he is an “A-type” personality, I cannot help but think of the title of Aaron James’ bestselling book: Assholes *A Theory (Anchor Books, New York, 2014). After all, what else would the “A” stand for when someone boasts to the audience he is an alpha male as if the rest of the room was full of less-worthy betas?

Self aggrandizement is not limited, of course, to assholes, but they certainly occupy centre stage (at least in their own mind). Not always the best place to be, considering that, medically speaking, A-types are more prone to heart disease than B-types.

As Wikipedia tells us, Type A personalities are,

“…ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, take on more than they can handle, want other people to get to the point, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management… often high-achieving “workaholics” who multi-task, push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.
…Type A behavior is expressed in three major symptoms: (1) free-floating hostility, which can be triggered by even minor incidents; (2) time urgency and impatience, which causes irritation and exasperation usually described as being “short-fused”; and (3) a competitive drive, which causes stress and an achievement-driven mentality.

Not entirely flattering a description, is it? Rigid, status-conscious, ambivalent, impatient, short-fused, irritable, hostile, competitive… not the sort of person you want at a council table where cooperation, consensus and respect make for good governance. A-types at the table generally are seen by others as assholes. Hence the mnemonic association with the book. One wonders why anyone would boast of this.

Aaron James writes of a dichotomy between cooperative people and these A-types:

Even the “bright-line” rules of cooperation will have exceptions and cooperative people often put a certain amount of work into discerning both the spirit of the law and what is finally acceptable in a particular case. They thus seek clarification, check assumptions, ask permission or at least take a measure of care in good faith. The asshole, by contrast sees little need for the work of mutual restraint aimed at benefit for all involved. According to his generalized sense of entitlement, it is only natural that the various advantages of social life should flow his way.

(For the sake of politeness and civility, I am inclined to find another name for assholes. I cannot merely call them jerks, because James differentiates between assholes and mere jerks. Twits, idiots, dweebs, boors, shmucks, cads, jackanapes… these names fail to capture the essence of those truly despicable people whom James describes. I think I will have to simply refer to them as “a*holes” so as not to entirely dilute the impact.)

A-type, A*holes, pretty much the same thing, at least as far as I can fathom. Of course, I’m not a psychologist and I’m sure there are subtle shades of difference I fail to discern.

B-type personalities, on the other hand, Wikipedia says, work well together:

…generally live at a lower stress level and typically work steadily, enjoying achievement but not becoming stressed when they do not achieve. They may be creative and enjoy exploring ideas and concepts. They are often reflective…

Sounds like someone much easier to get along with in a group dynamic like the council table: unstressed, creative, exploratory, reflective. People who will contribute rather than control, will think rather than merely act. People you can work with and respect. people who use “we”  when describing accomplishments and work as a team. People unlikely to be described in James’ book.

A-types, however, will find themselves in it.

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10/13/14

Montaigne on Friendship, Liars and Politics


Sisyphus“I am seeking the companionship and society of such men as we call honourable and talented,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his essay, On the Three Kinds of Social Intercourse (Book III, 3). “It is, when you reflect on it, the rarest of all our forms…”

Montaigne was musing in his essay and others on the nature of not simply friendship, but on what attracted people to work, converse and share at the highest levels. To bond without some ulterior motive such as work, politics or profit. What, after all, is true friendship? Once stripped of necessity is it pure or will it prove simply a convenience?

Montaigne disliked pointless social chit-chat and small talk (he would fumed over Facebook and Twitter). He wanted to engage in conversations with depth, to debate, to examine, to explore ideas, to argue and converse, not simply rehash the shallow and the trivial. He treasured civil debate most (I suspect he would have greatly disliked our modern, divisive and fragmented social media).

Montaigne mulled over the nature of friendship in several essays. In his essay on Friendship (Book I, 27, also known as On Affectionate Relationships in Screech’s version), Montaigne wrote (Cotton translation):

There is nothing to which nature seems so much to have inclined us, as to society; and Aristotle says that the good legislators had more respect to friendship than to justice. Now the most supreme point of its perfection is this: for, generally, all those that pleasure, profit, public or private interest create and nourish, are so much the less beautiful and generous, and so much the less friendships, by how much they mix another cause, and design, and fruit in friendship, than itself. Neither do the four ancient kinds, natural, social, hospitable, venereal, either separately or jointly, make up a true and perfect friendship.

“Good lawgivers have shown more concern for friendship than for justice.” That’s how Screech translates the line. He goes on: “Within a fellowship, the peak of perfection consists in friendship, for all forms of it which are forged or fostered by pleasure or profit or by public or private necessity are so much the less beautiful and noble – and therefore so much the less “friendship” – in that they bring in some purpose, end or fruition other than the friendship itself. nor do the four ancient species of love conform to it: the natural, the social, the hospitable and the erotic.”

Montaigne continued:

For the rest, what we commonly call friends and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined.

Friendship of that exalted sort Montaigne valued most is rare. He called his ideal “how remote a thing such a friendship is from the common practice.” Rarer still, it seems, in politics and law.

He discounted “friendships” created by some need or goal as merely temporary. He quotes Cicero on the nature of long-term friendship:

“Omnino amicitiae, corroboratis jam confirmatisque, et ingeniis, et aetatibus, judicandae sunt.” (“Those are only to be reputed friendships that are fortified and confirmed by judgement and the length of time.” –Cicero, De Amicit., c. 20.)

Friendship – Montaigne’s idea of real friendship, not one born of necessity or advantage – is also a sign of personal success. It is an achievement that transcends business, politics and time. Those other “friendships,” he warned, are fragile: vulnerable to external events, personal needs and private goals. In fact, they are not friendship at all, as Montaigne defined it.

“Let no one, therefore, rank other common friendships with such a one as this,” Montaigne wrote of his own true friendship. “In those other ordinary friendships, you are to walk with bridle in your hand, with prudence and circumspection, for in them the knot is not so sure that a man may not half suspect it will slip.”

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10/1/14

Plato’s Apology


Walk AwayPlato records the trial and death of Socrates in four dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. I’ve been reading The Apology this week and finding in it references that reflect well in today’s world, particularly in politics.*

In The Apology – which meant defence in Greek, not saying sorry as it does today – Socrates defends himself against his accusers in a deft and bold way, but he loses his case anyway. Still, he defended himself by telling the truth, off-the-cuff and spontaneously.

The Jowett translation of this dialogue opens with these words…

How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was – such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth.
But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them which quite amazed me; – I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence. They ought to have been ashamed of saying this, because they were sure to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and displayed my deficiency; they certainly did appear to be most shameless in saying this, unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for then I do indeed admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs!
Well, as I was saying, they have hardly uttered a word, or not more than a word, of truth; but you shall hear from me the whole truth: not, however, delivered after their manner, in a set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases. No indeed! but I shall use the words and arguments which occur to me at the moment; for I am certain that this is right, and that at my time of life I ought not to be appearing before you, O men of Athens, in the character of a juvenile orator – let no one expect this of me.

I sympathize. Socrates faced accusers who slandered and lied about him and he found himself on trial in public, wrongfully accused and unprepared for the spiteful accusations against him, the misguided opinions.

I know that feeling. He then asks the jurors to

…think only of the justice of my cause, and give heed to that: let the judge decide justly and the speaker speak truly.

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09/29/14

Montaigne: The Depravity of Our Morals


Montaigne“Our judgments follow the depravity of our morals and remain sick,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his essay On Cato the Younger (Essay XXXVII, Book I, Screech translation, Penguin Classics, 2003). That’s quite a condemnation.*

Montaigne opens that essay by quietly commenting, “I do not suffer from that common failing of judging another man by me.” Would that we all had his strength, not to judge others by what we think of ourselves. But he was born long before the age of selfies.

In our more narcissistic age of social media we are all too quick to judge, too quick to anger, too quick to take offence. We react first, strike back immediately, think long after. We treat anyone with different ideas or visions as intruders; trespassers on our internet. We disparage rather than discuss. We hurl invectives and insults rather than ask questions. We slough off civil debate in favour of personal attack.

(Yes, I’ve been reading The Essays again. I never seem to tire of Montaigne; there’s always something in his words to move me, inspire me and make me think. There’s nothing quite so comforting as sitting on the front porch in the late afternoon, under a clear, warm sky, Susan reading beside me, dogs at my feet, while I sip a glass of homemade wine and peruse Montaigne… well, him and a small pile of other books I am also currently reading. Would that these moments could be frozen in time and all afternoons be so comforting and civilized… as blogger J. D Taylor writes, “I will never finish reading Montaigne…”)

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09/26/14

Examined Lives


Examined LivesThought and deed. Thought and life. How does a person’s life, their upbringing, their daily toil affect their deepest thoughts, their beliefs, faith and passions?

And as outsiders looking in, can we understand a person’s thinking by examining their lives? Can we understand their philosophy that way?

I don’t know. Biographies describe the events of a person’s life, but cannot look into their innermost thoughts. Modern biographies told in conjunction with living people as collaborators may pull the curtains up, letting us see what they want us to see. But dead people?

Most lives are measured in arbitrary milestones that mark various transitions on the roads of our lives. Our tenth birthday. Or thirtieth. Sixtieth. First kiss, Last girl/boyfriend. First car. 100,00th kilometre on the odometer. Fifth anniversary. Tenth. First job, Last job. And so on. Do these events define a person, or are they just convenient places on which to hang memories or to craft stories that reflect the bigger picture?

Most of the biographies I’ve read, most of those that still sit on my bookshelves, follow the predictable path through their subject’s life: birth, childhood, teens… building the story through the stages of life until the focal period is reached – Shakespeare’s writing prime, Darwin’s epiphany before he wrote Origin, Einstein’s period of cosmological insight, Patton’s WWII activities, Nixon’s presidency, Hudson set adrift on the bay – there’s always a particular someplace the author wants to take us. Someplace that every other line in the book leads to; someplace that justifies all the rest of the writing.

Biographies are, too, interpretations; a form of storytelling designed to lift or tear down the subject for the audience. To reaffirm or demolish the image others (and history) have built around them. And to shore that view up through the bricks and mortar of fact and (allegedly) objective data.

Most of my biographies are about scientists, politicians, kings and queens, writers, warriors, explorers. Very few seem to be about philosophers (Montaigne excepted). Which is one reason I picked up James Miller’s 2011 book, Examined Lives, in which he looks at twelve philosophers – not just who they were and how they lived, but how that influenced what they thought. I wanted to flesh out my rather thin knowledge about these people: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche.

(You might note that my happy discovery of Montaigne among them helped incur my interest in the rest…). Yes, they are all men, all Western philosophers, and it’s a very personal selection, not entirely representative of the long trends and history of Western philosophy. Miller explains why he chose them, why he wrote this book, Examined Lives, and why philosophy is important to us today, in this radio interview:

Surely we can’t know them through fully biography alone; only know of them. But does knowing what Descartes ate, or where Montaigne wrote, or when Nietzsche went for his daily walks help us understand their thinking? Perhaps, if a causal link can be demonstrated (and that events and thoughts are not simply synchronistic) we can connect the dots. Miller helps us do that.

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