Monday, 27 March 2017

Conquering the Universe One Peace at a Time, or: Pursuing the Cultured, Prosperous, Stoic Life

Peace and Prosperity, 1896. Mural by Elihu Vedder at Library of Congress. Photo by Carol Highsmith.
In a recent post I grappled with the concept of parsimony in explaining complex problems. Critics will often suggest one is conflating issues when the complexity becomes too much for them to bear. But that doesn't mean there is no merit in pursuing answers to complex problems, or that a parsimonious solution is the best one. In this article, I grapple with the pursuit of peace and prosperity and the lofty ideals of high culture, as I journey with Epictetus, Tolstoy, James Allen, Harold Bloom, and Joseph Epstein.

This journey began with Joseph Epstein. Or was it Tolstoy. Or Harold Bloom. Definitely not Howard Bloom. I think I bumped into Howard Bloom on my journey with Dante. I am already conflating my ideas, it would seem, so let's start with Epstein. But how did I get there? Already, I must become a detective of my own thoughts. But the detective is Inspector Clouseau [goes off to look at bookmarks and various hardcopy printouts]...



I can't find the connection, but it came from reading about how many books one will read before one dies. It turns out that, assuming my life follows an average trajectory and I can continue to read 80 books per year until I die, that leaves me with 2,960 books I could potentially read until I cark it. I better write a list of "must-reads".

Going off on this tangent is a good thing, apparently, because it means I am deliberately self-regulating my knowledge processes, and therefore developing "expert knowledge". The process will become faster over time. However, my writing timeframes are blowing out. So, like Clouseau, I stumble off in the hope that this will be fruitful in the long run (see Glaser 1995, p. 265, point 5). But I digress.

I have been working through Ryan Holiday's The Daily Stoic, while completing Benjamin Franklin's personal improvement plan (I have just completed week 9 of 13), and also reading James Allen's "Morning and Evening Thoughts" from As a Man Thinketh. This is a daily process which includes writing a journal, ritualised each morning and evening, and accompanied by a good dose of daily reading. Which brings me to Epstein.

Given that the number of books I can read is restricted by the length of my life, Epstein provides some suggestions that may prove useful in making best use of this time. To use his words:
My media diet is the equivalent of vegan.
Epstein reads a few magazines, but avoids most of the hype about day to day politics. He has cancelled his subscriptions to The New York Times  and The New Yorker. So what does he do with the extra time he has freed up?
Well, I've made a little discovery of a marvelous invention called books, which I'm told are going out of style but which give a satisfaction that is deeper than any other means I know.
If you haven't read a book for a while, this won't make much sense. But if you have, you might wonder whether there is any truth to the claim that the novel is on its way out.

So I turned to the Times Literary Supplement, where Ben Jeffrey tells me all about The Oxford History of the Novel in English. Apparently the novel has been on its last legs in every decade since the 1940s. The novel has apparently been made obsolete by technology. Yet this has been accompanied "by a constant increase in the number of novels written, published, and read".

However, Will Self suggests that the novel will be a specialist form of reading. Using my bounded experiences to guide me, I can readily agree with Self. I rarely meet people I can talk to about the books I read. That is no boast; I find it rather sad. Will Self says what I think:
Nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn't alive and snorting: "I don't know much about art but I know what I like". However, what didn't obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. It goes further: the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism... The current resistance of a lot of the literate public to difficulty in the [novel] is only a subconscious response to having a moribund message [that reading novels is good for you] pushed at them.
And on and on it goes. Anti-Stoically (with a deliberate capital S), Sandy Grant recommends we don't try to control our emotions in order to resist Trump. Then, Stoically, Ryan Holiday suggests that focusing on the things we can control and avoid, echoing Epstein, the media trap. Conveniently, this brings my meandering back to Epstein.

On 30 June 1999, in an interview in The Atlantic, Epstein spoke about death and its influence on how he thinks about his life and work:
I don't mope and think about death all the time -- not quite -- but the idea that life is going to be over conditions almost everything I do. I'm always thinking about this -- when I work, when I read. I just don't want to waste myself on too much trivia.
Given that Epstein had undergone open heart surgery only a few months before, such a view is not surprising. And in speaking about his surgery in The New Yorker on 12 April 1999, Epstein hints at a Stoic reality:
I still feel an abiding vulnerability I hadn't felt before. The surgery has left me with what I can only call heart-consciousness. I turn over in bed at night and hear my heart, and feel less in control of my destiny. Rationality, of which I have always considered myself a devotee, has its distinct limits, and one of them is over the fate of my body: it will check out when it is ready, not, as I should prefer, when I am. All this was true, of course, before my bypass surgery, but now it seems more than merely true - I know it to be ineluctably true.
Then just last week, Epstein, writing in The Weekly Standard, addresses the issue of high culture. He writes of Matthew Arnold (I am reading Culture and Anarchy right now), and how reading the classics and discovering that someone 2,000 years ago dealt with the same issues and had the same thoughts as you do is a fascinating form of connection. The introduction to Culture and Anarchy mentions Mrs Humphrey Ward, who happened to be Matthew Arnold's niece. I read Ward's book because of another connection as I journeyed through literature.

Epstein then mentions Tolstoy. I have just finished The Cossacks (I will review this as soon as I have finished Hadji Murad, which happens to be about love and death), which is part of the same book.

This sent me off on the tangent of "ambivalence" in The Cossacks and how nobody else really cares about what someone does, and again the final scene in La Vie En Rose "we die alone", and don't get me started on the actress who also happened to be in Midnight in Paris and then Hemingway and Fitzgerald... [take a breath]... so what does it all mean to be peaceful and prosperous?

According to Marcus Aurelius, and as echoed by Epstein:
You have power over your mind -- not outside events [including your body]. Realize this, and you will find strength.
I do not control my body, but I can control my mind. So what do I need to be at peace? Epstein suggests that it is much easier to be happy if you avoid high culture:
The pursuit of high culture came with a price. Once hooked on it, one was no longer entirely at ease with popular culture—the culture, that is to say, most of us grew up with and that remains the mainstream culture. Once one is devoted to the pursuit of high culture, the bestseller, the Oscar-winning movie, the highest-rated television shows—all uncomplicatedly enjoyed by one's contemporaries—are, if not of no interest, then thought somewhat out of bounds, with the enjoyment of them tending to fall under the category of guilty pleasures.
This echoes what I tell my first-year students:
You need to know these things so you don't look like a goose at a dinner party. Nevertheless, once you know these things, there is no turning back: Ignorance truly is bliss.
And then I find solace in Epstein's words to his:
But if as writers you intend to present yourself to the world as cultured persons, you have to know these names and events and scores of others, and what is important about them. This is not something that one gets up as if for an exam, or Googles and promptly forgets, but that must be understood in historical context—at least it must for those who seek to live a cultured life.
And so Inspector Clouseau solves the case. Or rather, Epstein does:
A cultured person has a standard, a recollection, through literature and history and philosophy—if not necessarily through personal experience—of greatness. Without such a recollection, rising above mediocrity is difficult, if not impossible.
And Oakeshott (cited in Epstein), rounds out the whole death and reading business:
To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know and to have the courage not to be tempted beyond this limit.
Surely, pursuing high culture will help me to find peace. But what of prosperity? In A Brief Economic History of Time, Derek Thompson suggests that those who are happiest value time over money. I know this is true for me, to paraphrase Rousseau, bought through experience that was barely worth the cost. So being cash rich but time poor is not prosperity.

It makes me wonder what academic colleagues mean when they say "I don't have time to read". I really hope they are stinking rich. But give me time any day.

Then what would I do with my time? Well, read, of course, and write. But I need to know what I need to know and not be tempted beyond this limit. Given there is only a certain amount of time for this pursuit, I need to make it worthwhile.

My next steps are to read, in this order, are to read:
  1. Martin Heidegger - Being and Time
  2. Jean Paul Sartre - Existentialism is a Humanism
  3. Soren Kierkegaard - a few things!
  4. Simone de Beauvoir -  The Ethics of Ambiguity
According to Sartre, "You are your life, and nothing else". And we are what we do - not what we might do or wish we did. Add to this the time pressure, and you can probably connect the dots to see why these readings are important. But why do all this? I will give James Allen (1921:48) the last word:
He (sic) who has conquered self has conquered the universe.

Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio