Cynic simplicity: the courage to think

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Twenty years had taken their toll. I hadn’t seen Andy since our high school reunion. At first, I barely recognised him. There was more of him than I remembered. His face was broad, carved with crevasses of flesh. The hams and T-bar shoulders that had made him a star on the rugby field now hefted an imposing gut. His hand absorbed mine, pumping fiercely. He seemed to have swelled in size, as if his whole body were inflated with air.

If the suit didn’t give it away, you could tell from his manner that he’d done well for himself. Andy had done a bit of everything. Five years’ work in the WA mines had set him up to make some smart investments. Andy was a ‘self-made’ man, with a dozen businesses behind him and two failed marriages along the way. These days he worked as a consultant to the coal industry (‘Carbon budget, my ass’, he said. ‘The stuff’s in the ground, it’s coming out’). He liked how the Asians partied with a bottle of whiskey on the table. We bonded over shots at the bar, but the more we talked, the more the years yawned like a chasm between us.

He laughed when I told him that I was a philosopher. ‘So am I’, he said. ‘I’m a professional cynic’.

Cynicism used to be a dirty word. When Andy and I were kids, we wouldn’t have thought of affirming it. To be cynical means to be distrusting of people’s motives and dismissive of their good intentions. Only a fool would want to try to change the world. Cynics are convinced that everyone operates out of self-interest. Given this state of affairs, the only smart response is to take care of number one. In business life, cynics are distinguished by a ‘me first’ mentality. They don’t care much where they make their money. If the money’s easy, it’s good. Often, you’ll find them working for pariah industries like coal and tobacco. They are working for a broken system, and they know its going nowhere, but they’re riding the gravy train to the end.

I am troubled by the easy affirmation of cynicism in contemporary life. To my mind, the fact that successful people like Andy know that things are getting worse; also that aspects of their existence are helping things to get worse; yet think the matter is out of their hands, that it is beyond their power to do or change anything, so they may as well be cynical – this amazes and upsets me. ‘Pretty stupid not to be cynical, these days’, Andy laughed when I pressed him on the issue. ‘Take it from me, mate, it’s a pack of dogs out there’. He squared his shoulders and knocked my glass with his drink. ‘Chi-ching’. Same old Andy. Yet something had changed – I could see it in his eyes. It was a flicker of fear. Our conversation was taking him places that he rarely went. Difficult places. His cynical philosophy gave him license to live the way he wanted. But did it allow for journeys of the mind? Did the old school battler have the courage to think? [Read more...]

Question everything: scepticism as a way of life

Question-everythingIn 155BC, Carneades the Sceptic travelled to Rome to give an important speech to the Roman Senate. Carneades was the head of the Athenian Academy and the most dignified philosopher of his day. He was known as a brillant speaker with a whip-sharp mind and a mastery of sceptical techniques that was second to none. In Rome, there were mixed feelings about Carneades’ speech. Some people were concerned about Carneades’ brand of sceptical philosophy and the effect it might have on the Roman youth. Others, however, were curious to learn what Carnaedes had to offer. Greek scepticism was a mystery to the Romans, yet to immigrate across the Ionian Sea. Carnaedes was an ambassador from the land of skeptikos. Was this a land worth visiting?

Introducing Sceptic philosophy to the Romans was not Carneades’ main objective. Carneades came to Rome as a diplomat, tasked with convincing the Senate to reduce a fine that had been imposed on Athens for the invasion of Oropus. The Romans believed the fine was just, while the Athenians thought it was wildly inappropriate. Carneades had promised to take a sceptical approach to the debate, to see if it were possible to transform the way that both parties thought about things. To achieve this, he’d deliver two speeches in the course of two days, both on the topic of justice.

On the first day, Carneades wowed his audience with a stunning review of Platonic and Aristotelian arguments in favour of justice. Justice, Carneades declared, was the supreme virtue, the Archimedian point that should guide all thought and discussion. The Roman senators were impressed. That evening, there was much talk of Carneades’ oratorical power and persuasiveness. How would he top it on the second day, people wondered?

When Carneades turned up the next day, the Senate was packed with the best and brightest of Rome, ready to imbibe his wisdom. Carneades stood at the podium and calmly refuted everything that he’d said the day before. The senators listened aghast as the great philosopher enumerated the virtues of injustice, which Carneades presented as a natural law that any reasonable person should adhere to. He wound up with some practical advice for the senators. ‘Rome has won her empire by injustice both to gods and men’, Carneades declared. And such is the course that Rome should maintain. Heaven forbid that the capital should explore the virtues of justice. How foolish! Carnaedes claimed: ‘A policy of justice would make Rome again what she was originally – a miserable poverty-stricken village’.

To say that Carneades’ speech went down badly is an understatement. Carneades and his entourage were ejected from the city. Scepticism never set root in Rome and the Greeks, presumably, learned an important lesson: never enlist a philosopher in diplomatic work. [Read more...]

Hour of the mayfly: life and death the Existentialist way

thinredlineEver stared death in the eye? If you’ve not had the pleasure, like Pfc. Don Doll here in this shot from Terence Malik’s Thin Red Line, I recommend a thought experiment. Imagine that, right now, you are teletransported to the heart of a military conflict. Ker-bang. One moment you are surfing the internet, next moment you are knee deep in the mud with bullets hissing through the elephant grass about you. An explosion thows you down. Shit is real. You could be dead in an instant.

You want to run, cry, call for your mother. But there is no escape. You crouch low in the grass, taking deep breaths. Yout heart is booming in your chest. You are alive – for the moment. This simple truth has enveloped your entire consciousness. How strange it is that you didn’t reflect on this before, you think. Why, all your life, you’ve been stumbling about as if in a dream. Now, all you can think is: I’m still here! Life is not an abstract concept. You are living it, right now.

Death is in the moment too. Amid the explosions, shots and screams, the truth of human mortality is shockingly clear. Death is not something that lies far off in the distance, like the closing scene of a movie or the final chapter of a book. Death can come anytime, anyplace. The bullets are in flight, the bombs are descending. The hand of death may be on you now.

This is the truth of human mortality. Face this truth and it will change you.

[Read more...]

Odysseus and the Cyclops: mastery, humility, and fate

cyclopsOdysseus was the hero’s hero. King of Ithaca, he sailed to Troy with an army of men to liberate the princess Helen from the Trojans. Odysseus’ leadership and prowess at Troy made him a legend among his fellow Greeks. Yet, Odysseus had a fatal flaw, and this would be his undoing. Odysseus could master a chariot and a phalanx of soldiers, but he wasn’t always the master of himself. Every now and then, his pride would get the better of him and he would become wild and unchecked, a primal force of passion and fury.

In these moments, Odysseus would forget the limits of his powers. He would believe that he was god-like and untouchable, the master of fate and destiny. He would lose his grip on reason. He would overreach himself and get himself into all kinds of scrapes.

Finally he messed up big time. The epic misfortunes of Odysseus’ life, dramatized by Homer in The Odyssey, hinged upon a single lapse in self-control. Odysseus’ error presents valuable insights into the kind of self-control that we need to deal successfully with change. Most importantly, it indicates how pride, or hubris, constantly undercuts our attempts at self-mastery. We believe that we are masters of the world. We overreach ourselves and wind up victims of the world instead.

Homer describes Odysseus as a master strategist – a ‘man of twists and turns’. It was Odysseus, at the siege of Troy, who devised the plan for getting the Archaean army into the city. Disguising himself as a beggar, ‘searing his body with mortifying strokes and throwing filthy rags on his back like a slave’, Odysseus stole into Troy and read its defences. The princess Helen, prisoner of the Trojans, recognized him and demanded that he tell her his plan. Odysseus gave it up reluctantly. The Archaeans would build a giant horse and put soldiers in its belly, giving it to the Trojans as a gift. It was a crazy scheme but it just might work! Under the cover of darkness, the soldiers would creep from the horse and throw wide the city gates and the Archaean army would come pouring in. This is how Odysseus, ‘master of any craft’, facilitated the conquest of Troy and liberated Helen. [Read more...]

Nietzsche’s way of the creator: my north star

nietzschesupermanFriedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is my deepest philosophical inspiration. I have spent years defending Nietzsche’s concept of will to power and explaining why it has nothing to do with domination and control. Nietzsche is a philosopher of creativity and spiritual health. If he occasionally comes across like a rabid dog, barking furiously at the world, it was because he dreamed passionately of a better world – a world of free spirits, risk takers and creators, people who selfishly seek to cultivate their powers so that they can unleash them on the world in dynamic ways.

Do we live in a Nietzschean world today? In many respects we do. Yet, creators walk a lonely path, for they engage in a disruptive activity, and they ruffle as many feathers as they release birds into flight. I dedicate the following passage from Nietzsche’s book Thus Spoke Zarathustra to the passionate dreamers of the world – the pathmakers, philosophers, and radical entrepreneurs. It is titled ‘The Way of the Creator’. It has helped me to find my way. I hope it helps you find yours.

Would you go into solitude, my brother? Would you seek the way to yourself? Then wait a moment and listen to me.

“He who seeks may easily get lost himself. All solitude is wrong”: so say the herd. And long did you belong to the herd.

The voice of the herd will still echo in you. And when you say, “I no longer have a conscience in common with you,” then it will be a grief and a pain.

Lo, that same conscience created that pain; and the last gleam of that conscience still glows on your affliction.

But you would go the way of your affliction, which is the way to yourself? Then show me your right and your strength to do so!

Are you a new strength and a new right? A first motion? A self-rolling wheel? Can you even compel the stars to revolve around you?

Alas! there is so much lusting for loftiness! There are so many convulsions of the ambitious! Show me that you are not a lusting and ambitious one! [Read more...]

You got to give to get back: Amanda Palmer, crowdfunding, and the theatre of gifts

Amanda Parker @ TED

The talk began without a word. Alt-rock icon Amanda Palmer sauntered onto stage at TED Long Beach, a flower and hat in her hands, nudging a plastic crate along the floor before her. At centre stage, she upturned the crate and positioned the hat in front of it. Stepping up on the crate, she raised her arms to shoulder height and froze.

It was Palmer’s way of introducing the topic of her talk: ‘The Art of Asking’. Prior to finding success with the punk-cabaret outfit, The Dresden Dolls, Palmer had earned a living busking as human statue, the ‘Eight Foot Bride’. She claims in her talk that this provided her with the perfect education for the music business. Becoming a human statue was certainly a great way to capture the audience’s interest. Holding the pose, Palmer held the audience’s attention. She looked left, looked right. Not a word. The TEDsters shivered with anticipation.

Palmer’s talk has generated a great deal of discussion and debate online since TED uploaded the video in February. Two things have captured people’s interest: the fact that Palmer advocates crowdfunded file-sharing as a business model for musicians and artists (she claims: “I firmly believe in music being as free as possible. Unlocked. Shared and spread. In order for artists to survive and create, their audiences need to step up and directly support them”), and the fact that she has been so phenomenally successful at doing this herself. Last year, Palmer raised $1.2 million dollars through Kickstarter to fund ‘Theatre is Evil’, the first album by her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra. In the hit and miss world of crowdfunding, this makes her a guru. No doubt there were a smattering of dark cabaret fans in the audience at TED Long Beach that night. But the majority of people in the audience were there to learn how Palmer worked her money magic.

What they got was a human statue. For a moment. There was magic in that moment – and an important lesson for crowdfunders, too. [Read more...]

Nietzsche’s demon: the eternal return

Arc De Triomphe @ FineArtAmerica

Arc De Triomphe @ FineArtAmerica

Alexis was in love with life. Fresh out of art school in Fremantle, Australia, she’d picked up a scholarship to study photography under a famous Parisian photographer. Her mother had urged caution but Alexis persisted – and thank goodness! The course – and Paris itself – was everything that she’d dreamed. Her French sponsor found her an apartment in the Latin Quarter, just a stone’s throw from the Place Saint-Michel. Alexis would stroll along the Seine in the evening, up the Champs Elysées to take pictures of the Arc de Triomphe in the flurry of lights.

After two months documenting daily life on the streets of Paris, she had enough material for an exhibition. Alexis felt like she was at the heart of life. Things could go anywhere from here.

One night Alexis was speaking to a friend in Australia. They were reminiscing about their student days, which her friend dearly missed.

‘Do you remember Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return?’ the friend asked. ‘If I had to choose one time of my life to live out again and again forever, it would be art school’.

Alexis, for her part, was ambivalent about the ‘good old days’. She realized then that if there were a time in her life that she would have again and again, it would be her time in Paris, not Fremantle. The more that she reflected on this, the more her life seemed to come into focus. Looking out the window at the bustling streets, Alexis imagined Nietzsche’s demon coming into her room and making her the offer of Eternal Return. Alexis could hear herself reply, like Nietzsche:

‘Yes. You are a god and I have never heard anything more divine’.

———————————-

This post is excerpted from Chapter 3 of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide

Epic change: Foucault on ‘today’ as a moment of vision

GenevaCrossing.Silhouette
We are living though remarkable times. Digital technologies are disrupting societies around the world, while our economies putter fitfully in and out of recession, and climate change sweeps whole suburbs into the sea. What is most remarkable about these times is how few people attend to their changing nature. Many people invest time and energy in distracting or shielding themselves from the changes that define the present. Even those who engage the present tend to treat it selectively, singling out those aspects of the historical moment that are relevant to their occupation and interests and zeroing in on them while ignoring the rest.

It’s time that we all took stock of the amazing times we live in. Because what we need today, more than anything else, are leaders – people that are capable of synthesising the chaos of the present, engaging with these changes and steering us through them. We need circuit-breakers, disruptors, people who look for opportunities in a crisis – people with the resilience to confront the present as a moment of crisis, the agility to mobilize multiple resources to deal with it, and the vision to mark new paths into the future. Today, our challenges are global in scope, yet so are our opportunities. The breakthrough initiatives that will define the coming decades will connect challenges and opportunities in unforeseen ways, putting us on paths towards goals that previous generations didn’t know existed. The great leaders of history have always been disruptive thinkers.

[Read more...]

Nietzsche on God and power: timely meditations

Nietzsche – “Desconstruindo gigantes” by Emerson Pingarilho http://tinyurl.com/c4lontc

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a thinker at war with his times. To understand Nietzsche’s vision of the death of God and the will to power, we need to understand the world that he lived in.

Nietzsche’s nineteenth century was a time of industry and transformation. Germany was a major industrial and colonial power, unified under Emperor Wilhelm I. European society was being reshaped from within by the emerging middle class, while the working class railed against their conditions and dreamed of revolution as they browsed the works of Marx. Everyone was looking ahead, inspired by the possibilities of science, democracy, socialism and progress.

Nietzsche smelled something rotten at the base of it all. He peeled back the layers of polite conversation to unveil a simple truth. There was no place for God in this brave new world of science and progress. Indeed, most progressives didn’t see a need to make a place for God because they no longer believed in Him. This reflected a major social and cultural shift. God had ruled European society through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance through his emissaries in the Church and State. Religious faith had shaped and colored life at all levels of society, from the rituals of the King’s court to the observances of the working poor. But God had been sidelined through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the rise of science and the secular state, undercutting the power of the Church. By Nietzsche’s time, God had become a private matter, if not a superstition.

God took ill the day that it became acceptable to question His existence in polite company. He went into seizure the day that science established it was a better guide to reality than faith. ‘God is dead’, Nietzsche declared. ‘All of us are His murderers’ (The Gay Science [GS], §125). [Read more...]

Epictetus on the seas of fate: cultivate the power within

The Roman slaver groaned as it lurched through heavy seas. Below decks, a boy, Epictetus, lay writhing in his chains. His left knee, where the manacle bit into the shin, was trussed in a heavy rag. Two nights ago a crate had come loose in a storm, careered across the floor and crushed his leg. Epictetus had been in and out of consciousness since then.

No one had treated the break. The soldiers who had dragged the crate away retreated when they saw the damage it had done. Now they spoke in whispers and brandished the lash when he begged for help. He was damaged goods. Epictetus could tell that they didn’t expect him to survive the trip.

Epictetus would prove them wrong. All he needed to do was to control the pain. Try as he might, there was no stopping it. He had tried to blank it out, but it was oppressively – there. There had to be some way of dealing with it, the boy thought. What was it that the Stoics taught? Cultivate the power within. Epictetus struggled to apply the Stoic teaching. [Read more...]

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