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…]

Da Vinci on change: cultivate your powers and unleash your whole person

leonardo-vitruvian-man-bLeonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the quintessential ‘Renaissance man’. Leonardo’s life is a testament to human creativity. Over six decades of creative activity, Leonardo showcased gifts as a painter, sculptor, scientist, anatomist, architect, engineer, inventor, botanist, and musician. His contributions are remarkable for their consistent brilliance. Leonardo’s paintings, including the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, are touchstones for the history of Western art. In his sketchbooks and journals, Leonardo developed a new visual language for representing bodies and surfaces, which fed into his painting and gave his figures an unprecedented realism. Leonardo’s studies of the natural world made a decisive contribution to the embryonic sciences of anatomy, hydrodynamics and physics. His architectural and engineering designs included bridges, irrigation projects, villas and cathedrals. His notebooks brim over with fantastic inventions, including diving equipment, armoured cars, flying machines, musical instruments and more.

As a cultural figure, Leonardo da Vinci sets a high bar for the rest of us. Few of us could hope to match his success in such a diversity of pursuits. Mostly when we dabble in fields beyond our professional training, we wind up conceding that, while we may be happy apprentices, we will never be grand masters. Yet, we shouldn’t be discouraged by this. While you and I may never enjoy the accomplishments of Leonardo da Vinci, we can nurture and explore a plethora of talents and abilities, just as he did. Leonardo gives us an ideal to aspire to, even if we can’t match his achievements. He is someone who cultivated his full potential to think, feel, do and be.

[Read more…]

Spinoza in principle: ethics, affect, and friendship

Spinoza_3One hundred years ago, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a famous philosopher, oft-quoted and respected, if notorious for his relationship with the authorities of his time. It is unclear why he fell out of fashion. We may have seen Spinoza’s statue in Amsterdam, or heard his name mentioned by another philosopher, but of Spinoza himself, we know nothing. This is unfortunate seeing as Spinoza is one of the most practical and relevant philosophers there is. There are all sorts of ways that we can apply Spinoza’s philosophy today. Henri Bergson, writing in the early 20th century, saw Spinoza as a philosopher of intuition. The Italian political theorist Antonio Negri argues that Spinoza is the key to understanding globalization and the postmodern age.

This post does not explore the work of these thinkers. I want to focus on Spinoza himself.

oude_kerk_amsterdamSpinoza was the son of a Portuguese merchant who had fled to Amsterdam with his family to escape the Catholic Inquisition. Spinoza senior couldn’t have picked a better place to have moved the family business. It was the height of the Dutch Golden Age and Amsterdam was the trading capital of the world. Amsterdam, moreover, was an excellent spot for Spinoza to begin a philosophical education. Through the seventeenth century, the liberal climate of Amsterdam drew a hoard of political and religious refugees from other parts of Europe, stimulating a lively intellectual culture. Strolling through Dam Square, Spinoza would have rubbed shoulders with French Huguenots, German Anabaptists, Spanish heretics, and Scottish freethinkers amidst the hustle and bustle of the markets and trade. Spinoza formed the principles of his philosophy long before he considered himself a philosopher, as a young man on the streets of Amsterdam.

[Read more…]

You little genius! How to cultivate your creative gifts

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Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will grow up believing it is stupid. — Albert Einstein

‘What is your genius?’ I’d like you to reflect on this for a moment. I find that when I ask people this question, they often don’t know what to say. The G-word can stop us in our tracks. Years ago, when I was first asked: What is your genius? I thought: ‘Genius? What genius? I’m just a guy’.

I am just a guy. But I have come to see that everyone is touched by genius. Perhaps it is just a gentle caress. Perhaps your genius lies in something so uncommon that you’ll have to search the world before you find the opportunity to express it. There may be years of toil, of wanderings near and far, a host of grand adventures in your path before you finally discover your potential. But there is genius in you, waiting to be discovered. This post will explain how to find it.

If everyone is a genius, why is the world so messed up? For creatures who have the capacity for genius, we do a brilliant job of being dumb. Clearly, we are not, at this point in history, living up to our potential. But this is not surprising, since we only put a fraction of the work into cultivating our genius that we could. We doubt ourselves (‘Genius, what genius?’). We aim low (an easy trap to fall into, since that’s where most people are playing). Once we’re out of the education system, few people bother to encourage us to find our inner genius. Can you imagine your boss telling you to find that rare and special thing that makes you great and cultivate it? Not going to happen (‘Get back to work!’). We are the products of cookie-cutter education systems, of ‘knuckle-down-and-conform’ economies, of shallow, hyper-mediated, cultural systems that celebrate cannibalization and incremental innovation over true disruption (Lady Gaga is the incremental innovation of Madonna; the latest superhero blockbuster is the cannibalization of every superhero trope that has come before). Given this, it’s no surprise that we forsake our deeper talent. Really, why should we bother to look for brilliance in ourselves when society as a whole is geared for averageness? Why stick your head up over the edge of the trench? You’ll only get it blown off.

What an appalling waste of talent. Don’t give up on yourself like this. Find that rare and special thing that you do extraordinarily well and make it central to your life. Here’s how you can do it.

[Read more…]

Hooked on a feeling: how a chance encounter can change your life

I met a man named AJ Emmanuel as I was walking down the main street of my town. AJ was enlisting supporters for the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. He spotted me coming from a distance and lured me in with a parody of my loping stride. By the time we met, I was laughing and he was laughing too.

‘You are wasting your time with me!’ I told him. I explained how my partner and I give a set amount of money each month to a rolling roster of aid organizations. The UNHCR was somewhere on the list. ‘A good conversation is never a waste of time’, AJ replied. It was a sunny day and I was out for a walk – why not take the opportunity to chat?

I liked AJ immediately. He was confident and upbeat. There was mischief in his eyes, but seriousness, too – a tone of gravity underlying everything that he said. I sensed that I was in the presence of a kindred spirit – a street philosopher, of sorts – a man who had seen suffering enough to know that life has no guarantees, yet who is wise enough to appreciate that the only appropriate response is to celebrate each moment.

[Read more…]

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…]

Promises to myself: ten philosophical resolutions

Dandelion Clock

Don’t you love the feeling when you realise that your work for the year is done and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t kick up your heels and relax? I woke up with that feeling this morning. I’m off to Vietnam at the end of the week and I can feel myself being drawn towards the plane.

Bon voyage, friends and fellow philosophers, wherever you may venture this holiday season! I’ll see you again in 2014 with more adventures of the cerebral kind.

I’ll leave you with a list of philosophical resolutions for 2014. I’ve lifted them from some of my favourite posts on this blog. I’ll be taking them with me on holiday. Promises to keep.

1. I will say ‘yes’ to life.

‘To complete Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses, the lion must become a child. ‎Maturity, for Nietzsche, means rediscovering the seriousness one had as a child at play.

A child-like spirit is vital to happiness, health, and well-being. “The child”, Nietzsche says, “is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a Sacred Yes”. The lion becomes a child when the individual who says “I will” ceases to affirm their values contrary to the law of “Thou Shalt”, and affirms them instead “for the sport of creation: the spirit now wills its own will, … its own world”. Life is no longer a reactive struggle to defeat other forces. Life is a celebration of one’s powers – a sustained act of pure affirmation. The child-like spirit knows the joy of life and the innocence of perpetual creation’.

From Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses (February 2010)

2. I will grow collective.

‘Love is a disruptive event that opens people to a new terrain of possibilities and a common vision of what they might be together. I find this aspect of Badiou’s argument tremendously interesting. When people find love, they realise life offers them more together than it does alone. They realise that they can do more together, and thereby discover a tremendous responsibility and risk. Can they be worthy of this common possibility? What level of dedication and trust is required to realise it? Love, Badiou claims, requires that we reinvent ourselves – together. It is a project of co-construction – the kind of event that we need to constantly work at in order to sustain’.

From Life changing love: Badiou and the birth of possibility (January 2013) [Read more…]

Sceptical thinking: the five modes of Agrippa

sceptic‘What if?’ These are possibly the most disruptive words in the English language. If ‘why?’ stops us in our tracks, ‘what if?’ fills the mind with possibilities. Politics, innovation, and art would be impossible without ‘what if?’ ‘What if we tried talking, instead of fighting all the time?’ ‘What if we put a computer in the mobile phone?’ ‘What if the natives on Skull Island worshipped a giant ape called Kong?’ Start a sentence with ‘what if?’ and anything can ensue.

‘What if?’ also clutters the mind with troubles and anxiety. ‘What if it rains on the day of our wedding?’ ‘What if there is a God (or a demon!) watching and judging me right now?’ ‘What if I’m wrong about everything I believe in – what then?

‘What if?’ is a semantic stick thrust into a hornet’s nest of possibilities. Endless ideas fly buzzing about our heads, occasionally inspiring us but mostly distracting us from challenges and tasks.

There are numerous approaches one can take to relieving the effects of ‘what if?’ Some people explore meditation. Others deaden their senses with alcohol and drugs. Too many people simply choose to stop thinking. They give themselves over to the tedious routines of life, ‘blink’ rather than think, and select ‘brain off’ entertainment that enables them to maintain a zombified state through evening until sleep claims them. The approach that I recommend is the opposite of this. Instead of thinking less, I believe that we should be thinking more about the possibilities of life, but to do so in a sceptical way, so that we dispel the irrelevant and immaterial ‘what ifs?’ and focus instead on genuinely valuable and thought-provoking possibilities.

In the last post, we explored scepticism as a way of life. This post provides you with a set of thinking tools to help you engage life in a sceptical manner. Learning to live in a sceptical way takes practice, but it is worth it. By learning to think sceptically about things, we are not only better able to identify things that have real meaning, relevance, and value in life, we are enabled to identify the things that lack meaning, relevance, and value, and thereby declutter our minds by setting these things to one side, zeroing in on the things that count.

Decluttering the mind is every bit as valuable as defragging your computer. Decluttering helps you stop worrying about all the meaningless, irrelevant, and absurd thoughts that clog up your mental bandwidth. It gives you space to think. It gives you back your freedom. [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…]

Positive abundance: when less is plenty

Ocean Rock PoolA good friend of mine, Gina, recently moved from Sydney to Yamba, on the northern New South Wales coast. Gina had been working as a project manager for a US-Australian cloud computing company while helping a number of local not-for-profits and social good initiatives kick butt on the fly. After years of holding space at the centre of a social innovation storm, she needed a break. Yamba was just the ticket. Nestled at the mouth of the Clarence river, festooned with pristine beaches and silvery waterways, Yamba was voted Australia’s best town in 2009. For Gina, it was the perfect place to rest, rechange, and reorient herself. It was time to shake free of things that were no longer important to her and refocus on the challenges and opportunities ahead.

The first thing she noticed was the quiet. Yamba is still – particularly after lights out. Decimal levels pick up gently in the day: the cawing of parrots, the mumble of passing cars, an occassional leafblower intruding on the calm. Gina took to rising at dawn, taking walks along the beach, and meditating in the afternoons. Her body found a different rhythm, settling into Yamba time, shaped by the sun and tides more than the movement of the clock. Soon, the quiet didn’t seem empty anymore. The silence was rich and overflowing, full of the burgeoning murmur of life.

Then the sense of isolation set in. Gina had moved to Yamba with a view to sewing together the network for a new not-for-profit. Without a job, she had plenty of time to reach out to friends and associates to spread the word. The trouble was, it was hard to do anything beyond that. Back in Sydney, Gina would have followed up a call with a coffee date and kept in touch with her contacts and acquaintences by dropping in on seminars and events about town. Now she was on the outside of this activity, just when she needed to be diving into it. She began to panic. The sense of isolation made her feel torn in two. Part of her was snugly cocooned in the rhythms and flows of Yamba. Another part of her was hammering on the walls of the cocoon like a butterfly impatient to be born, reaching beyond Yamba, trying and failing to connect with the flows of the city. [Read more…]