My latest at The Economist’s “By Invitation.”
Archive for June 2011
This fall I will participate in a seminar on “The Good Life.” We are reading lots of original works, looking at the issue from various perspectives. I mentioned the role of technology in making life better, more specifically those technologies that tamper with the mind. We’ll read A Clockwork Orange, but I thought it would also be interesting to consider something with the opposite point of view. Something more Hansonian. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated–fiction or nonfiction.
Update: I didn’t explain this at all well. I am not looking for books on the good life. We already have a complete reading list, going back to Genesis. My assignment is to find a reading that argues in favor of tampering with human nature (via technology) in order to make life better. I believe that one of the reasons why Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange was to warn against that sort of thing. So I was looking for an alternative view.
Speaking of the good life, I’ve always thought that if I could have been anyone else, it would have been Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote some wonderful travel books about central Europe, Greece, and the Caribbean. Let’s face it, the average man wishes he was James Bond. Fermor was a sort of thinking man’s James Bond. Here’s the obit from The Economist:
Critics of his two best-loved books, “A Time of Gifts” (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986), complained that he swanned through 1930s Europe without noticing the clouds. His visit to the Munich Hofbräuhaus mostly described the enormous girth and appetite of ordinary Bavarians, barely mentioning the black-clad SS men in another room. An encounter with orthodox Jews in Transylvania focused on a reading, which thrilled him, of the Song of Miriam in Hebrew. Though both books were written decades after the event, he added no politics to them. Culture, beauty, romance and laughter were what he saw and cared for.
That’s precisely what I liked about the books–they presented Europe as it would have been perceived by an adventurous and erudite young man, who knew nothing about what would occur after 1933. And yet he certainly didn’t shirk his duty:
By the same token, he never wrote about his wartime experience as a liaison officer with the partisan guerrillas in Crete—except to mention the swagger-black boots and mulberry sash of his disguise, and the evenings of drinking raki and cracking walnuts outside their mountain hideouts. He earned his DSO for crazily kidnapping a German general; but the moment he remembered was when that general, one dawn of his captivity, suddenly quoted a line of Horace, Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/Soracte; and Captain Leigh Fermor, aka Michali, finished the next five stanzas for him.
There are many dangerous and unpleasant things that must be done so that a few lucky souls can live the good life. Fermor did those dangerous things, and also lived the good life:
He refused a knighthood almost to the end, pointing out that he had written only a slow handful of books. This was true. He had become famous largely for chronicling a Europe that had been swept away, and had spent a charmed life without a regular job, fed—as he liked to put it—like Elijah, by the ravens. But he had done more. His wandering, writing life evoked the essential unity of Europe, the cultural and linguistic intertwinings and layer upon layer of shared history; and all with a lightness, and an infectious joy, that inspired many others to set out in the same way.
He died at the age of 96.
[Normal people may want to skip the silliness that concludes this post. To make up for it, next week I promise an outpouring of near Yglesian proportions. Maybe 30 posts. ]
Actually, it makes no sense to say I wish I could have been Paddy Fermor. If I had lived his life, I would have been him, not I. But he did live his life–so in that sense my wish was granted. The problem is that I also had to live mine. If you have no idea of what I’m talking about, I don’t blame you. When one denies the existence of personal identity, reality becomes a very strange place. Here’s a wonderful quotation by Borges that explains why “I” don’t exist:
The self does not exist. Schopenhauer, who often appears to adhere to this opinion, at other times tacitly denies it, I know not whether deliberately or because he is compelled to by the rough, homespun metaphysics–or rather ametaphysics that lurks in the very origin of language. Nevertheless, despite this disparity, there is a passage in his work that illuminates the alternative like a sudden blast of flame. I shall transcribe it:
“An infinite time has run its course before my birth; what was I throughout all that time? Metaphysically the answer might perhaps be: I was always I; that is; all who during that time said I, were in fact I.”
Reality has no need for other realities to bolster it. There are no divinities hidden in the trees, nor any elusive thing-in-itself behind appearances, nor a mythological self that orders our actions. Life is truthful appearance. The sense do not deceive, it is the mind that deceives, said Goethe, in a maxim that we could compare to this line by Macedonio Fernandez:
“La realidad trabaja en abierto misterio.” [Reality works in overt mystery.]
There is no whole self. Grimm, in an excellent presentation of Buddhism (Die Lehre des Buddha, Munich, 1917), describes the process of elimination whereby the Indians arrived at this certainty. Here is their millennially effective precept: “Those things of which I can perceive the beginnings and the end are not my self.” This rule is correct and needs only to be exemplified in order to persuade us of its virtue. I, for example, am not the visual reality that my eyes encompass, for if I were, darkness would kill me and nothing would remain in me to desire the spectacle of the world, or even to forget it. Nor am I the audible world that I hear, for in that case silence would erase me and I would pass from sound to sound without memory of the previous one. Subsequent identical lines of argument can be directed toward the sense of smell, taste, and touch, proving not only that I am not the world of appearances–a thing generally known and undisputed–but that the apperceptions that indicate that world are not my self either. That is, I am not my own activity of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. Nor am I my body, which is a phenomenon among others. Up to this point the argument is banal. Its distinction lies in its application to spiritual matters. Are desire, thought, happiness, and distress my true self? The answer, in accordance with the precept, is clearly in the negative, since those conditions expire without annulling me with them. Consciousness–the final holdout where we might track down the self–also proves unqualified. Once the emotions, the extraneous perceptions and even ever-shifting thought are dismissed, consciousness is a barren thing, without any appearance reflected in it to make it exist.
Grimm observes that this rambling dialectical inquiry yields a result that coincides with Schopenauer’s opinion that the self is a point whose immobility is useful for discerning, by contrast, the heavy-laden flight of time. This opinion translates the self into a mere logical imperative, without qualities of its own or distinctions from individual to individual.
Let there be happy mental states on July 4th!!
PS. I don’t know how Robin Hanson feels about Borges’ argument, but Hanson seems headed in the same direction.