Quotes & Commentary #2: Montaigne

Quotes & Commentary #2: Montaigne

“Learned we may be with another man’s learning: we can only be wise with a wisdom of our own.”

—Michel de Montaigne

This is one of my favorite of Montaigne’s insights. He draws a distinction between wisdom and knowledge: knowledge is impersonal while wisdom is inevitably personal.

Knowledge—at least, academic knowledge—can be broken down into a collection of propositions; and these propositions, forming a complex whole, can be transmitted to others through language. This is what we do when we read history, science, or even math: we absorb new information and new theories, thus leading to a new understanding of the empirical, logical, or mathematical world.

Wisdom is not solely knowledge about the world; it must consist of knowledge of the self. For me, wisdom requires a great deal of self-awareness. Wise people have an understanding their habits, their faults, their tendencies; and this self-awareness allows them to carry themselves more calmly and successfully through the world.

Put another way, wisdom involves knowing-how in addition to knowing-that. A wise person knows how to deal with herself. She may not be an expert on any academic subject, but she is an expert on herself, and can use this expertise to move through the world with tranquility and joy.

Review: The Western Canon

Review: The Western Canon

The Western Canon: The Books and School of the AgesThe Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tradition is not only a handing-down or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.

As far as I know, Harold Bloom is the last major proponent of the ‘Great Books’ paradigm of higher education. This makes him something of an apocalyptic prophet. With great solemnity, he predicted (this was in 1994) that the Western world was about to enter into a new cultural era, a new Theocratic Age, wherein dogmatism would drive out aesthetic criteria from literature departments. These new dogmatists Bloom dubs the School of Resentment—a catch-all term that includes Marxist, Feminist, and post-structuralist literary critics. All of these approaches, says Bloom, seek to replace an aesthetic motive for a social or political one, and thus miss the point of literature.

Bloom sets out to defend his familiar Western Canon, and does so by analyzing twenty-six writers to see what makes them canonical. Why do we keep reading Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, and Tolstoy? The answer, Bloom finds, is because these works are strange: “One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.” Canonical works are those that are always beyond us somehow, those that are too rich, deep, and original to fully absorb.

How do artists achieve this exquisite strangeness? Bloom’s answer is that authors creatively misread the works of their predecessors to clear a creative space for themselves. This is Bloom’s famous anxiety of influence. Every writer feels anxiety about what they owe to their predecessors, so they attempt to find a weakness or a shortcoming—a place where there is still room for originality. But almost no author is original enough to outperform every one of their literary forebears. In Bloom’s opinion, there have only been two writers who have done so: Dante and Shakespeare. (I would add a few others to the list, personally.)

While Dante is given his due, Shakespeare is the real center of this book. Bloom is obsessed with Shakespeare: he worships him. For Bloom, Shakespeare invented the modern human. By this he means (I think) that Shakespeare’s characters redefined what we think of as personality and the self. Every writer since Shakespeare has so deeply internalized Shakespeare’s version of human nature that we can’t portray people in any other light. Shakespeare’s mind was too vast, acute, and convincing for us to get beyond it. Thus all writers after Shakespeare are forced to misread and misunderstand him in order to find a space for creativity.

Since Bloom thinks Shakespeare is so inescapably central, he discusses Shakespeare in every chapter—even the chapters on writers who predated Shakespeare: Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Montaigne. But Shakespeare is not the only writer whose influence Bloom discusses. Bloom’s whole model of literary originality consists of reading and misreading, influence and anxiety, so he is constantly comparing and contrasting writers. One of his favorite activities is to trace out literary ancestries, saying which writer descended from which.

It is hard for me to know what to make of all this. I find Bloom’s model of the anxiety of influence really compelling. But it is clearly the theory of an avid reader, not a writer. As is obvious on every page, Bloom is obsessed with reading; so it’s natural for him to reduce the writing process to reading and misreading. Bloom’s approach also leads to a rather inordinate amount of name-dropping. He mentions scores of poets, playwrights, and novelists on every page, often in long lists, and sometimes this seems to be for purposes of intimidation rather than illumination. What is more, Bloom’s approach requires a great deal of comparing and contrasting between different authors, which can make it seem as though he is more interested in connections between authors rather than authors themselves.

Bloom’s writing style, while appealing, can also be off-putting. There is something incantatory about it. He repeats similar observations, drops the same names, inserts the same quotations, and asserts the same points in different contexts and to slightly different purposes. His mind seems always to be swirling and buzzing rather than traveling in a straight line. He also has the bad habit of arguing from authority rather than with reasons. His treatment of the so-called School of Resentment is dismissive at best. He does not address their arguments, but rather talks of them as lost souls, blinded by worldly things. Another fault is that he makes assertions about authors that are not properly substantiated. The most noticeable of these was his claim that all of Freud’s theories are contained in Shakespeare—something he says repeatedly, but never adequately demonstrates.

I found Bloom to be consistently good in his criticism, but not great. There are many excellent and thought-provoking observations about writers and books here. But all too often Bloom’s criticism consists of little more than repeatedly insisting that this author is one of the best. His belief is that aesthetic appreciation can’t be taught; thus if you are not so endowed, you simply have to trust Bloom that certain writers are better than others. To be fair I think it’s impossible to “prove” that Shakespeare is better than Dan Brown. Nevertheless, Bloom’s attitude of authority can be seriously disagreeable. To question the motivation of your opponents (which he does) and to position yourself as an oracle and a prophet (which he also does) are not healthy attitudes for an intellectual.

Despite all of these misgivings, however, I still largely agree with Bloom’s judgments. In my experience the writers in Bloom’s canon are in a league of their own for the depth of literary pleasure they can provide. And although I am not so convinced of the autonomy of the aesthetic, I also think that aesthetic criteria are ultimately the most important in literary judgments.

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Quotes & Commentary #1: Montaigne

Quotes & Commentary #1: Montaigne

“I only quote others to better quote myself.”

—Michel de Montaigne

For many years now, it’s been my habit to write down my favorite quotes from the books I read. These can be passages that are particularly pungent, sentences with a memorable turn of phrase, or an insight that, for whatever reason, resonated with me. This collection of quotes has gradually grown into a sprawling mass, hundreds of pages long.

At present my hoard resembles an attic of precious jewelry, old antique furniture, forgotten knick-knacks, and fading photographs, collecting dust from age and neglect. It is time I put this attic into good order. To do this, I will select a quote I find especially appealing and write a short commentary on it, briefly explaining why I like it, what I think it means, and why I think it’s valuable.

This quote, by Montaigne, is the perfect place to start. On a verbal level, it is arresting because of his phrase “quote myself,” which is intentionally paradoxical. In my experience, this paradox is so true: We learn to express ourselves by imitating others. This is how we learn to speak, sing, paint, and write.

Montaigne did a great deal of quoting in his Essays, most often from ancient authors like Plutarch, Seneca, and Lucretius. Although the effect is sometimes pedantic, by the end you see how Montaigne’s style, tone, and perspective gradually emerges from these influences. He teaches himself how to write by selecting and digesting the writings of others. And this is what I hope to do, too.

Review: Conquest of Happiness

Review: Conquest of Happiness

The Conquest of HappinessThe Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.

Like many people, I suspect, I find Russell an extremely agreeable person. And though he is, no doubt, several orders of magnitude cleverer than I am, I still identify very strongly with him. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking, but the more I read Russell, the more I find that, in outlook and temperament, I am rather similar to the man—apart from his aristocratic English manners, of course. Thus it was a pleasure to read his views on what makes for a happy life, as almost everything he said resonated very strongly with me.

Russell’s aim is to examine not extraordinary grief or mourning or tragedy, but the usual sort of unhappiness that Thoreau meant when he said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And Russell’s message boils down to something simple: happiness comes from taking a genuine interest in the world, and unhappiness consists in spending too much time thinking about oneself and one’s problems.

Here is a simple example. If, on my walk back from work, I run into my neighbor, who then proceeds to tell me—for the umpteenth time—about his recent hunting trip, I can choose to see it as an imposition on myself, a needless waste of my time, a sign of this man’s stupidity, and finally as a part of a general decline in good manners and good taste. Or I can, with any luck, choose to see it as an amusing foible, as a window into another person’s life, or at the very least as something absolutely trivial and not worth fussing about. The difference is that the first is self-centered and more than a bit unrealistic, while in the second scenario my attention is directed outwards and I maintain a sense of perspective.

Russell fills up a book by exploring this idea from a variety of angles. What are the emotions that focus our attention inward and cause us to lose our perspective and our zest for life? Envy, greed, guilt, ruthless competitiveness, the need for approval, fear of public opinion. To combat these pulls, Russell recommends ways to constantly remind ourselves that we aren’t, in fact, the center of the universe, and the world around us is not some backdrop for our problems or an obstacle in the way, but is rather extremely interesting and a good deal more important than our own lives.

One of Russell’s key strategies is to take an interest in things that have no practical benefit to us. Simple as this sounds, many don’t seem to understand this lesson. It always strikes me as bizarre and shortsighted when someone says, “Why should I learn about this? It doesn’t affect me in any way. Will this ever be useful?” But isn’t this the point? Learning about wildflowers, for example, is relaxing because you won’t have to rely on this knowledge to pass an exam or to get a paycheck; it’s a relief from your usual cares, and one that, besides, enriches your experience of the world. And not only does learning about wildflowers enrich your experience, but it also reminds you that there’s an entire region of reality—one that people have devoted their lives to—that will be completely unaffected if you go bankrupt tomorrow. Isn’t that a nice thought?

In some places, this book shows its age. Russell speaks of women in ways that would probably get him tarred and feathered now; though, to be fair, at the time he was considered extremely progressive. At another point, Russell partly blames the growing unhappiness of women on the decline in good domestic service. Yet these bits are easy to ignore and forgive; and much of the book still feels relevant. Russell is particularly good on envy, competitiveness, and workaholism. These three—very prevalent here in New York City—are deeply intertwined.

So many people—and I am not excluded from this—make themselves miserable by thinking about all the nice things happening to everyone else, all the money their cousin is making (who’s not, after all, any smarter than me!), and all the luck that some people seem to have. They look in the mirror and think about the handsomer fellow on television; they receive their paycheck and think about how much their boss must make. This has been exacerbated by social media, but is, I think, something we all must deal with, especially in a capitalistic society where, ostensibly at least, your social position is determined by your own merit. The dark side of living in a supposed meritocracy is that people at the bottom or even comfortably in the middle feel that they are failures for not reaching the top—which is obviously absurd, especially if you realize that the people at the top most likely aren’t any happier than you are.

Thinking about yourself purely in relation to others leads directly to a certain amount of competitiveness; many people struggle, not to attain something they need, but simply to win a race against their peers. This is the cause of obsessive working. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with working, and working hard, but some people have completely lost a sense of perspective. In fact, I recently read a piece by someone who had spent his life in advertising—Lind Redding was his name—who detailed this very phenomenon after he was diagnosed with cancer and started looking back on his working life. After working furiously for decades, he concluded that, after all, he was only trying to make advertisements, so why on earth had he spent so many stressful hours at the office rather than at home?

This has happened to me, though on a much smaller scale, when I have been convinced that what I was working on was terribly important and that the consequences for not doing it perfectly would be disastrous—when, in reality, what I was doing was of no importance and the consequences of doing it imperfectly would be nonexistent. A proper sense of perspective would have helped me avoid this, for I would realize that other people’s success doesn’t make me a failure, that I have more than I need already, that my task is a very minor event in the universe, and that the earth won’t detonate if every detail isn’t just right. Or at least, I hope it won’t.

I’m getting a bit carried away. To return to the book, Russell, with his usually acute mind, tackles this trouble, among others, offering friendly advice on how to avoid it and to maintain a mental balance. And lucky for the reader, Russell’s advice is usually summed up in wonderful epigrams that sparkle with good-natured wit. I constantly found myself highlighting sentences in this book, as I read in continuous astonishment at Russell’s skill with the pen. His style is neither flashy nor even conspicuous; he uses no tricks, no elaborate metaphors, no high-flown words. Yet every time I read Russell, I find myself filled with envy at his writing ability; I think it’s criminal that there should be someone so much better than I am. Russell would, of course, remind me that after all there will always be someone who’s a better writer than I am, and that his prose should be appreciated as a gift rather than considered as a reproach to my own. Now, how do you argue with a person like that?

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On Egotism and Education

On Egotism and Education

A while ago a friend asked me an interesting question.

As usual, I was engrossed in some rambling rant about a book I was reading—no doubt enlarging upon the author’s marvelous intellect (and, by association, my own). My poor friend, who is by now used to this sort of thing, suddenly asked me:

“Do you really think reading all these books has made you a better person?”

“Well, yeah…” I stuttered. “I think so…”

An awkward silence took over. I could truthfully say that reading had improved my mind, but that wasn’t the question. Was I better? Was I more wise, more moral, calmer, braver, kinder? Had reading made me a more sympathetic friend, a more caring partner? I didn’t want to admit it, but the answer seemed to be no.

This wasn’t an easy thing to face up to. My reading was a big part of my ego. I was immensely proud, indeed even arrogant, about all the big books I’d gotten through. Self-study had strengthened a sense of superiority.

But now I was confronted with the fact that, however much more knowledgeable and clever I had become, I had no claim to superiority. In fact—although I hated even to consider the possibility—reading could have made me worse in some ways, by giving me a justification for being arrogant.

This phenomenon is by no means confined to myself. Arrogance, condescension, and pretentiousness are ubiquitous qualities in intellectual circles. I know this both at first- and second-hand. While lip-service is often given to humility, the intellectual world is rife with egotism. And often I find that the more well-educated someone is, the more likely they are to assume a condescending tone.

This is the same condescending tone that I sometimes found myself using in conversations with friends. But condescension is of course more than a tone; it is an attitude towards oneself and the world. And this attitude can be fostered and reinforced by habits you pick up through intellectual activity.

One of these habits is argumentativeness for me, most closely connected with reading philosophy. Philosophy is, among other things, the art of argument; and good philosophers are able to bring to their arguments a level of rigor, clarity, and precision that is truly impressive. The irony here is that there is far more disagreement in philosophy than in any other discipline. To be fair, this is largely due to the abstract, mysterious, and often paradoxical nature of the questions they investigate—which resist even the most thorough analysis.

Nevertheless, given that their professional success depends upon putting forward the strongest argument to a given problem, philosophers devote a lot of time to picking apart the theories and ideas of their competitors. Indeed, the demolition of a rival point of view can assume supreme importance. A good example of this is Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind—a brilliant and valuable book, but one that is mainly devoted to debunking an old theory rather than putting forward a new one.

This sort of thing isn’t confined to philosophy, of course. I have met academics in many disciplines whose explicit goal is to quash another theory rather than to provide a new one. I can sympathize with this, since proving an opponent wrong can feel immensely powerful. To find a logical fallacy, an unwarranted assumption, an ambiguous term, an incorrect generalization in a competitor’s work, and then to focus all your firepower on this structural weakness until the entire argument comes tumbling down—it’s really satisfying. Intellectual arguments can have all the thrill of combat, with none of the safety hazards.

But to steal a phrase from the historian Richard Fletcher, disputes of this kind usually generate more heat than light. Disproving a rival claim is not the same thing as proving your own claim. And when priority is given to finding the weaknesses rather than the strengths of competing theories, the result is bickering rather than the pursuit of truth.

To speak from my own experience, in the past I’ve gotten to the point where I considered it a sign of weakness to agree with somebody. Endorsing someone else’s conclusions without reservations or qualifications was just spineless. And to fail to find the flaws in another thinker’s argument—or, worse yet, to put forward your own flawed argument—was simply mortifying for me, a personal failing. Needless to say this mentality is not desirable or productive, either personally or intellectually.

Besides being argumentative, another condescending attitude that intellectual work can reinforce is name-dropping.

In any intellectual field, certain thinkers reign supreme. Their theories, books, and even their names carry a certain amount of authority; and this authority can be commandeered by secondary figures through name-dropping. This is more than simply repeating a famous person’s name (although that’s common); it involves positioning oneself as an authority on that person’s work.

Two books I read recently—Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon—are prime examples of this. Both authors wield the names of famous authors like weapons. Shakespeare, Plato, and Newton are bandied about, used to cudgel enemies and to cow readers into submission. References to famous thinkers and writers can even be used as substitutes for real argument. This is the infamous argument from authority, a fallacy easy to spot when explicit, but much harder when used in the hands of a skilled name-dropper.

I have certainly been guilty of this. Even while I was still an undergraduate, I realized that big names have big power. If I even mentioned the names of Dante or Milton, Galileo or Darwin, Hume or Kant, I instantly gained intellectual clout. And if I found a way to connect the topic under discussion to any famous thinker’s ideas—even if that connection was tenuous and forced—it gave my opinions weight and made me seem more “serious.” Of course I wasn’t doing this intentionally to be condescending or lazy. At the time, I thought that name-dropping was the mark of a dedicated student, and perhaps to a certain extent it is. But there is a difference between appropriately citing an authority’s work and using their work to intimidate people.

There is a third way that intellectual work can lead to condescending attitudes, and that is, for lack of a better term, political posturing. This particular attitude isn’t very tempting for me, since I am by nature not very political, but this habit of mind is extremely common nowadays.

By political posturing I mean several related things. Most broadly, I mean when someone feels that people (himself included) must hold certain beliefs in order to be acceptable. These can be political or social beliefs, but they can also be more abstract, theoretical beliefs. In any group—be it a university department, a political party, or just a bunch of friends—a certain amount of groupthink is always a risk. Certain attitudes and opinions become associated with the group, and they become a marker of identity. In intellectual life this is a special hazard because proclaiming fashionable and admirable opinions can replace the pursuit of truth as the criterion of acceptability.

At its most extreme, this kind of political posturing can lead to a kind of gang mentality, wherein disagreement is seen as evil and all dissent must be punished with ostracism and mob justice. This can be observed in the Twitter shame campaigns of recent years, but a similar thing happens in intellectual circles.

During my brief time in graduate school, I felt an intense and ceaseless pressure to espouse leftist opinions. This seemed to be ubiquitous: students and professors sparred with one another, in person and in print, by trying to prove that their rival is not genuinely right-thinking (or “left-thinking” as the case may be). Certain thinkers could not be seriously discussed, much less endorsed, because their works had intolerable political ramifications. Contrariwise, questioning the conclusions of properly left-thinking people could leave you vulnerable to accusations about your fidelity to social justice or economic equality.

But political posturing has a milder form: know-betterism. Know-betterism is political posturing without the moral outrage, and its victims are smug rather than indignant.

The book Language, Truth, and Logic by A.J. Ayer comes to mind, wherein the young philosopher, still in his mid-twenties, simply dismisses the work of Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant and others as hogwash, because it doesn’t fit into his logical positivist framework.

Indeed, logical positivism is an excellent example of the pernicious effects of know-betterism. In retrospect, it seems incredible that so many brilliant people endorsed it, because logical positivism has crippling and obvious flaws. But not only did people believe it, but they thought it was “The Answer”—the solution to every philosophical problem—and considered anyone who thought otherwise a crank or a fool, somebody who couldn’t see the obvious. This is the danger of groupthink: when everyone “in the know” believes something, it can seem obviously right, regardless of the strength of the ideas.

The last condescending attitude I want to mention is rightness—the obsession with being right. Now of course there’s nothing wrong with being right. Getting nearer to the truth is the goal of all honest intellectual work. But to be overly preoccupied with being right is, I think, both an intellectual and a personal shortcoming.

As far as I know, the only area of knowledge in which real certainty is possible is mathematics. The rest of life is riddled with uncertainty. Every scientific theory might, and probably will, be overturned by a better theory. Every historical treatise is open to revision when new evidence, priorities, and perspectives arise. Philosophical positions are notoriously difficult to prove, and new refinements are always around the corner. And despite the best efforts of the social sciences, the human animal remains a perpetually surprising mystery.

To me, this uncertainty in our knowledge means that you must always be open to the possibility that you are wrong. The feeling of certainty is just that—a feeling. Our most unshakeable beliefs are always open to refutation. But when you have read widely on a topic, studied it deeply, thought it through thoroughly, it gets more and more difficult to believe that you are possibly in error. Because so much effort, thought, and time has gone into a conclusion, it can be personally devastating to think that you are mistaken.

This is human, and understandable, but can also clearly lead to egotism. For many thinkers, it becomes their goal in life to impose their conclusions upon the world. They struggle valiantly for the acceptance of their opinions, and grow resentful and bitter when people disagree with or, worse, ignore them. Every exchange thus becomes a struggle, pushing your views down another person’s throat.

This is not only an intellectual shortcoming—since it is highly unlikely that your views represent the whole truth—but it is also a personal shortcoming, since it makes you deaf to other people’s perspectives. When you are sure you’re right, you can’t listen to others. But everyone has their own truth. I don’t mean that every opinion is equally valid (since there are such things as uninformed opinions), but that every opinion is an expression, not only of thoughts, but of emotions, and emotions can’t be false.

If you want to have a conversation with somebody instead of giving them a lecture, you need to believe that they have something valuable to contribute, even if they are disagreeing with you. In my experience it is always better, personally and intellectually, to try to find some truth in what someone is saying than to search for what is untrue.

Lastly, being overly concerned with being right can make you intellectually timid. Going out on a limb, disagreeing with the crowd, putting forward your own idea—all this puts you at risk of being publicly wrong, and thus will be avoided out of fear. This is a shame. The greatest adventure you can take in life and thought is to be extravagantly wrong. Name any famous thinker, and you will be naming one of the most gloriously incorrect thinkers in history. Newton, Darwin, Einstein—every one of them has been wrong about something.

For a long time I have been the victim of all of these mentalities—argumentativeness, name-dropping, political posturing, know-betterism, and rightness—and to a certain extent, probably I always will. What makes them so easy to fall into is that they are positive attitudes taken to excess. It is admirable and good to subject claims to logical scrutiny, to read and cite major authorities, to advocate for causes you think are right, to respect the opinions of your peers and colleagues, and to prioritize getting to the truth.

But taken to excesses, these habits can lead to egotism. They certainly have with me. This is not a matter of simple vanity. Not only can egotism cut you off from real intimacy with other people, but it can lead to real unhappiness, too.

When you base your self-worth on beating other people in argument, being more well read than your peers, being on the morally right side, being in the know, being right and proving others wrong, then you put yourself at risk of having your self-worth undermined. To be refuted will be mortifying, to be questioned will be infuriating, to be contradicted will be intolerable. Simply put, such an attitude will put you at war with others, making you defensive and quick-tempered.

An image that springs to mind is of a giant castle with towering walls, a moat, and a drawbridge. On the inside of this castle, in the deepest chambers of the inner citadel, is your ego. The fortifications around your ego are your intellectual defenses—your skill in rhetoric, logic, argument, debate, and your impressive knowledge. All of these defense are necessary because your sense of self-worth depends on certain conditions: being perceived, and perceiving oneself, as clever, correct, well-educated, and morally admirable.

Intimacy is difficult in these circumstances. You let down the drawbridge for people you trust, and let them inside the walls. But you test people for a long time before you get to this point—making sure they appreciate your mind and respect your opinions—and even then, you don’t let them come into the inner citadel. You don’t let yourself be totally vulnerable, because even a passing remark can lead to crippling self-doubt when you equate your worth with your intellect.

Thus the fundamental mindset that leads to all of the bad habits described above is that being smart, right, or knowledgeable is the source of your worth as a human being. This is dangerous, because it means that you constantly have to reinforce the idea that you have all of these qualities in abundance. Life becomes then a constantly performance, an act for others and for yourself. And because a part of you knows that its an act—a voice you try to ignore—then it also leads to considerable bad faith.

As for the solution, I can only speak from my own experience. The trick, I’ve found, is to let down my guard. Every time you defend yourself you make yourself more fragile, because you tell yourself that there is a part of you that needs to be defended. When you let go of your anxieties about being wrong, being ignorant, or being rejected, your intellectual life will be enriched. You will find it easier to learn from others, to consider issues from multiple points of view, and to propose original solutions.

Thus I can say that reading has made me a better person, not because I think intellectual people are worth more than non-intellectuals, but because I realized that they aren’t.

Review: The Lessons of History

Review: The Lessons of History

The Lessons of HistoryThe Lessons of History by Will Durant
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m having trouble articulating the complex mix of opinions and emotions that I’ve formed around Durant. Several times I have come away from his books disappointed; and yet I continue to read them. One reason he fascinates me is that he is a species of American which is now almost entirely extinct: a product of the ‘Great Books’ paradigm in American higher education.

As far as I can tell, this paradigm in education was first popularized in 1909, when Charles W. Eliot released his Harvard Classics—the so-called Five-Foot Shelf—which consisted of 51 volumes of classic works from western history. The spirit of this idea was later epitomized in the Book-of-the-Month club, about which Bertrand Russell, writing in 1930, penned his famous line: “There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.”

It was certainly a different time. The philosopher George Santayana and the historian Arnold Toynbee were bestselling authors, both featured on the cover of Time magazine. Will Durant, whose prose style strikes the modern ear as purple and grandiloquent, created a publishing sensation with his Story of Civilization, a series which totals four million words and ten thousand pages. And the monstrously big, 54-volume Great Books of the Western World sold thousands of copies—thousands!—even though it included works of Alexandrian astronomy, Greek mathematics, and German metaphysics, among other difficult material. One suspects that the bragging motive was the operative one in the majority of these purchases.

The spirit of the ‘Great Books’ paradigm is that of idolatry towards European intellectual history. The tone of its advocates often sound ludicrously reverential, such as this excerpt from a speech delivered on the occasion of the release of the Great Books series: “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.” (I got that from Wikipedia, by the way.) As two World Wars wracked the European continent, and as the fear of communism and nuclear war covered the Western world with gloom, perhaps it is unsurprising to see American intellectuals and laypeople positioning themselves as the heirs of European civilization.

This idea held sway for a long time in American Universities, and perhaps isn’t altogether dead. The swan songs of this pedagogical philosophy can be heard in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (1994), wherein both authors lament and eulogize the disappearance of the ‘Great Books’ from American universities.

Educated at Columbia during the heyday of this phenomenon, Durant was formed by the ‘Great Books’ ethos, and perhaps was one of its most eloquent proponents. And it strikes me now that, in Durant’s writings, one finds both the virtues and the vices of the ‘Great Books’ idea illustrated with extreme precision.

Durant was broadminded and well-rounded; he could write ably about a multitude of subjects. He was tolerant, kindly, sometimes witty, with a firm belief in human progress and achievement. His prose style was superb—a model of clarity and grace—which he used in his quest to disseminate as widely as possible the fruits of “Civilization” (his all-inclusive term for everything good in the West). Neither a genius nor a scholar, Durant was an enthusiast: he was able to write so wonderfully about historical figures because he genuinely loved and revered them; in fact, he almost literally worshiped them, as he himself admitted.

But he also had many weaknesses. First, the ‘Great Books’ mindset caused Durant to concentrate his attention overmuch on the high-points in cultural achievement. One gets an extremely skewed picture of European history if one focuses solely on the greatest thinkers and artists. Of course, it’s pleasant to contemplate these individuals, which is partly why Durant’s books are so fun to read; but such exclusive concentration also produces a kind of Pollyannish attitude, where history is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and persecutions, wars, and bigotry are not given their due—and the banality of daily life is wholly sidestepped.

A related consequence of the ‘Great Books’ attitude is a somewhat reactionary mindset. Since Durant so often equates the old with the good, tradition with right, age with quality, he can be remarkably, and sometimes stupidly, conservative. For example, whenever Durant writes of sexual mores, he comes across as a moralizing Sunday-school teacher. For Durant, promiscuity is immoral, and homosexuality a sin. Long-term, faithful heterosexual marriages are the mark of ‘civilization’. Because Durant never justifies this opinion—a habit of his—I can only conclude that this was mere prejudice on his part.

Another obvious result of the ‘Great Books’ philosophy is elitism. Durant frequently mentions in this book that talent is unequally distributed; and because of this “natural inequality of man,” the stupid majority are destined forever to toil under the dominance of the intelligent minority. Now, of course I wouldn’t disagree that people are differently endowed from birth with various aptitudes. But I’m very far from believing that the inequality which we see throughout history and which persists today is simply the result of the “skill” of the wealthy and powerful. Rather, I agree with Gibbon, that “The generality of princes, if they were stripped of their purple and cast naked into the world, would immediately sink to the lowest rank of society without a hope of emerging from their obscurity.”

The ‘Great Books’ program also has the shortcoming of emphasizing breadth over depth. Durant certainly embodies this. Although he can write about many subjects, he is an expert on none of them; and this lack of serious expertise prevented him from advancing the state of knowledge in any field. Durant’s ideology also privileges the transmission of old ideas rather than the creation of new ones. After all, if one worships the past, there is little motivation to re-imagine the future. Moreover, the ‘Great Books’ doctrine stressed reputation at the expense of rigor. Ideas are praised for their lasting influence, their grandness of scope, their contribution to a long-standing debate—but not for their accuracy. In Durant, this produced a man who often cared more about whether an idea was beautiful or interesting rather than whether it was true.

Fueling this tendency is another shibboleth of the ‘Great Books’ school: that simply by reading the greatest books of the ages, one could purge oneself of all provincial prejudices and look upon history as from a timeless perspective. Durant seems to think this way, as the very title of this book shows: The Lessons of History. These conclusions are not his own theses, not his own ideas—but lessons, which Durant can gather from the fabric of history as easily as a child can infer the lesson from a fairytale. It goes without saying that this is nonsense. Durant looked at history and found his own prejudices; and this book is merely a collection of them.

I’m sure you’re wearied by this litany of accusations and complaints, so I will only mention in passing the other distinctive sins of this ‘Great Books’ mindset—namely, its glorification of Europe, and only Western Europe, at the expense of the rest of the world, as well as its underrepresentation of women and minorities. This is wonderfully illustrated in Durant’s plan of the Story of Civilization, wherein he dedicates one volume to all of Asia, and the rest of the eleven volumes to Europe (and none to South America or to Africa).

At this point you may be wondering, “If Durant has so many faults, which you are apparently so acutely aware of, why are you reading so much of him?” Well, this has to do with my own history. At the end of my time in college, vaguely feeling that the education I received wasn’t worth half of what I paid for it, I picked up Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. This book had a profound effect on me. Bloom seemed to articulate my dissatisfaction with my education, as well point me in the direction where it could be rectified. As soon as I finished, I looked up the list of the Great Books of the Western World, and dove in.

Now, despite all of the faults I listed above, I must still admit that one receives a stupendous education by reading the books recommended in the program. I read rabidly, desperately, doing my best to make up for lost time; and whatever may be my intellectual shortcomings now—and they are many—I am at least far better off than I was before I began. But of course I still haven’t read all of these hoary books—there are a lot!—and this is partly why I’m interested in Will Durant: for in him, I can see the end result of my own educational project.

Unfortunately, while Durant was truly an excellent writer, for the reasons I discussed above, he was a poor thinker. This slim volume, the fruits of a massive research project, is a collection of vague homilies, baseless theorizing, and unsupported claims. It’s incredible and a bit depressing that so much learning could produce so little insight. I still think I have much to learn from Durant and the other proponents of the ‘Great Books’ school—as well as from the books themselves, of course. But now, hopefully, after sorting through Durant’s writings, I will be better able to separate the good from the bad, the worthless from the valuable; for I do think, after all, that there is something essentially precious in the idea.

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Review: When Panic Attacks

Review: When Panic Attacks

When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your LifeWhen Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life by David D. Burns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always been an anxious person. I think I get it from my mother.

One time, we were in the car on our way to the supermarket when, for whatever reason, she asked if I had my license on me. “No,” I said. “Why do I need it? You’re driving.” “But what if we get into an accident?” she replied. At first, this response confused me. Then I realized that she was wondering how people would identify my body if we both died in a crash. “I think they’d figure it out,” I said finally, as scenes of bloody car crashes played in my mental theater.

This anxiety was part of my identity. It shaped how I interacted with strangers, my friends, my family, how I behaved in school, at work, and in my relationships. I thought it was a part of me. Sometimes I would have episodes when my worrying would flare up to the point that I was incapacitated; but for the most part it was manageable. Around last year, however, my panicking got decidedly worse. Terrible fantasies would flood my brain, making my chest tense up, my stomach tie itself into a knot, and adrenaline rush through my body. After another attack again this year, I decided that I didn’t want anxiety to be such a big part of my life anymore, and thus reached for this book.

Burns begins with his general views on anxiety. He doesn’t believe in anxiety disorders. The criteria for diagnosis are, he thinks, vague and arbitrary. There are people who tend to be more anxious than others; but anxiety-proneness falls onto a spectrum and does not map onto two neat categories, normal and pathological. Burns also has a negative opinion of anxiety medications. In his experience, they often don’t work and generally leave the underlying cause untouched. Thus he thinks it’s more effective when people don’t tell themselves that they’re “sick” and don’t treat anxiety like a disease to be cured. Rather, anxiety is a common state and it can be effectively managed through fairly simple techniques.

After explaining his general views, Burns launches into his techniques. These techniques occupy the bulk of the book, and are divided into three categories, Cognitive, Exposure, and Hidden-Emotion.

The Cognitive techniques were the most familiar to me, since this is the same approach used in his book on depression, Feeling Good. As the name implies, these techniques focus on your thoughts and beliefs. Anxiety, in this view, is the result of unrealistically negative thoughts which are traceable to certain deeply held beliefs. Burns calls these beliefs self-defeating, because they equate certain things with happiness, and yet inevitably lead to unhappiness. These self-defeating beliefs may be personal—such as perfectionism or achievement addiction—or interpersonal—such as entitlement or blame. The techniques thus focus on these beliefs and the thoughts they give rise to, with the goal of adopting a more realistic, forgiving, and easygoing attitude towards yourself and others.

Exposure techniques operate on a different principle. Instead of combating your anxiety, you seek it out and embrace it. For people with phobias, this means doing exactly the thing they’re afraid of. For people with traumatic memories, this means revisiting these experiences. For people who are shy, this means socializing. If you run away from what you fear, you only tell yourself that you ought to fear it; but if you confront it, you can find out that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

The Hidden-Emotion technique is based on still another principle. It holds that anxiety results when people sweep negative emotions—like frustration, anger, or hatred—under the rug. This most often results from “niceness”—the fear of upsetting anyone or even admitting to yourself that you’re upset. It is not that the negative feelings are consciously shunned, but that they are not consciously registered at all. Thus the technique consists in examining your life—not your childhood, but right now—and looking for things that bother you that you’ve been ignoring.

By the end of the book, Burns has explained 40 techniques. He includes so many because nobody can be sure which technique will work for which person. His treatment plan consists of trying these techniques one after the other until you find one that’s effective. In his experience, it can be very difficult to predict which one will work in any given case, so he encourages you to experiment.

I can’t summarize each of his techniques here, but I want to include just a couple examples of cognitive techniques.

One technique is thinking in shades of grey—that is, avoid essentialism in your self-talk. This sounds simple enough, but I’ve found that most people tend not to do this. For example, if a guy is trying to quit smoking, but he only lasts three months, he might conclude “I’m a failure.” Yet it would be more realistic for him to say “I was successful for three months, and then I relapsed. Maybe I can be successful for longer next time.” That’s both more accurate and more encouraging.

Also useful is the double-standard technique. If you’re having a problem and beating yourself up, ask yourself how you’d treat a friend who was having this same problem. Often you’ll find that you’re much more compassionate, understanding, and optimistic with your friend. Once you realize that, try talking to yourself the same way. If you do this, you can respect yourself in good times and bad, just like you respect your best friends, rather than beating yourself up for falling short, failing, being rejected, or getting criticized.

You may be thinking that these “techniques” are childishly simple. Indeed they are. And yet I was acting in the very opposite way, and without this book I don’t think I would have changed. Besides, simplicity is a good thing. The techniques don’t require you to believe anything untenable or subscribe to a new philosophy of life. They only require that you do some work with a pencil or paper, or try a new approach in conversation, or get over a fear that’s been holding you back. They allow you to understand and confront your emotions rather than be their victim.

That’s all for my overview. I could stop here with the note that I’ve found the book extremely helpful, indeed emancipating. But it is hard to write reviews of self-help books without lapsing into autobiography—at least for me it is. Well, here it goes.

The biggest realization I had while reading this book is that much of my anxiety resulted from being out of touch with my emotions. I think Burns would say I had emotional perfectionism, and thus swept a lot of negative feelings under the rug. But lately some kind of interior barrier broke. I suddenly realized that I was sad, and I cried for the first time in many years. It was a huge relief! Now even children’s movies are enough to set me off. I watched Inside Out on the plane ride back from Spain and ended up in tears. My girlfriend was absolutely shocked.

My other main lesson from this book is that fears have to be faced, not shunned. Instead of trying to push away my anxiety—resulting in endless struggle—now I just let it do its work. And the strange thing is that as soon as I stop resisting, the anxiety loses its grip.

To reinforce this lesson, I decided to confront one of my oldest fears—roller coasters. I went out to Coney Island and rode three of them.

When I was a kid, I went on a few roller coasters and hated it. Looking back, I think that’s because I mentally resisted the experience. I kept wishing to stop and get off, and simply wouldn’t accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything but sit there. This time around, I was scared, but instead of resisting it I told myself that there’s no getting off so I might as well try to enjoy it. That made all the difference. The ride itself was actually fun, and not terribly scary. The only difficult part was making myself get on.

And I realized that roller coasters provide a perfect metaphor for anxiety. If you resist the experience and try to wish it away, it’s only going to seem terrifying, pointless, and dangerous. But if you accept the experience and embrace it, you’ll find that it’s harmless fun.

So treat fear like a roller coaster that you can’t get off. Accept the things that scare you, accept your fear, and accept the insecurities, limitations, and imperfections that make you afraid. You can’t wish them away, so you might as well have some fun.


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Review: Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson

Review: Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson

Can you write a book review
Entirely in verse?
Omitting standard sentences
For stanzas taut and terse?

It seems a fitting treatment
For such a book as this;
So humor me, I beg you—
And my limited wit.

Emily Dickinson was a poet,
One of the very best;
A natural gift with language—
At once daft and deft.

Something of a recluse,
Something of a crank;
Living closed up in her room—
Like a fish in a tank.

Undoubtedly a genius,
Ahead of her time;
Unappreciated in her life,
For her erratic rhymes.

But when she finally passed away,
Her cache of poems was found;
Edited to the day’s tastes—
The dashes taken out.

The dash—the perfect punctuation
For her unique style;
And also—versatile.

Obsessed with life—and death—and bees,
Most of her poems are short;
Some of them only one quatrain,
They end before they start.

And what entrancing rhythm!
Like the beating of a drum—
Her words hammer forward—

The classic case of genius,
At first misunderstood;
Now her poems are classic,
Widely read and widely loved.

So thank you, Ms. Dickinson,
For dedicating yourself—
To art, to words, to poetry—
To posterity’s bookshelf.