Reading notes (2021, week 11) — On virtue ethics, the meanings of life, and the benefits of being ambivalent

The Hill House Box Museum, by Carmody Groarke — “Rather than incarcerate the house away from view whilst the restoration is undertaken, a more radical approach to active conservation has been taken. As an integral part of this process of conservation, which it is thought will take up to 15 years, the project places a ‘big-box’ temporary museum on the site to contain and protect [Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s] The Hill House as an ‘artefact,’ whilst also maintaining access to the house for visitors.” (Photograph by Johan Dehlin)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s edition: How virtue ethics helps us navigate the complex and often frightening world; how do we go about finding a meaningful life, not just a happy one?; the difference between ambivalence and ambiguity; ‘aimai,’ the Japanese concept of ambiguity; what is philosophy?; a weeklong walk in the Sahara; Rainer Maria Rilke and Archaic Torso of Apollo; alone in a crowd; and, finally, how Bob Dylan turned American folk traditions into modern prophecy.

Why we need virtue ethics

Martin Butler believes that a knowledge of virtue ethics can help young people — but not just young people, I would argue — navigate the complex and often frightening world that they face.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, virtue ethics is one of three major approaches in normative ethics. “It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach that emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as ‘Do unto others as you would be done by’ and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.”

“To those who have no experience of academic philosophy, the word ‘virtue’ might sound rather old fashion and even prim. However, since a pivotal paper written by Elizabeth Anscombe in 1958 virtue ethics has become one of the dominant traditions in moral philosophy. Without the religious assumptions of a Christian culture, she argues, Aristotle’s virtue ethics [see also Aristotle’s Ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] starts to look more relevant than competing traditions imbued with Christian metaphysical assumptions. Virtue ethics is a holistic approach in that it takes as its starting point human beings with emotions and reason who have to make concrete decisions in their life, and it provides a convincing framework for making sense of this. Rather than a private self that makes either morally right or morally wrong decisions, the focus for virtue ethics is on character and character is something that can be developed. Virtue ethics is obviously a big topic, so I’ll just focus on three areas,” Butler writes in Why We Need Virtue Ethics.

“Many of the most famous philosophers of the period, Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others. Ancient views such as Aristotle’s therefore render the schism between morality and personal happiness inconceivable,” Daniel Callcut writes in Against moral sainthood. (Painting: Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653, by Rembrandt; oil on canvas, 143.5 x 136.5 cm, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

“Firstly, for the virtue approach ethics is as much about habits as following freely made moral decisions. To acquire a virtue is, among other things, to develop the relevant habits, and there is no abrupt distinction here between ethical and non-ethical habits. That ethics is not parcelled off into a separate compartment of life is indeed an important feature of the virtue approach. (It is revealing that Aristotle and Plato pepper their discussion of ethics with examples of occupations with no obvious ethical relevance — e.g. cobblers, archers, wrestlers, carpenters.) In any case it’s difficult to draw a clear borderline between the two; habits of thought such as attention to detail, thoroughness and evaluating evidence, although not obviously ethical can be said to have an ethical dimension. […] The key feature of habitual thought and behaviour is that it is easy, natural, and can be so embedded in your life it is difficult to bypass.

[…]

Secondly, the idea of good judgment (Aristotle’s phronesis) is given a key role. Traditionally ethics puts the moral principle centre stage and the application of these is given a secondary status; it is regarded almost as a mechanical process. Just as in geometry, for example, once the formula for the area of a triangle is known, the calculation is easy if we know the relevant values for the particular triangle in question. Knowing the formula is the important bit. The virtue approach recognises that ethics is not like this at all. Knowledge of ethical principles can be very general and quite abstract and there is a wide gap between this knowledge and the actions which are suppose to follow. Love your neighbour as yourself, for example, although admirable, really does not tell us much in terms of specific actions in particular circumstances. This is a point Sartre makes in his famous example of the French student in WW2 who has to decide whether to join the resistance or stay and care for his ailing mother [Sartre, J-P., 1948. Existentialism and Humanism. Methuen. p36]. Good judgment is the capacity to actually assess a particular situation and make the right choice in this situation. After all, human life is complex and has many variables, including the capacities of the individual making the judgment.”

And finally, “virtue ethics gives us a wide and sophisticated notion of self-interest. In the popular imagination self-interest is usually assumed to be the enemy of ethical behaviour: egoism bad, altruism good. We see acting for selfish reasons as equivalent to putting our own self-interest before the interests of others, even though being selfish very often does not promote self-interest. Many students I have taught assumed that being self-interested meant being selfish until it was pointed out that studying for their exams could be described as self-interested but was hardly selfish. Philosophers have provided theories which reconcile self-interest with ethical behaviour — the social contract theory is a prime example (I act well towards others on the condition that they act well towards me). Virtue ethics however provides what seems to me the most convincing of these theories. The development of ethically good habits and good judgment is not something which requires putting self-interest aside. Quite the reverse, it is a fundamental part of living a good life. The ambiguity of the word ‘good’ here is crucial. For the virtue ethicist, the ethically good life is the life which is also good in the sense of being a fulfilling life. And to live a fulfilling life is surely in our self-interest. The important assumption that underlies this argument is the intrinsically social nature of human existence. The virtue ethicist can to a large degree collapse the self vs other conflict through the assumption that our best life is lived within a settled community (or polis) over a period of time, where self-interest and the interests of others coalesce. To be sustainable, such communities both depend on the virtuous behaviour of inhabitants and at the same time provide a space for the inhabitants to develop these virtues. There is an obvious sense in which pro-social virtues such as patience, generosity, friendliness etc., are self-interested. Human beings will tend to feel and act more positively to individuals who display these virtues than those who lack them.”

The Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit illustrates Alastair Macintyre’s distinction between example external and internal goods [MacIntyre, A., 1981. After Virtue. Duckworth. p188], for although the central character Beth Harmon clearly plays chess for the prize money — ‘external good’ — it is the participation in the game itself which is the source of deep satisfaction and fulfillment — ‘internal good.’ “Chess is just an example of what MacIntyre describes as a ‘practice,’ that is, ‘any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity,’ and as with any practice we can improve performance through acquiring the right habits, appropriate virtues and good judgement,” Martin Butler writes in Why We Need Virtue Ethics. (Photograph: Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Courtesy of Netflix)

Butler believes there are two ways in which an understanding of virtue ethics can be of benefit.

“Firstly, on a personal level it provides a sophisticated model for how to make sense of a life as a project which requires effort and engagement in practices but can lead to a deeper fulfilment beyond consumer capitalism and assertions of identity. It is a model of an ethical life which is both good, and good for you. In the West there is a tendency to give a high value to innate ‘talent’ which you either have or you don’t. (This, apparently, is one reason why East Asian children do so well at maths, they make no such assumption.) Virtue ethics works against this tendency. (I have heard it said that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is the greatest self-help book ever written.)

Secondly, and more broadly, it provides us with a deeper understanding of a good society. Getting the right political and economic structures in place might be a necessary condition but is certainly not sufficient for such a society. A culture of virtue is also needed. Or to put this point another way, we might argue that getting the right political and economic structures in place requires virtuous characters.”

The meanings of life

“We fear meaninglessness. We fret about the ‘nihilism’ of this or that aspect of our culture. When we lose a sense of meaning, we get depressed. What is this thing we call meaning, and why might we need it so badly?,” the psychologist and author of Meanings of Life, Roy F. Baumeister, wonders in The meanings of life.

The difference between meaningfulness and happiness was the focus of an investigation Baumeister worked on with fellow social psychologists Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, published in 2013 in the Journal of Positive Psychology. As you might expect, Baumeister writes, the two states turned out to overlap substantially. Almost half of the variation in happiness was explained by meaningfulness, and vice versa.

“If happiness is about getting what you want, it appears that meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself. Even just caring about issues of personal identity and self-definition was associated with more meaning, though it was irrelevant, if not outright detrimental, to happiness. This might seem almost paradoxical: happiness is selfish, in the sense that it is about getting what you want and having other people do things that benefit you, and yet the self is more tied to meaning than happiness. Expressing yourself, defining yourself, building a good reputation and other self-oriented activities are more about meaning than happiness.”

But does this tell us anything about the meaning of life?

According to Baumeister, the notion of ‘a meaning of life’ puts two different things together: life as a physical and life as a chemical process. “Meaning is non-physical connection, something that exists in networks of symbols and contexts. Because it is not purely physical, it can leap across great distances to connect through space and time,” he writes. “Meaning, by contrast, links past, present and future in ways that go beyond physical connection. When modern Jews celebrate Passover, or when Christians celebrate communion by symbolically drinking the blood and eating the flesh of their god, their actions are guided by symbolic connections to events in the distant past (indeed, events whose very reality is disputed). The link from the past to the present is not a physical one, the way a row of dominoes falls, but rather a mental connection that leaps across the centuries.

Questions about life’s meaning are prompted by more than mere idle curiosity or fear of missing out. Meaning is a powerful tool in human life. To understand what that tool is used for, it helps to appreciate something else about life as a process of ongoing change. A living thing might always be in flux, but life cannot be at peace with endless change. Living things yearn for stability, seeking to establish harmonious relationships with their environment. They want to know how to get food, water, shelter and the like. They find or create places where they can rest and be safe. They might keep the same home for years. Life, in other words, is change accompanied by a constant striving to slow or stop the process of change, which leads ultimately to death. If only change could stop, especially at some perfect point: that was the theme of the profound story of Faust’s bet with the devil. Faust lost his soul because he could not resist the wish that a wonderful moment would last forever. Such dreams are futile. Life cannot stop changing until it ends. But living things work hard to establish some degree of stability, reducing the chaos of constant change to a somewhat stable status quo.

By contrast, meaning is largely fixed. Language is possible only insofar as words have the same meaning for everyone, and the same meaning tomorrow as today. (Languages do change, but slowly and somewhat reluctantly, relative stability being essential to their function.) Meaning therefore presents itself as an important tool by which the human animal might impose stability on its world. By recognising the steady rotation of the seasons, people can plan for future years. By establishing enduring property rights, we can develop farms to grow food.

Crucially, the human being works with others to impose its meanings. Language has to be shared, for private languages are not real languages. By communicating and working together, we create a predictable, reliable, trustworthy world, one in which you can take the bus or plane to get somewhere, trust that food can be purchased next Tuesday, know you won’t have to sleep out in the rain or snow but can count on a warm dry bed, and so forth.”

“Spending time with friends was linked to higher happiness but it was irrelevant to meaning. Having a few beers with buddies or enjoying a nice lunch conversation with friends might be a source of pleasure but, on the whole, it appears not to be very important to a meaningful life. By comparison, spending more time with loved ones was linked to higher meaning and was irrelevant to happiness. The difference, presumably, is in the depth of the relationship. Time with friends is often devoted to simple pleasures, without much at stake, so it may foster good feelings while doing little to increase meaning. If your friends are grumpy or tiresome, you can just move on. Time with loved ones is not so uniformly pleasant. Sometimes one has to pay bills, deal with illnesses or repairs, and do other unsatisfying chores. And of course, loved ones can be difficult too, in which case you generally have to work on the relationship and hash it out. It is probably no coincidence that arguing was itself associated with more meaning and less happiness,” Roy F. Baumeister writes in The meanings of life. (Photograph: A family party, Italy, 1983. by Leonard Freed, courtesy of Magnum)

“The Austrian psychoanalytic thinker Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) tried to update Freudian theory by adding a universal desire for meaningfulness to Freud’s other drives. He emphasised a sense of purpose, which is undoubtedly one aspect but perhaps not the full story. My own efforts to understand how people find meaning in life eventually settled on a list of four ‘needs for meaning,’ and in the subsequent years that list has held up reasonably well.

The point of this list is that you will find life meaningful to the extent that you have something that addresses each of these four needs. Conversely, people who fail to satisfy one or more of these needs are likely to find life less than adequately meaningful. Changes with regard to any of these needs should also affect how meaningful the person finds his or her life.

The first need is, indeed, for purpose. Frankl was right: without purpose, life lacks meaning. A purpose is a future event or state that lends structure to the present, thus linking different times into a single story. Purposes can be sorted into two broad categories. One might strive toward a particular goal (to win a championship, become vice president or raise healthy children) or toward a condition of fulfillment (happiness, spiritual salvation, financial security, wisdom).

[…]

The second need for meaning is value. This means having a basis for knowing what is right and wrong, good and bad. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are among the first words children learn. They are some of the earliest and most culturally universal concepts, and among the few words that house pets sometimes acquire. In terms of brain reactions, the feeling that something is good or bad comes very fast, almost immediately after you recognise what it is. Solitary creatures judge good and bad by how they feel upon encountering something (does it reward them or punish them?). Humans, as social beings, can understand good and bad in loftier ways, such as their moral quality.

In practice, when it comes to making life meaningful, people need to find values that cast their lives in positive ways, justifying who they are and what they do. Justification is ultimately subject to social, consensual judgment, so one needs to have explanations that will satisfy other people in the society (especially the people who enforce the laws). Again, nature makes some values, and culture adds a truckload of additional ones. It’s not clear whether people can invent their own values, but some do originate from inside the self and become elaborated. People have strong inner desires that shape their reactions.

The third need is for efficacy. It’s not very satisfying to have goals and values if you can’t do anything about them. People like to feel that they can make a difference. Their values have to find expression in their life and work. Or, to look at it the other way around, people have to be able steer events towards positive outcomes (by their lights) and away from negative ones.

The last need is for self-worth. People with meaningful lives typically have some basis for thinking that they are good people, maybe even a little better than certain other people. At a minimum, people want to believe that they are better than they might have been had they chosen or behaved or performed badly. They have earned some degree of respect.

The meaningful life, then, has four properties. It has purposes that guide actions from present and past into the future, lending it direction. It has values that enable us to judge what is good and bad; and, in particular, that allow us to justify our actions and strivings as good. It is marked by efficacy, in which our actions make a positive contribution towards realising our goals and values. And it provides a basis for regarding ourselves in a positive light, as good and worthy people.

People ask what is the meaning of life, as if there is a single answer. There is no one answer: there are thousands of different ones. A life will be meaningful if it finds responses to the four questions of purpose, value, efficacy, and self-worth. It is these questions, not the answers, that endure and unify.”

The benefits of being ambivalent

“To be human … means constantly to be in the grip of opposing emotions, to have daily to reconcile apparently conflicting tensions.” — Stephen Fry, from his 2010 Bafta Lecture

“Even though ambivalence is a common experience, as a concept it’s frequently misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about something or that you’re indifferent. Ambivalence refers to the presence of strong feelings, but in opposition. You love your parents but find them annoying. Your successful colleague inspires you, but you also envy her,” Iris Schneider, a professor of psychology at the University of Cologne in Germany, writes in The fence is uncomfortable, but it affords the best view.

“Ambivalence is also different from ambiguity. Ambiguity is a state in which you’re unclear about the meaning — you don’t know what something is; for instance, reading the statement ‘I’m having an old friend for dinner’ could lead to feelings of ambiguity because it could have multiple, drastically different meanings. When experiencing ambivalence, you’re not uncertain about what’s going on: something is quite clearly both positive and negative, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, and you know it.”

According to research by Scheider and others, published in 2020 in the British Journal of Social Psychology, being ambivalent comes with several benefits.

“First, being ambivalent makes you less impulsive. This is because ambivalence requires integrating opposing thoughts and ideas. By definition, this is a more complicated process than making decisions about topics about which you have strong feelings one way or the other. When you’re ambivalent about a decision, you need more time to process all the available information and to gather more if required. This careful and deliberate decision-making style makes it less likely you’ll jump to conclusions or do something rash that you might regret.

Apart from making you think more, ambivalence can also make you think better. It forces us to keep in mind multiple opposing thoughts, ideas and feelings. To deal with these contradictions, the mind stretches itself to think more broadly and be more flexible. This cognitive breadth and flexibility, in turn, helps you be more open-minded. That’s why, when people are in an ambivalent mindset, they search for more information and for information that’s more diverse. And because of the breadth of their thinking, ambivalent people can make more unexpected and broader connections between unrelated elements of a problem, leading to more creativity and innovation.

An ambivalent mindset also makes us fairer in our judgments about others. Often, when judging each other, we’ll attribute a person’s behaviour to their personality, yet fail to see that the circumstances played a significant role. However, people high in trait ambivalence don’t fall prey to this one-sided interpretation. Instead, they consider both the person’s personality as well as the circumstances, giving them a fairer shake.

Ambivalence also makes us fairer and more honest about ourselves. Often, when we learn we’ve performed poorly, we’ll blame the situation; yet, if we do well, we’ll credit our own efforts. This bias in thinking makes us feel good but prevents us from seeing the situation’s full reality, which can impair our ability to learn and self-correct. In contrast, ambivalent people will recognise that their success (or failure) resulted both from their efforts and their circumstances and, as such, they will have a more realistic assessment of the situation.”

“It began with Adam and Eve. Do we or don’t we eat the apple? ‘Why not?’ says Eve. ‘Why?’ wonders Adam. They chose, half-heartedly, and nothing was ever the same again,” Kenneth Weisbrode writes in On Ambivalence (MITT Press, 2012). Ambivilance, he says, “is a condition worse than most because it can lead to catastrophe. It is so ubiquitous that many people accept it as normal, and blur the difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Making a choice gives one a fifty percent chance of being right. Ambivalence would seem to give one a one hundred percent chance of losing out.” (Paintings: Adam and Eve, 1507, by Albrecht Dürer; oil on panel, each panel 209 x 81 cm. Collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid)

“You might be wondering how you can take greater advantage of ambivalence in your own life. One way is to learn to become more ambivalent. You can do this by making a list of positives and negatives for issues you’re thinking about. This technique can make decision-making easier, but can also balance out your views on a particular issue. Use this writing exercise to create a habit of seeing the important things in life from both sides, the positive and the negative. Training yourself to have a more ambivalent mindset will allow you to benefit from more cognitive flexibility and less bias in your ideas and decisions.

A second fundamental step is not to be intimidated by your mixed feelings. For some people, the experience of ambivalence might be a little bit uncomfortable. You might also feel that you’re not assertive enough or that you are ‘wishy-washy’ (there’s an unfortunate misguided tendency these days to see expressions of ambivalence as indecisive, flip-flopping or weak). In fact, feeling ambivalent reflects that you have a balanced and nuanced view of things that’s more in tune with the complexity and multifaceted nature of reality. And if you ever — despite the above — do feel bad about feeling ambivalent, remember the words of the American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’”

And also this…

Iris Schneider’s above-mentioned essay reminded me of a chapter in Roger Davies’s book The Japanese mind about the Japanese concept of ambiguity, aimai (曖昧), which is defined as a state in which there is more than one intended meaning, resulting in obscurity, indistinctness and uncertainty.

“To be ambiguous in Japanese is generally translated as aimaina, but people use this term with a wide range of meanings, including ‘vague, obscure, equivocal, dubious, doubtful, questionable, shady, noncommittal, indefinite, hazy, double, two-edged,’ and so on […]. The Japanese are generally tolerant of ambiguity, so much so that it is considered by many to be characteristic of Japanese culture. Although the Japanese may not be conscious of aimai, its use is regarded as a virtue in Japan, and the Japanese language puts more emphasis on ambiguity than most, for to express oneself ambiguously and indirectly is expected in Japanese society. However, ambiguity can also cause of a good deal of confusion, not only in international communication but also among the Japanese themselves,” Davies writes.

“When people are asked, ‘How are you?’ they will often answer, ‘Maa-maa.’ This is generally translated into English as ‘not so bad,’ but the expression is ambiguous and actually has a very subtle range of meanings incorporated within a vague answer, which is regarded as good manners in Japan,” Roger Davies writes in The Japanese mind. (Lithographs: Sprout No 5 and Road, both from 1965, by Tōkō Shinoda, 1913–2020. Courtesy of The Koller Collection of Asian Art)

“It is often said that the Japanese are shy or inscrutable and that it is impossible to guess what they are thinking. In many cases, however, people may simply be trying to behave politely according to their own customs. Japanese people, too, have their own opinions, but they tend to wait their turn to speak out. If they completely disagree with a speaker, they will usually listen with an air of acceptance at first, then disagree in a rather vague and roundabout way. This is considered the polite way to do things in Japan. On the other hand, because Western people consider directness and the honest expression of one’s opinions more important, they tend to express their ideas more clearly. Even though quarrels sometimes arise, they do not usually affect people’s relationships, except in extreme cases. In Japan, however, if you go against someone and create a bad atmosphere, your relations may break off completely. People tend to react emotionally, and most are afraid of being excluded from the group.

Silence can also be considered a kind of ambiguity. Between the Japanese and Westerners, there is a different understanding of silence. For the Japanese, silence indicates deep thinking or consideration, but too much silence often makes non-Japanese uncomfortable. Whereas the Japanese consider silence as rather good and people generally feel sympathetic toward it, non-Japanese sometimes feel that it is an indication of indifference or apathy. Too many words, however, are a kind of pressure for many Japanese and make them nervous and ill-at-ease.

Aimai can result in misunderstandings, and people from other countries sometimes become irritated because the Japanese seem unable to answer yes or no directly. For example, if asked ‘Which will you have, tea or coffee?’ a Japanese person will often reply, ‘Either is OK.’ This is a reserved and polite answer, but it often causes the host or hostess trouble. In fact, the word that Japanese most often have difficulty in using is no and their use of vague denials also results in criticism: ‘The Japanese hesitate to deny directly and think of affirmation as a virtue; therefore, troubles between the Japanese and people from other countries often occur. These kinds of vague denials cause others to think that the Japanese are incomprehensible.’”

“When they invented philosophy, our ancestors in the ancient world were thinking about the ways of the wise and, indeed, of the ways to become wise. Philosophy was a pathway, a way of life, the way to lead one’s life if what one wanted — and who does not? — is wisdom, a word whose meaning is elastic enough to include everything from Stoic impartial understanding of the workings of the world to Buddhist enlightened awakening, from Confucian sagacity to Christian saintliness,” Jonardon Ganeri writes in What is philosophy?

“Fortunately for those of us who make our living as professional philosophers, these days the expectations are not quite so high. Philosophy now means a particular style of inquiry, or better, a distinctive mode of attention. To do philosophy nowadays is to attend to the ways things are by attending to the concepts according to which we understand them. It is to look — closely, carefully, patiently — at how things hang together by looking at how they are presented in thought. I have used the word ‘thing,’ which is one of the English language’s great contributions to world literature, deliberately here, because philosophy can literally be about anything and everything: there is philosophy of science, philosophy of literature, philosophy of mind, of language, of politics and indeed, of philosophy itself. That is because what makes it the case that one is doing philosophy is not the topic, the identity of the things one is thinking about (and so philosophy has no special domain), but the peculiar way in which one thinks about them. And I have used the word ‘attend’ for this peculiar way of thinking because philosophy is not only about argument and analysis, though these are certainly its cardinal tools, but also about contemplation, the clearing of a place in thought as a way to gain both clarity and clarification.

To illustrate what I mean let me tell you a story. It’s from an ancient Sanskrit Buddhist text which was later translated into classical Chinese. The story tells the tale of a traveller’s unfortunate encounter with a pair of demons, one of whom is carrying a corpse. As the first demon tears off one of the man’s arms, the second demon takes an arm from the corpse and uses it as a transplant, attaching it to the traveller’s dismembered shoulder. This sport continues until his whole body has been replaced with the body-parts of the corpse. To make the story up-to-date, let’s imagine that each of his braincells also undergoes a similar process of transplantation. The traveller is given to ask himself, ‘What has become of me?,’ his understandable existential angst being addressed by a group of Buddhist monks, to whom the traveller recounts his story on his return. The monks provide one sort of therapy for the man’s angst when they inform him that what he has discovered is that there is no essential self, the key discovery in the path to enlightenment.”

“… several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” John Keats writes in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas in 1817. (Painting: Posthumous portrait of John Keats, c. 1822, by Willam Hilton, after Joseph Severn; oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London)

“As a practicing philosopher I am not recommending that you try this at home, with or without the assistance of any passing demons. The point about the story is rather that it invites us to attend to what we think is involved in our personal survival and how we can reconcile the need for identity with the inescapability of change. What makes me me? The traveller in our story seems to feel that he has survived, but his confidence that his identity over time is guaranteed by the persistence of his body is shaken to the core. So is there something else that makes him who he is? In contemporary philosophy this is still a lively and hotly contested issue.

People sometimes indeed find it odd that philosophy has so rarely come to any definite conclusions, that there are very few, if any, definitively solved philosophical problems. But in this philosophy is more akin to other humanities than it is to the sciences, and the intellectual virtue most strongly associated with philosophy is the one the poet John Keats describes as negative capability, which is, he says, when you are ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,’ resisting the temptation too swiftly to reach for cognitive closure. That doesn’t mean that there is no progress in philosophy, but that progress, when it comes, is in better seeing how and why things fit together rather than in solving intellectual puzzles.”

Tracing an ancient route across the Sahara Desert once caravanned by pilgrims on their journey to Mecca, Anna Badkhen contemplates human movement across shifting landscapes, the impermanence of memory, and what remains eternal in the face of erasure.

“What is a place? A memory of our presence, a memory of our absence. A separation sets the two apart. Sometimes the severing takes the shape of a mountain of sand that swallows a village. Sometimes it is a journey, a hejira, a hajj. What is a journey for? To remember, to forget,” Badkhen writes in In Once I Took a Weeklong Walk in the Sahara.

“In Islam, the concept of predestination is one of the six articles of faith, like the Oneness of God and the Day of Resurrection. The expression for this tenet is bibliophilic: maktoob, one says, it is written; the word originates from kitab, book. When the Prophet Mohammed first encountered the archangel Gabriel in the Arabian desert, the archangel, who spoke not for himself but for God, reciting verbatim God’s message, ordered: Iqra! Read! This command, which mystified the unlettered Mohammed, was the first word of the Quran — one of humankind’s three most important books — all hailing from deserts — which continues to mystify us today.

What is written? Around me, the desert documents time in micro and macro stenographies: dunes and mountains, rocks strewn by ancient eruptions, empty whelk shells from the last subpluvial, the barometric script of bent grass on fine sand. Which of these grains remember the footfall of the people who first walked here, more than 300,000 years ago; or the Neolithic nomads who drove their cattle here from the Horn of Africa; or the Arab-speaking invaders who first brought Islam here in the seventh century of our era? The harmattan of January blows steady from the east, from deeper in the Sahara, where each year up to 350,000 people braille the desert with their aspirant feet on their way to Libya, the main point of departure from Africa to Europe. This year, more than a third of all the world’s migrants whose deaths en route will be recorded will die in the Sahara, though the officials who chronicle such heartbreak concede that no annals document in their entirety these deaths, these forever-raptures, and that the number of people who plant their bones in the Sahara may be twice that of those who perish in the Mediterranean Sea. The sand grains that peck my skin as I walk behind Sid’Ahmed — have they traveled from far enough east to remember their passing?”

“The common map symbol for desert is dots, like the ellipsis. Like saying, something is omitted here. Like saying, there probably are other versions. The desert, like a book, has many interpretations, many lives,” Anna Badkhen writes in In Once I Took a Weeklong Walk in the Sahara. (Photograph by Anna Badkhen)

“Memory is fickle, a trick storyteller. Everything in life happens once and forever, until we will it differently, if only in our minds. Sometimes memory drifts off, jumbles the stories we tell ourselves and the past we think we know. This inadequacy is predetermined and unavoidable, a function of anatomy: neurons hold on to memories unevenly, storing some and dismissing others, and the memories they do store are malleable, untrustworthy, even possibly untrue: our brain may create them on the fly, in the very moment of the encounter, when something indefinable in the unique and ephemeral soundboard of our cortex is strummed and resounds. Neuropsychologists call such memories ghosts; they call them superposition catastrophes. Memory is a trace, and a trace can linger forever or be erased in a minute. I have seen this happen in the desert. A wind gust — and the cleft hearts of camel prints, the footprints of cameleers and my own, the slight dark funnel mark of my piss in the concave lee of a barchan: all gone; and once they are no longer, who can say the place is the same, or that it ever even existed, or that we ever passed through? Then, ten paces away, the sand vanishes completely, gives way to the palimpsest surface of a reg, and I am walking on miniscule shells that remember when they were the bottom of a prehistoric lake. The desert perpetually erases and rewrites itself, erases and rewrites. Watch the metronomic oscillation of a bent stalk of grass compass the same distance over and over and over.”

“[Rainer Maria Rilke] was one of the most gifted and conscientious artists who ever lived,” Lee Siegel wrote in To work is to live without dying (The Atlantic, April 1996). “His poetry, fiction, and prose embody a search for a way to be good without God, for transcendence in a hyper-rationalized world where even death — Rilke hated hospitals and the way dying had been stripped of its terrible intimacy — was dead. And beyond all that, he was fascinating.”

According to Siegel, “Rilke loved absolutely, not strenuously or patiently, and therefore his love always froze up into a mirror of itself. His condition might have been tormented and tormenting — it might appear wearily obnoxious. But for Rilke the poet, modern men and women as lovers — their exalted expectations and their comi-tragic desperation — came to symbolize complex human fate in a world where vertiginous possibilities have replaced God and nature. In Rilke’s Elegies especially, lovers encounter animals, trees, flowers, works of art, puppets, and angels — all images, for Rilke, of the absolute fulfillment of desire, alongside which the poet placed the tender vaudeville of imperfect human wanting.”

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

Marble torso of the so-called Apollo Lykeios, 130–161 A.D.; Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue of the mid-4th century B.C. often attributed to Praxiteles. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

We are facing the biggest wave of urbanisation in human history. How is this fast-growing population density influencing the behaviour of everyday commuters in the streets of the world’s most crowded megacities?”

In his photo essay Out of Place (Kehrer Verlag, 2021), the Amsterdam-based photographer Bas Losekoot provides insight in the psychological journey of commuters in modern megacities. Placing his camera in liminal spaces of the city, he is addressing the state of in-between-ness of everyday dwelling.

With an intuitive eye, he observes the ‘presentation of self’ and ‘micro-second meetings’ that everyday urban encounters prevail. He succeeds to distil the extraordinary out of the banal; displaying an intimate thought-provoking vision on private lives in the public domain.

Seoul, 2012: “In each of those cities I worked for at least one month — walking the streets every day from sunrise till sunset.” (All photographs and captions by Bas Losekoot, from Alone in a crowd: is it time to rethink the city? — in pictures, The Guardian)
Hong Kong, 2014: “And how do we define personal space, in the new socially distanced society?”

.

New York, 2011: “Now more than 40 years later, Koolhaas predicts an exodus from megacities towards the countryside.”

.

New York, 2011: “In many cities around the world, city life has been brought to a halt; suddenly the so called ‘progress’ is set to pause-mode.”

.

London, 2015: The questions that were at the core of my research are now very actual, for example: Does large-scale urbanisation and high population density provide a basis for human wellbeing?”

.

São Paulo, 2012: “Passing a stranger in the street has become an awkward choreography.”
“I’m inconsistent, even to myself.” — Bob Dylan (Photograph by Jerry Schatzberg, who captured hundreds of images of Bob Dylan beginning in the mid-1960s, including the cover image for Dylan’s 1966 Blonde on Blonde album)

“‘I contain multitudes,’ wrote the poet Walt Whitman. For him, this involved assuming the identities of people from all across America, to celebrate their experience, while imposing his own implacable poetic voice on American life. Dylan’s approach is not to assume personalities, but to mobilise the range of American languages, pasting them together into a new whole. He is a collage artist, blending phrases and images from diverse sources. In the process, he reinvents folk music, shaping each song as a mosaic of expressions, collected by the singer. Dylan sings not only the song, but the American language as a shared medium. He reimagines the traditional ‘folk song’ community for the era of recorded sound.” — Timothy Hampton, Bob Dylan turned American folk traditions into modern prophecy

I Contain Multitudes is also the title of a song from Bob Dylan’s 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways.

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.

helping senior executives and leadership teams navigate complexity with wisdom & clarity of thought

helping senior executives and leadership teams navigate complexity with wisdom & clarity of thought