Reading notes (2021, week 15) — On the illusion of a ‘true self,’ self-talk, and reforming our stewardship of the earth
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 the belief in a ‘true self’ affects the way we behave and see the world; talking out loud to yourself is a technology for thinking; we must embrace the age-old idea of Arcadia and reform our stewardship of the earth; why read the classics?; ancient Greece’s army of lovers; House in Komabacho by Maki Yoshimura Architecture Office; and, finally, a wonderful letter of gratitude to his workers by Brunello Cucinelli.
Why your ‘true self’ is an illusion
“Most people believe they have a ‘true self’ deep down that is fundamentally morally good. They don’t, but the belief affects the way everyone behaves and sees the world,” Shayla Love writes in Why Your ‘True Self’ Is An Illusion.
“The true self,” Love says, “is different from the self, which is made up of a blurry combination of your physical appearance, your intelligence, your memories, and your habits, all which change through time. The true self is what people believe is their essence. It’s the core of what makes you you; if it was taken away, you would no longer be you anymore.
What parts of yourself do you consider to be your true self? When you act in certain ways, which actions are in alignment with your true self, and which contradict your true self? Remarkably, not only do most people believe in a true self, they answer these questions in the same way. They consistently say that their true self is the parts of them that are fundamentally morally good.
But though this finding has been repeated many times, the true self is an example of a ‘folk intuition.’ It almost certainly doesn’t exist. What we know from neuroscience and psychology doesn’t provide evidence for a separate and persisting morally good true self buried deep within. Yet that makes the true self, and the fact that so many of us have this belief or bias, all the more intriguing, [Nina Strohminger, an assistant professor at the Wharton School, who, together with her colleague Shaun Nichols, has done research into the essential moral self] said.”
Why do we see ourselves as morally good, deep down?
Besides it being beneficial for well-being and helping us to cooperate with and trust others, there is also another explanation, Love writes. It’s just how we think about everything.
“When you boil down the essence of anything, we have a tendency to reflect on its positive traits; this is called psychological essentialism. When we’re asked to describe the essence of something, whether it’s a person, a band, a country, or even a piece of furniture, we tend to say that the essence of all of these entities are good. When describing the essence of a table, we say it has four legs, and a surface to eat on — the traits of a good table. We don’t describe a broken table. Our notion of the true self may be in line with this essentialist thinking.”
But if we believe that, deep down, we’re morally good, does it push us to act accordingly?
According to the moral philosopher Matt Stichter, there are some potential ethical downsides of people walking around with the belief that they have a morally good true self.
“This is because the goodness of the true self seems to be assumed, rather than earned, he said. Having a morally good true self isn’t dependent on how you act. If you behave immorally, you’re deviating from your good true self, which remains unchanged despite those actions.
“‘Part of my worry is that people go on autopilot just assuming their moral goodness, and thinking they’ve just got it, they don’t need to do anything about it,’ Stichter said. ‘And it’s only when a moral failure rears its head that suddenly you get a red flag and then you’re motivated just to do something in the short term to try to reestablish your certainty that you’re good.’
A solution to this potential moral quandary isn’t to try and convince people that they don’t have a morally good true self. It seems to be such a widespread cognitive tendency that it would be difficult to dissuade people from; also, telling people they’re not actually morally good won’t entice a very captive audience. Instead, Stichter said, we can start with the idea that people ‘have some essential drive to be morally good, while emphasizing that work needs to be done to realize that with some reliability in practice.’ Stichter thinks that acknowledging our belief in a good true self can be a way to appreciate our capacity for goodness. Then, we can focus on ‘exercising it on a regular basis,’ he [told Love].”
“A belief in the morally good self can give a person hope to keep trying. It is a powerful idea that even if your actions or your life circumstances aren’t ideal, that deep down, at your core, is something intrinsically good that you might be able to express one day.
Alternatively, though, it could be fuel for a kind of existential crisis if your life doesn’t match up to your ‘true self.’ Everyone can relate to those moments of doubt if you’re on the right path or living a life that matches who you ‘really’ are,” Love writes. “More pressure to ‘be yourself’ or ‘find yourself’ can add to that stress — especially in the self-help realm, where the existence of a ‘true self,’ is a given, not regarded as a cognitive tendency or bias.
The idea that, ‘Of course there is a true self to be found deep down if you search in the right way, and, you know, do self-care,’ Strohminger said. ‘And that self-actualization is taken quite literally to mean there is a real you to be found and discovered and there is happiness and fulfillment in so doing.’ Instead, [Rebecca Schlegel, a social personality psychologist at Texas A&M University] recommends holding onto a more flexible notion of the true self. As Strohminger wrote, ‘The true self is posited rather than observed. It is a hopeful phantasm.”’
That doesn’t mean believing in your morally good true self is good or bad in itself — especially not if it gives you meaning and helps align you to living a life you’re proud of and fulfilled by. But it’s good to be aware of it as a bias, in case the hopeful phantasm morphs into more of a poltergeist.”
Self talk as a technology for thinking
“Self-talk is deemed legitimate only when done in private, by children, by people with intellectual disabilities, or in Shakespearean soliloquies,” Nana Ariel writes in Talking out loud to yourself is a technology for thinking.
“Yet self-talk enjoys certain advantages over inner speech, even in adults. First, silent inner speech often appears in a ‘condensed’ and partial, form; as [the psychologist Charles Fernyhough] has shown, we often tend to speak to ourselves silently using single words and condensed sentences. Speaking out loud, by contrast, allows the retrieval of our thoughts in full, using rhythm and intonation that emphasise their pragmatic and argumentative meaning, and encourages the creation of developed, complex ideas.
Not only does speech retrieve pre-existing ideas, it also creates new information in the retrieval process, just as in the process of writing. Speaking out loud is inventive and creative — each uttered word and sentence doesn’t just bring forth an existing thought, but also triggers new mental and linguistic connections. In both cases — speech and writing — the materiality of language undergoes a transformation (to audible sounds or written signs) which in turn produces a mental shift. This transformation isn’t just about the translation of thoughts into another set of signs — rather, it adds new information to the mental process, and generates new mental cascades. That’s why the best solution for creative blocks isn’t to try to think in front of an empty page and simply wait for thoughts to arrive, but actually to continue to speak and write (anything), trusting this generative process.
Speaking out loud to yourself also increases the dialogical quality of our own speech. Although we have no visible addressee, speaking to ourselves encourages us to actively construct an image of an addressee and activate one’s ‘theory of mind’ — the ability to understand other people’s mental states, and to speak and act according to their imagined expectations. Mute inner speech can appear as an inner dialogue as well, but its truncated form encourages us to create a ‘secret’ abbreviated language and deploy mental shortcuts. By forcing us to articulate ourselves more fully, self-talk summons up the image of an imagined listener or interrogator more vividly. In this way, it allows us to question ourselves more critically by adopting an external perspective on our ideas, and so to consider shortcomings in our arguments — all while using our own speech.”
“You might have noticed, too, that self-talk is often intuitively performed while the person is moving or walking around. If you’ve ever paced back and forth in your room while trying to talk something out, you’ve used this technique intuitively. It’s no coincidence that we walk when we need to think: evidence shows that movement enhances thinking and learning, and both are activated in the same centre of motor control in the brain. In the influential subfield of cognitive science concerned with ‘embodied’ cognition, one prominent claim is that actions themselves are constitutive of cognitive processes. That is, activities such as playing a musical instrument, writing, speaking or dancing don’t start in the brain and then emanate out to the body as actions; rather, they entail the mind and body working in concert as a creative, integrated whole, unfolding and influencing each other in turn. It’s therefore a significant problem that many of us are trapped in work and study environments that don’t allow us to activate these intuitive cognitive muscles, and indeed often even encourage us to avoid them.
Technological developments that make speaking seemingly redundant are also an obstacle to embracing our full cognitive potential. Recently, the technology entrepreneur Elon Musk declared that we are marching towards a near future without language, in which we’ll be able to communicate directly mind-to-mind through neural links. ‘Our brain spends a lot of effort compressing a complex concept into words,’ he said in a recent interview, ‘and there’s a lot of loss of information that occurs when compressing a complex concept into words.’ However, what Musk chalks up as ‘effort’, friction and information loss also involves cognitive gain. Speech is not merely a conduit for the transmission of ideas, a replaceable medium for direct communication, but a generative activity that enhances thinking. Neural links might ease intersubjective communication, but they won’t replace the technology of thinking-while-speaking. Just as Kleist realised more than 200 years ago, there are no pre-existing ideas, but rather the heuristic process by which speech and thought co-construct each other.
So, the next time you see someone strolling and speaking to herself in your street, wait before judging her — she might just be in the middle of intensive work. She might be wishing she could say: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t chat right now, I’m busy talking to myself.’ And maybe, just maybe, you might find yourself doing the same one day.”
Towards an Arcadian future
“Dissolute, savage and hostile to civilization? Or free, natural and untamed? Historically wild was not a label you wanted. Now it has become an accolade,” Kim Wilkie writes in Towards an Arcadian future. “But wild is more a reaction than a state – it is what we are not; or at least where we are not. And in the growing realisation of human destruction of the planet over the last century, wild sounds like a blissful place — the natural world in balance without humans. Guilt and shame are mixed with homesickness for better times and an anxiety to put things right. But given that humans are here, how much does longing for our absence help?”
“Looking back to an idyllic Greek past, Virgil and Ovid described an escape from the corruptions of urban life into pastoral and poetic accord. It was a vision expressed in music and poetry more than pictures. The Roman concept of otium was based on the clarity of mind that comes from working the soil with your hands, shepherding flocks and growing your own food. This active participation with tending the land allowed a quality of thought that made poetry and philosophy possible. The opposite — negotium — was the business of the city where the mind became muddied and corrupted. In his book The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate succinctly points out that: ‘You only need Arcadia when your reality is Rome.’ The idea of Arcadian farming in harmony with nature was the symbol of a calmer, saner life. Humans were understood to be stewards rather than destroyers of nature. Wilderness was deemed hostile and unnatural.
Arcadia is a vision that resurfaces in times of prosperity and reflection. The Augustan poets of the first century BC were rediscovered during the Italian Renaissance 1,400 years later. By the sixteenth century, the revival of classical literature and ideals was epitomised by Palladio’s villas, built by financial and religious leaders who cultivated model farms beyond the fringes of the cities. On the Vicenzan and Florentine hilltops and along the Veneto river valleys, the elite were able to recreate the pastoral life of Virgil and Ovid. The Renaissance spread more gradually to northern Europe, but by the early eighteenth century, Alexander Pope helped to revive ideas of Arcadian bliss from his Thameside villa at Twickenham. As a friend of Isaac Newton and a leading poet in the English Enlightenment, Pope placed mankind in the centre of tended nature rather than divinely disconnected. Less than 200 years later William Morris created an idealised pastoral world in his book News from Nowhere and helped to inspire the naturalistic aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Most recently, in the flush of prosperity after the Second World War, 1960s flower power revived the idyll as a movement of peace and love directly connected to nature and growing food. The concept of Arcadia usually disappears in times of pandemic and pandemonium, and right now ‘wilderness’ seems to chime more than ‘pastoral.’ Arcadian ideas rely on a confident sense of responsibility for managing land and the climate crisis has understandably made us doubt human capability to live in harmony with nature.”
In recent years, rewilding has taken on a kind of prelapsarian sanctity, Wilkie writes. “Eden before Adam’s apple and the fall — a yearning for a innocent, pure time uncontaminated by human beings. But it assumes that humans are somehow detached from nature rather than a part of it. Fundamentally, this is about our relationship with the natural world, which crosses all cultures and religions. Loss of innocence is not about becoming bad. It is more to do with losing a sense of unbounded continuity with family and land. There is a childlike state of being at one with everything — true innocence — which is eroded by gradual self-awareness as a separate entity; a knowledge that requires fig leaves. To some extent the individual urban soul, competing for an afterlife, is incompatible with the idea of nature being a fluid continuum where everything is part of everything else.”
So what next?
Although we are desperate to rescue and restore biodiversity, Wilkie believes “it is no longer enough to count the number of species that struggle through. We have to get to the heart of the natural systems and the microbiology of soil and water that support them — while still growing food. Our protests and policies need to become more sophisticated. Twentieth-century farming is a result of government direction. Farmers were paid and regulated to treat the land as they did. So in order to change direction, we need trusted and equitable ways for measuring the health and carbon in our soils. We need incentives to get young farmers back on the land. We need scientific proof of the correlation between the bacterial health of soil, food and the human gut. We need to know whether topsoil can continue to grow and sequester carbon with the right farming techniques, or whether it plateaus at a certain level. And we need to guide and encourage farmers to tend the land for perpetual fertility rather than short-term volumes. Instead of asking how we can stop people eating meat, we should ask how we can make sure that animals are restored to a full and ecologically intrinsic part of farming and natural systems. […]
Above all we need to allow farmers to respond to their very particular patches of soil and climate to grow the healthiest food in the most balanced systems that will survive for millennia. There will be no single solution but a wonderful mixture of local refinements and technological innovations.
The concepts of wild and natural are human constructs that reflect how we relate to the wider world. They have fluctuated with our sense of ourselves — as disrupters to be excluded or as cooperative participants. What happens next will be determined by whether we are to be a rooted part of nature or a diffident and apologetic onlooker.”
And also this…
In Why Read the Classics? (translated from Arabic by Safwan Khatib), the Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito reflects upon his experience of learning the written Arabic language and its literature in primary school.
“What is the point of reading the ancients? They are not of our world. They are peacefully asleep and do not want us to wake them. Let the dead bury their dead. We may hesitate a moment in our judgement and suppose that there are, perhaps, benefits and advantages to be gained from their company. Yet we immediately turn our faces away from them, admitting: we ought to read them, but we don’t. The matter remains a mysterious aspiration.
The strange thing is that despite not reading them, we behave as though we have read them and lay claim to the knowledge of their production. Personally, I have not read the Iliad, but I know the gist of it — and by the way, who reads Don Quixote? Most know about it only through the drawings of Gustave Doré or by way of a paragraph in the pages of a school textbook. This applies just as well to the majority of works designated as ‘classic.’ What does this designation mean? Italo Calvino presented fourteen definitions of it, opening with the statement that the classic book is one which the reader says they re-read and never says they are currently reading,” Kilito writes.
“On the topic of Arabic literature, what are the works that one must read? We stumble upon one answer in the Muqaddimah (The Prologomena) of Ibn Khaldoun. In his discussion of ‘ilm al-adab, he says, quoting his teachers:
‘The foundations and pillars of this art are four collections, and they are Adab Al-Kuttāb by Ibn Qutayba, Kitāb Al-Kāmil by Al-Mubarrad, Al-Bayān wa Al-Tabyīn by Al-Jahiz and Kitāb Al-Nawādir by Abu ‘Ali Al-Qali al-Baghdadi. As for any works other than these four, they follow their lead and branch off from them.’
Certainly, these are essential works that cannot be left unread. Nor is it permissible for a beginner writer to remain ignorant of them, since it is by familiarizing himself with these works that he develops, of course, his knowledge of the Arabic language, of the literature, of the art of writing and becomes, in principle, a well-read author capable of composing texts of good quality or, at least, of decent quality. This statement of mine is an announcement for the amateurs, for those who dream of writing in the Arabic language!
Naguib Mahfouz described one such amateur in his novel Khan el-Khalili. He described someone who aspired to become an author and who, in order to achieve this goal, read, with great care, the four books that Ibn Khaldoun mentioned. What was the result? Despite all the effort he put forth, he remained unable to write. Taking this example into account, the idea set out by Ibn Khaldoun’s teachers is still, however, worthy of interest. Is there an Arab reader who doesn’t long to read the four distinguished works he has indicated? As for myself, I heeded the lesson of the failure of the person that Mahfouz mentioned, so I haven’t read any of them except Al-Bayān wa Al-Tabyīn by Al-Jāhiz. Therefore, I am, no doubt, lacking in literary education.”
“In June, 1818, during a visit to central Greece, a young English architect named George Ledwell Taylor went out riding with some friends in order to explore the ruins of an ancient town called Chaeronea,” Daniel Mendelsohn writes in Ancient Greece’s Army of Lovers.
“As Taylor’s party neared its destination, his horse took a ‘fearful stumble,’ as he later recalled, on a stone in the roadway; on further inspection, he saw that the stone was, in fact, part of a sculpture. Energetic digging eventually revealed an animal head nearly six feet high — or, as Taylor put it, a ‘colossal head of the Lion.’
That definite article and the capital ‘L’ are crucial. Taylor realized that he had uncovered a famous monument, mentioned in some historical sources but since lost, known as the Lion of Chaeronea. The Englishman had been studying a work called The Description of Greece, by Pausanias, a geographer of the second century A.D., which states that the gigantic figure of the sitting animal had been erected to commemorate a remarkable military unit that had perished there. The lion, Pausanias surmised, represented ‘the spirit of the men.’
The unit to which those men belonged was known as the Sacred Band. Comprising three hundred warriors from the city of Thebes, it was among the most fearsome fighting forces in Greece, undefeated until it was wiped out at the Battle of Chaeronea, in 338 B.C. — an engagement during which Philip of Macedon and his son, the future Alexander the Great, crushed a coalition of Greek city-states led by Athens and Thebes. Scholars see Chaeronea as the death knell of the Classical Era of Greek history.”
“Others might find the story interesting for different reasons. Not the least of these is that the Band was composed entirely of lovers: precisely a hundred and fifty couples, whose valor, so the Greeks thought, was due to the fact that no man would ever exhibit cowardice or act dishonorably in front of his beloved. In Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue about love, a character remarks that an army made up of such lovers would ‘conquer all mankind.’
Sixty years after George Taylor’s horse stumbled, further excavations revealed a large rectangular burial site near the Lion. Drawings that were made at the site show seven rows of skeletons, two hundred and fifty-four in all. For The Sacred Band (Scribner, 2021), a forthcoming book by the classicist James Romm, the illustrator Markley Boyer collated those nineteenth-century drawings to produce a reconstruction of the entire mass grave. Black marks indicate wounds. A number of warriors were buried with arms linked; if you look closely, you can see that some were holding hands.”
The stacked volumes appear as three barn-like structures, each orientated toward a different side of the site. Topped with a translucent roof, the bright, semi-outdoor volume facing the street serves as the home’s garage. The two-story building behind it encloses the main living spaces, with bedrooms on the ground floor and common living areas on the upper level.
Inside, each function is placed on a separate platform, composing a split-level interior where visual boundaries are blurred. The highest volume of the house is set diagonally to allow natural light and air inside the building. This volume serves as the ‘dining hut’ of the residence, where the kitchen and dining room are located.
“I am fascinated by rites that guide us back to natural laws and save us from uncertainty; they are the living source of human action. Artisanry also draws on rites, they are the source of its ever renewed creativity. The history of civilisation goes hand in hand with the history of craft, harmoniously joining human and natural forces. For centuries it has been the fertile fruit of our nation, and for centuries it has based its genius on rules and discipline. Indeed, artisans appear to me as real poets, they know how to seamlessly unite technical skill, artistic vision, taste, finesse and quality in original products.” — Brunello Cucinelli, from Letter of gratitude to our workers