(About a 9 minute read)
Boyd Stace-Walters (a self-described “worldly epistemologist and logician”, and an occasional guest blogger on Café Philos) is quite right about the nature of poets, I think.
As he put it to me just days ago, “They can possess astonishing insights, turn the old and familiar truths into something new again with their heretical alchemy, but — alas! — they are fundamentally to the very last one of them irresponsible.
“You have only to conduct an experiment: Simply put a dozen of them in a room together; tell them their chore — their obligation — their sacred responsibility, is to contemplate ‘truth’; throw in a case of wine so they will be content to stay in the room; then wait a few hours before you return.
“You won’t find they’ve formulated a single decent epistemology between them! Not a one! And not even with all that wine to lubricated the flow of logic. Wasted that. Far more likely they’ll all be naked and piled into a writhing heap, I dare say, more selfishly concerned with staying warm from their own body heat or something, than with a dispassionate inquiry into the nature of truth at all.”
I dare say Boyd Stace-Walters is right. Scandalous people, poets. Simply scandalous.
Their dreams and visions poets take
And freeze them into words
To thaw the hearts and minds
Of men and women,
So they can be reborn.
Yet never ask that poets keep
A journal of their logics
For never will a poet stay
Nobly focused on such projects.
The blogger known to many of us, and hopefully to Interpol, as “Mindfump” has published on the blog, 25,000 Light Years, as well as on his own blog, a rather dark post that intelligently analyzes his thoughts and feelings about compliments.
As it happens, he finds compliments to be highly problematic, and has very little praise for them. The post is nevertheless a worthwhile read, I believe, for the frank and honest insights it provides into how compliments might be misused by those who inflict them in bad faith, as well as how they might be understood by those who suffer from depression.
My own take on compliments is, so far as I know, as unique as it is wacky. I seldom, very seldom, mean to flatter, curry favor with, or obligate someone by complimenting them. If I ever wish to do one of those things, I am knowledgeable enough of human nature to know how to flatter, curry, and oblige using far more effective means than compliments.
But I almost never feel a need for such nonsense because I have no one in my life I need to flatter, curry, or oblige: No boss, no wife, and my friends are a remarkably tolerant and accepting lot. Yet, on the whole, I compliment people quite a bit.
One reason I do so is simply to signal to others — especially those who don’t know me — that “I mean no harm to you”. But there’s a wholly more important (to me) reason I so frequently compliment others. And that reason comes in two parts.
First — and this might admittedly be the wackiest reason for complimenting anyone that I myself have ever heard of — I enjoy figuring out positive things about people. It’s even sort of a game that I play with myself. The goal is to be spot on. To be positive, but highly accurate. I take pride in my ability, not to compliment people, but to see right into them.
I first started doing that — started looking for positives in folks — back when I employed people. I noticed that I was at the time quite negative about my employees, that I saw their weaknesses much more readily than their strengths.
And I had the wits to recognize how that affected my bottom line. In any leadership position, you accomplish far more if you assign tasks according to people’s strengths, than you accomplish if you don’t. It’s almost just as simple as that.
So I realized that not seeing my employees in a positive light was very likely costing me dollars. I solved the problem by carefully assessing each employee’s strengths in turn, and then memorizing those strengths so well that I could in an instant recite to myself at any given moment at least five work-related strengths for each person in my employ.
After leaving business, I retained that habit, and expanded considerably on it. But none of that answers the question of why I bother to mention my assessments to others. The short answer to that is: Because human lives are all too often tragic.
Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. –John Watson (the quote is often mistakenly attributed to Plato).
Next time I’m in a bar — at some crucial moment in the evening — I want to lean close to whoever I’m with and then, as if confiding some deeply personal thing, whisper, “The sciences are communal efforts to arrive at reliably intersubjectively verifiable facts and predictive hypotheses”. Then lean back, wink at them knowingly and say, “But please keep that just between us”. And then, abruptly change the subject.
I like to meditate in nature, perhaps while overlooking a river or a lake. Water seems to draw me into meditation. Such settings make me often acutely aware of how transient is everything, every experience, whether internal or external. And how so often things come and go while leaving no more evidence of their passing than a ripple in the water, or a bird in flight.
Yet, at the same time, the beauty of nature affirms life despite its transience. Transience becomes then, not an occasion for regret or sadness, but the essence of renewal, rebirth moment by moment.
Clinton Lake Before the Night
I can see the setting sun
Burning colors in your hair.
There’s nothing we can do
To keep those colors there.
I can see the raven cross
The liquid changing sky,
And in my heart I know
We too must pass on by.
I will not make you promises
That life itself will surely break,
But I can be with you this moment
In these fires on Clinton Lake.
About 40 years ago I was at uni studying (as one of my two minors) Comparative Religion. One day, after class, my professor, another student, and I got into a discussion during which I said something that startled the other student.
He was taking Comparative Religion because he aimed to be a Baptist minister like his father someday. And although I no longer recall now what startled him, I remember the dismay on his face and the aggressive tone of voice in which he asked me, “Are you a Christian?” It was more challenge than question.
I can only suppose he had at some point that semester concluded I was a fellow believer. What else could explain such a strong reaction at discovering the truth? Before I could answer, our professor turned to him and said, “Paul is not a Christian. He’s a pre-Christian. His worldview is as if he’s not yet heard of Christianity. Try thinking of him as an ancient Greek with a tragic worldview.”
Now and then in my life, an older, more knowledgeable or experienced person, has said something to me that I sensed was true, but that I was clueless how it was true. That was one of those times. I could see our professor’s words puzzled the other student, too. But at the moment, I was more grateful that they shut him up.
Today, I believe I can make a reasonably good guess what my professor had in mind. For about a generation and a half, tragedy flourished in ancient Athens. I don’t specifically mean here tragic plays — although those were a significant part of it all — but more comprehensively, I mean the tragic worldview.
In a nutshell, the tragic worldview consists of the notion that humans have an inherent flaw, a flaw they can never fully escape, that tends them towards self-defeat and even destruction.
The precise nature of that flaw is hotly debated among scholars, and I have my views of it, too. I think the flaw is embedded in the nature of human intelligence. The easiest way to describe it is, “We are smart enough to get ourselves into troubles we are not smart enough to get ourselves out of”.
To me, that’s a slightly superficial, but workable definition of the tragic flaw. But do I really have a tragic worldview, as perhaps my professor was getting at?
In so far as I might actually know myself, the answer is yes, but with the qualification that it’s just one of a half-dozen or so worldviews that I shift between when trying to make sense of life and the world.
Once I knew a woman people could not praise enough for her beauty. Some would say, “She is beautiful!”, and place such huge weight and emphasis on their words that you felt they were trying to scorch the words on your brain with a hot iron in their enthusiasm to communicate. And they seemed very much to mean both her body and her personality.
I knew her well enough to make a study of her, and I came to the careful conclusion that — if one were perfectly dispassionate about it — she was only a little bit above average in looks, but that she moved with such poise and grace you might never notice her more or less average features.
Yet, I also thought the full truth of her beauty lay beyond even that: She was mindful, you see. She spoke to you with sheer attentiveness, an attentiveness that made you feel you were at that moment the most important person in the world to her, and that she cherished every second she had with you. In the off-beat way in which I define “spirituality”, she was eminently spiritual.
What makes us feel someone is physically beautiful? I learned from her that we can sometimes honestly believe a person is physically extraordinary because of nothing more physical than the impression left on us by her spirituality.