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1 On leading a considered life
In the days when I worked in the financial services industry, from time to time someone would discover that my academic background was neither in economics nor finance (nor mathematics, nor physics) and would ask me whether I thought my training in philosophy was of benefit or of hindrance to my work. This question was usually asked in a tone such as to suggest that studying philosophy would rather obviously -¬ be inadequate as a preparation for a successful career in finance. I tried my best to make the contrary case.
First, I would reply, studying philosophy has taught be me to be sceptical about widely held assumptions that are often accepted as common sense; and taught me not to be afraid of challenging consensus views about the world. There is a great deal of groupthink in the financial markets, often manifesting itself in the propensity to accept causal explanations for changes in market valuations that do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Being willing to question widely held assumptions, I would say, can be an advantage, especially when it comes to avoiding asset price bubbles.
A second benefit, I would continue, was that studying philosophy taught me to create some distance between my immediate day-to-day preoccupations and my longer-term goals in life. After a bad day at work - when some unexpected event led to trading losses, or a problem with an IT system led to errors in a report for a major client it is helpful to be able to put work into a wider perspective, and not to become too disheartened by a short-term setback.
A third benefit, I would conclude, was that studying philosophy had given me the confidence I needed to deal with new and complex financial instruments. When starting to read a 150-page legal document for a securitisation deal, which included a complicated collateralisation arrangement, rather than be daunted by the arcane technical terminology, I simply reminded myself that I had read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason when I was an undergraduate. From this experience I had learned that however long, complex and full of obscure technical language, all texts can be understood, given time, focus and determination.
Looking back, I now wonder that I ever thought these suitable answers to the question, since not one of my three claims is compelling. It is quite possible to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink, to maintain a good sense of what really matters in life, and to have the confidence to absorb new and complex information, without ever attending a philosophy lecture or reading a philosophy book. And many people who attend philosophy lectures and read philosophy books are prone to groupthink, are easily disheartened by minor problems in life, and are unwilling to invest time mastering complex ideas outside of their comfort zone. In short, studying philosophy is neither necessary nor sufficient for a successful career in the financial services industry.
Why did I imagine that my responses provided an enlightening answer to the question? I can only speculate that I mistook what was true for me to be true in some general sense, that is to make a logical inference from my case to the more general case, when such an inference was plainly unwarranted. One problem with induction is that humans are not very good at it. (There are other problems too, I seem to remember.) Fortunately for me, not being as good at philosophy as once I thought did not preclude me from being successful in the asset management industry. In the financial markets, at least, better to be lucky than to be clever.
There is, nonetheless, a value in telling stories to ourselves and to others about the connection between what we believe and what we do. My main idea, which I explore in various ways in this text, is that our satisfaction with life is largely independent of visible achievements the accumulation of wealth or status, for example and is much more dependent on our ability to connect our best thinking about what matters in life to the day-to-day decisions we make about our lives. A happy life is the goal; a considered life is the method.
Before I go further, I want to recount a story about one of the earliest philosophers in the Western tradition, Thales of Miletus (who was Greek by ethnicity and language, but who lived in what is now Turkey). Aristotle recounts that Thales was criticised by his contemporaries for being poor, which showed, they said, that studying philosophy was pointless. By way of reply, Thales used his knowledge of weather forecasting (meteorology being a key skill of the Pre-Socratics) to predict a good olive harvest the following year. During the winter he rented all the olive presses quite cheaply because no-one else wanted use of them out of season; but later that year, when a bumper olive crop appeared, Thales was able to sub-let the olive presses at extortionate rates and made a great deal of money.
Aristotle's purpose in telling this story was to illustrate the point that creating a monopoly is an effective way to capture wealth; but his subsidiary point, which he delights in drawing attention to, was that Thales had demonstrated that "philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort" (Politics, I:xi). It is tempting to generalise from the case of Thales, as Aristotle does, but there really is no good reason to think that most philosophers then or now have the commercial acumen that Thales demonstrated. I like this story, not just because I am comforted to know that even the greatest of philosophers can make the same simple error of inductive logic that I made; but also because I enjoy the idea of Thales successfully cornering the principal agricultural commodity market of his day and there being no regulator to punish him for it.
What conclusion do I draw at this point? That what is true for one is not true for all, but what is true for one matters a great deal to that one. Thales made his point: he was not poor because he was a philosopher, rather he was primarily interested in acquiring knowledge rather than wealth; and I made my point: that I am the sort of person who takes pleasure both in studying philosophy and in working in the financial markets. Success at one was not the cause of success at the other; however, both activities, in their rather different ways, provided challenges that I enjoyed and required me to think and work in ways that suited my character. There are no general life lessons to be drawn from the specifics of someone else's life, but there is nonetheless a general principle, which my examples illustrate: do what makes you happy, live the life which makes the best of your character, personality and circumstances.
Calling this a philosophy does sound a little grandiose, a touch pretentious. But that is, I think, more a problem with our language than with the idea itself. One of the things you learn to do when you study philosophy is to distinguish the meaning of words, and the concepts they represent, in the hope of bringing some precision to speech and writing, and some clarity to thought. Some philosophers seem never to move beyond the making of definitions, attempting to conduct their arguments by stipulation rather than reasoning; others seem wilful in their use of neologisms, which obfuscate rather than clarify their claims. There is, however, value in noting a few distinctions at this point, namely between "studying philosophy", "being a philosopher", "being philosophical" and "having a philosophy".
Studying philosophy is comparable to studying science, history or economics: there is a syllabus, books and journal articles to read, lectures to attend and essays to write. The subject matter is different from other subjects in various ways, but the learning process is mostly identical. Studying philosophy is just one route among many to taking and passing examinations, which establish one's credentials in the employment market. Potential employers might reasonably expect philosophy graduates to be better able to provide examples of moral reasoning than other graduates; but they do not expect philosophy graduates to be more better people because of what they have learned.
Teaching philosophy at a university is, likewise, comparable as a career to teaching science, history or economics. There are lectures to offer, seminars and conferences to attend, books and articles to read and review, research projects which lead eventually to the publication of new articles and books, just like in any other subject. There is career progression from research fellow to lecturer and, perhaps, to professor, just as in other disciplines. Success may or may not be deserved, reputations may rise and fall, but no-one expects a professional philosopher to be a better person that a scientist, an historian or an economist.
My point here is not to dismiss the study and teaching of philosophy, but to recognise it for what it is: an academic training and an academic job just like any other. We do not expect the subject matter itself to change the student or the teacher for the better. It is a training of the mind, not a discipline for the improvement of character. For which reason, we also have no reason to expect that philosophy students or teachers will be happier, or more at peace, or better equipped to face death. Nor do we expect them to be more successful in worldly terms, by, for example, building a monopoly in the market for olive presses, or by managing investment funds for institutional clients. Studying and teaching philosophy will appeal to some and not others, but they are not special.
What does it mean to be philosophical? In common parlance this has nothing to do with the academic subject of philosophy, just as being economical has nothing much to do with the academic study of economics. In Western culture, calling someone philosophical is much the same as calling them stoical, where this is taken to mean that the person has a calm, measured approach to life, and is not easily distressed even when bad luck occurs. For some reason we don't use the term philosophical to apply to people whose characters are predominantly sceptical, or cynical, or epicurean, despite the influence of these classical traditions on the development of the subject. Common parlance disguises as much as it reveals.
Being philosophical is also rather different from having a philosophy. In modern management theory, this simply means organising a set of ideas or plans into a coherent statement. It is an inflated term for a strategy: football coaches have a philosophy, chains of coffee shops have a philosophy, social care homes have a philosophy. While we expect businesses to have a philosophy, we don't think that the business with the best philosophy will be the best business; nor that its customers will be the happiest, nor that their products will deliver the most value or meaning. In these cases, it is the form that matters the method by which a diverse set of activities are connected to each other not the content. Having a philosophy is about imposing structure rather than substance.
In this and subsequent texts I will write about "my philosophy". I do not intend to reminisce about my studies in my late teens and early twenties; nor to promote the work I have had published in books and journals; nor demonstrate my admiration for the Stoics; nor to devise some coherent message about my life as a project. None of these uses of the word philosophy captures what I want to write about, none addresses what I think matters. Any yet, it remains the most appropriate word for what I want to write about.
During his trial as recorded by Plato in The Apology Socrates famously said that the unexamined life was not worth living. Equally famously, Socrates was found guilty and condemned to death. Despite these inauspicious origins, the phrase "the examined life" captures a conviction not universally shared but nonetheless widespread that it matters to think, reflect and talk about those things that make life precious and meaningful. Further, that these processes of reflection, sometimes conducted in solitude and at other times among sympathetic friends, are the best hope we have of making sense of our place in the world, our objective insignificance and our subjective uniqueness and importance.
Having fretted over the use of the word philosophy but decided to retain it, I dislike and have decided to disown the phrase "examined life". Contemporary uses of the word examination tend to emphasise either a medical process or the taking of a test. I do not propose to examine my life in the way that a doctor might examine my body; and I do not think that an examined life is a life that can be scored and graded. The binary concepts of health/sickness and pass/fail, both suggest winners and losers; and one central theme of my philosophy is that life is not a game.
I will write about my philosophy, which is to say, I will write about what it means for me to try lead a considered life. I do not claim that I am wholly successful, nor that my considerations will apply to others. I am certainly not seeking converts or disciples. All I hope is that by describing my philosophy, I might encourage readers to consider their own lives, to try to find a philosophy that works for them. My life has been better lived when I have lived it with consideration; this might also be true for some others.
End of the prolegomenon.
2 On what there is
In the European tradition, philosophy begins not with an agreed object of study, but with the introduction of a distinct method of thinking. In the poems of Homer and Hesiod, the standard causal explanation for any important event involves some reference to interference in human affairs by one or other divinity. Understanding the moods and methods of the gods was central to providing an explanation of why history unfolded in the way it did, and why the natural world was arranged in the way it was. What set the earliest philosophers apart from their predecessors was their desire to explain why things had happened and how they were currently arranged without recourse to the gods. To be a philosopher was to think differently: to study history and science (and other subjects) for alternate sources of explanation to the mythological tales that were prevalent in society.
My philosophy developed by means of a recapitulation of this moment in the early history of European thought. I am not writing a history of Western philosophy, but it happens to be true that I was drawn to philosophy in consequence of my interest in history (and lack of interest in science), and that my developing interest in philosophy led me to abandon my attachment to a religious interpretation of the world. More about this later, for now suffice to say that, like the early Greek thinkers, I wanted to find a way of understanding the world and my place in it, and I became dissatisfied with accounts that relied on myth and mystery.
Aside from these autobiographical elements, it seems obvious that any serious attempt to set out a philosophy of life must say something about what the world is like, both the physical world and the cultural world, for this is the context in which we live, about which our philosophy attempts to make some sort of sense. Some basic ontology an account of what there might be and how it might be organised is necessary, even if only to provide a frame of reference in which questions about how we should live and how we might find meaning, can be purposefully asked. Broadly construed, science tells us about the physical world and history and the other humanist subjects tell us about the social world; together, they set some constraints on the choices we might make about how we live in the physical and social worlds.
Like the earliest philosophers, I concluded that studying science and history allowed me to dispense with religion as a source of explanation. Having made that step, questions about values politics, ethics, and aesthetics become more interesting; questions about meaning become more personal. The received wisdom of the religious traditions remains a matter of interest and might also be a source of inspiration, but religious answers to questions about value and meaning require a further, secular source of legitimation. To put this another way, someone might propose that to love one's neighbour as oneself is a good principle to follow, but they will need to provide a reason for that proposal; appealing to divine authority alone is no longer credible. The transition from enchanted to disenchanted forms of explanation started in Europe, as far as we can tell, with Thales, the olive-press monopolist; in my case, they occurred during my teens, in the rather dull suburban town where I grew up.
At school, history was my favourite subject. I liked the sense of a narrative thread, tying together disparate events in distant places, creating a coherent story of the past that made sense of the present. Looking back, I find my attraction to a comprehensively thematic account of the past to be misjudged: the gradual unfolding of a story of human progress - whether in the guise of Hegel's Phenomenology or the Whig interpretation of history seems less complete and far less convincing that it did when I sat at a desk in classroom at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford (a school that was itself nearly 500 years old when I was a pupil). What appeals to me now about history is the messiness, the accidental, the unexplained residuals that populate the narrative(s).
The history I was taught was the history of kings and battles, prime ministers and presidents, the passage of laws and the signing of treaties. Later I discovered the history of the ordinary, the quotidian lives of mostly unremembered people. The attempt to re-enact the thoughts - to use Robin Collingwood's term - of figures from the past makes clear the thread of continuity from past to present: the same choices, the same threats, the same joy and despair, lived over and over again in different ages and different places and different circumstances, and not always with the same outcomes. The persistent humanness of the subjects of historical study is central to its lasting attraction. To a certain extent the assumption of continuity of shared experience and response - is a necessary precondition of the possibility of history: for the past to be intelligible to us we must assume some form of resemblance to the present. We can only make sense of the difference between life in modern society and life in the Roman Empire (or the Mogul, or the Aztec) if we presume an underlying similarity in the lived experience of all people. The many variations are supervenient upon the constancy of the ground.
As we move further away from our own experience which might mean to the experience of those who lived further back in time, but might also mean to the experience of those who are more proximate in time but from societies that are culturally distant from our own the translation of their lived experience into terms that we are comfortable with becomes increasingly difficult. The process of re-enactment demands greater effort and skill, and its outcome is more fragile, less certain. Nonetheless, the process offers glimmers of possibility: of shared human experiences that span many thousands of years, many degrees of longitude, many inventories of cultural semiotics. That there is nothing new under the sun, is both false and true: the world begins anew every day, it is always original; and yet we repeat, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not, again and again. History, understood less as the story of famous men and more the compendium of experience of ordinary people, is therefore the best antidote to loneliness.
School science was dull. I enjoyed meteorology and some aspects of biology, but the rest left me bored. It would be easy to blame poor teaching, and probably not altogether wrong; but I recognise that my curiosity about the natural world was undeveloped in my youth. In later life I have become more aware of the importance of scientific method, of thinking systematically about the world, seeking explanation through testing and evidential reasoning (although I remain pre-disposed to prefer cultural over scientific knowledge). I find the achievements of scientists - many of whom developed new ways to think about cause and effect, or who were willing to overturn commonly accepted assumptions about the physical world in order better to account for their observations to be of more interest than the science itself. Why read Galileo's treatises on astronomy when you can watch Brecht's play about Galileo's life?
Despite having no real scientific training or expertise, over the years I have learned two things about science. The first is that we know much more about the natural world that is close to us in location and scale, than we do about what is distant. By which I mean, when we consider the micro and the macro the data from the large Hadron collider, underground in Switzerland, or the data from deep space captured by the Hubble space telescope, orbiting the earth - we find them much more puzzling than evidence of physical phenomenon that are observable directly by the human eye. The trajectory of a ball in flight even the reverse swing of a cricket ball is easier for us to understand than the location of the smallest particles or the movement of light across the galaxies. As more and more of the universe becomes measurable and familiar to us, so a new set of puzzles emerges just at the boundaries of what we think we know.
The second, which I learned when reading Darwin, is that science can be explanatory without being teleological. Since the time of Aristotle, there was a presumption that a full causal explanation must include not just the formal, material, and efficient causes but also the final cause, by which is meant the goal to which events are leading. To explain means to supply, amongst other things, a framework of purposefulness. Darwin's work suggests that we have no need to consider purposes: we can explain everything in terms of adaption to habitat. Striving for survival is a fact of nature but bears no explanatory weight: it tells us only that living things are organised to live. Wittgenstein famously thought that Darwin's work was of no relevance to philosophy (Tractatus 4.1122) whereas John Dewey, greatly to his credit, recognised that the settled assumptions of scientific explanation for two thousand years had now been overturned. Leave aside the idea that humans are animals that have evolved from other animals, the central importance of Darwin's work was to show that there is no telos in nature.
Despite Marx's admiration for Darwin's work, he seems not to have noticed that what applies to natural science also applies to history: explanations can be given without needing to provide any final cause that identifies the goal to which these events must lead. Marx might have turned Hegel on his head, by suggesting that the driving force of history was material not ideal; but Darwin's work shows that there can be a driving force without there being any sense of direction, without any need of a destination. It was Charles, sitting in his study in Down House, not Karl sitting in the British Library, who was the real revolutionary. While goal directed action is characteristic of animals, and humans especially, the world as a whole neither the natural nor the social world, neither the object of scientific inquiry nor the object of historical re-enactment has no goal, no end, no purpose, no terminus ad quem.
What does this mean? Only that, however valuable history and science are for providing us with a rich description of our world across time and space they could never achieve more than to explain what there is, and how these various things connect with each other. Asking "why?" only invites further explanation at the same level of comprehension, an expansion of the story to include more parts, but never a meta-narrative that provides a sense of meaning to those growing number of parts. If I might illustrate by way of a joke:
Q: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
A: The fish.
It seems to me that this answer which is essentially what both history and science provide, in their rather different ways is both illuminating and infuriating. It answers the question truthfully, but only by ignoring the point of the question. It tells us that we can always know more, but that we can never know better.
At which point it might seem that the ambition of the early philosophers to explain what happens in the world, without recourse to the gods was always doomed to failure. Explaining how things happened how the Trojan war was won by the Greeks, for example, or, how variations in temperature and rainfall might impact the size of the olive harvest is possible, without needing to refer to the Olympian deities, but explaining why something happened turns out to be much more difficult. Why did the Trojans take the wooden horse to be a gift? Why is it warmer this year than last? Just because.
During my teens I was religious. In many ways this was quite conventional I joined a church that taught and practised traditional Protestant Christianity, somewhat closer to the non-conformists than to the Catholics but in other ways not. Conventional because it was the traditional religious choice for people of my background who lived in Northern Europe at that time, but unconventional because most people of my age at that time would not have chosen to practice any form of religion. Looking back, I think my religious commitment was an act of rebellion, a way of distancing myself from the comfortable, self-satisfied, suburban consumerism that characterised the town where I grew up. The appeal of the spiritual was, simply, that it was more than and different to - the material; and the material seemed insufficient to satisfy both my intellectual curiosity and my desire to find meaning in the world. My faith supplied me with the very thing that I later came to believe could not be supplied by history or science: telos.
In the Protestant tradition, people talk about conversion experiences, moments when religious truth suddenly becomes clear and compelling. I did not have a revelatory experience of this kind, although for several years I was sincere in my beliefs. However, at the end of my teens I experienced a succession of de-conversion experiences - moments of illumination, for sure - when I realised that the faith I once had was now gone. One of these was purely metaphysical, the day when I recognised that I found the idea that God existed impossible to believe anymore; another was sociological, the day when I decided that it was easier to account for the religious beliefs of my fellow church members in terms of their psychological assurance rather than their historical truth; a third was more existential, when I decided that going to church with people I no longer respected, to affirm my commitment to a faith I no longer shared, was a waste of my time, which could be better spent on other activities. My days of religion were finished; I have no expectation that they will ever return.
What I would say now about the end of my religious experience is that I came to understand that religion can no more help us to answer the question "why?" than science or history. Religion, or myth, or any other form of enchanted understanding of the universe, only pushes back the search for meaning by one step. To say that something happens because it is god's will whether Zeus or Jehovah - does not provide a reason for what has happened; it merely stipulates an end to the demand for a reason. To say that the meaning of our life will become clear to us after death, when we experience another form of life, does not supply us with a meaning but stipulates that there is no meaning that makes sense in this life. The claim that there is some purpose, some telos in the universe, but that it is beyond our understanding, is simply to say that there is no purpose for us. Religion does not provide answers, rather it demands an end to the questions.
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: First learn to walk, then you can take swimming lessons.
I have, therefore, concluded that the early philosophers were right in one respect, namely that the pursuit of knowledge through a study of the natural and social worlds could replace the form of explanation that mythology had previously supplied. The new answers are just as good actually, better than the old answers. There is no longer the need for religion or myth as a source of knowledge. (I leave to one side for now the question whether there is need for religion or myth as a source of comfort.) However, the new answers, just like the old answers, only explain the how and not the why. Today we know so much more than Thales about the structure of the universe and about the character of human society, but we also know just as little as he did about what it all means.
Over time I have come to appreciate the pleasure of knowledge for its own sake. I read widely because I want to know as much as I can about the world I inhabit. I do not consider that my time in history is more important than any other time, nor that my location in the universe is more significant than any other place. I am interested in other times and other places to the extent that they can teach me something about my time and place. I am attracted to what can be known, but not because I think that any quantity of information will translate into a new quality of knowledge. There is no end to the study of history and science, but equally no prospect that what we discover will provide direct answers to our questions about value and meaning.
3 On how we live
My initiation into political work occurred when I was twelve. I spent several hours delivering leaflets for the local Liberal Party candidate who contested the parliamentary seat where I grew up, which in those days was reliably Conservative. On election day itself I helped collect voter numbers, cycling between several polling stations where other volunteers were keeping tally of those who had promised to vote for 'our man', taking this information back to the local committee room, where the agent's assistant aggregated the data and identified those among our known supporters who had yet to vote. Other volunteers were dispatched to knock on their doors and remind them to hurry to the polling stations before they closed. The process was rather amateurish compared with the technology-enabled campaigning of the modern day, but it was also courteous and civic-minded. 'Our man' knew he would not win, but he sought to secure as many votes as he could, not least because the higher his tally the greater the pressure on the incumbent Member of Parliament to serve his constituents well.
My interest in politics must have derived in part from the influence of my father although, since he believed that, as a civil servant he should abjure from direct involvement in party politics, he didn't play an active role until more than a decade later, after he retired. I suspect I drew some of my political values from him, although he was careful not to try to influence my thinking too directly. In addition, I had a strong sense, as many young people do, that the world was not well organised and could - and therefore should - be re-organised to make it better, meaning fairer. Over time, this basic principle has been nourished by other ideas, borrowed from both liberal and Marxist thinkers, about what a fair society would look like and, more prosaically, how we might make steady progress towards it without the imposition of additional human suffering, which has so disfigured the previous centuries.
Politics, for me, has always been about an interest in better outcomes, rather than the enjoyment of participating in the political processes themselves. Nor was it ever about wanting to spend time with other political activists, whom I have mostly found to be tiresome; and often slow: people can be very successful in politics who have neither the intelligence nor the good judgment necessary for success in other professions. Playing the game of politics, and caring about winning that game, has never been the point, merely the entry fee. Politics continues to fascinate me, but I consider it a duty rather than a pleasure. By contrast, I have always found political ideas attractive and spent four years in my early twenties, as a doctoral student and then a post-doctoral fellow, studying and writing about political philosophy. When I immerse myself in a lengthy book about the history of democratic thought, or the foundations of theories of human rights, I do so with pleasure. When I immerse myself in a lengthy process to secure votes for a political candidate, or to help develop a policy proposal for implementation, I do so despite the lack of pleasure. Political action is an obligation to be taken seriously, but not for the intrinsic pleasure that political thought supplies.
Yet, for many years in my twenties and thirties I was active in British party politics, as a fully engaged member of the Labour Party. I sat on local party committees, helped to organise the vote at elections, attended meetings to develop new policy ideas on financial and economic issues, attended conferences, marched on demonstrations, and donated money to the causes and candidates that I believed in. All this while also pursuing a career in the City and becoming a father. I took my civic duties seriously.
On reflection, I am pleased by this. Although my participation in the work of politics absorbed much of my time and frequently caused me frustration, I now consider it to be time well spent. I contributed albeit in a very small way - to the creation of a decade in British political life during which the values that I most admire, the promotion of social equality and economic security, were the principal focus of the government. There were plenty of mistakes: undue caution and the unnecessary embrace of much of the cultural conservatism of British life, that even today still needs to be swept away; policies that were poorly designed or inadequately funded; compromises that blunted the effectiveness of new initiatives; and insufficient action to mobilise the population to take climate change more seriously. Nevertheless, there was also serious progress in making the welfare system more user-friendly and putting its finances onto a more secure and sustainable basis, mixed with a social liberalism that made British society and London in particular an attractive place for younger people from all over the world to make their home. The decade from 1997 to 2007 was better, in my judgement, than the preceding fifty years; and, certainly better than the years since, which have seen British politics retreat into economic irresponsibility and social conservatism at home, and an infantile chauvinism abroad.
Arguably, this would all have happened irrespective of my contribution. My role was not as a protagonist, merely an extra. Just as philosophers like to describe the paradox of voting that at almost all elections, the impact of any individual vote on the outcome is negligible, for which reason none of us have a clear incentive to give up our time to go and cast our vote so too there is a wider paradox of political participation, which suggests that the contribution of almost all participants in politics make no material difference to the outcome. We would all be acting rationally if we stayed at home and tended our garden, instead of spending time and effort in political activity. Except, of course, that while this is true for each individual contribution, it is not true for these contributions in aggregate. Collective agency (or, to call it by another name, solidarity) is real. For every person like me, who worked hard to secure the election of a pragmatic, moderately progressive Labour government, there were hundreds of other doing the same. We won because we all turned out and worked for the cause. Each needed the contributions of the others. Without my efforts the outcome would have been the same, but without the efforts of many people just like me, they would have been substantially different.
For which reason, I recommend political activity as an important element of the considered life. Not necessarily active involvement in party politics: sometimes, the rewards are simply overwhelmed by the costs and the compromises. I left the Labour Party in 2015, after thirty years of membership, and have no immediate intention to re-join. But when the parties become obstacles rather than conduits to progressive social change, then there are other avenues for political action. I have become involved in campaigns on single issues, local and international, and in socially minded businesses, which have found ways to employ my technical skills and moral energies. Doing something useful to make the world a better place, still seems to me to be a good way to spend my time. If the study of science and history helps us to understand who we are and how we came to live as we do, political action helps us to shape the future. Those who share our values rely upon us to play our part in constructing the new world, each making our individual small contribution to a better future.
I have recently re-read Max Weber's famous lecture, Politik als Beruf, delivered to students in Munich in November 1919, a year after the end of the Great War. The traditional translation into English is Politics as a Vocation, but a new translator prefers The Politician's Work, which makes good sense to me. (Recently published, together with The Scholar's Work in a volume titled, Charisma and Disenchantment: The Vocation Lectures, NYRB, 2020). I recognise the influence of Weber's thinking on my own views about politics, and his distinction, towards the end of the lecture, between those who practice a politics of conviction and those who practice a politics of responsibility, resonates especially strongly. Convictions perhaps today in English we would say ideals or values tend to be abstract, non-negotiable, unquantifiable. They are the beliefs which motivate us, which draw us into the political process, which connect us to others in movements and alliances, which provide us with the standards against which to measure our successes and failures, and those of our political opponents.
By contrast, those who practice the politics of responsibility are more concerned with the foreseeable outcomes of policy decisions, irrespective of our good intentions. They are consequentialists, not in the utilitarian sense of thinking that the only thing that matters in the moral calculus is the impact of our actions on overall welfare, but in the more limited sense of thinking that in addition to the pursuit of our convictions it also matters that we take into account what is likely to follow from any policy decisions we make. Most politicians, for sure, combine both elements: they have ideals, the values they entered politics to champion, but they also think about the impact of their actions. What matters is the relative balance of these elements in the mix. For some, politics is primarily about building the stairway to heaven, and for others it about avoiding paving the road to hell. When I first read his work in my early twenties, Weber's lecture forced me to take this second idea much more seriously than I had previously been disposed to.
Thinking about the foreseeable consequences of a policy and being alert to the risk of consequences that are both unforeseeable and undesirable, does tend towards cautious experimentation in politics rather than radical change. I recognise that, in retrospect, this can often appear unduly timid. Nonetheless, it can also be a strength, particularly for political parties with radical aspirations, which need to build and maintain support over many years in order to have time to implement fully their policy agendas. Aesop's story about the tortoise and the hare is apposite. In Britain since the end of the second world war, there have been three short bursts of progressive and reformist Labour government, but they tended quickly to run out of energy and popular support. (Blair's governments are the exception to the rule.) The dominant political force over the past seventy-five years has been comfortable and complacent conservatism, which has left the traditional distributions of power and wealth largely unchanged. (Paradoxically, Thatcher's governments are the exception to this rule.) Serious change needs time, and in democracies time is the gift of the electorate, who mostly crave reassurance that change will be managed carefully, with any errors speedily corrected.
Voters are also notoriously bad at thinking about the future. In democratic societies, the short-termism of the political classes is a trained reflex. Older and wealthier citizens are mostly hostile to the idea of higher inheritance (estate) taxes, preferring the right to endow their children and grandchildren with assets that they have accumulated over their lives. These same people are mostly also the beneficiaries of generous pension schemes that provide more current income than they need, certainly more than they earned through prudent provisioning, leaving behind them the growing risk of bankrupt pension schemes to be refinanced by their children and grandchildren. Yet the discordant sound of liabilities cascading down through the generations remains unheard and unheeded.
Economists refer to this phenomenon as hyperbolic discounting: an irrational preference in favour of more immediate but less satisfying outcomes, and against more satisfying but less immediate ones. One way of thinking about Weber's politician who takes responsibility seriously is to say that in a democracy their role is to persuade the voters to overcome this tendency to short-term satisfaction, in favour of a more patient approach to gratification. We can achieve better outcomes for our society by taking more account of long-term costs and benefits. But to do this the voters have to be persuaded against their natural instincts - to trust their leaders to stick to long-term plans, rather than abandon them as soon as circumstances become troublesome. Few of our leaders are capable of earning that trust and very few of them deserve to. In the absence of credible tortoises, it is easy to be seduced into voting for hares.
Over the past few weeks, we have observed political leaders around the world confronted by a health emergency without precedent in our lifetimes. Huge commitments of resources have been made to support not just the health systems that must deal with the pandemic, but to limit the economic damage from the disruption caused by illness and economic inactivity. Although the virus is invisible it is immediate; as such, it has galvanised the political classes into action. For thirty years now, scientists have been telling us that we need to change our lifestyles in order to limit the damage to the atmosphere from carbon emissions. But pollution, although sometimes visible, is not immediate in its effects. The climate emergency is almost certainly a greater political problem and a greater economic risk to the world than the current pandemic, but our politicians have failed to take responsibility. Mostly, in the democratic states, because the voters have been unwilling to acknowledge the costs that they have incurred and that their children will be forced to pay.
Max Weber did not live to see German society destroyed during the 1930s, by men of conviction, men without responsibility, men who would lead their country to ruin. A little over a year after he delivered the famous lecture on politics, he died while in his mid-fifties, a victim of the influenza pandemic that swept Europe. I will mark with respect the centenary of his death in June this year. In the hundred years that have passed, liberal social democracy in Europe and North America has proved itself resilient against the forces of fascism and communism, it has confronted economic and health crises, and it has survived. Better still, social and economic well-being has improved greatly, and the benefits have been widely (if unevenly) spread. Where we have been less successful, is persuading our fellow citizens to take a long-term view about their society, to see beyond immediate gratification in order to build up stocks of wealth, knowledge, and social capital for a safer, stronger, better future.
4 On other possibilities
One of my favourite pieces of orchestral music is Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. In my early teens, back in the days of vinyl long-playing records, which rotated on the turntable 33 times per minute, I was given a recording which I played regularly. The music is accessible and exciting, an ideal introduction to the classical tradition. The work was written for piano in the 1870s, but fifty years later Maurice Ravel produced an orchestral adaptation of the score, which was the music I knew. In 1986, I watched on television as Barry Douglas played the original version in Moscow, on his way to winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Prize. I still listen to his solo recording, released the following year.
Mussorgsky wrote the piece to celebrate the artist Viktor Hartmann, after visiting a memorial exhibition of his dead friend's work. He created ten sound-pictures each of which suggests the experience of looking at paintings in a gallery. The music describes the feelings and thoughts of the viewer of the images. The ten sections of the piece are each named and, therefore, I suppose that it would be possible to find specific images of Hartmann's work to which each section of the music corresponds. One could listen to a recording of the music while looking at reproductions of the paintings that Mussorgsky himself saw. But what would be the point? The music is not intended to be purely illustrative; rather, it is itself a genuine source of aesthetic experience, with its own form, character, and integrity. I do not need to know what Mussorgsky saw, rather I want to listen closely to how he tried to express the sense of what he felt about what he had seen.
In my bedroom I have a framed watercolour painting on the wall. The work is abstract but has the feel and form of a landscape. At the base are loosely painted markings, browns and earth colours, with a hint of blue. In the centre are three strong, angular, interlocking forms all irregular quadrilaterals in yellow, dark brown and light brown, which might be representations of hills or ridges, seen from a distance, partly in shade. Above them, in the top third of the image, two swooping washes of colour inverted rainbow shapes but all blue and indigo suggest the sky just after heavy rain. A hint of yellow, mostly overpainted, brings to my mind the bright rays of the sun, struggling to reassert themselves against the wetness of the air. In the morning, when I wake, the dawn light, filtered by my curtains, illuminates the picture, drawing my mind into the landscape, the weather, the thrill and pleasure of the natural world. It reminds me of the experience of hope when, out on a long walk, just after a rain shower has passed, the warmth of the reemergent sun promises to dry my face and hair. I like to spend some moments looking at this painting in the gentle light of early morning: it makes me want to get out of bed and reengage with the world once again.
The Difficulty of Landscape Winter Hill (2017)
by Martyn Lucas.
Re-reading the previous three paragraphs makes me realise how hard it is to write about music and art. I can describe my encounter with Mussorgsky's music, but I would find it impossible to capture what it feels like to listen to an orchestra or a pianist, in full flow, bringing Hartmann's exhibition to life. I can describe formal features of the painting that hangs on my wall, but I cannot reproduce the experience of looking, of the indulgent pleasure I take when my eyes wander across this rectangle of watercolours, bathed in light. Writing is not the same as listening or looking; second-hand impressions are not the same as direct experience; music and painting move us in ways that are impossible faithfully to describe.
Just as I am not able to put adequately into words what the orchestral sounds and the watercolour brushstrokes make me feel, so too a composer cannot write a sonata that expresses love quite in the same way that a poet does in a sonnet; nor can a portraitist capture a person's character in the same way that a novelist does. Art takes many forms and they are not directly translatable, which means that that are not substitutable. What works well in one format might fail in another and, pace Wagner, there is no such thing as a total artwork: sometimes the combinations of word, music and image produce experiences that are exhilarating; and sometimes they seem pointless and superfluous. Nor are there final works which exhaust a subject or make the definitive statement on a theme there is always more to say, to reinterpret, to revise, to show again what has been shown before. Someone who thinks that having seen one sunset, they have no need to see another, is simply wrong. So too, someone who has once felt fear, or love, or hope, or regret; so too someone who has once laughed with joy. Once is never enough. Art is necessary not just because memory is fragile, but also because, in the suitably obscure words of Heraclitus, on those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.
There is a saying that artists must lie in order to show us the truth. I prefer a more nuanced version of this idea, that the deliberate misrepresentation of reality
is often the best route to understanding reality; that distortion helps us to see more clearly. Consider the map: it is a tool, and it works not by copying reality accurately, but by a form of systemic distortion. An architect's plan of a building, or a map for hiking in the countryside, is only useful because the scale is changed. (I am sure I once read a short story about a map with a scale of 1:1, probably by Jorge Luis Borges. The story was good, but the map was not.) Other maps work because they falsify some aspect of the world to help us with another aspect. Suppose you are on the London Underground, travelling from Euston to Kings Cross: if you are on the Victoria line you are heading north, if you are on the Northern line you are heading south. If you are at street level, you are heading east. (If you are heading west, you are taking an exceptionally long way around.) The underground map is not true, but it is useful: it helps us to navigate the city.
Art helps us to navigate life. It does so not by showing us how the world truly is although it does that too, sometimes but by helping us to imagine other possibilities. It opens our minds - little by little, day by day - to see, hear, read, and understand more about how life might be lived. It extends our vision, broadens our minds, it deepens our sensitivities; and it also exhausts our vocabulary of metaphors. When I listen to music, especially the best music, and when I look at painting, especially the best painting, and when I read literature, especially the best literature, my imagination is educated, and my sympathies extended; this helps to make me a better person.
I recognise that I am making two big claims here: first that we can distinguish between better and worse in art; second that the better the art the greater the chance of moral improvement. I think both claims are true, although not necessarily easy or obvious to explain. It is evident that taste in art changes, and the work of writers, painters, composers is constantly being re-evaluated. The lack of stable, settled opinions about what counts as great literature, painting or music does not detract from the claim that such greatness exists, and is worth seeking out. On the contrary, the process of puzzling out why one work might be better than another - whether this is a private discussion we have with ourselves, or a public debate that we follow and perhaps contribute to is at the same time a process that forces us to consider what it is we finding pleasing, challenging, uplifting, provocative and rewarding in the work. Simply accepting artworks as interesting (or not) but incomparable, as examples but never exemplars of a genre, is a sure recipe for not reading, looking, or listening as carefully and critically as one might. If I show you four apples and ask which is the ripest, you will look at them much more closely than if I simply ask how many apples there are. Judgments of quality require attention.
My experience of art is that, at its best, it makes me think harder about my world and how I should live. It enlarges my sense of the variety of lived experience, forces me to acknowledge that the perspective I have is rooted in and limited by the vantage point I occupy, disrupts some of the convenient and lazy assumptions I have acquired about life, prods me to think and act differently. My encounter with art at its best makes me want to live my life to the best. As Rilke wrote, after viewing with wonder a Greek statue of the torso of Apollo: you must change your life.
I recognise that this experience is not universally true. There are some people for whom the motivation to do well, to do better, comes from friends or family, from religious or moral beliefs, from the need to compete or the desire for fame and fortune. Art is not the only source of moral energy. And, I am aware too that there are people who spend their lives involved in the arts as makers, or buyers, or critics but who are deeply immoral in the way that they live. Art can corrupt as well as improve. What is true for one is not true for all, and for some is plainly false: nonetheless, that art might be a path to virtue is true for me.
I recently watched John Huston's film version of James Joyce's short story The Dead. Joyce wrote the story when he was twenty-five at the start of his stellar career as a writer; Huston made the film when he was eighty, it was his final film and he died before it was released. The story and the film end with a man in middle age reflecting, as he watches the snow fall on a winter's night in Dublin, on the death of a younger man years before. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. It is a melancholy, but moving finale to a wonderful narrative about achievement, acknowledgement, and aging. Coincidentally, re-reading Elena Ferrante's quartet of books, known as the Neapolitan Novels, I was struck by a comment the narrator makes, near to the conclusion of the story, about her lifelong friend: Eliminating herself was a sort of aesthetic project, she writes, recalling that her friend had once said: I want to leave nothing, my favourite key is the one that deletes.
Both these quotations came to my mind a couple of days ago as I listened to another of my favourite orchestral works, Bela Bartσk's Concerto for Orchestra. This piece was written in New York in the mid-1940s as Bartσk was dying of leukaemia, a refugee from fascism in Europe. It is a work of sadness, with many sombre moments, but concludes with intimations of optimism. Bartσk did not want to leave nothing. He had lived by transforming the music of his country, especially the folk music of Hungary, into complex works that are now central to the modern classical canon. He wrote his last work in the full glory of some passion, knowing the true horrors of the war years, but nevertheless believing in the possibility of hope. His Concerto is a sobering work, but also a noble and courageous one. Just like the watercolour on my bedroom wall, it challenges me every day to wake up and to do better.
5 On staying busy being born
According to Michel de Montaigne (Essays I: xix) Cicero was right to say that to study philosophy is to learn to die. He suggests this might be true in two different ways. First, the act of studying involves us distancing our thinking minds from our unthinking bodies, which is in some ways a precursor to the experience of death. Second, wise reflection about death teaches us not to fear it, better preparing us to face the end of life. Both are interesting ideas, although not fully developed in the chapter. This is not one of Montaigne's better essays, for he quickly becomes distracted from recounting his own acute observations in favour of the citation of endless classical sources. In this instance, the wisdom of the modern is squandered owing to unmerited respect for the wisdom of the ancients.
Montaigne tells us that he thought regularly about his own death. Life expectancy was much shorter in his day that ours, and he died before he reached the age sixty, a few years less than Cicero managed. Even if true that philosophy helps us to put death into perspective, it does not follow that we should spend all our days thinking about it. We might do well to remember another piece of Roman advice: primum vivere deinde philosophari, which translates roughly as first live, then philosophise.
A third option one which best sums up my point of view is to say that the problem of coming to terms with our own death is at the same time the problem of how we live well now. Or, to put this in the language that Cicero uses, that to study philosophy is to learn to live, which itself is the best preparation for death. This idea was presented in succinct, epigrammatical format by our great contemporary philosopher, Bob Dylan. In the early 1960s, at the precocious age of twenty-three, he wrote
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool's gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn that he not busy being born
Is busy dying.
I take him to mean that when we put a stop to the process of our birth, we thereby set in motion the process of our death; and that all of us, however old in years, however philosophical in temperament, are currently subject to one or other of these binary processes.
The best analogy I can suggest is to imagine life as a place rather than as a journey. I do not think of a station or an airport, with boards displaying arrivals and departures; I think instead of as a visit to a museum: to be born is to enter, to die is to leave. At the start of my visit I look around with curiosity, trying to discover all there is to be seen and understood; I might rush around in a random fashion, or I might look slowly and methodically. But either way, the crucial point is, when I start to lose interest in exploring the collection in all its different aspects, then I head for a comfortable chair near to the exit door, where I wait impatiently until it is time to leave. Those of us who are busy being born are the ones who never tire of finding new and interesting displays to enjoy, whereas those who are busy dying are the ones who have seen all they want, and are simply hanging around, disengaged, until closing time.
The museum analogy errs on the side of intellectualism, for sure. Those who know me will not be surprised. One could equally imagine visiting a botanic garden or wandering around a major department store. Whether we "look" at artefacts, plants or consumer goods, the point remains the same: when you think you have seen enough, when you stop finding the displays interesting, then you are implicitly readying yourself for the next thing. For us humans, the next thing is death and dissolution. We cannot avoid death, but I think we can avoid Montaigne's mistake of spending much of our lives preparing to die.
How do I keep renewing my interest in life? It helps to be physically fit and healthy, so exercise is advisable. This has been adjusted, over time, to take account of aging joints and muscles. I am not trying to stay forever young (to reference one of Dylan's later, and more sentimental songs), rather I am trying to retain a good level of fitness appropriate for my age. I have abandoned higher impact, competitive sports for lower intensity training, and although I now miss the pace and rivalry, it helps to preserve my body and my dignity.
Temperance is also important. As we grow older, we find it easy to excuse indulgence, but excess can be a sign not just of loss of self-control but also loss of curiosity. My propensity to over consume food and alcohol is often inversely related to my openness to new and challenging experiences; they are sins of complacency. That said, it is also true that too much abstinence makes for a dull life, which is a form of premature death. A central part of human culture involves the sharing and enjoyment of food and alcohol, and this is another way of keeping an interest in life: learning to cook and enjoy different cuisines, discovering new wines and whiskies, sharing these discoveries with friends. Educating my taste is one of the great pleasures of life, and one of the great sources of sociability.
I should add a caveat at this point, which is that I do not think that enthusiasm for novelty requires us to abandon settled tastes. We are sure to have favourite food to eat and wine to drink, just as we will have preferred place to visit, books to read, music to listen to and friends to spend time with. It would be very odd if we found that we never acquired some stable preferences, that shaped and structured the way we live. The problem, I suggest, is when these stable preferences become our only choices, when we abandon the quest for new experience in favour of constant repetition of the familiar.
When my daughter was younger, I used to take her out for pizza and she always chose a Margherita (tomatoes and mozzarella) and so I decided that I would always choose a Fiorentina (spinach and egg). Then, when she went off to university, she turned vegan and stopped eating dairy products as well as meat and fish. She therefore had to change her pizza preference; and I did too. I still like Fiorentina pizzas, but now I will eat others; I have a stable preference, but I am also willing to vary my order. Thanks to my daughter I have learned to enjoy oat milk, and I eat more fruit and vegetables. I retain my appetite for meat and fish and dairy, and have no plans to stop eating them, but I have supplemented established favourite meals with a regular supply of novel options. In short, I have not just stuck with the old, nor have I opted exclusively for the new: instead, I have expanded my range of choices. Variety is life.
What is true of cuisine is true of culture more generally, by which I mean not only my interest in the arts, but also my engagement in politics and society, and my acquisition of new knowledge. Earlier in this text, I have described my interest in learning, my political involvement, and my interest in painting, literature, and music. A common theme throughout my life has been the desire to keep my mind open and to be ever willing to extend my range of interests. To learn about new areas of knowledge and discover new ideas to think about, to reassess my political values and to find new ways of pursuing them, to broaden the range of artists whose work I look at (and listen to) and engage with, to meet new people and find stimulation and challenge from developing friendships.
At all costs, I try to avoid nostalgia: I have never been persuaded by those who argue that things were much better in the past. Those who desire to go back in time are, in truth, desperate to fast-forward to their end. The only thing that is more interesting than the present is the future, and one sure sign of those who are busy being born is that they are eager to discover just how much better the future might be.
The philosopher Otto Neurath once remarked that doing philosophy is like sailors trying to rebuild their boat while out at open sea. By which he meant we can only ever fix one bit at a time, and often are forced to make use of whatever spare materials are to hand. There is no dry dock available for a perfect refit. This seems to me to be a helpful metaphor for thinking about living a considered life, throughout the course of our lifetimes. Philosophic reflection is not just a pastime to be saved for retirement when we lack the energy for more exciting ventures. For me, the Roman motto I cited earlier would be more persuasive if it said: first live, then philosophize, then live again, then philosophize some more, then live some more, then philosophize again. I know, it sounds less snappy than the original, but it makes the point better. Reflection on life is an iterative process.
At different moments in our lives, our appetite for novelty will vary significantly. There are times when the demands of work or of family overwhelm us, and we have no energy left to explore the world and its treasures. There are times when the intensity of our focus on one thing maybe building a business, or training for a new career, or perhaps playing a sport or learning a musical instrument - becomes almost obsessional: it is the only thing we want to do with our time, it occupies all of our mental capacity, takes over all of our lives. These experiences are not universal, but they are widespread. I remember well that experience during the time I worked in finance, and I enjoyed the challenge of a period of several years of concentrated effort. It is wholly understandable that at some points in our lives we choose to have a narrow focus. This does not mean giving up on life; on the contrary, it is a choice about the type of life we want, a preference, perhaps temporary, for depth over breadth. Intensity is life, too.
I am also conscious that the range of options available to us is very significantly circumscribed by the time and place in which we live, by the resources available to us, and by the attitudes of those around us. Today, for many people in the world, longer lifespans offer the opportunity of far greater exploration in the "museum of life" (or garden or store), however, it can also mean a greatly extended period of dying, for those who lose interest early on. The options also remain skewed heavily in favour of men, notwithstanding some significant progress on gender equality in the last century. Also, the resources available to the rich mean that they have more and better opportunities to choose from. In my experience, those to whom more is given are often prone to squander those opportunities, to undervalue the things which really matter and to overvalue things which are expensive but dull. Even if many of the rich waste their advantages, it remains true that they are advantaged, which means that others are relatively disadvantaged.
I recognise that I am lucky. I was born into an age of affluence and longevity and have enjoyed the privileges that attach to white men in wealthy societies, with the benefits of university education, a professional career and good health. When I consider how to live well, therefore, it is especially important for me to remember that my struggle for life has not required that much struggle; which means, I think, that I am easily prone to laziness, to complacency, and therefore to the premature embrace of dying. It is tempting to dismiss Seneca's philosophising when we discover his position of power tutor to the Emperor and the wealth he amassed through his political connections. Epictetus seems a more admirable exemplar of the Stoic philosophy: a former slave who taught his students how to live with integrity how to manage one's freedom. Those who have led tougher lives are, for that reason, often better guides to what truly matters in life. They tend to be the voices that challenge me most, which means the voices that help me most.
What is my philosophy? I try to live a considered life, I try to balance novelty with intensity, I try to take account of my good fortune and to extend to others the range of opportunities that I have enjoyed. I know that at some point I will depart from the museum of life, but I hope that my curiosity will not become satiated before I get evicted. Until then, every day, I will try my best to stay busy being born.
These five texts were written between January and April 2020, and first published at the website, Essence of Water. I have made a few minor changes for this version. Thanks to Peter and Vιronique.
© Mark Hannam 2020