The Psychology and Philosophy of Envy

envy

‘Envy’ derives from the Latin invidia, which means ‘non sight’. In Inferno, Dante had the envious laboring under cloaks of lead, their eyes sewn shut with leaden wire. This etymology suggests that envy both arises from, and results in, a form of blindness or lack of perspective.

For envy to set in, three conditions have to be met. First, one must be confronted with a person (or persons) with a superior quality, achievement, or possession. Second, one must desire that quality for oneself, or wish that the other person lacked it. And third, one must be pained by that emotion.

In sum, envy is pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others. In Old Money, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. describes the beginning of the pain of envy as ‘the almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself, as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air’.

In Envy, Joseph Epstein quipped that, of the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. Envy is mean, miserly, and petty, and arguably the most shameful of the deadly sins (the other six are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, and pride). Our envy is hardly ever confessed, not even to ourselves. Envy is such a closely guarded secret that it can rankle to unravel it in an old friend, like discovering that your lifelong partner always had it in him or her to cheat on you.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, envy is not the same as jealousy. Whereas envy is the desire for possessing, jealousy is the fear of losing. Thus, jealousy is for something that you already possess—often a person, but also reputation, beauty, virginity, and so on. Compared to envy, jealousy is a lesser sin, and so easier to confess.

Envy should also be distinguished from yearning. Whereas yearning is for the general, envy is for the particular: some particular thing that is in the possession of some particular person or people.

Envy is timeless and universal, and deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Our tribal ancestors lived in fear of arousing the envy of the gods through their good luck or pride. According to the Book of Wisdom, it is ‘through the devil’s envy that death entered the world’. In Genesis, it is from envy that Cain murdered his brother Abel. In Greek mythology, it is Hera’s envy for Aphrodite’s beauty that sparked the Trojan War. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is out of envy that Duryodhana waged war against his cousins the Pandavas. 

Father! The prosperity of the Pandavas is burning me deeply! I cannot eat, sleep or live in the knowledge that they are better off than me!

Envy is especially directed at those with whom we compare ourselves, such as our cousins and relatives. Beggars do not envy millionaires, but other beggars who are more successful. In our age of equal opportunities and mass media, it is hardly surprising that envy is so rife, particularly when our culture of empiricism and consumerism emphasizes the material and tangible over the spiritual and invisible.

For the Ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, it is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered. The pain of envy is not caused by the desire for the advantages of others per se, but by the feeling of inferiority and frustration that this lack engenders.

Over time, our unhappiness can lead to physical health problems such as infections, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers, and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. We are, quite literally, consumed by our envy. 

At the same time, the mental energy expended on envy, and the reluctance to arouse it in others, holds us back from achieving our full potential as human beings. 

Envy also costs us friends and allies, and, more generally, undermines the closeness and satisfaction of our relationships. In some cases, it can even lead us to attack the interests of others, like an envious child who breaks the toy that he knows he cannot have.

Envy can also lead to some rather more subtle defensive reactions, such as ingratitude, irony, scorn, snobbery, and narcissism, which all have in common the use of contempt to minimize the existential threat posed by the advantages of others. Another common defense against envy is to incite it in others, reasoning that, if people are envious of me, I have no reason to be envious of them. 

Bottled up envy can morph into ressentiment, which is, essentially, projected envy: the reassignment of the pain that accompanies our sense of failure or inferiority onto a scapegoat (such as Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, or modern politicians and bankers), which can then be blamed for our ills and, in some cases, even sacrificed. 

Though carefully dissimulated, envy often surfaces in the form of Schadenfreude (‘Harm-Joy’), which is defined as pleasure in the misfortune of others—a pleasure that helps to sell the news, which is riddled with stories of disgraced politicians and fallen celebrities. While Schadenfreude is a relatively recent term, the emotion that it denotes dates back at least to the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle called it epikhairekakos, which has the merit of being even harder to pronounce than Schadenfreude. And the Hebrew Book of Proverbs explicitly warns against it.

Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.

The fundamental problem of envy is that it blinds us to the bigger picture. The envious are as the captain of a ship, who navigates the stormy seas not by the stars in the sky, but by the tinted and distorted lens of his magnifying glass. Envy pulls us in every direction and none at all. By holding us back, it makes us even more apt to envy, giving rise to a vicious cycle of envy. And so we plod through hell under our cloaks of lead. 

But can envy not give rise to something positive? Does envy really not have any silver lining? It has variously been argued that envy, often under the more acceptable guises of compassion and brotherly love, is a force for social change that promotes democracy and equality. The politics of envy culminates in communism, the ideal of which is to create a society that is free from envy. In practice, however, people living under the banner of the sickle and hammer become not less but hyper envious, grassing on neighbors for the slightest of perceived advantages. As their lives become ever more dreary and monotonous, their human nature reasserts itself with a vengeance. A small number rise to become more equal than others, and these dear leaders then oppress their brethren, sometimes to the death, under the pretext of the greater good for all.

‘Socialism’ said Winston Churchill, ‘is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.’ Whereas envy is the sin of socialist societies, greed is the sin of capitalist ones. This greed is also driven by envy, but envy of a kind that seeks to level up rather than level down. And whereas you can opt out of a capitalist society, you cannot so easily opt out of a socialist one—or even leave, for that matter.

How to keep a lid on envy? So often when we envy, it is because we fail to see the bigger picture, to see all the efforts and sacrifices, and the flipsides. As Charles Bukowski wrote in a letter to Steven Richmond, ‘Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.’ It is easy to forget that the city banker has effectively sold his soul for his success, with so little spirit left in him that he no longer has the vital capacity to enjoy his money. If anything, he is to be pitied rather than envied. To avoid envy, one constantly has to reframe, and reframing requires perspective, which is just the thing that the envious lack.

In the Hindu tradition, ‘lucky’ people are merely enjoying the fruits of their past karmic actions, including the past karmic actions of their parents, who educated and helped them, and, by extension, the past karmic actions of all of their ancestors. Of course, in some cases, luck really is undeserved, making our envy all the more virulent. But inherent in the nature of true luck is that it tends to even out in the long term, and so there really is no point in everyone taking turns to envy everyone else. Nature compensates: if we don’t have one thing, we have another, even if it is not one of those things advertised on a billboard. While we envy, we focus on what we lack, while forgetting all that we do have. That is why dispositions such as piety, humility, and gratitude can to a large extent protect us against envy.

Whenever we come across someone who is better or more successful than we are, we can react with indifference, joy, admiration, envy, or emulation. Emulation almost shares a definition with envy, but without the pain and bitterness part. This is a subtle but critical difference. By reacting with envy, we prevent ourselves from learning from those who know or understand more than we do, and thereby condemn ourselves to stagnation. But by reacting with emulation, we can ask to be taught, and, through learning, improve our lot. Unlike envy, which is sterile at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation enables us to grow and, in growing, to acquire the advantages that would otherwise have incited our envy.

Why are some people able to feel emulous, while others are only capable of envy? In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honorable or aristocratic disposition. In other words, while envy is the reaction of those with low self-esteem, emulation is the reaction of those with high self-esteem. 

So look out for a future post on self-esteem. 

The Psychology of Sadomasochism

st barbara

Sadomasochism can be defined as the giving or receiving of pleasure, often sexual, from the infliction or reception of pain or humiliation. It can feature as an enhancement to sexual pleasure, or, in some cases, as a substitute or sine qua non. The infliction of pain is used to incite sexual pleasure, while the simulation of violence can serve to form and express attachment. Indeed, sadomasochistic activities are often initiated at the request of, and for the benefit of, the masochist, who often directs activities through subtle emotional cues. 

Consensual sadomasochism should not be confounded with acts of sexual aggression. Moreover, while sadomasochists seek out pain and humiliation in the context of love and sex, they do not do so in other situations and dislike simple, unfettered violence or abuse as much as the next person. In short, and in general, sadomasochists are not psychopaths. While psychopathy, or antisocial personality disorder, is a diagnosable mental disorder, sadomasochism is not diagnosable unless it causes significant distress or impairment to the individual or harm to others.

Some surveys have suggested that sadistic fantasies are just as prevalent in women as in men. However, it seems that men with sadistic urges tend to develop them at an earlier age. While some sadomasochistic people are purely sadistic and others purely masochistic, many are varying degrees of both, and may describe themselves as ‘switchable’.

Origins

Sadomasochism is a portmanteau of sadism and masochism, terms coined by the 19th century German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who spoke of basic, natural tendencies to sadism in men, and to masochism in women.

Krafft-Ebing named sadism for the 18th century Marquis de Sade, author of Justine ou les Malheurs de la Vertu and other books. The film Quills, starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, and Michael Caine, is inspired by the story of Sade.

How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination! In those delectable moments, the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us, we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate. The means to every crime is ours, and we employ them all, we multiply the horror a hundredfold. —Marquis de Sade, Les prospérités du vice

Masochism he named for the 19th century Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs.

Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but decisive advantage. Through man’s passions, nature has given man into woman’s hands, and the woman who does not know how to make him her subject, her slave, her toy, and how to betray him with a smile in the end is not wise. —Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs

While the terms sadism and masochism are from the 19th century, the phenomena they describe are not so recent. In his Confessions (1782), Jean-Jacques Rousseau bravely speaks of the masochistic sexual pleasure he derived from his childhood beatings, adding that ‘after having ventured to say so much, I can shrink from nothing’. In a different time and place, the Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola described a man who needed to be flogged to get aroused. And the Kama Sutra, which dates back to the 2nd century, makes mention of consensual erotic slapping. 

Early theories

The German physician Johann Heinrich Meibom introduced the first theory of masochism in his Treatise on the Use of Flogging in Medicine and Venery (1639). According to Meibom, flogging a man’s back warms the semen in his kidneys, which leads to sexual arousal when it flows down into his testicles. Other theories of masochism spoke of the warming of blood or the use of sexual arousal to mitigate physical pain.

In Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), a compendium of sexual case histories and sex-crimes, Krafft-Ebing did not amalgamate sadism and masochism, understanding them as stemming from different sexual and erotic logics. In Three Papers on Sexual Theory, Freud observed that sadism and masochism are often found in the same individuals, and, accordingly, he combined the terms. He understood sadism as a distortion of the aggressive component of the male sexual instinct, and masochism as a form of sadism against the self—and a graver aberration than simple sadism.

Freud remarked that the tendency to inflict and receive pain during intercourse is ‘the most common and important of all perversions’, and ascribed it—as so much else—to incomplete or aberrant psychological development in early childhood. He paid scant attention to sadomasochism in women, either because sadism was thought to occur mainly in men, or because masochism was thought to be the normal and natural inclination of women.

In Studies in the Psychology of Sex, the British physician Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) argued for the absence of a clear distinction between aspects of sadism and masochism, and, moreover, restricted sadomasochism to the sphere of eroticism, thereby divorcing it from abuse and cruelty.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) begged to differ. In his essay Coldness and Cruelty, he contended that sadomasochism is an artificial term, and that sadism and masochism are in fact distinct phenomena. He provided fresh accounts of sadism and masochism, but, unfortunately, I seem unable to fully understand them.

Explanations 

The same can be said for sadomasochism in general. Sadomasochism is hard to understand. Here, I propose several understandings. While some may hold in some circumstances and not others, none are mutually exclusive. Indeed, many of our strongest emotions result from more than just one impulse. 

Most obviously, the sadist may derive pleasure from feelings of power, authority, and control, and from the ‘suffering’ of the masochist.

The sadist may also harbour an unconscious desire to punish the object of sexual attraction for having aroused his desire and thereby subjugated him, or, in some cases, for having frustrated his desire or aroused his jealousy. 

By objectifying his partner, who is thereby rendered subhuman, the sadist does not need to handle the partner’s emotional baggage, and can deceive himself that the sex is not all that meaningful: a mere act of lust rather than an intimate and pregnant act of love. The partner becomes a trophy, a mere plaything, and while one can own a toy and perhaps knock it about, one cannot fall in love with it or be hurt or betrayed by it.

Sadism may also represent a kind of displacement activity or scapegoating in which uncomfortable feelings such as anger and guilt are displaced and projected onto another person. Scapegoating is an ancient and deep-rooted impulse and practice. According to Leviticus, God instructed Moses and Aaron to sacrifice two goats every year. The first goat was to be killed and its blood sprinkled upon the Ark of the Covenant. The High Priest was then to lay his hands upon the head of the second goat and confess the sins of the people. Unlike the first goat, this lucky second goat was not to be killed, but to be released into the wilderness together with its burden of sin, which is why it came to be known as a, or the, scapegoat. The altar that stands in the sanctuary of every church is a symbolic remnant and reminder of this sacrificial practice, with the ultimate object of sacrifice being, of course, Jesus himself.

For the masochist, taking on a role of subjugation and helplessness can offer a release from stress or the burden of responsibility or guilt. It can also evoke infantile feelings of dependency, safety, and protection, which can serve as a proxy for intimacy. In addition, the masochist may derive pleasure from earning the approval of the sadist, commanding his full attention, and, in a sense, controlling him.

For the dyad, sadomasochism can be seen as a means of intensifying normal sexual relations (pain releases endorphins and other hormones), regressing to a more primal or animal state, testing boundaries, or playing. In her recent book, Aesthetic Sexuality, Romana Byrne goes so far as to argue that S&M practices can be driven by certain aesthetic goals tied to style, pleasure, and identity, and, as such, can be compared to the creation of art. 

Et tu

Many ‘normal’ behaviours such as infantilizing, tickling, and love-biting contain definite elements of sadomasochism. It is possible to read this article and think that this sort of stuff only applies to a small number of ‘deviants’, but the truth is that each and every one of us harbours sadomasochistic tendencies. In the words of the Roman playwright Terence, ‘I am human, and consider nothing human to be alien to me.’

In almost every relationship, one partner is more attached than the other, leading the less attached partner to become dominant, while the more attached partner becomes infantilized and submissive in a bid to pacify, please, and seduce. Eventually, the less attached partner feels stifled and takes distance, but if he ventures too far, the more attached partner may simply go cold and shut-out or leave. This in turn provokes the less attached partner to flip and become the more enthusiastic of the partners. Eventually, the balance re-establishes itself, until it is upset again, and so on ad infinitum. Domination and submission are elements of most relationships, but that does not prevent them from being tiresome, sterile, and, to echo Freud, immature.

Rather than playing at cat and mouse, lovers need to have the confidence and the courage to rise above that game—and not just by getting married. By learning to trust each other, they can dare to see each other as the fully-fledged human beings that they truly are, ends-in-themselves rather than mere means-to-an-end. True love is about respecting, sharing, nurturing, and enabling, but how many people have the capacity and the maturity for this kind of love?

And, of course, it takes two not to tango.

The Philosophy of Lust

teresa

Lust can be defined as the strong, passionate longing or desire for certain things, not only sex, but also food, drink, money, fame, power, and knowledge, among others. But owing to the resonance of Matthew 5:27-28, lust has come to be particularly associated with sexual desire.

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

There are many reasons for which we can desire sex, for example, to be close to someone, to maintain or manipulate that person, to make a child, or, in the case of prostitution, to make money. However, with lust, sex is sought out for itself.

Yet, it is possible to seek out sex for itself without this desire being lustful. For the desire to be lustful, it has to be disordered, that is, disproportionately or inappropriately strong, or directed at an inappropriate object.

If lust is not acted upon, it is possible to be lustful without being lecherous; but if the lust is acted out, especially repeatedly and habitually, then one is both lustful and lecherous (although, depending on usage, ‘lust’ and ‘lechery’ can be synonymous).

Bible and Church

For Dante, lust was the ‘excessive love of others’, excessive in that it rivalled and surpassed even the love of God. Romanesque art depicted lust, or carnal luxuria, as a siren or naked woman with snakes biting at her nipples. According to the Church Doctors, luxuria had several daughters, among whom blindness, haste, and self-love.

The Church distinguishes lust from fornication, which is having sex with one’s husband or wife for enjoyment rather than procreation, or having sex outside of wedlock, which is even worse. In Corinthians 7:7, St Paul famously says that, to avoid fornication, every man should be allowed to have his own wife, and every woman her own husband.

But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

While St Paul permits (but does not command) marriage, King Solomon, who is the apocryphal author of Ecclesiastes, warns against it, as well as against lust.

I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness: And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.

Solomon may be warning against lust and marriage, but he is certainly not warning against misogyny. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the fear of lust and of its effects contributed a great deal to his, and the Church’s, attitude towards women.

Force

King David was undone by his lust for Bathsheba (Solomon’s mother, although Solomon was not by David), and Bill Clinton, while still the most powerful man in the world, was almost undone by his lust for a young White House intern. Lust is such a strong and subversive force that it can be very difficult to reason clearly about it. There are many people out there who couldn’t organise a two-ticket tombola, but who suddenly become impressively industrious when it comes to acting out their lust. In Dante’s Inferno, souls who have committed the sin of lust are blown around in a hurricane that represents their own lack of self-control. And although MRI scanners were not available in Dante’s time, what they show is that the same area of the brain lights up in lusting people as in addicts receiving their cocaine fix.

According to mediaeval lore, when Alexander the Great found Phyllis (by some accounts, his wife) riding Aristotle around the garden, Alexander exclaimed, ‘Master, can this be?’ Whereupon Aristotle replied, ‘If lust can so overcome wisdom, just think what it could do to a young man like you.’

Lust is so powerful that it is often beyond the power of reason to contain.

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had, Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait.

These verses are from Shakespeare, who here (Sonnet 129) and elsewhere, goes so far as to aliken lust to madness.

No wonder, then, that in Greco-Roman mythology Eros/Cupid is depicted as a blind child, and the ithyphallic (erect) Satyrs are only half-human.

But it is not just that reason can sometimes be overcome by lust. For Schopenhauer, lust ultimately directs all human behaviour. This is certainly borne out by advertising, which seems mostly about suggesting that buying a particular product will excite the lust of others. In contrast, no one ever made a fortune by peddling restraint or wisdom. It is sometimes said that everything is about sex, except for sex, which is about power. Even the Church, when it needed to express the ecstatic communion with God, could do little better than to paint it in terms of an orgasm.

Consequences

Schopenhauer, who was heavily influenced by Eastern traditions, also notes the misery that will almost certainly result from lust.

In the Hindu Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of God’), Lord Krishna declares that, along with anger and greed, lust is one of the three gates to Naraka or hell. When Arjuna asks him by what one is impelled to sinful acts ‘even unwillingly, as if engaged by force’, he replies, ‘It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material mode of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring sinful enemy of this world … Therefore, O Arjuna, best of the Bharatas, in the very beginning curb this great symbol of sin—by regulating the senses, and slay this destroyer of knowledge and self-realization…’ (See Bhagavad Gita 3.36-43 for the full quotation.)

For the Buddha, lust, in the broader sense of coveting or craving, is at the centre of the Four Noble Truths, which are as follows,

1. Suffering (dukkha) is inherent in all life.
2. The cause of all suffering is lust.
3. There is a natural way to eliminate all suffering from one’s life.

4. The Noble Eightfold Path is that way.

For the Buddha, lust is controlled or eliminated through attaining a higher consciousness. This idea can also be found sporadically in the Western canon; indeed, Baudelaire goes so far as to suggest that the artist, who is consciousness personified, should never have sex.

The more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes… Only the brute is good at coupling, and copulation is the lyricism of the masses. To copulate is to enter into another—and the artist never emerges from himself.

The other

As well as being destructive to its subject, lust is also destructive to its object. Lust is the only appetite that is for a person rather than an object, but a person qua object rather than a person qua person. Either the other is seen as an object, or as other than they truly are. Through the subconscious processes of idealization and projection, the other becomes what is wished for or needed—quite literally, a fantasy.

It’s not just that the other is treated as an object of lust, but that he or she is shorn of uniquely human qualities and, in particular, of dignity and agency. Thus, the lustful person is not only unconcerned about the fulfilment of the other (and perhaps also of the ‘old’ partner to whom he is being unfaithful), but will act against her best interests to feed his appetite, and with his appetite sated, discard her as ‘one throws away a lemon that is sucked dry’. These sharp words belong to Kant, who asserted that a person should never be treated as a means to an end, but always as an end in herself.

It is perhaps in the nature of lust that it seeks to possess the other, to incorporate and degrade the other by destroying his dignity and autonomy. In the novel One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis, the protagonist says that, when it comes to sex, his aim is ‘to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature who is the opposite of these: to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal.’ Of course, there are some people with rather low self-esteem who consciously or unconsciously want to be hurt, degraded, and sabotaged, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Because it is so inhibiting, destructive, and subverting, lust is, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘a waste of shame’. So as to hide that shame, many cultures made use of a male demon who lay upon sleepers, especially women, to have sex with them. This incubus (and the less prevalent female equivalent, or succubus) could then be blamed for embarrassing nocturnal emmissions, disturbing claims of adultery and abuse, and even unexplained children.

Lust or love?

Another way of dealing with the shame of lust is to deceive ourselves into thinking that our lust is in fact love or underpinned by love. While lust is shameful, love is respectable, even commendable. Thus, while we may look warmly upon a couple holding hands or hugging (particularly if they are very young or very old, on the presumption that these groups are asexual), we look around for the police if they start acting out their lust. Love is the acceptable face of lust, but the love that is not love is even more perverse and destructive, and in that sense, even more shameful, than the lust that knows its game.

How to tell lust and love apart? Often, with difficulty. But while, in general, lust is hasty, furtive, and ashamed, love is patient, measured, and constant. While lust subverts propriety, love is thoughtful and nurturing. While lust is all about taking, love is all about sharing. Lust can lead to love, but it is a poor start, and a poor basis, akin to choosing your favorite book by the picture on the cover.

The ladder of love

Of course, there is nothing wrong with sexual desire in itself, and none of us would be here without it. Sexual desire is a life force, to be enjoyed and even celebrated. But, as with wine, the problems arise when it becomes the master rather than the servant. It is very important to be able and ready to recognize lust for the blind and destructive force that it is. That’s why lust is particularly unattractive in the elderly, because, as the saying goes, there is no fool like an old fool.

Lust is by definition hard to suppress, but it can more readily be redirected or sublimed. If a person feels angry with her boss, she may go home and act out her anger by kicking the dog, or she may instead go out and play a good game of tennis. This second instance (playing a good game of tennis) is an example of sublimation, the channelling of unproductive or destructive forces into socially condoned and often constuctive activities. As Baudelaire said, the more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes.

For Plato, lust is not something to be shunned, but the first step on his so-called ladder of love. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates say that a youth should first be taught to love one beautiful body. By loving one beautiful body, he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares beauty with other beautiful bodies, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, the youth learns to appreciate that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body, and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul regardless of whether they are also beautiful in body. Once the physical has been transcended, he gradually finds that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. Finally, he is able to experience beauty itself, rather than the various apparitions of beauty. In so doing, he exchanges the various apparitions of virtue for virtue itself, gaining immortality and the love of the gods.

In sum, for Plato, so long as one is willing to learn, lust can be its own cure.

Further reading: Lust, by Simon Blackburn

The Psychology & Philosophy of Boredom

bored

The modern concept of boredom goes back to the 19th century. For Erich Fromm and other thinkers, boredom is a response to industrial society, in which people are required to engage in alienated labour, and to the erosion of traditional structures of meaning.

Yet, it seems that boredom of some form is a human universal. On the walls of the ruins of Pompeii, there is Latin graffiti about boredom that dates back to the first century. And the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of an affliction of monks called acedia, a state of listlessness or torpor that could have been related to melancholy. Aquinas opposed this ‘sorrow of the world’ to spiritual joy, and, revealingly, the ‘noonday demon’ came to be seen as ‘the sin that inspires all other sins’.

A definition of boredom

So what, exactly, is boredom?

Boredom is a deeply unpleasant state of ‘unmet arousal’: you are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, your arousal cannot be met or directed. These reasons can be internal—often a lack of imagination, motivation, or concentration—or external, such as an absence of environmental stimuli or opportunities. So whereas you want to do something stimulating, you find yourself unable to do so; and, moreover, you are frustrated by the rising awareness of your inability.

Awareness, or consciousness, is key, and may explain why animals, if they get bored at all, generally have much higher thresholds for boredom. Whereas most animals dislike boredom, man, says writer Colin Wilson, is tormented by it.

In man, boredom is often brought about or aggravated by a lack of control or freedom, which is why it is particularly common in children and teenagers, who, in addition to being dictated to, lack the resources, experience, and discipline (the mind furnishings) to cope with boredom.

Stuck at the airport

Why is it so damned boring to be stuck in a departures lounge while your flight is increasingly delayed?

You are in a high state of arousal because you are anticipating your arrival in a novel and therefore stimulating environment.

You do have plenty of shops and newspapers, but shopping or the news is not what you are interested in at this particular time, and the shops and newspapers succeed only in dividing your attention and so promoting your boredom.

To make things worse, the situation is completely out of your control, unpredictable (the flight could be delayed further, or even cancelled), and inescapable. As you can do nothing but check and re-check the monitor, you become painfully aware of all these factors and more.

Apart from shops and newspapers, you also have alcohol, which could dull your consciousness; but at the same time you cannot afford to sleep because sleep may lead you to miss your flight. So here you are, caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

If you really need to catch the flight because your livelihood or the love of your life depends on it, you will get much less bored than if you don’t really need to go to wherever it is you are going. Thus, boredom is an inverse function of need or perceived need.

If, in addition, you don’t want to catch the flight (perhaps because you would rather be going somewhere else, or staying at home), then you will get all the more bored, and perhaps also angry.

As a result, you might develop an aversion to flying, just like the child who is bored at school might develop an aversion to learning.

Effects of boredom

So far so good. But why exactly is boredom so unpleasant?—so unpleasant that the problem is hardly ever recognized, still less addressed; so unpleasant, in fact, that I am finding it hard to write this article, over which I have procrastinated longer than usual.

For philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, boredom is evidence of the meaninglessness of life; because, if life were intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling, there could be no such thing as boredom.

So what boredom does, effectively, is to open the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings.

This is the essence of the manic defence, which consists in preventing feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. (I have written on the manic defence on this blog.)

Boredom is so unpleasant that we expend considerable resources on preventing or reducing it. The value of the global entertainment industry is poised to top $2 trillion in 2016, and entertainers such as singers, actors, and football players are accorded impiously high levels of pay and social status.

The technological advances of recent years have put an eternity of entertainment at our fingertips, but, paradoxically, this has only made things worse, in part, by removing us even more from reality. Instead of being satiated, we are desensitized and in need of ever more stimulation: ever more war, ever more gore, and hardcore.

If we cannot escape boredom by engaging in intentional activity, we escape it through daydreaming or sleeping.

People who are prone to boredom are also prone to mental disorders such as depression, overeating, substance misuse and dependence, and gambling. And they often prefer pain to boredom—not only suffering pain, but inflicting it as well. For them, the choice is simply one of boredom and pain, a choice between pain and pain.

Benefits of boredom

Yet boredom can also be your way of telling yourself that you’re not spending your time as well as you could, that you should rather be doing something else, something more enjoyable or more useful, or more important and fulfilling.

And so boredom can be a stimulus for change, leading you to better ideas, higher ambitions, and greater opportunities. Most of our achievements, of man’s achievements, are born out of the dread of boredom.

Indeed, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who spent time in prison, intimated that prison is in fact the ideal setting for a creative person. For Russell,

A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Dealing with boredom

There are many ways of reducing the propensity to boredom.

If boredom is an awareness of unmet arousal, you can minimize boredom by avoiding situations over which you have no or little control, cutting out distractions, motivating yourself, expecting less, putting things into their proper perspective (realizing how lucky you really are), and so on.

But rather than fighting a constant battle against boredom, it is easier and much more productive to actually embrace it. If boredom is a window on the fundamental nature of reality, and, by extension, on the human condition, then fighting boredom amounts to pulling the curtains. Yes, the night outside is pitch black, but the stars shine all the more brightly for it.

For just these reasons, many Eastern traditions embrace and encourage boredom, seeing it as the pathway to a higher consciousness.

So instead of fighting boredom, go along with it, make something out of it; in short, be, yourself, less boring.

Schopenhauer said that boredom is but the reverse side of fascination, since both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other. So instead of being outside a situation, learn to get inside it, however hard this may be.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh advocates appending the word ‘meditation’ to whatever activity it is that you find boring, for example, ‘waiting in an airport—meditation’.

Developed by British psychiatrist Russell Razzaque, Mindful Moment Training is a free online resource that aims to reconnect you with the real you.

In the words of Samuel Johnson,

It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.

The Psychology of Music in Restaurants

music

In my experience, most restaurants play the wrong sort of music. While a lot of thought may have been given to the menu, the wine list, and the service, none whatsoever has been given to the music.

Are restaurateurs missing a big trick?

First, what is the function of music in a restaurant? There are several possible functions: in particular, to accompany and enhance the food; to create ambiance and atmosphere; to influence menu choices; and, by making people eat faster, to increase table turnover.

It stands to reason that different types of restaurant should play different kinds of music, or perhaps even none at all.

Finer restaurants ought to play discrete instrumental music that accompanies and enhances the food, rather than distracts from it or from the diners’ conversations. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that music strongly influences our perception of food and wine. For example, according to research from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford, people associate higher notes, flutes, and tinkling piano with sweetness; and deeper, more resonant notes with bitterness. Still, some of the finest restaurants do not play any music at all, reasoning—in my opinion, correctly—that, when the food is truly great, any extraneous stimulus can only detract from it. The music does an injustice to the food, and the food to the music.

At the other end of the scale, a restaurant that places profit above dining experience often plays loud music with a fast tempo that subconsciously puts diners under pressure to eat more quickly, even if that means that they are less able to enjoy their meal. But caveat emptor: such music also suppresses appetite, leading to less food and, in particular, less drink being consumed. Appetite is in part a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. Loud, fast music activates the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight-or-flight’ response), which opposes the parasympathetic system and thereby diminishes appetite. That, in a nutshell, is why you don’t suddenly feel a tinge of hunger while being chased up a tree by a lion.

Music can detract not only from the food and wine, but also from conversations, mood, thoughts, and emotions. This is what most often ruins the dining experience for me. I usually go out as much for the food and wine as for the conversation, and often enjoy lengthy, involved, and intimate conversations. Any music that is so loud as to oblige me to strain my voice discourages such conversations. Moreover, music with lyrics attached imposes the singer’s thoughts and emotions upon me. These thoughts and emotions are often banal or incongruous, and prevent me from feeling or evolving my own. Why on earth should I care about the love life of some forlorn stranger? It is very telling, I think, that, in general, we do not play music when eating at home.

On the other hand, there are some people who have nothing or little to say to each other. For such people, the music can, at least to some extent, carpet over the silence and relieve the pressure of having to make conversation. (There are also people with so little between their ears that you really do need something with which to fill up the space.) Ideally, a restaurant with any sort of culinary pretensions ought to have a silent area or room, and, whenever possible, give diners the choice between silence and discrete instrumental music.

Lastly, restaurateurs need to be aware that the perceived volume of the music varies according to the number of people and amount of background noise in the restaurant, and that both can change significantly in the course of an evening. With only few diners to absorb and drown it, the music comes across as louder, and so the volume needs to be turned down.

The Psychology of Language

obama

Rhetoric may seem abstract and old-fashioned until you realize that all your favorite rhymes and tunes and lines depend on it.

Have you ever asked yourself why Obama is so rousing at a rally? It’s because he’s mugged up on his rhetoric, that’s why—especially on epistrophe, which is the basis of his ‘Yes we can’ shtick.

A few years back, I wrote a long and rather disorganized Glossary of Rhetorical Devices. Today I wanted to rationalize that list, first, to give me a better understanding of the psychology of language, and, second, so that I might have all the power of language at my fingertips—which, looking at where it got Obama, is quite a lot of power.

And so I managed to classify what I consider (and what others consider) to be the most effective rhetorical devices into just eight groups: sound repetition, word repetition, idea or structure repetition, unusual structure, language games, opposition and contradiction, circumlocution, and imagery.

I’m going to take you through these eight groups and explain how each one works.

1. Sound repetition

The repetition of a sound or sounds can produce a pleasing sense of harmony. It can also subtly link or emphasize important words or ideas. There are two major forms of sound repetition: consonance and alliteration.

Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sound, as in, for example,

Rap rejects my tape deck, ejects projectile/ Whether Jew or gentile I rank top percentile (Fugees)

Alliteration is a type of consonance involving the same consonant sound at the beginning of each word or stressed syllable. Sibilance is a form of consonance involving the repetition of sibilant sounds such as /s/ and /sh/. Sibilance is calming and sensual, whereas alliteration on a hard sound produces an entirely different effect.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain… (Edgar Allen Poe)

Resonance, in contrast, refers to richness or variety of sounds in a line or passage.

Created half to rise, and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d: The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! (Alexander Pope)

2. Word repetition

Word repetition can create alliteration, rhythm or continuity, emphasis, connection, progression, and circularity.

Words can be repeated in several ways.

Most obviously, a word can be repeated in immediate succession (epizeuxis), as in, for example,

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon…

Or it can be repeated after one or two intervening words (diacope) or at the beginning and end of a clause or line (epanalepsis).

Bond, James Bond.

The king is dead, long live the king!

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou my Romeo?

Or it can be carried across from one clause or line to the next, with the word that ends one clause or line beginning the next (anadiplosis). This brings out key ideas and their connection, lending the proposition something like the strength and inevitability of hard logic.

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3)

A word can also be repeated, but with a change of meaning, either a subtle, ambiguous change (ploce) or a more obvious grammatical change (polyptoton). Ploce emphasizes a contrast by playing on ambiguity, while polyptoton suggests both a connection and a difference. In the following sentence, ‘Love is not love’ is an example of ploce, while ‘alter’ and ‘alteration’ and ‘remover’ and ‘remove’ are examples of polyptoton.

Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare)

As well as single words, groups of words can be repeated, either at the beginning of successive clauses or lines (anaphora), or at the end of successive clauses or lines (epiphora).

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind… (Francis Thompson)

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. (Lyndon B. Johnson)

If you really want to be flare, you can combine anaphora and epiphora (symploce).

When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. (Bill Clinton)

In this particular example, the repetition conveys determination, resolve, and togetherness.

3. Idea or structure repetition

The repetition of an idea or structure can, if used correctly, add richness and resonance to expression. It can also add emphasis; create order, rhythm, and progression; and conjure up a total concept.

Let’s start with tautology, which is the repetition of the same idea in a line.

With malice toward none, with charity for all.

Pleonasm is a type of tautology involving the use of more words than is necessary for clear expression.

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.

The latter example is a combination of pleonasm and parallelism. Parallelism involves using a similar syntactical structure in a pair or series of related words, clauses, or lines. Three parallel words, clauses, or lines is a tricolon, which is a particularly effective type of isocolon.

Blood, sweat, and tears.

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

An effective method of emphasizing structural parallels is through a structural reversal (chiasmus).

By the day the frolic, and the dance by night.

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.

Do not give what is holy unto dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they (the pigs) trample them under their feet, and (the dogs) turn and tear you to pieces.

4. Unusual structure

An unusual structure draws attention and can also create a shift in emphasis.

Hyperbaton is the alteration of the normal order of the words in a sentence, or the separation of words that normally go together. There are several types. Anastrophe involves inversion of ordinary word order. Hypallage involves transference of attributes from their proper subjects to others. Hysteron proteron involves inversion of natural chronology.

Above the seas to stand… (anastrophe)

Angry crowns of kings… (hypallage)

Let us die, and charge into the thick of the fight. (hysteron proteron)

Zeugma is the joining of two or more parts of a sentence with a single verb (or sometimes a noun). Depending upon the position of the verb (at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end), a zeugma is either a prozeugma, mesozeugma, or hypozeugma. Here is an example of a mesozeugma.

What a shame is this, that neither hope of reward, nor feare of reproach could any thing move him, neither the persuasion of his friends, nor the love of his country. (Henry Peacham)

Syllepsis is a type of zeugma in which a single word agrees grammatically with two or more other words, but semantically with only one.

She lowered her standards by raising her glass, her courage, her eyes, and his hopes. (Flanders and Swann)

A hypozeuxis is the reverse of a zeugma, in which each subject is attached to its own verb. The following is also an example of anaphora (see above).

We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender! (Sir Winston Churchill)

A periodic sentence is one that is not grammatically or semantically complete before the final clause or phrase.

Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.

5. Language games

Language games such as puns and deliberate mistakes can draw attention to a phrase or idea, or simply raise a smile, by creating new and often ridiculous images and associations. They can also give rise to a vivid image, create ambiguity, and suggest sincerity and even passion.

A pun (or paronomasia) is the use of words with similar sounds, or the use of a word with different senses.

Do hotel managers get board with their jobs?

A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.

She is nice from far, but far from nice.

Catachresis is the intentional misuse of a term, applying it to a thing that it does not usually denote. Similarly, synaesthesia is the attribution to a thing of a sensory quality in a modality that is not proper to it.

To take arms against a sea of troubles…

‘Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse

She smelled the way the Taj Mahal smells by moonlight.

Antitimeria is the intentional misuse of a word as if it were a member of a different word class, typically a noun for a verb.

I’ll unhair thy head.

Enallage is the intentional and effective use of incorrect grammar.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine.

Love me tender, love me true.

6. Opposition and contradiction

Opposition and contradiction draws attention to itself, forces thought, can be humorous, and can suggest progression and completion.

An oxymoron is a juxtaposition of words which at first sight seem to be contradictory or incongruous. A paradox is similar to an oxymoron, but less compact.

Make haste slowly.

What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.

Antiphrasis is the use of a word in a context where it means its opposite.

A giant of five foot three inches.

Antithesis is the use of a pair of opposites for contrasting effect. A series of antitheses is called a progression.

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal…

7. Periphrasis or circumlocution

Circumlocution essentially works by painting a picture, or conjuring up a complex idea, with just a few well-chosen words.

Hendiadys is the combination of two words, and hendiatris of three.

Dieu et mon droit

Sound and fury

Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll

Lock, stock, and barrel

The latter example is also a merism, which is enumerating the parts to signify the whole. Here’s another example.

For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.

8. Imagery

Obviously, imagery works by conjuring up a particular image.

Metonymy is the naming of a thing or concept by a thing that is closely associated with it.

Downing Street

Westminster

The White House

The pen is mightier than the sword.

Antonomasia, a type of metonymy, is the use of a word or phrase or epithet in place of a proper name.

The Divine Teacher (Plato)

The Master of Those Who Know (Aristotle)

Synedoche, which is similar to metonymy, is the naming of a thing or concept by one of its parts.

A pair of hands

Longshanks

And so that’s it: the principal elements of rhetoric arranged in just eight groups. Easy to learn, easy to understand, easy to remember, and easy to teach.

Happy writing!

The Psychology of Lateness

late

The advent of the railways in the 19th century obliged towns in England to align themselves with London Time, or Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Some towns held out for longer than others. One town that stood its ground was Oxford, and for some time, the great clock on Tom Tower at Christ Church featured two minute hands. Still today, if one is about five minutes late in Oxford, one can claim to be running on ‘Oxford time’; and Great Tom, the loudest bell in the city, rings out 101 times every night at five past nine.

Of course, no one bears a grudge if you are just five minutes late, which is why the ‘Oxford time’ excuse is a bit of a joke. To be five minutes late is not really to be late.

Late is when people start getting annoyed. They get annoyed because your lateness betrays a lack of respect and consideration for them—and so they get more annoyed, and more quickly, if they are (or think they are) your social superiors. Unless you present a very good excuse for being late, preferably something that is out of your control (e.g. an elephant on the motorway), being late sends out the message, “My time is more valuable than yours”, that is, “I am more important than you”, and perhaps even, “I am doing you a favour by turning up at all”. It is particularly rude to be late to a formal or important occasion such as a wedding or funeral, or one involving many parts and precise timings such as an elaborate dinner party or civic event.

Being late insults others, but it also undermines the person who is late, because it may betray a lack of intelligence, self-knowledge, will power, or empathy. For instance, it may be that the person who is late has set unrealistic goals and overscheduled his day, or underestimated the time that it takes to travel from one place to another.

But there are also some more perfidious reasons for being late than mere mediocrity. Some involve anger and aggression, and others self-deception. Let’s talk about anger and aggression first.

Angry people who behave with almost exaggerated calm and courtesy might nevertheless express their anger through passive means, that is, through (conscious or unconscious) resistance to meeting the reasonable expectations of others. Examples of passive-aggressive behaviour include creating doubt and confusion; forgetting or omitting significant facts or items; withdrawing usual behaviors such as making a cup of tea, cooking, cleaning, or having sex; shifting responsibility for blame; and, of course, being late—often on a frequent and unpredictable basis.

As the name suggests, passive-aggressive behaviour is a means of expressing aggression covertly, and so without incurring the full emotional and social costs of more overt aggression. It does, however, prevent the underlying issue or issues from being identified and resolved, and can lead to a great deal of upset and resentment in the person or people on its receiving end.

Now let’s talk about the second perfidy, self-deception. As we have seen, being late, especially egregiously or repeatedly late, sends out the message, “I am more important than you”. Of course, one can, and often does, send out a message without it being true—indeed, precisely because it isn’t true. Thus, a person may be late because he feels inferior or unimportant, and being late is a way for him to impose himself on a situation, attract maximal attention, and even take control of proceedings. You may perhaps have noticed that some people in the habit of being late are also in the habit of making a scene out of it: apologising profusely, introducing themselves to everyone in turn, moving furniture around, asking for a clean glass, and so on. Needless to say, such behavior far from excludes an element of passive-aggression.

Staying with self-deception, being late could also be a form of resistance, a way of showing one’s disapproval for the purpose of the meeting, or resentment for it’s probable outcome. In the course of psychotherapy, an analysand is likely to display analogous resistance in the form not only of being late, but also of changing the topic, blanking out, falling asleep, or entirely missing appointments. In the context of psychotherapy, such behaviors suggest that the analysand is close to recalling repressed material but fearful of the consequences.

I ought to point out that being late is not necessarily unhealthy or pathological. Sometimes, being late is your unconscious (intuition) telling you that that you don’t actually want to be there, or that it would be better for you not to be there—for instance, it could be that a meeting (or even a job) is not the best use of your time, or will inevitably work against your own best interests. Note that headaches can serve a similar function—they certainly do for me.

Whenever you are late, you can learn a great deal simply by asking yourself, “Why exactly am I late?” Even if it is ‘only’ because you are too busy, why are you too busy? Often, we keep ourselves as busy as possible so as not to be left alone with our deepest thoughts and feelings, which is, of course, highly counterproductive in the short, medium, and long term. And this is another reason for being late: to avoid being left with no one and nothing but ourselves (thank God for smartphones!).

Finally, I have a little confession to make. In many social situations, I am often exactly eight minutes late. Why? Well, it goes without saying that being early is just as rude, if not more so, than being late, while being exactly on time can sometimes catch out your host (I myself am often caught out by people who are bang on time, which I guess is a form of me being late). On the other hand, being eight minutes late is not perceived as being late, and gives your host just enough time to sit down for a couple of minutes, gather his or her thoughts, and begin to look forward to your arrival.

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