The Secrets of Inspiration

poseidonThink back to your favourite teacher: for me, a French teacher who wept as he read out from a novel by Marguerite Duras. The teachers whom we hold in our hearts are not those who taught us the most facts, but those who inspired us and opened us up to ourselves. But what is inspiration and can it be cultivated?

The word ‘inspiration’ ultimately derives from the Greek for ‘God-breathed’, or ‘divinely breathed into’. In Greek myth, inspiration is a gift of the muses, the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (‘Memory’), though it can also come from Apollo (Apollon Mousagetēs, ‘Apollo Muse-leader’), Dionysus, or Aphrodite. Homer famously invokes the muses in the very first line of the Iliad: ‘Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans…’

Similarly, the Church maintains that inspiration is a gift from the Holy Ghost, including the inspiration for the Bible itself: ‘For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’ (2 Peter 1:21).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘inspiration’ as ‘a breathing in or infusion of some idea, purpose, etc. into the mind; the suggestion, awakening, or creation of some feeling or impulse, especially of an exalted kind’. Going with this, there appears to be two aspects to inspiration: some kind of vision, accompanied by some kind of positive energy with which to drive or at least sustain that vision.

‘Inspiration’ is often confused with ‘motivation’ and ‘creativity’. Motivation aims at some sort of external reward, whereas inspiration comes from within and is very much its own reward. Although inspiration is associated with creative insight, creativity also involves the realization of that insight—which requires opportunity, means, and, above all, effort. In the words of Thomas Edison, genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration—although you may not get started, or get very far, without the initial one percent.

Other than creativity, inspiration has been linked with enthusiasm, optimism, and self-esteem. Inspiration need not be all artistic and highfalutin: I often feel inspired to garden or cook, to plant out some bulbs for next spring or make use of some seasonal ingredients. Such inspired tasks feel very different from, say, writing a complaint or filing my accounts. If I could be paid to do what inspires me, and pay others to do what doesn’t, I should be a very happy man.

Despite its importance to both society and the individual, our system of education leaves very little place for inspiration—perhaps because, like wisdom and virtue, it cannot easily be taught but only… inspired. Unfortunately, if someone has never been inspired, he or she is unlikely to inspire others. That is a great shame. The best education consists not in being taught but in being inspired, and, if I could, I would rather inspire a single person than teach a thousand.

But where, in the first place, does inspiration come from? In Plato’s Ion, Socrates likens inspiration to a divine power, and this divine power to a magnetic stone that can not only move iron rings, but also magnetize the iron rings so that they can do the same. This leads to a long chain of iron rings, with each ring’s energy ultimately derived from that of the original magnetic stone. If a poet is any good, this is not because he has mastered his subject, but because he is divinely inspired, divinely possessed:

For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.

Socrates compares inspired poets to the Bacchic maidens, who are out of their minds when they draw honey and milk from the rivers. He asks Ion, a rhapsode (reciter of poetry), whether, when he recites Homer, he does not get beside himself, whether his soul does not believe that it is witnessing the actions of which he sings. Ion replies that, when he sings of something sad, his eyes are full of tears, and when he sings of something frightening, his hairs stand on end, such that he is no longer in his right mind. Socrates says that this is precisely the effect that a rhapsode has on his audience: the muse inspires the poet, the poet the rhapsode, and the rhapsode his audience, which is the last of the iron rings in the divine chain.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates argues that madness, as well as being an illness, can be the source of our greatest blessings. There are, he continues, four kinds of inspired madness: prophecy, from Apollo; holy prayers and mystic rites, from Dionysus; poetry, from the muses; and love, from Aphrodite and Eros.

But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane companions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.

All human beings, says Socrates, are able to recollect universals such as perfect goodness and perfect beauty, and must therefore have seen them in some other life or other world. The souls that came closest to the universals, or that experienced them most deeply, are reincarnated into philosophers, artists, and true lovers. As the universals are still present in their minds, they are completely absorbed in ideas about them and forget all about earthly interests. Humdrum people think that they are mad, but the truth is that they are divinely inspired and in love with goodness and beauty. In the 20th century, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung echoed Plato, arguing that the artist is one who can reach beyond individual experience to access our genetic memory, that is, the memory, such as the memory for language, that is already present at birth. It is perhaps no coincidence that, in Greek myth, the mother of the muses is Mnemosyne/Memory.

The idea that ‘madness’ is closely allied with inspiration and revelation is an old and recurring one. In Of Peace of Mind, Seneca the Younger writes that ‘there is no great genius without a tincture of madness’ (nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtuae dementiae fuit), a maxim which he attributes to Aristotle, and which is also echoed in Cicero. For Shakespeare, ‘the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact’. And for Dryden, ‘great wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide’. As I argued in a book called The Meaning of Madness, our reservoir of madness is a precious resource that we can learn to tap into.

For the modern writer André Gide,

The most beautiful things are those that are whispered by madness and written down by reason. We must steer a course between the two, close to madness in our dreams, but close to reason in our writing.

7 simple strategies to encourage inspiration

So it seems that inspiration is some kind of alignment or channelling of primal energies, and that it cannot quite be summoned or relied upon.

Nonetheless, here are seven simple strategies that may make it more likely to alight upon us:

1. Wake up when your body tells you to. No one has ever been tired and inspired at the same time. To make matters worse, having our sleep disrupted by an alarm clock or other extraneous stimulus can leave us feeling groggy and grouchy, as though we had ‘woken up on the wrong side of the bed’.

2. Complete your dreams. REM sleep, which is associated with dreaming, is richest just before *natural* awakening. Dreaming serves a number of critical functions such as assimilating experiences, processing emotions, and enhancing problem solving and creativity. In fact, the brain can be more active during REM sleep than during wakefulness. Many great works of art have been inspired by dreams, including Dali’s Persistence of Memory, several of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and short stories, and Paul McCartney’s Let it Be.

3. Eliminate distractions, especially the tedious ones. Clear your diary, remove yourself from people, take plenty of time over every small thing. You want to give your mind plenty of spare capacity. You want it to roam, to freewheel. Before going to bed, I check my calendar for the next day’s engagements, and am never happier than when I see ‘No Events’. Don’t worry or feel guilty, the sun won’t fall out of the sky. Many people are unable to let their minds wander for fear that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings might arise into their consciousness. If they do, why not take the opportunity to meet them?

4. Don’t try to rush or force things. If you try to force inspiration, you will strangle it and achieve much less overall. There may be ‘on’ days and ‘off’ days, or even ‘on’ hours and ‘off’ hours. If you don’t feel inspired, that’s fine, go out and enjoy yourself. Your boss may disagree, but it’s probably the most productive thing you could do. If you can, try not to have a boss.

5. Be curious. The 17th century philosopher John Locke suggested that inspiration amounts to a somewhat random association of ideas and sudden unison of thought. If something, anything, catches your interest, try to follow it through. Nothing is too small or irrelevant. Read books, watch documentaries, visit museums and exhibitions, walk in gardens and nature, talk to inspired and inspiring people… Feed your unconscious.

6. Break the routine. Sometimes it can really help to give the mind a bit of a shake. Try new things that take you out of your comfort zone. Modify your routine or your surroundings. Better still, go travelling, especially to places that are unfamiliar and disorienting, such as a temple in India or a hippy farm in the Uruguayan pampas.

7. Make a start. When I write an article, I make a start and come back to it whenever I next feel inspired. The minute I start flagging, I stop and do something else, and, hopefully, while I do that, the next paragraph or section enters my mind. Some articles I write over three or four days, others over three or four weeks—but hardly ever in a single day or single sitting. When I write a book, the first half seems to take forever, while the second half gets completed in a fraction of the time. Small accomplishments are important because they boost confidence and free the mind to move on, establishing a kind of creative momentum.

If you have any other thoughts on inspiration, please put them in the comments section.

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What Is Wisdom?

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Every time I utter the word ‘wisdom’, someone giggles or sneers. Wisdom, more so even than expertise, does not sit comfortably in a democratic, anti-elitist society. In an age dominated by science and technology, by specialization and compartmentalization, it is too loose and mysterious a concept. With our heads in our smartphones and tablets, our pay slips and bank statements, we simply do not have the mental time and space for it.

But things were not always thus. The word wisdom occurs 222 times in the Old Testament, which includes all of seven so-called ‘wisdom books’: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, the Book of Wisdom, and Sirach. ‘For wisdom is a defence, and money is a defence: but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it’ (Ecclesiastes 7:12).

The word ‘philosophy’ literally means ‘the love of wisdom’, and wisdom is the overarching aim of philosophy, or, at least, ancient philosophy. In Plato’s Lysis, Socrates tells the young Lysis that, without wisdom, he would be of no interest to anyone: “…if you are wise, all men will be your friends and kindred, for you will be useful and good; but if you are not wise, neither father, nor mother, nor kindred, nor anyone else, will be your friends.” The patron of Athens, the city in which the Lysis is set, is no less than Athena, goddess of wisdom, who sprung out in full armour from the skull of Zeus. Her symbol, and the symbol of wisdom, is the owl, which can see through darkness.

In fact, ‘wisdom’ derives from the Proto-Indo-European root weid-, ‘to see’, and is related to a great number of words including: advice, druid, evident, guide, Hades, history, idea, idol, idyll, view, Veda, vision, and visit. In Norse mythology, the god Odin gouged out one of his eyes and offered it to Mimir in exchange for a drink from the well of knowledge and wisdom, thereby trading one mode of perception for another, higher one.

And the very name of our species, Homo sapiens, means ‘wise man’.

Wisdom in perspective

So what exactly is wisdom? People often speak of ‘knowledge and wisdom’ as though they might be closely related or even the same thing, so maybe wisdom is knowledge, or a great deal of knowledge. If wisdom is knowledge, then it has to be a certain kind of knowledge, or else learning the phonebook, or the names of all the rivers in the world, might count as wisdom. And if wisdom is a certain kind of knowledge, then it is not scientific or technical knowledge, or else modern people would be wiser than even the wisest of ancient philosophers. Any 21st century school-leaver would be wiser than Socrates.

Once upon a time, Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates, and the Pythian priestess replied that there was no one wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of men who laid claim to wisdom—politicians, generals, poets, craftsmen—and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.’ From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not’. He offended so many people with his questioning that, eventually, they condemned him to death—which served his purposes well, since it made him immortal.

The Bible tells us, ‘When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom’ (Proverbs 11:2). Socrates was the wisest of all people not because he knew everything or anything, but because he knew what he did not know, or, to put it somewhat differently, because he knew the limits of the little that he did know. Shakespeare put it best in As You Like It, ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’

Still, there seems to be more to wisdom than mere ‘negative knowledge’, or else I could just be super-skeptical about everything and count myself wise… Or maybe wisdom consists in having very high epistemic standards, that is, in having a very high bar for believing something, and an even higher bar for calling that belief knowledge. But then we are back to a picture of wisdom as something like scientific knowledge.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates says that people of wisdom and virtue seem to be very poor at imparting those qualities: Themistocles was able to teach his son Cleophantus skills such as standing upright on horseback and shooting javelins, but no one ever said of Cleophantus that he was wise, and the same could be said for Lysimachus and his son Artistides, Pericles and his sons Paralus and Xanthippus, and Thucydides and his sons Melesias and Stephanus. And if wisdom cannot be taught, then it is not a kind of knowledge.

If wisdom cannot be taught, how, asks Meno, did good people come into existence? Socrates replies that right action is possible under guidance other than that of knowledge: a person who has knowledge about the way to Larisa may make a good guide, but a person who has only correct opinion about the way, but has never been and does not know, might make an equally good guide. Since wisdom cannot be taught, it cannot be knowledge; and if it cannot be knowledge, then it must be correct opinion—which explains why wise men such as Themistocles, Lysimachus, and Pericles were unable to impart their wisdom even unto their own sons. Wise people are no different from soothsayers, prophets, and poets, who say many true things when they are divinely inspired but have no real knowledge of what they are saying.

Aristotle gives us another important clue in the Metaphysics, when he says that wisdom is the understanding of causes. None of the senses are regarded as wisdom because, although they give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars, they are unable to discern the distal causes of anything. Similarly, we suppose artists to be wiser than people of experience because artists know the ‘why’ or the cause, and can therefore teach, whereas people of experience do not, and cannot. In other words, wisdom is the understanding of the right relations between things, which calls for more distant and removed perspectives, and perhaps also the ability or willingness to shift between perspectives. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero cites as a paragon of wisdom the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who, upon being told of the death of his son, said, “I knew that I begot a mortal”. For Cicero, true sapience consists in preparing oneself for every eventuality so as never to be overtaken by anything—and it is true that wisdom, the understanding of causes and connexions, has long been associated with both insight and foresight.

So wisdom is not so much a kind of knowledge as a way of seeing, or ways of seeing. When we take a few steps back, like when we stand under the shower or go on holiday, we begin to see the bigger picture. In every day language use, ‘wisdom’ has two opposites: ‘foolishness’ and ‘folly’, which involve, respectively, lack and loss of perspective. For some thinkers, notably Robert Nozick, wisdom has a practical dimension in that it involves an understanding of the goals and values of life, the means of achieving those goals, the potential dangers to avoid, and so on. I agree, but I think that all this naturally flows from perspective: if you have proper perspective, you cannot fail to understand the goals and values life, nor can you fail to act on that understanding. This chimes with Socrates’ claim that nobody does wrong knowingly: people only do wrong because, from their narrow perspective, it seems like the right thing to do.

In cultivating a broader perspective, it helps, of course, to be knowledgeable, but it also helps to be intelligent, reflective, open-minded, and disinterested—which is why we often seek out ‘independent’ advice. But above all it helps to be courageous, because the view from up there, though it can be exhilarating and ultimately liberating, is at first terrifying—whence, no doubt, the giggles and the sneers.

Courage, said Aristotle, is the first of human qualities because it is the one which guarantees all the others.

The Five Enemies of Reason

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If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. —Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The enemies of rational thought can take one of several overlapping forms, including formal fallacy and informal fallacy, cognitive bias, cognitive distortion, and self-deception. If these are difficult to define, they are even more difficult to distinguish.

A fallacy is some kind of defect in an argument, and may be either intentional (aimed at deceiving) or, more commonly, unintentional. A formal fallacy is an invalid type of argument. It is a deductive argument with an invalid form, for example: Some A are B. Some B are C. Therefore, some A are C. If you cannot see that this argument is invalid, complete A, B, and C with ‘insects’, ‘herbivores’, and ‘mammals’. Insects are clearly not mammals!

A formal fallacy is built into the structure of an argument, and is invalid irrespective of the content of the argument. In contrast, an informal fallacy is one that can be identified only through an analysis of the content of the argument. Informal fallacies often turn on the misuse of language, for example, using a key term or phrase in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one part of the argument and another meaning in another part (fallacy of equivocation). Informal fallacies can also distract from the weakness of an argument, or appeal to the emotions rather than to reason.

As I argued in Hide and Seek, all self-deception can be understood in terms of ego defence. In psychoanalytic theory, an ego defence is one of several unconscious processes that we deploy to diffuse the fear and anxiety that arise when we who we truly are (our unconscious ‘id’) comes into conflict with who we think we are or who we think we should be (our conscious ‘superego’). For example, a person who buys a $10,000 watch instead of a $1,000 watch because “you can really tell the difference in quality” is not only hiding his (unrecognized) craving to be loved, but also disguising it as an ego-enhancing virtue, namely, a concern for quality. Whereas formal and informal fallacies are more about faulty reasoning, self-deception is more about hiding from, or protecting, oneself.

Cognitive bias is sloppy, although not necessarily faulty, reasoning: a mental shortcut or heuristic intended to spare us time, effort, or discomfort, often while reinforcing our image of the self or the world, but at the cost of accuracy or reliability. For example, in explaining the behaviour of other people, our tendency is to overestimate the role of character traits over situational factors—a bias, called the correspondence bias or attribution effect, that goes into reverse when it comes to explaining our own behaviour. So, if Charlotte omits to mow the lawn, I indict her with forgetfulness, laziness, or spite; but if I omit to mow the lawn, I excuse myself on the grounds of busyness, tiredness, or bad weather. Another important cognitive bias is confirmation, or my-side, bias, which is the propensity to search for or recall only those facts and arguments that are in keeping with our pre-existing beliefs while filtering out those that conflict with them—which, especially on social media, can lead us to inhabit a so-called echo chamber.

Cognitive distortion is a concept from cognitive-behavioural therapy, developed by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s and used in the treatment of depression and other mental disorders. Cognitive distortion involves interpreting events and situations so that they conform to and reinforce our outlook or frame of mind, typically on the basis of very scant or partial evidence, or even no evidence at all. Common cognitive distortions in depression include selective abstraction and catastrophic thinking. Selective abstraction is to focus on a single negative event or condition to the exclusion of other, more positive ones, for example, “My partner hates me. He gave me an annoyed look three days ago (even though he spends all his spare time with me).” Catastrophic thinking is to exaggerate the consequences of an event or situation, for example, “The pain in my knee is getting worse. When I’m reduced to a wheelchair, I won’t be able to go to work and pay the mortgage. So, I’ll end up losing my house and dying in the street.” Cognitive distortions can give rise to a chicken-and-egg situation: the cognitive distortions aliment the depression, which in turn aliments the cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortion as broadly understood is not limited to depression and other mental disorders, but is also a feature of, among others, poor self-esteem, jealousy, and marital or relationship conflict.

Are there any other enemies of rational thought? Please name them in the comments section.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Imagination

Einstein held that imagination is more important than knowledge: “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

I define imagination as the faculty of the mind that forms and manipulates images, propositions, concepts, emotions, and sensations above and beyond, and sometimes independently of, incoming stimuli, to open up the realms of the abstract, the figurative, the possible, the hypothetical, and the universal.

Imagination comes in many forms and by many degrees, ranging from scientific reasoning to musical appreciation, and overlaps with a number of other cognitive constructs including belief, desire, emotion, memory, supposition, and fantasy. Belief, like perception, aims at according with reality, while desire aims at altering reality. Emotion also aims at according with reality, but more particularly at reflecting the significance of its object, or class of object, for the subject—an aspect that it shares with many forms of imagination. Like imagination, memory can involve remote imagery. But unlike imagination, it is rooted in reality and serves primarily to frame belief and guide action. Memories are often more vivid than imaginings, which are, in turn, more vivid than suppositions. Suppositions tend to be cold and cognitive, and lacking in the emotional and existential dimensions of imagination. Finally, fantasy may be understood as a subtype of imagination, namely, imagination for the improbable.

I say the improbable rather than the impossible, because there is a theory that, just as perception justifies beliefs about actuality, so imagination justifies beliefs about possibility (or at least, metaphysical as opposed to natural possibility). To quote Hume, ‘It is an established maxim in metaphysics, that whatever the mind clearly conceives, includes the idea of possible existence, or in other words, that nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible.’ Could ghosts, the devil, time travel etc. really be possible? I think inconceivability may be a better guide to impossibility than conceivability to possibility. But what does it mean for something to be conceivable or inconceivable, and by whom?

It has to be said that, until very recently, most human societies did not mark a strict divide between imagination and belief, or fiction and reality, with each one informing and enriching the other. In fact, it could be argued that, in many important respects, the fiction primed over the reality—and even that this has been, and perhaps still is, one of the hallmarks of our species. Today, there are pills for people who confuse imaginings and beliefs, but back then no one ever thought that life, with its much harder hardships, might be meaningless—which I think tells us quite a bit about imagination and its uses, and also about mental illness.

The uses of imagination are many, more than I can enumerate. Most children begin to develop pretend play at around 15 months of age. What are children doing when they pretend play? And why are they so absorbed in works of imagination? When I was seven years old, I would devour book after book, and plead with my parents for those not already on the shelves. By playing out scenarios and stretching themselves beyond their limited experience, children seek to make sense of the world and to find their place within it. This meaning-making is joyful and exciting, and has an echo in every act of creation.

When we look at the Mona Lisa, we see much more than just the brushstrokes. In fact, we barely see the brushstrokes at all. In imagination as in our dreams, we ascribe form, pattern, and significance to things, and then reflect them back onto those things. Without this work of interpreting and assimilating, the world would be no more than an endless stream of sense impressions, as it might sometimes seem to those who lack imagination, with no hope of escape or reprieve.

More than that, by imagination we are able to complete the world, or our world, by conjuring up the missing parts, and even to inhabit entirely other worlds such as Middle-earth or the Seven Kingdoms. Imagination remains highly active throughout adulthood, and what is chick lit or even pornography if not an aid to the adult imagination? In one year (2017), Pornhub recorded 28.5 billion visits, equivalent to about four times the world population—and that’s just on the one site.

If imagination enables us to feel at home in the world, it also enables us to do things in the world. Science progresses by hypothesis, which is a product of imagination, and philosophy makes frequent use of thought experiments such as the brain in the vat, the trolley problem, and up to Plato’s Republic. Imagination makes knowledge applicable by forming associations and connections. It opens up possibilities, and guides decision-making by playing out those possibilities. So many of our failures, and some of our successes, are in fact failures of the imagination.

Imagination also enables us to talk to one another, understand one another, and work together. Without it, there could be no metaphor, no irony, no humor, no past or future tense, and no conditional. Indeed, there could be no language at all, for what are words if not symbols and representations? By imagination, we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes, think what they think, and feel what they feel. Problems in autism, which can be interpreted as a disorder of imagination, include abnormalities in patterns of communication, impairments in social interactions, and a restricted repertoire of behaviors, interests, and activities.

I’m lucky to have received a decent education, but one thing it didn’t do is cultivate my imagination. In recent years, I’ve been trying to recover the bright and vivid imagination that I left behind in childhood.

I’ve been doing just three things, all of them very simple—or, at least, very simple to explain.

  • Being aware of the importance of imagination.
  • Making time for sleep and idleness.
  • Taking inspiration from nature.

I’ll conclude with these few words from William Blake, which hint at the significance of the natural world and the transcending power of imagination,

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.

The Psychology and Philosophy of Intuition

At a wine bar in Corsica, I ordered a glass and shared some low-key wine talk with the chap who brought it to me. After some time, I ordered another glass, and we spoke again. I like testing my intuitions, so I said, at point blank, “You’ve written poetry, haven’t you?” The chap turned out to be a published poet.

‘Intuition’ derives from the Latin tuere, ‘to look at, watch over’, and is related to ‘tutor and ‘tuition’ and perhaps also to the Sanskrit tavas, ‘strong, powerful’. Broadly speaking, an intuition is a disposition to believe evolved without hard evidence or conscious deliberation. I say ‘disposition to believe’ rather than ‘belief’ because an intuition is usually held with less certainty or firmness than a belief; and ‘believe’ rather than ‘know’ because an intuition is not justified in the normal sense, and not necessarily true or accurate.

Intuition is often confused with instinct. Instinct is not a feeling about something, but a tendency towards a particular behavior that is innate and common to the species. “Karen stepped back, intuiting that the dog would follow its instinct and bite.” Although instincts tend to be associated with animals, human beings also have quite a few, even if they are, or can be, strongly modified by culture, temperament, and experience. Examples of human instincts include any number of phobias, territoriality, tribal loyalty, and the urge to procreate and rear their young. These instincts are often disguised or sublimed, for example, tribal loyalty may find an outlet in sport, and the urge to procreate may take the more rarefied form of love. Aristotle says in the Rhetoric that human beings have an instinct for truth, and in the Poetics that they have an instinct for rhythm and harmony.

If intuition is not instinct, how does it operate? An intuition involves a coming together of facts, concepts, experiences, thoughts, and feelings that are loosely linked but too profuse, disparate, and peripheral for deliberate or rational processing. As this process is sub- or semi-conscious and the workings are hidden, an intuition appears suddenly and unexpectedly, and cannot, or at least not immediately or easily, be justified. But what makes an intuition especially hard to support is that it is founded not so much on arguments and evidence as on the interconnectedness of things. It hangs, delicately and invisibly, like the web of a spider. The surfacing of an intuition, which can also occur in dream or meditation, is usually associated with a concordant feeling such as joy or dread, or simple pleasure at the high cognitive and human achievement that an intuition represents.

If this is how intuition works, then we can encourage intuition by expanding the number and range of our experiences, and by tearing down the psychological barriers, such as fears and taboos, that are preventing them from coalescing. We should also give ourselves more time and space for free association: my own intuitive faculty is sharpest when showering, traveling, or dreaming, and when I am well rested. Finally, it would help if we actually believed in our ability to form intuitions. We have micro-intuitions all the time, about what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, what road to take, whom to talk to, what to say, how to respond, and so on. I call them micro-intuitions because they depend on a large number of subtle variables, and escape, or largely escape, conscious processing. But what about the macro-intuitions? Never in the history of humanity has the intuitive faculty been more neglected or devalued than in our rational-scientific age.

As a writer, some of what I consider to be my best lines are intuitions, and work by prompting similar open-ended associations in the reader (you can read some of them on my website).

Similarly, in Zen practice, a kōan is a paradox or riddle that encourages the apprentice to connect the dots by subverting the rational and egotistic mind.

One day, a monk said to Joshu, “Master, I have just entered the monastery. Please give me instructions.”

Joshu replied, “Have you had your breakfast?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Then wash your bowls.”

The monk understood something.

Before reading on, try to work it out for yourself. You will have to shift gears, or pass into neutral.

The monk may have understood that life is to be found in all of life; that life, at all times, is right in front of us, simply waiting to be lived. Suddenly it seems so obvious, but it’s not something that the rational, task-driven mind either grasps or remembers.

Socrates is often held up as a paradigm of reason and philosophy. Yet, he seldom claimed any real knowledge. All he had, he said, was a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or sense that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics or escaping Athens. “This is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic.” In the Phaedrus, he goes so far as to say:

Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings… the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art… So according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense… madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.

In the Meno, which features Meno in conversation with Socrates, Plato explores the nature of intuition. At one point, Meno confesses that he is unable to define virtue, even though he has delivered many speeches on the subject. He compares Socrates to the flat torpedo fish, which torpifies or numbs all those who come near it. “And I think that you are very wise in not leaving Athens, for if you did in other places as you do here, you would be cast into prison as a magician.” Socrates, the paradigm of reason and philosophy, is the very embodiment of a kōan.

Meno asks Socrates how he will look for virtue if he does not know what it is.

And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Socrates says that he has heard from certain wise men and women ‘who spoke of things divine’ that the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things on earth and below. Since the soul already knows everything, ‘learning’ consists merely in recollecting that which is already known. Socrates traces a square in the dirt and asks one of Meno’s slave boys a series of questions that lead the uneducated boy, effectively, to derive Pythagoras’ theorem. Socrates claims to have proven that the boy found this knowledge not through teaching, but through recollection.

Reason is not the only road to knowledge. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that the types of disposition (hexis) by which the soul can arrive at truth are five in number: (1) scientific knowledge (episteme), which arrives at necessary and eternal truths by deduction and induction; (2) art or technical skills (techne), which is a rational capacity to make; (3) practical wisdom (phronesis), which is a rational capacity to secure the good life, and includes the political art; (4) intuition (nous), which apprehends the first principles or unarticulated truths from which scientific knowledge is derived; and (5) philosophic wisdom (sophia), which is scientific knowledge combined with intuition of the things that are highest by nature.

What is interesting in Aristotle’s schema is that scientific knowledge (and reason more broadly) is not independent of intuition. Rather, it is intuition that makes scientific knowledge possible. Centuries later, Locke made a similar point in contrasting intuition and demonstration: demonstration requires conscious steps, but each step is or should be intuitive. At the very least, intuition underpins the reasoning process, since fundamental axioms and elementary rules of inference cannot be established by any other means—and, of course, the same is also true of our fundamental moral beliefs, of ‘practical wisdom’. Today, there is a summit in Antarctica called ‘Intuition Peak’ in honor of the role of intuition in the advancement of human knowledge.

But one important caveat to climb down from this high point. If you put a right-wing person in a room with a left-wing person, or a religious one with a non-religious one, you will soon find that their intuitions conflict.

Intuition can and should be used to form hypotheses, but never to justify claims.

The Magic of Music

The oldest musical instruments to have been found, flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory, are more than 42,000 years old; and it has been argued that, by fostering social cohesion, music—from the Greek, ‘the art of the muses’— could have helped our species outcompete the Neanderthals. Remember that next time you stand to the national anthem.

In the Bible, David played on his harp to make King Saul feel better: ‘And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him’ (1 Samuel 16:23 KJV).

The oral works ascribed to Homer would not have survived if they had not been set to music and sung. By his song, the lyric poet Thaletas brought civic harmony to Sparta, and is even credited with ending the plague in that city. The Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo (the god of music), and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of body and soul. In the Republic, Plato says that the education of the guardians should consist of gymnastic for the body and music for the soul, and that, once set, the curriculum should not be changed: ‘…when modes of music change, of the State always change with them.’ Aristotle concludes the Politics with, of all things, a discussion of music:

Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections…

In the 10th century, the Islamic thinker Al-Farabi wrote a treatise, Meanings of the Intellect, in which he discussed music therapy. Modern music therapy took form in the aftermath of World War II, when staff in veteran hospitals noticed that music could benefit their patients in ways that standard treatments could not, and started hiring musicians. In 1959, American composer and pianist Paul Nordoff and British special education teacher Clive Robbins developed a form of collaborative music-making to engage vulnerable and isolated children, helping them to develop in the cognitive, behavioural, and social domains. Today, Nordoff Robbins is the largest music therapy charity in the U.K.

Modern music therapy aims, by the use of music, to improve health or functional outcomes. It typically involves regular meetings with a qualified music therapist and various combinations of music-related activities. In ‘active therapy’ the individual and therapist make music using an instrument or the voice; in ‘passive therapy’ the individual listens to music in a reflective mode. You don’t have to be musical to take part. And, of course, you don’t have to take part to engage with music.

Does music therapy work? And if so, how? There is mounting evidence that music boosts levels of dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger in the brain. Dopamine is linked to motivation and reward, and released in response to activities such eating and making love. Many people use music to power through a workout. Beyond distracting from discomfort, music triggers the release of opioid hormones that relieve physical and psychological pain. Forget the workout, just dance to the music. Dancing is the best exercise because it involves movement in all directions and engages the mind on multiple levels. Music also boosts the immune system, notably by increasing antibodies and decreasing stress hormones, which can depress the immune system. Techno and heavy metal aside, music lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and even reduces recovery time following a heart episode or surgery.

From the psychological perspective, music therapy alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression and improves social and occupational functioning. Aside from the biological benefits such as increased dopamine and decreased stress hormones, music can help us to recognize, express, and process complex or painful emotions. It elevates these emotions and gives them a sense of beauty and meaning. We hear a human voice and feel understood. As Taylor Swift put it, “People haven’t always been there for me but music always has.”

I don’t think that music has to sound uplifting to be uplifting, so long as it helps us to work with our feelings. In the Poetics, Aristotle compared the purifying or cleansing effects of tragedy on the mind of the spectator to the effect of a cathartic on the body, and called this purging of the emotions catharsis.

The benefit of music extends beyond depression and anxiety to psychosis, autism, and dementia. In dementia, music can help with cognitive deficits, agitation, and social functioning. It helps to encode memories, and can in turn evoke vivid memories. In acquired brain injury, it can assist with the recovery of motor skills, and, through song, lend a voice to people who have lost the faculty of speech. At the other end of life, music played during pregnancy has been linked, in the newborn, to better motor and cognitive skills, faster development of language, and so on.

I remember as a teenager, lying in the blackness of the night and listening to Beethoven on my portable CD player. It completely transformed the makeup of my mind.

10 songs for the blues

  1. The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony
  2. Soul Asylum, Runaway Train
  3. Disturbed, The Sound of Silence
  4. Abba, Chiquitita 
  5. Rolling Stones, Paint it Black
  6. Royksopp, I Had This Thing
  7. Eurythmics, Here Comes the Rain Again
  8. Beethoven, Violin Concerto
  9. Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch
  10. The Verve, Lucky Man

If a song has been helpful to you, please share it in the comments section.

Are You Too Cynical?

The history, psychology, and philosophy of cynicism

Diogenes looking for a human being

Cynics often come across as contemptuous, irritating, and dispiriting. But they are the first to suffer from their cynicism. They can miss out on the things, such as friendship or love, that make a life worth living. They tend to hold back from the public sphere, leading to a reduced social and economic contribution and relative poverty and isolation—which, along with their pessimism, can predispose them to depression and other ills. Their cynicism seems self-fulfilling: by always assuming the worst about everyone, they tend to bring it out, and not least, perhaps, in themselves.

Diogenes the Cynic

But cynicism also has brighter sides. To understand these, it helps to take a look at the long and distinguished history of cynicism. The first Cynic appears to have been the Athenian philosopher Antisthenes (445-365 BCE), who had been an ardent disciple of Socrates. Then came Diogenes, the paradigm of the Cynic, who took the simple life of Socrates to such an extreme that Plato called him “a Socrates gone mad.”

The people of Athens abused Diogenes, calling him a dog and spitting in his face. But in this he took pride rather than offense. He held that human beings had much to learn from the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not “complicated every simple gift of the gods.” The terms cynic and cynical derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon, or ‘dog’.

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for human beings to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that human beings should live in accord with nature. Rather than giving up their time and efforts in the pursuit of wealth, renown, and other worthless things, people should have the courage to live like animals or gods, revelling in life’s pleasures without bond or fear.

The stories surrounding Diogenes, though embellished, or because embellished, help to convey his spirit. Diogenes wore a simple cloak which he doubled up in winter, begged for food, and sheltered in a tub. He made it his mission to challenge custom and convention, those “false coins of morality.” Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he mused, “If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly.” He strolled about in broad daylight brandishing a lamp. When people gathered around him, as they inevitably did, he would say, “I am just looking for a human being.” His fame spread far beyond Athens. One day, Alexander the Great came to meet him. When Alexander asked whether he could do anything for him, he replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.”

History of Cynicism and Related Schools

Diogenes was followed by Crates of Thebes, who renounced a large fortune to live the Cynical life of poverty. Crates married Hipparchia of Maroneia, who, uniquely, adopted male clothes and lived on equal terms with her husband. By the first century, Cynics could be found throughout the cities of the Roman Empire. Cynicism vied with Stoicism, a broader philosophical system that emphasized self-control, fortitude, and clear thinking, and that, in the second century, could count the emperor Marcus Aurelius among its adherents. Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), the founder of Stoicism, had been a pupil of Crates, and Cynicism came to be seen as an idealized form of Stoicism.

Other philosophical schools that took off around the time of Alexander include Skepticism and Epicureanism. Like the fifth century BCE sophists to whom he opposed himself, Socrates had skeptical tendencies, claiming that he knew little or nothing, and cultivating a state of non-knowledge, or aporia. Pyrrho of Elis travelled with Alexander into India, where he encountered the gymnosophists, or “naked wise men.” Pyrrho denied that knowledge is possible and urged suspension of judgement, with the aim of exchanging the twin evils of anxiety and dogmatism for mental tranquillity, or ataraxia. The most important source on Pyrrhonism is Sextus Empiricus, who wrote in the late second century or thereabouts. In the 16th century, the translation of the complete works of Sextus Empiricus into Latin led to a resurgence of skepticism, and the work of René Descartes—”I think therefore I am,”and so on—can be read as a response to a skeptical crisis. But David Hume, who lived some hundred years later, remained unmoved by Descartes, writing that “philosophy would render us entirely Pyrrhonian, were not Nature too strong for it.”

Like Antisthenes and Diogenes, Epicurus of Samos dedicated himself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason: reason teaches that pleasure is good and pain bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, but actually involves a kind of hedonic calculus to determine which things, over time, are likely to result in the most pleasure or least pain. Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain; and, rather than pleasure per se, emphasized the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and mental tranquillity (ataraxia). “If thou wilt make a man happy” said Epicurus “add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”

I think that their shared emphasis on ataraxia makes the four Hellenistic schools of Cynicism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism more related than different.

Cynicism endured into the fifth century. In City of God (426 CE), St Augustine says that “even today we still see Cynic philosophers.” Although Augustine scorned Cynic shamelessness, Cynicism and especially Cynic poverty exerted an important influence on early Christian asceticism, and thereby on later monasticism. In the early first century, when it was more popular, it may even have influenced the teachings of Jesus.

Cynicism Today

“Cynicism” acquired its modern meaning in the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, stripping Ancient Cynicism of most of its tenets and retaining only the Cynic propensity to puncture people’s pretensions.

Today, cynicism refers to doubt or disbelief in the professed motives, sincerity, and goodness of others, and, by extension, in social and ethical norms and values. This attitude is often accompanied by mistrust, scorn, and pessimism about others and humanity as a whole.

Cynicism is often confused with irony, which is saying the opposite of what is meant, often for levity, emphasis, or concision; and with sarcasm, which is saying the opposite of what is meant to mock or convey anger or contempt. Sarcasm can involve cynicism if it punctures the pretensions of its target, especially when the target has not been given the benefit of doubt. Adding to the confusion, irony can also refer to an outcome that is clearly and emphatically contrary to the one that would normally have been expected.

Antonyms, or opposites, of cynicism include trust, faith, credulity, and naivete, which refers to lack of experience or understanding, often accompanied by starry-eyed optimism or idealism. In Voltaire’s Candide, the naïve Candide befriends a cynical scholar named Martin:

“You’re a bitter man,” said Candide.

“That’s because I’ve lived,” said Martin.

The Psychology of Cynicism

The line between cynicism and accurate observation can be very fine, and it is easy and often expedient to dismiss truthfulness as cynicism. Few grownups in our society are entirely devoid of cynicism. Cynicism exists on a spectrum, and it might be argued that most cynics, cynical though they may be, are not nearly cynical enough. As Terry Pratchett wrote of the fictional Vimes:

If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was that quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life.

Cynics often take pride and pleasure in their cynicism, including perhaps in the uneasy mix of discomfort and laughter that it can provoke in others. They may seek out the company of other cynics to “let rip” and test the limits of their cynicism. Popular satirical publications and programs such as the Onion and Daily Show have a strong cynical streak. Beyond the humor, cynicism, like broader satire, holds up a mirror to society, just as Diogenes held up a lamp to the Athenians, inviting people to question their beliefs, values, and priorities, and pointing them towards a more authentic and fulfilling way of living.

This all fits with the theory that cynics are nothing but disappointed idealists. On this reading, cynics are people who began life with unrealistically high standards and expectations. Rather than adjusting or compromising, or quietly withdrawing like the hermit, they went to war with the world, deploying their cynicism as both weapon and shield. Sometimes their cynicism is partial rather than global, circumscribed to those areas, such as love or politics, which have led to the greatest disillusionment.

Cynicism may be understood as a defensive posture: By always assuming the worst of everyone and everything, we cannot be hurt or disappointed—while also making ourselves feel smug and superior. Under her apparently thick skin, the cynic may be much more delicate and sensitive than is commonly imagined.

At the same time, cynicism can be a kind of pragmatism, ensuring that all angles have been covered and all eventualities foreseen. The nature of the cynicism reveals itself in its temperature or flavor: scornful and gratuitous cynicism is more likely to be an ego defense, whereas calm and happy cynicism, however actually cynical, is more likely to be a form of efficiency—not to mention comedy.

Cynicism can also be understood in terms of projection. The ego defence of projection involves the attribution of one’s unacceptable thoughts or feelings to others—and is the basis of playground retorts such as “mirror, mirror” and “what you say is what you are.” By projecting uncomfortable thoughts and feelings onto others, a person is able not only to distance himself from those thoughts and feelings, but also, in many cases, to play them out vicariously and even to use them in the service of his ego. But there is a caveat. While projection is most certainly an ego defense, to dig deep into our shared humanity to read the minds of others is, of course, a kind of wisdom—so long as we are not also deceiving ourselves in the process.

Conclusion

So are you too cynical?

Probably yes, if your cynicism is primarily a psychological defense, and hindering more than helping you.

Probably no, if your cynicism is measured and adaptive, and more of a thought through philosophical attitude that aims at joy, efficiency, and peace of mind.