After my “Pointing to the reality” post, my intelligent Rand-loving friend was rubbed the wrong way by my suggestion that cherry blossoms are on the same level with skyscrapers: Skyscrapers give us an appreciation for things as they could be, for the ways man changes the world. How can cherry blossoms compare? Here is my reply.
I like your summary of the worldview Ayn Rand articulates, about man’s life as the standard of value, and how much meaning there is at that level, of shaping the world around us to fit our needs and to support our life and happiness. I not only agree with this worldview, I wish more people knew about it and embraced it. It’s a worldview I’m happy to promote and defend publicly, as you saw in my Reason TV interview.
Looking at the big picture, though, I believe we’re back to the Indian fable of the elephant and the blind men. What else might we feel, if we move beyond the particular portion of the beast that Rand is so in touch with? I believe it’s that, as human beings, we have access to two very significant levels of meaning. The first is the level of the intellect — of mind, concepts, and thought. The second is the level of being — of body, perception, and experience.
Rand doesn’t devote much time to the second, other than to occasionally derogate it as the “animal” mode of consciousness. What she’s missing, though, is that this level of consciousness is truly foundational to so many aspects of one’s health, happiness, and experience of meaning. It’s also foundational to a healthy spirituality.
When I say it’s foundational to our health, I don’t merely mean we need a healthy body so that our minds can operate; I mean much more. Man’s mind did not just give us the skyscraper and intercontinental aircraft and cell phones. It also gave us socialist gulags, concentration camps, and religion. In fact, the more mind-oriented (rather than being-oriented) a religion becomes, the more malignant and dangerous it is. Instead of Buddhists sitting around meditating, we get jihadists lining up for seventy-two virgins.
Of course Rand would counter that these socialists and religionists are totally irrational and anti-mind. Very well. Let’s look at something closer to home. Let’s look at followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. For decades, ardent followers of her philosophy have earned a reputation as moralistic, emotionally repressed misfits with few social skills. Many are far more likely to sit around and rant about government programs and the irrationality of religion than to actually do that much to make the world a better place. Too often they use her ideas as a way of justifying their own narcissistic and socially inept tendencies.
Or, just to really drive the point home, let’s look at Rand herself, who dragged her husband through her decade-long affair with a younger man and died bitter and alone, alienated from so many of her close friends. She is not a healthy role model to follow, at least in certain important respects. She had a piece of the elephant, which she could articulate beautifully, but it was also a very incomplete piece. She suffered for it, and those around her suffered for it.
If I sound harsh with this criticism, it’s because I am more interested in the reality to which her words point, than in the words themselves (or in who spoke them). And the reality is that when people become too obsessed with the intellectual level of experience, and disconnected from the being level of experience, they get out of balance in some disturbing ways.
There seem to be some good reasons for this, psychologically and epistemically. Rand spoke eloquently about how important it was to learn and practice logic, and she’s got a point. But we should remember that most ten-year-olds have a perfectly good grasp of basic logic; it’s hard to trick them. What they lack, and so many never develop adequately, is an understanding of their body, of their emotions, of their capacity to simply relax and be deeply present with their experience. These are all crucially important to a healthily functioning mind.
When you are weak in your relationship to life at the experiential, emotional, and perceptual levels, you are handicapped at the conceptual level too. When you don’t have a close and compassionate relationship to your own emotions, all the logic texts in the world won’t save you; you will be ruled by emotions and instinct in the very moments when you need logic most.
Researchers in medicine and psychology have been onto this for decades and have developed treatment programs to help people learn to be more present in their body, more accepting of their emotions, more willing to get intimate with their experience. It turns out to be a fantastic treatment not only for anxiety and depression, but everything from psoriasis to chronic pain to eating disorders.
The first of these programs was called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. (This is the same mindfulness that I refer to in the subtitle of my blog: Mindfulness and Individualism.) It’s a secular program for learning meditation and basic yoga. The man who developed it, Jon Kabat-Zinn, is a longtime practitioner of yogic and Buddhist meditation techniques, and had firsthand experience with the benefits of being more grounded in the body, in experience, and in being.
You might’ve noticed that I keep bringing up the word “being,” rather than just the body or the perceptual level of consciousness. And that’s because a central tenet of these practices is not just being more relaxed, or more attentive to the body, or more aware of our emotions. It’s about accepting what is. It’s about being in a nonadversarial relationship to reality. It’s about being intimately in touch with the very ground of being, itself — in ourself, in others, and in the world around us.
And this is not an act of the intellect; it is an act of emotion and perception and will, of having the will to perceive the world without filters, including all its pain and blemishes and heartache, and to move toward those experiences rather than away from them. To stay psychologically open to pain (while also taking steps to reduce it, where available) is in many ways the essence of the spiritual path. When you do, you suddenly find the cherry blossom is not just a flower; it is the universe whispering in our ear that life is beautiful, that we are beautiful, and all we have to do is be present for it.
Often the biggest barrier to being fully present is the intellect — our tendency to encounter everything conceptually and verbally, rather than turning off our mind and allowing ourselves sink deeply into experience as such. Often we’re afraid to turn off the mind, and this is one of the ways we become a slave to our emotions: Emotions normally tell us reality is scary, and to keep working on a way out, a way to avoid feeling what has taken place and will take place.
I’m describing these things in intellectual terms, but this is not an intellectual experience. It is a perceptual and emotional experience, and we only get there fully when we’re willing to do the most counterintuitive thing in the world: To turn toward pain, rather than away from it. To deeply accept reality as it is, rather than as we wish it to be, even as we work to improve it. To let go of our emotional resistance to the way things are. When we do these things, the cherry blossoms take on new significance.
The metaphors of the skyscraper and the cherry blossom each, of course, stand for much more. The skyscraper is a metaphor for our capacities for intelligence, productivity, and wealth. The cherry blossom is a metaphor for the natural world, of the world as we find it, and of our appreciation for being as such.
It bothered you that I elevated cherry blossoms to the same level with skyscrapers. And I understand why, if our primary yardstick is the value of the intellect. If we grasp the crucial role of being, however, and the meaning that deep awareness of being can add to our lives, it’s hard to overestimate the power of the cherry blossom. As a metaphor, it stands for a tremendous capacity we have inside, to heal ourselves, to enjoy ourselves, to remain in a healthy and harmonious relationship to reality.
So, to summarize: The mind is a beautiful thing, but it is also a dangerous thing. On a personal level, the best way to hold it in check is not with more mind, but with more being — more staying in touch with our bodies, our emotions, our capacity for felt experience of reality. Often this involves opening to pain, to our own contraction, to our own fear of emotionally allowing life to be what it is, as it is now.
On its own, the cherry blossom offers little to compete with the skyscraper. But as a symbol of nature, of our capacity to exist in a state of harmony with reality, it’s a powerful metaphor for the need to ground our thinking in a deep and abiding appreciation for being as such.
In some places, your letter is haunted by a question: Which is more important, the skyscraper or the cherry blossom? It’s true that without the skyscraper, we live as animals. Yet it’s also true that, without the cherry blossom, we become madmen. How does one choose between those? How could we? Fortunately, we don’t have to.
That’s why skyscrapers are amazing, but cherry blossoms are amazing too.
I wrote this in answer to a friend, a relative newcomer to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, who inquired about my interest in spirituality and why I would say something like “The divine is all around us.” Why use the same words that religions use?
I just got back from a 20-minute nap in the sunshine in the grass, in the park down the street. On my way to my favorite patch of grass on the embankment, I was approached by a young black missionary named Marcelle who was carrying a bible and was eager to talk. Sweet kid, seemed lonely, and was happy to have someone to talk to, but happier when I started doing the talking.
Which reminds me of your questions about using spiritual language. I have a few thoughts.
In any spiritual or philosophical tradition, there are those who take things very literally, in a very concrete fashion. Marcelle was doing this. And there are others who are willing to look past the words, past the hardened dogma, to the truth at which it points. These people are more loyal to reality than to scripture or revealed wisdom. You can find these people in any significant spiritual tradition.
When you bring the best of these people together, you notice something interesting. You might have a Catholic, a Sufi, a Buddhist, a Methodist, a Baptist — but, nonetheless, they start agreeing with one another. Most of the folks they go to church with may see mostly differences among their traditions, but these guys, they see similarities: They see that the real miracle is what is around us. That the true spiritual path consists of connecting with this reality in deeper and more meaningful ways, by letting go of our resistance to the way things are. That being present with life is our best teacher. That truly connecting with others is perhaps our highest calling. That expressing ourselves through meaningful life-work, rather than just busywork, allows us to give our fullest gifts to the world.
In this way, no matter the philosophical tradition, they become students of openness, inquiry, connection, presence, and the meaning that flows from these things. I’m not the first to notice this, at all. Many who come to take spirituality seriously begin to notice these commonalities, that the different traditions seem to converge on some common wisdom about life and the spiritual path. They’re all pointing to the reality.
So, as far as why I am comfortable using spiritual words in a different way than Marcelle does… Partly it’s that I understand what he’s groping for, when he does all that talk about God and Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The word “God” does bother me a little, inside. But when I talked with him, I used that word and it settled him right down, to hear someone who understood his longings, and could inquire about his ability to find the peace he’s really longing for inside, rather than telling him he’s a freak and to go away. He seemed deep in thought, by the time I left.
Also, when I talk about the divine all around us, I feel like I’m referring to the way things really are. I certainly try to create goodness in me and the people and circumstances around me, but I also recognize that often things can be good, perfect, without any effort on my part. I’m increasingly at peace with the way I find reality, before I ever touch it. And it brings me a peace I had never felt so fully, when I was trying to make things conform to my wishes.
It isn’t something Rand was always in touch with, but there’s so much beauty in the way things are. Skyscrapers are amazing, but cherry blossoms are amazing too. And often it feels to me like the more we pay attention, the more we realize that the real beauty of the skyscraper is that it tries, in its own effortful way, to conform to the same laws of reality that gave rise to that cherry blossom without an ounce of stress or strain.
Another amazing thing about the skyscraper, of course, as a cultural symbol, is that we’ve been able to improve our standard of living in so many ways, to be more productive — to have more time left over in life for meaning and connection and presence and the simple joys of life — rather than having to worry about where our next meal will come from or whether we’ll be killed by a neighboring clan. This is nearer to Rand’s love of a skyscraper, and it resonates with me as well.
I just made this snack for the first time, and it’s surprisingly good, as well as ridiculously easy to make. The trick is to simply cool the coconut oil, which turns it into a creamy dessert-like substance, similar to the texture of chocolate.
Coconut oil offers many health benefits: clearing brain fog, promoting weight loss, improving cholesterol levels, even curing Alzheimer’s disease. But who cares — it tastes really good!
You’ll need a micro muffin tin (available from Amazon for $9.89) and the following ingredients, all available from Trader Joe’s.
- 1 jar virgin organic coconut oil (if it’s not already liquid, warm the jar in a bowl of hot tap water)
- 1 bag raw unsalted almonds
- 1 bag dry roasted & salted macadamia nuts
- 1 bag freeze-dried mangoes
If mangoes aren’t your thing, I’m sure it would also be tasty with their freeze-dried blueberries or strawberries. You could also try sprinkling some shredded coconut on top.
UPDATE: A helpful suggestion from Dave Asprey: “This is WAY better if you mix in raw (ideally low toxin) chocolate powder. I also blend in cacao butter at about 25% in the coconut oil…better consistency, an amazing chocolate flavor. Likewise, a pinch of vanilla powder is awesome in these. (Yes I’m a biased observer because I created a line of low toxin chocolate and vanilla…but I also develop recipes using these things!)”
Place a few almonds, a few macadamias, and some small pieces of freeze-dried mangoes in each hole of the muffin tin. (If the mango slices are too big, snap them into pieces with your fingers first.) When you’re done, pour just enough coconut oil in each hole to mostly cover the pieces. Then put it in the fridge for an hour or so, so the coconut oil turns solid.
When you take them out of the fridge, press along the edges with a toothpick, to pop them out of the tin.
They’re very tasty. Be careful not to eat too many, especially on an empty stomach, as these really are loaded with coconut oil.
Tonight I read Karen Reedstrom and Thomas Gramstad’s excellent 1997 Full Context interview with Norwegian literary critic and scholar Kirsti Minsaas. I enjoyed many of the exchanges. Here are some excerpts I found especially thought-provoking.
Q: You are writing a book about Ayn Rand. Can you tell us about the topic, scope and progress of this work?
Minsaas: Well, the book will in part be based on the lectures that I have given, but I want to integrate them into a coherent presentation of Ayn Rand as a literary artist, emphasizing in particular the romantic qualities of her writing, both in terms of style and content. Also, I want to discuss the relationship between literature and philosophy in her works. There seems to be a general tendency, even among Objectivists, to downgrade Ayn Rand’s literary achievement as compared to her philosophical achievement. My own view is that she was a greater artist than philosopher. In fact, I think her philosophy is in many ways reductive of her own thinking, that her ideas, as presented in the novels, through the characters and events and not just the speeches, are much richer and more fertile than her explicit philosophizing. Or to put it differently, I like her better as a literary philosopher than as a theoretical philosopher. This is something I want to emphasize very strongly. Moreover, as a literary scholar, rather than a philosophical activist, I am more interested in showing her power as a novelist than in proving the truth or significance of her philosophy. …
Q: Some people think that there is a big discussion emerging about the nature of virtue, that this is a topic not sufficiently covered by Rand. Can you comment on this?
Minsaas: I think she covered it all right, but again, more as a novelist than as a philosopher. In fact, her heroes are walking embodiments of virtue. And this is why we take interest in them. Several Objectivists have lately emphasized the primacy of value over virtue in Ayn Rand’s ethics, but if you look at the novels, it is obvious that she saw virtue as in many ways an end in itself, the source of one’s own self-esteem and the source of the admiration we may feel for another human being. When we take pleasure in contemplating the character of Howard Roark, for example, it is primarily because of the virtues he embodies and not because of the values he achieves. And if we consider Ayn Rand’s admiration for Cyrano de Bergerac, it seems evident that she regarded greatness of soul as more important than existential success. Conversely, I think that she would have found the story of a man achieving external success but at the cost of virtue as not only boring but morally revolting. But this much being said, there is obviously a lot more to be said about virtue than Ayn Rand ever covered either in her fiction or in her non-fictional writing. Like the contribution of writers and thinkers before her, hers is only a limited, even if important, one. …
Q: Do you think that heroic literature (and arts in general) is dead or do you see something of the heroic tradition continuing today? If so, where and in what form?
Minsaas: It is, of course, still continuing in the popular arts, as Ayn Rand pointed out. But in serious literature it seems to be virtually dead. It seems either to be dismissed as unserious, something you outgrow once you are past your adolescence; or it is associated with the Nazi perversion and with Nietzsche’s superman. In either case, we need to do some scholarship in this area, to show that the heroic represents an important aspect of moral life and that hero worship represents an important psychological need. But it has to be done with a little more sophistication than has been the case in Objectivist debate so far.
Q: Victor Hugo wrote about average men becoming moral giants. We can see Jean Valjean make choices and go from a petty thief, to an ex-con with a bad attitude, to a morally redeemed entrepreneur who rises above his own selfish needs to save the life of his adopted daughter’s lover. We see an ignorant hunchback become a hero, we see a black slave lead a rebellion for freedom in Jamaica. With Hugo’s heroes anyone can say “I can be a hero too, he did it and he was no better or even less than I”. Victor Hugo was nationally revered in his own time. He lived to see a street named after him. On the other hand, Rand’s heroes seem to be ready made geniuses, not the kind of people to appeal to, or inspire, the average man. Do you think that is why there are no streets named after Rand as there was for Hugo? That she doesn’t appeal to average Americans?
Minsaas: You may have a point there; yet Ayn Rand does have a large popular appeal, far beyond what you would expect given the intellectual level of her novels. The reason why she has not been generally recognized, I believe, has more to do with resistance from the intellectual and cultural elite, an elite that is not too appreciative of Hugo either. So in many ways, they are in the same boat; only the times have changed. But I do agree that Rand’s novels may not have the same power to inspire a will to change, to choose a better life course, as is the case with Hugo’s novels. And this is reflected in her esthetics too. What she emphasized there was the kind of art that would appeal to a rational man in need of fuel to sustain his ambition. She did not consider the role of fiction in inspiring such ambition by showing how men may change and improve for the better. Which may have to do with a conception of human perfection as something static, as something largely inborn in fact.
Q: What do you think of Rand’s portrayal of the average man in the character of Eddie Willers? At the end of the book we see him stranded in the middle of nowhere. The “prime movers” are all gone and the average man is left helpless without them. Is this a fair characterization? There is ample proof in reality that the average man can take care of himself in times of disaster. A good example of this is the failure of massive bombing of cities during WWII. Average people quickly adapted and innovated to meet the challenges of their disrupted lives. Military experts were surprised that the spirits of the populations were not destroyed but actually rose to the occasion. The bombing tactic was a failure. What do you think of Rand’s view of the average man? Did she underestimate him? Should Willers have joined his friends in the Gulch?
Minsaas: I don’t think we should regard Eddie Willers simply as a symbol of Ayn Rand’s vision of the average man. Again, we have to consider his specific function in the novel. As I see it, the clue to Eddie is the image Ayn Rand paints of him as a captain going down with his ship. He is the man of absolute loyalty and commitment who chooses to perish rather than be saved. Ronald Merrill has suggested, rightly I think, that Ayn Rand was here thinking of men like her father who chose to stay in Soviet Russia in spite of having an opportunity to get out. They simply could not imagine beginning all over again in another world. …
Q: What do you think of the writers of the realist school such as Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, or Somerset Maugham? While Objectivists have panned them as not heroic, can it be argued that they give us heroes that inspire us for everyday life? While their characters are not shaking the world with their achievements, they are struggling with and finally facing very difficult inner dramas. For example in the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams has his characters struggle with lies they have been living with and the agony it is causing them. In the end they overcome their fears and look at the truth. I find this very inspiring and heroic. Ayn Rand and Objectivism seem to look for heroes to build skyscrapers and slay pirates. Since all of us mostly live in the everyday, do you think this viewpoint is a shortcoming?
Minsaas: I think we must remember here that Ayn Rand did have room for everyday heroics, but it is something she reserved for minor characters. Cherryl Taggart, for example, is fighting a very heroic even if tragic battle to face up to the truth about James Taggart. So she could appreciate this kind of heroics. The problem is that she did not see it as fit material to carry the major plot of a novel. Of course, this was her privilege as far as her own writing was concerned. But it becomes a shortcoming when universalized into an esthetic principle binding on all literature, a norm that excludes the kinds of literature that you refer to where the prime focus is the inner struggle toward truth and self-acceptance that take place in more ordinary people. As consumers of art, we need different types of literature that can hold up to us different views of the world and of human existence, and that may serve different needs in different individuals in different situations and at different times. (Again I adopt what is essentially an Aristotelian viewpoint).
See the full interview for much more.
Thanks to Michael Strong of FLOW for bringing this lovely graphic to my attention. He writes: “Although this is Buddhist, it is similar to the Taoist usage of ‘Flow,’ which was one of our original inspirations.”
Russ Roberts at Cafe Hayek has a lovely piece titled “Motives vs. Results,” exploring the motives of those who promote liberty, and how they compare to those who might instead promote big government.
I wrote of the article on Facebook:
A beautiful explication of why one could and should promote political freedom as a way to improve the world. It reminds me how much I wish Ayn Rand had not made the strategic error of over-emphasizing the value of greed and selfishness. Why not emphasize our harmony of interests, instead? Or the tremendous role of win-win relationships, in a free society? There are so many awesome arguments to be made for respecting other people’s rights, and having our own respected, without making it sound like we’re proponents of narcissism and living narrow, self-centered lives. Some of us get that Rand’s vision is compatible with a loving concern for others — and also why she was an uncompromising critic of altruism. Meantime, she remains ridiculously vulnerable to radioactive allegations about her own motives.
Caring for other people is so basic to human nature. Many studies are showing that it’s intrinsic to our own happiness.
We who embrace Rand’s philosophy need to be able to point out what’s wrong with self-sacrifice and mandated altruism without making ourselves feel like we should somehow be apologetic about or in any way suspicious of our deep, genuine, heartfelt concern for other people.
Because that deep, genuine, heartfelt concern for other people is not only important for our own happiness, but also lies at the root of a healthily functioning free society — arguably even more so than in more compulsory societies, which pit people’s interests against one another.
SEE ALSO: Contra Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko, greed is NOT good.
This year PayPal founder and visionary entrepreneur Peter Thiel offered a new class at Stanford called “Computer Science 183: Startup.” It was intended to provide entrepreneurs with a high-level strategic overview of the challenges they face and must overcome, to succeed not only in business but in advancing human progress — in an era when real progress has, in fact, been slowing down for decades.
Stanford law student Blake Masters attended the course and offered detailed essay-style notes from all 18 courses. They’re well worth reading. Check out the first one, “The Challenge of the Future,” for a taste of Thiel’s brand of visionary teaching.
Or you can read a summary of the ten major points in article form at Forbes, though this really skims the top of the trees and fails to offer sufficient context.
Here is an inspiring excerpt from Thiel’s final lecture:
There is something importantly singular about each new thing. There is a mini singularity whenever you start a company or make a key life decision. In a very real sense, the life of every person is a singularity.
The obvious question is what you should do with your singularity. The obvious answer, unfortunately, has been to follow the well-trodden path. You are constantly encouraged to play it safe and be conventional. The future, we are told, is just probabilities and statistics. You are a statistic.
But the obvious answer is wrong. That is selling yourself short. There are still many large white spaces on the map of human knowledge. You can go discover them. So do it. Get out there and fill in the blank spaces. Every single moment is a possibility to go to these new places and explore them.
There is perhaps no specific time that is necessarily right to start your company or start your life. But some times and some moments seem more auspicious than others. Now is such a moment. If we don’t take charge and usher in the future — if you don’t take charge of your life — there is the sense that no one else will.
An article summarizing a new paper from the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience begins:
For psychologists, self-control or “executive control” is the ability to pay attention to appropriate stimuli and to initiate appropriate behavior while inhibiting inappropriate behavior. It’s what keeps you studying when you’d rather be watching TV, or lets you force yourself outside for a morning run rather than turn over and go back to sleep.
“These results suggest that willpower or self-control may be sharpest in people who are sensitive and open to their own emotional experiences. Willpower, in other words, may relate to ‘‘emotional intelligence’,” says Michael Inzlicht, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
See the full article for more.
I enjoyed Brandon Rennels‘s list of aspirations for 2012. His first two:
1. Mindful habits. Reciting a 4-line gatha to myself each morning, taking my first bite of food for my friends and family, setting mindfulness bells to ring every 30 minutes when I open the computer, etc. I have spent the last six months building a solid habit base that I’d like to continue working with. As I’ve written about before habits are critical for long-term change, but they are often hard to implement. One reason why habits have been difficult for me in the past is that my current life environment is constantly changing. This makes things like setting a standard wake-up time or keeping to a specific ritualized practice quite difficult. Here in Plum Village I have worked on habits that don’t require specific times of the day in order to be effective; they are more centered around how I approach daily activities.
2. Voluntary Simplicity. Related to #1, but big enough to warrant its own point. This is about not cramming “just one more thing” into the present moment. Not writing “just one more email” before eating lunch, reading “just one more chapter” before bed or sleeping in “just five more minutes” when I’m due to be somewhere soon. I do this all the time and it squeezes many moments of stillness from my day.
I can really relate to both of these.
Brandon also turned me onto this video, which is spectacular, both in visuals and in sound. The song is “Nuvole bianche” by Ludovico Einaudi.
Here are some choice quotes from a recent Q&A in The Guardian with Alain de Botton, author of the book Religion for Atheists.
Ideally, porn would excite our lust in contexts which also presented other, elevated sides of human nature — in which people were being witty, for instance, or showing kindness, or working hard or being clever — so that our sexual excitement could bleed into, and enhance our respect for these other elements of a good life. No longer would sexuality have to be lumped together with stupidity, brutishness, earnestness and exploitation; it could instead be harnessed to what is noblest in us…
Culture plays a huge role in directing our attention to things that are valuable or, in this case, attractive.
The real problem with current pornography is that it’s so far removed from all the other concerns which a reasonably sensible, moral, kind and ambitious person might have. As currently constituted, pornography asks that we leave behind our ethics, our aesthetic sense and our intelligence when we contemplate it.
Yet it is possible to conceive of a version of pornography which wouldn’t force us to make such a stark choice between sex and virtue — a pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values…
Erotica realises there is a problem with porn and locates the issue in explicitness. If only porn were less explicit — the argument seems to run — then it would be OK. One might start from a different point of view. Explicitness is fine, the issue is what it’s in the name of, where it’s pointing us too, what it’s attempting to excite us about…
It is perhaps only people who haven’t felt the full power of sex over their logical selves who can remain uncensorious and liberally ‘modern’ on the subject. Philosophies of sexual liberation appeal mostly to people who don’t have anything too destructive or weird that that they wish to do once they have been liberated.
However, anyone who has experienced the power of sex in general and internet pornography in particular to reroute our priorities is unlikely to be so sanguine about liberty. Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, weakens our ability to endure the kinds of suffering that are necessary for us to direct our lives properly.
In particular, it reduces our capacity to tolerate those two ambiguous goods, anxiety and boredom. Our anxious moods are genuine but confused signals that something is amiss, and so they need to be listened to and patiently interpreted — which is unlikely to happen when we have [on] hand one of the most powerful tools of distraction ever invented.
The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, it is a deliverer of constant excitement which we have no innate capacity to resist, a system which leads us down paths many of which have nothing to do with our real needs. Furthermore, pornography weakens our tolerance for the kind of boredom which is vital to give our minds the space in which good ideas can emerge, the sort of creative boredom we experience in a bath or on a long train journey.
It is at moments when we feel an irresistible desire to escape from ourselves that we can be sure that there is something important we need to bring to consciousness — and yet it is precisely at such pregnant moments that internet pornography has a habit of exerting its maddening pull, thereby helping us to destroy our future.
(I added paragraph breaks above to aid readability.)
Although I am not sure what his ideal porn would, er, look like in practice, I think de Botton makes some genuinely interesting points. For example, I think he’s exactly right about the harmful psychological effects that can result from using porn.
He may also be right about what porn could be at its very best — if such could ever be realized. Is there any way to reduce these harmful effects of porn, without taking away what we “like” about it?
What do you think?
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