Here is a great, widely-circulated essay by Paul Graham on how to do what you love. I’m posting it here now so that, hopefully, I’ll remember to post it also on usuphilosophy.com after the start of Fall semester.
A. J. Jacobs spent a year trying to follow every rule in the Bible. Hear him recount his experiences, and what he learned from them, here.
Here’s a question prompted from some conversations with Mike:
To what extent do ideas influence the formation of culture?
This is a big one, of course. At one extreme we have Hegel, who thought culture, civilization, history, and politics were nothing but the evolution of ideas, like a great big collective consciousness making up its mind. At another extreme we would have someone who sees the changes in culture and history as entirely whimsical – maybe each change can be explained given enough information about the prior state, but there really aren’t any general laws governing the changes, let alone any sort of “end” culture is approximating toward. (Can anyone name a thinker to credit with this?) Somewhere in the middle is Marx, who thought economics (and not ideas) does the driving.
Clearly there is sometimes some of what Mike calls “trickle-down philosonomics.” Meaning, sometimes a great idea of a philosopher gets passed along eventually to the producers of culture and ends up being a significant mover. Anyone have some good examples? Right now the best I can come up with is the idea of “political correctness,” which started in the academy and then filtered down through society in all sorts of regrettable ways. More often, it seems, media mavens appropriate some austere idea in order to pin a snazzy label on some change that is happening anyway. I’m thinking here of literary and film criticism, which is always trying to see the hand of the great thinkers in the most inane cultural products. And it also frequently happens that some change occurs in a society, and the philosophers pick up on it and theorize about it – so culture influences the formation of ideas, not the other way around.
Maybe ideas influence the formation of culture only in retrospect. When you look back on a historical period, and want to understand what happened, sometimes you want to trace economic changes, or political changes, and sometimes you want to track philosophical/literary evolution. You may want to see how the tensions within Hegel’s philosophy led to Marx on the one hand, and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on the other. And, if you are knowledgeable and creative enough, you might see parallels between these ideological evolutions and changes that took place within the culture. This sounds like a bunch of make-believe, but damned if it doesn’t make for edifying results. Read Schorske’s Fin-de-Siecle Vienna.
I think the practitioners of this art do think they are tracing some kind of causal history. There, I suppose, I’m skeptical. I think what they are really doing is exploring abstract ideas(like freedom, absurdity, and responsibility), and the role they play in our views of history and culture. So if I am for whatever reason interested in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and read up on the history and literature of the time, I might turn to Schorske’s work to help me integrate some elements of the causal history with ideological elements. What I end up with is a fusion of history and network of ideas – historio-philosophy, I guess. It may be bad or distorted history, but that doesn’t mean its valueless.
Read Thomas P.M. Barnett’s view of a possible upcoming war with Iran that “nobody wants but everyone seems to need” here.
Just saw the movie last night. The main idea is that Lou Salome is worried about the mental state of her friend Nietzsche, and asks Josef Breuer (a physician beginning to dabble in psychoanalysis) and his friend young Sigmund Freud to help him out of his despair. Breuer has problems of his own, and Nietzsche ends up doctoring the doctor, doctoring himself along the way.
I have to say it is not that great of a movie. Parts are very good: the sessions where Nietzsche is probing away at Breuer are brilliant. Some of the dialogue gets kind of silly, and the whole thing isn’t all that engrossing. I liked the character Nietzsche, though he really didn’t square with my own image of Nietzsche: this character (played by Armand Assante) is very virile, scruffy (almost slovenly), somewhat brash, and unconcerned of other people’s opinions. My own picture, drawn from all that reading, is that Nietzsche was very neat and tidy (at least in public), aristocratically mannered and soft-spoken, and somewhat timid around other people. The character squares better with what Nietzsche should have been, maybe; Nietzsche himself was only “übermenschlich” through his pen. But it was arresting at times to see in the movie images very like what one would have seen, had one been walking around Europe in 1882 or so. Assante, from the side and back, looks just like dear old Fritz.
Though I’d like to see a movie more closely paralleling Nz’s real life, I wonder whether it would be enjoyable to anyone other than crazed Nietzscheans like myself. Most of the drama was internal — not an easy sort of excitement to capture on film.
The BBC put together a decent documentary on Nietzsche, available in multi-part installments on YouTube here. The actor doesn’t look at all like Nietzsche, but the settings and scenary are perfect, and it’s a good account of his thinking.
POSTSCRIPT: That claim about Nz not being “übermenschlich” wasn’t fair. He suffered terribly, and managed by the end to be grateful for his life. And he worked like hell to overcome his own limitations. There. I feel so much better.
Here is an interesting article by Laura Miller in Salon about Obama’s refreshingly broad interest in reading, including the following observation:
Obama himself went through a period of “devouring” the work of Nietzsche while living in New York. It’s difficult to say what Obama might have absorbed from the German philosopher, mostly because Nietzsche himself is so hard to pin down, but one of Obama’s favorite instructors at Occidental told Mendell that anyone who immersed themselves in his thought would learn “to call everything into question.”
That‘s not likely to help any come November.
(That’s Supreme Court Of The United States). Apropos of the discussion over at usuphilosophy.com, here is a NYT review of the decisions handed down over the last term. A leftish-leaning president cannot come fast enough! (There aren’t any genuine leftists in the field; we’re limited to extreme-right, not-so-extreme right, and drifting from time to time over the median.)
Composing the Soul, Graham Parkes: this is the book about Nietzsche I wish I could have written. Partly biography, partly philosophical examination, with elegant and erudite connections to Plato, Emerson, Herder, Goethe, and so on. Definitely one of the top Nz books I’ve encountered.
Art of Possibility, Benjamin and Roz Zander: got turned on to it by Ben’s TED talk. It’s self-help, but actually insightful and fun to read, even challenging here and there.
Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria: good book on the general tension between democracy (aka mob rule) and liberty (preservation of human rights, despite mob’s misgivings). Fair and balanced, so far as I can judge, with good perspectives on current political evolutions. Seems in tune with what I’ve been reading in the Economist. I’m looking forward to reading his latest, The Post-American World.