Religions of the Axial Age: An Approach to the World's Religions by Mark W. Muesse. 24 lectures.
The Axial Age is the period from 800 to 200 B.C. I hadn't heard the term before, and it seems a bit cheeky, like calling your area of study the Really Important Period. However, there was quite a lot of interesting stuff going on around then: the Jews becoming monotheistic, Zoroaster describing good and evil gods and heaven and hell, Greeks inventing philosophy, Buddha and Confucius inventing their stuff, Taoism being created as a counterpoint.
Found the first few lectures of the course the most interesting. He talks about the Aryan civilization, nomads who spread out across Iran, India and Europe. Apparently their gods were headed by "Dyaus-Pitr", the sky-father, whose name evolved into both Zeus and Jupiter. It seems when the Romans united those gods, they had actually been the same fella all along.
I liked the Zoroastrianism lectures too, since I know very little about it. Apparently there was a pantheon at his time, which he refined down into just two chief gods: Ahura Mazda the goodie, and Ahriman the baddie. The others were demoted to lesser ahuras (good) and daevas (bad). We apparently get the world devil from the daevas.
After that the course goes into several-lecture descriptions of various religions: chiefly Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism; and Taoism. There's very little on Judaism or the Greeks. Found these bits less interesting, since I had a shallow knowledge of these areas already.
Lecturer is clear, informative and generally interesting. Course is worth a listen if you're interested in the religions involved.
The chapters are short and focussed, and it's written in Russell's beautifully clear style. It's divided into two halves: causes of unhappiness, then causes of happiness. I personally seem to have almost none of his causes either for unhappiness or happiness, so I liked the first half a lot better; the second half was a bit depressing.
The actual means of achieving happiness are fairly commonsensical: hobbies, a moderate amount of work, friendships and so on. He also talks a bit about mental self-discipline. At one point he seems to have almost invented a kind of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, explaining how by consciously and logically examining irrational thoughts, one can influence ones subconscious fears.
A few aspects seem rather dated, some strikingly contemporary. He's patronizing to women and seems to assume his readers are all of a class who can sympathize with the Servant Problem. There are a couple of bits that would seem racist by modern standards. However, the discussion of how modern parenting is paralyzed by fear and trendy psychology could almost have been written yesterday. In fact, much of the worry over Modernity seems to have remained pretty constant for the last 78 years.
Overall, an interesting book, worth reading for its style. Probably won't actually help you that much at conquering happiness, but more sensible than most self-help books.
Russellian Cognitive Therapy?
There has been a great deal of study by psychologists of the operation of the unconscious upon the conscious, but much less of the operation of the conscious upon the unconscious... My own belief is that a conscious thought can be planted into the unconscious if a sufficient amount of vigour and intensity is put into it...
When some misfortune threatens, consider seriously and deliberately what is the very worst that could possibly happen. Having looked this possible misfortune in the face, give yourself sound reasons for thinking that after all it would be no such very terrible disaster. Such reasons always exist, since at the worst nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance. When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, 'Well, after all, that would not matter so very much', you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent. It may be necessary to repeat the process a few times, but in the end, if you have shirked nothing in facing the worst possible issue, you will find that your worry disappears altogether, and is replaced by a kind of exhilaration. p62
In moments of weakness it is difficult to resist infantile suggestions, but there is no reason whatsoever for regarding such suggestions as preferable to the belief of the adult man when in full possession of his faculties. On the contrary, what a man deliberately believes with his whole reason when he is vigorous ought to be to him the norm as to what he had better believe at all times. It is quite possible to overcome infantile suggestions of the unconscious, and even to change the contents of the unconscious, by employing the right kind of technique. Whenever you begin to feel remorse for an act which your reason tells you is not wicked, examine the causes of your feeling of remorse, and convince yourself in detail of their absurdity. Let your conscious beliefs be so vivid and emphatic that they make an impression upon your unconscious strong enough to cope with the impressions made by your nurse or your mother when you were an infant. Do not be content with an alternation between moments of rationality and moments of irrationality. Look into the irrationality closely, with a determination not to respect it, and not to let it dominate you. Whenever it thrusts foolish thoughts or feelings into your consciousness, pull them up by the roots, examine them, and reject them. Do not allow yourself to remain a vacillating creature, swayed half by reason and half by infantile folly. p83Warning: may contain irony
The statesman who has gradually concentrated all power within himself in order that he may be able to carry out the high and noble aims which have led him to eschew comfort and enter the arena of public life, is amazed at the ingratitude of the people when they turn against him. It never occurs to him that his work may have had anything but a public motive, or that the pleasure of controlling affairs may have in any degree inspired his activities. The phrases which are customary on the platform and in the Party Press have gradually come to him to seem to express truths, and he mistakes the rhetoric of partisanship for a genuine analysis of motives. Disgusted and disillusioned, he retires from the world after the world has retired from him, and regrets that he ever attempted so thankless a task as the pursuit of the public good.Teenage wasteland
These illustrations suggest four general maxims, which will prove an adequate preventive of persecution mania if their truth is sufficiently realised. The first is: remember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself. The second is: don't over-estimate your own merits. The third is: don't expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself. And the fourth is: don't imagine that most people give enough thought to you to have any special desire to persecute you. p95
A person born, let us say, in some small country town finds himself from early youth surrounded by hostility to everything that is necessary for mental excellence. If he wishes to read serious books, other boys despise him, and teachers tell him that such works are unsettling. If he cares for art, his contemporaries think him unmanly, and his elders think him immoral. If he desires any career, however respectable, which has not been common in the circle to which he belongs, he is told that he is setting himself up, and that what was good enough for his father ought to be good enough for him. If he shows any tendency to criticise his parents' religious tenets or political affiliations, he is likely to find himself in serious trouble. For all these reasons, to most young men and young women of exceptional merit adolescence is a time of great unhappiness. To their more ordinary companions it may be a time of gaiety and enjoyment, but for themselves they want something more serious, which they can find neither among their elders nor among their contemporaries in the particular social setting in which chance has caused them to be born. p102Tips
Conventional people are roused to fury by departures from convention, largely because they regard such departures as a criticism of themselves. They will pardon much unconventionality in a man who has enough jollity and friendliness to make it clear, even to the stupidest, that he is not engaged in criticising them. p104
Young people are ill-advised if they yield to the pressure of the old in any vital matter. p107Work
When I was a boy I knew a man bursting with happiness whose business was digging wells. He was of enormous height and of incredible muscles; he could neither read nor write, and when in the year 1885 he got a vote for Parliament, he learnt for the first time that such an institution existed. His happiness did not depend upon intellectual sources; it was not based upon belief in natural law, or the perfectibility of the species, or the public ownership of public utilities, or the ultimate triumph of the Seventh Day Adventists, or any of the other creeds which intellectuals consider necessary to their enjoyment of life. It was based upon physical vigour, a sufficiency of work, and the overcoming of not insuperable obstacles in the shape of rock.
Of the more highly educated sections of the community, the happiest in the present day are the men of science. Many of the most eminent of them are emotionally simple, and obtain from their work a satisfaction so profound that they can derive pleasure from eating and even marrying. Artists and literary men consider it de rigueur to be unhappy in their marriages, but men of science quite frequently remain capable of old-fashioned domestic bliss. The reason for this is that the higher parts of their intelligence are wholly absorbed by their work, and are not allowed to intrude into regions where they have no functions to perform. In their work they are happy because in the modern world science is progressive and powerful, and because its importance is not doubted either by themselves or by laymen. They have therefore no necessity for complex emotions, since the simpler emotions meet with no obstacles. p114
Two chief elements make work interesting: first, the exercise of skill, and second, construction. Every man who has acquired some unusual skill enjoys exercising it until it has become a matter of course, or until he can no longer improve himself. This motive to activity begins in early childhood: a boy who can stand on his head becomes reluctant to stand on his feet. A great deal of work gives the same pleasure that is to be derived from games of skill. The work of a lawyer or a politician must contain in a more delectable form a great deal of the same pleasure that is to be derived from playing bridge. Here, of course, there is not only the exercise of skill but the outwitting of a skilled opponent. Even where this competitive element is absent, however, the performance of difficult feats is agreeable. A man who can do stunts in an aeroplane finds the pleasure so great that for the sake of it he is willing to risk his life. I imagine that an able surgeon, in spite of the painful circumstances in which his work is done, derives satisfaction from the exquisite precision of his operations. The same kind of pleasure, though in a less intense form, is to be derived from a great deal of work of a humbler kind. I have even heard of plumbers who enjoyed their work, though I have never had the good fortune to meet one. All skilled work can be pleasurable, provided the skill required is either variable or capable of indefinite improvement. If these conditions are absent, it will cease to be interesting when a man has acquired his maximum skill. A man who runs three-mile races will cease to find pleasure in this occupation when he passes the age at which he can beat his own previous record. Fortunately there is a very considerable amount of work in which new circumstances call for new skill and a man can go on improving, at any rate until he has reached middle age. In some kinds of skilled work, such as politics, for example, it seems that men are at their best between sixty and seventy, the reason being that in such occupations a wide experience of other men is essential. For this reason successful politicians are apt to be happier at the age of seventy than any other men of equal age...Pleasure
There is, however, another element possessed by the best work, which is even more important as a source of happiness than is the exercise of skill. This is the element of constructiveness. In some work, though by no means in most, something is built up which remains as a monument when the work is completed. p165
Or consider again the passionate joy of the baseball fan: he turns to his newspaper with avidity, and the radio affords him the keenest thrills. I remember meeting for the first time one of the leading literary men of America, a man whom I had supposed from his books to be filled with melancholy. But it so happened that at that moment the most crucial baseball results were coming through on the radio; he forgot me, literature, and all the other sorrows of our sublunary life, and yelled with joy as his favourites achieved victory. Ever since this incident I have been able to read his books without feeling depressed by the misfortunes of his characters. p121
Suppose one man likes strawberries and another does not; in what respect is the latter superior? There is no abstract and impersonal proof either that strawberries are good or that they are not good. To the man who likes them they are good; to the man who dislikes them they are not. But the man who likes them has a pleasure which the other does not have; to that extent his life is more enjoyable and he is better adapted to the world in which both must live. What is true in this trivial instance is equally true in more important matters. The man who enjoys watching football is to that extent superior to the man who does not. The man who enjoys reading is still more superior to the man who does not, since opportunities for reading are more frequent than opportunities for watching football. The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has, and the less he is at the mercy of fate, since if he loses one thing he can fall back upon another. Life is too short to be interested in everything, but it is good to be interested in as many things as are necessary to fill our days. p125Ideology
The world is a higgledy-piggledy place, containing things pleasant and things unpleasant in haphazard sequence. And the desire to make an intelligible system or pattern out of it is at bottom an outcome of fear, in fact a kind of agoraphobia or dread of open spaces. Within the four walls of his library the timid student feels safe. If he can persuade himself that the universe is equally tidy, he can feel almost equally safe when he has to venture forth into the streets. p139D'oh
To be unable to inspire sex love is a grave misfortune to any man or woman, since it deprives him or her of the greatest joys that life has to offer. This deprivation is almost sure sooner or later to destroy zest and produce introversion. p141
Psycho-analysis has terrified educated parents with the fear of the harm they may unwittingly do their children. If they kiss them, they may produce an Oedipus complex; if they do not they may produce a fury of jealousy. If they order the children to do things they may be producing a sense of sin; if they do not, the children acquire habits which the parents think undesirable. When they see their baby sucking his thumb, they draw all kinds of terrifying inferences, but they are quite at a loss as to what to do to stop him. Parenthood, which used to be a triumphant exercise of power, has become timid, anxious, and filled with conscientious doubts. p150The Golden Mean
The golden mean is an uninteresting doctrine, and I can remember when I was young rejecting it with scorn and indignation, since in those days it was heroic extremes that I admired. Truth, however, is not always interesting, and many things are believed because they are interesting; although, in fact, there is little other evidence in their favour. The golden mean is a case in point: it may be an uninteresting doctrine, but in a very great many matters it is a true one. p178
I have toothache. Ow.
Seems pretty fun so far, much more so than the last. Let's be honest, for entertainment value US politics has been kicking our arse since the Hamilton-Burr duel. (Why can't Brown and Milburn settle things with pistols at dawn instead of Guardian columns at silly season?)
My last estimate was a 55% chance of McCain getting elected, 45% Obama. Don't see much reason to change that yet: as I said, I think it all hinges on the debates.
The McCain campaign seems to be outmaneuvering the Obamites at the moment. But while they're having fun playing with waah-waah-don't-be-sexist stuff over Palin, I suspect Republican whininess won't have any more public appeal than the Democrat variety.
Not sure whether the Obamites are right to ignore Palin either. She seems to me a defensive pick, chosen because the Obama campaign had been attacking McCain in core states. So on the one hand, she's a useful target of opportunity in the more marginal states; on the other hand, her appeal is probably even more limited than a typical VP.
Oh well, we'll all know soon enough.
Articles. House of Wittgenstein.
We have ideological enemies (such as Islamic terrorists) and ideological opponents (such as secular liberals). While our ideological opponents want us to lose political debates; our ideological enemies want us to lose our lives. That's a crucial distinction that we should always keep in mind. While we are called to love them all, we shouldn't lump them all together.
Economics. Bush staffers: Fannie and Freddie Mae blame game. Politics will stop euro overtaking dollar as reserve currency.
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