Great Thinkers by the School of Life (Part 2)

Political Theory

Karl Marx. We often dismiss Marxism. His ideas led to disastrous planned economies. He wanted private property to be abolished. Despite this, we should not dismiss him so easily. He joined the Communist Party, a bunch of intellectuals at that time. He wrote many books in his life. Marx realized that modern work was ‘alienated’. To love your job, you need ‘to see yourself in the object that you have created’. It should also allow us to improve. In the modern world, this doesn’t happen very often though. Modern work is too specialized. To him, humans are all born as generalists. We all have many desires as humans, not just to specialize in our work. If you feel your work is meaningless, you suffer. Our work has to address genuine needs or to help people. Some people’s jobs don’t have a long term effect to which to accumulate towards. Modern work is insecure because of advances in technology. However, most of us want stability. Communism guarantees that everyone has a job. Workers get paid little while capitalists get rich. The bosses get all the profit. Labourers will find it hard to change their circumstances. Workers, or the proletariat, could be easily exploited. Capitalism is very unstable. People are over-producing. Productivity has improved over the years. Marx thought that because of this, people should be happily unemployed. However, unemployment is frowned upon in society. Capitalism is bad for capitalists. Marriage was an extension of business. Because people cared too much about money, they could not put their hearts into their relationships. This is known was Warenfetischismus or commodity fetishism. Capitalism leads people to believe that with more money and belongings, people will be happier. It teaches us to be anxious, competitive, conformist etc. After he passed on, his writings were used for the ideological movements for the 20th century. We do need a more authentic relationship to money and consumption. We have to change the world.

John Ruskin. He cared a lot about beauty and wanted to remake the world into a beautiful place. He was a remarkable man. Ruskin had natural talent for art. Often, he would draw architectural buildings as well. Venice was the paradise to him. However, he was not so impressed with British urban life. He compared Venice with Britain and wondered how could Britain improve? He started his career as an art critic. As a career, he later attacked the principles of capitalism. This was done via speeches. After his dad passed away, he used the money to set up farms to create sustainable good sources. He created industry, schools, and museums. He started the Guild project, which was successful. He encouraged the rich to donate wealth to the Guild. Ruskin was a professor at the University and once got students to mend the road so that children could pay on them. It took a long time, but progress was made. Do not leave it to market forces. He was a man of his word and acted a lot. Be inspired by nature and look and appreciate it. We are part of nature and should use nature to energize us. Often, we dismiss thoughts as of having no significance. We should analyse such thoughts and understand them. Learn to see the good in society.

But the underlying point is crucial. Out of fear of seeming ridiculous, we often end up not tackling the challenges around us. The road mending was a small instance of a larger idea that animated Ruskin’s life: that it is the duty of creative, privileged people to direct their efforts towards making the world more pleasing and tidy, more convenient and beautiful, not just for themselves, but for the greatest good of the greatest number. – John Ruskin

Henry David Thoreau. He was an unemployed writer who lived in the woods. It is important to be simplistic and be authentic. He learnt about transcendentalism from Ralph Waldo Emerson and adopted it. He built a small cabin in the woods. The plan was to go there to write a book. He lived them and sucked out the marrow of life. In the woods, he discovered himself. Mankind doesn’t need a lot of things. Money doesn’t help us develop our soul and to him, work was unnecessary. He worked for only 1 day a week. He worked just long enough to fund his lifestyle. To him, sometimes we use other people to fill gaps in our inner life. One should aim to change oneself first. Technology was a distraction for him and encouraged others to remove it from their lives. Time was what was necessary to make people happy. He also found great beauty in nature. It also encourages introspection and self-discovery. To him, we needed to clear distractions from our minds. He encouraged civil disobedience in protest against immoral laws. He was the founder of the non-violent civil movement. One should be actively engaged with the world.

Matthew Arnold. Matthew was an educational reformer. Education would be a good tool. He was fond of higher ideals and fond of sweetness and light. Eventually, he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford. His famous work was ‘Culture and Anarchy’. There was very little love and care in the world, he noted. This was meant by anarchy. Money politics was growing and everyone was fond of riches. He predicted that culture would overcome anarchy. He wanted culture to be taught in schools and wanted art to govern societies. Art had the power to enable us to understand and clear confusion. The arts were only useful if everyone could understand it. Hence, there was a need to popularize it. He wanted a world where people were kind and exhibited sympathy towards one another.

William Morris. He understood the role of pleasure in work. Consumer demand has also played a huge role in modern society. Early on, he realized that money could not solve everything. He started off as an architect, but later wanted to be an artist and poet. He was keen of the medieval idea of craft to boost the economy. Workers could have to build a skill. Craft work is good because you are building something tangible. If people like their jobs, the issue of pay is less critical. You are no longer working just for the money. Labour was dignified. He started an arts business later in life. Industrialization brought about massive change and allowed for mass production. Would customers still be willing to pay for craft work? Consumers need to be educated. Everything in your house that you own should be beautiful. Items purchased should be seen as a form of investment. You can also pass it down to your future generations. He was conscious of the beauty of life. The economy is related to our preferences and choices.

John Rawls. What is truly unfair? He published ‘A Theory of Justice’ in 1971. He was a humble man who did a lot of social work and carried himself well. Life was not always fair and rag to riches stories are simply too rare. Imagine if you were not you. Those who are privileged seldom think of those who have suffered prejudice and suffering. Thus, there was a need to convince this group of people. He conducted ‘the veil of ignorance’ test. You wouldn’t know exactly what your life circumstances are. Your birth place is like a lottery. People need to know what needs to be fixed. His question allows people to think what a fair society is like. There is still a lot to be done to maintain this fairness.

As Rawls forcibly reminds us, in the modern United States, and many parts of Europe too, if you are born poor, the chances of you remaining poor (and dying young) are simply overwhelming and incontestable. – John Rawls

If we knew nothing about where we’d end up, what sort of a society would it feel safe to enter? In what kind of political system would it be rational and sane for us to take root – and accept the challenge laid down by the veil of ignorance? – John Rawls

Eastern Philosophy

He confronted suffering. He was known as Siddhartha Gautama. He was in a palace filled with luxury. When he was 30, he met the real world and saw ordinary people. He was touched by their plight. Finally he left the palace for good. He avoided all physical comforts and pleasures. Now, he developed a sense of compassion and peace. He reached ‘Nirvana’ or the ‘Awakening’. All of creation is united in its suffering. One shouldn’t bathe in luxury. It is best to live in moderation. There is constant suffering and dissatisfaction in the world. Suffering is caused by attachment due to our desires. Attachment is the root of suffering. We must change our outlook to life. Humans are not happy because we are greedy, vain, insecure. He suggested an eightfold path for humans to follow. Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Learn to develop a mindful attitude. The state of living was the most sacred issue. Do your best to liberate yourself from tyrannous desires.

Lao Tzu. He is a guiding figure in Daoism. He is rumoured to have wrote Tao Te Ching. The teachings are interwined with Confucianism and Buddhism. People are guided by the ‘Dao’. It opens life to multiple interpretations. It is the path to virtue, happiness and harmony. We resist the very simple path that will make us content. We must learn flow and the harmony of it. We need more time for stillness and to appreciate the world. Let your mind be still. Be in touch with your real self. We should pay more attention to the wonders of nature. He compares different parts of nature to different virtues. Trees are resilient and should be admired. Water is soft and gentle, but yet can be powerful when given time. Nature does not hurry yet everything is accomplished. Life is a series of small changes. Be content with what you want. Rejoice in the way things are. Learning the way of the Dao reminds you of stillness, openness and natural forces.

The idea that the contemplation of nature is a source of perspective and tranquillity is well known in theory, but so easy to overlook because we take it from granted and never give it the time and focus required. – Lao Tzu

Confucius. Confucius claims that he invented nothing. He led a virtuous life. He coined the golden rule. He understood the importance of ceremony. Rituals were powerful. Rituals teach people how to behave. Treat your parents with reverence. We should practise filial piety. Moral life begins in the family. Be obedient to honourable people. Be respectful to all around you. Cultivate knowledge more than creativity. Spend time to slowly change your habits.

Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself – Confucius

We should obey our parents when we are young, care for them when they are old, mourn at length when they die and make sacrifices in their memory thereafter. – Confucius

Sen no Rikyu. He is one the greatest Zen thinkers. He stayed in the countryside and appreciate the Japanese tea ceremony. He believed in rituals too. Wabi-sabi means the appreciation of the imperfect. He made people realize the value of the authentic, for the un-decorated and the humble. The tea-house should be strong. The tea-house was meant to promote harmony. After the ceremony, one would be tranquil and peaceful. Make the spiritual life more tangible. There are co-relations between the big ideas and the small ideas.

Matsuo Basho. Poetry is good for our souls. Poetry was meant to guide us and bring wisdom and calm. He wrote in Haiku style. Old pond…A frog leaps in. Water’s sound. He was an exceptional poet. We should really appreciate life for what it is and be contented with our own company. Use natural scenes to remind his reader of flowers, weather etc. The transience of life makes every moment valuable. The lightness allows readers to escape the burdens of self.

St Benedict. We feel like we need to reinvent our lives. We are not involved in our community. Monasticism is where people are fruitful and they group together as friends towards a few big goals. One day, St Benedict went to the mountains. He had rules for everyone. There were rules for eating. One should avoid red meat and long chatter at dinner tables should be avoided. Silence was golden and was the key to concentration. Fashion was a huge source of interest to Benedict. Everyone should wear the same clothes and wear the same hair. Incorporate some physical activity in your life. Have early nights and sleep early. Do not have porn addiction. Learn to dress in a demure way. Admire beautiful art and architecture. Create a home which is uplifting and calming. He is showing us the potential for rules to help us live well. There is a lot of importance in having a strong community. One should live in such a way so as to avoid distractions. Communal life can be fun and we are better off joining a team.

Alexis de Tocqueville. We support democracy, although we can be disappointed by it. Alexis de Tocqueville studied the United States model. He believed in the power of democracy. He went there to see what the future would be like. During his trip, he talked to many people. There was an attitude of selfishness by the Native Americans. The Natives looked different from normal Americans. There were things to admire about America. To him, the wilderness was impressive. What were the social consequences of democracy? Democracy breeds materialism. This is because people believed that through hard work, you could amass a fortune. That is why people respect money. The test of a business is whether it can make money and be admirable. Capitalism led to people judging one another. Democracy breeds envy and shame. Poor people were looked down. Everyone believes that they have a good shot at life. People in the past, before democracy, were calmer. Democracy dismantled barriers to expectation. It was true that some of the poor might one day become rich. In aristocracies, servants accepted their fates with good grace. However, in democracies, they were ambitious. But the problem was that not all of them could achieve their goals, and if they couldn’t, they became bitter towards their masters and hated themselves for their inadequacies. Another issue of democracy was the tyranny of the majority. Majority could dominate the minority. Good ideas proposed by the minority could be shut down. Another problem was that democracy turns us against authority. Democracy was all for favour for equality, which was harmful in some ways. The issue was that people with no education could not understand why they were not on par with a doctor and disrespected authority. It was biased towards mediocrity. Democracy undermined the freedom of the mind. They did not speak up for their convictions, for fear of backlash. He showed us the pros and cons of democracy. He tried to get people strategically pessimistic.

I never met a citizen too poor to cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich. – Tocqueville

Max Weber. He grew up seeing the Industrial Revolution. He was a young academic. Capitalism was possible because of a set of religious ideas. It was created by Protestantism. Protestantism makes you feel guilty all the time. God likes hard work. All work is holy. Work was also part of a religious vocation. It’s the community, not the family, that counts. There aren’t miracles. One needed to think methodically, act honestly and work industriously. The world bank should be giving Africa ideas instead of money. The economy requires cultural assistance. We need to look to changing mentalities, like Calvinism. How can we change the world? Bureaucracy is a major implication to change a nation. Removing the leader might only have a small impact. One cannot bring social change just by charisma. One way to overcome bureaucracy is through knowledge and systematic organization. Ideas might be important than tools to change nations. One can always change the thoughts in their heads.

Emile Durkheim (1858 to 1917). Capitalism makes us richer, but more suicidal too. He was fascinated by religion. Also, suicide rates were increasing among the educated people. Why were people becoming more unhappy? Individualism played a bigger role than community. Hence, it forces us to be masters of our destinies. When things go wrong, you only have to blame yourself. This is the burden of capitalism. It raises our hopes. Everyone thinks they can become the boss. Envy grows rife. Life is often quite simply painful and sad. Humans have too much freedom and that is not a good thing. There is nowhere to hide if you are not capable. Atheism was more common. Religion created bonds between groups of people. Capitalism weakens the nation and the family. Modern economies do not provide sufficient support and guidance for individuals.

Margaret Mead. She was a famous anthropologist. She eventually chose Christianity. The world was teeming with separate cultures. She travelled to Samoa for her field-work. She wanted to see that primitive cultures had their insights too. Naturally, she picked up the native languages and became popular. She led an unconventional life. The natives were comfortable with sex. There was less social expectations for them as to whether they could have sex etc. Modern Americans are forced to conform with societal norms. Our modern life does not allow us to be free. In different native cultures, women could be the more aggressive as compared to men. Culture has been big part to play in shaping personalities. Therefore, because of modern society, we have left some things behind. Humans are definitely moulded by society. We miss out on the greater opportunities in life. It is important to consider cultural norms and use them as guides for your emotional lives. Learn to study complex cultures. She was a supporter and fighter of many cause. We need to unleash and uncover human potential in our rush to modernity.

Theodor Adorno. He was a German. Eventually, he focused on philosophy. He wanted intellectuals to band together and change society. To him, capitalism was bad because leisure time was seen as being toxic. Leisure time should be used for expanding and developing ourselves. Hopefully, these cultural activities might have some impact on our lives. Modern entertainment keeps us distracted, and do not have the ability to alter political reality. It was like opium for the masses. The culture activities like to keep us distracted. Pop music focus on love. He thought that Walt Disney was the most dangerous man in America. To him, capitalism doesn’t sell us the things we need. We actually don’t get what we need but settle for less. We need calm, insight and tenderness etc. Advertising is mass manipulation. Politics needs to be changed via psychology too.

Adorno argued that leisure had a great purpose to serve: free time – and the cultural activities we might pursue in it – was our prime opportunity to expand and develop ourselves, to reach after our own better nature, and to acquire the tools with which to change society. – The School of Life

Rachel Carson. We have damaging the planet. She really cared for the environment and wanted to conserve it. She wrote books on sea life etc. She promoted identification with the world earth. We are all part of this beautiful Earth. DDT was controversial as it harmed wildlife. We should really try to leave nature alone. We should think more creatively about how to prevent insect damage. Good stewardship of the Earth is a must. Love is the key to transforming humanity’s relationship to nature.

Sigmund Freud. He was a vulnerable man inside. He invented psychoanalysis in 1900. However, he remained an unhappy man. He was jealous of Carl Jung. Humans are largely governed by the pleasure principle. Education teaches us to forgo short term pleasure but seek long term rewards. Life was full of neuroses. Childhood is the time when we adapt to reality. Later, children have to experience the ‘anal phase’, where they face the challenges of defecation. The next phase of a kid is when he has new sexual wishes. This nature of the child is repressed. Freud thinks that humans experience the Oedipus complex, where children direct their sexual impulses towards their parents. A child will tend to love her mother, but someone else will take away her attention. As a result, the child will hate the dad. To him, incestuous thoughts are at the back of the child’s mind. Humans have a difficulty associating sex with love. Freud thought that the cure for neurosis was psychoanalysis. Humans experience dreams which are exciting, but these are usually not practical in reality. Humor was a psychological survival mechanism.

Anna Freud. She was Sigmund’s daughter. She became a psychoanalyst when she grew up. Naturally, humans try to protect their egos. There are 10 key types of defence mechanisms. One is denial. This gets in the way of long-term coping. Projection is the next. We often project our own negative feelings to someone else. You can also turn against the self. Humans tend to regress and avoid commitment on big decisions to be made. A tantrum is a regressive defence mechanism. Humans often rationalize that we are innocent and nice and worthy. If one gets rejection for a job offer, one way to rationalize is that ‘it was a boring company’. This is the way to protect one’s self-esteem. Humans tend to use displacement, where people are angry with their bosses at work but do not express it and end up shouting at their wife at home. Fantasy is another escapist mechanism. These help you to escape from reality. Defences are not voluntary. Defence mechanisms play a big part in our lives.

Melanie Klein. She was also a psychoanalyst. Our desires are in a raw form. Deep down, we are governed by the pleasure principle. Sometimes, we fall prey to neuroses and inhibitions. We end up being uncreative in daily life. We might also end up failing. Klein analyzed children and how they played with toys. Children, when they grow up, start to realize what ambivalence is. As humans, we also learn to understand the ambivalent nature of all relationships.

Donald Winnicott. How do you build a better world? The way parents bring up children has a big impact on this. The right upbringing is absolutely key. He started off as a pediatrician. First, parents should remember that children are vulnerable. The early few months are immense work. Learn to let a child be angry. Make sure your child isn’t too compliant. This would lead to the child emerging to a ‘False Self’. These kids are not a proper good, but acting good only. Let your child be. Realize the gravity of the job you’ve taken on. Love is about the surrender of the ego, and putting aside one’s own needs and assumptions.

The foundation of the health of the human being is laid by you in the baby’s first weeks and months. Perhaps this thought can help a little when you feel strange at the temporary loss of your interest in world affairs… It is not surprising. You are engaged in founding the mental health of the next generation. – Donald Winnicott

John Bowlby. We all want to form stable relationships. Why is it so hard to establish such relationships? Relationship building is important as a child already. Children suffer when their parents are not good role models. Children need cuddling and playing too. Then, they will love their mother’s body. The ideal parent must be there. Most people do not get the required maternal care. Our parents behaviour might not be consistent. Those kids without good care entered 3 phrases: protest, despair and detachment. These are patterns of ‘anxious attachment’. Some kids are worse and they are ‘attachment avoidant’ and avoid warmth and even a hug because it seems dangerous. There are 3 kinds of attachments to other adults. They are 1) secure attachment. This is the best. This means that ‘you are slow to anger, quick to forgive and forget’. The next is anxious attachment. This is marked by clinginess and close checking on the other person.A small act can be seen as a huge threat. These type of relationships quickly become coercive and demanding. Some are avoidant attachments. This means you would rather walk away then get angry with the other person. People tend to a combination of a few traits. It is important to establish an early bond between mother and child. According to research, 56% are securely attached, 24% are avoidantly attached and 20% are anxiously attached.

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