Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor) by Sir Thomas Browne is a spiritual testament and early psychological self-portrait. Published in 1643 after an unauthorized version was distributed the previous year, it became a European best-seller which brought its author fame at home and abroad.
Structured upon the Christian virtues of Faith and Hope (part 1) and Charity (part 2), Browne expresses his beliefs in the doctrine of sola fide, the existence of hell, the Last Judgment, the resurrection and other tenets of Christianity.
Science and religion
Throughout Religio Medici Browne uses scientific imagery to illustrate religious truths as part of his discussion on the relationship of science to religion, a topic which has lost none of its contemporary relevance., , 
Reception and influence
A rare surviving contemporary review by Guy Patin, a distinguished member of the Parisian medical faculty, indicates the considerable impact Religio Medici had upon the intelligentsia abroad:
A new little volume has arrived from Holland entitled Religio Medici written by an Englishman and translated into Latin by some Dutchman. It is a strange and pleasant book, but very delicate and wholly mystical; the author is not lacking in wit and you will see in him quaint and delightful thoughts. There are hardly any books of this sort. If scholars were permitted to write freely we would learn many novel things, never has there been a newspaper to this; in this way the subtlety of the human spirit could be revealed.[need quotation to verify]
Throughout the seventeenth century Religio Medici spawned numerous imitative titles, including John Dryden’s great poem, Religio Laici, but none matched the frank, intimate tone of the original in which Browne shares his thoughts, as well as the idiosyncrasies of his personality with his reader.
Samuel Pepys in his diaries complained that the Religio was cried up to the whole world for its wit and learning.
A translation into German of the Religio was made in 1746 and an early admirer of Browne’s spiritual testament was Goethe’s one-time associate Lavater.
In the early nineteenth century Religio Medici was “re-discovered” by the English Romantics. Charles Lamb introduced it to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who after reading it, exclaimed,-
I do not recollect more than one thing said adequately on the subject of music in all literature. It is a passage in Religio Medici of Sir T. Browne, and though chiefly remarkable for its sublimity, has also a philosophical value, inasmuch as it points to the true theory of musical effects.
The book strongly influenced the prominent physician William Osler in his early years. Osler, who is considered the “father of modern medicine”, is said to have learned it by heart.
In Virginia Woolf‘s opinion Religio Medici paved the way for all future confessionals, private memoirs and personal writings.
In the twentieth century, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung used the term Religio Medici several times in his writings.
2021 is the year of Progress. Our lives WILL change in 2021 in ways we can’t yet fathom at this stage.
Let’s get the most important question out of the way. If you’re one of the 99.9999% of people whose life was affected in 2020, you may ask yourself, “Is 2021 going to be better than 2020?”.
The short answer to that, is yes!
The astrologically-argumented answer is, “2021 doesn’t feature a confining Saturn-Pluto conjunction, or an intense, fear-inducing, triple Jupiter-Pluto conjunction. 2021 doesn’t have 5 months of Venus and Mars retrograde, nor dramatic cardinal T-squares for 70% of the year!.
Irrespective of the actual events 2021 will bring, 2021 will feel lighter and more positive than 2020.
2020 has bought us change. In 2021, the question is “What do we do about it?”
If 2020 was Earth and Cardinal, 2021, while it still keeps a healthy dose of Earth, is predominantly Fixed and Air. During 2021 we have:
Jupiter in Aquarius (Fixed/Air)
Saturn in Aquarius (Fixed/Air)
The Lunar Nodes in Gemini and Sagittarius (Mutable Air/Fire)
Mercury retrograde in Aquarius/Gemini/Libra (Air)
Pluto in Capricorn (Cardinal/Earth)
Neptune in Pisces (Mutable/Water)
Uranus in Taurus (Fixed/Earth)
While 2020 was dominated by the Capricorn outer-planet stellium, 2021 is a much more balanced year astrologically, which means that disturbances and excesses of any kind are much less likely.
Cardinal signs (Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn – especially Capricorn) have not had an easy time during 2020, but thankfully, this will change in 2021. Jupiter and Saturn in Aquarius, as well as the North Node in Gemini, will bring a breath of fresh air that will allow us to slow down the madness, breath in, and even smell the roses.
Saturn Square Uranus – PROGRESS: One Way, Or Another
The most important transit of the year is undoubtedly, Saturn in Aquarius square Uranus in Taurus. The aspect starts to apply already in January, and will be within orb throughout the whole of the year.
Saturn and Uranus are slow moving planets that rarely get configured into an aspect. The last time Saturn and Uranus squared each other, was 22 years ago!
When Saturn squares Uranus, our need for freedom will clash with our need for structure and stability.
If Saturn stands for rules and tradition, Uranus stands for breaking away from rules and tradition. What complicates things even further is that Saturn, the traditional planet, is in a progressive sign (Aquarius), while Uranus, the progressive planet, is in Taurus, the most traditional sign of the zodiac.
Imagine a financier in a custom-tailored suit working in a ‘woo-woo’ startup (that’s Saturn in Aquarius) and a blue-haired progressive anarchist in ripped jeans working for an insurance company as an accountant (Uranus in Taurus).
Now also imagine that these 2 people don’t particularly get along and they step on each other’s toes. At first, it may seem they are doomed for disaster, but if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that they not only share many things in common, but that they can learn a great deal from each other.
Uranus and Saturn are powerful planets, and Taurus and Aquarius, are fixed, determined, resourceful, and yes, stubborn signs. Both Saturn in Aquarius and Uranus in Taurus have strong opinions about how things should be, and none of them is keen to change their ways.
Since Saturn and Uranus square each other, a clash is inevitable.
A Square is shared by two signs of different polarity (Yin vs. Yang) and different elements (Air Vs. Earth), HOWEVER, these two signs share the same modality (in our case, Fixed). When two signs share the same modality, they agree on one thing: the Goal.
They may not agree on how to get there, however since the pull to achieve the goal is so strong, the two planets will eventually find a way to make it work.
In 2021, Saturn and Uranus will HAVE to find a way – any way – to achieve the GOAL. Great change only comes with great friction. We all say we want true reform, that we want true change, but reform and change are hard.
An incredible amount of resources and moving pieces need to be mobilized to achieve true progress. Give this task to Venus trine Jupiter. They will laugh and find something nice to do instead, BUT, if you give it to Saturn and Uranus in fixed signs – and they will find a way to make the impossible possible.
The first Saturn-Uranus square in February will probably be the most intense one. This is when theproblem that needs fixing will get formulated, and brought into our awareness.
The 2nd square is in June 2021 (Saturn retrograde); this is when a proposalto restructure things at a wholesale scale will be presented. Finally, the last Saturn-Uranus square in December will come with thesolution, and our world will never be the same again.
The most important astrological events of 2021 are:
Saturn-Uranus square – February-December 2021
Jupiter-Uranus square – January 2021
Aquarius stellium – January and February 2021
Mercury and Venus out of bounds – May 2021
Jupiter in Pisces – May-July 2021
Triple conjunction Sun, Mars and Mercury Retrograde – October 9th, 2021
Venus Retrograde – December 19th, 2021
Eclipses in 2021:
Lunar Eclipse at 5° Sagittarius – May 26th, 2021
Solar Eclipse at 19° Gemini – June 10th, 2021
Lunar Eclipse at 27° Taurus – November 19th, 2021
Solar Eclipse at 12° Sagittarius – December 4th, 2021
In 2021, we have some spectacular New Moons and several “5-star transits” like Venus conjunct Jupiter that will fill us with excitement and hope.
Much like a rollercoaster ride, 2021 is a bouquet of highs, lows, and everything in between.
While frustration and conflict will be a big part of the picture, by the end of the year, your life WILL be different, and when looking back at all the challenges, breakthroughs, effort, and unexpected twists and turns, you’ll find yourself saying “it was all worth it!”
PS: As an Astrology Lover, life can get lonely. It is not easy to find people who share our worldview or at least understand, and accept us for who we are. If you don’t want to go through 2021 by yourself, and want to share your highs and lows in a receptive community, then join the AGE OF AQUARIUS Community as a Founding Member before the end of 2020.
That is less than 18 hours from the time this email has landed in your inbox. You can join us here:
Diahann Carroll – Topic Provided to YouTube by Sony Music Entertainment House of Flowers · Diahann Carroll · Rawn Spearman · Original Broadway Cast of House of Flowers House of Flowers (Original Broadway Cast Recording) ℗ Originally Released 1955 Sony Music Entertainment Inc. Composer: Harold Arlen Lyricist: Truman Capote Associated Performer: House of Flowers Orchestra Conductor, Director: Jerry Arlen Producer: Goddard Lieberson Auto-generated by YouTube.
My house is made of flowers The warm winds carpet the floor Whenever there’s spring showers I open the rainbow door The frog, the toad, the turtle All make my home their home My curtains are crape mottle And the firefly flies neath my dome I’ve never had money And I’ll never need none The moon is my lamp And my clock is the sun My home’s a home For all those things What grows, what flies, what sings If it all sounds tempting And it do you entice I show to the heavens That it do make it nice Won’t you come live with me I’d come live with me If I were you, if I were you
They say we live in a democracy. We are free and we should be grateful.
But just how “Free” are we? How democratic are our so-called “Democracies”?
Is it enough to simply elect our leaders and sit back, helpless, as they rule over us like dictators? What good is selecting our politicians, if we cannot control our media, police or soldiers? If we must blindly follow our teachers’ and bosses’ commands, whilst at school and in the workplace, is it not a little naïve to believe that we are the masters of our own destinies? And if our resources are controlled by a tiny cabal of plutocrats, bankers and corporations; can we honestly say that our economies are being run for us?
Could things not be a little bit more, well, democratic?
Indeed they can! “Democracy: A User’s Guide” shows us how…
Within the pages of this story-filled book, we shall visit Summerhill, a democratic school in the east of England, before stopping off in Brazil to check out Semco, where workplace democracy is the name of the game. We will travel to Rojava, to explore life in a democratic army, and head to Spain, to see why Podemos is giving liquid democracy a go. We shall travel back in time, to see democracy at work in hunter-gatherer societies, tribal confederacies, the guilds and on the commons. We will consider the case for participatory budgeting, deliberative democracy, collaborative hiring, community currencies, peer-to-peer lending, and much much more.
The message is clear and concise: Democracy does not have to be a pipe dream. We have all the tools we need to rule ourselves.
At the outset of each new year, humanity sets out to better itself as we resolve to eradicate our unhealthy habits and cultivate healthy ones. But while the most typical New Year’s resolutions tend to be about bodily health, the most meaningful ones aim at a deeper kind of health through the refinement of our mental, spiritual, and emotional habits — which often dictate our physical ones. In a testament to young Susan Sontag’s belief that rereading is an act of rebirth, I have revisited the timelessly rewarding ideas of great thinkers from the past two millennia to cull fifteen such higher-order resolutions for personal refinement.
1. THOREAU: WALK AND BE MORE PRESENT
No one has made a more compelling case for the bodily and spiritual value of walking — that basic, infinitely rewarding, yet presently endangered human activity — than Henry David Thoreau. In his 1861 treatise Walking (free ebook | public library), penned seven years after Walden, Thoreau reminds us of how that primal act of mobility connects us with our essential wildness, that spring of spiritual vitality methodically dried up by our sedentary civilization. He makes a special point of differentiating the art of sauntering from the mere act of walking:
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.
Proclaiming that “every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau laments — note, a century and a half before our present sedentary society — our growing civilizational tameness, which has possessed us to cease undertaking “persevering, never-ending enterprises” so that even “our expeditions are but tours.” With a dramatic flair, he lays out the spiritual conditions required of the true walker:
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man — then you are ready for a walk.
No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession… It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker.
But the passage that I keep coming back to as I face the modern strain for presence in the age of productivity, 150 years later, is this:
I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?
Many celebrated writers have extolled the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but none more convincingly than Virginia Woolf, who was not only a masterful letter-writer and little-known children’s book author, but also a dedicated diarist. Although she kept some sporadic early journals, Woolf didn’t begin serious journaling until 1915, when she was 33. Once she did, she continued doggedly until her last entry in 1941, four days before her death, leaving behind 26 volumes written in her own hand. More than a mere tool of self-exploration, however, Woolf approached the diary as a kind of R&D lab for her craft. As her husband observes in the introduction to her collected journals, A Writer’s Diary (public library), Woolf’s journaling was “a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.”
In an entry from April 20th, 1919, Woolf makes a case for the vast benefits of keeping a diary as a tool of refining one’s writing style — something Joan Didion echoed nearly a century and a half later in her timeless essay on keeping a notebook — and considers the optimal approach to journaling:
The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments… What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time.
Woolf considers the diary an equally potent autobiographical tool as well — one essential in the face of how woefully our present selves shortchange our future happiness. In an entry from January 20th, 1919, a 37-year-old Woolf considers the utility of the diaries to her future self, noting with equal parts sharp self-awareness and near-comic self-consciousness her own young-person’s perception of 50 as an “elderly” age:
I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap. If Virginia Woolf at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books, is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them. But how I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better. Already my 37th birthday next Saturday is robbed of some of its terrors by the thought. Partly for the benefit of this elderly lady (no subterfuges will then be possible: 50 is elderly, though I anticipate her protest and agree that it is not old) partly to give the year a solid foundation I intend to spend the evenings of this week of captivity in making out an account of my friendships and their present condition, with some account of my friends’ characters; and to add an estimate of their work and a forecast of their future works. The lady of 50 will be able to say how near to the truth I come.
Around the time Thoreau was bemoaning his mind’s tendency to roam out of the woods while his body saunters in the woods, in another part of the world Kierkegaard was making a similar lament about our greatest source of unhappiness — the refusal to recognize that “busy is a decision” and that presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity. I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.
Despite a steadily swelling human life expectancy, these concerns seem more urgent than ever — and yet they are hardly unique to our age. In fact, they go as far back as the record of human experience and endeavor. It is unsurprising, then, that the best treatment of the subject is also among the oldest: Roman philosopher Seneca’s spectacular 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life (public library) — a poignant reminder of what we so deeply intuit yet so easily forget and so chronically fail to put into practice.
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.
To those who so squander their time, he offers an unambiguous admonition:
You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!
The cure he prescribes is rather simple, yet far from easy to enact:
Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.
Read more about how to fill the length of your life with vibrant width here.
Discipline — both mental and physical — is crucial.
She recounts an encounter with the son of Melvin van Peebles, a black filmmaker who made a smash-hit independent film in the seventies that earned him a lot of money and cultural status. The son, Mario van Peebles, had made a film about his father’s film, a screening of which Smith hosted. She writes:
He must be in his mid-sixties, and he is in perfect physical shape. He was standing by the bar, and I asked him not about the film but about his physique.
“You look like you work out,” I said.
“Every day,” he said.
People who actually work out every single day have no problem talking about it. He and I agreed that we have to get up and go immediately to the gym, the pool, wherever our workout is, without doing anything before.
“If I get up and think, ‘Let me have a cup of coffee first,’ it ain’t happ’nin’,” he said.
Not even a cup of coffee. I’m the same way. If I go to the computer or take a newspaper before heading to the gym, there’s a chance I won’t get there.
As someone who has been working out every single morning for the past fifteen years, I wholeheartedly, wholebodily agree. I do a great deal of my reading at the gym, too, including this particular book itself — there’s something powerful about the alignment of two disciplines, of body and mind, in the same routine. The two rhythms reinforce one another.
More than that, however, Smith argues that discipline is also the single most important anchor of identity for creative people — the essential material out of which they craft the building blocks of how they define themselves:
The life of an artist is not a state of “being.” It even sounds pretentious, sometimes, to call oneself blanketly “an artist.” It’s not up to you or me to give ourselves that title. A doctor becomes a doctor because he or she is formally given an MD. A scholar in the university is formally given a PhD, a counselor an LLD, a hairstylist a license, and so forth.
We are on the fringe, and we don’t get such licenses. There are prizes and rewards, popularity and good or bad press. But you have to be your own judge. That, in and of itself, takes discipline, and clarity, and objectivity. Given the fact that we are not “credentialed” by any institution that even pretends to be objective, it is harder to make our guild. True, some schools and universities give a degree for a course of study. But that’s a business transaction and ultimately not enough to make you an “artist.”
Because an artist is never hit with the magic wand of legitimacy from the outside and “you have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand,” creative people are singularly vulnerable every time they put their art — whatever its nature — into the world. Without the shield of, say, a Ph.D. to point to and say, “But look, I’m real,” it’s all too easy to hang our merit and worth and realness on the opinions of others — opinions often mired in their own insecurities and vulnerabilities, which at the most malignant extreme manifest as people’s tendency to make themselves feel big by making others feel small, make themselves feel real by making others feel unreal. Smith captures the paradox of this condition elegantly:
We who work in the arts are at the risk of being in a popularity contest rather than a profession. If that fact causes you despair, you should probably pick another profession. Your desire to communicate must be bigger than your relationship to these chaotic and unfair realities. Ideally, we must be even more “professional” than lawyers, doctors, accountants, hairdressers. We have to create our own standards of discipline.
All of the successful artists I know are very disciplined and very organized. Even if they don’t look organized, they have their own order.
What we become — what we are — ultimately consists of what we have been doing.
Read more on how to cultivate that discipline here.
5. ALAN WATTS: BREAK FREE FROM YOUR EGO
During the 1950s and 1960s, British philosopher and writer Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, offering a wholly different perspective on inner wholeness in the age of anxiety and what it really means to live a life of purpose. We owe much of today’s mainstream adoption of practices like yoga and meditation to Watts’s influence. His 1966 masterwork The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (public library) builds upon his indispensable earlier work as Watts argues with equal parts conviction and compassion that “the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East.” He explores the cause and cure of that illusion in a way that flows from profound unease as we confront our cultural conditioning into a deep sense of lightness as we surrender to the comforting mystery and interconnectedness of the universe.
Envisioned as a packet of essential advice a parent might hand down to his child on the brink of adulthood as initiation into the central mystery of life, this existential manual is rooted in what Watts calls “a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition.”
Watts considers the singular anxiety of the age, perhaps even more resonant today, half a century and a manic increase of pace later:
There is a growing apprehension that existence is a rat-race in a trap: living organisms, including people, are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them out.
At the heart of the human condition, Watts argues, is a core illusion that fuels our deep-seated sense of loneliness the more we subscribe to the myth of the sole ego, one reflected in the most basic language we use to make sense of the world:
We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”
This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.
“If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve,” Debbie Millman counseled in one of the best commencement speeches ever given, urging: “Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities…” Far from Pollyannaish platitude, this advice actually reflects modern psychology’s insight into how belief systems about our own abilities and potential fuel our behavior and predict our success. Much of that understanding stems from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, synthesized in her remarkably insightful Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (public library) — an inquiry into the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and how changing even the simplest of them can have profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives.
One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, Dweck found in her research, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.
There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.
At the heart of what makes the “growth mindset” so winsome, Dweck found, is that it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning.
Read more on how to cultivate this fruitful mindset here.
This particular form of self-delusion has to do with our tendency to do nice things to people we like and bad things to those we dislike. But what the psychology behind the effect reveals is an inverse relationship — a reverse-engineering of attitudes that takes place as we grow to like people for whom we do nice things and dislike those to whom we are unkind. This curious effect is named after a specific incident early in the Founding Father’s political career.
Franklin, born one of seventeen children to poor parents, entered this world — despite his parents’ and society’s priorities in his favor relative to his siblings — with very low odds of becoming an educated scientist, gentleman, scholar, entrepreneur, and, perhaps most of all, a man of significant political power. To compensate for his unfavorable givens, he quickly learned formidable people skills and became “a master of the game of personal politics.” When he ran for his second term as a clerk, a peer whose name Franklin never mentions in his autobiography delivered a long election speech censuring the future Founding Father and tarnishing his reputation.
Although Franklin won, he was furious with his opponent and, observing that this was “a gentleman of fortune and education” who might one day come to hold great power in government, rather concerned about future frictions with him. The troll had to be tamed, and tamed shrewdly. McRaney writes:
Franklin set out to turn his hater into a fan, but he wanted to do it without “paying any servile respect to him.” Franklin’s reputation as a book collector and library founder gave him a standing as a man of discerning literary tastes, so Franklin sent a letter to the hater asking if he could borrow a specific selection from his library, one that was a “very scarce and curious book.” The rival, flattered, sent it right away. Franklin sent it back a week later with a thank-you note. Mission accomplished. The next time the legislature met, the man approached Franklin and spoke to him in person for the first time. Franklin said the man “ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”
Read more about what modern psychology has revealed about this curious phenomenon here, then complement it with Kierkegaard on why haters hate.
8. HANNAH ARENDT: THINK RATHER THAN KNOW
In 1973, Hannah Arendt became the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures — an annual series established in 1888 aiming “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term,” bridging science, philosophy, and spirituality, an ancient quest of enduring urgency to this day. Over the years, the Gifford Lectures have drawn such celebrated minds as William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Iris Murdoch, and Carl Sagan, whose 1985 lecture was later published as the spectacular posthumous volume Varieties of Scientific Experience. Arendt’s own lecture was later expanded and published as The Life of the Mind (public library), an immeasurably stimulating exploration of thinking — a process we take for so obvious and granted as to be of no interest, yet one bridled with complexities and paradoxes that often keep us from seeing the true nature of reality. With extraordinary intellectual elegance, Arendt draws “a distinguishing line between truth and meaning, between knowing and thinking,” and makes a powerful case for the importance of that line in the human experience.
What are we “doing” when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow-men, are together with no one but ourselves?
Arendt considers the crucial necessity of never ceasing to pursue questions, those often unanswerable questions, of meaning over so-called truth — something doubly needed in our era of ready-made “opinions” based on neatly packaged “facts”:
By posing the unanswerable questions of meaning, men establish themselves as question-asking beings. Behind all the cognitive questions for which men find answers, there lurk the unanswerable ones that seem entirely idle and have always been denounced as such. It is more than likely that men, if they were ever to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions, would lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded… While our thirst for knowledge may be unquenchable because of the immensity of the unknown, the activity itself leaves behind a growing treasure of knowledge that is retained and kept in store by every civilization as part and parcel of its world. The loss of this accumulation and of the technical expertise required to conserve and increase it inevitably spells the end of this particular world.
She recounts this wonderful anecdote, after which the book is titled:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.
Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.
In a chapter titled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” he reflects on the many types of deception to which we’re susceptible — from psychics to religious zealotry to paid product endorsements by scientists, which he held in especially low regard, noting that they “betray contempt for the intelligence of their customers” and “introduce an insidious corruption of popular attitudes about scientific objectivity.” But rather than preaching from the ivory tower of self-righteousness, Sagan approaches the subject from the most vulnerable of places — having just lost both of his parents, he reflects on the all too human allure of promises of supernatural reunions in the afterlife, reminding us that falling for such fictions doesn’t make us stupid or bad people, but simply means that we need to equip ourselves with the right tools against them.
Through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan calls a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods:
The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you’re so inclined, if you don’t want to buy baloney even when it’s reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there’s a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method.
But the kit, Sagan argues, isn’t merely a tool of science — rather, it contains invaluable tools of healthy skepticism that apply just as aptly, and just as necessarily, to everyday life. By adopting the kit, we can all shield ourselves against clueless guile and deliberate manipulation. Sagan shares nine of these tools:
Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
Read more, including Sagan’s list of the twenty most common pitfalls of common sense and how to counter them, here.
11. REBECCA SOLNIT: GET LOST TO FIND YOURSELF
“On how one orients himself to the moment,”Henry Miller wrote in reflecting on the art of living, “depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.” Indeed, this act of orienting ourselves — to the moment, to the world, to our own selves — is perhaps the most elusive art of all, and our attempts to master it often leave us fumbling, frustrated, discombobulated. And yet therein lies our greatest capacity for growth and self-transcendence.
Rebecca Solnit, whose mind and writing are among the most consistently enchanting of our time, explores this tender tango with the unknown in her altogether sublime collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library).
Solnit writes in the opening essay:
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since. The student made big transparent photographs of swimmers underwater and hung them from the ceiling with the light shining through them, so that to walk among them was to have the shadows of swimmers travel across your body in a space that itself came to seem aquatic and mysterious. The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?
Solnit turns to Edgar Allan Poe, who argued that “in matters of philosophical discovery … it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely,” and considers the deliberate juxtaposition of the rational, methodical act of calculation with the ineffable, intangible nature of the unforeseen:
How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.
To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography. That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.
With his singular blend of physical prowess and metaphysical wisdom, coupled with his tragic untimely death, legendary Chinese-American martial artist, philosopher, and filmmaker Bruce Lee (1940-1973) is one of those rare cultural icons whose ethos and appeal remain timeless, attracting generation after generation of devotees. Inspired by the core principles of Wing Chun, the ancient Chinese conceptual martial art, which he learned from his only formal martial arts teacher, Yip Man, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. When he left Hong Kong in 1959, Lee adapted Wing Chun into his own version, Jun Fan Gung Fu — literal translation: Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu — and popularized it in America.
In 1971, at the peak of his career, Lee starred in four episodes of the short-lived TV series Longstreet. In one of them, he delivered his most oft-cited metaphor for the philosophy of Gung Fu: “Be like water,” at the heart of which is the Chinese concept of wu wei — “trying not to try.” In Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (public library) — a compendium of his never-before-published private letters, notes, and poems — Lee traces the thinking that originated his famous metaphor, which came after a period of frustration with his inability to master “the art of detachment” that Yip Man was trying to impart on him. Lee recounts:
After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.
Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the birds flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached — not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.
Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day.
The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury. And since he will not strive, none strive with him.
In 1982, nearly a decade after their spectacular conversation about freedom, beloved poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou and celebrated interviewer Bill Moyers traveled together to the beautiful Texas countryside to discuss the ugliest aspects of human nature at a conference titled Facing Evil. It was a subject with which Angelou, the survivor of childhood rape and courageous withstander of lifelong racism, was intimately acquainted. In a recent remembrance of his friend, Moyers shares excerpts from the 1988 documentary about the event, affirming once more that Angelou was nothing if not a champion of the human spirit and its highest potentiality for good.
In one of the most poignant passages, Angelou reflects on how refusing to speak for five years after being raped as a child (“I won’t say severely raped; all rape is severe,” Angelou notes in one of her characteristically piercing asides) shaped her journey:
To show you … how out of evil there can come good, in those five years I read every book in the black school library. I read all the books I could get from the white school library. I memorized James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. I memorized Shakespeare, whole plays, fifty sonnets. I memorized Edgar Allen Poe, all the poetry — never having heard it, I memorized it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy de Maupassant, I had Balzac, Rudyard Kipling — I mean, it was catholic kind of reading, and catholic kind of storing.
Out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness… And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.
Angelou’s most soul-expanding point is that courage — something she not only embodied but also championed beautifully in her children’s book illustrated by Basquiat — is our indelible individual capacity and our shared existential responsibility:
We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily — as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings. I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.
We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Barring all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether… The emotions of benevolence … from the highest degree of passionate love, to the lowest degree of good will, they make the sweetness of life.
What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling? How beautiful, on their approach to this beating heart, the steps and forms of the gifted and the true! The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed; there is no winter, and no night; all tragedies, all ennuis vanish; all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons. Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years.
Emerson goes on to consider the two essential conditions of friendship:
There are two elements that go to the composition of friendship, each so sovereign, that I can detect no superiority in either, no reason why either should be first named. One is Truth. A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness, with which one chemical atom meets another. Sincerity is the luxury allowed, but diadems and authority, only to the highest rank, that being permitted to speak truth as having none above it to court or conform unto. Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins… We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds.
The other element of friendship is tenderness. We are holden to men by every sort of tie, by blood, by pride, by fear, by hope, by lucre, by lust, by hate, by admiration, by every circumstance and badge and trifle, but we can scarce believe that so much character can subsist in another as to draw us by love. Can another be so blessed, and we so pure, that we can offer him tenderness? When a man becomes dear to me, I have touched the goal of fortune.
Eleanor Roosevelt endures as one of the most beloved and influential luminaries in modern history — a relentless champion of working women and underprivileged youth, the longest-serving American First Lady, and the author of some beautiful, if controversial, love letters.
Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.
Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness. My answer was: ‘A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life and in your work; and the ability to love others.’
Indeed, personal integrity — without which it is impossible to be honest with oneself — is a centerpiece of our capacity for happiness. In a chapter titled “The Right to Be an Individual,” Roosevelt considers the moral responsibility of living what you believe — of fully inhabiting your inner life — as the foundation of integrity and, more than that, of what it means to be human:
It’s your life — but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.
Even when young, Jefferson bridled at the metaphysical claims of Christianity.Illustration by John Gall
In the early months of 1803, perhaps the most consequential period of Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency—if not, for him, the busiest—American envoys were in France, Jefferson’s old ambassadorial stomping ground, negotiating the terms of what would later be called the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson, meanwhile, was mulling a book project. He imagined it as a work of comparative moral philosophy, which would include a survey of “the most remarkable of the ancient philosophers,” then swiftly address the “repulsive” ethics of the Jews, before demonstrating that the “system of morality” offered by Jesus was “the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught.” This sublimity, however, would need to be rescued from the Gospels, which were—as Jefferson put it in a letter to the English chemist, philosopher, and minister Joseph Priestley—written by “the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him.” Jefferson pushed Priestley to write the treatise, and, by the following January, seemed to think that he would. But Priestley died in February, and Jefferson decided to do the salvage work, at least. He got a copy of the Bible, cut out some choice passages, glued them onto blank pages, and called the volume “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth: extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John. Being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.”
One of Jefferson’s aims seems to have been to demonstrate—to himself, if to no one else—that, contrary to the claims of his political adversaries, he was not anti-Christian. As Peter Manseau, a curator at the National Museum of American History, points out in “The Jefferson Bible: A Biography” (Princeton), the puzzling reference to “Indians” in the subtitle may be a joke about the Federalists, and their apparent inability to grasp Jefferson’s true beliefs. His opponents often labelled him a “freethinker,” or an outright atheist; milder observers came closer to the mark, pegging him as a deist who largely thought of God as a noninterventionist. But Jefferson did not openly claim the deist label. “I am a Christian,” he insisted in a letter to the educator and politician Benjamin Rush, “in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, & believing he never claimed any other.” In order to establish that this was the actual limit of Jesus’ claims, one had to carefully extricate him from the texts that contain nearly all we know about his life and thought. That might sound like impossible surgery, but, to Jefferson, the fissures were obvious. What was genuinely Christ’s was “as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill,” he wrote in a letter to John Adams. Jesus, in the Gospel of John, says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Jefferson was no lamb, and no follower, but he considered himself a good hearer.
Manseau opens his study with an anecdote from earlier in Jefferson’s life, which Jefferson recounts in “Notes on the State of Virginia.” As a young man, he went digging through one of the “barrows”—huge mounds of earth, covered in grass—that mysteriously dotted the Virginia landscape. “That they were repositories of the dead has been obvious to all: but on what particular occasion constructed, was matter of doubt,” Jefferson wrote. The solution, for Jefferson, was to get a shovel. He travelled to what had once been a Native American community and got to work on a mound, quickly finding “collections of human bones.” There were arm bones and loose jaws, vertebrae and several skulls. Manseau writes:
It was the skulls that most drew Jefferson’s interest. Some were “so tender,” he noted, that they fell apart at the touch, leaving him with a handful of teeth that were considerably smaller than others. At least one section of the mound seemed to include children—a suspicion reinforced by the discoveries that followed: “a rib and a fragment of the under jaw of a person about half grown; another rib of an infant, and part of the jaw of a child, which had not yet cut its teeth.”
Manseau adds, “Today the image of Jefferson rummaging through the bones of Native Americans would likely be regarded by many as an obvious desecration, while in his own day it would have been praised as a purely scientific inquiry.” Manseau uses this unsettling anecdote to illustrate the desacralizing impulse in Jefferson—the impulse that would lead to his cut-and-paste Bible. Jefferson had seen Monacans go in groups to visit the mounds, but the knowledge of their reverence and the ardency of their devotion didn’t satisfy him. He was deeply impatient with myth, ritual, and mystery. He had to see the bones.
Even in his youth, Jefferson had bridled at the core metaphysical claims of classical Christianity. Jefferson had no use for original sin, or salvation by grace alone, or the insistence that Christ—or anyone else; stand down, Lazarus—had risen from the dead. He didn’t even care to affirm the most fundamental doctrine: that, by some mystery of history and providence, Jesus was of the same essence as God, indeed was God. One of Jefferson’s first, and most lasting, points of dissent with Christian orthodoxy had to do with the Trinity, the doctrine affirming that although there is only one God, the godhead is identified as three distinct but inseparable “persons”: the Father, who is the creator; the Son, who appeared on earth in order to reconcile humanity to the Father; and the Holy Spirit, who is the breath of love between Father and Son, and who invisibly knits all believers together, creating the society called the Church. To Jefferson, this was all too fuzzy to be true in any real sense—an “incomprehensible jargon.” Jefferson was a follower of Jesus in more or less the way that Plato was a follower of Socrates: he found his morals high, his wisdom excellent, his philosophy sound, his observations true.
This is a vision of Jesus as a Great Man, a mover of history and a moral tinkerer, whose work has been marred by friends who were his lessers. Jefferson tended, in his letters, to portray Jesus as a modernizer, more clarifier than Christ; he called him a “great reformer of the vicious ethic and deism of the Jews,” a formulation that marries anti-Semitic tropes with a rereading of Christianity’s roots through the logic of the Reformation. For Jefferson, Jesus was to Judaism what Luther was to the Catholic Church. And Jefferson, in turn, after digging through Christianity’s burial heap, would rescue those of its tenets which accorded with reason—his reason—from the vicious ethic that had grown up around it.
At the College of William & Mary, Jefferson fell under the tutelage of a professor named William Small, who introduced him to John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton, shining paragons of Enlightenment thought. Jefferson considered them “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.” They confirmed for him that “the world was eminently knowable,” Manseau writes, and modelled the mental mode that would characterize the rest of his life: interested more in science than in faith, more in reason than in emotion, more in minute inspection than in intuition or revelation. In a real and profound way, the Enlightenment seems to have been the creed in which Jefferson most deeply believed. (In this respect, the most Jeffersonian politician currently in power might be the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who, in justifying a crackdown on Islam after a pair of recent terrorist attacks in France, said, “We believe in the Enlightenment.”) Locke, Bacon, and Newton were “a new trinity to replace the old,” Manseau writes. And Jefferson’s relationship to them was more like that of the apostles to Jesus than he may have realized. In his correspondence and his speeches—and, most dramatically, in the Declaration of Independence—he was America’s chief interpreter of the Enlightenment generation. Jefferson in the colonies was like Paul at the Parthenon: a true believer spreading the Word of his teachers, subtly tweaking it so that the locals could understand.
Another youthful influence on Jefferson was the English parliamentarian Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, who wrote witheringly of the God of the Scriptures, in both the Old and the New Testaments. Bolingbroke argued that, at most, “short sentences” culled from the Bible might add up to a plausible but not especially coherent system of ethics and morals. For Jefferson—who, in his journals, copied long passages of Bolingbroke’s religious criticism—the only God worth serving was one whose powers accorded precisely with the powers on display in the visible world. Later, in the Declaration, Jefferson insisted that all people were “created” equal, but he also made sure to invoke “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” a favorite phrase of the deists of his day. The urge to independence hadn’t come down from a mountain, etched on tablets, but was, instead, the logical end point of a long process of looking, and of thought. God was sovereign only so far as you could track his moves, like an animal leaving footprints in snow.
“The Philosophy of Jesus” did not survive; the only evidence we have for it is in Jefferson’s correspondence. But, in the eighteen-tens, after he had left the White House and had withdrawn almost totally from public life, Jefferson began working on what was, essentially, a new edition, incorporating not only the English of the King James Version but also columns of translation. This version bears a slightly shorter title: “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.” He had tried, once again, as he put it in a letter to a young acolyte, to separate “the gold from the dross.” Jefferson’s Jesus is born in a manger, but there are no angels, and no wise men; at age twelve, he speaks to the doctors in the temple, and everyone is impressed, but he doesn’t say that he is “about my Father’s business.” When Jefferson’s Jesus suddenly has disciples, it is not clear why they have decided to follow him. Jefferson includes Jesus’ encounter with a man with a “withered” hand, and his argument about whether it is “lawful to heal on the sabbath days”—the gold in this story, apparently, is the idea that “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” The dross is the part where Jesus turns to address the poor man directly, like a real person instead of a prop for conjectural argument, and heals his hand.
Even at this late date, some who knew Jefferson believed that publishing such a text would tarnish his name. The Virginia minister Charles Clay, upon hearing about the idea, warned him that “it may effect your future character & Reputation on the page of history as a Patriot, legislator & sound Philosopher.” Jefferson finished “The Life and Morals” in 1820, and, according to acquaintances, he read from it often before going to sleep. But, when he died, six years later, only a few of his friends were aware that it existed. Nearly a century passed before the “wee-little book,” as Jefferson once called it, came fully into public view.
Manseau’s story skips ahead to that discovery—a thrilling mixture of accident, fine timing, and diligent public-museum curation—but it’s worth pausing, for a moment, at the time in between. There’s something appropriate about the fact that the book sat in obscurity, all but forgotten among library acquisitions, throughout the nineteenth century. Those resonant years were as consequential for the country’s many versions of Christianity as they were for its politics; Americans warred as much over the meaning of God as over the particulars of freedom. To the extent that America has a recognizable civic religion, it would be permanently shaped by what took place while Jefferson’s Jesus sat waiting to be retrieved from his tomb.
The interim’s most Jeffersonian voice, at least when it came to Christ, may have been Ralph Waldo Emerson, who began his controversial address to Harvard’s Divinity School, in 1838, not with a recitation of Scripture but with an invocation of nature. Emerson goes on, at length, about the “refulgent summer” that year in Cambridge—“the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers”—as though engaging in high-flown small talk, breaking the ice by chatting about the weather. But there is a subtle assertion in it: whatever you want to know about God, you can best find by way of nature and your own good sense. “The word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster,” Emerson said. When he relays a little juxtapositional parable, of a preacher speaking feebly as a snowstorm rages outside, full of the real force of nature, you can picture Jefferson nodding in agreement. “Once leave your own knowledge of God, your own sentiment, and take secondary knowledge, as St. Paul’s,” Emerson said, “and you get wide from God with every year this secondary form lasts.”
Emerson’s neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne saw a darker god in the American landscape—in the forests and uncharted lands that had been the constant horror of the early Pilgrims and Puritans, and whose mysteries their descendants tried to tame by endless expansion and by a campaign of elimination against Native peoples. Not everybody, Hawthorne’s novels and stories suggest, could so easily do away with mystery, or with Christ as a figure who might inspire not just admiration but holy terror. Hawthorne’s friend Herman Melville likewise seemed to have little interest in a dispassionate, cerebral Jesus. In “Benito Cereno,” a novella published in 1855, Melville staged the true story of the meeting of two ships, one American and sunnily Protestant and the other from Catholic Spain and ostentatiously Gothic and baroque. There’s a mystery on board the Spanish ship, a slave vessel, and the American captain, who has a personality like a Labrador retriever’s—all happy certainty, all reliance on the senses—can’t quite figure it out. The transatlantic trade in human beings, Melville seems to say, couldn’t be understood, or justified, or, in the end, rebuked by way of simple common sense. Something of the spirit, a demon or an avenging angel, had to come to bear. The Old World, and the old pre-Reformation religion, might still have a lesson to teach.
In the years before emancipation, the best arguments against slavery were also arguments about God. Throughout “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Douglass emphasizes the vulgarity and seeming godlessness of the overseers, slave breakers, and masters of the South. He shows them cursing and drinking, which, he knew, would horrify the largely temperate, highly religious abolitionists of the North. “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land,” Douglass wrote. “Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.” But Douglass’s Jesus is not Socrates; he is, as Douglass wrote in “My Bondage and My Freedom,” the “Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek Him.” Douglass did not wish to remove Christ from the Gospels, or to separate the New Testament from the Old, finding truth in Jeremiah and Isaiah as he did in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. One of the few lines from Jefferson that Douglass quoted in his speeches was a famous but arguably atypical remark from “Notes on the State of Virginia.” Jefferson, after meditating on the institution of slavery, wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Douglass added, “Such is the warning voice of Thomas Jefferson. Every day’s experience since its utterance until now, confirms its wisdom, and commends its truth.”
Abraham Lincoln once wrote that Jefferson “was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician in our history.” But, in some ways, Lincoln treated Jefferson as Jefferson had treated Christ. In arguing for the end of slavery, Lincoln exalted Jefferson’s Declaration, and praised Jefferson as “the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” He glided past the particulars of Jefferson’s own relationship to the practice of slavery. In centering the Declaration as the cornerstone of “the new birth of freedom” represented by the Civil War, Lincoln had cut the contradictory dross out of Jefferson’s life and emphasized what had value for a new age.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address clarifies his differences with Jefferson on the matter of God—and set the stage for many religious clashes to come, suggesting how they might, in time, be settled. Both sides of the Civil War “read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln wrote; in the end, neither interpretive system could fully win the day. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” Lincoln added—purposes that, presumably, aren’t entirely knowable, even by the most capable reader. We see only so far as “God gives us to see the right.” This was the dawning of a new and fragile postbellum pluralism, grounded not in pure reason but in mutual détente. Jefferson’s Declaration, as reimagined by Lincoln, was less a fleshed-out American Gospel than a pathway to tenuous agreement—not a statement of natural fact but a metaphysical horizon toward which the country, fractured though it was, could travel together.
“The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” was brought to public attention in 1895, by Cyrus Adler, an observant Jew from Arkansas, who was a librarian and a curator of religious items at the Smithsonian. Nearly a decade earlier, as a doctoral student searching the private library of a wealthy family, Adler had happened upon a set of Bibles that Jefferson had owned, with key passages of the Gospels snipped from their pages. Now, charged with mounting an exhibition on American religion and still mulling over that discovery, Adler finally figured out where the missing passages had gone: into Jefferson’s little book, which was hidden away in the library of Carolina Ramsey Randolph, Jefferson’s great-granddaughter. Adler bought the book from Randolph for four hundred dollars and promptly put it on display in the Capitol, where, in Jefferson’s time, it would almost certainly have been a scandal. Now it was met mostly with affectionate enthusiasm, as another example of Jefferson’s wide-ranging brilliance. In 1904, the Government Printing Office made the first official set of reproductions, one of which was to be given to each U.S. congressperson. “By the 1920s, there were five editions in circulation, both as cheap pocket-sized books and as collectors’ items,” Manseau notes.
America’s national ambitions were going global. After the Spanish-American War, the country had seized possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. If Jefferson needed a Jesus who could fit the imperatives of republicanism and westward expansion, Teddy Roosevelt—later to become Jefferson’s neighbor on Mt. Rushmore—needed to christen a budding empire. The new attitude was evident even in the nation’s architecture: the National Mall, for which Jefferson, in 1791, had sketched a plan of “public walks,” was reimagined as a site of Romanesque splendor. Eventually, the Jefferson Memorial was laid on the bank of the Tidal Basin, just across from the Mall, and among the documents placed under the cornerstone were the Declaration and “The Life and Morals.”
There’s a photograph of that monument taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson, in 1957, during the heat of the Black struggle for civil rights. Two Black boys, facing in opposite directions, dawdle just across the Tidal Basin from the memorial. A gentle row of trees and the dome dedicated to Jefferson loom just above their heads. The photograph is a reminder that, science and reason notwithstanding, Jefferson’s laconic Jesus, full of wisdom and bereft of spiritual power, never persuaded him to forfeit the slaves he owned. The boys in the photograph could be Jefferson’s kids; as Americans, they sort of were.
Since 2011, a monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., has sat across the water from the Jefferson Memorial, almost engaging it in a staring contest. The result is a rich spatial symbolism: two ways of seeing Christ duking it out. King saw Jesus in much the way that Douglass did: as a savior, a redeemer, and a liberator sorely degraded by those who claimed his name most loudly. During the Montgomery bus boycott, King reportedly carried a copy of “Jesus and the Disinherited,” a short, beautiful book by the minister and writer Howard Thurman. Thurman had travelled to India, where he made sure to meet Gandhi, whose doctrine of nonviolence he admired; he took what he learned from him back to America, planting an important intellectual seed that would blossom during the civil-rights movement. In his preaching and writings, Thurman reoriented what he called “the religion of Jesus,” pointing out what it might mean for those who had lived for so long under the thumb of the likes of Jefferson. Jefferson’s Jesus is an admirable sage, fit bedtime reading for seekers of wisdom. But those who were weak, or suffering, or in urgent trouble, would have to look elsewhere. “The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall,” Thurman wrote. “What does our religion say to them?”
Thurman’s Jesus was a genius of love—a love so complete and intimate that it suggested a nearby God, who had grown up in a forgotten town and was now renting the run-down house across the street. That same humble deity, in the course of putting on humanity, had obtained a glimpse of the conditions on earth—poverty, needless estrangement, a stubborn pattern of rich ruling over poor—and decided to incite a revolution that would harrow Hell. “The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed,” Thurman wrote. This is a Jesus that Jefferson could never understand.
In a world as compromised as ours, a soul so exalted was always destined for the Cross. Jefferson’s Bible ends before the Resurrection, with Jesus crucified by the Roman occupiers, as the Gospels tell us he was. Jefferson’s austere editing turns the killing almost into an afterthought—a desiccated reiteration of Socrates’ final encounter with hemlock, the simple consequence of having offended the wrong people. For Thurman, the Crucifixion was an emphatic lesson in creative weakness: by sticking out his neck and accepting the full implications of his own vulnerability, Christ had radically identified himself with the worst off. Those societal castoffs who could never get a break now had a savior, and a champion, and a model. This, for Thurman, is as great a teaching as anything that Jesus merely said. Where death, for Jefferson’s Jesus, is an ending, for Thurman’s it is a necessary precondition—just a start. ♦
Published in the print edition of the January 4 & 11, 2021, issue, with the headline “Personal Jesus.”
Your ears are not deceiving you: Songbirds in San Francisco have changed the way they sing this year, and in unexpected ways.
Throughout the shutdown San Franciscans reported an unusual amount of birdsong ringing through the city streets, and a scientific study has now shown that birds have indeed changed their singing habits.
San Francisco is a noisy place, but during the coronavirus pandemic the soundscape changed dramatically. In May, traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge was reduced to levels not seen since 1954, and the noise pollution on city streets was comparable to the rural parts of Marin County. Normally, San Francisco is around three times louder than Marin, the report says.
David Luther, assistant professor of Biology at George Mason University and Elizabeth Derryberry, associate professor at the University of Tennessee, worked with a team of ecologists on the study. They discovered that while the songbirds of San Francisco increased the frequency of song, they did so at a lower volume than usual, as there was less noise to compete with. However, to residents’ ears this resulted in a perceived increase in birdsong volume.
The findings were based on a comparison of soundscapes and songs of the white-crowned sparrow across the Bay Area.
“When I saw photos of an empty Golden Gate Bridge, it struck me just how little traffic there was.” Derryberry said in the report. “I realized we were in a unique position to look at how changes in human behavior might affect wildlife and what the noise reduction might mean for the songbird we study.”
The song samples obtained in May this year were compared to previous samples from 2016 from across the Bay Area.
The researchers found that the birds responded to the quiet by producing higher performance songs at lower amplitudes, maximizing communication distance. The sparrows began singing more joyfully, with a wider vocal range as males tried to woo females, the scientists found.
“When you’re shouting at a cocktail party, your voice is not at its best,” Derryberry explained in the study. “Our findings illustrate that behavioral traits can change rapidly in response to newly favorable conditions, indicating an inherent resilience to long-standing anthropogenic pressures like noise pollution.”
Reach Andrew on SFGATE. Local Editor Andrew Chamings grew up in Devon, England and moved to San Francisco in 2007. He was formerly Senior Editor at The Bold Italic and has written for The Atlantic, Vice and McSweeney’s. Follow him on Twitter. Email: Andrew.Chamings@sfgate.com
The first day I wore a crop top, I felt like my body was on fire.
I pulled my pants as far up as they would go so that the expanse of my belly exposed would be as small as possible. The decision to wear the crop top took exceeding mental fortification. I wore it, took it off, put it on again, stood in front of a mirror twisting and turning and fidgeting until a voice in my head shouted: ENOUGH. At the time, what I heard was, “Enough with the trying on. Just go, Jor.”
I now realize that I was actually telling myself that I am enough. Full stop. I am capable, even worthy, of wearing whatever the hell I want. This was something I had never told myself before.
There were items of clothing I would never look at because I thought they were not created for my form. That it was simply impossible for my body to be draped in such finery, like my body wasn’t good enough for certain things.
If no one else will tell you, I will tell you today: You are enough. Whatever you desire to wear that will lift your spirits and adorn your flesh, wear it today. Wear it and believe that you are enough. Because you are.
For the longest time in my early-to-mid teens, I wore only peplum tops over skirts or leggings or jeans because they would hide my belly. I cannot tell you how much of my life I’ve spent trying to hide my belly. Or my flabby arms or my folding neck. I cannot tell you how many wardrobe choices I have made solely hinged on baseless insecurities constructed in my head and solidified by family and society.
We are the greatest obstacles in the visualization of our own glory.
How can one be so committed to shrinking themselves that they are blind to their own glory? Every attempt to bury my body beneath baggy clothes was me telling myself “No one needs to see this” or “No one wants to see that”—and that’s a fucking lie. Look at you. You deserve to be seen, to be admired—first by yourself.
We are the greatest obstacles in the visualization of our own glory. We stand in front of a mirror alone and tear our bodies to shreds because we do not like what we see. Because energy is palpable and contagious, people automatically treat our bodies the same way we treat them.
For example, if you frequently make self-deprecating jokes about your body, sooner or later, people around you will also start to make those same jokes and might even take it further. You’ll then be hurt (rightly so), but it is from your mouth they learned to mock your body. We must never give others that kind of ammunition. Let all that falls from your mouth be declarations and affirmations of beauty. When they are finding what they want to say about you, let all their pickings be praise. There is no end to the glory inscribed on your bones. You must never forget that.
I grew up hating my arms. Since I was 13 or 14, I had these huge arms, and I would rather chew broken glass than show them. I had a million-and-one boleros and shawls and jackets, completely ill-suited for this sweltering climate, but I would have rather burned than expose my arms. I spent the whole of my secondary school experience fighting my arms.
Victory came—not because it landed in my arms but because I decided to stop giving a fuck. On my secondary school graduation ceremony, I wore the finest white jumpsuit I had ever seen. It had no sleeves and my arms, complete with their stretch marks and jiggle, were proudly paraded the whole day.
Every inch of my body is divine, ready to be loved, to be cherished, to be adored.
In the pictures, I’m not shy or tucking myself away. The same arms I used to hate are spread wide open, embracing people, waving in the sky, dancing all over. That was my first day of freedom. Since that day, I have no longer hated my arms. Now I slather them in Shea butter and watch them gleam and shine under the Lagos sun. I wrap my arms around my lovers and see them smile from the warmth and security these arms proffer. Now I know, like I should have always known, that every inch of my body is divine, ready to be loved, to be cherished, to be adored. Our bodies are always ready.
We are always waiting. For the perfect time to do this or that. For the perfect time to wear the pretty dress we’ve had for ages. For the perfect time to lose weight before we wear a dress, wear a bikini, or just generally wear what we love. We are always trying to beat our bodies into perfection, failing to understand that our current flesh is the perfection we so desperately seek.
You do not need to lose your belly before you wear that bodycon dress. You do not need a six-pack to wear your sexy silk shirt. Our bodies are always ready. To be adored. To be flaunted. To be loved so deeply that every nerve ending is bursting in euphoria. My darling, your body is ready.
“Truth is the offspring of silence and meditation.”
BY MARIA POPOVA (brainpickings.org)
In the 1650s, the penumbra of plague slowly began eclipsing Europe. Italy fell first, soon Spain, then Germany, then Holland. From across the slender cell wall of the Channel, England watched and trembled, then cautiously relaxed — for about a decade, some divine will seemed to be shielding the country. But the world was already worshipping at the altar of commerce and the forces of globalization had already been set into motion — with England’s economy relying heavily on trade, its ports bustled with ships carrying silk and tea and sugar from all discovered frontiers of the globe. Rats boarded the ships, fleas boarded the rats, bacteria — an almost-kingdom of unicellular organisms yet to be coronated, for the cell itself was yet to be discovered — boarded the fleas, which took to human flesh as soon as they debarked.
And so, on Christmas Day 1664, a single plague death was reported in London. Another came in February, then another. “Great fears of sickness here in the City,” the legendary diarist Samuel Pepys was writing by April. “God preserve us all.”
God was no match for the absence of a basic scientific understanding of biology and epidemiology. The deaths were swift, gruesome, and, soon, so voluminous that services ceased being held. Over the course of the summer, the death toll swelled tenfold, from hundreds to thousands per week. The infected were ordered not to leave their homes. Many were boarded in and left to die in isolation, an enormous cross painted on the outside of each plagued house. Plays, spectator blood sports, and other crowd gatherings were banned. Street vendors were banned from selling their wares, newsboys ceased crying and retreated indoors. An awful, alien silence came to blanket this capital of din. The universities closed.
When Cambridge sent its students home, a young man obsessed with mathematics, motion, and light, whose illiterate father had died three months before his birth, who worshipped a “God of order and not of confusion,” and who had begun his university studies by performing servants’ work for wealthier students in exchange for tuition, bundled his prized books and headed back to his mother’s farm.
There, in solitude and isolation, as the plague continued its deadly sweep, Isaac Newton (December 25, 1642–March 19, 1727) dreamt up the fulcrum that would dislodge humanity from the Dark Ages; there, the apple — real or apocryphal — fell, and in its shadow rose the revolutionary idea of gravity, which the young man envisioned as a force “extending to the orb of the Moon” all the way from the Earth, without “cutoff or boundary.” It was there, too, that he set out to compute that force, “requisite to keep the Moon in her Orb with the force of gravity at the surface of the earth”; in the act of computing it, as a necessity of that act, he invented calculus.Isaac Newton
He built bookshelves and made a small study for himself. He opened the nearly blank thousand-page commonplace book he had inherited from his stepfather and named it his Waste Book. He began filling it with reading notes. These mutated seamlessly into original research. He set himself problems; considered them obsessively; calculated answers, and asked new questions. He pushed past the frontier of knowledge (though he did not know this). The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.
From the fortunate platform of a long life — he lived to eighty-four, more than double the era’s life expectancy, his casket shouldered by dukes and earls — Newton would look back on his most intellectually fertile period of the plague years with the recognition that “truth is the offspring of silence and meditation.”