Tag Archives: γνῶσις

Goethe’s Genius

In the New Yorker, Adam Kirsch explains Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

His genius. Some of his work, including “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship,” or “Faust.” Goethe’s scientific endeavors and sense of holism. His fascination with Bildung—the “apprenticeship to life and society” with the aim to learn “who he really is and how he should live.”

[The] combination of earnestness and jovial detachment is what characterizes the mature Goethe, and what makes him unique; no other writer gives us the same sense that he has both seen life and seen through it.

Simplify Your Life

Self-help manuals are for the rest of us what the airport bookstore bestseller on the latest management fad is for businessmen. They promise novel perspectives on fundamental questions but typically leave the reader disappointed. Past the enticing introductory chapter with interesting examples, the novel perspectives all too often reduce to new semantics without substantive value added. But then, there might be exceptions.

To “simplify one’s life” is a prominent search term on the web and the topic of many websites, blog posts and books. If popular search engines identify the most relevant contributions then a handful of top ranked sites should contain most of the pertinent information. So here is a selection of top ranked sites and their suggestions for simplifying one’s life.

becomingminimalist lists 10 most important things to simplify, namely

  • possessions; time commitments; goals; negative thoughts; debt; words; artificial ingredients; screen time; connections to the world; and multi-tasking

while Slow Your Home offers 21 mostly rather down to earth suggestions:

  • Perform a clutter bust; practice gratitude; rearrange your living room; add some life with indoor plants; keep your dining table surface clear; use the “good” tableware and glasses; create white space; prepare yourself for the morning; find storage for your kitchen appliances; create secondary storage for pantry items; meal plan!; make your bed each and every day; start an exit drawer; start a donate box; check your mindset; get your finances in order; be accountable by recording your simplifying efforts; declutter your wardrobe; daily meditation; start with acceptance; and unplug.

Zen habits suggests 72 steps but helpfully boils the list down to 2 points:

  • Identify what’s most important to you; and eliminate everything else.

The blog also recommends Elaine St. James and her book Simplify Your Life.

Other sites proceed more systematically and for that very reason, strike me as more convincing. wikiHow devotes a chapter to simplifying one’s life and lists four “methods” and corresponding actions:

  1. Eliminating clutter: Decide what stuff is unnecessary; do quick cleans; do big cleans every season; shrink your wardrobe; stop buying new things you don’t need; downsize (have a small but comfortable home and learn to live with less); create white space; and make your bed every day.
  2. Getting organized: Plan what you can, or embrace your inner chaos; split household chores evenly; streamline your finances; find a place for each thing; prepare quick meals; and simplify your parenting.
  3. Simplifying Your Relationships: Identify bad relationships and end them; make the effort to spend time with people you like; learn to tell people “no;” spend more time alone; and spend less time on social networking.
  4. Slowing Down: Put your phone away; stop reading self-improvement manuals, books, and blogs; work from a manageable to-do list; declutter your digital packrattery; do one thing at a time; leave your work at work; and meditate for 15 minutes each day.

mindbodygreen offers the most concise advice suggesting five simplifying steps:

  • Evaluate your relationships and those that are draining you; disconnect—fully—for one hour a day (at least); sweep every corner of your home; get really, really quiet; and shred your “To Do” list, and make an “I Want” list.

The international bestseller How to Simplify Your Life: Seven Practical Steps to Letting Go of Your Burdens and Living a Happier Life thoroughly covers the topic—from clearing off one’s desk to cleaning up one’s life. It proceeds in seven steps:

  1. Simplifying stuff: Desk; office; apartment; remembering things.
  2. Personal finance: Relax, be optimistic; fewer things, more money; no debt; courage; wealth is in the eye of the beholder.
  3. Time: Focus; less than perfect; say “no”; slow down; hide.
  4. Health: Happiness; flow; fitness; food; sleep.
  5. People: Networking; parents; death; no envy; don’t judge.
  6. Relationship: Talk; no drama; work-life; sex; plan for old age.
  7. Self: Your objective; strengths; no bad conscience; enneagram.
  8. The book’s new edition also features spirituality: Spiritual place; pray; empower routine work; engage your soul.

Now go and simplify or stay messy at your own peril.

More sites: Think simple now. The Art of Simple. Simple Chic. (See also minimalism, DAISY.)

“How To Stay Sane”

Philippa Perry’s short book provides a succinct perspective on mental health. Perry argues that mental disorders fall into two groups: one associated with behavior that displays a tendency to stray into chaos; the other with behavior that manifests itself in excessive rigidity. She discusses the structure of the brain and the role of nature vs. nurture in integrating emotions and reasoning. The former rules.

Perry points to several areas that are central to successfully navigating between chaos and rigidity:

  • Self-observation: Wisdom and sanity build on a non-judgemental, self-observing attitude that fosters self-awareness and avoids self-justification. Self-observation amounts to re-parenting oneself. It helps develop compassion (internal and external) and it grows the brain. It requires to use feelings rather than be used by them. Keeping a diary helps, as do prayers or meditation. “Toxic chatter” doesn’t.
  • Relating to others: Brains need brains; nurturing relationships are key to staying sane. True dialogue requires honesty and thus, vulnerability. “Adhering to strict guidelines about how to behave around others is a form of rigidity. Not being mindful of your impact upon others is a form of chaos.” The “daily temperature reading” fosters emotional honesty.
  • Stress: Positive stimulation is fruitful; it fosters learning, creativity and brain plasticity and it strengthens the immune system. But it must not become overwhelming as to trigger panic and brain dissociating. Physical activity generates good stress.

When things go wrong Perry recommends to aim at re-writing one’s narrative:

  • Personal narrative: Grasping one’s guiding beliefs helps developing new perspectives. Narratives are co-constructed and form minds. They pass down “identity, wisdom and experience” from generation to generation. Telling one’s own story helps gain distance and independence, and it creates “a place of freedom” (Perry refers to Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning). Narratives are self-reinforcing; a genogram can help uncover and trace their roots. But stories are flexible, they can be changed, and so can lives that build on them. “Creating a consistent self-narrative that makes sense and feels true to ourselves is a challenge at any stage in life.” Optimism is productive and self enforcing; but hearing good news must be learned. Fear of losing love comes with penny-pinching. Certainty is a trap.

“Bildung (Cultured Education)”

Dietrich Schwanitz’ book (Wikipedia) covers “Wissen” und “Können” against the background of the German “Bildungskanon”, the liberal education of a cultured, well-bred German-speaker. The very ambition of the endeavor is breath taking and provokes disagreement and objection. But Schwanitz delivers. A lengthy book of nearly 700 pages it is concise and dense and contains lots of food for thought.

Among hundreds of tidbits, here are some:

  • Footnote on the footnote (pp. 461–462).
  • On Switzerland (p. 596):

Was die Schweizer auf dem Hintergrund ihrer eigenen Geschichte bei den Deutschen am wenigsten begreifen, ist, daß sie mit der antiautoritären Kulturrevolution alle bürgerlichen Tugenden so restlos über Bord geworfen haben. Es sind die Tugenden, die ehemals als besonders deutsch galten und jetzt nur noch in der Schweiz eine Heimstatt haben: Solidität, eine gewisse Ordnungsliebe und Pedanterie, Zuverlässigkeit im Ausführen von Aufgaben und Präzision bei der Produktion von Apparaten, und ein Standard der Sauberkeit und Wohlanständigkeit weit über dem europäischen Durchschnitt sowie ein fest verankerter Glaube an Normen und Regeln.

  • In the section about intelligence, a ranking of what might have been the 10 most intelligent men ever (p. 604):

1. John Stuart Mill; 2. Goethe; 3. Leibniz; 4. Grotius; 5. Macaulay; 6. Bentham; 7. Pascal; 8. Schelling; 9. Haller; 10. Coleridge.

  • Short summaries of “books that changed the world” (pp. 635–654).

“… trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen (Man’s Search for Meaning)”

The English language translations of Viktor Frankl’s book “… trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager” (Wikipedia German, English) were published as “From Death-Camp to Existentialism” and “Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.” Frankl describes his experience in Auschwitz and other concentration camps with a focus on the psychological changes the inmates went through. The narrative is shocking and Frankl’s ability to maintain a positive attitude to life in spite of the horror he experienced admirable. But I was less impressed by the book than millions of readers before me—it neither provides a systematic account nor a personal narrative.

The sketch “Synchronisation in Buchenwald” at the end of the book (featuring Socrates, Spinoza, Kant, KZ inmates and others) is the best part of the short book. Structured as a stage play it provides insights into Frankl’s thinking.