The old Zen masters knew what to do with books — they burned them. Books lure us with knowledge, but rarely lead to wisdom. The great spiritual teachers — the Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, etc. — didn’t write books, and probably didn’t read many books. Nietzsche said that “a solitude without friends, books, duties or passions” can give us “those quarters of an hour of the deepest immersion in oneself and in nature.”1 Books rarely lead to these moments of “deepest immersion,” these moments of ecstasy and enlightenment. Didn’t the great spiritual teachers experience these moments without the help of books?
A recent DavidBrooks column discussed a bestselling author whom I’d never heard of: Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a 55-year-old psychology professor at the University of Toronto. His new book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is the bestselling book on Amazon.
The first of Peterson’s 12 Rules is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” A couple years ago, I became interested in standing up straight, I became interested in posture. In an earlier issue, I discussed the Alexander Technique, which I described as “a theory of posture and movement.” The Alexander Technique is practical philosophy, applied philosophy, philosophy connected to life. The great philosophers are those who connect philosophy to life. Is any book more closely connected to life than Thoreau’s Walden? Nietzsche said,
|I get profit from a philosopher, just so far as he can be an example to me.... This example must exist in his outward life, not merely in his books; it must follow the way of the Grecian philosophers, whose doctrine was in their dress and bearing and general manner of life rather than in their speech or writing.2|
One of the chief flaws of academia is that it separates learning from living, it emphasizes theory over posture.
This painting of the poet Li Bai conveys
energy and character through posture.
(The painting is from about 1200 AD,
Li Bai lived about 700 AD.)
Forty years ago, the psychologist Scott Peck wrote a bestseller called The Road Less Traveled. One day, Peck was taking a taxi to a TV studio to do an interview, and he described his book to the taxi driver. The driver said, “It sounds like your book is about getting your shit together.” Peck thought the driver had hit the nail on the head, and he would have liked to quote the driver’s comment on TV.
Peterson often advises us to “get our shit together” — do the things we know we should do. He often says, “Clean your room.” He often says that life is hard, but if we have a goal, then we can endure suffering. “People are pack animals,” Peterson says, “they need to pull against a weight.” We need responsibilities to make suffering endurable and to give meaning to life, but contemporary society often emphasizes rights rather than responsibilities.
According to Wikipedia, Peterson’s Youtube videos “have received more than 35 million views as of January 2018.” Most of his viewers are men; Peterson says that Youtube is predominantly a male platform, while Tumblr is predominantly a female platform. Peterson addresses young men, and advises them to formulate a goal, and to “stop saying and doing things that make you feel weak.” He says that many men aren’t doing well in contemporary society.
One of his popular videos is a discussion of gender issues with a journalist named Cathy Newman. Peterson is famous for defying Political Correctness.
Many of Peterson’s videos deal with the Book of Genesis. He discusses the psychological meaning of ancient myths.
Peterson urges people to take responsibility for themselves, and he decries identity politics:
|Since the 1970s, under the guise of postmodernism, we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities, it’s come to dominate all of the humanities — which are dead as far as I can tell — and a huge proportion of the social sciences... We’ve been publicly funding extremely radical, postmodern leftist thinkers who are hellbent on demolishing the fundamental substructure of Western civilization. And that’s no paranoid delusion. That’s their self-admitted goal... Jacques Derrida... most trenchantly formulated the anti-Western philosophy that is being pursued so assiduously by the radical left.|
Peterson has “a particular interest in the psychology of religious and ideological belief.”3 His first book was called Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. Peterson has written only two books; he seems to spend most of his time teaching, lecturing, and seeing patients. He has, however, written articles for scholarly journals. Some of his articles address the question, “What effect does reading fiction have on a person?” For example, one of his articles is called “Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy”.
Lincoln had a special fondness for newspapers. One of Lincoln’s friends said he “‘never saw a man better pleased’ than when Lincoln was appointed postmaster, because he could read [newspapers from around the country] before delivering them to their subscribers.”4 Lincoln’s favorite newspaper, and one of the leading papers of the day, was the New York Tribune (sometimes called the New-York Tribune, or the New-York Daily Tribune). The Tribune’s daily edition was the most important NewYorkCity paper, and its weekly edition was the most important national paper.
While serving in the House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849, Lincoln became friends with Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who served a short stint in the House. Lincoln admired Greeley’s writing; “every one of [Greeley’s] words,” Lincoln said, “seems to weigh about a ton.” Initially a supporter of the Whig Party, Greeley used his influence to help found the Republican Party in 1853, and to help Lincoln receive the Republican nomination in 1860. Until the end of his life, Lincoln stayed in touch with Greeley; they sometimes differed over policy matters, such as the timing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
As a journalist, Greeley made no secret of his partisan positions; “Greeley was what the British refer to as a ‘campaigning editor.’” When he disagreed with the Whig platform in 1852, Greeley thundered, “We defy it, execrate it, spit upon it.” Greeley’s stint in the House was short (three months), but his political career didn’t end there. In 1872, he ran for President, receiving 44% of the vote to Grant’s 56%. (Greeley was said to be a poor campaigner; it has been argued that he had Asperger’s.)
Two members of the Tribune’s editorial staff, Charles Dana and George Ripley, had been leading figures in the Brook Farm community. Brook Farm was a utopian-socialist experiment in the Boston area (West Roxbury). One might compare it to Fruitlands, a utopian-socialist experiment in Harvard, Massachusetts, co-founded by Bronson Alcott. Both Fruitlands and Brook Farm operated in the 1840s. Alcott’s daughter, Louisa May Alcott, wrote a book about Fruitlands called Transcendental Wild Oats, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived at Brook Farm, wrote a book about it called Blithedale Romance.
Socialism was “in the air,” and critics of capitalism were everywhere. In a recent issue, I mentioned that, in 1915, both D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster were friendly toward socialism. When I discussed the Cambridge Five spy ring, I noted that, in the 1930s, “Many Western intellectuals were sympathetic toward Communism.” One might say that socialism enjoyed broad popularity in the West for a century — from about 1835 to 1935.
In 1835, one of the most prominent apostles of socialism was the Frenchman Charles Fourier. Fourier complained that the French and American revolutions had helped only the middle classes. Fourier’s goal was to improve the lot of the working class.
|The first right of men [Fourier wrote] is the right to work and the right to a minimum [income]. This is precisely what has gone unrecognized in all the constitutions. Their primary concern is with favored individuals who are not in need of work.|
Greeley championed Fourier’s views in the Tribune, and hired Fourier’s disciple, Albert Brisbane.
Another French thinker who spread the socialist gospel was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Charles Dana was a Proudhon fan, and publicized his banking theories. For a time, Proudhon and Marx were on friendly terms, but eventually they fell out. Proudhon is known as the father of anarchism. “The dispute [between Proudhon and Marx] became one of the sources of the split between the anarchist and Marxist wings of the International Working Men’s Association.”5
Greeley’s Tribune was critical of capitalism, and receptive to socialism. Greeley said that his pen was “ready to expose and reprove the crimes whereby wealth is amassed and luxury enjoyed.” “Our idea,” the Tribune editorialized, “is that Labor needs not to combat but to command Capital.” When revolution swept over Europe in 1848, the Tribune applauded the effort to overthrow “the royalty of money [and] the aristocracy of capital.” Greeley said we should consider every scheme for re-organizing society:
|Full of error and suffering as the world yet is, we cannot afford to reject unexamined any idea which proposes to improve the moral, intellectual, or social condition of mankind.|
The Tribune supported labor unions, and Lincoln was also labor-friendly. “The strongest bond of human sympathy,” Lincoln said, “outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.” In 1837, in his first speech as an Illinois state legislator, Lincoln said, “These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people.” In his first State of the Union speech, delivered in December 1861, Lincoln said,
|Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.|
But Lincoln was a moderate on the labor question, as on the slavery question; Lincoln didn’t believe in abolishing wealth or abolishing capital. He felt that “a law to prevent a man from getting rich” would “do more harm than good,” and he said that, while labor was “superior” to capital, there “probably always will be a relation between labor and capital.”
Marx viewed Lincoln as a working-class hero. Marx thought that Lincoln would do for the working class what the French and American Revolutions had done for the middle class. When Lincoln was re-elected in 1864, Marx wrote him a congratulatory letter on behalf of the First International Workingmen’s Association, which was meeting in London. Lincoln responded to Marx’s letter, and “Marx was thrilled by ‘the fact that Lincoln answered us so courteously.’”
Marx had taken refuge in London after being driven out of Germany. In 1848, when Marx was still in Germany, he had been visited by the Tribune’s managing editor, Charles Dana. Marx was a difficult person to chat with. Carl Schurz, who had attempted to chat with Marx, said
|To no opinion which differed from his, he accorded the honor of even a condescending consideration. Everyone who contradicted him he treated with abject contempt.|
But Dana got along with Marx, and engaged him to write for the Tribune. Over a ten-year period, Marx contributed around 500 articles to the Tribune; some of his articles were published as “leaders” (unsigned editorials). This was “the closest thing [Marx] ever had to a steady job.”
Greeley realized that Marx was a master of prose. How could he write so well in a foreign language? Here’s a sample of Marx’s prose:
|The first act of the revolutionary drama on the continent of Europe has closed. The “powers that were” before the hurricane of 1848 are again the “powers that be,” and the more or less popular rulers of a day, provisional governors, triumvirs, dictators with their tail of representatives, civil commissioners, military commissioners, prefects, judges, generals, officers, and soldiers, are thrown upon foreign shores, and “transported beyond the seas” to England or America, there to form new governments in partibus infidelium, European committees, central committees, national committees, and to announce their advent with proclamations quite as solemn as those of any less imaginary potentates. A more signal defeat than that undergone by the continental revolutionary party — or rather parties — upon all points of the line of battle, cannot be imagined.|
But take heart, Marx tells his readers. The struggle of the French and English middle classes for political power took decades. Be patient. The second act of our struggle will begin soon.
Many revolutionaries came to the U.S., and became Republicans. August Willich, for example, who had once criticized Marx for being too moderate, supported Lincoln in 1860, and later became a Union officer. Willich had the brigade band “play revolutionary songs such as the ‘Arbiter [Workers’] Marseillaise’.”
It’s often said that Lincoln came to national attention in 1858, as a result of his debates with Stephen Douglas. But Lincoln’s rise began earlier. During the 1854 campaign season, Lincoln gave several speeches in Illinois, some of which lasted more than three hours. A journalist who covered one of these speeches wrote thus:
|Progressing with his theme, his words began to come faster and his face to light up with the rays of genius and his body to move in unison with his thoughts. His gestures were made with his body and head rather than with his arms. His speaking went to the heart because it came from the heart.... Mr. Lincoln’s eloquence [produced] conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself. His listeners felt that he believed every word he said.|
After these 1854 speeches, Lincoln became known in Republican circles, and in 1856, he ran for the VicePresidential nomination. He was defeated by William Dayton of New Jersey, who became Fremont’s running-mate.
Before computers, there were shorthand systems that allowed people to write faster by abbreviating. Centuries ago, writers probably devised their own shorthand systems. For example, a scholar translating Homer might write OD instead of Odysseus. If he had lots of these shorthands, he could write more quickly, and with less ink/paper. Later, however, an assistant or a typesetter would have to expand these shorthands, replacing OD with Odysseus, etc. But computers can make these replacements instantly; computers facilitate shorthand. The “shorthand power” of computers hasn’t yet been tapped; there’s no standard shorthand system, and young students aren’t taught “digital shorthand.”
Nine years ago, I discussed “digital shorthand,” and explained how I use the AutoCorrect feature of Microsoft Word as a shorthand system. (In the current version of Word, AutoCorrect can be found under File ==> Options ==> Proofing)
GoogleDocs has a feature similar to AutoCorrect (under Tools ==> Preferences ==> Automatic Substitution).
Why not make a set of shorthands standard, as keyboards are standard, as ASCII codes are standard, as spelling is standard? Google and Microsoft could give users the option of embedding these standard shorthands in their word processors. Operating systems, like Windows and Mac OS, could embed these shorthands, making them available in e-mail programs, etc. Students could learn these shorthands just as they learn typing, just as they learn spelling. Here are 60 shorthands that I use (I actually use far more, perhaps 600):
In Microsoft Word, a macro could be created to add a list of shorthands to AutoCorrect, and a macro could be created to quiz students on shorthands.
|1.||The Wanderer and the Shadow, #200 back|
|2.||Untimely Essays, “Schopenhauer As Educator,” #3 back|
|4.||“Reading Karl Marx with Abraham Lincoln: Utopian socialists, German communists, and other republicans,” by John Nichols, International Socialist Review, isreview.org/issue/79/reading-karl-marx-abraham-lincoln, Issue #79, quoting Lincoln biographer John Waugh back|