Thursday, October 3, 2013

What I've Been Reading

Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess by Daniel Akst. Brilliant book with lucid writing which covers from Greeks to Daniel Kahneman; this one book every American has to read.
The core message from Akst: we are not wired to live in the world of excess, so we need to may be seek help of others, may be distract ourselves and be a little conscientious to increase self-control because it is the most important trait in the modern world.

There never has been, and cannot be, a good life without self-control.
- Leo Tolstoy
  • If we hold ourselves responsible for our behavior—none of which is entirely voluntary—we are more likely to consciously direct our actions rather than succumbing to impulse. The magnificent result might be for more of us, even in some small way, to take charge of our own destiny. Doing this requires a kind of faith, but only in our own power to choose. It requires imagination, so that we can visualize the future that our sacrifices might produce. And it requires cleverness, for creating methods to promote the kind of deeds we prefer. In the absence of these three things we too easily become our own worst enemy.
  • The good news in all this is that, in much of the world, the problem of survival has been swapped for the more manageable one of self-control. The bad news is that self-control in modern life is so hard—which is a shame, because it turns out to be so damned important.
  • What self-control doesn’t mean, in my book, is mindless self-sacrifice or knee-jerk self-denial. On the contrary, it represents an affirmation of self, for it requires not the negation of instinct but its integration into a more complete form of character—one that takes account of more than just immediate pleasures and pains. The self-control I’m talking about means acting in keeping with your highest level of reflection. And it’s not easy. One of the most important things I learned in the course of this book is that while we can do better, we can’t do it alone. Willpower by itself won’t get the job done without the help of institutions—a sensible legal framework and strong social connections. The desire to master our impulses will have to be matched with the means to commit to our desired courses of action, so that when strength of will falters (as it inevitably must) we don’t find it as easy to succumb. Reason can’t reliably overpower passion by force, and so will have to use its wiles.
  • Credit in itself is not evil; on the contrary, it is the lifeblood of civilization, which it underwrites by fueling innovation and prosperity. The term credit comes from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe,” and it implies a faith in tomorrow on the part of borrower and lender alike. But when credit is used to fund consumption rather than investment, we are taking from the future rather than investing in it, and for a while doing so became a near-universal practice.
  • The really big change isn’t in the law but in us. I think we’re more willing to put our own happiness first. People who find their marriages unfulfilling want to split up, and there is no longer much social pressure to keep them together. Should there be? Probably. A little social pressure can do a world of good, as it has against smoking, and as with smoking cessation, third parties would benefit. For implicit in the way marriage has changed in the past half century is a shift in priorities that favors adults at the expense of kids.
  • Greek ethics in this period boils down to a single phrase: meden agan, or nothing to excess. Someone who adhered to this principle was said to possess sophrosyne, which means something like temperance or self-mastery. A person who wasn’t sophron must have had some moral deficit and lacked a kind of integrity. The classicist Helen North in her wonderful study of the subject, which appeared in the immoderate year of 1966, nicely described the key components of sophrosyne as “the control of appetite by reason and the harmonious agreement within the soul that this control should be exercised.” So having sophrosyne means that you have a grip on your desires and you are glad that you do. It’s not about self-denial; rather, the emphasis here is on finding a place between too little control (always a danger) and too much, which is not so great either.
  • Aristotle also understood that living the sort of virtuous life he had in mind—perennially holding the reins of one’s appetites and emotions, indulging them when appropriate and suppressing them when not—imposes an enormous burden for any of us by ourselves. So he emphasized the role of friends—not acquaintances, or contacts, or drinking buddies, but real friends. These serious friendships take time to develop, he recognized, and we are unlikely to have many of them, but they’re invaluable because they foster virtue. Besides, happiness is not something that happens overnight, or as the result of some quick fix. “The good for man,” Aristotle argued, “is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue . . . in a complete lifetime. One swallow does not make a summer; neither does one day.”
  • “The self,” the psychologist Mark R. Leary tells us, “did not evolve to exert the amount of control that we require of it in modern life. To begin with, our lives are filled with far more choices and decisions than the lives of the individuals in whom the modern self first appeared. Spending their entire lives in the same clan, wandering the same territory, planning only a day or two ahead, and practicing the same cultural traditions, our prehistoric ancestors would not have confronted the innumerable choices that modern people must make every day.”
  • We aren’t powerless, but we’re weak. On the other hand, what we have on our side is this very knowledge, which we can use as a lever against the world’s enormous weight. Of the three great forces working against the exercise of conscious will, only one is subject to our influence: you can to a degree control your environment. Want to kick a habit? Eradicate the cues. Want to save your marriage? Avoid the hot new hire in accounting. And vote for politicians who are (within reason) likely to help us reclaim the public realm from the forces of temptation. This doesn’t mean a return to Prohibition or prudery; it’s just an acknowledgment that in the face of our own conflicting desires, we might prefer some over others, and we desperately need mechanisms for avoiding the unwanted options we might not be able to resist.
  • Depression isn’t anger turned inward, and bacteria (not anger) causes ulcers. Venting anger seems only to escalate the emotion. In fact, since facial expressions and body language generally work in both directions, the physical manifestations of an emotion can magnify it, as recent studies have demonstrated. Both Charles Darwin and William James suspected as much all along. “The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it,” Darwin quite rightly observed. “On the other hand, the repression, as far as this is possible, of all outward signs softens our emotions.”
  • Too many behaviors, over the years, have been shifted from the voluntary part of the spectrum to the involuntary part, as if we could no more stop shopping than we could stop breathing. But every time we move something into this involuntary category, we chip away at our humanity. 
  • William James devoted an entire chapter to habit in his monumental The Principles of Psychology, observing (with his own ardent italics) that “the great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.

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