How to Cope with Today’s Presidential Inauguration

(This post is dedicated with love to a dedicated reader)

The American Political World Is Bad And Getting Worse 

At the request of a reader depressed by today’s American presidential inauguration, I’m quickly writing a post. (This is a disclaimer as to its quality and completeness.) My own views—in more complete form—about the tragedy and danger of electing someone so manifestly unqualified, so psychologically, morally and intellectually unfit, (“An amygdala with a twitter account,” as my son puts it,) have been expressed over and over in previous posts. (For more scroll down on “politics” at the right, top corner of the page.)

My readers’ pain about our current state of affairs results from being more educated than most about the issues, political climate, new president, recent history, and the corruption, shenanigans, lies, and bs that surround us. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. And, as we have seen in a previous post, less education, even accounting for all other factors, was the biggest predictor of Trump support. It also evokes sadness to think of all the people who will suffer and die if some of the promises of the Republicans come true—the loss of health care for millions, increased economic inequality, etc. And this says nothing of people around the world who might die in wars resulting from a more unstable world.

Plato told us more than 2,000 years ago that you can’t have a good life without a good government, and you can’t have a good government without morally and intellectually virtuous leaders. He told us that democracy is one of the worst kinds of government—it’s the blind leading the blind—and that it inevitably leads to tyranny where power joins with vice. Trump in charge of nuclear codes; Perry in charge of nuclear energy; Tillerson and Exxon in charge of diplomacy; Sessions in charge of the law; Devos in charge of education—it would be hard for a dystopian novel to invent all this. Its 2017, but we live in 1984. The ministry of truth tells lie; the ministry of peace fights war; and no lie is too bold.

If only the masses truly understood what they did. They thought their TV was broke so they decided to try something new. Call knowledgeable people? No! Instead they banged on their TV with a hammer. Might work. Probably will make things worse.

And let me add—a society that has no respect for truth will make bad decisions. Replacing the rule of law and the pre-eminence of reason with the rule of the passions is a prescription for tyranny and anarchy as Aristotle told us long ago. 

Sure one can wonder how we got from Nixon’s southern strategy, to Reagan saying government was the problem, to Delay’s and Gingrich’s moral corruption, to Republican obstructionism and disdain for truth, to the Tea Party, to the freedom caucus, to nearly one-party fascist rule. But this is the job of historians and political scientists to unpack. The past is closed, and we must move forward.

How To Cope 

My reader doesn’t want more gloom and doom or historical analysis—she wants advice about coping. Lacking any special insights, I’ll just try to think the problem out as I write.

It seems there are at least two things you’re coping with today if you are relatively conscious of what’s going on politically. First, the bad things that have already happened, and second, the bad things that might happen as a result of this past.

As for what has already happened, you can’t do anything about it, so it is pointless to waste time thinking about it—to worry is an exercise in mindlessness. As for what might happen, we must remember that we don’t know the future. Many things we worry about never happen, so it is ineffective to worry about the merely possible. I know this is easier said than done, but realizing the pointlessness of worry is a start.

What is not pointless is doing something to make the dystopian future less likely. This may include writing, marching, creating beauty, getting politically active, or it may simply imply helping those few that you can help. It might mean being a good parent, so that we less psychologically damaged individuals run the government; it might mean learning more about marital conflict resolution; it might mean meditating to achieve greater mind control; it might be all of these things and more. But it definitely means doing something as opposed to ruminating about all the bad things that are happening.

Yet here we must also remember the sage advice of the Stoics, Buddhists, and Hindus. As they long ago discovered, you can’t control the world, you can only influence it. You shouldn’t be indifferent, passive, or apathetic; rather, you should discharge your duties to help the world. But remember that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. Thus, as long as you do what you can, you shouldn’t feel shame or guilt.

This advice may seem trite, but I don’t know what else to say. Change what you can; ignore what you can’t change, and recognize the difference between the two, to paraphrase Niebuhr’s serenity prayer.  Reflecting on this, it isn’t surprising that we can’t say much more than has been said in the 10,000 years of human culture. It isn’t likely that we would discover something that all the sages and seers missed. Perhaps then trite isn’t the right word for our advice. Our advice may lack originality, but that doesn’t make it worthless.

In short my advice is: 1) learn to control the mental disturbance caused by obsession over a past that you can’t change, or a future that may not come to be; and 2) act now to better the world and ourselves based on the best knowledge available, with the recognition that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. We are suggesting a middle way between the helplessness and impotence that accompanies worry, and the hubris of thinking we can perfect the world, and our responsible that perfection.

These Two Pieces of Advice in World Literature 

The most profound statement of these points—that we try to control our minds and fight to better the world—that I’m aware of come from French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, who wrote about the peace that accompanies the stoical mind, and the Greek novelist and essayist Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote deeper than anyone I’ve ever encountered about fighting the battle of life, and taking pride in our efforts.

Here is Descartes:

My third maxim was to endeavour always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in respect of things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico; and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with. But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied. For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favours heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.

And here is Kazantzakis (with my commentary):

Kazantzakis believed that the meaning of our lives is to find our place in the chain that links us with these undreamt of forms of life.

We all ascend together, swept up by a mysterious and invisible urge. Where are we going? No one knows. Don’t ask, mount higher! Perhaps we are going nowhere, perhaps there is no one to pay us the rewarding wages of our lives. So much the better! For thus may we conquer the last, the greatest of all temptations—that of Hope.[i]

I remember being devastated the first time I read those lines. I had rejected my religious upbringing, but why couldn’t I have a hope? Why was Kazantzakis taking that from me too? His point was that the honest and brave struggle without hope or expectation that they will ever arrive, be anchored, be at home. Like Ulysses, the only home Kazantzakis found was in the search itself. The meaning of life is found in the search and the struggle, not in any hope of success.

In the prologue of his autobiography, Report to Greco, Kazantzakis claims that we need to go beyond both hope and despair. Both expectation of paradise and fear of hell prevent us from focusing on what is in front of us, our heart’s true homeland … the search for meaning itself. We ought to be warriors who struggle bravely to create meaning without expecting anything in return. Unafraid of the abyss, we should face it bravely and run toward it. Ultimately we find joy by taking full responsibility for our lives—joyous in the face of tragedy. Life is essentially struggle, and if in the end it judges us we should bravely reply, like Kazantzakis did:

General, the battle draws to a close and I make my report. This is where and how I fought. I fell wounded, lost heart, but did not desert. Though my teeth clattered from fear, I bound my forehead tightly with a red handkerchief to hide the blood, and ran to the assault.”[ii]

Surely that is as courageous a sentiment in response to the ordeal of human life as has been offered in world literature. It is a bold rejoinder to the awareness of the inevitable decline of our minds and bodies, as well as to the existential agonies that permeate life. It finds the meaning of life in our actions, our struggles, our battles, our roaming, our wandering, and our journeying. It appeals to nothing other than what we know and experience—and yet finds meaning and contentment there.

Just outside the city walls of Heraklion Crete one can visit Kazantzakis’ gravesite, located there as the Orthodox Church denied his being buried in a Christian cemetery. On the jagged, cracked, unpolished Cretan marble you will find no name to designate who lies there, no dates of birth or death, only an epitaph in Greek carved in the stone. It translates: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

The gravesite of Kazantzakis.

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[i] James Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering, 11th ed. (Belmont CA.: Wadsworth, 2012), 656.
[ii] Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (New York: Touchstone, 1975), 23

Summary of Maslow on Self-Transcendence

It is quite true that [we live] by bread alone—when there is no bread. But what happens to [our] desires when there is plenty of bread and when [our bellies are] chronically filled?
~ Abraham Maslow

The Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) was an American psychologist best known for creating a theory of psychological health known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Textbooks usually portray Maslow’s hierarchy in the shape of a pyramid with our most basic needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top.[1] Note how the iconic pyramid ignores self-transcendance:

The basic idea here is that survival demands food, water, safety, shelter, etc. Then, to continue to develop, you need your psychological needs for belonging and love met by friends and family, as well as a sense of self-esteem that comes with some competence and success. If you have had these needs fulfilled, then you can explore the cognitive level of ideas, the aesthetic level of beauty and, finally, you may experience the self-actualization that accompanies achieving your full potential.

Note that the higher needs don’t appear until lower needs are satisfied; so if you are hungry and cold, you can’t worry much about self-esteem, art, or mathematics. Notice also that the different levels correspond roughly to different stages of life. The needs of the bottom of the pyramid are predominant in infancy and early childhood; the needs for belonging and self-esteem predominate in later childhood and early adulthood; and the desire for self-actualization emerges with mature adulthood.

Self-Transcendence 

What is less well-known is that Maslow amended his model near the end of his life, and therefore the conventional portrayal of his hierarchy is inaccurate, as it omits a description of this later thought. In his later thinking, he argued that the we can experience the highest level of development, what he called self-transcendence, by focusing on some higher goal outside ourselves. Examples include altruism, or spiritual awakening or liberation from egocentricity. Here is how he put it:

Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York, 1971, p. 269.)

Notice that placing self-transcendence above self-actualization results in a radically different model. While self-actualization refers to fulfilling your own potential, self-transcendence puts your own needs aside to serve something greater than yourself. In the process, self-trancenders may have what Maslow called peak experiences, in which they transcend personal concerns. In such mystical, aesthetic, or emotional states one feels intense joy, peace, well-being, and an awareness of ultimate truth and the unity of all things.

Maslow also believed that such states aren’t always transitory—some people might be able to readily access them. This led him to define another term, “plateau experience.” These are more lasting, serene, and cognitive states, as opposed to peak experiences which tend to be mostly emotional and temporary. Moreover, in plateau experiences one feels not only ecstasy, but the sadness that comes with realizing that others cannot have similar encounters. While Maslow believed that self-actualized, mature people are those most likely to have these self-transcendent experiences, he also felt that everyone was capable of having them.

Given that Maslow’s humanistic psychology emphasized self-actualization and what is right with people, it isn’t surprising that his later transpersonal psychology explored extreme wellness or optimal well-being. This took the form of interest in persons who have expanded their normal sense of identity to include the transpersonal, or the underlying unity of all reality. (Thus the connection between transpersonal psychology and the mystical and meditative traditions of the world’s religions.)

Let me conclude by looking at two succinct and eloquent statement of the difference between self-actualization and self-transcendence. The first can be found in an excellent summary of the Maslow’s later thought: “Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification” by Mark Koltko-Rivera of New York University. As he puts it:

At the level of self-actualization, the individual works to actualize the individual’s own potential [whereas] at the level of transcendence, the individual’s own needs are put aside, to a great extent, in favor of service to others …

Finally, Maslow’s conclusion that self-transcendence is the highest level of psychological development reminds me of the thinking of Victor Frankl, about whom I have written many times in this blog.  In Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the most profound books ever written and one that I have taught out of many times, Frankl states:

… the true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within [our own] psyche  … the real aim of human existence cannot be found in what is called self-actualization. Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all; for the simple reason that the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it. For only to the extent to which man commits himself to the fulfillment of his life’s meaning, to this extent he also actualizes himself. In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

This seems to line up perfectly with what I think Maslow had in mind.

Reflections

I like the idea of going beyond self-actualization or fulfillment of personal potential to furthering causes beyond the self, or to experiencing communion beyond the self through peak and/or plateau experiences. I am receptive to these ideas as long as they derive from human or transhuman concerns without reference to a supernatural (imaginary) realm. I can accept mysticism if that means that some things are mysterious, but I reject it if it refers to anything supernatural—the mysterious is not supernatural, and the supernatural is mysterious only to the extent it is non-existent.

What especially appeals to me is how Maslow’s later thinking about self-transcendence can be understood as prefiguring transhumanism. I doubt that Maslow consciously thought about it in this way, but clearly his questions about the limits of human development—and the possibility that there are few limits—foreshadows transhumanist thinking. As Maslow said: “Human history is a record of the ways in which human nature has been sold short. The highest possibilities of human nature have practically always been underrated.” Perhaps we need meditation, altruism, communion with nature, and technologically-aided human enhancement through technology to transcend ourselves .

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Addendum: Excerpts from “Theory Z” (re-printed in: The Farther Reaches of Human Nature)

1. For transcenders, peak experiences and plateau experiences become the most important things in their lives….

2. They speak more easily, normally, naturally, and unconsciously the language of Being (B-language), the language of poets, of mystics, of seers, of profoundly religious men…

3. They perceive unitively or sacrally (i.e., the sacred within the secular), or they see the sacredness in all things at the same time that they also see them at the practical, everyday D-level …

4. They are much more consciously and deliberately metamotivated. That is, the values of Being…, e.g., perfection, truth, beauty, goodness, unity, dichotomy-transcendence … are their main or most important motivations.

5. They seem somehow to recognize each other, and to come to almost instant intimacy and mutual understanding even upon first meeting…

6. They are more responsive to beauty. This may turn out to be rather a tendency to beautify all things… or to have aesthetic responses more easily than other people do…

7. They are more holistic about the world than are the “healthy” or practical self-actualizers… and such concepts as the “national interest” or “the religion of my fathers” or “different grades of people or of IQ” either cease to exist or are easily transcended…

8. [There is] a strengthening of the self-actualizer’s natural tendency to synergy—intrapsychic, interpersonal, intraculturally and internationally…. It is a transcendence of competitiveness, of zero-sum of win-lose gamesmanship.

9. Of course there is more and easier transcendence of the ego, the Self, the identity.

10. Not only are such people lovable as are all of the most self-actualizing people, but they are also more awe-inspiring, more “unearthly,” more godlike, more “saintly”…, more easily revered…

11. … The transcenders are far more apt to be innovators, discoverers of the new, than are the healthy self-actualizers… Transcendent experiences and illuminations bring clearer vision … of the ideal …of what ought to be, what actually could be, … and therefore of what might be brought to pass.

12. I have a vague impression that the transcenders are less “happy” than the healthy ones. They can be more ecstatic, more rapturous, and experience greater heights of “happiness” (a too weak word) than the happy and healthy ones. But I sometimes get the impression that they are as prone and maybe more prone to a kind of cosmic sadness … over the stupidity of people, their self-defeat, their blindness, their cruelty to each other, their shortsightedness… Perhaps this is a price these people have to pay for their direct seeing of the beauty of the world, of the saintly possibilities in human nature, of the non-necessity of so much of human evil, of the seemingly obvious necessities for a good world…

13. The deep conflicts over the “elitism” that is inherent in any doctrine of self-actualization—they are after all superior people whenever comparisons are made—is more easily solved—or at least managed—by the transcenders than by the merely healthy self-actualizers. This is made possible because they … can sacralize everybody so much more easily. This sacredness of every person and even of every living thing, even of nonliving things … is so easily and directly perceived in its reality by every transcender …

14. My strong impression is that transcenders show more strongly a positive correlation—rather than the more usual inverse one—between increasing knowledge and increasing mystery and awe… For peak-experiencers and transcenders in particular, as well as for self-actualizers in general, mystery is attractive and challenging rather than frightening … I affirm … that at the highest levels of development of humanness, knowledge is positively, rather than negatively, correlated with a sense of mystery, awe, humility, ultimate ignorance, reverence …

15. Transcenders, I think, should be less afraid of “nuts” and “kooks” than are other self-actualizers, and thus are more likely to be good selectors of creators  … To value a William Blake type takes, in principle, a greater experience with transcendence and therefore a greater valuation of it…

16. …Transcenders should be more “reconciled with evil” in the sense of understanding its occasional inevitability and necessity in the larger holistic sense, i.e., “from above,” in a godlike or Olympian sense. Since this implies a better understanding of it, it should generate both a greater compassion with it and a less ambivalent and a more unyielding fight against it….

17. … Transcenders … are more apt to regard themselves as carriers of talent, instruments of the transpersonal, temporary custodians so to speak of a greater intelligence or skill or leadership or efficiency. This means a certain peculiar kind of objectivity or detachment toward themselves that to nontranscenders might sound like arrogance, grandiosity or even paranoia…. Transcendence brings with it the “transpersonal” loss of ego.

18. Transcenders are in principle (I have no data) more apt to be profoundly “religious” or “spiritual” in either the theistic or nontheistic sense. Peak experiences and other transcendent experiences are in effect also to be seen as “religious or spiritual” experiences….

19. … Transcenders, I suspect, find it easier to transcend the ego, the self, the identity, to go beyond self-actualization. … Perhaps we could say that the description of the healthy ones is more exhausted by describing them primarily as strong identities, people who know who they are, where they are going, what they want, what they are good for, in a word, as strong Selves… And this of course does not sufficiently describe the transcenders. They are certainly this; but they are also more than this.

20. I would suppose… that transcenders, because of their easier perception of the B-realm, would have more end experiences (of suchness) than their more practical brothers do, more of the fascinations that we see in children who get hypnotized by the colors in a puddle, or by the raindrops dripping down a windowpane, or by the smoothness of skin, or the movements of a caterpillar.

21. In theory, transcenders should be somewhat more Taoistic, and the merely healthy somewhat more pragmatic.

22. …Total wholehearted and unconflicted love, acceptance … rather than the more usual mixture of love and hate that passes for “love” or friendship or sexuality or authority or power, etc.

23. [Transcenders are interested in a “cause beyond their own skin,” and are better able to “fuse work and play,” “they love their work,” and are more interested in “kinds of pay other than money pay”; “higher forms of pay and metapay steadily increase in importance.”] Mystics and transcenders have throughout history seemed spontaneously to prefer simplicity and to avoid luxury, privilege, honors, and possessions. …

24. I cannot resist expressing what is only a vague hunch; namely, the possibility that my transcenders seem to me somewhat more apt to be Sheldonian ectomorphs [lean, nerve-tissue dominated body-types] while my less-often-transcending self-actualizers seem more often to be mesomorphic [muscular body-types] (… it is in principle easily testable).

Analysis of the Last Line of Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby

F Scott Fitzgerald 1921.jpg

A few years ago I wrote back to back posts about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (One about the book’s first lines; the other about the its last lines.) An astute reader provided a careful analysis of the book’s famous last line that merits its own post. Here is that analysis with Fitzgerald’s text indented, and the reader’s analysis in [brackets.]

[For me it’s a haunting love story that reverberates with the human condition of…‘We are so smart. We can overcome anything, nature, others, and ourselves.’ And all the while, in the short term, we think we’re making things better. But in the long run, we are only making things worse. And that’s sadder than the love story. Here’s my breakdown:]

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.

[We drift back into the past to see that the island represents Daisy when Gatsby first laid eyes on her.]

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house,

[The vanished trees demonstrate Gatsby’s toil and preparation over the years in an attempt to recapture that initial magic with Daisy. The vanished trees – like that magic – have been lost. Although Gatsby is too busy ‘doing’ to look up and see the destruction – the waste – the emptiness of his labor.]

had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams;

[The greatest of all human dreams, to have a soul mate.]

for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an æsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired,

[Love? The unknown? Something you can’t describe or grasp because you can’t fully understand it. That was what Gatsby was feeling when he first encountered Daisy.]

face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

[From this first encounter with Daisy on, he would only drift farther and farther from his ‘Daisy island’ – regardless of how hard he paddled against the current (his toil for Daisy) – the current would only carry him farther and farther from his dream.]

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.

[His excitement at seeing the green light after all his paddling over the years with one goal to reclaim Daisy. Green = money. The light = the dream of being with Daisy. The dream now seemed in reach.]

He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

[The dream – the possibility of being with Daisy – had begun receding from the moment Daisy discovered he didn’t have money. Gatsby was set adrift from his ‘Daisy island’. So, years later the possibility of reaching the dream was far away, far out of reach. He could see the point source of the green light in the darkness – but not the land or other perspective cues that would have told him that he was drifting away.]

Gatsby believed in the green light,

[He felt money – the thing that initially set him adrift – would be the thing that could make his dream come true. He believed in the power of money to make his dream come true. Sounds all too familiar in this ‘American Dream’ world in which we live.]

the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.

[But it was too late – although he worked for and gained the money (the green) – and although he could see a wonderful magical future with Daisy (the light) it had all the while been receding – imperceptibly to him since he was focused on working so hard. He couldn’t see – or didn’t pay attention to the fact that it was receding. The same way we may see vaccines or fracking or pesticides that kill everything but the GMO crops – as seemingly making things better in the short run – an omniscient narrator can see that in the long run, the loss of natural herd immunity, build up of toxins in our bodies, chemical pollution of our water, and the damage to the organisms in the soil are all making things worse in the long run. There is a long term price for the ‘more, faster, bigger’ – American Dream. We too often fail to see the long term price because we’re blinded by staring at the the short term excitement of the gains in the green light. Like Gatsby, we’re cutting down the trees on the island in an effort to reach our dream and in the process destroying the very island that is our dream. We are trying to get what we want – now – without regard to how it affects others and the environment in the future. In the end, we all lose.]

It eluded us then,

[His dream hasn’t yet come true.]

but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

[In Gatsby’s perspective, all his plans seem to be working out and he believes that he is getting closer to his dream with Daisy and if he just continues day by day he will make it come true. We’re just like Gatsby. Things seem to be working out with our brilliant plans because we’re not paying attention to their effects along the way. Not acknowledging how they have made things worse so far on our voyage. We’re too busy making it better – to see or acknowledge the fact that we’re improving it into a failure.]

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

[The past is where we started. The dream. We feel we are progressing. But we’re not progressing in the big picture. And here, Nick, with the omniscient view of the narrator – can see what Gatsby could not. Nick can see that Gatsby – despite all his effort and sweat at paddling against the current – was drifting backward away from the island – (from Daisy). Repeating the same mistakes over and over – ignoring the signs from Daisy that she could not commit 100% to him, as he worked toward his dream. Gatsby was continually fooling himself with his dream of Daisy from the past – blinded by the green light – and could not see his forward progress was over powered by the permanence of the past (the current). At the end he feels so close. He’s waiting in the pool for her call. I see his murder as a merciful event. For he feels as close to his dream as he will ever get. He is at the top of the roller coaster. Daisy is too torn to fully commit to him and if he had lived to see this played out – everything would have been downhill from there. His psychological life would not only have been destroyed – he would have had to live through the destruction. And that would be crushing for Gatsby – as well as for the reader. We need a ‘Nick’ to help us see the bird’s eye view of what we’re doing.]

I thank my reader for his efforts.

Is Trump A Legitimate President?

In his blog Erasmatazz, Chris Crawford recently published: “The Crisis of Legitimacy.” His main thesis is that the legitimacy of Trump’s forthcoming presidency is debatable. First of all, Clinton received almost 3 million more votes than Trump  so it is “reasonable to conclude that Trump won on a legal technicality …” In addition, the legitimacy of the election itself  is questionable, as it was affected by Trump’s mendacity, fake news stories, FBI intervention, Russian influence, voter suppression targeting minority voters, flawed vote counting, and more. As Crawford puts it, the election hardly looks“free and fair”.

Moreover, the legitimacy of this election is being further undermined by the Republicans rejection of compromise.

Their attitude is that they have the majority, so they can cram anything they want down the throats of the Democrats. Sure, they have the legal right to do so — but in so doing, they infuriate so many Americans that they only insure that, when the pendulum swings the other way, it will swing even further to the left. The American political pendulum used to swing a little to the left or a little to the right, but now it is swinging wildly to the right — which will only insure that, the next time the pendulum swings, it will swing wildly to the left. That pendulum will tear this country apart.

And there is more. The Trump cabinet is easily “the most radical Administration in American history.” They are mostly military or billionaires, most have huge conflicts of interest, and all are extraordinarily inexperienced. Add to this Trump’s failure “to divest himself of his assets,” and you have a situation in which he will try to use his newfound power to enrich himself, as we have seen by his urging “foreign diplomats to stay at his hotel .” Crawford concludes that such improprieties will slowly undermine his legitimacy and don’t bode well for the future of our republic.

The consequence of that will be that the loss of legitimacy will be transferred from the President to the US government. Why should the blue states submit to a President they opposed? Why should they tolerate the transfer of so much of their tax money to red states? Why should they submit to policies on abortion, gun rights, foreign policy, public spending, and the environment that they find outrageous?

The election of Mr. Trump is the first step in the unravelling of the American republic. The chasm between red and blue is unbridgeable. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

I must say that I completely agree with Mr. Crawford’s analysis. When the will of the people is thwarted in fundamental ways—gerrymandering congressional districts is a fundamental example—the people will slowly lose faith in their government, as has been happening for a number of years. This is not to say that lying, vote stealing, voter suppression, and more haven’t always been a part of America’s flawed democracy, but that corruption has been escalating in the last few decades.

I’d also say our current situation has a lot to do with the increase of the Gini coefficient, a measure of wealth distribution.  What that measures show is that income inequality has steadily increased in America over the last 40 years. But the most complete analysis I’ve seen of the multiple problems in American politics come from two books by the conservative constitutional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein:

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, and

 The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track

In addition, Jonathan Rauch’s short piece in the Atlantic, “How American Politics Went Insane,” is the best short analysis of the fundamental problems with American politics today that I have found.

Marcus Aurelius On Getting Out Of Bed

(Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. The piazze was designed by Renaissance artist and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1536–1546.)

My brief summary of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was one of my most popular posts last year with over 30,000 views. While re-reading the actual text, I was struck by the relevance to modern life of the first paragraph of Book V. Here is my modern translation:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I am rising to do the work of a human being. What do I have to complain about, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” — But it’s nicer here …

So were you born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands? — But we have to sleep sometime… Agreed. But nature set a limit on that — as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There’s still more of that to do.

You don’t love yourself enough. For if you did, you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is not then your labor in the world just as worthy of respect and worth your effort? (Book 5, Paragraph 1)

Brief Analysis – If we love life we will do what’s necessary to preserve our lives, and that includes working. This isn’t meant exclusively in the modern sense of going to a job—although that’s part of it. Rather it implies that living demands physical activity; if you slept all the time you wouldn’t be living. And if you resist activity you act contrary to your nature, which is to say you don’t love yourself. Moreover, if you work hard you will experience what modern psychology calls flow.

An immediate objection to Aurelius’ line of thinking is that some work is too demeaning, boring, or harmful to align with our natures or, to put it another way, it isn’t work that we were born for. It may be true to our modern ears that our jobs aren’t particularly satisfying, but I think Aurelius would consider almost any labor that enables our survival as aligning with our nature. Of course some work is so harmful to one’s self or society that he wouldn’t recommend it, but I think he would say that most labor qualifies as good enough. (I’ve written previously about the idea of doing what you love.) The key for him is that we work with others, as he writes later:

When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic — what defines a human being — is to work with others. Even animals know how to sleep. And it’s the characteristic activity that’s the more natural one — more innate and more satisfying. (Book VIII, Paragraph XII)

Another objection is that Aurelius’ advice doesn’t help, for example, the clinically depressed. I think this is a valid objection. If he is just saying ‘get up and get going,’ that is bad advice for those suffering from diseases of the brain and body. On the other hand, a friend of mine who is a psychiatrist once told me that people do better if they cease ruminating and do some work, engage in a hobby, etc. Anything that focuses their mind is therapeutic he thought. For some this may be impossible, but focusing on something other than introspection is a good strategy for fighting depression. I’m not saying it’s the best or the only strategy, but sometimes you might just be better off going to work.

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(Translations by George Long, available online from the Internet Classics Archive of MIT. These would be closer to the original Greek.)

In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour? (Book 5, Paragraph 1)

When thou risest from sleep with reluctance, remember that it is according to thy constitution and according to human nature to perform social acts, but sleeping is common also to irrational animals. But that which is according to each individual’s nature is also more peculiarly its own, and more suitable to its nature, and indeed also more agreeable. (from Book VIII, Paragraph XII)