Higher Pleasures

“Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”

– Oscar Wilde

I am trying to live within my means as of late. I went on such a crazy spending spree in January that I was very close to reaching my credit card limit. I am now feeling ever so slightly guilty at my over-indulgence; my poor will-power and absolute lack of discipline in saving money.

I was in a real pickle last week about whether to go to a Jazz concert. I have always been a bit of a Jazz fan – and my Dad and I are currently doing an online Jazz appreciation course – so I was extremely excited when I recently picked up a flyer for this concert. I naively thought that there would still be cheap tickets available. But no, only the expensive ones were left.

I agonised about whether it was worth buying a ticket. I had already dipped into my savings to pay off last month’s credit card bill and it didn’t seem like I would manage to save this month either. Could I really afford to go to a concert? “A penny saved is a penny earned” said founding father of the US and polymath Benjamin Franklin. My guilty conscience was telling me to save the money.

I ignored it all the same and bought the ticket. Over the following days, I attempted to rationalise and justify my decision as being a good one. My first justification was that it was my hard-earned cash and I could do whatever I like with it. Unfortunately, this reasoning is very superficial, and its sparkle soon faded. My Mum’s words of wisdom came next: “You have to spend money to make money”. My spending was helping the local economy make money – I skilfully argued with myself – and you never know who I could meet there or what opportunity may come out of going. This reasoning was more plausible, but I was still yet to be fully convinced.

It was the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill (also a polymath), who assured me that my purchase was justified. Mill developed Jeremy Bentham’s greatest happiness principle to incorporate the idea of assessing happiness on its value and desirability. Bentham’s theory on utilitarianism was non-judgemental: it was not the quality of the thing that made you happy which counted because all preferences were rated equally. What only mattered was whether this thing also made most people happy too. To Bentham, the enjoyment of watching reality TV shows would be of the same value as the enjoyment of watching Shakespeare.

However, the idea of all preferences being equal raised moral questions: surely it would still be morally wrong for society to allow horrible goods e.g blood sports even if this pleased the greatest number in society? Mill tried to rectify such an outcome occurring in his essay Utilitarianism (1861) by developing the happiness principle on the basis of “higher and lower pleasures”: society does value one good over another, and that the higher pleasures are the ones which contribute to society’s greater good. Thus “higher pleasures” are goods which are more valuable or desirable; they appeal to our higher senses and faculties. Perhaps they are harder or more difficult to acquire, comprehend or grasp, but we know intrinsically that they raise the quality of our being.

To me, watching a Jazz concert is a higher pleasure, and ever since I started the Jazz appreciation course, I have begun to understand how technically difficult Jazz is and how creatively ingenious its musicians are. I think John Stuart Mill provides an excellent moral justification for me forking out more than I would expect to for a Jazz concert.

When caught in a position of living on a budget and trying to save for a rainy day, it is natural to give ourselves a hard time about spending money on a pleasure that may seem like a waste. Nevertheless, if this is a pleasure that cultivates our mind, which adds to our character and nobility (and in the grand of scheme of things, it is affordable), then we should be reluctant to deny ourselves such a pleasure.

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The importance of being idle

Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

– Winnie the Pooh

In between changing jobs, I am fortunate to find myself on a two week break. At the beginning of last week, I was humming and hawing as to what to do with all this spare time. Friends suggested booking a city trip, or visiting friends and family. Some suggested going to museums or catching the latest exhibitions. I had my own ideas, mostly focused around getting up early, finally doing my neglected chores,  and catching up on reading and writing.

It was in the middle of my chores last week when I had a few epiphanies. First, no matter how many chores I get done, there is always something else left to do. Secondly, there are not enough hours in the day to do all the stuff that I want to do. Thirdly, I am not physically able to get out of bed early when I don’t have a job to go to.

I decided therefore that on Saturday, I was going to be idle: I would not have any targets, or plans to make. I wouldn’t set my alarm. I would laze around, meet up with a friend or two and just go with the flow.

Being idle tends to get a bad reputation. When it got it’s bad reputation isn’t so clear. Certainly in the UK, being idle is particularly looked down upon. One possible reason is that it goes against the remainder of the Protestant work ethic. In an interview with French philosopher Pascale Bruckner on happiness, it was shared belief that to be a good Christian, you had to be in pain. Even in Catholic Europe, people were not allowed to have fun. Work was delivered by God as punishment for what Adam and Eve did. Clergymen often told worshippers that the only ways to achieve salvation and go to heaven was to work hard, to feel pain and to suffer. He states that it wasn’t until the era of Enlightenment when advances in medicine and production meant that the standard of living was higher and that pain was not necessarily a punishment from God. Collective happiness came to be seen as important for the well-being of society.

Being idle brought about the potential of evil, or at least mischief. I often heard my Mum say, “idle hands make for the devil’s work”. There are many variants of this expression, whether it makes the devil’s work, workshop or playground. Being idle could alternatively bring about insanity or depression. As the 18th century English poet William Cowper wrote, “Absence of occupation is not rest; a mind quite vacant is a mind distressed.” This poem was written some time after he had been committed to an asylum, so he may have had a point.

But what does the term ‘idle’ mean? If I am idle, I am considered lazy. If I am being idle, it usually means I am doing nothing, or I am bored. If something is idle, it is not significant nor worth of any importance. Or, it is not in use (like idle machinery).

On Saturday, I was idle. I got up late. I then spent a good half an hour, sitting on my couch, with a cup of tea in hand and a piece of chocolate, staring out of my window. Was I doing nothing? Perhaps on the face of it I was. But actually I wasn’t. I was enjoying the quiet time, illuminated by the bright sky, listening to the hustle and bustle of the city, savouring the chocolate as it melted in my mouth, feeling refreshed after each sip of tea. I was thinking: about past events; about my future. Sometimes, I was not thinking at all; just enjoying the moment.

Even if we are being “idle”, our brain is still stimulated; it switches to some kind of resting state. During this ‘resting-state activity’, blood flow to the brain is surprisingly only 5-10% lower than when the brain is active. The networks that the brain engages during the resting state are similar to the ones it engages when active. It’s not yet clear what this activity is for, but neuroscientists’ suggestions include memory consolidation: putting things that you’ve just learnt into your long-term memory; helping to organise or direct the flow of information to the different areas of the brain; or priming the brain for processing future information.

Creative minds will tell you that daydreaming is a productive activity and that great inspiration has come from being idle. Meditation is probably idleness in its highest form since one is completely relaxed, the mind just observes the thoughts that flicker across its screen until they fade. The mind and body do absolutely nothing. Herein lies the paradox: meditation is increasingly considered valuable for our well-being and mental health, and yet it means being idle.

If we use another term to describe being idle, such as being lazy, what exactly is being lazy? Being lazy for you may be to go for a walk instead of your usual jog, whereas a walk for me is activity. It’s all subjective isn’t it?

One can say that being idle is the opposite of being busy. “Busy” is a term that has been inflated to be something of great significance. It’s seen as “good” to be busy. Busy means you have a life, you have friends, you have very important things to attend to and most things seem so darn important. But for me being busy all of the time provides me with a poor quality of life. When you are busy, you don’t have the time to stop, think or not think, wonder, be open or flexible, or merely enjoy the present.

So the next time you feel like being idle (whatever that may mean), be idle! Watch the sun as it sets, or the rain as it trickles down your window pane. Watch TV, read, lie on your couch, listen to the things you can’t hear. Don’t feel guilty about it because let’s admit it, we are naturally lazy, just as the English writer (and great idler himself) Samuel Johnson remarked in his series of essays ‘The Idler’, “Everyman is, or hopes to be, an idler“. Enjoy this precious time of being idle because there will be many times when you cannot be idle. And you will wish you had been when these glorious missed opportunities had presented themselves to you.

In case you needed further convincing, seek guidance from another great idler, Winnie the Pooh: “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.

Where have all the polymaths gone?

“Knowledge is power.”

– Francis Bacon

It is of late that I have admitted to myself that I have many interests. I like writing; singing; reading; public speaking; acting. I enjoy practising languages; getting my head around psychology, reading philosophy; reflecting upon spirituality. Even within these areas, there are so many sub-categories that really engage me. Whether I am good at any of them, I hope time will tell.

My recent trip to London turned out to be a bit of a philosophy tour. It sort of started as I was walking in Gray’s Inn Gardens off Chancery Lane that I was reminded of a plaque with two quotes from the English philosopher Francis Bacon, situated at the back of the gardens. Have a read:

Inspirational quotes from Francis Bacon, situated in Gray's Inn Gardens in London.

Inspirational quotes from Francis Bacon, from his works ‘The Advancement of Learning’. They have provided much encouragement to me during some difficult times in London.

Sir Francis Bacon, as he is better known, was a polymath. As well as being a philosopher, he was a lawyer (he served as Lord Chancellor and Attorney General), a politician, a scientist, orator and author. He wrote works on science, philosophy and religion. He is reported to be the founder of  British empiricism. Empiricism holds that all the knowledge of this world derives from the senses; there is nothing in the mind that we have not already experienced through the senses. Empiricism was first put forward by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

Here I am with the big fella:

Sir Francis Bacon and I in Gray's Inn square.

Francis and I in Gray’s Inn Square.

Visiting Francis spurred me on to visit another great English philosopher, Jeremy Benthamthe founder of the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’, otherwise known as utilitarianism. In short, this principle states that the morally right act is one which maximises the total amount of pleasure to all who are affected by the act (“the greatest good for the greatest number”). He qualified as a barrister but decided that his calling was in leading social and legal reform, rather than in practising the law. Thus he was a lawyer, a reformer and a philosopher: a polymath.

I went to visit him at University College London:

I felt honoured to meet the great man himself. That's him: the skeleton, the clothes, the hair. His head is a wax model since the embalming of his head did not turn out so well so it's a bit gruesome.

I felt honoured to meet the great man himself. That is really him: the skeleton, the clothes, the hair. His head is a wax model since the embalming of it did not turn out so well, so it’s a bit gruesome to look at.

My next stop was King’s College London, where I stood beside Confucius. Confucius was a teacher, politician, editor and philosopher. I am not so familiar yet with his teachings, but he is arguably a polymath.

Like me, Confucius likes his tea. Just my luck to stumble on a great quote of his about tea at the Twinnings shop nearby: “Tea tempers the spirits and harmonises the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body, and clears the perceptive faculties.”

The sage and I

Finally, I stopped at Parliament Square in Westminster, where I stood by two inspirational leaders, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. As well as being a courageous war-time Prime Minister, in his lifetime Churchill was an artist, historian and writer.

Alas, Nelson Mandela would probably not have been considered a polymath; not that it matters in his case since he has lead such an extraordinary life.

Us in Parliament Square. One of my favourite quotes from Churchill: "Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense."

Us in Parliament Square. One of my favourite quotes from Churchill: “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Nelson and I. I would like to attribute this quote by the Canadian author Robertson Davies to him: "Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it."

Nelson and I. I would like to attribute this quote by the Canadian author Robertson Davies to him: “Extraordinary people survive under the most terrible circumstances and they become more extraordinary because of it.”

Just before my London trip, I read a book about early Islamic civilisation: that during the Middle Ages, Islamic science and philosophy in the East was thriving whilst Western civilisation had appeared to come to a standstill. What amazed me about this book was how many Islamic innovators, scientists, mathematicians and philosophers were polymaths.  As the book’s author Ehsan Masood notes, they switched effortlessly from science to philosophy to poetry. The original polymath was Al Kindi – known as the ‘Philosopher of the Arabs’ – who was a mathematician, physician, musician and of course, a philosopher.

Learning about all these polymaths lead me to this conclusion: that being one is a good thing. However, where are they in today’s world? We have been primed to such an extent to be specialists that we forget that the greatest pioneers of Western and Eastern civilisations were those that loved doing different things, and not just doing things differently.

Why don’t we seek knowledge in different areas, enjoy the variety and complexity this world has to offer and see what we can create out of it? Being or trying to be a polymath opens the mind; the senses; and the faculties to the endless perspectives of this world and undoubtedly, it extends our creativity.

My London trip assured me that my varied interests are invaluable and that I should never stop seeking knowledge. As Prophet Muhammed once said, “Even if you must go all the way to China, seek knowledge.” On this trip I didn’t quite go that far, but I feel like I am on my way.

I would love to hear your thoughts – are you a polymath? Do you think they are becoming extinct? Do you think it’s good for society to be one?