Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

18096011_686990048151349_5386947947730567168_n

 

Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

Continue reading

In Preparation for Spring Cleaning: The KonMari Tidying Order

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about how a messy workplace affects a person’s creativity and productivity. While I’d like to think that the messy state of my life and my possessions is simply the manifestation of my, gulp, creative mind, 31 years of transforming living spaces into pig sties has taught me what productivity experts have been saying and rhyming for the last decade—MESS really does create STRESS.

I can’t begin to count and recount the multitude of anxiety attacks I’ve suffered over “losing” key items like my keys, my wallet, other people’s paychecks, and even a land title/car registration or two-wenty. I once ‘lost’ my mobile phone only to find it ringing in the fridge.

Now, I know, these things happen to the best of us. The unprecedented success of Mari Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is testament to how millions of people see the disorganized state of their affairs as a setback when it comes to their pursuit of productivity and happiness. Many of us perceive tidying as the hallelujah solution to most, if not all of our problems.

So, with spring, (and consequently, the period for Spring Cleaning), just around the corner, I thought it best to impart some of finest lessons I’ve learned from Mari Kondo’s ‘life-changing’ book—particularly the KonMari Tidying Order. I’m hoping that this will help you get a head start on your annual spring cleaning project too.

Continue reading

Book Review: Good Benito by Alan Lightman

16908008_1112090362249759_572732935438860288_n

Title: Good Benito
Author: Alan Lightman
Genre: Fiction, Bildungsroman
First Published: 1994, Pantheon Books

In a world where the everyman struggles to perfect one craft, Alan Lightman is one of those rare individuals whose immense talents lie in multiple fields. Not only is Lightman an award-winning novelist, he is also a celebrated physicist and social entrepreneur. In his fictional works, he deftly injects a touch of physics into the novel’s equation. His first novel, Einstein’s Dreams offers a whimsical and fictionalized take on a slice of Einstein’s life—featuring dreams that lead up to the theoretical physicist’s formulation of the theories of relativity.

Einstein’s Dreams was an absolute delight to read. Its stunning prose and breathtaking ideas left a serious and indelible imprint in my mind’s landscape. So it was with tremendous excitement that I turned to Lightman’s second novel, Good Benito.

Simply put, Good Benito is a non-linear account of the life of Bennett Lang, a physicist trying to make a name in the world of science and academics while struggling to comprehend and navigate the chaotic plane of human emotions and relationships. Each chapter reads like a vignette, showing an episode of Bennett’s life. We see his journey from an emotionally stunted child, creating his first ‘rocket,’ to an assistant professor for a second-tier college—still trying to find his place in the academic world.

Along the way, we meet a myriad of interesting, well fleshed-out, and incredibly flawed characters that helped shape Bennett’s viewpoint of the world. We meet his emotionally distant father who had dreamt of being a WWII hero but now wishes he had died with his men, his lonely mother trying to find happiness anywhere she can, his African American nanny who has let him into her life but refuses to let him into her house, his uncle with a severe gambling problem, and his self-destructive wife who pushes Bennett into becoming a cruel version of himself. We see how a promising romance and marriage devolves into an emotionally abusive relationship that ends in divorce.

All this, we witness through Lightman’s naked, prosaic, but impossibly precise prose. Though not as beautifully, or rather as poetically, written as Einstein’s Dreams, what makes Good Benito so compelling is how grounded the whole work feels. The matter-of-fact and yet introspective and eloquent manner by which Lightman writes ensures that the reader is along for the ride in this strikingly profound novel.

Rating: A+

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

FullSizeRender (3)

Full Title: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

Author: Marie Kondo

Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help, Organizing

Originally Published: 2011

**Translated from Japanese by Cathy Hirano

 

I’m a hoarder. I’m a hoarder of a very specific sort. More than clothes, makeup, or shoes, I like to hoard books, CDs, journals, and an assortment of office supplies. At my messiest, these items would take up so much floor space that walking from one end of the room to another was a very real ordeal. Books, magazines, and half-finished journals would occupy the expanse of my bed, and I’d take to sleeping partially on top of them.

Now, while dealing with clutter has always been a part of my everyday existence, it doesn’t mean that I enjoy being the messiest person in the household. For the last couple of decades, my mother and I have been butting heads over my ‘mess’ on a daily basis. So, when I got Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as a Christmas present, I saw it as an opportunity to finally become more organized.

Besides, the book couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The year 2015 had brought massive changes to my life. It was the year I got diagnosed with Graves’ disease and saw the end of a major relationship. After months of feeling lost and feeling at a loss, the book came as a sign that it was time to turn over a new leaf. Time to start over.

So, I started 2016 by cracking open my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—and boy, was I glad I did! True to its name, this book from Marie Kondo truly is life-changing.

To properly organize one’s household, Kondo advises the reader to follow these basic rules:

  • Organize the house completely and thoroughly in one go (ikki ni). This is a period that generally lasts six (6) months.
  • Start by discarding, keeping only items that “Spark Joy.” I must admit the ‘spark joy’ bit did sound a little gimmicky at first, but it’s a gimmick that actually works. What she basically asks from the reader is to only keep items that he/she needs and loves.
  • Sort by category and not by location. Kondo points out that people don’t usually keep the same types of items in one place. Sorting by category instead of by room/space allows the reader to cull his/her belongings properly.
  • When sorting by category, follow this order: Clothes à Books à Paperwork à Miscellaneous Items (Komono) à Sentimental Items. Kondo intentionally puts clothes first and sentimental items last to help bolster the reader’s confidence in his/her culling abilities. It is a lot easier to decide on which shirts to keep than it is to pick out which pictures deserve album space and which ones need to be discarded.

Now, more than just offering concrete and doable tips on how to eliminate mess in the household, Kondo also forces her readers to take a closer look at their chosen lifestyle. To try to figure out why we hold on to so many items that we no longer need—or even truly want.

Working for the family business—which means working at home in my jammies—did I really need dozens of stilettos, scarves, necklaces, and cocktail rings? I have how-to-books on style, building capsule wardrobes, and makeup application—all of which I’ve read, none of which I’ve followed. I still had all my college textbooks, handouts, and notes. I had palanca letters from grade school and high school classmates. And while these items provided hours of joy as I flipped through their pages, I realized they were all good for that one moment of reminiscing.

A few weeks into my organizing phase and I realized that beyond being a book hoarder, I also have a tendency to hold on to items for sentimental reasons. While I had no problems getting rid of five large bags of clothes, dozens of shoes, and a box of accessories, I still couldn’t bring myself to let go of pictures and letters from people who are no longer a part of my life. And yet, as Marie Kondo puts it, “Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them.”

And that’s what I mean when I say that the book is life-changing. I was forced to ask myself why I was holding on to the past so much. I realized that a lot of it had to do with a fear of the future. See, most of the items I kept, which had lost their purpose long ago, came from a period of intense, carefree happiness. Band pictures and drafts of old songs, bodycon dresses that were two sizes too small, a chandelier earring that I wore during a night-out with old friends. These items predated my exit from the corporate world, a family member’s long-term illness, and the onset of my own physical limitations. I was holding on to these things because I was afraid I’d never feel those lighthearted moments again. And maybe I won’t.

But going through this organizing phase, this dogged application of the Konmari method, I came to the realization that things change. People change. I’ve changed. And maybe, just maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, our priorities shift—and consequently, the things that make us happy take on different forms. In my 20s, happiness meant getting gussied-up for booze-fueled all-nighters. These days, I get the same amount of satisfaction by going to a coffee shop and reading for hours, writing my novel, spending time with my family, having coffee-fueled talkathons with friends, and watching TV show reruns with my boyfriend. Some people may think my current life is boring, but the fact is, with my life now, I am never bored. And that’s all that matters.

Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has done more than just minimize my morning squabbles with my mother. It’s made me more appreciative of the things I own and the life I have now. And therein lies the magic of this book.

Rating: A+

Comments: It would have been an A++, except (SPOILER ALERT), Kondo has owned up to tearing pages out of her favorite books.

Sartre, Simplified: A Review of Existentialism is a Humanism

existentialism_sartre

Title: Existentialism is a Humanism

Author: Jean-Paul Sartre

Genre: Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Existentialism

First Published by: Éditions Nagel in 1946

Translated by: Carol Macomber

Introduction by: Annie Cohen-Solal

Notes and Preface by: Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre

Edited by: John Kulka

 

Legends:

Bold – important points in existentialism

“Italicized” – direct quotes from Sartre or another source

 

To fully grasp the magnitude of Existentialism is a Humanism (L’Existentialisme est un humanisme) by Jean-Paul Sartre, it is imperative that we understand its whys and why nots, the driving force behind this monumental piece. Existentialism is a Humanism didn’t start out as a philosophy book, rather it was originally a transcript of a lecture given by Sartre in Paris for Club Maintenant.

The club, which was founded by Marc Beigbeder and Jacques Calmy, was founded to help encourage “literary and intellectual discussion.” The lecture, which was held on October 29, 1945, was the perfect platform for Sartre to help clear the air of the rumors and unfounded criticisms that targeted his take on existentialism.

Earlier that year, Sartre had released the initial volumes of The Roads to Freedom. The novels The Age of Reason and The Reprieve were met with disdain by the era’s conformists. The characteristics of the unlikely protagonist did not kowtow to their idea of what a ‘hero’ should be like. Add to that the confusion and misguided notions regarding existentialism, and what he had was a crowd of detractors determined to go for his life work’s jugular.

In a bid to enlighten his critics, Sartre accepted the invitation for the lecture. He appeared in front of a packed crowd, sans notes, and proceeded to defend his philosophy. The strangeness of the situation was not lost on Sartre. Understanding that the discussion of existentialism had shifted from the purely academic platform of philosophers to the dinner table of the everyman, he said:

“In the past, philosophers were attacked only by other philosophers. The general public did not understand philosophy at all, nor did they care. These days, philosophy is shot down in the public square.”

 

The Public Trial: Charges against Existentialism

“My purpose here is to defend existentialism against some of the charges that has been brought against it…” And thus begins Sartre’s lengthy, didactic, and illuminating monologue explaining the tenets of existentialism. It was a simplified version of the philosophy addressed to existentialism’s main detractors—the Communists and the Christians.

Being an atheist, Sartre only aimed to correct the mistaken notions some Christians had about the philosophy. To his religious critics, existentialism focused too much on the basest parts of humanity—in the process, completely disregarding the better side of human nature. They also questioned the philosophy’s morality. To them, denying God’s existence and ignoring his teachings meant man could do exactly as he pleased.

As for the Communists, Sartre had hoped for some form of reconciliation with the movement. For while he was unbending on his views, he felt that by giving a thorough clarification of existentialism’s points, his Communist critics would find that their beliefs weren’t so different after all. But the Communists were under the impression that existentialism was a bourgeois philosophy, a contemplative doctrine that encouraged quietism, inaction, and despair.

Both sects also accused existentialism of focusing too much on subjectivity, thereby overlooking the possibility of and necessity for human solidarity. To this, Sartre answered with a definition of Existentialism. He asserts that existentialism is a “doctrine that makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment of human subjectivity.”

He claimed that the allegations made by Communists and Christians alike were furthered only by a terrible misunderstanding. Over the course of its existence, ‘existentialism’ had become a catchword, “applied so loosely that it has come to mean nothing at all.” Through the discourse, Sartre aimed to debunk these charges and to put forth the belief that existentialism is actually a form of humanism.

 

Christian Existentialism vs. Atheist Existentialism

Underneath the umbrella of existentialism resides two distinct philosophical movements—Christian Existentialism and Atheist Existentialism. While both movements believe that existence precedes essence and that subjectivity should be the philosopher’s main point of departure, there are fundamental differences between their treatments of these notions.

Now, before we delve into the disparities of these two movements, let’s take the time to understand what we mean by existence precedes essence. For Christian Existentialists, existence precedes essence because man is the product of God’s intelligence. But for Atheist Existentialists—the movement which Sartre belongs to—because God does not exist, the only being whose existence precedes essence is the one being that exists prior to developing its essence and morality. That being is man.

Another notion that separates Christian existentialism with its atheist cousin is its understanding of the human condition. While Christian existentialists believe in ‘human nature,’ which helps explain man’s actions, atheist existentialists only subscribe to the idea of a shared ‘human reality.’

Human reality is a term borrowed from Heidegger. It does not concern itself with dictating human nature, rather it talks about the shared limitations of man. To paraphrase Sartre, the human reality is this—man is born into the world, exists among others in the world, and will eventually perish in the world. There is no shared nature that predetermines man’s actions.

This brings us to the first principle of existentialism—that “Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself,” or in simpler terms—the world of human subjectivity.

 

What does Sartre mean by Subjectivity?

Merriam-Webster defines subjectivity in philosophy as “relating to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind.” For existentialist philosophers, subjectivity refers to how “prior to man’s projection of the self, nothing exists.” Man only begins to exist after he begins to exercise his freedom of choosing his projects/morality. Because man is responsible for what he chooses, he is also responsible for who he becomes.

But beyond being responsible for himself, man is also responsible for the rest of mankind. This is because what man chooses for himself, he also chooses for all men. According to Sartre, “to make a choice is to affirm at the same time, the value of what we choose.” So if a person decides to live an honest life, he is, in fact, saying that all men must lead honest lives. Sartre also points out that man must “always choose the good and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all.”

Once man comes to terms with these truths, he experiences the weight of anguish, abandonment, and despair. Existentialists redefine these words to illustrate the effects of their philosophy.

 

The Existentialist’s Anguish…

 Sartre defines anguish as man’s realization of his “full and profound responsibility.” It is an awareness of his inability to move past human subjectivity, an acknowledgment that his choice matters to the rest of mankind. As a guiding point, Sartre says, we must always ask ourselves, “What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?” To not ask this question or to ignore it completely is to lie to oneself. To create excuses for one’s behavior is to act in bad faith and to struggle with a bad conscience.

To illustrate this anguish, Sartre tackles Kierkegaard’s idea of the anguish of Abraham. In the Bible, God sent a messenger to Abraham asking him to sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham made the choice to believe that it was God’s will. While he was determined to follow God’s orders, the choice was not without pain or anguish. This is the same emotion felt by generals and commanders during the war. For the sake of the greater good, they may sacrifice the lives of their men in the process—it is a torment-filled decision, but one that does not stop them from acting.

In our daily lives, we too are sometimes faced with choices laced with anguish. It is an emotion anyone with responsibilities can attest to. It is a shared experience, but one that is rooted in subjectivity and resulting in action.

 

… Sense of Abandonment…

“Man is condemned to be free: Condemned because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free because once cast in the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” – Sartre

Abandonment is what man experiences because God does not exist. Because there is no God, and consequently no code of conduct that must be followed, we bear the full responsibility for the values we choose to uphold. Dostoevsky once wrote, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Indeed, that is accurate. It is one of the starting points of existentialism and is one of the accusations hurled by Christians against the philosophy.

But while everything may appear allowable, existentialists believe that there are no excuses for our actions. Because God does not exist, a person cannot explain his choices as being a result of ‘human nature.’ In Sartre’s words, “We are left alone and without an excuse.”

Man cannot hide behind passion or signs. Because feelings are built by the actions we take and choices we make, emotions can never be used as guidelines for our actions. As for signs, we are the ones who choose to interpret their meaning. In short, abandonment is the acknowledgment that we alone must decide who we must become—and that decision entails anguish.

 

…and Despair

Despair, on the other hand, is the idea that man must limit his decisions and actions to things that he can control. Choices are made based on the available probabilities that will allow action. As Descartes once said, “Conquer yourself rather than the world.” For existentialists, this means acting without hope or expectation.

 

A Response to All Allegations

That existentialism breeds quietism and inaction. As a response to the Communists’ allegation, Sartre replies that existentialism cannot breed quietism, because reality only exists in actions. Man is nothing other than his project…he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life.”

That it is a pessimistic description of man. Outside of it being an atheist philosophy, according to Sartre, existentialism is actually rather optimistic because it’s one that furthers the belief that man’s destiny lies within himself. And that while man is nothing more than his project, it is a project that does not define him completely. For projects can be reevaluated, re-planned, and repeated.

That existentialism is a bourgeois and individualistic philosophy. Sartre acknowledges that the point of departure is the Cartesian cogito, “I think therefore I am.” But this is so, only because existentialists want a solid base to build their philosophy—one that is not based on “comforting theories full of hope but without foundation.” But contrary to the philosophies of both Kant and Descartes, the existentialist’s idea of “I think…” is to think within the presence of others, to see the other as a condition of one’s own existence. So rather than dwelling in the world of subjectivity, existentialism actually enters into the field of “intersubjectivity.”

That the philosophy leaves man free to do as he pleases. While on the one hand, this is true, Sartre asserts that “Man finds himself in a complex social situation in which he himself is committed, and by his choices commits all mankind.” And since man is responsible for all his choices, he must always choose what is good, not only for himself but for the rest of mankind.

That the philosophy makes it impossible to judge other people for their wrongdoings. Again, this is both true and untrue. For when man commits to his project in a lucid and genuine manner, in the pursuit of what is good for all, then he cannot choose anything else. However, if the choices are made in bad faith—then these choices can be judged for having been made in error.

To which, Sartre says, “Those who conceal from themselves this total freedom under the guise of solemnity, or by making determinist excuses, I will call cowards. Others, who try to prove their existence is necessary when man’s appearance on earth is merely contingent, I will call bastards.”

That existentialism makes it impossible to build a human community. While the philosophy teaches its pupil to focus on the areas of life one can control, it doesn’t mean that one cannot belong to an organization or party. Sartre advises the existentialist philosopher to act, create, to invent, but without illusions or unfounded hope.

 

Existentialist Humanism

Ultimately, Sartre proves that existentialism is a humanism because it is a philosophy that reminds man that (a) in his abandoned state, man must make his own choices, (b) that man’s choices must be good for all (not just himself), and that (c) man will only realize himself as truly human when he commits himself to a project or special achievement that betters the state of all.

 

A Reader’s Reaction to Existentialism is a Humanism

As a reader, the question here is whether or not Sartre was successful in defending existentialism against its critics. In this humble reader’s opinion, Sartre did well in addressing all their concerns and in establishing the foundations of his young philosophy. Admittedly, some of the points were rigid and lacking in refinement. But it is important to remember that this was an attempt from Sartre to simplify his philosophy and make it more palatable to the masses.  He was also at the point in his life wherein he was yet to fully fine-tune his philosophical and literary work.

Now, despite being an incomplete picture of existentialism, I highly recommend this work to anyone in crisis over the purpose of life. For a book on philosophy, this slim volume is an easy read and one that comes with a lot of chewable and digestible truths.

Rating: A++ (because one + is not enough)

Book Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Stranger by Albert Camus

Title: L’Étranger (The Stranger)

Author: Albert Camus

Translated from French by: Matthew Ward

First Published: 1942, Libraire Galliimard

Pages: 123

*Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Thus begins one of the most striking, complex, and widely read novels of the twentieth century. L’Étranger, translated as The Stranger, is arguably the most popular work of French novelist, author, and philosopher, Albert Camus.

The story follows the life of its main character, Mersault, as he goes from learning about his mother’s death to being tried for one of the most senseless murders in the history of literature. The novel unfolds through Mersault’s perspective, and is divided into two main parts—before he committed the crime, and after his arrest.

As a side note, let me start off by saying, translation matters.

Bear in mind that the Mersault I met was the byproduct of Matthew Ward’s translation. In reading this book under a different translator—whether it be Joseph Laredo or Sandra Smith—you may encounter a different version of Mersault—one that’s either more apathetic or sympathetic depending on who you’re reading. Though all roads lead to pointless murder and an equally ludicrous trial, these translations offer nuances that could shift your perception of the novel’s protagonist.

And on with the summary, we go…

The novel begins with Mersault’s acknowledgment of his mother’s death. It’s important to note his matter-of-fact tone, when he talks about needing to borrow a black tie and catch the two o’clock bus to Marengo, where the old people’s home was located. When he gets to the home, he refuses to see his mother for the last time, choosing to keep the casket closed. He doesn’t divulge what he feels about the matter, opting instead to offer a commentary about the wake and the long walk to the funeral. His indifferent behavior doesn’t escape the notice of the home’s director and caretaker.

The way he describes what ought to have been a tragic occurrence also speaks volumes of how his brain was wired. Mersault observes, “It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed.” (p.24)

Upon returning to the city, he immediately takes on a girlfriend, Marie, and makes friends with his neighbor, Raymond—a shady, woman-beater who is generally disliked in the neighborhood. With his help, Raymond manages to lure his mistress back into his apartment, where he proceeds to beat her up after suspecting her of carrying on an affair.

The young woman’s brother, an unnamed Arab, begins tailing Raymond. During a beach trip with Marie and Raymond, Mersault proceeds to kill the Arab. He shoots the Arab four times with such jarring apathy, with his only explanation being that he did it due to the intolerable heat. While the crime was not premeditated, his lack of motive only served as proof of his unacceptable character and his obvious guilt.

In the second part of the novel, we find Mersault incarcerated and the subject of a circus-of-a-trial. While his few friends and girlfriend testify to help clear his name, the fact that he doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t feel remorse for his crime only serves to land him a hasty “Guilty” verdict. In the midst of the trial, Mersault observes with annoyance that his fate was being determined without his participation. The reader also gets the feeling that the novel’s protagonist was being sent to the gallows for more than his crime—he was being condemned to death because of his behavior after his mother’s death. It was a trial against the protagonist’s character more than it was about his crime. As Camus puts it, “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death…the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

The novel concludes with a breathtaking monologue that is equally true as it is tainted by choice. Faced with a chaplain attempting to salvage Mersault’s soul, our protagonist launches into an impassioned tirade about how nothing mattered, for everyone was privileged to live and be carried by the tides of fate, and everyone was equally condemned to face an end—whatever that end may be. With this statement we find Mersault taking command of his fate, for his death was merely the result of the choices he’s made. Choices that didn’t matter to the protagonist. It was simply the way his life unfolded.

Down to a personal review.

To be honest, I itch at the term ‘protagonist.’ For while it’s true that Mersault is the subject of the book, in many ways, his personality becomes the main deterrent against his freedom. But perhaps, that is the point of the whole novel. For if a man condemned to death feels that he is free, if he thinks that he is more free than the rest of the world which is shackled by societal norms and notions of convention, than are we in any position to deem him as limited, condemned, or even damned?

Here was one man who lived according to his terms, though his actions were deplorable, his thought processes, irrational. The point is that they were his, and no one else’s. With Mersault, remorse was an alien concept. He shunned introspection and worship (religion), simply because he had no time for them. To him, these were pointless activities, for what did it all matter in the end? How did such things figure into a man’s final moments?

Though I don’t subscribe to such a bleak outlook in life, I can respect Mersault’s views. I find the desire to be free, free as defined by the individual, to be completely human. Despite the character’s cold and detached nature, he was, purely and simply, a man exercising his right to exist as he saw fit.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in philosophy and existentialist and absurdist literature. Also, for a thinking piece, this one’s a surprisingly easy read that leaves you pondering the purpose of human existence.

As a parting note, here’s some trivia regarding Camus. Although he is now lauded as one of the most important existential writers, he actually rejected the idea of being thought of as an existentialist. He was very vocal about his criticism of this branch of philosophy. To Albert Camus, existentialists “deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them.

Verdict: A+

Thoughts on “Economy” by Henry David Thoreau

Walden

 

Title: Economy (from Walden)

Author: Henry David Thoreau

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essay, Philosophy, Memoir

First Published: 1854

 

Before starting the actual review, let me stress that this is just my thoughts on the first chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s acclaimed work, Walden. I find it necessary for us to have at least a brief overview of the main text; that way, we can have a fuller grasp of the reasonings behind the creation of this compelling piece of literature.

Now, Walden is essentially the byproduct of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘immersion’ in nature. For two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau decided to live apart from society and its stifling standards by erecting a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond—about two miles from his home. There, he sought to understand society and its workings by paring down life to its bare essentials. This act of ‘economizing’ life had tremendous impact on Thoreau and his views; and this shows, especially when the reader explores the philosophies introduced by the writer in this chapter.

These days, when we say economy, we often use it to refer to either the economic climate or conditions of a particular country or area, or to the prudent and efficient use of finite resources. In the chapter aptly titled: Economy, the reader is given both an accurate portrait of the economic mindset of early-to-mid nineteenth century America, and an extensive how-to on keeping one’s daily expenditures at the bare minimum.

Note that the previous paragraph reads: “an accurate portrait of an economic mindset,” and not an economic state. This is deliberate; because while Thoreau does touch on fiscal matters and household management, he focuses more on denouncing the notion of the common mode of living as being the only socially acceptable one. He recognizes the futility of laboring constantly to meet the living standards set by society; standards which are not so much suggested as they are levied on the common man’s head. This is a sentiment, which I still find relevant today. Let me qualify that statement by dissecting the text with you.

In Economy, Thoreau uses very strong pronouncements such as “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… but it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things (p.11),” and “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that is which determines or rather indicates his fate (p.10),” to illustrate what he thinks of man’s reasons for his laboring. Thoreau believes that man has begun to live according to lofty standards dictated, not by his personal nature, but by an external force which one can only surmise as the “popular opinion” of a society geared towards consumerist living. The following excerpt sums up the essence of the author’s beliefs regarding this particular mindset:

“When we consider what, to use the words of catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. (p.11)”

Thoreau urges the reader to reconsider this popular “meaning of life” by recognizing that “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” further stating that “With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor (p.15).”

He explains these statements by pointing out that man, like most other animals, need only fuel, heat, and shelter to survive. To attain fuel, man eats—but he does not stop at eating to nourish, he feasts to taste. To retain heat, man covers himself with clothes—but he doesn’t wear clothes just to stay warm. He must wear the latest fashion, to rise in the esteem of his peers. And lastly, he doesn’t settle for whatever shelter can protect him from the elements, he must decorate his home, lest it be deemed unacceptable by his neighbors.

Now, let us explore each category, for I fear I do Thoreau no justice with such elementary summations. [My personal thoughts contained in brackets.]

On Fashion:

“No man has ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. (p.21)”

Though the statement may appear harsh, it must be understood that Thoreau’s views on fashion stemmed from his own experiences of having been prematurely judged based on his clothing or appearance. In Economy, he shared one such experience. While being measured for a new coat, Thoreau mused: “Of what use this measuring of me if she does not measure my character, but only the breadth of my shoulders, as it were a peg to hang a coat on?”

He offers the notion of freeing oneself from the pressures of fashion, to enjoy a certain liberty, as is enjoyed by “a man clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark…that if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.” (p.23)

[Though this particular idea may seem extreme, it’s one that I feel quite strongly about. For how many of us have been judged unfairly by our appearance or outwardly garb?  Being a woman of a particular color and stature, I cannot count how many times I have been subject to once-overs or been given a different brand of service inside certain establishments. While vanity has always been a shortcoming of mine, I have always believed in personal choice and personal style. I have always believed that if a man was to be judged, it would be according to his character, not his costume.]

 

On Shelter:

“While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. (p.30)”

In discussing the topic of shelter, Thoreau does not deny the necessity of having one, though he does make a case about how man has opted to rent “a larger and more luxurious box, (p.27)” when one of a simpler nature would suffice—such as the wigwams occupied by the Native Americans. The chapter discusses how the dwelling of the chief of a village offers little disparity when compared to the wigwams of his tribesmen; while in a ‘more civilized nation,’ less than half of the population can afford to own homes. People opt to pay annual tax to rent these luxurious boxes, ‘which would buy a village of wigwams, but now helps to keep them poor as long as they live. (p.28)”

He further illustrates this point through a poignant example of how a farmer tries to make a living using a “formula more complicated than the problem itself (p.30).” He speaks of how the farmer uses his skills ‘to catch comfort and independence,’ not knowing that he himself has been caught in his own trap.  Man thinks that by obtaining luxuries he can attain freedom from a life of strife, and yet he spends his entire life working hard to maintain what luxuries he’s got .As Thoreau puts it, “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. (p.30)”

 

On the Perpetual State of Discontent:

“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have… Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less? (p.32)”

In man’s pursuit for something greater, “Men have become the tools of their tools. (p.33)” That is the truth that Thoreau preaches throughout Economy. Man’s constant state of discontent propels him into action—but it is that very action that keeps him in a rat race that can only be broken by a change in perception. This feeling of dissatisfaction and the limitations it produces extends beyond the citizen’s private life.

“Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. (p.48)”

 

On the Practice of Philanthropy

“Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it. (p.63)”

Thoreau offers an unconventional and somewhat unpopular view on the idea of charity. With staggering declarations like “As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. (p.60),” and “There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. (p.61),” it is easy to misconstrue what the writer is trying to say. While he expressly states that philanthropy is an exercise that is not for him, he also explains that he would not stand in the way of genuine charity. He only asks that the intentions be pure and that the acts of charity be true. He believes that goodness should not be transitory or incomplete, rather, that the do-gooder would also spend himself alongside his money and would persevere even after public or private discouragements.

 

Verdict: All in all, Economy is a solid introduction to an extremely powerful piece of literary history. The persuasive and sound nature of Henry David Thoreau’s arguments guarantees his place as one of the greatest American writers and philosophers of all time.