This book is a lot deeper than its title suggests. It is insightful, witty and inspiring. Read it. Here's the appetizer
"To be human is to be finite.This book is a lot deeper than its title suggests. It is insightful, witty and inspiring. Read it. Here's the appetizer
"To be human is to be finite. Because of this, the good life warrants an ongoing struggle to be clear about what’s important, and to seek it with lucidity and passion; not be distracted by false ambitions or waylaid by dissipated consciousness.
Distraction is ultimately a question of value. ‘Value’ comes from the Latin valere, meaning ‘be strong’, or ‘be worthy’, ‘be valiant’. To obtain what’s valuable is to acquire power, in the finest sense of the word: capacity, capability, energy and enthusiasm. What’s valuable is what gives us the potency to cultivate the best life we can within the circumstances we’ve inherited or created. It enables independence, freedom from coercion and a check against self-deception and delusion. What’s valuable is what enhances our liberty.
To be diverted isn’t simply to have too many stimuli but to be confused about what to attend to and why. Distraction is the very opposite of emancipation: failing to see what is worthwhile in life and lacking the wherewithal to seek it.
As Heidegger suggested, we often spend our daily lives avoiding existential responsibility: speaking in clichés and entertaining ourselves with ‘idle talk’. We frequently defer to this anonymous ‘they’ instead of living our own lives. Distractions are often our way to elude the existential burden: deciding what we are and what to be.
We often seek distraction. One reason for this urge is Heidegger’s ‘fallenness’: the preoccupation affords a reprieve from the anxieties of life, which confront us in moments of repose. “We are afraid that when we are alone and quiet’, wrote Nietzsche, ‘something will be whispered into our ear’. This something is our own conscience and awareness; the lingering, nagging realisation that there are realities to be confronted, choices to be made; the knowledge that opportunities are diminishing with our days. The compulsion to seek respite is as ancient as humanity itself, and it stems from our understandable unwillingness to look our own lives squarely in the face.
‘How we labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life’ wrote Nietzsche in his Untimely Meditations, ‘because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself’. If we lament the speed and fracturing of life, we can also welcome these as a refuge from the burden of the self; from the responsibility to live. In this state, it’s difficult to identify what’s valuable, and almost impossible to seek it with lucidity and determination. The result is diminished opportunity for liberty.
For many of us, the site of the most frustrating diversions and interruptions is work. The result can be an inability to properly perceive, think and imagine; a dissolution of consciousness, which affects health, peace of mind and close relationships.
Automated technologies have afforded a great many time savings, but they also create an atmosphere of urgency and immediate outputs, instead of patient, engaged attention. They transform the workplace into a site for the harried production of tomorrow’s profit, rather than for today’s professional competency and completion. The pleasure of challenging work for its own sake is deferred and rarely achieved.
We have to work, often for bosses and businesses we don’t hold in high esteem, … we have mouths and mortgages to feed. What this calls for is not desperation or recrimination but judicious compromise – we need to make the best of the limitation the world provides. Sometimes this means working in jobs that are menial or uncreative, but making the best use of our free time as something genuinely free.
With sufficient presence of mind, we can use work as it uses us. While it takes our hours and energies, it also serves as a redemption for many of our idiosyncrasies and proclivities. Even if we’re drawn to work because of loneliness, guilt or a longing for respect, it can provide a site for the commitment of the unruly psyche to something constructive. It’s a crucible in which our passions are transformed into tangible rewards. Work is not a distraction from our finest aspirations but a way of strengthening and deepening our capacity to achieve them.
We are free when we are authoritatively being ourselves and not deferring to the demands or expectations of someone else. Liberty requires a robust and self-sufficient character. We can’t be free until we’ve cultivated an ‘I’ that can resist the demands of others, one that has its own modus operandi. (To Spinoza,) liberty wasn’t something that other individuals or institutions could provide-it was up to the wise man, and him alone to properly cultivate himself. His ideal of freedom was a life without distraction.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote of the ‘three metamorphoses of the spirit’. The spirit becomes a camel, the camel a lion and the lion a child. In the modern workplace, these three metamorphoses remain a challenge for us all: the endure busywork and its distractions, to fiercely say No to subjugation, and to claim the leisurely freedom of the child.
Henry James’ solitary impulse was perfectly, consolingly human. And his struggles against indifference or flight involved the very same stakes we confront today: the achievement of a tangible, worldly freedom, through enduring sympathetic attention to others.
A distracted mind is a clumsy, fumbling guide. The disappointment this breeds can compel us to flee more zealously, to seek asylum in false consolation, delusion or ubiquitous noise. The opposite of distraction is a life of liberty – one spent not in seeking refuge from ourselves and the world but in sincerely taking up the challenge of existence; of ‘being’ something rather than anything. This endeavour requires an honest, sometimes courageous recognition of what is life-affirming or inspiring, and the vigilance to safeguard this vision from corruption or misunderstanding. An undistracted life requires gratitude, not to a patron or a saviour but for the simple fact of existence itself. If we cannot choose our birth, or vault the impermeable barriers of place and time, we can still warm to the existential endeavour; we can smile at the opportunity to live, instead of flinching or closing our eyes. Of course this will entail pain and loss, sacrifice and compromise. And there will be time for games and idleness. But at its most profound, this is a simple primal “Yes” to the attempt, the aspiration, the lurch towards freedom. To seek emancipation from distraction is to accept this ambivalent liberty – an unspoken, unrepentant “Thank you” for the adventure of being."...more
I confess my crime that I never actually finished this book. For some odd reason, I got fascinated by Nietzsche in my first year, and that led to DostI confess my crime that I never actually finished this book. For some odd reason, I got fascinated by Nietzsche in my first year, and that led to Dostoevsky. Basically, I just found the book terribly boring and deleterious (Dostoevsky loves this word doesn't he?) and I couldn't care any less about the main character. And I knew exactly how the book was going to end, so I couldn't bring myself to finish it. I don't find his reasoning justifiable and the conclusion concerning atheism and rationality is just abhorrent. Absolutely hate the idea we need an all-powerful man in the sky to have a sense of right or wrong. I think that's a very immature argument that I wouldn't even waste my time debating. But Christian fundies will love it, they sure will. ...more
I’ve always been semi-interested in religion. Interested enough to have many conversations and debates about it, but not enough to read any thorough bI’ve always been semi-interested in religion. Interested enough to have many conversations and debates about it, but not enough to read any thorough book on it. Not even the Bible. And admit it, most of the time, books on religion are quite dry and intense, like you need to know lots of the details and stories before you can even make sense of what they’re trying to argue about. Or the other end of the spectrum is militant bastards like Richard Dawkins, who I’m totally fed up with or apologists like Francis Collins. They don’t really educate me at all on the subject matter. So stuff that, I have many other interesting things to read in my life.
So I was quite reluctant to read this book when my friend Matt introduced it to me. You know the sort of book atheists recommend to other atheists, don’t you? But the fact that he was religious and is now atheistic and can defend his viewpoint so convincingly made me think this book must be good. And it turns out to be a wonderful book, Bart Ehrman is like totally my hero these days.
The book is not just what he learns about religion, but really his life story and how he changed his mind from being a devout Christian to an agnostic. Not the kind of getting frustrated with God and giving up the faith, but he certainly reflected on it very deeply and rationally. He was raised in an evangelical family and when he was in highschool, he found a void in his soul. He turned to Christianity and was so overwhelmed by the solace of God that he decided to spend the rest of his life to it. Ehrman went to a super fundamentalist school, and thank God, went on to study theology at Princeton. Here, he had access to the most extensive collection of Christian texts and decided to learn many ancient languages so he could read these manuscripts himself.
What he found out shook him to the core. There are many variations in the canon over time and he gradually came to realize that the Bible is a totally human text, with very human errors, emotions, inspiration and prejudices. It drove him to learn more about ancient Christian history and traditions, not to refute it completely, but to point out the inconsistencies and alternative texts that were left out in the process. And this guy obviously knows his stuff, knows it so well and can argue so persuasively with reason and empathy that you find it hard to believe he's no longer a Christian. He doesn’t convince you to become an agnostic like himself, and he doesn’t need to. All he does is be an honest historian and present all the evidence, examine it closely and weigh the possibility of each event, and I think every reasonable person can walk out learning a lot from this man.
So much for his life story. Jesus, the first millennium apocalyptic prophet is an amazing book. I mean, if a religiously retarded moron like me can understand it, you can be guaranteed of its quality. In this book, he points out a lot of inconsistencies in the four Gospels, such as the account of the birth of Jesus or his death. How do you reconcile the story of King Herod and the wise men in Matthew with the shepherd in Luke? Did he die on the Passover or the day after? What was his reaction to his crucifixion, did he cry out in pain as in Mark or did he accept it willingly as in John? What happened to the women who found the tomb, what did they see, did they go straight to Jerusalem or go to Galilee first?
These contradictions are inevitable because the first account of Jesus’ life was Paul’s letters, which were written 20 years AFTER Jesus’ death. The earliest Gospel, Mark, possibly 30 years, other gospels, 50-80 years. So here you go, you have four accounts written decades after the events, not by eyewitnesses, in a different language (Greek, Jesus spoke Aramaic). There is also very little evidence of a man called Jesus living around that time in other sources, either pagan or Christian. Other Christian sources such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas or Coptic Gospel of Thomas or the Gnostic Myth all tell very little and different stories about Jesus’ life and deeds. What we can really construct about Jesus is quite limited and we must always take it with a grain of salt.
The best point of the book deals with what I’ve always been wondering about Jesus: was he a revolutionary? A social reformer? A self-sacrificing loving saint? What exactly was his purpose? Why did he teach bizarre things such as turn the other cheek, or give away everything, or if someone wants to enslave you, let them or forgive all acts of evil? No, I won’t pretend that any of these things ever made sense to me. The question of forgiveness strikes me as the most puzzling thing Jesus preached. I don’t believe in complete mercy, I do believe in just and humane punishment. Forgiveness is not given, but earned. So why did he teach these things?
Bart Ehrman offers a hypothesis, a very good one to explain it. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who was expecting the coming of the Kingdom of God WITHIN HIS GENERATION. His ministry began with his association with John the Baptist, also an apocalyptic prophet. Throughout the gospels, you can find his teachings about the coming judgment, the coming Son of God, when those oppressed will be vindicated and rewarded and unbelievers will be sent to hell, all governments and institutions will be destroyed.
And if you put all his teachings in that context, everything makes perfect sense. He was not so concerned with this life, because the end is coming imminently when you’ll live in perpetual heaven, and if you don’t care about this life, why would you care if someone steals your money, enslaves you, slaps you in the face? He did not intend to be a social reformer because he advocated the ABOLITION of all governments and institutions. He did not expect this world to become better; he expected it to end and every believer to enter the Kingdom of God IN THIS WORLD, not in heaven. His point is, simply put, believe in God, repent, sacrifice, forgive, give away, do anything to enter the Kingdom of God. Ah, Remember to be quick because it’s coming within your generation. He might have taught a few good things but maybe it wasn’t his purpose after all.
Bart Ehrman is simply a beautiful writer, he writes eloquently, coherently and honestly. He doesn’t attack religion, he analyses it and leaves us to find an answer for ourselves. We definitely need more people like him in this world. Thanks Matt, you’re my hero for introducing this book to me. ...more
a very outrageous account of a teacher in a segregation school in Boston in the 60's. If you hear on tv that the crime rate among African Americans isa very outrageous account of a teacher in a segregation school in Boston in the 60's. If you hear on tv that the crime rate among African Americans is very high and you are angry about it, READ THIS BOOK. there are certain things you should be much angrier about. ...more
Like any living being that has an iota of interest in American politics, I've always been baffled by the contradictions in the intellectual traditionLike any living being that has an iota of interest in American politics, I've always been baffled by the contradictions in the intellectual tradition of America. On the one hand, America has the best universities in the world, offered a haven for many intellectual exiles, nurtures scientists of best caliber and was one of the pioneers in freedom and democracy when the rest of the mankind was still groping in the age of darkness. Yet, that is the same America where a moron that could see Africa as a country (with a pair of binoculars from her front door) was flaunting her stupidity to run as a VP candidate, and unabated Christian fundamentalism continues to loom, which seems to baffle the Continent.
The Founding Fathers must be appalled by the current state of America, falling behind in the developed world in almost every index of educational and health care standards. Also appalled by a (thank god, gone) president who could well have seen them as “intellectual snobs”. Why is it that with all the wonderful advances in science and technology, we still haven’t got rid of an unscientific society plagued by dogmas, religion and superstition?
No, it never makes any sense to me. So i was looking for an answer to that question, and Susan Jacoby provides a very substantial and well thought-out explanation in this book.
The tradition of anti-intellectualism dates far back from the founding days, where the main purpose of learning was for practical purposes to survive in a foreign land. The attitudes of the founding fathers, although highly secular and rational, did not universally favor general taxation to fund a public education system. Education was meant to be reserved for privileged white males. And very interestingly, unlike Europe, where the church and the state WERE intertwined, America offered the religious freedom and a free “market” for any religious denominations to compete to salvage the American souls. So whereas in Europe, people were angry with the gov AND the church and sought their solutions in intellectual pursuits and secular ideas, in America, people clung to dogmatic Christian sects to seek solace from the harsh reality of life.
The cultural war continued in the twentieth century. On the one hand, the literacy rate was growing and the lyceum movement was spreading, inspiring millions of people (I personally lament the disappearance of lyceums in our modern society, remember Michael Faraday?). On the other hand, Social Darwinism, otherwise known as bogus pseudoscience, was promoted by Carnegie, Rockefeller and Edison, thus justifying the egregious inequalities between different classes. Real science, i.e Darwinist evolution, however was met with great suspicion and resistance, which is understandable. The inequalities in the schooling systems between poor and rich states grew larger and the establishments of religious schools, entirely free from a national standard, were the hotbed of ignorance and close-mindedness. Education in the south was dominated by zealous clergymen where no other source of information other than the Bible was accepted. The philosophy of a non-interventionist government means there’s no national standard curriculum, and the misled absolute faith in a self-educated man means the family and the church can sometimes have absolute control over what a child is exposed to.
The era of McCarthyism wrecked havoc on the intellectual life. Many (not majority of) intellectuals were left-leaning and were equated with treason. Their image was tainted by the their conduct as informers and the public fixation with the Red Scare. However, in the 60's, many of these intellectuals entered the teaching profession and the turbulence of the 60's, painted by the right as a debauching riot of angry feminists, ungrateful privileged educated young rebels, and troublesome blacks. Now, too much education was tantamount to dangerous and subversive ideas and detrimental to traditional values. The left, on the other hand, viewed the academia with great suspicion when the military-university complex was exposed. The situation was settled by the mid 70's, where both the left and the right had something to celebrate. The demands of feminists and civil right activists were satisfied by the ghettoization of ethnic studies and the lowering of university standards. The right successfully depicted liberal intellectuals as leftist elitists, detached from American values and common sense. But along with these trends were an increasingly educated population aided by the middlebrown culture movement that served as a secularizing force.
The spread of Christian fundamentalism in the 60's continued and had an increasing influence on the government. It was not unusual to hear Reagan speak of Armageddon or Bush talking about the war on God’s side (I wonder how God talks differently to Bush and Bin Laden on the telephone). The dumbing down of society flourishes with the culture of distraction from a plethora of new hi-tech gadgets. The internet, besides spreading knowledge and information more rapidly than ever, has become a disseminator of junk thought and hampers the ability of people to think deeply and concentrate.
Although I have a lot to agree with Susan Jacoby, she seems to be one of those many nostalgic people who always think it used to be better back in the days. Every generation think exactly that way, that it used to be better back then, smack their tongue that this generation is the worst one, our moral decay is irredeemable and the world is coming to an end. But then again and again, each generation will produce its own revolutions, movements and culture. 50 years from now, people will look back and still think our era is the golden age. Whether the internet is going to revolutionize our life or ruin it, that's one interesting thing to think about. ...more