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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

an elephant and his beliefs

My life these days is largely reading--more than it is writing, that's for sure.

I've always loved reading, and I do more of it now than I ever have before. Our old family friend, the late Dorothy Burt, born in 1908, spent much of every day reading for a large part of her adult life. Her day was broken down into the different things she read: The Observer, The Manchester Guardian, nonfiction book, fiction...

I used to think it was a bit strange to spend all of one's time reading and never doing anything, or at least writing something oneself. I think I still feel that way, although I'm less sure.

In my case, although I enjoy reading, I seldom read purely for "pleasure". For me, all reading is study, and that in fact is why I find it pleasurable. Possibly then it's not really reading I like, but learning, and reading is still the most efficient, accessible, and affordable way to learn. Aristotle said that humans by nature love to learn, and that the appeal of art is exactly that we learn from it.

So I'm learning. But am I really? In one obvious sense I certainly am. I do retain some quantity of what I read (less than I'd like). But the motive that keeps pushing me to read more is a feeling of dissatisfaction: that I have not yet learned what I'm seeking to learn.

What am I seeking? I'm searching for my beliefs. What do I think is true? What are the reasons--the real reasons--behind what I see in the world, in my experience?

According to William James, a belief is by definition a concept that we use as the basis for action. We act on what we believe, and only on what we believe. I reach down to my keyboard right now to press keys because I believe that when I do, the corresponding letters will appear on the monitor before me. (So far, so good.) I'm doing that because I believe that when I press the Publish Post button on the screen, this post will uploaded to my blog and become available for people to read. If I found out that these posts were not being uploaded to the blog, I would quite soon stop writing them. My belief would have changed, and with it my behavior.

I look around me in the world and see, mainly, actions based on erroneous or misguided beliefs. These happen on vast, world-changing scales. If, for example, you believe that the U.S. invaded Iraq, as was stated, in order to root out weapons of mass destruction, then that whole costly invasion and subsequent war was initiated on the basis of an erroneous belief. But even if you believe, as I do, that the invasion was for quite other purposes, such as "future oil security", or even "world domination", these too, in my view, are mistaken, since I am certain that neither one can be achieved in this way. Enormous resources are being consumed and lives lost right now, as I type, all on the basis of mistaken beliefs.

In Buddhism, it is taught that we are all separated from complete great enlightenment by the "two veils": the veil of "conflicting emotions" and the veil of "primitive beliefs about reality". Both of these are very difficult to remove, but the first one, "conflicting emotions", is much easier than the second, "primitive beliefs".

It might seem odd that an Indian monk who lived 2,500 years ago would, if he could look at our modern society with its secular outlook and advanced technology, describe our beliefs as primitive--but he would. He did. Our modernity and technology don't touch the issue of our basic mistakenness about things.

Of course, I'm not going to find Buddhist-style enlightenment in books. But I do want to become informed. Even in this relative and temporal way, I want to find out what the true causal forces are working in the world around me. I don't want to act--I don't feel I can act--until I feel I understand what's going on well enough. That means that instead of going out to achieve things, to crusade in the world, I'm sitting in my soft chair, book and highlighter in hand.

I feel like an elephant. It's said that an elephant will not step onto a bridge that won't hold its weight. An elephant just knows. And yet it's probably not just intuition; the elephant must look at the bridge, examine it, and come to a conclusion on the basis of its observations. It arrives at a belief about the bridge, and acts accordingly. I feel that most actions in the world are like that bridge, and I'm still trying to figure out if it will hold my weight.

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  • Yes, I remember that point about Aristotle from the course of philosophy at the Institute, the professor put it like that: according to Aristotle, learning is the highest pleasure (or joy).

    Last spring I attended a seminar on language teaching, with teacher trainer Rob Dean, who, explaining 'why read?', stated: 'it gives the sense of achievement'.
    I like learning, too. And now feel the need for development and learning.
    Pleasure: reading and learning are pleasures comprised with certain intellectual efforts: one ought to have some motivation, eagerness and intellectual level to get pleasure from this. So the 'highest' pleasure is not merely a pleasure.

    By Blogger Liza, at April 10, 2008 1:41 AM  

  • Hi, Paul, I always find your posts thought-provoking. It's been a while since I've dropped by and I'm pleased to see that--writing or reading--you're still posting, and I always take a grain or two of knowledge away. d:)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at April 11, 2008 5:30 PM  

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