Monday, October 29, 2012

Do we need heroes?

Pinocchio, mascot of the World Cycling Championships 2013 in Firenze, Italy

I think that most of my readers will have heard of the Armstrong affair in bicycle racing: the case of the American pro-cyclist Lance Armstrong who had won the Tour de France cycle race seven times in succession with the help of doping and who had developed an ingenuous system for hiding that he had used doping. Moreover, he had also “forced” his team mates to use doping. Since I am a huge fan of bicycle racing, I am very disappointed, as you’ll understand, also because it has become clear again that this sport has been deeply poisoned by doping. Happily, the use of doping has decreased a lot since Armstrong left the sport (but not because he left but because of strict measures against it) and it has always had “clean” branches: cyclo-cross and women racing, for instance. But why is it so that I am so disappointed? Because in my view it’s a beautiful sport, of course, but also because something else is the case: a hero has been knocked of his pedestal. Lance Armstrong: once a person admired by everybody, now treated like dirt.
I think that the latter, the case of the fallen hero, gives the Armstrong affair a wider meaning. It is not only about Armstrong, his teammates and pro-cycling; the whole affair tells a lot about us: participants, onlookers and mere passers-by. For how could things have gone so far? Not, I think, because Armstrong has a dirty or criminal mind. I don’t think that his mind is dirtier or more criminal than mine or yours. I think that it could happen, because I and you and the whole society need heroes and now a hero has been exposed as a cheater. We need examples: persons who do what we cannot do or think we cannot do. They stimulate us to do things we shouldn’t maybe do if we didn’t have our heroes. A tennis player who wins Wimbledon which makes then a lot of children in his or her country start to play tennis as well is a case in point. Or people follow an anti-hero like Werther from Goethe’s novel, whose suicide made that many people followed him. People don’t like to do things on their own initiative, unless they have examples they can follow. Thinking for themselves is too difficult for many people. Many political and other leaders are acquainted with this mechanism, and so they have created titles like Hero of the Soviet Union or Hero of Labour, Mother-Hero and other beautiful titles and honours. Or political leaders (like Mao) are mystified (or deified in the past). When that happens, something has gone wrong with society. People don’t think for themselves any longer.
These are extreme cases, but they are not exceptional; rather they are the rule. Of course, there is nothing against admiration. In fact, there is a sliding scale between admiring and idolizing, or – what I think is a better word for the latter – “herofying”. It’s so for persons and it’s so for societies. I think that the degree of “herofying” in a society says a bit about the nature of that society. Is it by mere chance that in a society where we find our Armstrongs we find also too many bankers and managers of big (and smaller) companies who have been shown up as people mainly interested in filling their pockets with money? Isn’t it the same mentality: one that sees people on the top as people to be admired or even herofied who are allowed to do everything as long as nobody sees it (or at least talks about it?). I think so, and that’s why what I heard a neuropsychiatrist in a French TV program saying is so to the point: “A society in peace doesn’t need heroes. When it needs them, it is ill”.

Monday, October 22, 2012

What is true

Was it worthwhile?
(Photo showing war cemetery at Douaumont near Verdun)

Wittgenstein had two opinions on his life. We saw it in my last blog. Once he wrote in his diary that he wasn’t happy with it. Judging from what I know about Wittgenstein it was not simply a remark written in a depressive mood but it was the way he generally felt about his life, anyway during a long period. Nevertheless, when he was dying he said that he was happy with his life, looking backward. We can explain the difference by saying that Wittgenstein had changed his mind. But we can also suppose that from one perspective, the perspective of daily life, he felt unhappy, but from an overall perspective, evaluating what he had done and experienced, Wittgenstein judged otherwise and generally he felt happy with what he had achieved and had lived through. Here we have two views on the same thing and both can be true.
In Arnold Zweig’s novel of the First World War Erziehung vor Verdun (Education before Verdun) a soldier, Süssmann, says before he dies: “Tell my parents: It was worthwhile. Tell lieutenant Kroysing [his superior officer]: It was not worthwhile”. And then the author adds: “The truth is somewhere between these poles, but not exactly halfway in between, as a wise man noted.”
Zweig suggests here that both the message of the soldier to his parents and the one to his superior were not completely true, and when we wouldn’t have read this comment we would tend to think that the message to Kroysing was true and that the one to his parents was a white lie, because he did not want to add extra suffering for his parents if they would think that he had died in vain. However, the author apparently doesn’t want that the reader gets this idea and suggests that there are good sides and bad sides of the First World War and dying for it.
This is a possible interpretation but is it also conceivable that both remarks by Süssmann are true? A first thought is – and Zweig seems to have the same opinion – that there cannot be two truths: a statement is true or it isn’t. Something in between doesn’t exist and a truth that is a lie or the other way round is an impossibility. If we make two apparently contradictory statements about the same thing, either only one can be true or both say only a part of what is the case and there must be a true statement that expresses what there really is. In the end there is only one correct description of the world.
However, life is often not as simple as that. When we tell how we see the world around us and what we have experienced, we don’t do it in order to express objective facts. There is always a purpose behind our description. Saying that something is true always supposes that we take a certain perspective, just as we can say that Wittgenstein took the perspective of being in the middle of his experiences in one case and the perspective of the overall view in the other. In the same way we can give Süssmann’s messages different interpretations that both are true. For it is quite well possible that in the message to Kroysing Süssmann thought of the purpose of the war and what he was fighting for and that in view of all the suffering and dead the war wasn’t worthwhile. However, in the message to his parents maybe Süssmann wanted to say that in view of the fact that he had been a good son and a good patriot who did his duty (or in view of the idea that his parents wanted that he would be so) his life had been a success and that it had been worthwhile. These are not simple different aspects of the same thing but different perspectives of looking at the same thing. Seen in this way contradictory statements like those made by Süssmann or Wittgenstein can be true at the same time, how weird this may look on the face of it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What makes us happy?

Does it depends on our character whether this glass is half full or half empty?

The ink of my last blog was not yet dry when I found an article on the Internet that makes that I have to revise it. Or rather I found a reference to a recent psychological research that seems to refute one of the main points of the received view on happiness: the idea of the hedonic treadmill, which says that in the long run happiness is stable and doesn’t depend on incidental events and specific life circumstances (see my last blog). The article where I found the reference summarizes the research this way: “Bruce Headey, a psychologist at Melbourne University in Australia, … and his colleagues analyzed annual self-reports of life satisfaction from over 20,000 Germans who have been interviewed every year since 1984. He compared five-year averages of people’s reported life satisfaction, and plotted their relative happiness on a percentile scale from 1 to 100. Heady found that as time went on, more and more people recorded substantial changes in their life satisfaction. By 2008, more than a third had moved up or down on the happiness scale by at least 25 percent, compared to where they had started in 1984.” (
But as it happens so often in science, when we put things in perspective, they are not as plain as they look on the face of it. So it is here, too. However, I want to refer my readers for a discussion and appraisal of Heady’s results to the short article by Lena Groeger just mentioned. What remains to be said then is that in the long run our level of happiness can vary more than was thought initially and that it depends less on our character and genetic makeup than was thought until recently: Although some people are more prone to feeling happy or unhappy, we can do something about it.
This takes us back to Aristotle’s view that happiness is makeable. Even so, one wonders why some people feel happy in conditions where other people would feel themselves deeply unhappy. Poor people are often very happy, which rich people who see them often cannot understand (but sometimes just use as an excuse for the argument that their circumstances do not need to be changed). And people who have made progress sometimes feel unhappier than before. Happiness apparently depends on our expectations and seen possibilities. What makes us happy and what we can do in order to make ourselves happy is related to the world around us and the way we see it.
All this makes me think of a famous quote from Karl Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they … do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” In the present context: Men make their own happiness, but they … do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves... And this make happiness perspectival, for what the circumstances are is subject to how and from which position we see them.
It  leads my mind to Wittgenstein, or rather back to Wittgenstein. For it was just when I was browsing on the Internet looking for what Wittgenstein thought about happiness (and I knew that he often felt unhappy) that I found the reference to the research by Headey et al. Wittgenstein once wrote in his diary (and in order to make it myself easy, I quote from Groeger’s article): “There is no happiness for me; no joy ever.” “Yet” , so Groeger continues, “minutes before he died, he muttered: ‘Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life’.” Although a wonderful life needs not also be a happy life, nevertheless I think that the quotation shows that what once couldn’t make us happy can do so afterwards.

Monday, October 08, 2012

How long does happiness last?

When I had cycled to the Col du Grand Ballon I felt happy. As a reminder of this joyful moment I bought a little souvenir, which I have put in a bookcase in my study, hoping that it will make me happy again every time I look at it. But will it work? Feelings of happiness tend to fade away after some time, even in case the object of happiness or its token is still present every day. There is a theory that says that after three months these feelings have gone. Or rather the feelings of happiness have returned to the original level before the event that raised it took place. The opposite is also true: unhappy events tend to fade away as well. When I buy the house of my dreams, I feel very happy when I open the door for the first time. But gradually I become accustomed to my new property and I don’t feel better anymore than when I opened the door of my previous house. It is the same when I have lost a valuable possession. After some time I have moved it to the backyard of my mind. This seems to be even so for some very radical life changes like winning the jackpot in a lottery. So, in the long run happiness doesn’t depend on incidental events and it is not related to specific life circumstances. In the long run the level of happiness is stable. Psychologists talk about a “hedonic treadmill” or “hedonic adaptation”: each person has an individual level of happiness to which s/he returns after some time. It depends mainly on the person’s character and on genetic factors, although there can be much short-term variation.
However, there are exceptions to the levelling effect. Those who get divorced, unemployed, injured, seriously ill or physically disabled do not, it seems, on average recover the initial level of happiness they previously were at. And there are factors that permanently increase the level, like marriage (but not for everybody). This is an indication that it cannot only be influenced in the short run (buying a house) but also in the long run. The question is: how? And then we are more interested, of course, in the way we can influence our happiness level positively rather than negatively.
The Swiss author Rolf Dobelli, whose interesting book on mistakes in thought brought the theme to my attention, mentions several things you can do in order to prevent that happiness fades away. Much that makes you happy has also negative side effects. If you think that you cannot adapt to them, change your choice. So, don’t buy a house in the countryside far away from your workplace, if you don’t like commuting, for then your happiness can even become a source of unhappiness. Have also an eye for the fact that material things make you only happy for a short time. Moreover, the way you spend your life has a positive or negative effect on your happiness. The more leisure you have and the more autonomous you are, the better it is. In addition, take care of your relations and your reference groups. All such things have an effect on how you feel. I would summarize it this way: For a large part your level of happiness is given by your character and a few other factors, but the variations around this level are a matter of framing.
Nevertheless, it’s my experience that not all incidental feelings of happiness about big or little life events fade away unless you take special measures. Everybody knows that memories can make us happy or sad. I still feel a bit happier when I think of some good races I did in the past as a runner (these are not the very few races I won). And they took place before the theory of the hedonic treadmill had been discovered and when the idea of trying to preserve moments in my mind was still far away from me. Yet I think that a help to call back some nice moments can be useful and that a little souvenir can be such a help.

Monday, October 01, 2012

No mountain too high?

Practice makes the world go round was the essence of my last blog. But is it really so? I wanted to test it, and since for me philosophizing and cycling go together, it would do it by bike. But which mountain would be high enough for examining the truth of the statement? For practical reasons I decided to go to the Vosges in Eastern France. This region is less than a day’s drive from my home and you find there real mountains. Even more, some of them had got some fame in the Tour de France cycle race, and one of these mountains, the Grand Ballon, had always been my secret aim. Therefore my experiment would consist in a climb of the Col du Grand Ballon. And if I succeeded to cycle to this mountain pass of 1325 metres, it would tell me not only something about philosophy but also about myself. So there I went, again with my wife. However, we didn’t go directly to the Vosges but first to the much lower mountains of the Eifel in Germany in order to give me some extra training.
The rides in the Eifel went smooth and the low mountains where no problem for me. Full of optimism I left for the Vosges after a few days, but once I was there, I got nervous. For there is a big difference between a low mountain of 500 m and a mountain pass of 1325 m. I felt like having to run a marathon on the base of thorough interval training and having run some much shorter races. It’s quite well possible, but psychologically it is not the best preparation. But okay, I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it on the first opportunity that the weather was good, for you never know how it changes in the mountains.
The day after my arrival was warm and sunny. When I explored the climb by car that morning and saw the profile of the route, I became reassured a bit. It should be quite well possible for me. Back home, I took a light meal, changed clothes, checked my bike, and left. The first ten minutes were only a warming up on a more or less flat road. Then it went uphill. I’ll save the readers all my feelings, but I can say that it was often very hard and often I had no gears left in order to make it easier for myself. Several times I got the idea: that’s the end; now I have to stop. But I didn’t and when I left the trees behind me and open fields stretched out before my eyes, I knew that the worst was behind me. At the top of the pass I had even the power to accelerate.
The Col du Ballon d’Alsace (1178 m), which I did two days later, was a piece of cake compared with the Grand Ballon. A bit like the climb to the top of the Netherlands but x times longer. Actually I should have done it first by way of training. It appeared to be a real mountain for philosophers, for here I could think over what climbing the Grand Ballon meant for me and my theory. It became clear to me that it’s really true: after having gone up go down again and then up and down and up and down... So you can learn to climb the highest mountains. The highest mountains? For me, the Grand Ballon was the limit. But lots of cyclists and potential philosophers have conquered higher and steeper climbs, like the famous Mont Ventoux (the mountain of Petrarch, but also the mountain where Tommy Simpson died in 1967 during the Tour de France). Or the Tourmalet, the Galibier, the Alpe d’Huez and many more. Maybe it showed that each person has his or her limits. But what are they? Must I simply do the Grand Ballon a few times again and then I can do these other climbs as well?
But now it was the limit for me. Since I had reached the top of a renowned Tour de France col, I appeared to be a good philosopher. But since it certainly wasn’t the top of the tops, I understood also that I am not more than that. In order to check it, I browsed a bit on the Internet and found a website called Blogrank, which ranks all kinds of blogs, including philosophical ones. I added my blog, too, and I came out as #73 in philosophy (see the button right). Not too bad but not the top of the world. What remains then is to try to reach the best 25. How? By cycling on more mountains and writing more blogs, of course. When you’re on the top of the mountain, you can only become better by yo-yoing down and up. It’s true for cycling and it’s true for philosophy as well, not to speak of life.