Monthly Archives: August 2015

Happily Ever After?

happily

What a satisfying, ritualistic phrase it is to fall asleep to, after a bedtime story. But how do you live happily? And is “ever after” a realistic expectation when you stop to think about it?

What then is happiness? For any philosophical explanation, one usually falls back on Aristotle who, after distilling the wisdom of Plato and Socrates, said: Happiness is the central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. It consists in the cultivation of virtue. It includes physical and mental well-being and maintaining the mean between two extremes. This is not unlike Buddha’s Middle Path.

Happiness is not seeking wealth or pleasure or a good reputation. It is measuring how well you have lived up to your full potential as a human being. So pleasure alone is not happiness. You have to lead a good life. Happiness is the exercise of virtue. It is not instant gratification, but a long-term goal. It includes intellectual contemplation and friendship.

Accordingly, persisting with the writing of this blog, which involves mental effort on my part should ultimately result in my happiness, whereas if I should suddenly decide to stop and sit outside reading a good mystery instead that would give me pleasure only.
Thomas Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” derives from Locke who said: The necessity of pursuing happiness is the foundation of liberty. Locke himself was inspired by the ancient Greek philosophers. Jefferson also admired Epicurus and Lucretius and he too thought that virtue was the foundation of happiness. It meant the full use of one’s talent and the enjoyment of life and liberty. Generally we could say Jefferson did pretty well in the use of his talent. Unfortunately, one cannot help remembering that Jefferson owned slaves and does not seem to have considered their happiness. But that is ex post facto thinking.

For me, happiness often sneaks in through a door you did not know you had left open. It usually is also a byproduct of another activity such as successfully solving a puzzle like an acrostic or a cypher. It feels good when these puzzles suddenly unravel and coherence emerges. Happiness could also result from helping people find the information they are looking for. Performing anything you are good at results in satisfaction that could easily be called happiness.

Happiness can be contemplative: You happen to look out the window and see a spectacular sunset. Or you suddenly pay attention to the radio and stop in your tracks because Wynton Marsalis is playing Hummel’s trumpet concerto or Vladimir Horowitz is performing a Chopin mazurka.

The happiest people are those who are completely immersed in what they are doing . Neil deGrasse Tyson totally absorbed in the cosmos, Luciano Pavarotti ‘s beaming smile at the end of a high note as he waves his handkerchief at an adoring audience. I have seen the faces of scientists on Charlie Rose’s “brain series “who are obviously happy at explaining their discoveries of how our brain performs, its incredible malleability and versatility.

Strangely comedians are often unhappy people. They are so good at seeing the absurdities of life and compensate by making us all laugh at those incongruities.

The Constitution only gives us the right to pursue happiness. It is up to us to catch it and let it stay for a while. As for “ever after” that seems a little unrealistic.

How Barack Obama is Earning His Nobel Peace Prize

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel

Barack Obama Speaking in Cairo

Barack Obama Speaking
in Cairo

The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Barack Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people.” At the time the United States was, as he said himself, in the midst of two wars and many felt he had done nothing to deserve this honor.

The Nobel Peace Prize has a long history of controversy. Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite and whose company was an armaments manufacturer, had thought to appease his conscience because his invention had been used in and contributed to warfare and assassination. In addition, many of the recipients of the prize seemed singularly unworthy it. To cite a few among many:

–Theodore Roosevelt, our bellicose Bull Moose 26th president.

–Mother Theresa whose good deeds were negated by her obduracy regarding population control.

–Yasser Arafat, head of a terrorist organization who walked away from President Clinton’s peace proposal which had been agreed to by then-Israeli Premier, Ehud Barak. Because of Arafat, many Israeli peaceniks turned into hard-liners.

Barack Obama’s award was partly based on a speech called
“A New Beginning” which he gave in Cairo in June of 2009. In this speech, he stressed the need for the Western and the Islamic World to live side by side, in mutual respect. It was a speech of conciliation and, having just reread it, I thought it disingenuous. It equated Islam with the Western World, disregarding its egregious sins against women, its intolerance of other belief systems and its general intransigent attitude toward alternative behavior. Yes, we all know that Islam was a shining light in the Middle Ages whilst the West was plunged in darkness. Since then, however, the West went through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and continues to evolve, while Islam has stopped and has become ossified.

Barack Obama must have felt under an obligation to deserve his Nobel Prize because he has slowly been moving towards creating a better world. Starting at home, he recognized that black young men were becoming an endangered species because of a disparity in education and employment and an unfair criminal justice system. He created “My Brother’s Keeper,” a program which seeks to provide incentives and opportunities for black youth and improve their lives. In supporting prison reform, Obama recently visited a federal corrections facility (the first President ever to do so) and promised to work toward overhauling the American justice system. He wants to improve prison conditions and eliminate excessive sentencing. By executive action, he has already taken steps to commute sentences for low-level criminals.

Continuing abroad, he has spearheaded the rapprochement with Cuba. The President saw the absurdity of our non-recognition of Cuba’s existence while we had normal relations with far more hostile and uncooperative countries. He started redressing that anomaly, opening doors, letting fresh air in, encouraging travel and encounters. Engaging Cuba leads to a better outcome for their people, allows us to visit their country, and comes at absolutely no risk for us.

Now, he has successfully negotiated the Iran nuclear agreement. This agreement lifts economic sanctions against Iran (Obama had strengthened them in 2010) in exchange for its giving up the development of a nuclear weapon. Nobody thinks this is a perfect deal. Many people believe that it is better than no deal at all. According to John Kerry, it is the only alternative to military action and he urged Congress to ratify it. If Iran continues on its path to nuclear capability, other countries will rush to do the same and it will create a nuclear Middle East.

Regarding Guantanamo Prison, Obama’s administration is continuing to press ahead with a plan to close the US Military Base at Guantanamo Bay, sending low level criminals to other countries, bringing others to trial and holding some as prisoners of war.

Imperceptibly, while no one was paying attention, Barack Obama undertook these actions which, when added up, amount to an impressive effort to improve the world around us. He has now earned the Nobel Prize he was given.

Marx, Buddha, Montessori and the Migration of Ideas

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Buddha

Buddha

 

 

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori


Editors note: This is a guest blog by Simone’s daughter, Dina Cramer.

There are a number of major ideas, which although born in one place, flourished in another. Examples span quite a range of disparate areas and I will present them here in chronological sequence.

We begin with the birth of two religions. Buddhism was developed in northern India in the 5th century B.C.E. by Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha. Its message was spread throughout the Far East and it was adopted by China, Japan, and a number of other East Asian countries. However, India, where it began, is today a Hindu country.

Christianity arose in what was then Palestine, which is today Israel. This is the country of Jesus Christ’s birth, and it is where he preached and where he was crucified. Afterwards his religion spread to much of the western world. However it is not a dominant religion in his home country, and Israel, where Christianity began, is today, of course, Jewish.

Another idea which migrated from its country of origin and from its intended beneficiaries is Communism. Developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Germany with the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and Das Kapital in 1867, Communism was intended as a political-economic system which would liberate oppressed workers in industrialized western countries. It never took root in the intended environment and instead spread to undeveloped agrarian countries, the largest being Russia and China. Instead of liberating workers, the ideology was co-opted and used as a stepping stone to power by dictators who became the new oppressors. I wonder if Marx and Engels envisioned their system being used by Stalin or Mao to starve, massacre and imprison tens of millions of their own citizens. Again a movement flourished in a different country from its birth and in a different way than was intended.

A different kind of example is the Montessori movement. This was a system of pre-schools and early education developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in Rome, Italy in 1907 for children of the poorest slum of Rome. These ideas were brought to the United States in the 1920’s but died out only to be revived in the 1960’s when they became popular and were adopted especially by the upper middle class. Since then this movement has flourished throughout the U.S., extremely popular with highly educated people, leading one to wonder why a system based on the needs of destitute Italian children of the early 20th century transferred so readily to well-to-do modern Americans.

How about labor unions in the United States? These did not change countries but moved within a country. They were developed in the 20th century with the intention of protecting factory workers and members of trades. For a while a small but significant proportion of these did receive union protection. But for a number of reasons including the decline of the manufacturing sector, trade and industrial unions tended to wither away. In the meantime, it was the public sector which adopted unions with great enthusiasm: local, State, and Federal employees. Yet these employees least need the protections that unions give as they are already protected by civil service. (Full disclosure: I have been both a civil service employee and a union member at the same time.) So this gives public employees two layers of protection, which they still enjoy today, while many workers in the private sector lack even one.

Why did these ideas fail to take off in their place of origin, yet flourish in other soils? Please take a moment to comment with your own ideas. I would be particularly interested in hearing about other examples of this phenomenon. Continue reading