In Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that we cultivate the moral virtues by means of habituation and proper training. The right kind of education in courage will put us face-to-face with fear so that we can ‘learn to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them.’ Later on in our moral education, we will learn to delight in the kinds of persons we have become: taking delight, for instance, not always in acting justly (for the case at hand may be painful) but rather in being the kinds of persons who can judge justly. The same goes for temperance. We delight in regarding ourselves as the kinds of persons who can take in and on only what is enough.
Temperance is the cardinal virtue for the social entrepreneur. As a philosopher, I observe how frequently curiosity, exuberance, and creative effluence are stressed in the education of young social entrepreneurs. But more important than these, during a period of fervor as well as one of torpor, is temperance. Aristotle: ‘by abstaining from pleasures [early on] we become temperate, and it is when we become so that we are most able to abstain from them.’
In the early stages, we must hold ourselves back from getting too excited, too enthusiastic, too amped up about some new idea; about too many ideas; about too many projects. We must slow down and consider. Best not to make up one’s mind too quickly without good deliberation. For it must be borne in mind that somewhere along the path things will get dull and difficult, and then one will need also to exercise courage, patience, and openness…
Temperance restrains us from excess, from snap judgments, and from the up’s and down’s of modern life, keeping us level and on track. As we get older, we then learn to delight not in the free reign of the appetite but in how measured and composed we have become.
I read a quote from the playwright Tom Stoppard about his view of playwriting. ‘My whole life,’ he tells his interviewer, ‘is waiting for the questions to which I have prepared answers.’ This view of things, albeit clever-sounding, is backward.
Some years ago, I read something very different in in one of Raymond Geuss’s books. He related that what he learned from the late Richard Rorty was that especially interesting philosophy goes about changing the topic of conversation. This means: inventing a novel question or changing the questions of deep significance we now think to ask.
When we invent a novel question (or change our deep questions) that strikes us as startlingly interesting, then the fact that no answer is forthcoming serves to give us pause. Within this capacious pause, we might very well reorient our entire lives. And how interesting that would be to be set, clear-eyed, on a higher course.
A poetic chant that came to me before a philosophical conversation earlier today.
The morning tree wavers, but the mind does not.
The mind, unwavering, is full of stillness.
When one thing comes to it, the mind takes the thing in hand.
That and that thing only.
When another thing comes to it, then the mind takes that thing in hand.
That and that thing only.
When each thing comes to it, the mind comes to it with ease.
The transition is as natural as the music sounding through the morning tree.
The mind, unmoving, listens still.
’15. From MAXIMUS, self-mastery and stability of purpose; and cheeriness in sickness as well as in all other circumstances; and a character justly proportioned of sweetness and gravity; and to perform without grumbling the task that lies to one’s hand.’
–Marcus, Meditations, Book I
I have been incrementally decreasing the amount of black tea and coffee I drink in order to observe the effects of caffeine on the quality of my attention. I no longer drink English breakfast tea at noon or in the afternoon, and I have less than two cups of coffee in the morning. Soon, I will have only one cup of coffee and then perhaps none.
I have concluded that caffeine impoverishes the quality of one’s attention. The mode of being of the person under the influence of caffeine can be most accurately described as self-assertiveness: I am not a thinking or contemplative being but a frantic force moving through the world.
There are four essential features of self-assertiveness when it is grasped under the influence of caffeine:
- Velocity. The self is rapidly moving onward. It has many things to do this very instant; it has plenty of jumbled, disjointed ideas; it uses lots of words. The self is frantic, pitched forward, always moving–nearly careening–onto the next.
- Assertiveness. The self asserts its presence as a self to be reckoned with. Others are either ‘yes-men,’ going along with its ideas or movements, or impediments, i.e., obstacles to be pushed out of the way or surmounted. As a self to be reckoned with, the caffeinated person grows distant and seeks power.
- Dulled Aesthetic Sense. The self cannot hold his attention on the hummingbird or the full moon before dusk. He cannot hold the other attentively and lovingly. He cannot listen easily, but only by forcing himself to hold his tongue and listen. His has lost both erotic and aesthetic appreciation.
- Value and Intensity. In light of 1-3, his interaction with others tends to be either very pleasurable or very painful, either quite good or especially bad. There is no room for suspending judgment, for being startled and simply looking on, for remaining in a state between pleasure and pain, good and bad, high and low. As a result, the self-assertive man is easily irritated (the other is harming him), overly aggressive (he wants the other to give out of his way), quick-tempered, loud, and feverish.
While one is caffeinated, one is not engaging in dialogue, appreciating the surrounding natural beauties, or contemplating what there is. Caffeine is therefore a fit drug for an atomized capitalist world governed by frantic productivity, maximum efficiency, and ready quantifiability.