Contemptuous Expressions

Richard Feynman’s father taught his son one other important exercise. He would sit him down and they would go through the newspaper together. When they would come across a photo of pope blessing a group of people and he’d say “tell me the difference between these men.” Before Richard would reply he’d say, the difference is the hat, he’s wearing a hat. If the photo was of a general then it was the stars on his collar and if it was executive it was his suit. After years in the uniform business, Feynman’s father knew that in it or out of it the man wearing it is the same. They get stuck in traffic, make mistakes and take shits just like everybody else.

Feynman’s father probably had no idea that this was a deeply Stoic exercise. That although it’s where they got their reputation for pessimism, it’s the same freeing kind of objectivity. Epictetus told his students, when they’d quote some great philosopher, to picture themselves standing over the man having sex. Grunting, groaning and awkward; like the rest of us so completely detached from their ‘philosophical’ rhetoric. Marcus would deprive things of their euphemisms – roasted meat is a dead animal and vintage wine is old, fermented grapes. The aim was to see these things as they really are, to ‘strip away the legend that encrusts them.’

We forget, I think, how often our perception puffs things up and embellishes them. We underestimate how this hurts us spiritually as well as strategically. It makes us weak and uncritical. It doesn’t make us happy, in fact, it burdens us to take these things too seriously. Feynman and the Stoics exaggerated their objectivity not to undermine but as a means to fight bad habits.

The exercise breaks apart the fantasy that names and uniforms mean anything. It proves the alchemy false. For instance: think of the companies that intimidate us or whose golden halo follows former employees for the rest of their lives. Look for their weakness and see how it defines them. How helpless it renders them. Google running 41 tests to figure out what color blue to use. Microsoft buying friends like a lame rich kid. Think of artists and politicians: An author and their divorces. George Bush, from the world’s most powerful man to a sad, quiet desperation.

All that’s left then, believe it or not, is a few cheerful prospects. One, that you’re essentially no different than anyone else. The pope, a billionaire, a pariah – the same. Two, the chance to appreciate things as they actually are. The plain, inadvertent majesty of them. Finally, a complete rejection of the tendency for words and recognition to define reality. There is nothing anyone can say about you or what you do that changes whether it’s right, whether it makes you happy, whether it’s healthy.

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