2018 Q2 - Siddhartha, The Lessons of History, Rules for a Knight
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Every now & then you read a book that feels as if it has more to reveal, but you have a tough time deciphering its messages. Maybe it seems too simple, deceptively intricate, or maybe subtly complex. I’m not sure where this book fits, but all I do know is that I don’t feel I got as much out of it as many others have. One chapter, though, did strike a chord on this first read.
That chapter is titled Samsara. Unfortunately, this term can be so drenched in religious context that some people are either immediately turned off (I don’t blame them) or some people tunnel-vision themselves out of social engagement (ideology). I searched for a definition that was simultaneously simple, and divorced from religiosity. Here’s what I found: "Instead of a place, it's a process: the tendency to keep creating worlds and then moving into them." And note that this creating and moving in doesn't just happen once, at birth. We're doing it all the time." He is referring to what Dr. Samuel Johnson was hinting toward when he said, “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” The slow simmer of time cooks our habits and tendencies until they are unknowingly baked into ourselves. By the time you figure it out… well, you’ve got quite a job on your hands.
In the book we read how Siddhartha succumbed to the slow simmer of time. (For what it’s worth, it seems that The Minimalists may have hit on something relevant and related to the following excerpt. In case you haven’t already, be sure to check out their Netflix documentary.)
The world had caught him; pleasure, covetousness, idleness, and finally also that vice that he had always despised and scorned as the most foolish --- acquisitiveness. Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toyl they had become a chain and a burden.
He goes on to talk about Siddhartha’s addiction to gambling; something that can easily be extrapolated into many of our automatic daily routines; think social media, mainstream media, the news, your cell phone, the television, and all other forms of escapism.
He loved that anxiety, that terrible and oppressive anxiety which he experienced during the game of dice, during the suspense of high stakes. He loved this feeling and continually sought to renew it, to increase it, to stimulate it, for in this feeling alone did he experience some kind of happiness, some kind of excitement, some heightened living in the midst of his satiated, tepid, insipid existence. And after every great loss he devoted himself to the procurement of new riches [...] for he wanted to play again… [...] he wore himself out in this senseless cycle, became old and sick.
I have a feeling this is one of those books that evolves with the reader. I’ll come back to in a few years.
The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant
This is another book (like Siddhartha) recommended by some people I respect. It did not disappoint… however, it takes a few pages to really start getting into it. Given that the book was barely 100 pages long, the runway was short and the informational density was quite high. This may well be one of those books that evolves with the reader while simultaneously playing a role in changing the reader’s perspectives. Another bonus of this book is that you’ll now have some much needed context when your uncles get into solving long-standing geopolitical conflicts. Also FYI, this book was a result of the authors’ notes on their own previously published ten-volume set of The Story of Civilization until 1789.
If this book provides anything, then it provides the reader with historical context spanning at least the last two thousand years. At times it seems to have a left lean, but then it starts leaning right… until you realize that the authors are trying their best to look at historical cycles from an objective lens as much as possible. A number of the lessons can be applied to our present time. Here’s one: “Other factors equal, internal liberty varies inversely as external danger.”
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
total perspective is an optical illusion
We must operate with partial knowledge, and be provisionally content with probabilities
“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding”
War is a nation’s way of eating.
Means and instrumentalities change; motives and ends remain the same
Nothing is clearer in history that the adoption by successful rebels of the methods they were accustomed to condemn in the forces they disposed.
insecurity is the mother of greed, as cruelty is the memory [...] of a time when the test of survival was the ability to kill
Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigma of his fall.
“A shallow sophistication prided itself upon its pessimism and cynicism.”
The discovery of America was a result of the failure of the Crusades
The sanity of an individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of a group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction
History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.
Rules For A Knight by Ethan Hawke
I’m not sure how I found this book. Maybe it was an Amazon recommendation. Either way, it was a worthwhile read. “Rules” is based on a letter written by one of Ethan Hawke’s early ancestors after he was mortally wounded in battle. The letter was intended to pass on the lessons the author had learned during his lifetime. While there’s nothing surprising or new in this book, it is a nice reminder of how to live a good life. The gems of the book, however, are not the list of “Knightly” qualities, but the stories and short thoughts that accompany them. For that reason alone, I think it’s a book worth reading.
A few of my favorite quotes:
You are better than no one, and no one is better than you.
Being polite is part of our daily meditation on the equality of mankind.
Humility is the ability to see yourself in the context of a much larger world.
“Be humble or get humbled.”
“If you can lose it in a shipwreck, it isn’t really yours!”
Pleasure is not complicated.
The armor of falsehood us subtly wrought out of the darkness and hides us not only from others but from our own soul.
Courage is our ability and willingness to overcome our fear.
[Breath] is the connective tissue of the universe, binding all living things together.
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. You have to read this book! It is one of the best biographies I’ve read. Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, tells the amazing tale of the incredible (and calculated) risks he took to turn a small shoe import company into the gigantic juggernaut that Nike is today. Any business founder or owner will easily identify with his words; and anyone who has ever loved anything regardless of the money involved will also easily identify with Phil. I’ll be coming back to this book for a closer second read.
Mr. Mircea, is one of my favorite twitter personalities. His twitter-threads are consistently insightful. Here is one of his latest threads: https://twitter.com/mistermircea/status/953099368520978432
When a Stress Expert Battles Mental Illness - I’ve read Brad’s articles for the last few years and have usually found them reassuring and uplifting. This was exceptionally powerful and revealing. Here’s a quote: “Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned through this experience is that sometimes self-help isn’t enough. If you are struggling with mental illness, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed, and do not keep it to yourself. I can’t reiterate enough the importance of getting help.”
Really worthwhile read: “Saving money for decades may not be your best path to freedom.” from The Joy and Freedom of Working Until Death.