Monday, February 28, 2011

Henry David Thoreau

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.

Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Robert Leslie Fielding: You say that if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. What did you mean by that? Surely any man should go the way his companions are going, shouldn’t he?

Henry David Thoreau: Not necessarily, no! Being a friend means something more than being merely aped, I hope. It surely means having someone close who can understand one’s differences, allow for them, understand them, and, above all, accept them for what they are.
Too many people seem to go blindly along with those around them, leaving little room for any individuality.

RLF: But surely what is important is being a part of something that is bigger than oneself, isn’t it?

HDT: It is indeed, but that can mean different things to different people, I think.
You can take it to mean being a part of a group of others, I can take it as having a meaning more akin to something larger, being part of a bigger picture, as they say in the modern idiom.

RLF: Which would be what, exactly?

HDT: Who can say? One must have the freedom to choose one’s own life, not to be goaded into a path not of one’s own choosing.

RLF: But those closest to you usually mean well, don’t they? They would not give you wrong advice, would they, if they are your friends or family?

HDT: You would hope they wouldn’t, it is true, and yet people do the strangest things.

RLF: Such as?

HDT: Such as not knowing their own minds, even as they advise you what to do for the best.

RLF: But why do they do that, if they are your friends?

HDT: For any one of a plethora of reasons and motives – some of which they are acutely aware, some of which they might only be dimly aware of, and others of which they remain wholly in the dark about.

RLF: But who gives another advice without first thinking it through – thinking through the full implications of a piece of advice?

HDT: I would say that much of what we call ‘good advice’ comes like this – in its unwrapped, ill-considered form, as it were. How do people begin when they want to give advice?

RLF: With something like these words, “If I were you…

HDT: Precisely, and therein stems the problem. Those words assume too much in the utterer; I am not you and nor will I ever be. You are a person wholly different from me. You are you, and I am who I am – that is enough.

RLF: But those words are merely the idiom used to gain some attention as to what is coming next, aren’t they? Whenever you hear those words spoken, you should …

HDT: You should beware, be on your guard. However, the type of thing I wish to discuss is not just the spoken advice as a way of getting you to be like me, but something far more pervasive, and far more insidious.

RLF: Which is?

HDT: Which is the way we have of persuading through unspoken ways. Imitation, it is said, is the sincerest form of flattery, and so we anticipate imitation with some glee, we court it and we are gratified when someone does something similar to how we would have behaved. The sincerest form of flattery is that unconscious type – that which is performed automatically, almost without thinking.

RLF: But do we ever do that, and if so how and when?

HDT: Much of what we say and do is informed by processes of which we are only dimly aware, and about which we still know only very little. The study of humanity in all its scales – sociology and psychology being the main ones, is still in its infancy. We can only really infer what is happening.

RLF: And yet here you are purporting to know more.

HDT: That is well said, my friend, although you may be at a loss to explain why I say it was well said, given the drift of our talk.

RLF: I suppose you meant that although I can utter something – a concept, for example, I may not be able to elaborate on it.

HDT: And in my experience, you are in very good company.

RLF: What do you mean?

HDT: I mean that most of us do just that – we say something, we endeavor to make someone act this way or that, even though we may not fully understand why.
We feel rather than reason, much of the time, it seems to me. Man is not given much to introspection, I find, lest he introspect and find very little there to have introspection on.

We say things, in fact, I would go so far as to say that much of what we say, much of what we opine, much of what we believe is based more on feelings than on reason.
The man of reason is often thought to be cold and calculating, is he not, whereas the man who treats everyone with bonhomie is said to be warm and friendly.

RLF: That is the way of the world. That is what it is to be human. We connect, we are essentially social and sociable in nature.

HDT: I think there are many who would disagree with you there.

RLF: Why?

HDT: Who knows why one person takes his fellow man to be his friend and another takes him to be the opposite. Who knows why? Perhaps we are all creatures formed in the various images and dyes of those who have gone before us.

RLF: You mean, for instance, the people of ancient Greece, the philosophers and the sophists of the city states?

HDT: Certainly those, yes, but I also mean those much nearer in time and in birthright too.

RLF Our fathers and mothers, our brothers and our sisters, you mean?

HDT: Yes, as well as those around us in what we call our immediate surroundings; variously, our friends and acquaintances, our colleagues and our so called superiors – in our neighbourhoods and our societies.

RLF: You said something interesting then, did you not?

HDT: Which was?

RLF: You referred to our superiors. To whom are you referring when you speak of my superiors, I wonder?

HDT: That word is usually taken to mean those in the organization of your paid employment, who are above you in terms of the hierarchical organization that makes up the company that employs you.

RLF: You said several interesting things then in your answer. You spoke of those above you, as if they were sitting higher than you, which, in a sort of organizational sense, they are, and you spoke of the nature of the organization of the company that employs me – that being hierarchical.

HDT: Well, what of it? Do you not agree that most organizations are hierarchical?

RLF: Indeed I do. That is my point, or rather, it should be your point, given the drift of our argument. We all speak of those above us, when in fact, they can never be ‘above’ us in any real sense, except in a way that refers to the nature of the organization of which they are part.

HDT: Why do you think that is so?

RLF: Because organizations are primarily systems of control, rather than ones to get the best out of you in any real sense. You must know your place in that organization, and your thoughts and ideas must be subservient to those above you.

HDT: So what is the effect of that?

RLF: That we defer when we should not, when we know just as much as the next man on many things.

HDT: Again, that is well said, but do we not advise others as if we did know better?

RLF: And we generally accept that some are usually right and do in fact know more than we do. I remember being given some advice from my father when I was but a child. I told him that he was as much a beginner as I in some ways.

HDT: In what ways?

RLF: That this was the first time he had to deal with a son of fifteen years of age, and it was the first time I was fifteen.

HDT: What did he say to that?

RLF: I cannot recall his exact words, but they expressed his exasperation with me, I remember that well enough.

HDT: And that was showing some wisdom beyond your years, was it not?

RLF: Very likely, but my words to my father were not received as words of wisdom.

HDT: How were they taken?

RLF: I have already said; they were taken in a spirit of fatherly exasperation, with the utterance, “Kids!” as he walked away from me.

HDT: And why did he say that?

RLF: Because he had come to think he habitually knew better than me.

HDT: But we act that way all the time, do we not? We assume we know better. We take it for granted that our way is better, when in reality, it may not be.

RLF: Now I can see what you are saying is true. We like to think we know best, don’t we?

HDT: Generally, yes we do. And we give up much of our freedom to those who govern us, thinking we are right in so giving up a goodly portion of our freedom because we believe they do know better than us.

RLF: Why do we do that?

HDT: Primarily because the main focus of our education is to obey, and having obeyed, accept our lot without recourse to complaint or refusal. That is why. Be on your guard. Be eternally vigilant that you do what you think is right and not just because someone else says it is so.

Be diligent – work hard to know what is right, and what is right for you in particular. Do no harm in this world and you may go your own way safe in the knowledge that you are acting freely and rationally.

RLF: But let us talk now about following others.

HDT: You mean conforming, do you?

RLF: Yes, I do. I mean fitting in, being the same, and doing so with no greater aim than not to stand out, not to be different.

HDT: Well, why do you think people behave in that manner, and what is so wrong with it in any case? Surely it is better to belong to a community of which one is a part rather than to stand alone, isn’t it?

RLF: I should say that it is better to conform to what others in your community expect of you.

HDT: And yet you have misgivings, don’t you?

RLF: Yes, I do.

HDT: What are they? On what are they based?

RLF: Well, first let me say that I do not think being part of a community is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think the community to which you belong is a vital, integral part of who you are. I do not have an issue with conforming per se, but rather in conforming to what we might call the lowest common denominator, if I may borrow a mathematical term.

HDT: What do you mean by that?

RLF: Let’s take a class of pupils at a school. Let us say that a good proportion of this particular class are underachievers – they do not do well, and nor do they like their lessons or their teachers.

HDT: Well, what of it? It is normal to have pupils who do not take to learning. How are you going to change that?

RLF: I am not. What I was about to say that within such a class environment, it is easy to envisage a situation in which those who perform better than most begin to be ostracized, even bullied because they are doing better at their studies.

HDT: And what are you saying; that these better students should become like the rest, just to fit it?

RLF: I am not saying they should, not at all, but rather that some inevitably will.

HDT: Why would they do that? Why would they lower their own standards?

RLF: To fit it with the others. There might be some sort of feeling that it is ‘cool’ to be dumb, if you will, although that might be going too far.

HDT: And what sort of sanctions are placed upon those who continue to excel in their studies, despite the general atmosphere of ‘dumbing down’ that you seem to be suggesting?

RLF: I have already mentioned two ways: being ostracized, and being bullied.

HDT: Which would you say is the most effective way to get them to become poor at their studies?

RLF: You should be asking which is the most insidious way, I think.

HDT: Why do you say that?

RLF: Because overt behavior can be dealt with. Bullies can be dealt with, punished, so that bullying ceases, whereas being sent to Coventry, as they say, is far more difficult to deal with.

HDT: This reminds me of my arguments advocating civil disobedience as a way to resist injustice – it is more difficult for the authorities to stop it, whereas what we see every day in our newspapers – violent protest – is much easier to stop.

RLF: Precisely, though I would not want to call what I am talking about in this classroom civil disobedience. That term seems to go hand in hand with some good being achieved, whereas with this, it is the opposite – pressure is being brought to bear upon those who do well, rather than on those who do not do well enough.

HDT: And do you think this is widespread?

RLF: I do, yes. I think it exists at every stage in a person’s development, right up to the child becoming an adult, and even then I would say that it continues, but few do not have the wherewithal to resist it.

HDT: I cannot say I agree with you at all there. If you think of people working in a company – working on workshops – doing manual work, possibly belonging to a trade union, then there may still be a sort of pressure to conform, even if conforming goes against a person’s better judgment or indeed against his own interests.

RLF: But you must admit that there are certain goals that transcend others.

HDT: Such as?

RLF: Such as the need to work overtime – to be paid a higher rate for one’s work during the time after normal working hours, as opposed to stopping overtime in protest at the treatment of one individual or a group of individuals at the hands of an unenlightened management.

However, I think we are straying from our point; what I am talking about is the pressure placed upon someone to change his or her behavior.

HDT: If we thought of pressure to change one’s behavior in a positive way, say to do better at school, I take it you would have not have an issue?

RLF: Quite so. Achievement is a sort of absolute, whereas its obvious is most definitely a relative phenomenon, and one that brings down, stops people aspiring to do great things.

HDT: And what is it about having aspirations that you find so laudable?

RLF: I wonder that you can ask such as question. However, I will try to answer it. Aspirations become one, wouldn’t you say?

HDT: I think I would, but since I asked you the question, perhaps the answer should be yours. Why do you think aspirations become a person? What does that mean?

RLF: It means that anyone who aspires to anything, does so in the spirit of human endeavor. We aspire to greatness, do we not? I never heard anyone say someone aspired to becoming a tramp.

HDT: Why do you think that is?

RLF: Because aspiring goes hand in hand with effort, with striving to do something. People strive for excellence, don’t they? Again, you do not have to strive to become a tramp; it happens if one lets oneself go, doesn’t it?

HDT: Or if circumstances conspire against that person, perhaps.

RLF: Circumstances do not conspire – only people conspire.

Returning to our classroom; anyone can get low marks in a test, merely by not answering, by not trying, by intentionally failing, whereas you cannot do that to pass – you must put in some effort to pass.

I object most strongly with that kind of pressure, overt or not, to inhibit achievement in any field of human endeavor – that is what I am talking about, and that is why I have used the term ‘lowest common denominator’.

Robert L. Fielding

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