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What are you optimistic about?

What are you optimistic about?
by Craig Rowley

Each Christmas, those who know what makes me happiest usually give me the gift of knowledge in the form of a few good books. This year one of these gifts was What Are You Optimistic About?, edited by John Brockman. It contains a collection of answers by some of the world's leading scientists and thinkers to the third "annual www.edge.org question." It had me considering my own answer to the question. I also got to thinking about what answers might be given by members of the Webdiary community. So, here's my answer and then it's over to you: What are you optimistic about?

My third wish could begin to come true.

At the end of the year, Fiona Reynolds proposed that every Webdiarist have three wishes: one for the world, one for our dear ones, and one for ourselves. I reversed the order and made my third wish a wish for the world:

For all of us: An increased desire to understand and make good use of what unites us.

On reading John Brockman's collection I was delighted to see that more than one of the world's leading thinkers expressed an optimism about the prospects of what I'd wished for becoming real.

For example, David Berreby, science writer and author of Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind explains why he's optimistic about the diminishing influence of what he calls "the zombie concept of identity", which is "the intuition that people do things because of their membership in a collective identity or affiliation". In other words, he sees signs that the incorrect assumption that people are obedient zombies who do what identity ordains is being overcome. I share Berreby's optimism that:

As we become more comfortable with the idea that people have multiple identities whose management is a complex psychological phenomenon, there will be more research on the central questions: What makes a particular identity convincing? What makes it come to the fore in a given context?

My optimism is also encouraged by, Philip G. Zimbardo, Professor of Psychology emeritus at Stanford University and famous for the Stanford Prisoner Experiment:

In trying to understand human behavior that violates our expectations, there is a tendency to 'rush to the dispositional.' We seek to explain behavior in terms of the personal qualities of the actor. In individualistic cultures, this means searching for genetic, personality, or pathological characteristics that can be reasonably linked as explanatory constructs. It also has come to mean discounting or ignoring aspects of the behavioral context - situational variables - that may be significant contributors to behavior. Dramatists, philosophers, and historians, as well as clergy and physicians, all tend toward the dispositional and away from the situational in their views of human nature.

Social psychologists have been struggling to modify this bias toward inner determinants of behavior by creating a large body of research highlighting the importance of outer determinants. Rules, responsibility, anonymity, role-playing, group dynamics, authority pressures, and more have been shown to have a dramatic effect on individual behavior across a variety of settings.

The social psychologist Stanley Milgram's classic demonstration of blind obedience to authority showed that most ordinary Americans would follow orders given by an authority even if it led to severely harming an innocent person. My Stanford prison experiment extended this notion of situational power to demonstrate that instituational settings - prisons, schools, businesses - exert strong influences over human behavior. Nevertheless, the general public (and even intellectuals from many fields) still buys the dispositional and dismisses the situational as mere mitigating circumstance.

I am optimistic that this bias will be rebalanced in the coming year, as new research reveals that the situational focus is to an enhanced public-health model as the dispositional is to the old medical model in trying to understand and change the behavior of people in communities. The focus of public health on identifying vectors of disease can be extended to systemic vectors of health and success in place of individual ambition and personal failure or success.

This analysis will be important in meeting the challenges posed by international terrorism through new efforts to build community resilience instead of focussing on individual coping. It will also change the blame game of those in charge of various institutions and systems - from identifying the 'few bad apples' to actively trying to understand how the apple barrel is corrupting good apples. I have shown how this dispositional thinking operated in analyzing the causes of the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib by the military and civilian chains of command. Dispositional thinking is no different than the search for evil by identifying and destroying the 'witches' in Salem. Although the foundations of such thinking run deep and wide in most of us, I am optimistic that we will acquire a more balanced perspective on how good people may turn evil and bad people can be guided toward good.

My optimism that we can make good use of the knowledge of what makes us human, and then also what unites us, is bolstered by the optimism of founder and CEO of Neoteny, Joichi Ito:

I am optimistic that open networks will continue to grow and become available to more and more people. I am optimistic that computers will continue to become cheaper and more available. I am optimistic that the hardware and software will become more open, transparent, and free. I am optimistic that the ability to create, share, and mix works will provide a voice to the vast majority of people.

I believe the Internet, open source, and a global culture of discourse and sharing will become pillars of democracy for the 21st century. Whereas those in power – as well as terrorists, who are not – have used broadcast technology and the mass media of the 20th century against the free world, I am optimistic that the Internet will enable the collective voice of the people, and that it will be a voice of reason and goodwill.


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How does this argument undermine ideas proposed by religious texts? What might happen if people stopped believing in miracles such as the crossing of the Red Sea during the exodus from Egypt, the virgin birth, or the Resurrection?

John, part of your quote speaks for itself. The only miracle about any of the examples is that people still believe them, when all evidence states otherwise.

There is no compassion in the world, only greed and self-centred hypocrisy. Many believe they have compassion, but a look the the condition of the physical world and how they actually live shows otherwise, and no form of illusional optimism will change that. If people were willing to share we would have no world problems, but the ideologies of the planet, which people hide behind and use as excuses to not have compassion, are all related to a religion and dogma of some kind. Presently it is monotheism, which for the last two thousand years has wreaked constant havoc upon the planet.

The role of the community today is to die gracefully and allow a more sensible social and community system to evolve from the rubble of monotheistic debauchery.

John, think seriously when the last time was you could believe religious leaders as to their intent. The Yahweh cults are all about conversion and suppression. Just check out Rudd the dud's many about-turns, deceptive replies, and avoidance. He seems to spend all his time touring the world whilst the country goes down under the weight of economic and religious false optimism. I'm just waiting for his Hitler salute and God is on my side statement. Our fascist dictatorship didn't go out the window when Howard was kicked out, it just got another zealous leader cloaked in deception. Try being optimistic about the results we are facing and the signals Rudd's sending out in increasing numbers.

Oaktree foundation young people changing the world.

The next director of the Oaktree Foundation is David Toovey. David is a strong young leader, who embodies what Oaktree is about – young people changing the world.

Oaktree has already proven that young people can change the world. David has the opportunity using his existing skills to step into this very important role.

Oaktree is geared up to make an enormous impact in 2008 and under David’s leadership, working together with our fantastic team; we will seek to provide education for thousands of young people in the developing world – education for all!

Channel Nine's Sunday program this morning had a short piece on David Toovey and his Oaktree foundation - Australian youth who have already been able to educate thousands of young people in the developing world. David is only 18 and is CE0 of the foundation. Now that is really a reason for optimism.

Muslim leaders condemn terrorism.

World Muslim leaders have condemned extremism and terrorism as incompatible with Islam and proposed a high-level international meeting to promote a "dialogue of civilisations" with the Christian world.

Leaders of the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which represents 1.5 billion Muslims from across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, made the "Dakar Declaration" after a two-day summit in Senegal's capital.

"We continue to strongly condemn all forms of extremism and dogmatism which are incompatible with Islam, a religion of moderation and peaceful coexistence," the declaration said.

At last a step in the right direction. Surely a reason to be optimistic. 

What would happen if we stopped believing in miracles?

Alga, in the book Good Without Religion by Sankara Saranam.

Saranam argues that belief in religious miracles stifles the pursuit of knowledge, saying, "While human experiences viewed as miracles can furnish a sense of safety and security, these experiences, contrary to religion's claims, cannot validate a god's power. All they can do is confirm beliefs we already harbor" [p. 30]. How does this argument undermine ideas proposed by religious texts? What might happen if people stopped believing in miracles such as the crossing of the Red Sea during the exodus from Egypt, the virgin birth, or the Resurrection?

"The genuine seeker must utilize both the critical mind and the generous heart. GOD WITHOUT RELIGION honors both."

—John J. McGraw, Author of BRAIN & BELIEF

What the world needs now is compassion - we must have a critical mind and a generous heart. The challenges we face now demand that we learn to share. To believe in a force that is more than the sum of its parts is not unreasonable.

What is the role of the community in building a new civilisation?

We should not envision society in terms of a mere set of interactions among individuals and institutions. Another entity, subtle in its constitution, plays an important role. This "entity" is:

the community, which is more than the sum of its component parts. The various elements of the community work together in an organic whole in a manner comparable to the functioning of the human body.

Ideally, organic communities in this mode should be unified in thought and action, be built around concepts of devotion and service, provide fellowship and support for individuals, and seek to manifest excellence and distinction. The conscious effort of individuals and institutions to develop within a community the characteristics of organic life would make it a rich environment that cultivates appropriate relationships, creates opportunities for fellowship, and addresses social and material problems, such efforts would expand and consolidate the community and channel the forces of collective transformation that will yield, in due course, the fruits of a new civilisation.

God and science incompatible opposites

Professor Heller is a good reason to be optimistic. If the human mind can come to grips with scientific knowledge and the unknowable dimensions of God, the power of organised religion may be reduced.

John, scientific knowledge is verifiably demonstrable, god is not demonstrable nor verifiable, other than in illusion, hope and fearful superstition. God is a single dimensional hope, not probable theory or evidenced in outcome, other than negatively. Science attains probable theory, allows for error and undetermined realities. God is limited, unchanging and enslaves to false hope, constrained in determined finalities. Science is only restricted by the amount of effort and support it utilises.

The most optimistic outcome for this planet is to remove the influence of god and its followers from any control of the future. If you look at the world, the majority of leaders are god's followers: their policies and outcomes give the evidence of how much optimism we should about their ideology, considering their record. I wouldn't be optimistic about that. On the contrary, I'd be freaking out as the evidence, when god's followers are in control, shows only corruption, suppression, conflict, and destruction as the outcomes.

So many people were optimistic about Kevin from heaven being the country's saviour. But, we are already seeing Rudd the dud coming to the fore. All he is trying to accomplish is to be a better economic conservative dedicated to markets controlling the country's direction and future. Already he is desperately trying to push as much money to the elite as possible, whilst paying lip service to those who have worked for this country all their lives, fought for it, and done the hard yards. Something Kevin from Heaven has not. I don't believe you can have any optimism in millionaires to provide any viable direction for this country.

Let's be optimistic and hope Kevin from heaven can actually do something other than make excuses and set up inquiries. But I'm optimistic it won't happen. Kevin along with most of his ilk are optimistic god is real and they don't have to be accountable for what they do. Their beloved mythological jesus died for all their sins, so their optimism goes to the point where they believe it's irrelevant as to their true reality, just as long as they confess and ask for forgiveness after the outcomes. My optimism just doesn't equate to that irresponsible reasoning.

Optimistic reconciling God and the scientific world.

Much of Professor Heller’s career has been dedicated to reconciling the known scientific world with the unknowable dimensions of God.

In doing so, he has argued against a “God of the gaps” strategy for relating science and religion, a view that uses God to explain what science cannot.

Professor Heller said he believed, for example, that the religious objection to teaching evolution “is one of the greatest misunderstandings” because it “introduces a contradiction or opposition between God and chance.”

In a telephone interview, Professor Heller explained his affinity for the two fields: “I always wanted to do the most important things, and what can be more important than science and religion? Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence.”

Professor Heller said he planned to use his prize to create a center for the study of science and theology at the Pontifical Academy of Theology, in Krakow, Poland, where he is a faculty member.

Professor Heller is a good reason to be optimistic. If the human mind can come to grips with scientific knowledge and the unknowable dimensions of God, the power of organised religion may be reduced. 

Lateral optimism

It's always interesting reading the variance in people’s optimism; it gives a good picture of where the mindset and evolutionary understanding of humanity lies. Most striking are ideologists of all persuasions, blissfully determined to maintain the status quo of failure, so entrenched in their outcomes, against their illusional hope. I'm optimistic about a number of things from a lateral perspective; other viewpoints don't seem to hold much hope of success in this rapidly evolving planet.

I'm optimistic Kevin from heaven is actually Rudd the dud, as can be seen by his head in the sand, paper waving, committee and investigation mentality, against the need to act yesterday. Good old Rudd the dud is already beating Howard the coward in travel, avoidance, beating his drum with his own egotistical reports, and attempting to paint his non action avoidance and failures as success. Just another case of a huge waste of public money and resources on political propaganda, whilst the country collapses. I'm also optimistic nature will easily win the war we are stupidly waging against it in human blind egocentricity and ideological insanity. I'm optimistic economic globalisation and market controlled economies will destroy society with the next couple of years, aided by climate change and ecological collapse. I'm optimistic we will see more and more of the rural population flee to cities as the countryside dies under chemical and fossil fuel pollution, which will implode cities under the weight of overpopulation, pollution, health and infrastructure collapse. I'm even more optimistic we'll see the continuing heavy support for destructive industry, more funds into more free ways, fuel gulping roads and transport, as oil supplies world wide run out and only the elite can afford to drive. I'm truly optimistic carbon trading is just another way for the elite to fleece the people, just like interest rate rises and falls only benefit the rich and impoverish the people. How can paying more money to pollute do anything but raise prices for the consumer and profits for the corporate world? We all know in the end that any approach which is voluntary for industry fails, whilst the people are regulated into economic enslavement. My optimism for sociological collapse goes further with the complete failure of all Australian governments to address any issues other than for their vested interests, in meaningful positive ways.

After watching the performances of pathetic Peter (garrotted Garret), industry leaders and bureaucrats on Insight the other day, I'm really optimistic nothing will be done other than apply tissue bandaids, called inquires, whilst pumping billions in subsidies each year into environmentally destructive industries. So there's a lot to be optimistic about, if you care for the planet and not just your ideological egoism and gluttonous greed.

Me too, I'm with you, Alga

"I'm optimistic Kevin from heaven is actually Rudd the dud,as can be seen by his head in the sand, paper waving, committee and investigation mentality, against the need to act yesterday.Good old Rudd the dud is already beating Howard the coward in travel, avoidance, beating his drum with his own egotistical reports, and attemptimg to paint his non action avoidance and failures as success."

 Got it in one, Alga!

Nice questions

Scott: “How, (if you can,) explain the explosion of artistic output that in essence started with the genius of Bach?”

I am not sure that I agree with you that it started with the genius of Bach. He was certainly one of the giants, but even he was part of a fairly large ancestral family tree of very skilled Bachs, and part of a very rich tradition that developed over centuries. Italy and the renaissance, Monteverdi who actually is considered the first modern composer, would also have to figure strongly artistically, geographically and very much an influence on J.S Bach and I could not even begin to imagine Mozart’s music without the Italian influence. To be honest I find your question very difficult and also very open to rich speculation. My instinctive answer would be to think in metaphor: you need a rich soil for the seed to take root. There must be so many factors for the soil, and for obvious reasons it is very hard to put society into a test tube and see the results of your experiments.

I will give some tentative answers, definitely mathematics, religion and philosophy, so no doubt you could trace how education developed in the areas that produced the art under consideration. Another would be power relationships that made the wealth accumulate in certain regions, to create the society and political system.

Your second question dealing with music of our own time, if I have understood you correctly, is covered in my answer to your first. The biggest difference for me is Time Gestation and consciousness. If you look at the Bach family tree you will know what I mean. Bach could get employment at different periods of his life writing church cantatas, which he had to supply as part of his job. He wrote over 200, and this was not an exception, Telemann produced an even larger output than J.S Bach – organ music, orchestral music, chamber music all depending on where he was employed at the time. It was all part of his job, that’s the world he moved in – he did his job and served God. Of course he did produce music that was totally devoted to his own needs, like the Mass in B minor, the well tempered clavier to demonstrate equal temperament, and also like most of his music as a way of transmitting the music to his pupils and indirectly to the wider community. The well tempered clavier is considered the Old Testament, to Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas the New Testament.

In our own time, the speed of life allows no real solace and inner depth to marry with high artistic achievement; you need centuries to develop a Bach. What would Bach do if he was alive today? Sure if he actually came back to life now he would get employment, but only because of his status, but if he had to start now totally unknown, he could not possibly develop the necessary skills, nor could any of the great composers of the tradition under discussion.

Take musical form for example, compare modern music to the past structurally and I believe it tells the whole story in a nutshell. The length of the music and its development especially in terms of texture. Rich interplay of the essential musical parameters of rhythm, melody and harmony, to form rich complex webs of counterpoint. The textural contraction and expansion of musical forces on a large musical canvas. The orchestral coloring and the intricate web of permutations.

Scott, if you’re curious on how the great masters developed their skill I would recommend The Study of Fugue by Alfred Mann. I am sure there are many others, but the Mann book could be a start. It will give you an idea of how the great composers developed in terms of who their teachers were etc and also gives a historical perspective to the major texts used in the tradition.

So many ways of looking at it. Take the aristocracy who supported Beethoven, Archduke Rudolf who was also a pupil of Beethoven’s. The Hammerklavier sonata was written for him and presumably he could also play it. Haydn’s development of the symphony and the string quartet, his time spent at the Esterhazy palace, where he was encouraged to experiment with his own orchestra for immediate feedback. Mozart’s Salzburg only had a population of 17,000 if my memory serves me correctly; the relationships were very different than in our own time of mass culture and planned obsolescence.

You simply cannot reproduce the past in today’s world and there really is no comparison in my opinion. My next door neighbour might be a Bach, but he will find it hard to get a job writing cantatas. Orchestral composers are lucky to even get a performance; sadly, Scott, the tradition is part of a museum now.

I enjoy your questions Scott, and these are just brief explorations


PS I have just started reading A Thinking Reed by Barry Jones

These are the kind of questions I would love to put to him.

The notes are the easy part.

Craig, regarding Schubert’s shoes, it’s very hard to explain, it is not just about technique or knowledge, but about entering a unique sound world of emotions and images. Very hard to duplicate, and most genuinely great composers would have far too much respect for their own individuality. Mozart would use models, on a number of occasions he was inspired by Joseph Haydn’s string quartets, and even dedicated a set of six to him, but his own personality is never in question. Beethoven used Mozart’s A-Major quartet, one of the six he dedicated to Haydn, as a model, but again it is pure Beethoven. Beethoven really becomes powerful towards the end of his life when he was completely deaf. Schubert idolized Beethoven, and like so many composers was intimidated by him, but he started to find his way towards the end of his life and his quartets have the stamp of his personality.

That is where I have problems with the theory of evolution; I can trace some kind of evolution, because we can look and physically use analysis to compare written scores, especially when we know how the composer enriches the tradition, but there is so much more than the notes printed on the score, and that’s where the life of the music really resides. We can’t see this life force, but the sensitive know it’s there.

Jenny, you may be right, and I agree with you, his music can be very powerful.

What I still find incredible are the ages of Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn at their deaths. With Mozart it’s hard to imagine what more he could have left - even at his death his output can stand comparison with Haydn’s who lived to be seventy-seven. Mendelssohn, again very gifted, but next to Schubert, I feel no match at all, in terms of power to move. Schubert though is the most tragic, because even though his output is large at the time of his death, he really was at his peak and showing signs of even greater music to come.

You can get computers to compose music

Charles thank you for sharing your passion for classical music with us.

I must confess to being a r'n'roller primarily but I think I have an appreciation of most forms of Western/African music.

I've never heard anything of Beethoven's I didn't like (and that's an understatement,) and can understand why Schubert and others were intimidated by him.

Without any in depth knowledge of music whatsoever I think of him as a giant among giants. I could be talking shit here but while other individual works might match his in grandeur, the body of his work is monumental.

This gives rise to two questions I would be pleased if you addressed.

Personally I think that the thought that any artistry is linked to Darwinian theory is a crock. It's an accidental by-product of the human mutation; not that that is to detract from the ability of other primates to appreciate abstract "beauty", which is of course entirely subjective.

That's not the question of course but leads to the first. How , (if you can,) explain the explosion of artistic output that in essence started with the genius of Bach? Of course technology certainly played it's part with the improvements in musical instruments and thus music was given a mathematical form but that doesn't explain why the music that was produced in the next how many years has such an enduring ability to move and satisfy people no matter how many times it is heard. Not only that but it was almost geographically exclusive to central Europe, specifically Germany and Austria. (Sure, throw in Geig and Purcell but you know what I mean.)

The second question stems from a recent SMH letter from a classicist, (on what particular subject I cannot recall,) that reduced a lot of modern popular music, (I won't call it contempary because in my mind there is almost no such thing, but then I'm possibly giving my age away,) as  "just a few riffs."

Mindlessly dismissive in my opinion. The genres are completely different and the works of Page, Hendricks, Clapton, Blackmore, Walsh et al must be judged in context.  Their riffs were compositions. (BTW, little of their stuff is "Rock'n'Roll'.)

The body of work that is precied in the 6 minute track that is Wilsons' "Good Vibrations" would rival that of Ravel's "Bolero". (How I would love to see that re-released in a greater form.)

So the question is, how do you feel about this?

Maybe you could bring yourself to elaborate at post level; it would certainly give us a break from environmental and political topics. The soul needs food and that stuff sure don't give us that.

While I'm on the subject, have you ever got into an argument about the nature of art?  What is and what is not art?  I guess anyone over the age of 17 who hasn't is in a very small minority. My eldest son gave me the answer a while back. Art is the experience. Of course this intended to provoke responses and welcome they'll be.

Art and Development

Art is communication through a form.  It is neither the form nor its reception but the moment of their meeting.  Let's move on to what is good and bad art.

I'm not sure that it takes centuries to make a Bach.  Often the greatest works in a particular genre are made after it's first development.  The first opera isn't performed anymore but the second one is.  Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix haven't been surpassed (IMHO) despite the 'development' of rock and roll/pop music. 

On ships and shoes and sealing wax

Charles, many thanks for your response. Of course nothing springs out of the ground, Newton said if he had seen far it was because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. Thanks for filling voids in my knowledge. I'd forgotten about Mozart's Italian period but was aware of the patronage that supported the composers. The idea of composing to order baffles me. Of course I left out Chopin (and the "r" out Grieg and "s" in précised) but you should get my drift. Classical music (IMHO) ended with the "Late Romantics". The early 20th century Russian composers leave me cold; it's as if they used the orchestral medium but were working with a different genre, in the same sense "modern" jazz does nothing for me. With regard to Telemann it's not about quantity but quality (in its esoteric sense and don't start me on that subject here). As for Bach reborn now not getting a gig on his merits but only by reputation, I wonder. He certainly wouldn't make it on MTV but would be received with open arms by the cognoscenti.

You touched on another subject which is also a matter of curiosity to me; that of the well spring of creativity. I am, at 65, in a position to regard many phenomena in the context of a certain time frame. Here I'm talking about popular music. (In the time of the classicists it would have been folk; the "classics" the domain of the upper class.) I have witnessed many modern musicians who have produced music to my ears that creatively have been burnt out by their thirties. Que?

Over to you.

Evan, I don’t whether or not my post to Charles inspired you to touch on the subject of art but first we must agree on what constitutes art. That which is art to some is meaningless to others, but that doesn’t detract from its nature. As I said, art is the experience which is pretty much what you said, ipso facto there is no such thing as good or bad art; only significant art as opposed to less or insignificant art. I can demonstrate this. Firstly, the popularity of any work of art and secondly its endurance. I can remember listening to music in my youth which I enjoyed at the time which has not endured the test of time.

It might well have been Schubert (or Schumann, I can’t remember which) who, on being complemented on his compositional skills said that the music didn’t come from him but through him. Hmm… smacks of false modesty to me but I can understand what the fellow was saying. Obviously all permutations and combinations of notes and time exist out there but it’s like saying sculpture is easy; you just take a block of stone and knock off the bits you don’t want. Cheers.

Or Art

Hi Scott, I do think there is good and bad art.  Heresy I know.

Mozart too said he wrote down the music that he heard.  But this was only partly the case.  He also in some cases spent lots of time analysing the work of others.

I'm not sure how popularity and endurance show that significant and insignificant trump good and bad.

Art is in my view about communication (the dadaists were right - they were anti-art).  This leads to a discussion of the nature of persons and experience.  Briefly I think we are social-individuals - empathy (the sharing of emotion and understanding) is possible.  I think experience can be shown to have regularities between people.  All of which is the basis for saying that art is not confined to one individual.  I know this discussion could take in most of the history and most areas of western philosophy, so we may be getting a bit off topic. 

Already of topic

Not heresy to me Evan, my opinions are not religion but I'm not sure about art being exclusively about communication. What does Michelango's "David" communicate to you? It's the experience. Certainly some art can move me to tears but what was in the originators mind and mine could be two entirely different things.

By what yardstick do you measure good and bad? I think I have set the parameters but argue another case please.

What constitutes art? In Pirsig's "Zen and the art of motor cycle maintenance" there is a discourse in which somebody commenting on the merits of a printed work of art is rebuffed by the observation that the print was not art but "of art." That worried me for some time until a few years ago I went to a Turner (the father of impressionism) exhibition in the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. I was met with a notice that said that due to delicate nature of the paintings the light would be subdued. Sure as hell was. My eyesight was already fading then and I tripped the security on a number of occasions trying to see the works. Of course this defeats the purpose of the art form which is designed to be viewed from a distance. I would have appreciated faithful reproductions in good light far more. Does the medium matter? Oil on canvas, acrylic on cardboard or anything else? More stuff to think about.

The Medium

Hi Scott,

What is distinct about the artistic experience? It's probably creativity.  There is also something about reproduction usually.  Art isn't it's own experience any more than anything else is.  Though this doesn't mean a photographic duplication.  I think creativity can be recognised, though it does take education in a particular tradition (not necessarily formal education).  I think it's clear that Mozart and Bach did some things to pay off the mortgage or for the beer money - or however you want to put it.  There are gradations of quality even in the greatest artist's works.  People may well prefer Abba to Bach.  But to say that this makes Abba of higher quality is a different kind of statement I think.

The choice of medium does constrain what is communicated.  Extended philosophical examination is not suited to the Hollywood blockbuster - although some interesting ideas can be suggested (the movie Solaris isn't exactly a blockbuster but it is pretty mainstream).

Pirsig argues that quality is a category of being and I agree with him.  This seems relevant to art too.

I think expression is related to facility with the medium (or media) chosen.  This is usually learned though there are some prodigees.  It is interesting why prodigess stop being so far ahead of their contemporaries - I'd love for someone to study this.  And they do keep improving usually.

The artist's intention isn't relevant to my reception of the work.  I don't know anything about Shakespeare's marriage but can still relate to Taming of the Shrew.  Other information (on the artist and their intention) or other eduction may affect my response to an artwork (I am told that people trained in traditional Chinese landscape painting find the western representation of perspective 'tricksy' - it just seems superficial.

I think that good and bad are often decided within a particular genre (western oil landscapes, pop music etc) but that there are broader categories too - creativity for one.

I hope this makes some sense.  I'm saying that the form of the work is relevant to quality not just an individuals response.

Museum of Particularly Bad Art

Evan, you've got me itching to go to Chapel Street (in Windsor, Victoria) and visit the Museum of Particularly Bad Art.

I'm feeling like I need to see what others call 'bad art', because for a day and a night I've been trying to uncover(discover?) what my own criteria are for criticism of a piece of art.

Mama and Babe: Bad Art?

Trying to get a sense of what's considered "bad Art", I've been looking at some of the portraits in the online collection of the Museum of Bad Art (Boston, MA).

Take this one: Mama and Babe an Acrylic on canvas by Sarah Irani, 1995.

It makes me laugh.

It makes me wonder if the artist intended that effect.

And that leaves me wondering if it's really that bad.

Optimistic is all we can be

If anyone has addressed any comments to Ian or myself this past two weeks which have been ignored, then apologies from us both.

We are eternally optimistic that one day Telstra will ensure we have a phone line to the farm that does not hang by a thread. We've fluked a net connection for the first time in two weeks today. But it has started raining again, so it will be gone again before the hour is out. The drought did have one thing going for it.

The Telstra man finally came. Nice bloke. But he was not optimistic as to when the cable problem, somewhere back toward the Bungles, would be repaired. He tells us the story is the same all over the bush, and these cables are past their use by dates in many areas, with cost of replacing them around $30 000 a kilometre.

One can understand Telstra's dilemma. There are so many vacant houses now, with ours the last on our road, that the cost of servicing just one house with many kilometres of new cable does not make much sense.  And you can only get a mobile signal if you walk around outside and try and and find a spot where it works. So much for the new LG network. The old CDMA was a bit more reliable.

Oh well.  Might as well be optimistic.

Charles: You write some very thought provoking comments but I have no hope of engaging with you with this very dodgy connection.

Schubert was a very depressed man. His music reflects that but it is undoubtedly some of the most beautiful music ever written. It reaches right into my soul.

Best wishes to you, good sir.

Ragnarok: The twilight of the gods; but just maybe...

I couldn't be bothered reading this post but looked in on a few comments. Optimistic? you're bloody kidding.

You can thank (or curse) Jenny for this. Her post triggered something off in my tiny mind and I got to thinking about the end game; what happens after the apocalypse? Well, things will sort themselves out.

I called John a starry eyed optimist, (don't take it to heart old son,) and when he made mention of "an interesting next century" I thought "proves my point, what on earth makes you think our lot have got a hundred years left."  But of course it won't be the end of humanity, only a large proportion of it and the survivors will have a rich inheritance.

Just for starters; without fossil fueled mechanical landscapers the natural topography will return after the next 1 in 10,000 year flood sends the levee banks downstream and the Macquarie marshes will host again the myriad life forms that it had. The jungle will reclaim most of what has been destroyed, as it has in the past. Without fossil fuel, warfare (which will never cease as long as there are bastards alive,) will be of the less destructive kind. Hopefully if it doesn't happen before, nuclear war will no longer be a possibilty since the delivery systems will no longer have the fuel or the means to mantain them.

The legacy will be the vast body of knowledge accumulated over the last three hundred years that dwarfs all that originated before it and hopefully the realisation that it has to be managed wisely.

Hey, maybe I'm an optimist after all!

Don't know though, I seriously believe this civilisation was doomed from the point it discovered fossil fuel and embarked on the course to exploit it. It's a roller coaster ride and everyone knows you can't get off until the end. (And you'll probably wet yourself before it does.)

Bugger. I guess I was born three hundred or so years too early.

Always look on the bright side of life ...

Helen Keenoo:Dissanayake (1988; 1992) considers that the arts could have been co-opted by sexual selection to act as fitness indicators but that their original function was to promote the survival of the group and hence the individuals within the group. To do this the arts, such as song, music and dance, were used in rituals to elicit and provide controlled expression of emotions (Dissanayake, 1992).

I bet this all started when women got fed up with contemporary male foreplay; singing and dancing was far better than getting donged on the scone then dragged off and raped. After the women all ganged up men then had to compete for favours and things have never been the same.

Creativity is that thing which separates homo sapiens from all other. It is intrinsically connected to our emotions and is motivated by anything from the seven deadly sins or the stars in the night sky.

Some find they are are most creative when sad, others when happy. Spinoza's broken heart may have well resulted in his philosophic legacy or so Nietzsche would have us believe, but maybe he was correct. How many songs and poetry have been created to cope with a broken heart?

The interesting thing about creativity is that if it developed as a way to control emotions and allow for better relationships within the group it has also sophisticated our primeval tendencies for violence and self protection.

Creativity does little to alleviate fear, rather has the potential to exaggerate  fear's possibilities. Horror movies do this well, also government propaganda.

Personally I am less concerned about creativity and its relationship to the pessimist and the optimist for they are equally creative or not; but I am more concerned about how our creativity does not only entertain and benefit us but also harms us.

If we weren't creative we wouldn't be human, the problem is we humans still haven't come to terms with the violence thing, I bet we never will.

So that would make me a pessimist, intellectually speaking, but one has to also understand one's intellectual mind stands for shit and has little to do with our day to day relationships, therefore in my personal reality I have always been an optimist and life has yet to disappoint me.

Always look on the bright side of life ...

PS. why worry anyway, we'll all be dead before we know it, and that is going to be real fun. At least the alarm clock won't rob you of your morning sleep in....always look on the...


Hi Craig, just been wondering how would depression relate to pessimism?

Depression and pessimism

The critieria for Major Depressive Episode (as documented in DSM-IV-TR) call for five (or more) of the following symptoms coinciding over a 2-week period and representing a change from previous functioning.  At least one of the symptoms must be either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure. 

(1) depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report or observation by others

(2) markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by either subjective report or observation by others)

(3) significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (i.e. more than 5% change in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day

(4) insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day

(5) psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down)

(6) fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day

(7) feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional) nearly every day (not merely self-reproach or guilt about being sick)

(8) diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day (either subjective report or observation by others)

(9) recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide

Notice pessimism is not specified, Charles.

However, some research has linked a pessimistic "explanatory style" to depression and physical illness.

Explanatory style refers to how people explain the events of their lives. It refers to human's habitual way of explaining life events. A pessimistic explanatory style attributes failures to stable, global, and internal causes. There are three facets of how people can explain a situation that can lean toward pessimism or optimism and adopting a pessimistic explanatory style one would see events as personal, permanent and pervasive:

Personal (internal vs. external): The cause of an event as within oneself or outside oneself.

Permanent (stable vs. unstable): Changing across time or unchanging across time.

Pervasive (global vs. local): Universal throughout one’s life or specific to a part of one’s life.

Not even close Charles

We are still a very VERY long way from understanding how the brain works.  A model of the mind is further off again I think.

There are useful models out there - Edward de Bono's Mechanism of Mind is among the best in my view.  (Though he isn't popular with the academics.)

For a model that could accommodate individuality we are not within cooee.  In my opinion, though others may know more than me of course. 

tentative observation

I need more time to really look into what you have written on Evolutionary Psychology, so take what I write as very tentative. From what you’ve written I still can’t even begin to answer how a symphony evolved using the theory. It’s all to open with vague generalizations. For example, if I asked you to supply me with a theoretical construct that could explain how to finish Schubert’s unfinished symphony I would expect the theory to take into account the unique mind that was Schubert. I would expect the theory to be as sophisticated and subtle as to be able to construct the last movement of that symphony, the actual specific mind of creation in space and time. From what I have read so far it is far too crude to come anywhere near the sophistication necessary. I am not only referring to the evolution of mind, but the evolution of a specific mind from within that evolution, a concept so subtle as to distinguish the characteristics of mind needed for the completion of a symphony by a long dead composer.

EP's problem

Evolutionary Psychology may end up therapeutically useful (I don't think it is yet).

There is a theoretical problem - as with Darwin - it's circular definition.  How do we know that survival of the fittest works?  Because the fit survive.  We have actually said nothing more than the survivors survive.  Not big news.  We can observe that people use their genetic and social inheritance.  Therefore it is useful and adaptive.

I hope Evolutionary Psychology develops into a useful therapy.  It has the potential to break us out of the individualist nonsense that has prevailed in therapy for way too long (in my, not so, humble opinion).

But I do think it needs a bit more philosophical sophistication in its theory (this is usually a weakness of the empiricist/scientistic approach).

EP and Therapy 1

G'day Evan, some researchers are developing evolution-based therapies.

For example, Stephen S. Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, suggests that depression results from a "mismatch" between human beings adapted for hunter-gatherer societies and not the situations we face in the contemporary world.

His therapy — which he calls "therapeutic lifestyle change" — involves a 14-week program that combines group therapy sessions with a set of lifestyle changes, each of which has proven effective against depression: aerobic exercise; ingestion of omega-3 fatty acids; light; positive social interaction; substituting activity for rumination; and increased sleep. The goal is for patients to live more like our Paleolithic ancestors.  

Results so far have been encouraging. In an ongoing study of 79 patients, with two-thirds assigned to his therapy and the rest to a control group treated mainly with antidepressant medication or traditional psychotherapy, Ilardi reports a 74% favourable response, compared with 16% for the controls.

BTW, I think the claim that evolutionary theory is a tautology rests on a misunderstanding of the theory. Natural selection does not simply state that "survivors survive."  It states that "survivors can (and do) reproduce and propagate any heritable characters which have affected their survival and reproductive success".


Thanks Craig.  I've bookmarked the website for Therapeutic Lifestyle Change (TLC - groan).  It looks interesting.

A shame he's cognitive-behavioural but he is an academic.

My point (perhaps poorly made) about surviving is that it has no values base - other than survival.  This can lead to the social Darwinians' (not Darwin's) position or Kropotkin's.  But 'surviving = good' can have implications that I find disturbing.  This isn't only a problem for evolutionary psychology of course. 

Further clarification re intensity

 Craig, just to make some more clarifications regarding intensity, I would also like to add that intensity as I use it, is not just focusing the mind, but creating a psychological disposition if you like. I gave the example of Schubert, and his death and the maiden string quartet, now you may not know that quartet, but there is a section in the last movement that shatters my spine, I can’t describe it, it’s like some kind of chill, the desolation I feel from listening to it, I would imagine to be totally foreign to J.S Bach let alone Palestrina or Monteverdi. This intensity as I stated would be because of his knowledge of impending death, and also because of the sense of spiritual isolation as well. So perhaps it would be better to say intensity of mind and not intensity of creative output or perhaps intensity of mind in his creative output.

More Transcendence

 Craig “I've a question for you, Charles, which I ask so that I can better understand what you mean when you say you're "looking for that something that forces the human spirit to be unsatisfied with his or her present situation and want to transform and transcend that condition."

Are you speaking of 'the soul' when you mention 'the human spirit'?”

For me words like “the soul” or “spirit” are too loaded to really discuss intelligently, because they can mean many things to different people, so I prefer for now, not to go there. In regard to transcend I am directly referring to the example I gave of those nine men, each composer was not satisfied with the tradition as he found it. They had a deep need to uncover something from within that did not actually exist in their present social surrounding, and this is easy to subject to analysis because we know historically how they set out changing the parameters that existed from within the tradition. We also have enough historical written material, such as the Mozart letter I quoted earlier, and in the case of someone like Schoenberg, we have material on his thoughts regarding composition, teaching, philosophy etc. that will clearly show you that they had a deep need to bring something to life that did not actually exist in their present.

That is the reason I gave that brief historical run down on the Viennese Tradition. That is also the reason why issues such as the creative impulse, the need to transcend the social environment, the intensity of their inspirations correlated to issues of life and death, figure heavily in my belief, that these issues form a propensity towards an attitude of mind that would greatly favor pessimism. The creative soul is a very restless spirit.

But I am willing to reconsider all of this. My hypotheticals were my way of trying to rethink a situation where the human condition was changed drastically, to exclude death and struggle. In summary I am really saying that without death and struggle, we also do not have life and creativity, it’s almost as if they mirror each other.

Life and Death

I have always associated people with deep natures with creativity; I have also known many creative people who have been pessimistic. So from there I just naturally assumed that creativity is the underlying factor towards pessimism, but you have made me reconsider this, because clearly an uncreative person can also be pessimistic. So maybe you have been right all along, it is dispositional.

Regarding death, I had something different in mind. There are many ways of looking at it, and one might be that death is the opposite of life, so it would seem to follow that life would have more intensity if you were more aware of death. When I think of some of the music with the greatest intensity, it would seem to confirm this, for example Schubert’s unfinished symphony, his Death and the Maiden string quartet, to my mind are powerfully intense, because of his closeness to and knowledge of his coming death. Schubert of course died in his early thirties from venereal disease. Mozart’s music for me can have that same kind of intensity, but Bach’s music I don’t associate the same way, as magnificent and beautiful as it is. Perhaps because he was so secure in his belief in God, his relationship to death was not as intense, there is a different kind of feeling there, maybe this is more associated with the Baroque period.

So again I am assuming a correlation between the creative impulse and life and death. But maybe I am just making too much of this whole thing and should simply take the dictionary meanings on face value. I think our experiences and background make it very difficult to communicate and I am finding it very difficult to express myself any clearer, perhaps it is a deficiency on my part. What I write is based on a long experience of listening to music, not on reading psychology or other related areas, even though I have tried to familiarize myself with ideas and thoughts in these areas. So that’s where the difficulty I believe lies.

A clarification

Charles, as you've said that I have "been right all along" that optimism/pessimism is dispositional, I have to clarify that I don't claim that optimism/pessimism is entirely dispositional.  Indeed, I'm wanting to make it clear that there are different types of optimism/pessimism -- the dispositional and the situational.

Thanks also for clarifying what you did have in mind with respect to awareness of one's own mortality focusing the mind and bringing with it an intensity in creative output.



Craig: “As optimism and pessimism are cognitions they're something generated within the individual, though that's not to say that there are no environmental / social / situational influences at play. “

Now Craig, this is at the heart of the difference between us.

I am approaching this from outside your framework; in other words I am not treating optimism and pessimism as a primarily cognitive function. Nor am I directly treating it as individual-social or nature-nurture. I am not saying that there is not a cognitive component, only that the cognitive component is of secondary consideration. I gave the Mozart letter for that reason. Now, maybe we could place that letter within a cognitive framework, but I am viewing the issue as something that is inherent in the human condition. I gave that quote by D. R. Khashaba, the Mozart letter, the examples of Classical Athens and the Viennese Musical tradition, to try to get at the essence of the human condition.

What I am trying to express is that there is also a spiritual element and that the creative impulse also plays a part in this, of course not everyone will be as aware on the deeper level of its existence.

Craig, maybe I am simply wrong, I don’t really know, but from within how I experience the world, there is a big discrepancy in our viewpoints. Maybe we are just two totally different people, with two different sets or orientations, but I simply find it so hard to reduce my inner world to what your saying. That’s not meant as a criticism of you, because I am sure many others would find your views reflect their world, but it does not as I understand you at this present time reflect my inner world.

I would very much like to keep exploring this issue with you, especially if you can provide me with a way of understanding my concerns from a scientific perspective. Just to reiterate, how does evolutionary psychology or any other science account for the inner world of creativity and the immense differences that exist in the human spirit?

Just so I am perfectly clear, I am also trying to express the idea that the individual’s relationship to the creative impulse will factor in strongly on how he responds to his social environment, will factor in strongly on how the individual acts and re-acts in transforming that environment and forming his psychological attitude in terms of being either optimistic or pessimistic about change.

Basically Craig I am looking for that something that forces the human spirit to be unsatisfied with his or her present situation and want to transform and transcend that condition. Now not everyone is as susceptible to this need, some don’t experience this need at all, while others are painfully aware.

The paradigm you present of dispositional optimism-pessimism and situational optimism and pessimism is not addressing my concerns.

Craig, I hope we can continue this discussion in an exploratory fashion, because maybe I am simply wrong and placing far to much emphasis on the wrong factors that are blinding me to some simpler truth that you have, I am already beginning to doubt that maybe I don’t have any inner qualities or any need for creative transformation and transcendence.


EP and Creativity 3

Charles, you may find this material by Helen Keenoo useful in understanding the EP view on creativity. It's quite a neat summary of recent developments in the field.

EP and Creativity 2

Charles, EP treats our mental capacities, inclinations, and desires as adaptations developed in the last two million years, i.e. since the Pleistocene epoch, and thus it posits the existence of innate interests, capacities, and tastes, laid down through processes of natural and sexual selection. 

EP effectively replaces the blank slate as a metaphor for mind with something like a Swiss army knife as metaphor: the mind is a set of tools and capacities specifically adapted to important tasks and interests.

It is a postulate of EP that pleasures, pains, and emotion--including experiences of attraction, revulsion, awe, fear, love, respect, loathing--have adaptive relevance. The range of items in experience for which there may be some kind of Pleistocene inheritance includes our emotional inclinations towards other human beings, their conduct, expressions, and behaviour; our responses to the environment, including animals and plants, the dark of night, and to natural landscapes; our interest in creating and listening to narratives with identifiable themes; our enjoyment of problem-solving; our liking for communal activity; and also our appreciation of displays of skill and virtuosity.


I've a question for you, Charles, which I ask so that I can better understand what you mean when you say you're "looking for that something that forces the human spirit to be unsatisfied with his or her present situation and want to transform and transcend that condition."

Are you speaking of 'the soul' when you mention 'the human spirit'?

EP and Creativity 1

Charles, I'm very pleased to continue our conversation in an exploratory fashion.  It's good that we see things differently and can discuss our different perspectives and learn a little from each other.

I'll turn to your reiterated question now:  How does evolutionary psychology or any other science account for the inner world of creativity and the immense differences that exist in the human spirit?

Evolutionary psychologists employ multiple levels of explanation
ranging from broad metatheoretical assumptions, to more specific middle-level theories, to actual hypotheses and predictions that are tested in research.

At the top of this hierarchy of explanatory levels are the basic metatheoretical assumptions of modern evolutionary theory. This set of guiding assumptions, which together are referred to as evolutionary
metatheory, provide the foundation that evolutionary scientists use to build more specific theoretical models.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that we should primarily be concerned with how natural and sexual selection have shaped psychological mechanisms in our species; that a multiplicity of such mechanisms will exist in the human mind; and that they will have evolved to solve specific adaptive problems encountered in ancestral environments.

In other words, evolutionary psychologists see human nature as a collection of psychological adaptations that often operate beneath conscious thinking to solve problems of survival and reproduction by predisposing us to think or feel in certain ways.  This collection of psychological adaptations (psychological mechanisms) evolved in the Pleistocene to solve the adaptive problems regularly faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors--problems such as mate selection, language acquisition, cooperation, sexual infidelity and so on.

Note that evolutionary psychologists emphasise that genes do not cause behaviour and cognition directly. Rather, genes provide blueprints for the construction of psychological mechanisms, which then interact with environmental factors to produce a range of behavioural and cognitive outputs.

Restless Spirit.

Hi Evan: “From Around the Horn (a BBC radio comedy of the 1950's): an optimist thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds, a pessimist fears this is so.”

A creative soul is a restless spirit, constantly searching.

quick reflections

Hi Craig, was away from my computer and just a quick response for now.

Regarding the Viennese tradition, and my reference to the rest of humanity, I should have been more precise; I meant the rest from within that given tradition. You bring up interesting paths for exploration regarding other musical cultures.

Regarding the nine men I agree I could be wrong here but the label Classical in relation to music first takes hold in Mozart’s Vienna, the balance of reason and emotion etc. These ideas go back to Classical Athens, but I leave myself open to correction and further exploration.

Regarding Pericles, I was referring to the creative side of that period. I seem to recall that Athens was totally destroyed after the war, and Athens was built from scratch under Pericles.

Regarding the points you make about optimism and pessimism, will need to look into that, maybe later.

I still think though that the gist of what I was aiming for was expressed beautifully in the Mozart letter.

Maybe I was trying to look from within the context of man's search for deeper spiritual needs. I think we are coming at this from different ends.

Can you lead me to explanations from the sciences that could help me explore the reasons for the inner world of creativity and its development?

I just can’t even begin to imagine how the theory of evolution could explain the creation of a symphony - perhaps the mechanics, but not that inner quality.

Just something to think about Craig, when Schubert died he left a beautiful symphony unfinished, it is his 8th Symphony and appropriately called The Unfinished.

Now my question to you is why is it that no one has been able to finish it?

Why it is that no one can place themselves into Schubert's shoes?

What possible explanation could evolutionary psychology offer to account for this?

Craig, I don’t mean to put you on the spot by my questions. These are just intensely interesting ideas for me, and I would greatly appreciate a deeper understanding.


In Schubert's Shoes

Charles, I've just learned that in 1928, on the 100th anniversary of Schubert's death, the Columbia Graphophone Company held a world-wide competition to complete the "Unfinished symphony" and about 100 "completions" were submitted.  I guess, as none of these "completions" became memorable, that not one could really fill Schubert's shoes.

Re Quick Reflections

Hello Charles, there's no need to be concerned about asking the questions you do.  I don't feel like they put me on the spot, and as I'm enjoying the exploration of history, ideas and concepts that is triggered by your questions, so I'm thankful for them.  It's this "learning opportunity" aspect of conversations on Webdiary with people like you that I find most satisfying.

As you've clarified that you'd meant the rest of humanity from within that Classical music period (the period with the Common Practice period between Baroque (1600 - 1760) and Romantic (1815 - 1910), I'll re-answer your question by noting that I understand that others acheived fame and success during that period. For example, the gifted virtuoso pianist, Muzio Clementi, became the most successful composer in London during the 1780s. Also I'm aware that Luigi Cherubini's Lodoiska (an opera composed in 1791) made him famous and his contemporary Étienne Méhul had extended instrumental effects with his 1790 opera Euphrosine et Coradin

I think you are correct to say the label Classical in relation to music first takes hold in Mozart’s Vienna. As I'd said, the times where influenced by a general movement in the Arts labeled Classicism. Emphasis on form, simplicity, proportion, and restrained emotion can be seen across the art forms during this period, particularly in architecture.

I think it is fair to say that Pericles' was guilty of a great embezzlement of funds from the Delian League's treasury and he used that capital to finance his ambitious building plan for the benefit of Athens (and his own reputation/legacy). For me the key point about Athens at the time of Pericles, one I'm very keen to emphasise, is that the creativity was enabled by a prevailing attitude toward isonomia.

Charles, I'm coming around to understand the point you're making as this: An individual's creativity comes from a need to achieve something during their lifespan, and those who are cognisant of (though not necessarily concerned by) their inevitable death often decide to pump out more creative product.  Does that reflect your point accurately?

More later on explanations from the sciences that could help you explore the reasons for the inner world of creativity and its development.

Athens and a light hearted aside

There are lots of factors which can contribute to creativity and optimism - both personal and social (distinguishable but not separable).

From Around the Horn (a BBC radio comedy of the 1950's): an optimist thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds, a pessimist fears this is so.



“I need not tell you with what anxiety I await better news from yourself. I count upon that with certainty, though I am wont in all things to anticipate the worst. Since death (take my words literally) is the true goal of our lives, I have made myself so well acquainted during the last two years with this true and best friend of mankind that the idea of it no longer has any terrors for me, but rather much that is tranquil and comforting. And I thank God that he has granted me the good fortune to obtain the opportunity (you understand my meaning) of regarding death as the key to our true happiness. I never lie down in bed without considering that, as young as I am, perhaps I may on the morrow be no more. Yet not one of those who know me could say that I am morose or melancholy, and for this I thank my Creator daily and wish, heartily that the same happiness may be given to my fellow men.”

This letter must have been in the back of my head, while posting. We strive all our lives because we know our time is limited: the hypotheticals were meant to bring out what to me is implicit in Mozart’s letter. Optimism and pessimism, and the creative impulse in the human spirit are one and the same. Mozart’s life and work for me best illustrates his own words: no composer has left such an intense and beautiful output in such a short time, with the possible exception of Schubert.


It’s easy to lose our way, so maybe I will reiterate my two hypotheticals.

  • If science was to discover the elixir for eternal youth, and medicine, was to advance to such a stage as to offer humanity the cure for death, what role would optimism and pessimism play in the human psyche?
  • If art and ideas are symbolic of the product of a struggle towards self realization, what would happen to a world where the human condition was deprived of all struggle?

Craig, if for example we look back to the so called Viennese Tradition of music, how many men represent the tradition? Women are for the most part not included, not because of lack of talent, because Mozart’s sister Nannerl was said to be very talented. Fanny Mendelssohn was also very talented. So social conditioning was definitely a factor in the case of gender. The male factor though still leaves much to ponder, because the tradition in terms of what musical fruit was left for us to enjoy really left very few.

The conventional historic view, for sake of simplicity: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schuman, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg till the so called break up of tonality and the historic end of the tradition. This leaves us only nine men; these men represent the sociological and organic growth of a great music tradition in the time span of roughly just over 200 years. Clearly the nine men could not have produced the tradition on their own in isolation, so there had to be something happening much more profound in their social environment that nurtured the tradition. Here we could also trace the main teachers and the social structure, the institutions that supported them.

But still where was the rest of humanity?

So I don’t know about your creative engineer example I really think that on the deepest and most profound levels, the most we can do is supply the right soil for the seeds to take root.

In relation to Classical Athens, I seem to recall that the main man underpinning all that creative development was Pericles.

Maybe I am losing myself in a maze of speculation, but there must be factors that produce optimism and pessimism outside the individual.

My point regarding the hypotheticals is to try to reduce these factors to their most essential. In the case of the nine men above definitely struggle comes to my mind, a deep need to explore and express there inner selves on a profound level. The need to go beyond the limitations of their given social conditions, so the society had to nurture them on some level, even though history will show you that most of these men swam against the tide and had to fight for recognition. We have, in the case of the above example nine men representing the fruit of a great tradition. For the most part these nine men nurtured the rest of the community, either directly or indirectly.

Now if the factor of struggle was left out of the equation, what would be left of the creative spirit?

If the creative spirit is missing from an age, what would underpin the society’s feelings of optimism or pessimism?

The view I have taken is the broader collective view of an age.

Also on an individual level if we could achieve eternal life I think that without an organism’s need to struggle life would be without meaning.

Just my view based on what is important to me I can’t imagine a world without sound, but maybe I am straying from the topic.

Re The Rest of Humanity in the 18th Century

Charles, you asked, in relation to the rise of the so called Viennese Tradition of music: Where was the rest of humanity?

I'm a novice when it comes to music history and merely presume there were other musical traditions established in other parts of the world during that historical period (from the 1750s).

One thing I've picked up in trying to learn a little about the history of music in other parts of the world at that time is that Tyagaraja (1759 - 1847), Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776 - 1827) and Syama Sastri (1762 - 1827) are know as the "Trinity of Carnatic music". Now during this period the social influences on these musicians would would have been somewhat shaped by the protracted struggle between the British and the French for military control of South India.

I also understand that in the 18th Century there began in parts of the Latin American world a process of "creolization" (blending European and African musical traditions), which led to the development of some of the world's most recognised music (and dance) styles, such as conga, rumba, mambo and cha-cha-chá.

Re The Nine Musicians

Charles, you've pointed out that: "Clearly the nine men [Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and Schoenberg] could not have produced the [Viennese] tradition on their own in isolation, so there had to be something happening much more profound in their social environment that nurtured the tradition. Here we could also trace the main teachers and the social structure, the institutions that supported them."

I agree.  Though I'm no expert in their music, I do understand that they were creating their works in a period heavily influenced by Classicism, which has its roots stretching right back into the Italian Renaissance (which in turn has many roots, one of which lies in the rising trade with Islamic cultures bringing a flood of knowledge about, and from, the antiquity of Europe; knowledge largely purged by Church, but, thankfully, preserved by the Abbasid Caliphate).

Re Origins of Optimism and Pessimism

Charles, you said "there must be factors that produce optimism and pessimism outside the individual."

As optimism and pessimism are cognitions they're something generated within the individual, though that's not to say that there are no environmental / social / situational influences at play.

There's a known and well researched difference between dispositional optimism/pessimism and situational optimism/pessimism.

Dispositional optimism refers to generalised outcome expectancies that good things, rather than bad things, will happen. Dispositional pessimism refers to generalised outcome expectancies that bad things, rather than good things, will happen.

As I understand it, the science currently shows some of the determinants of dispositional optimism (and pessimism) fall into the "nature" category , whilst others fall into the "nurture" category.

For example, a study on same-sex middle-aged Swedish twins (Plomin et al., 1992) showed that up to 25% of the variance in dispositional optimism and pessimism may be due to hereditary factors and that the shared rearing environment was significant for optimism, but not for pessimism.

Situational optimism (and pessimism) refers to specific expectations about outcomes in particular contexts. Consequently, there is variation from situation to situation and examination of the situation factors is likely to uncover some of what causes this variation.

Re Pericles

Charles, I'm going to take your comment and chunk it down into elements, responding to each one separately. This first response is on the issue of Pericles.

It's my opinion that Pericles' decisions contributed to the decline of Athenian democracy. His decisions certainly contributed to the transformation of the Delian League into an Athenian empire (though it can be said that he wasn't the one to start that transformation), and so, like Victor L. Ehrenberg, I'd argue that Pericles' legacy was Athenian imperialism which ultimately led to Athens' ruin.

However, I can see how it could be said that Pericles was "the main man underpinning all that creative development", for during his time Athens became the foremost artistic center of Greece, pulling in all the best talent from around the Greek world. Perhaps, and I think most probably, that was because Athens at that time had "the right soil for the [creativity] seeds to take root." Fertile soil is, as you'd know, made up of many ingredients. As mentioned earlier, I think the key ingredient was the rise of the concept of isonomia.


"For myself, I do not even care to quarrel with, or to charge with absurdity, one who maintains that physical elements tumbling and knocking blindly through trillions of years might produce Hamlet and Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and all that is good and all that is trash on the WWW. All that, in itself, would be dead, lifeless, meaningless. But a single conscious individual reacting intelligently to Hamlet, moved by Beethoven’s music, or feeling indignant at some imbecility on the WWW faces me with a reality that is other than the physical world. This reality, however it may have come about, is what I find meaningful, and it is in this reality that I find life and value and true being. And I cannot think of this reality as a by-product of anything that is without life and without intelligence. To me any existence devoid of life and intelligence is simply unintelligible. To me the fact that is elemental and ineradicable is not the world that presses on me from outside — it is something closer home; it is this life and awareness and will that is on the inside. And I believe that this life and intelligence in which alone I find meaningfulness is fundamental and ultimate."

Why Creative Evolution?

"Evolutionary psychology takes what is usually termed “culture” to be the product of human minds, albeit a complex one. Far from placing no importance on the role of culture, evolutionary psychology sees culture as one of the most important aspects of human nature to try to explain (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992)."

Brings back memories Craig, I wonder why cultural traditions live and die?

Why the incredible creative stimulus in 5th Century Athens?

The Viennese School of Music, are these events simply the product of human minds?

For a long time now I have been wondering: imagine if you could reduce all human creative activity to an essential concept?

A concept that could than be used to manipulate the social environment, or maybe I am being naïve and that is already happening.

There are others here with a better grasp of ancient history than me, but 5th Century Athens was a time of great optimism. I wonder what the set of social conditions were that produced that outpouring of creative genius.

Why should a Beethoven or one of his works such as his symphonies have any evolutionary design?

Why did Beethoven’s consciousness exist in one space-time co-ordinate and not another?

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