Willpower. Habit. Feeling inspired. How does it all fit together? In my experience, the key is to build a consistent habit (or eventually, a bunch of consistent habits) so that when the moment of motivation strikes, we can be ready to make the most of it. Let me expand on that.
At the beginning, a habit is born out of a combination of feeling inspired and a bit of willpower. “Wouldn’t it be cool to ___?” we think. We imagine what life would be like now if we’d started practicing that thing a year ago. And then we realize that it would be easy enough to practice it today. But that would be useless if we didn’t practice it tomorrow too.
In this way, a new habit is born. Many new habits of this sort don’t survive long, and that’s okay. I try not to stress about it. Don’t have too much riding on any one new habit. I just observe, and see which ones stick, and then nurture them as well as possible.
And it’s important to nurture it for as long as possible. We shouldn’t think of this as a thirty-day challenge or something, or as a practice that can be discarded once a certain goal is reached. It takes so much effort to establish a habit, that I would recommend finding a way to transition it into a new goal once the first is done. If the habit’s originally about writing a poem, for instance, well then, go on afterwards to write a second poem, or an essay, or a short story, or a memoir, but just keep the habit rolling!
Once the habit exists, it exists in a pretty minimal form. We want something that we’re going to be able to do consistently, no matter how we feel or how busy we are. If the goal is reading through something difficult, maybe the actual habit is reading a paragraph a day. We shouldn’t shoot for something ambitious like a chapter a day, because that will end up killing the habit and in the long run, it will accomplish a lot less.
However, I’m also not saying that, in such an example, we’d ever need to limit ourselves to reading only one paragraph. This is where inspiration comes back into it, and this is what can make a daily habit so powerful.
If all we ever do is that one minimal daily habit, it will add up over time. Let a few years pass and see how much has been accomplished that otherwise would never have been imaginable. Those years would have had to pass one way or another, and they might as well bring with them these sorts of effortless conquests. However, it can feel a bit slow.
The beauty of having a minimal goal in place is that we have a foundation for more extensive efforts to happen. Someone who’s not reading through Phenomenology of Spirit one paragraph per day might feel randomly inspired to read the book for a couple hours one day, but probably not. Even if that inspiration does strike, the person might well not act on the inspiration to start reading the book, thinking very reasonably that it would be a bit of a waste of time if there’s no followup, if it’s just a brief encounter with the book followed by months of forgetting what was read. And even if the person does sit down and read, that reading will be better than nothing but it probably won’t do all that much for the person reading.
Now, imagine instead that the person who’s already started reading a paragraph a day is seized someday by the random desire to sit down and read the book for an extended stretch. That day, we’ll far outstrip our planned one paragraph. Maybe that day we’ll read page after page after page. The inspiration, when it strikes, is easy to act on, because we’ve been in the habit of sitting down and reading that book every day for weeks and weeks now. And when we act on the inspiration, it is not an isolated incident; it’s a flurry of activity bringing us closer to the goal that we were going to reach anyways, but which is no longer quite so far away.
Put a small habit in place and stick to it consistently. The benefit is not only that we will eventually draw closer to our goals, but also that we will have put in place a framework that allows us to harness our flashes of inspiration when they strike, rather than having to watch them fizzle away. If we can do that, we will have gained a powerful resource.
I have a thought that I’ve tried to express in the past, about who has the burden of proof when it comes to talking about whether there’s a God. I think my suspicion is correct, but for some reason I’ve never been able to articulate it in a way that seems to convince even other theists to get very excited about it, let alone persuading any of my less theistic friends. Here’s another attempt.
“Burden of proof” is not a terribly philosophical way of speaking of the world, for the most part, but it’s a phrase that gets bandied about in these conversations quite a bit, so I think it’s worth discussing. I believe “burden of proof” language comes from a legal context originally, where “presumption” comes into play, as with presumption of innocence, for example. You’re typically presumed not guilty (in many legal contexts, at least), meaning that if someone wants to see you convicted of a crime then the burden of proof is on them, and if they can’t manage to prove it then you are taken to be innocent even if there is no actual positive proof of such innocence.
Atheists sometimes say that there should be an analogous presumption of atheism in discussions about God, where if God cannot be proved, then we take it that there is no God, even if we have no actual proof against a divinity.
They claim that this is just the way we would treat anything else. Do you say there are penguins? Prove it to me. Do you say there are unicorns? Prove it to me. It’s not my job to prove the non-existence of unicorns. How would I go about doing that?
In the same way, so the argument goes, I don’t have to prove the non-existence of God, but it is instead the responsibility of theists to prove that there is a God. It would be illogical to assume there is not a God, of course, but just as much it would be illogical to assume that there is a God. The most reasonable assumption is that there might be a God, and thus that we can give our assent to God’s reality as soon as a compelling piece of evidence is presented to establish that reality.
So far, this seems sensible enough. However, there is a distinction here that we need to draw.
Let us call a thing “contingent” where, if it is possible, then by definition it might not exist.
Let’s call a thing “necessary” where, if it is possible, then by definition it can’t not exist.
The great majority of the things we encounter fall into the former bucket, so it is not surprising that we are habituated to act with the assumption that all things must act like those do. Penguins are possible, and so they might exist or they might not. Thus, the burden of proof, if it falls to anyone, falls to the person wanting to say they exist.
But it is standard in philosophy to speak of God as belonging not in the former but in the latter side of the division, as (by definition) necessary, not contingent. God’s necessity means that if God is possible, then God will exist, indeed must exist, in every possible world, by definition, just because of what it means to be God.
Clearly, this means we can’t treat God like penguins and unicorns. We can’t say, “Well, there might be a God, but you’ve gotta show me before I accept it.” Instead, as soon as we’ve said there might be a God, we’ve already said that we accept that there is, and must be, a God.
This means that it doesn’t make sense to speak of the burden of proof resting with theists, despite what we hear so often. When we say that the burden of proof is on the people who affirm there are penguins or unicorns, we are tacitly admitting that we agree such things might exist, even if we are withholding assent on the question of whether they in fact do. For an atheist to make such an admission in the case of God, though, is equivalent to having lost the argument before it’s even begun.
So then, does this eliminate the burden of proof entirely as a consideration? It does not quite do so, actually, because now the atheist comes to be in the position of having to assert not only that God might not exist, but that God cannot exist (because if God can, then God does) — and that’s a much harder argument to defend than simply sitting back and saying, “If there’s a God, where?”
If we allow the standard assumption to prevail, that God might exist, just as penguins and unicorns might, then we find ourselves having to become by default, not atheists, as we expected at the beginning, but theists! The person who is arguing against the default position, then, is the atheist. In this way, the burden of proof has actually shifted to atheists, who will have to make a positive case that it is impossible for there to be a God, a claim which is not at all obvious and which will demand some sort of argumentation, some sort of real proof.
Now, let me straightaway deal with an objection that is not really an objection. “If we can say God is necessary, why can’t we also say that unicorns are by definition necessary and the burden of proof is on those who don’t believe in unicorns? Why can’t there be necessary worm-buffalo-trees? That’s ridiculous. Once you open the box, you can never stop the parade of ludicrous conclusions. Thus, it just doesn’t work to say that God is necessary.”
Now for one thing, this common objection shows some ignorance about the argumentation in classical theism that leads to the definition of God as necessary. The argument doesn’t say, “Well we really want to believe in God so what if we expand the definition of God to say that God is necessary then maybe we can keep on irrationally believing!” Rather, the argument says that on account of divine aseity, God must be absolutely simple, and this simplicity entails by definition the identity of God’s essence and existence, which is to say, it entails God’s necessity. There is absolutely no reason for thinking that having gotten this far on the classical account we’ve also had to throw the door open for people asserting the necessity of worm-buffalo-trees and the like.
However, even leaving that aside, this supposed objection is really only an attempt to win the argument by changing the subject. I’m not saying it’s done in bad faith — very often, in many different discussions, such illogical leaps are committed with great sincerity. They’re still quite illogical.
The theism question isn’t about whether there are necessary unicorns or necessary perpetual motion machines or necessary goblins. Each of those is another question, its own question, and even though we can generate an infinite number of such questions, that does not tell us anything about what we are currently focused on. Maybe there really is an infinite variety of necessary beings hidden away somewhere. Or maybe there’s not — but in any case, the people who are arguing about God do not need to care one way or the other, while speaking about God. Even if we could give a positive reason for thinking that all the other beings can’t be necessary, we are still left with the question of whether God can be.
Then again, if the rebuttal against all necessary beings does not consist of something like, “How silly! Who could believe that?” but actually has specific arguments which would include why all necessary things (including God!) cannot be possible, then great! Let’s hear it. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s exactly the sort of rebuttal the atheist now needs to find, because by definition God is necessary, and so the burden of proof, if it is going to be on anyone, is on atheists, and so they must begin their search for arguments to support their position.
The fact is, theists, who (I’ve argued) do not bear the burden of proof, nonetheless have piles of proofs, millennia of demonstrations, mountains of arguments showing how inescapable it is that God must exist. (My personal favourite is the Platonists’ account of the One; more on this in a future post.) We have an overabundance of proofs even as we have no burden to provide them. Atheists, on the other hand, have always had very little more available to them than attempts to shift the burden of proof, and so when the burden of proof is restored to its proper side of the argument, as I have just showed, their predicament is made precarious indeed.
The arguments against God are few and they are weak, as we quickly notice once we accept the correct placement of the burden of proof. The arguments against God were never designed to be able to support the entire weight of atheism. This is exactly why we hear the common refrain, “You have to prove God’s existence to me — how would I possibly prove a thing’s non-existence? That’s absurd!”
The best-known attempt to argue against God’s reality is probably the problem of evil — how could a good, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow there to be evil or suffering in the world? And yet this argument has been flayed from every side, exposing its abundant, innumerable problematic assumptions. And beyond that solitary, limping line of reasoning against God, what else is there for the atheists to draw on?
The answer, I’m afraid, is that there’s really not much.
There is something innate in human beings that desires to be honoured, recognized, admired, respected. Without that something, many of our greatest accomplishments would be unthinkable.
In connection with virtue, I’m sure there are quite a few good habits that I never would have started on if I hadn’t convinced myself at the outset that they could lead me somewhere glorious, help make me into someone impressive.
I started trying to lose weight about five and a half years ago, and in that span of time I’ve lost well over a hundred pounds. I feel better now, I’m healthier, and I look more normal — but before I started, what motivated me was not any of those things, but the fantasy of developing an amazing, impressive, slim, muscle-bound body. I haven’t achieved it, and likely never will, but without that original desire I would never have started trying, and would never have derived the benefits I now have.
I started studying philosophy in large part because I was tired of losing arguments, or ending them deadlocked. I wanted to be able to win every debate, to fill my adversaries with shock and awe at my immense knowledge and logical proficiency. That’s no longer my primary motivation, and I certainly haven’t achieved it, but I’m glad that I wanted it enough to take action.
When I started studying languages again a few years ago, it was because I figured it would be inexpressibly cool to be fluent in some languages as strange, difficult, and important, as Russian and Mandarin and Arabic. (And truly, when I was doing my languages lessons once in the morning and my wife asked if I was some kind of a spy, it felt pretty glorious.) After getting a good foundation in Russian, some rudimentary Mandarin, and just scratching the surface of the Arabic script (what a difficult language to read!!), I switched gears to something less James Bond. I’m now using those same habits for learning to read academic and philosophical German texts. Still, I wouldn’t be doing that now if I hadn’t been formerly shooting for something to make me look a bit more impressive.
The longing for glory is often a cause of vice, folly, ruin, but Cicero was one thinker who saw how it can be turned to virtuous ends. Too much ambition will harm us, but in the right kinds and the right amounts it can lift us to feats that would otherwise be outside our ability to consider.
Heidegger somewhere points out the double meaning of the Greek word “doxa” (δόξα), which is at once glory and also opinion. I had never really thought about the connection of the two in this word before. Through the way we live in the world and the people we reveal ourselves to be, we place boundaries around the ways that other people can think of us. The opinions of others are guided to some extent by the reality of our life, and that is our glory.
In caring about the opinions of others, then, we turn our focus to ourselves, to shaping who we are, and to the glory or lack of it that flows from how we live. This can’t be everything, but if we do it within reasonable bounds, it can be a powerful incentive to beginning on the path to self-improvement.
I’m getting pretty excited about language learning, lately, which has probably been obvious. There are moments, though, when I feel doubts.
Do I really need to learn these languages? Google translate is already pretty amazing at translating between many languages, and it will only get better. Maybe in a few years we’ll all be wearing Google glasses that will instantaneously translate for us any text we see and any phrases uttered within earshot.
It’s a lot of work to learn a language, and technology is bringing us to a point where, even though it’s never been so convenient to learn new languages, it’s also never seemed so strongly as if knowing many languages might not be useful for long.
We’ll doubtless be told that language learning is good for the brain, but that assurance only carries us so far.
There are plenty of other things we could learn that would be good for the brain but also useful. If we think language learning is useless, it won’t be enough to say that it’s one of many things that can be used for mental exercise.
So then we’re left with the question: is it still useful to learn languages, even with Google translate getting to be so unbelievably good?
Probably not, for most things. Let’s be honest. For most purposes, Google translate (and its cousins) is now, or soon will be, good enough.
But there’s at least one big exception that comes to mind for me immediately. For the task of thinking with the great minds of history, I think we still need at least a rudimentary knowledge of a handful of languages, and the more fluent we can become, the better.
This is because we will never see the text as clearly through a translation as we will through the original. It doesn’t matter how good the translation is, or how it is presented. We can’t really understand the subtleties and possibilities of the text without some comprehension of the language.
It’s a little like examining an object though a video feed, I think. No matter how crisp the pixelation, or how bright, no matter how many different angles we get to see the thing from, it will never be quite as good as holding it on our own two hands and peering at it through our own eyes.
No matter how good the translation is, it will never be as good as reading the original.
Without being able to read in the original language, we will never be as sure that we understand what we’re reading as we could be.
Without reading the original, we’ll never be able to speak as confidently about it as we wish we could.
I’ve talked a bit about language learning in previous posts. It’s something I happen to be pretty excited about at the moment, but it hasn’t always been such a big focus for me.
When I first started to get excited about familiarizing myself with the history of philosophy, I had done a little bit of language study, but I was still very far from being very fluent in any of the few languages I had studied.
And at that point I was realizing how little I knew of philosophy, how much I needed to learn. It felt pretty urgent! It was a burning need, which I could not put off for long. So after some internal struggle, I made a deal with myself:
I will stop studying languages for a little while, I told myself, so that I can focus on reading through the history of philosophy in translation. But then later, I will return to my study of languages so that I can revisit the study of philosophy, at my leisure, in the original texts.
I hoped I’d find a way to study languages on my own, years after college, and then also to get pretty good at them! How foolhardy does that sound?
I knew when I made that deal with myself that it was a dangerous move. “I’ll study the languages more later” is the kind of thing someone says when they have studied a language in school and are about to leave it behind forever.
I knew it was possible that if I left the languages lying unused for too long, I might never find the time or motivation to return to them. So I gambled. I gambled on my ability to follow through and find a way to get back into the languages.
And so far, the gamble seems like it may have paid off. For the past couple years I’ve been easing back into the study of languages, and in the past half a year I’ve been making excellent progress.
It felt like stepping off a cliff, way back then, and hoping for the best. It was the only way forward I could see that would allow me to secure the things I desired in the order in which I desired to have them, but it was never a sure thing.
After I graduated college it took me a year to read through the complete works of Plato in translation, which I did often in the evenings or during coffee breaks at work. Once I had finished that, I knew there was still Aristotle ahead of me, Plotinus, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Kant, and so many others. And I wanted to move on to those other thinkers as soon as I could.
I knew that I couldn’t leap directly into the original languages and spend half a decade trying to read through Plato in Greek. I was hungry to know the history of philosophy, and reading it in translations seemed the best middle ground between reading in the original languages on the one hand, and reading a book about the history of philosophy on the other (which would be much faster, but also inexpressibly shallower).
So I did it. It’s certainly not a fast path, but it is fast enough, and it’s thorough.
And because it seems to be working out so far, I’m glad I made the choice I did, and I’m happy to recommend the same sort of approach to others. I can’t say it’s always easy, but in my experience so far, I can say that it does at least seem to be possible.
It has struck me that studying languages can be a little bit similar to the experience of studying chess.
I’m not that serious about chess these days, and to be honest in fact I’m pretty rusty, but I went through a phase some years ago where I was studying different openings and tactics every day. At that time I was frequently playing chess games online against random opponents. It had an interesting, unexpected side effect.
As a result of all that study and practice, my mind was full of meaningless bits of chess all day. I would be eating dinner and would suddenly imagine a rook lift, out of context, or a bishop move that would check the king on a certain square.
I didn’t imagine these things deliberately, and they didn’t have any particular purpose, but they continued popping into my mind anyway. I suspect it was part of the process (or a harmless effect of the process) of my mind digesting and making meaning out of the positions that were still relatively fresh in my memory.
Just recently, as I’ve been studying German a little bit more intensely, I’ve started noticing something very similar going on. I have little meaningless bits of the language floating about in my brain.
The other day it was jeglicher and unerbittliche, and then yesterday niedrigere. Today it’s abgetane. Something about these words causes them to snag on the fabric of my consciousness and get caught there.
The words roll around in my head all day, always in the background but never fully gone. I taste them with my mind, drum their rhythms, scrape fingertips across their varied textures, chime their pure vowels, feel the rumble of their jostling consonants underfoot.
I suppose whatever we’re focusing on and putting time into must leave a sort of mental residue, more powerfully in proportion to how much work we put into it. Judging such residue might be a good way to get a sense of what holds a central place in our lives at any given moment, and of whether we’re happy about it.
There’s probably no language that I’m more excited to read fluently than classical Greek.
I’ve spent time studying ancient Greek in the past, but I’m somewhat rusty with it by now, and it’s not the next language up on my roster to review. Still, I am hoping to get back to it within the next year or two (after spending some time in the next while strengthening my German and French).
I wrote in a previous post that there are a number of people in the West who wish they could learn Latin, because Latin held such a place of importance in our history and still somehow has a powerful hold on our imagination and identity. I mentioned there that Greek has a similar place in our history, but somehow also a weaker grasp.
The exception that I didn’t mention is how there are some groups of Christians who are strongly attracted to Greek because it allows access to the New Testament in the original language. (It also lets us read the ancient translation of the Old Testament in Greek, which is super cool, but people generally seem to get less excited about that thought.)
I have to admit, though, that personally what makes me most energized to study Greek is the thought of being able to read the Socratics, and their contemporaries, and their predecessors and successors. Philosophy and rhetoric, history and epic, tragedy and comedy. It sounds wonderful.
The age of Socrates was a fascinating time, and the events and thoughts and phrases of that time have echoed down the ages, ever since, ever relevant.
There are other languages and ages that I’m looking forward to immersing myself in. The Hebrew of the prophets. The Latin of the scholastics. The Italian of Renaissance Italy, perhaps. The German of Kant and those who came after. The French of the early 20th century.
If you told me that one of those other languages and its window into intellectual history seemed most fascinating to you, I would not try to argue the point. I too am attracted to all those paths, and hope to make my way to them eventually.
For now, though, for me, having not yet really mastered a single one of these languages or literatures, the moment that towers over all the others is Periclean Athens, and the intellectual movement which eventually found its centre there.
Do you ever find yourself saying, “Can you believe it’s the end of the month already? Where did the time go?”
Time passes. It’s what it does.
And we have a choice about how we can live our lives. We can live in a way that makes the passage of time a sadness, or in a way that makes it a victory.
So often it seems a sadness. As time passes we lose things. We lose our youth, and with it, perhaps, some of our health, our strength, our beauty. We lose many of the friendships and relationships that characterized a more vibrant phase of our life. We lose some of the knowledge that we once worked so hard to memorize.
But there are also gains. We might gain wisdom. We might gain aged friendships that are stronger and deeper than the multiplicity of youthful friendships they replace. We might be more established in a career, might have more financial stability.
And if we set up our lives so that day after day and month after month we are brought irreversibly closer to our goals, then each passing span of time is a reason to celebrate.
If we are constantly trying to improve ourselves and our situation, and finding ways to make this happen as automatically or as effortlessly as possible, then time becomes a friend and an ally.
Start improving diet and exercise. Then a month gone is a month in the right direction. Study a language every day. Then a passing year is a year closer to mastery of that language. Read good books. Write.
Time will slip past no matter what we do. We might as well try to make that fact a reason for celebration rather than just for grief.
The other week, something encouraging happened. I made a note to myself to write it down, because I was so excited about it and I wanted to preserve the memory.
It was a Monday. I had spent the day busily bustling around, and made an extra effort to get through a to-do list that seemed especially long that day.
In the early afternoon, my to-do list was growing shorter and less urgent, and a moment arrived when anyone else in the house was either sleeping or otherwise occupied, so that I had some time to myself. Time to spend however I liked!
Many days I would have taken a nap myself in a moment like that and felt no shame in it. Other days I might have sent messages to friends to keep in touch, or perhaps simply scrolled through social media looking for something interesting to read.
This day, however, as the time of freedom approached, I was looking forward to having a chance to review a piece of academic German writing that I’ve been reading through slowly with a friend.
The house was quiet. I made some coffee. And then I sat down and spent an hour reading German, looking up the words I didn’t remember, reviewing my list of unfamiliar words when I needed a little break, and then diving back in and reading more.
It’s not the first time something like that has happened in my life, but those experiences are rare.
It’s not rare for me to study languages, especially in the last couple years. But to rush to spend an extended period reading from a text, that is more uncommon.
The best parallel I can think of from the past is one time when I read John’s entire Apocalypse in Greek on a bus trip from Saskatchewan to BC. At the time I had hoped that was the beginning of a new habit, but in fact it was the end of one.
But a decade later, after much effort, I’ve gotten there again. I was, in that moment, relieved — relieved to have the chance to do something I felt good about wanting to do! And I’m relieved by that relief.
I can’t say what it means for the future, if anything, but I do feel good about who I’m becoming right now.