One Small Voice: The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre


Eternal Recurrence

2014-04-15

I'm still struggling mightily with finding my voice on this Nietzsche project - not trying to represent exactly what Nietzsche wrote (which is notoriously slippery anyway), but providing my perspective on his ideas in a way that does justice to what I see as the core truth in his texts. Plus huge questions are swirling in my head about whether I can pull this off philosophically and poetically!

Nevertheless, I'm going to try. As my colleague Adam Brault says: "What the heck. Why not?" :-)

Over the weekend, I wrote the first draft of the first poem for Songs of Zarathustra. There's no guarantee it will survive my usual self-editing process, but here it is anyway...

Eternal Recurrence

What if
I've lived this hour, this day, this life
Before
And I
Must live them yet again, not once
But more
And more,
Until every experience
Repeats,
Recurs,
And doubles back a million times
Or more.

A curse!
And yet if it must be, what if
I bless
This fact
As much as if it were my choice,
Not less.
The less
I treat necessity as fate
The more
I love
The life I live, and live the life
I bless.

Eudaimonia Suite

2014-04-11

On thinking further about my lifelong philosophy project, I've come to see it as a six-part suite on the theme of eudaimonia. Just I have likened my set of Yes arrangements for solo electric bass to a Bach Cello Suite, so the six books I'm writing on the philosophy of happiness might comprise a kind of suite:

  1. The Tao of Roark is a prelude in several senses: extravagant, improvisatory, fantastical even, and redolent of my intellectually intemperate youth under the influence of Ayn Rand.

  2. Songs of Zarathustra simply must be an allemande: a serious, German dance - yet also, I hope, tinged with some of the Mediterranean lightness that Nietzsche so treasured.

  3. My yet-untitled book on Aristotle will have the character of a courante: majestic and magisterial despite its brevity, it will likely be a short commentary on the key themes of Aristotelian ethics (in the tradition of Averroes, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas).

  4. From that high plane we will turn to a thinker who is in many ways the opposite of Aristotle: Thoreau. Here we proceed at a leisurely, loping pace in the sarabande, entitled Walking With Thoreau.

  5. Next the bourrée: Letters on Happiness: An Epicurean Dialogue. We find a kind of sober simplicity here, providing a counterpoint to Nietzsche's Dionysian pessimism.

  6. Finally a dancing gigue at the end, probably a set of aphorisms or short poems about the Old Master Lao Tzu. A fitting way to finish the suite, especially given our start with Rand.

I like this arrangement quite a bit, since the three pairs of contrasting thinkers (Rand and Lao Tzu, Nietzsche and Epicurus, Aristotle and Thoreau) are arrayed in a mirror image through the first and last, second and fifth, and third and fourth movements.


Nietzsche's Poetic Effects

2014-03-22

I have not yet begun to grapple with how I will write Songs of Zarathustra, a cycle of philosophical poems about the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. The prospect is daunting in many ways at once, like climbing a high mountain in winter.

As I study and contemplate various paths to the top, I keep noticing interesting features along the way. One is a certain metrical freedom that Nietzsche exercises in his own poetry (which sadly is not much appreciated). Consider a few of his shorter poems:

Für Tänzer

Glattes eis
Ein paradeis
Für den, der gut zu tanzen weiß.

and:

Zuspruch

Auf Ruhm hast du den Sinn gericht
Dann acht der Lehre
Beizeiten leiste frei Verzicht
Auf Ehre!

One doesn't need to know German to see the playful rhythmic patterns Nietzsche employs here.

Interestingly, famed Nietzsche translator Walter Kaufmann does the same in some of his own poems...

Dream

To write granite verse and prose
polished hard simple and
dazzling as a sphinx with a broken nose
in endless sand.

No passing image of what
is no matter
but a presence time can not
shatter.

So does my friend John Enright, whose poems I have always loved (and who turned me on to Walter Kaufmann's poetry)...

Philosophy and Poetry

Ironic turns of mind
Combined
Into a mask of common sense -

This is my defense.
My crime
Is rhyme.

Although I wouldn't call this free verse (especially given its prominent rhymes), it does have a great freedom. It's definitely a poetic effect that I shall incorporate into Songs of Zarathustra.


My Lifelong Philosophy Project

2014-03-01

I like large, long-term projects. The biggest one I'm working on is a series of six short books about the views of various philosophers on happiness and human flourishing. I jokingly call it the RENTAL project, after the names of the thinkers in question:

  1. Rand (The Tao of Roark)
  2. Epicurus (Letters on Happiness)
  3. Nietzsche (Songs of Zarathustra)
  4. Thoreau (Walking with Thoreau)
  5. Aristotle
  6. Lao Tzu

Not long ago, I was chatting with my friend Joshua Zader about this project and I came to a realization: what I'm doing here is exploring the most positive, practical potential of six thinkers who have tried, in various ways, to estabish a secular approach to the good life.

Really it all started when I had a crisis of faith at the age of nine and decided that I didn't believe in god. And yet I always wanted to be a good person and to live a life of joy and meaning. Thus I was ripe for my early infatuation with the ideas of Ayn Rand, but also for my later encounters with other secular philosophers (starting with Aristotle in my college years, then moving on to Epicurus, Nietzsche, Lao Tzu, and Thoreau). It frustrates me deeply when I hear some people claim that you can't be a good person if you're not religious - I know in my heart that's wrong, and in a way I'm out to prove it both through these books and in my own life.

As if it's not difficult enough to write six short books (distilling a large set of ideas into something you can read in an hour takes many years of absorption and synthesis), I've furthermore decided to write each book in a different philosophical genre: an almost oracular statement in The Tao of Roark, a dialogue in Letters on Happiness, a cycle of poems in Songs of Zarathustra, a biographical or autobiographical journal in Walking with Thoreau, probably a condensed commentary for the book about Aristotle, and maybe a series of aphorisms for the book about Lao Tzu.

So far I've finished the first two movements of this six-part "suite". I'm well along in research on the third (having recently finished re-reading all of Nietzsche's published works), and I've just started reading all of Thoreau (the essays and poems and books first, then the complete Journal). It will take me many more years to complete the remaining four movements. But that's one of the great things about a big project: it's almost like a constant companion in the arc of my existence, coloring everything I think and do, giving shape and form to my inner and outer life.


Self-Organization Man

2014-01-28

One of the reasons I'm so excited about joining &yet is that Adam Brault is a fellow admirer of Dee Hock. Although Mr. Hock is best known as the founder of VISA, it's his fertile ideas about business that I find most compelling. Here is a brief summary of my understanding, but I encourage you to closely read his book One From Many if you're intrigued by what follows.

Mr. Hock coined the word "chaord" - a mixture of chaos and order. VISA itself has a chaordic structure at the macro level, since it is not one organization but a loose network of banks, merchants, cardholders, and other entities that freely interact in well-defined ways (not dissimilar from the Internet). Even more interesting to me is chaordic structure at the micro level, within the firm. Here, I think, is the true key to Mr. Hock's deep insights into human interaction.

The work of an enterprise consists of many projects that can be broken down into multiple tasks. The question is: who will complete those tasks, and how? According to Mr. Hock, if everyone in the enterprise (or, keeping Dunbar numbers in mind, a smaller group within the enterprise) has a clear view of the tasks to be completed, various individuals can join together in ad-hoc ways to complete those tasks. Thus work becomes the spontaneous order of relatively equal, independent individuals who have shared purposes and principles, not the planned march of subordinates by a hierarchy of superiors according to rigid rules and regulations. In contrast to the "organization man" of the 1950s, Mr. Hock sees the emergence of the "self-organization man" (and woman, of course!).

Within a healthy, non-hierarchical enterprise, management comes to mean something utterly different from supervising subordinates. For Mr. Hock, the priorities of management are best listed in the following order:

  1. Manage yourself: your behavior, character, ethics, integrity, knowledge, skills, abilities, attitude, energy, time, etc. This deserves 50% of your effort.
  2. Manage those with greater authority: the founders or officers or partners of one's enterprise, team leaders, investors, outside parties such as regulators, etc. This deserves 25% of your effort.
  3. Manage your peers: co-workers within your enterprise, colleagues in your industry or profession, suppliers, customers, etc. This deserves 20% of your effort.
  4. Manage those over whom you have some form of authority. This deserves only 5% of your effort.

(The standard objection is that this leaves very little time for supervising subordinates. That's a feature, not a bug!)

What's missing in these relationships is control, oversight, steering, handling, manipulation, and other forms of moving people around by force of hand. When we remove those things, what seeps back in are communication, coordination, creativity, ingenuity, shared problem solving, common sense, mutual benefit, spontaneity, responsibility, trust, and respect. In other words, humanity.

My new colleague Henrik Joretag has written a book entitled Human JavaScript. I'm all in favor. More fundamentally, I'm in favor of discovering deeply human ways of working, and at the same time building tools to make that easier for teams everywhere. It sure seems like a worthy mission for the next 15+ years of my professional life. :-)


Clearing the Decks

2014-01-20

In preparation for my new gig, I've been actively tuning out extraneous information sources: email discussion lists, Twitter users, blogs, news websites, financial commentators, political pundits -- you name it, I've started to ignore it. Most of it is distracting chatter. More to the point, very little of it helps me improve as a technologist, as a teammate, as a person. Better, I think, to spend my time diving more deeply into real code and APIs; to absorb big ideas through books, specs, and papers; to interact directly with people who are important to me and to the goals we're achieving together; to devote longer blocks of time to actual work.

At the least, these are habits I'm working to learn. Self-management is a never-ending pursuit...


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