Uncertainty and Self-control

A fast, a salon on asceticism, an appearance on the ii podcast, plus my reading and writing

Fast

On Sunday, the first of November, I turned off my phone and computer. For the next five days I used no screens, ate nothing, said nothing, listened to nothing, and bought nothing.

I drank water and black coffee, wrote around 15,000 words by hand, read Darwin, meditated, and exercised. If you'd like to read a detailed description of why I did this and how it went, I wrote about it here.

Asceticism Salon

I endured this act of asceticism partly to prepare for a series of three salons I’ll host via the Interintellect over the next several weeks. I discussed this series (and related topics) with fellow Interintellect Evaric Weicksel on a podcast, which you can listen to here.

The first salon in the series, which is on Asceticism, will be on Zoom this Thursday at 7–10pm GMT.

We will discuss the relationship between societal uncertainty and individual self-control in both ancient and modern contexts. Did the Buddha (or early Christians) leave society as a response to upheaval? Was solitude pursued as a way to assert control in the face of high uncertainty? Might meditation and prayer, silence, abstinence, or fasting be byproducts of instability?

Today, could modern societal circumstances account for the surge of interest in dopamine fasts and Digital Minimalism in Silicon Valley, or for the popularity of meditation retreats? How might such practices be adaptive, and at what point do they become pathological?

Information, reading list, and tickets here


Hedonism and Eudaimonia

In December, I will host the other two salons in this trilogy.

The second — on Thursday 3 December — will discuss hedonism. Hedonism, at least as instant gratification, might be the default approach to an unexamined life. It has connotations of dissolution, of destructiveness and recklessness, of decadence. But might the dogged pursuit of pleasure teach important lessons? Could those who have confessed and lamented their youthful indiscretions (Augustine, Rousseau, Tolstoy) have achieved the same things without having made these mistakes? Is there a relationship between creativity and excess? How did the Epicureans use hedonism to determine what is worth doing?

The third — on Wednesday 16 December — will be on eudaimonia, a word from ancient Greek philosophy, sometimes translated as “happiness” but perhaps more accurately rendered as “flourishing.” Attainments fade, and acquisitions lose their lustre; how, then, can one find lasting satisfaction and contentment? What are the components of the good life? What does it mean to have purpose, to find fulfillment, to flourish — and how might one sustain such flourishing over time?

I will send another message once these salons are ready, so stay tuned.

Other news

Otherwise, I have been working for the past few months on an interminable Twitter thread on Thomas Kuhn. It has grown into a comprehensive summary and commentary on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn’s seminal work in the history and philosophy of science. I promise I will finish it sometime soon.

I’m reading Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which I’ve found to be a brilliant piece of complexity theory. In particular, I’ve been wondering whether Darwin predicts r/K selection, and about the heritability of variability.

I’m loving Alexandra Berlina’s Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader, after coming across this excellent review. I’ve been interested in Shklovsky since university, when I read his work on Tolstoy. I am also reading William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness for my book club (details here, should you wish to attend next week — it’s short!).

I am not actively working on the novel, but I plan to resume work in the new year. The topics of complexity and suffering from recent salons are directly related to the themes of the novel.

That’s it for today. I’d love to hear from you. Reply to this email, find me on Twitter, or schedule a call with me.

All best,

Bryan