The "un-selfing" imperative
Iris Murdoch on how beauty and nature can help us lead full, vibrant lives; an invitation to a conversation with Tyler Cowen, and a giveaway of Tyler's new book!
In this issue, we’ll explore
A brief update on my book on civility, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press
Un-selfing: what it is and why it matters
Invitation to a conversation with Tyler Cowen August 31st
Giveaway of Tyler’s new book, TALENT
For this issue, I’ve utilized Substack’s newly introduced “VoiceOver” feature. I’ve recorded this CR issue so that you may enjoy listening to it while you’re on the move. Let me know what you think of this new feature, and let me know whether you think I should do this for future issues, by writing to me at email@example.com
The Soul of Civility
I just submitted the final manuscript of my book on civility to St Martin’s Press. This is an exciting time. It feels like this process has happened so slowly up until this point, and now everything is happening all at once.
It’s currently undergoing copyediting and legal review, and we should have printed galleys for early reviews later this summer. I have an assigned marketer who is already brainstorming ideas of ways to ensure my book reaches new audiences and readers. I’m also beginning conversations with other organizations with which I’m affiliated, or who have an interest in promoting civil discourse, about ways to generate interest in the book
(If YOU have ideas for how to do so, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The book even has an official title now!
The title is, THE SOUL OF CIVILITY.
A lot of thought and discussion went into this title.
What do you think of it?
Let me know your thoughts by writing to me at email@example.com
Love of self vs. love of others
A core part of my argument about civility is that, despite many arguments that our civility problem today is more egregious than in past eras, the challenges to civility are timeless because they emerge from parts of the human personality that we all share.
Human nature is defined by two competing facets: our love of self, and our and love of others.
These two facets of our nature are in tension.
Our self-love, a foundational aspect of our nature, is the challenge to civility in all human communities in all times and places.
Self love is our natural, default state. It’s a powerful force that, like gravity, we must each resist in order for friendship, community, and civilization itself to survive.
Civility is the process by which we overcome our self-love so that our love of others, and our social natures, can flourish. Civility helps us become our best selves in relationship with others. Because civility enables our social lives, it helps us to become fully human and allows us to enjoy the rich fruits of life in community.
But how can we overcome the gravitational pull of self-love so that we might thrive in society with others?
The un-selfing imperative
Irish philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) has some excellent ideas about how to do so.
She says we must regularly seek out occasions to “un-self” in order to lead full and vibrant human lives in community.
But how do we un-self?
Regular exposure to beauty and art are essential to the un-selfing process.
Beauty and nature offer us an opportunity to detach “from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life.”
Murdoch gives the example of staring out a window, stewing about some ego-bruising situation, and then having her attention re-directed by a beautiful bird flying by. She writes,
Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige.
Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.
When we see things primarily though out selfishness and our self love, we don’t see them as they really are.
Murdoch writes, “The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion.”
Inviting and seeking out opportunities to displace our selves to help us see others and the world around us with clear eyes are integral for personal and social tranquility.
On the sublime and the beautiful
Murdoch’s thesis echoes Edmund Burke’s (1729-1797) magnificent essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.
In this essay, Burke distinguishes between the beautiful and the sublime. While beauty is often pleasurable, the sublime is grounded in terror.
We encounter the sublime in a thunder storm, when we look up at the vastness of space, or the grandeur of a mountain range.
we are made to feel small, unsafe, and insignificant.
Thus, in encountering the greatness of the natural world, our sense of self is diminished and displaced.
There is a whole body of research dedicated to Burke’s idea of the sublime, only today it goes under the name of “awe” and “transcendence.”
Researchers have found, as Murdoch and Burke theorized, that seeking out experiences that help us get our eyes off of ourselves and onto the world around us make us calmer and happier people. They restore and refresh our souls, and better equip us for the difficult work of peaceful co-existence with others.
I love Murdoch’s idea of un-selfing. I adore Burke’s notion of the sublime.
What do you think?
What prevents us from taking time to enjoy the beautiful things around us? Murdoch might say that the greater our self-love, the more difficult it is for us to enjoy beauty—yet, this is when we need it most.
What do you think of Burke’s notion of the sublime? When was the last time you encountered something awe-inspiring? Did you feel the positive effects that Burke and modern researchers have discovered—namely greater tranquility and happiness?
Write to me with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org
An invitation to a conversation with Tyler
CR Subscribers are invited to a private dialogue with Tyler Cowen, a foremost intellectual of our day, on August 31st at 1:30 pm.
To join this private conversation with Tyler, consider subscribing to CR now.
Following the private dialogue with CR subscribers, I will be facilitating a public dialogue with Tyler that you’re all invited to. Reserve your spot now!
TALENT give away
I’m giving away a copy of Tyler’s new book, TALENT.
To win the book, write to me at email@example.com
Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!
How Kenneth Clark ends Civilisation comes to mind: "At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. . . . I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible."
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