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  1. Submit to the other—The Inside-out Perspective

As narrated in chapter 2 (here), in December 1977, Daniel Everett, along with his wife, Keren, and their two children, arrived in a remote village in the Amazonian jungles of Brazil, where they would end up spending a good part of the next twenty years of their lives. The village belonged to a tribe scattered in the area known as the Pirahã. Everett had been sent there by the Summer Institute of Languages (SIL)—a Christian organization that trains future missionaries in the linguistic skills that will enable them to translate the Bible into indigenous languages and help spread the Gospel. Everett himself was an ordained minister.

The directors at SIL considered Pirahã one of the last frontiers in their quest to translate the Bible into all languages; it represented perhaps the most challenging language for any outsider to learn. The Pirahã had lived for centuries in the same Amazonian basin, resisting all attempts to assimilate or learn Portuguese. Living in such isolation, a point was reached in which no one outside of the Pirahã could speak or understand their language. Several missionaries had been sent there after World War II, and all had failed to make much progress; despite their training and linguistic talents, they found the language maddeningly elusive.

Daniel Everett was one of the most promising linguists the SIL had seen in a long time, and when the institute presented him with the challenge of the Pirahã he was more than excited. His wife’s parents had been missionaries stationed in Brazil, and Keren had grown up in an environment not too dissimilar to a Pirahã village. It seemed the family was up to the task, and in his first months there Everett made good progress. He attacked the Pirahã language with great energy. Using the methods he had learned at SIL, he slowly built up a vocabulary and the ability to speak some rudimentary sentences. He copied everything down on index cards and carried them in his belt loop. He was a tireless researcher. Although life in the village presented some challenges for him and his family, he was comfortable with the Pirahã and hoped they had accepted his presence. But soon he began to feel that all was not right.

Part of the SIL method was to encourage immersion in the indigenous culture as the best means for learning the language. Missionaries are essentially abandoned to their fate, to sink or swim in the local culture without any crutches to lean on. Perhaps unconsciously, however, Everett could not help but keep some distance and feel ever so slightly superior to the backward culture of the Pirahã. He became aware of this inner distance after several incidents that occurred in the village.

First, several months into their stay, his wife and daughter nearly died from malaria. He was rather perturbed by the lack of empathy from the Pirahã about this. A little later, Everett and his wife tried desperately to nurse back to health a Pirahã infant that was gravely ill. The Pirahã were certain the baby would die, and seemed bothered by the missionaries’ efforts. Then one day, Everett and his wife discovered the baby was dead; the Pirahã had forced alcohol down its throat to kill it. Although he tried to rationalize this event to himself, he could not help but feel some disgust. On another occasion, for apparently no reason, a group of Pirahã men had gotten very drunk and were looking for him in order to kill him. He managed to escape the threat, and nothing else ever happened, but it made him wonder about the safety of his family.

More than anything, however, he began to feel disappointed by the Pirahã themselves. He had read much about Amazonian tribes, and by any standards the Pirahã did not measure up. They had virtually no material culture—no important tools, artwork, costumes, or jewelry. If women needed a basket, they would find some moist palm leaves, quickly weave them together, use the basket once or twice, and then abandon it. They placed no value on material things, and nothing in their villages was designed to last very long. They had few rituals, and as far as he could tell no real folklore or creation myths. One time he had been woken up by excitement in the village—apparently a spirit who lived above the clouds had been sighted and was warning them not to go into the jungle. He looked at what they were looking at and saw nothing. There were no colorful stories being told about this, no relation to any myth, just some villagers excitedly staring off into empty space. They seemed to him like Boy Scouts on a camping trip, or a group of hippies—a tribe that had somehow lost its own culture.

This disappointment and unease coincided with frustration in his own work. He had made some progress with the language, but it seemed that the more words and phrases he learned, the more questions and puzzles he uncovered. He would think that he had mastered a particular expression, only to find it meant something different or something larger than he had imagined. He could see the children learning the language so easily, but to him who now lived among them, it seemed beyond his reach. Then one day he experienced what he would later realize was a turning point.

The thatch roof of his family’s hut needed replacing, and he decided to enlist some villagers in the effort. Although he felt he had integrated himself into their lives, he had never ventured very far into the surrounding jungles with the Pirahã men. Finally, on this occasion he would go much farther than before to gather the necessary materials. Suddenly, during this trip, he saw an entirely different side to them. While he was stomping and whacking his way through the brush, they seemed to glide through the thick jungle without being touched by a single branch. He was not able to keep up with them, and so he stopped and rested. In the distance he could hear strange sounds—the Pirahã men were clearly speaking to one another, but their words were somehow transposed into whistles. He realized that in the jungle they used this different form of communication, one that would not stand out from the jungle hum. It was a marvelous way to talk without attracting attention, and must have been a great help in hunting.

Now he joined them on subsequent forays into the jungle, and his respect for them increased. They could hear and see things he could not perceive at all—dangerous animals, signs of something different or suspicious. Occasionally, it would rain when it was not the rainy season, and in the jungle they had a sixth sense for the weather and knew when a heavy rain was coming hours before it arrived. (They could even predict the arrival of a plane several hours in advance, although he never figured out how.) They could identify every plant and its possible medicinal purposes, and knew every square inch of the jungle. If they saw bubbles or ripples in the river, they could instantly tell whether the movement was from a falling rock or from some dangerous animal lurking below the surface. They had a mastery of their environment that he could not sense by seeing them in the village. And as he became aware of this, he began to understand that their life and culture, which at first glance had seemed rather poor according to our standards, was actually something remarkably rich. Over the course of hundreds of years they had adapted a way of life that was perfectly wedded to the harsh circumstances of their environment.

Now, as he looked back on the same incidents that had troubled him before, he could see them in a new light. Living so closely to death on a daily basis (the jungle was teeming with dangers and diseases), they had developed a rather stoic attitude. They could not afford to waste time or energy on mourning rituals or on too much empathy. They could sense when someone was going to die, and being certain that the infant the Everetts had tried to nurse was doomed, they thought it easier and better to hasten its death and not look back. The village men who had thought of killing him had heard that he did not like their drinking; they feared that he was yet another outsider who was going to impose his values and authority on them. They had their reasons for behaving as they did, but only with time could he see them clearly.

He extended his participation in their lives to other aspects—hunting and fishing excursions, gathering roots and vegetables in the fields, and so on. He and his family would share meals with them and interacted with them as much as possible, and in this way he slowly immersed himself in the Pirahã culture. Although it was not immediately apparent, this also initiated a change in his learning of the language itself. It started to come more naturally—less from the tireless work of a field researcher and more from within, from simply living inside their culture. He began to think like a Pirahã, to foresee their reactions to what some visiting Westerner would ask of them; he got inside their sense of humor, and the kinds of stories they liked to relate around the campfire.

And as he began to understand more aspects of their culture and to communicate with a higher degree of proficiency, he noticed more and more peculiarities to the Pirahã language. Everett had been indoctrinated in the prevailing beliefs in linguistics championed by Noam Chomsky. According to Chomsky all languages share certain features, which he designates as Universal Grammar. This grammar implies a common neurological trait to the brain that allows for the learning of languages among children. According to this theory, we are hardwired for language. But the more time Everett spent among the Pirahã, the more signs he saw that their language did not share some of these common features. They had no numbers and no system for counting. They had no specific words for colors, but rather described colors through phrases that related to real objects.

According to Universal Grammar, the most important trait shared by all languages is what is known as recursion, the embedding of phrases within phrases that gives language an almost infinite potential to relate experiences. An example would be, “the food you are eating smells good.” Everett could find absolutely no evidence for recursion in Pirahã. They would express such ideas in simple, assertive phrases, such as “You are eating food. That food smells good.” These exceptions to Universal Grammar began to pile up as he looked for them.

At the same time, the Pirahã culture began to make increasing sense to him, which altered his conception of their language. For instance, one time he learned a new word that a Pirahã explained to him meant “what is in your head when you sleep.” The word then means to dream. But the word was used with a special intonation that Pirahã use when they are referring to a new experience. Questioning further, he saw that to them dreaming is simply a different form of experience, not at all a fiction. A dream is as real and immediate to them as anything they encounter in waking life. With more and more of these examples, a theory began to stir in his head, one that he would call the Immediate Experience Principle (IEP). What this means is that for the Pirahã all that concerns them are things that can be experienced in the here and now, or that relate to something that someone personally has experienced in the very recent past.

This would account for the peculiarities of their language—colors and numbers are abstractions that do not fit IEP. Instead of recursion, they have simple declarative statements on what they have seen. His theory would account for their lack of material culture, or of creation myths and stories that refer to something in the past. They had developed this form of culture as the perfect adaptation to their environment and needs; it made them profoundly immersed in the present and remarkably happy. It helped them to psychologically transcend the difficulties of their environment. Because they had no need for anything beyond their immediate experience, they had no words for such things. Everett’s theory was the fruit of years and years of deep immersion in their culture. As it came together in his mind, it explained so many things. It could not have been seen or understood in the course of a few months or years observing them from the outside.

The conclusion that he drew from this, one that would provoke much controversy within the field of linguistics, is that culture plays an enormous role in the development of language, and that languages are more different than we have imagined. Although there are certainly common aspects to all human languages, there can be no universal grammar that overrides the relevance of culture. Such a conclusion, he determined, can only come through years of intense fieldwork. Those who make assumptions from far away, based on universal theories, do not see the whole picture. It takes great time and effort to see the differences, to participate in a culture. And because it is so much harder to perceive these differences, culture has not been given its due as one of the primary shaping forces for language and for how we experience the world.

The deeper he immersed himself into Pirahã culture, the more it changed him. He not only grew disenchanted with the top-down form of research in linguistics and the ideas it led to, but also with his work as a missionary. These were both attempts to impose on the Pirahã alien ideas and values. He could only imagine that spreading the Gospel and converting them to Christianity would completely ruin their culture, which had shaped itself so perfectly to their circumstances and made them so content. With these ideas, he lost his faith in Christianity itself, and finally left the church. Learning an alien culture from so deeply inside it, he could no longer accept the superiority of one particular belief or value system. To hold such an opinion, he determined, is merely an illusion that comes from remaining on the outside.

For many researchers in circumstances similar to Daniel Everett’s, the natural response is to rely on the skills and concepts they have learned for research purposes. This would mean studying the Pirahã as closely as Everett had done in the beginning, taking extensive notes, and trying to make this alien culture fit into the framework already designated by the prevailing theories in linguistics and anthropology. Doing so, such researchers would be rewarded with articles in prestigious journals and solid positions within academia. But in the end they would remain on the outside looking in, and a good portion of their conclusions would simply be confirmations of what they had already assumed. The wealth of information that Everett had uncovered about their language and culture would remain unnoticed. Imagine how often this has occurred in the past and still occurs in the present, and how many secrets of indigenous cultures have been lost to us because of this outsider approach.

Part of this predilection for the outside perspective originates from a prejudice among scientists. Studying from the outside, many would say, preserves our objectivity. But what kind of objectivity is it when the researcher’s perspective is tainted by so many assumptions and predigested theories? The reality of the Pirahã could only be seen from within and from participating in their culture. This does not taint the observer with subjectivity. A scientist can participate from within and yet retain his or her reasoning powers. Everett could stand back from their culture and devise his IEP theory. The intuitive and the rational, the inside perspective and science, can easily coexist. For Everett, choosing this inside path required a great deal of courage. It meant physically subjecting himself to the dangers of their life in the jungle. It led to a difficult confrontation with other linguists and all of the problems such conflict presented for his future career as a professor. It led to a profound disenchantment with Christianity, which had meant so much to him as a young man. But he felt compelled to do so by his desire to uncover the reality. And by moving in this unconventional direction, he was able to master an unbelievably complex language system and gain invaluable insights into their culture and the role of culture in general.

Understand: we can never really experience what other people are experiencing. We always remain on the outside looking in, and this is the cause of so many misunderstandings and conflicts. But the primal source of human intelligence comes from the development of mirror neurons (see here), which gives us the ability to place ourselves in the skin of another and imagine their experience. Through continual exposure to people and by attempting to think inside them we can gain an increasing sense of their perspective, but this requires effort on our part. Our natural tendency is to project onto other people our own beliefs and value systems, in ways in which we are not even aware. When it comes to studying another culture, it is only through the use of our empathic powers and by participating in their lives that we can begin to overcome these natural projections and arrive at the reality of their experience. To do so we must overcome our great fear of the Other and the unfamiliarity of their ways. We must enter their belief and value systems, their guiding myths, their way of seeing the world. Slowly, the distorted lens through which we first viewed them starts to clear up. Going deeper into their Otherness, feeling what they feel, we can discover what makes them different and learn about human nature. This applies to cultures, individuals, and even writers of books. As Nietzsche once wrote, “As soon as you feel yourself against me you have ceased to understand my position and consequently my arguments! You have to be the victim of the same passion.” 7. Synthesize all forms of knowledge—

The Universal Man/Woman

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) grew up in an unhappy home in Frankfurt, Germany. His father had a failed career in local politics that had left him embittered, and he had become estranged from his young wife. To make up for his own lack of success, Johann’s father made certain that his son received the finest education possible. He learned the arts, the sciences, numerous languages, various crafts, fencing, and dancing. But Johann found life in the house under the watchful eye of his father unbearable and stultifying. When he finally left home to study at the university in Leipzig, it was as if he had been set free from prison. All of his pent-up energies, his restlessness, his hunger for women and adventures, were suddenly released and he went wild.

He lived the life of a dandy, dressing in the most fashionable clothes and seducing as many young women as he could find. He threw himself into the intellectual life of Leipzig; he could be seen in all of the taverns arguing about this or that philosophy with professors and fellow students. His ideas went against the grain—he ranted against Christianity and yearned for the pagan religion of the ancient Greeks. As one professor noted, “It was the well-nigh universal opinion that he had a slate loose in the upper story.”

And then young Johann fell in love, and any remnant of self-control was finally gone. His letters to friends about this love affair caused them great concern. He swung from elation to deep depression, from adoration to distrust. He stopped eating. He proposed marriage, then broke it off. To many it looked like he was on the edge of madness. “I’m going downhill faster every day,” he wrote to a friend. “Three months will see the end of me.” Then suddenly in 1768, in the middle of all this, he collapsed. He awoke to find himself bathed in blood. He had suffered a lung hemorrhage, and for days he was near death. To the doctors, his recovery seemed miraculous; fearful of a relapse, they made him return to his home in Frankfurt, where he was to be confined to his bed for many months.

As he emerged from his illness, young Goethe felt like a different person. He was struck now by two ideas that would remain with him for the rest of his life. First, he had the sensation that he possessed a type of inner spirit that he named his daemon. This spirit was an incarnation of all of his intense, restless, demonic energy. It could turn destructive, as it had done in Leipzig. Or he could master it and channel it into something productive. This energy was so powerful that it made him swing from one mood or idea to the opposite—from spirituality to sensuality, from naïveté to craftiness. This daemon, he decided, was a spirit implanted in him at birth and it encompassed his whole being. How he managed this daemon would determine the length of his life and the success of his endeavors.

Second, coming so close to death at such an early age made him feel the presence of death in his bones, and this feeling stayed with him for weeks after recovering. As he returned to life, he was suddenly struck by the strangeness of being alive—of possessing a heart and lungs and brain that functioned beyond his conscious control. He felt that there was a life force that transcended the individual incarnations of life, a force not from God (Goethe would remain a pagan his entire life), but from nature itself. In his convalescence he would take long walks in the country, and his personal sense of the strangeness of life was transferred to the sight of plants and trees and animals. What force brought them to their present, perfectly adapted states of life? What was the source of the energy that made them grow?

Feeling as if he had been reprieved from a death sentence, he experienced an insatiable curiosity for this life force. An idea came to him for a story based on the famous German legend of a scholar named Faust, who desperately wants to discover the secret of life, and who meets an incarnation of the devil named Mephistopheles who helps him in this quest in exchange for possession of his soul. If ever the restless Faust experiences a moment of contentment and wants nothing more from life, then he is to die and the devil will own his soul. Goethe began to take notes on this drama, and in the dialogues he wrote between the devil and Faust he could hear his own inner voices, his own demonic dualities talking to each other.

Several years later, Goethe began life as a lawyer in Frankfurt. And as before in Leipzig, his daemon seemed to take control of him. He hated the conventional life of a lawyer, and he hated all of the conventions that seemed to dominate social life and to disconnect people from nature. He entertained deeply rebellious thoughts, which he channeled into an epistolary novel—The Sorrows of Young Werther. Although the story was loosely based on people he knew and on a young friend who had committed suicide over a failed romance, most of the ideas in it came from his experiences. The novel promoted the superiority of the emotions, and advocated a return to a life of sensation and to living closer to nature. It was the precursor of the movement that would come to be known throughout Europe as Romanticism, and it created a powerful reaction in Germany and beyond. Overnight, young Goethe became a celebrity. Almost everyone read the book. Hundreds of young people committed suicide in imitation of the despairing Werther.

For Goethe, this success surprised and baffled him. Suddenly, he was hobnobbing with the most famous writers of his time. Slowly, the daemon reared its ugly head. He gave himself up to a life of wine, women, and parties. His moods began to swing wildly back and forth. He felt a rising disgust—at himself and the world he was frequenting. The circle of writers and intellectuals who dominated his social life annoyed him to no end. They were so smug, and their world was as disconnected from reality and nature as that of lawyers. He felt increasingly constricted by his reputation as a sensational writer.

In 1775, a year after the publication of Werther, he received an invitation from the duke of Weimar to stay in his duchy and serve as a personal adviser and minister. The duke was a great admirer of his writing, and was trying to recruit more artists to his rather dull court. For Goethe, however, this was the opportunity he was waiting for. He could say good-bye to the literary world and bury himself in Weimar. He could pour his energies into political work and into science, taming that damnable inner daemon. He accepted the invitation, and except for one later trip to Italy, he would spend the rest of his life in Weimar.

In Weimar Goethe had the idea of trying to modernize the local government, but he quickly realized that the duke was weak and undisciplined and that any attempt at reforming the duchy was doomed. There was too much corruption. And so slowly he poured his energies into his new passion in life, the sciences. He focused on geology, botany, and anatomy. His years of writing poetry and novels were over. He began to collect a large amount of stones, plants, and bones that he could study in his house at all hours. And as he looked deeply into these sciences, he began to see strange connections between them. In geology, changes in the earth occur with great slowness, over immensely long periods of time, too slowly to be observed in the span of a single lifetime. Plants are in a continual state of metamorphosis, from the most primitive beginnings of the seed to the flower or tree. All life on the planet is in an ever-present state of development, one life form growing out of another. He began to entertain the radical idea that humans themselves evolved from primitive life forms—that was the way, after all, of nature.

One of the main arguments of the time against such evolutionary theory was the nonexistence of the intermaxillary bone in humans. It exists in all lower animals in the jaw, including primates, but at the time could not be found in the human skull. This was paraded as evidence that man is separate and created by a divine force. Based on his idea that all of nature is interconnected, Goethe could not accept such a hypothesis, and through much research he discovered remnants of the intermaxillary bone in the upper cheekbones of human infants, the ultimate indication of our connection to all other life forms.

His style of science was unconventional for the time. He had the idea that there existed a form of archetypal plant that could be deduced from the shape and development of all plants. In his study of bones, he liked to compare all life forms to see whether there were similarities in the construction of parts such as the vertebral column. He was obsessed with the connections between life forms, the result of his Faustian desire to get at the essence of all life. He felt that phenomena in nature contained the theory of their essence in their own structure, if we could only grasp it with our senses and our minds. Almost all scientists at the time ridiculed his work, but in the decades to follow it was recognized that he had developed perhaps the first real concept of evolution, and his other work was the precursor to such later sciences as morphology and comparative anatomy.

In Weimar, Goethe was a changed man—a sober scientist and thinker. But in 1801 another bout of illness came close to killing him yet again. It took years to recover, but by 1805 he felt his strength returning, and with it a return to sensations he had not experienced since his youth. That year initiated one of the strangest and most amazing periods of productivity in the history of the human mind, stretching from his midfifties to his late sixties. The daemon he had repressed for several decades broke loose once more, but now he had the discipline to channel it into all kinds of work. Poems, novels, and plays came pouring out of him. He took up Faust again, writing most of it in this period. His day was an almost insane medley of different studies—writing in the morning, experiments and scientific observations (which were now expanded to chemistry and meteorology) in the afternoon, discussions with friends about aesthetics, science, and politics in the evening. He seemed to be tireless, and to be going through a second youth.

Goethe had now come to the conclusion that all forms of human knowledge are manifestations of the same life force he had intuited in his near-death experience as a young man. The problem with most people, he felt, is that they build artificial walls around subjects and ideas. The real thinker sees the connections, grasps the essence of the life force operating in every individual instance. Why should any individual stop at poetry, or find art unrelated to science, or narrow his or her intellectual interests? The mind was designed to connect things, like a loom that knits together all of the threads of a fabric. If life exists as an organic whole and cannot be separated into parts without losing a sense of the whole, then thinking should make itself equal to the whole.

Friends and acquaintances noticed a strange phenomenon in this twilight period of Goethe’s life—he loved to talk about the future, decades and centuries ahead. In his Weimar years he had added to his studies, reading many books on economics, history, and political science. Gaining new insights from these readings and adding to them his own reasoning, he loved to predict the tide of historical events, and those who witnessed these predictions were later shocked at his prescience. Years before the French Revolution he had predicted the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, intuiting that it had lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Participating on the German side in battles to overturn the French Revolution, and witnessing the victory of the French civilian army at the battle of Valmy, he exclaimed, “Here and now begins a new historical era; and you can all say you have seen it.” He meant the coming era of democracies and civilian armies.

Now in his seventies, he would tell people that petty nationalism was a dying force and that one day Europe would form a union like the United States, a development he welcomed. He talked excitedly of the United States itself, predicting that it would some day be the great power in the world, its borders slowly expanding to fill the continent. He discussed his belief that a new science of telegraphy would connect the globe, and that people would have access to the latest news by the hour. He called this future “the velocipedic age,” one determined by speed. He was concerned that it could lead to a deadening of the human spirit.

Finally, at the age of eighty-two, he could sense that the end was near, even though his mind was sparking with more ideas than ever before. He said to a friend that it was a shame that he could not live another eighty years—what new discoveries he could make, with all of his accumulated experience! He had been postponing it for years, but now it was time to finally write the ending to Faust itself: the scholar would find a moment of happiness, the devil would take his soul, but divine forces would forgive Faust for his great intellectual ambition, for his relentless quest for knowledge, and would save him from hell—perhaps Goethe’s own judgment on himself.

A few months later, he wrote his friend, the great linguist and educator Wilhelm von Humboldt, the following: “The human organs, by means of practice, training, reflection, success or failure, furtherance or resistance…learn to make the necessary connections unconsciously, the acquired and the intuitive working hand-in-hand, so that a unison results which is the world’s wonder…The world is ruled by bewildered theories of bewildering operations; and nothing is to me more important than, so far as is possible, to turn to the best account what is in me and persists in me, and keep a firm hand upon my idiosyncrasies.” These would be the last words he would write. Within a few days he was dead, at the age of eighty-three.

For Goethe, a turning point came in his life with the great success of The Sorrows of Young Werther. He could not help but be dazzled by his sudden fame. The people around him were clamoring for an encore. He was only twenty-five at the time. For the rest of his life he would deny the public such an encore, and none of his subsequent writings would approach the success of Werther, although in his last years he was recognized as Germany’s great genius. To deny the public what it wanted was an act of tremendous courage. To decline to exploit such fame would mean that it would probably never return. He would have to give up all of that attention. But Goethe felt something within him that was much stronger than the lure of fame. He did not want to be imprisoned by this one book, devoting his life to literature and creating a sensation. And so he chose his own unique and strange path in life, guided by an inner force that he called his daemon—a spirit of restlessness that impelled him to explore beyond literature, to the core of life itself. All that was necessary was to master and channel this spirit, implanted in him at birth.

In the sciences, he followed his unique path, looking for deep patterns in nature. He extended his studies to politics, economics and history. Returning to literature in the last phase of his life, his head now teemed with links between all forms of knowledge. His poetry, novels, and plays were suffused with science, and his scientific investigations were suffused with poetic intuitions. His insights into history were uncanny. His mastery was not over this subject or that one, but in the connections between them, based on decades of deep observation and thinking. Goethe epitomizes what was known in the Renaissance as the Ideal of the Universal Man—a person so steeped in all forms of knowledge that his mind grows closer to the reality of nature itself and sees secrets that are invisible to most people.

Today some might see a person such as Goethe as a quaint relic of the eighteenth century, and his ideal of unifying knowledge as a Romantic dream, but in fact the opposite is the case, and for one simple reason: the design of the human brain—its inherent need to make connections and associations—gives it a will of its own. Although this evolution might take various twists and turns in history, the desire to connect will win out in the end because it is so powerfully a part of our nature and inclination. Aspects of technology now offer unprecedented means to build connections between fields and ideas. The artificial barriers between the arts and the sciences will melt away under the pressure to know and to express our common reality. Our ideas will become closer to nature, more alive and organic. In any way possible, you should strive to be a part of this universalizing process, extending your own knowledge to other branches, further and further out. The rich ideas that will come from such a quest will be their own reward.


The reversal to mastery is to deny its existence or its importance, and therefore the need to strive for it in any way. But such a reversal can only lead to feelings of powerlessness and disappointment. This reversal leads to enslavement to what we shall call the false self.

Your false self is the accumulation of all the voices you have internalized from other people—parents and friends who want you to conform to their ideas of what you should be like and what you should do, as well as societal pressures to adhere to certain values that can easily seduce you. It also includes the voice of your own ego, which constantly tries to protect you from unflattering truths. This self talks to you in clear words, and when it comes to mastery, it says things like, “Mastery is for the geniuses, the exceptionally talented, the freaks of nature. I was simply not born that way.” Or it says, “Mastery is ugly and immoral. It is for those who are ambitious and egotistical. Better to accept my lot in life and to work to help other people instead of enriching myself.” Or it might say, “Success is all luck. Those we call Masters are only people who were at the right place at the right time. I could easily be in their place if I had a lucky break.” Or it might also say, “To work for so long at something that requires so much pain and effort, why bother? Better to enjoy my short life and do what I can to get by.” As you must know by now, these voices do not speak the truth. Mastery is not a question of genetics or luck, but of following your natural inclinations and the deep desire that stirs you from within. Everyone has such inclinations. This desire within you is not motivated by egotism or sheer ambition for power, both of which are emotions that get in the way of mastery. It is instead a deep expression of something natural, something that marked you at birth as unique. In following your inclinations and moving toward mastery, you make a great contribution to society, enriching it with discoveries and insights, and making the most of the diversity in nature and among human society. It is in fact the height of selfishness to merely consume what others create and to retreat into a shell of limited goals and immediate pleasures. Alienating yourself from your inclinations can only lead to pain and disappointment in the long run, and a sense that you have wasted something unique. This pain will be expressed in bitterness and envy, and you will not recognize the true source of your depression.

Your true self does not speak in words or banal phrases. Its voice comes from deep within you, from the substrata of your psyche, from something embedded physically within you. It emanates from your uniqueness, and it communicates through sensations and powerful desires that seem to transcend you. You cannot ultimately understand why you are drawn to certain activities or forms of knowledge. This cannot really be verbalized or explained. It is simply a fact of nature. In following this voice you realize your own potential, and satisfy your deepest longings to create and express your uniqueness. It exists for a purpose, and it is your Life’s Task to bring it to fruition.

Because we think well of ourselves, but nonetheless never suppose ourselves capable of producing a painting like one of Raphael’s or a dramatic scene like one of Shakespeare’s, we convince ourselves that the capacity to do so is quite extraordinarily marvelous, a wholly uncommon accident, or, if we are still religiously inclined, a mercy from on high. Thus our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius: for only if we think of him as being very remote from us, as a miraculum, does he not aggrieve us…. But, aside from these suggestions of our vanity, the activity of the genius seems in no way fundamentally different from the activity of the inventor of machines, the scholar of astronomy or history, the master of tactics. All these activities are explicable if one pictures to oneself people whose thinking is active in one direction, who employ everything as material, who always zealously observe their own inner life and that of others, who perceive everywhere models and incentives, who never tire of combining together the means available to them. Genius too does nothing but learn first how to lay bricks then how to build, and continually seek for material and continually form itself around it. Every activity of man is amazingly complicated, not only that of the genius: but none is a ‘miracle.’


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