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Posts Tagged ‘biography

“Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburger”*…

 

Know Thyself

An anonymous 17th-century allegorical painting inscribed Nosce te Ipsum (Know thyself)

 

We all know the most famous bit of ancient advice inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: Know thyself. It’s a powerful and daunting recommendation. If you take it seriously, you will begin to push through all of the misconceptions you have, not only about yourself but about human beings generally. You will begin to think deeply about who you really are and who you ought to be. You might start making life-altering decisions, decisions that (if you are right) bring you into harmony with your nature and your circumstances, or (if you are wrong) turn your life into a big mistake. There should be little wonder that this one command is the highest command of all philosophy: follow it like a religious law, and – one way or another – you will be a great philosopher.

But this powerful command is in fact just one of some 147 apophthegmata (pithy words of wisdom) inscribed upon a stone monument at Delphi. It’s not clear where these lesser-known maxims came from. The ancient compiler Stobaeus attributed them to the Seven Sages – wise men of the sixth century BCE, such as Solon and Thales – but maybe they were generated in the same hazy way that all instances of folk wisdom (sticks and stones, stitch in time, etc) are generated, and then set in stone for the benefit of later seekers of wisdom – such as us.

Some of these maxims are, for us, complete nonstarters…

Appraise the advise at “More than ‘know thyself’: on all the other Delphic maxims.”

* variously attributed to Mark Twain, Abbie Hoffman, and Aardvark Magazine

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As we wonder about wisdom, we might send well-worded birthday greetings to Samuel Johnson; he was born on this date in 1709.  A poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer, Johnson’s best-known work was surely  A Dictionary of the English Language, which he published in 1755, after nine years work– and which served as the standard for 150 years (until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary).  But Dr. Johnson, as he was known, is probably best remembered as the subject of what Walter Jackson Bate noted is “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.  A famous aphorist, Johnson was the very opposite of a man he described to Boswell in 1784: “He is not only dull himself, but the cause of dullness in others.”

Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Dr. Johnson

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Written by LW

September 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All we are not stares back at what we are”*…

 

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, “Where’s the self-help section?” She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.

– George Carlin

Napoleon Hill is the most famous conman you’ve probably never heard of. Born into poverty in rural Virginia at the end of the 19th century, Hill went on to write one of the most successful self-help books of the 20th century: Think and Grow Rich. In fact, he helped invent the genre. But it’s the untold story of Hill’s fraudulent business practices, tawdry sex life, and membership in a New York cult that makes him so fascinating…

Modern readers are probably familiar with the 2006 sensation The Secret, but the concepts in that book were essentially plagiarized from Napoleon Hill’s 1937 classic Think and Grow Rich, which has reportedly sold over 15 million copies to date. The big idea in both: The material universe is governed quite directly by our thoughts. If you simply visualize what you want out of life, those things and more will be delivered to you. Especially if those things involve money…

You can see the influence of Hill in everything from the success sermons of Tony Robbins to the crooked business dealings of Trump University. In fact, you can draw a direct line to Donald Trump’s way of thinking through Norman Vincent Peale, an ardent follower of Napoleon Hill. Reverend Peale, author of the 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking, was Donald Trump’s pastor as a child [c.f. here]…

I’m not here to say that there’s nothing to be learned from some of Hill’s writings—especially those that speak of self-confidence, being kind to others, and going the extra mile for something you believe in. But the real story behind Napoleon Hill’s life is long past due…

That fascinating tale in full at “The Untold Story of Napoleon Hill, the Greatest Self-Help Scammer of All Time.”

* W.H. Auden

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As we tell ourselves that we’re OK, we might send speculative birthday greetings to the anti-Hill, Philip Kindred Dick; he was born on this date in 1928.  A novelist, short story writer, essayist and philosopher, Dick published 44 novels and 121 short stories, nearly all in the Science Fiction genre.  While he was recognized only within his field in his lifetime, and lived near poverty for much of his adult life, twelve popular films and TV series have been based on his work since his death in 1982 (including Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, The Adjustment BureauImpostor, and the Netflix series The Man in the High Castle).  In 2005, Time magazine named Ubik one of the hundred greatest English-language novels published since 1923; and in 2007, Dick became the first science fiction writer to be included in The Library of America series.

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“A word after a word after a word is power”*…

 

Sumerian cuneiform tablet

There is evidence dating back to Neolithic times in various parts of the world of people using pictograms—that is, drawing little pictures of objects to represent those objects. They might be scratched in stone, incised into pottery, or carved into bone or shell. Examples have been found in China (at Jiahu in Henan province), in southern Europe (at Vinča in Serbia), in the Indian subcontinent (at Harappa in Pakistan), in Egypt (at Girzeh), in Mesopotamia, and in Central America (near Veracruz in Mexico). The Chinese symbols, dating back to around 6600 BC, are currently believed to be the oldest discovered.

However, most scholars do not class these symbols as “writing.” They do not appear to be capable of communicating complex or abstract ideas. They are pictures, or at most signs—perhaps used for identification, claiming ownership, or as memory aids.

The general consensus in academic circles is that the earliest “true” writing system emerged in Sumeria (modern-day southern Iraq) around 3100 BC, and was fully developed with a substantial body of written texts and literature by around 2600 BC…

More at “Hieroglyphs aren’t words—so which civilization invented the idea of writing?

* Margaret Atwood

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As we ponder prose, we might recall that this is National Biographers Day– celebrated on this date each year to commemorate the anniversary of the first meeting, in 1763, of Dr. Samuel Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell.  Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson is widely claimed to be the greatest biography ever written. 

Boswell (center left) meets Johnson (center right, on chair)

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Written by LW

May 16, 2016 at 1:02 am

“There are 10 kinds of people”…

 

… those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

Turns out that there are many other ways that the world cleaves in two…

From the creator of the afore-featured “Kim Jung-Il looking at things“…

… beaucoup binaries at “2 Kinds of People.”

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As we parse, we might pause to spare a thought for Nancy Mitford; she died on this date in 1973.  Known during most her life as a novelist (e.g., Love in a Cold Climate) and journalist, she is now better remembered as a biographer (Voltaire in LoveMadame de Pompadour, Frederick the Great, and The Sun King).  She and her five sisters– the Mitford Sisters— gave lie to the proposition that there are only two kinds of people in almost any dimension.

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Written by LW

June 30, 2015 at 1:01 am

Speculative biography…

 

At his wonderful site, The Fertile Fact— a literary website that treats famous authors and artists like fictional characters– Rhys Griffiths invites biographers/experts/super-fans to draw on their knowledge and compile a list of five things or aspects of modern life that they think their biographee, were they writing today, might have liked, loathed or otherwise been opinionated. The more far-fetched, the better.

Check out Joan Schenkar on Patricia Highsmith, Robert Zaretsky on Albert Camus, Nicholas Murray on Franz Kafka, and 20 more time travelers (so far) at The Fertile Fact.

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As we wonder how we’d have done in Conan Doyle‘s time or Camus‘, we might send stern birthday greetings to John Milton; he was born on this date in 1608.  A poet (Paradise Lost), polemicist (the Areopagitica), not-so-successful playwright (Comus), and Roundhead civil servant (he had a Secretarial appointment in Cromwell’s Commonwealth), Milton would surely have disapproved of much– if not most– in our modern life.

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Written by LW

December 9, 2013 at 1:01 am

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