Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Introducing Ambition- Why we should strive for moral ambition

Ambition is a dirty word isn’t it? Its gotten a pretty bad press over the years, Shakespeare definitely portrayed ambition a destroyer of our moral compasses and seemed the defining theme in King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet and many more of his works. Some of the more colourful Christian traditions refer to ambition as “The mother of all Heresies”. I think this a little small minded as Shakespeare obviously had aspirations to become a great playwright and the Christian faith demands a great deal of spiritual ambition that they themselves admit is far beyond reach of most human beings. Yet in pursuing their goals they are neither immoral agents nor reaped immoral gain and yet garnered a great deal of happiness from what they achieved.

Ambition gets a rough ride because people assume that in order to get what we want we need to be selfish, or that goals themselves are inherently self-centered. I think for many people this might actually be the case, but if we deconstruct and bring in our old friend self-analysis maybe we can reach a consensus on how might be a little more Shakespeare and a little less Fred Goodwin.

Before I get into the problems facing the modern ambitious animal I think it important to separate ambition into two broad areas 1) What we want 2) How we get it. I think the key to unlocking a guide lays in understanding the Ethics behind what we want. Having immoral goals will not serve us unless we completely kill off our empathy for other human beings, Whereas having moral goals defeats their value if we pursue them through immoral means. A good example is someone who wants to be a doctor to be wealthy, but struggles against those who want to be a doctor for the love of the art of healing. When finally becoming a doctor he maybe wealthy but if hates being around sick people, or is unable to deal with people dying or just finds the job depressing then he may have achieved his ambitions but is unlikely to find happiness there. I think the ideal solution is in reconciling our ambitions with our ethics, to strive to be morally ambitious.

It might sound like lofty idea but if we feel good about what we want and how we choose to pursue it, the motivation we have for it will never be questioned and the results can carry a great emotional reward which is likely to outlive the lifespan of any transient financial success. I think before we get lost on the highway to self-knowledge some signposting will be required to prevent us getting lost along the way.

First I’d like to identify problems of the modern age and how with greater opportunities makes it more difficult to identify what it is we desire and sells us the idea of ‘false ambition’ at almost every turn. I want to look at something that is difficult for us all to accept and that a more pragmatic view of ourselves and our goals and how this is better way of understanding what we are capable of and what we are likely to achieve. This isn’t necessarily a depressing vision and would like to finish reflecting on what we are capable of isn’t static and how personal development increases our capacity to succeed and even don’t we don’t fulfil our ambitions, if we work on being better in what we love doing that in itself carries a great deal of worth.

Part three) Making peace with insecurity

To end this reflection on the importance of experience, if you’ll permit me I’d like to talk a little about myself for a moment. My attempts at writings for public consumption has been a difficult one for me. Initially I wanted to write about politics but felt massively insecure about everything I did. Every article that made it into my notebook eventually got binned because I felt too stupid to tackle the subject matter or felt it had been said before and said better. It wasn’t until I finished on language I really understood where benefits of having a creative outlet lay. We often get caught up, especially those of you currently being victimised by the university system, with an unhealthy obsession with being judged and graded with everything you produce.

My first article was poorly structured, riddled with grammatical errors and almost certainly has been said before and said better. Yet I got a tremendous buzz from writing it for several reasons. Firstly I wrestled and gained a greater understanding of a topic I knew little about, and also got people I know talking about a topic that was important to me. The real pleasure in being creative doesn’t come from what you produce but what changes and develops within yourself when you create it. Insecurity may seem like the obstacle but perhaps striving for security is what led me to bin those articles. Eve Ensler the worlds foremost activist in woman's rights has a very interesting take on insecurity.

“When security is paramount you can’t travel very far or venture too far outside a certain circle. You can’t allow too many conflicting ideas into your mind at one time, as they might confuse you or challenge you. You can’t open yourself to new experiences, new people, and new ways of doing things. They might take you off course.”

I’ve learned that anything worth doing will make me feel insecure, maybe the quest now is to keep writing while embracing insecurity. I never thought writing a simple article on language would make me re-evaluate my relationship with insecurity but here we are in article two talking about it. I now think if complete security was the greatest objective in our lives it would kill all artistic expression as we know it. So I think my experience of insecurity might actually be one worth relating to you. Don’t let doubt cripple your ability to create a record of your experience. Don’t let security be the goal in your life.

The time for this reflection is at its end, but I hope I’ve conveyed that a degree of personal examination will arm us for the uncertain times ahead. That the tools for allowing us to do this with finesse surrounds us in the form of art and that art is accessible to all people of all tastes. Finally I hope my personal experience will help inspire you to create, so that like me you can finally make peace with insecurity.

Part two) Art as an experience and an education

Now that Socrates has given us some advice on the advantages of self reflection, we must look how we might philosophise a little better. I think one way we might gain some insight into living better would be to look at other peoples records of how they choose to live or how they suggested we might live. Luckily we are surrounded by these records, they take the form of the very basis of art.

We all drink a little from the fountain of artistic knowledge, all of you will listen to some music, read some literature or even admire some paintings. We often put up artificial barriers between us and “high art” (a term I find disgusting, or at best inaccurate) believing somewhat naively, that these books are too hard for us to understand, paintings have too much depth or that philosophy is something only discussed by the intellectual elite. One thing we tend to lack is the motivation to engage with art considering it something that belongs to other people or something beyond our capacity to understand. I don’t know when we became so afraid of art or became so inadequate with ourselves but here we are many of us are in the height of the information age never observing or discussing art. Marcel Proust had this to say on the importance of art, unfortunately his Opus in search of lost time is 3,700 pages long and he didn’t care much for short sentences-

By art alone we are able to get outside ourselves, to know what another sees of this universe which for him is not ours, the landscapes of which would remain as unknown to us as those of the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are at our disposal, differing more widely from each other than those which roll round the infinite and which, whether their name be Rembrandt or Ver Meer, send us their unique rays many centuries after the hearth from which they emanate is extinguished.

The quote is long but the message is simple- art helps us to see things in a different way. We should come to art with a simple objective to see art as a perspective and attempt use that information to inform our world view. As you read and digest the above statement isn’t interesting that art invites us to lead the examined life that Socrates talks about? Isn’t even more stunning that art gets us outside ourselves to find truer more objective truths in our own lives? I didn’t have to do a massive case study on Proust's childhood, artistic motivations or even attempt advanced criticisms of the text to make sense of his ideas. One of the marks of a great artist is that he makes his ideas blissfully simple to understand. I don’t want to take away from the field of academic investigations into art for their work is important in furthering our understanding of artists and artistic movements but it worth noting an artist almost never creates a piece purely for this purpose. They create because they make a record of the life they lived and offer something of that knowledge to us. We would be fools to let that go to waste.

Of course for different people there is different art. We all have preferences in styles or subject matter but would invite people to perhaps be a little more open minded to the different artistic forms. Our most popular art form by far is music but I often find that music is almost too good an art form to be a truly effective one because invites us to feel rather than think. Music’s emotive quality has one massive benefit, the ability to make us feel a certain way creates environment in which we gain a great commonality with the people we experience it with, and would speculate that might be why its been the great social lubricant since the dawn of time. Modern art is often considered so irrelevant and the Turner prize often the butt of many jokes but don’t use that as an excuse to doom 10,000 years of artistic expression to the intellectual graveyard. Search and find and develop an artistic palette, we’ve never existed in a more connected age so finding art that we can relate to has never been easier.

Our duty to art is to attempt to make it relevant to ourselves, we don’t need a university education to do that in the same way Socrates didn’t need a university degree to be philosopher he just reflected on what people had to say and we should experience art in the same capacity- simply as invitation to reflect on how another person has chosen to live their life. Its doesn’t take a genius to work out if their path was successful or not and with this added perspective we might be able to make better, more informed choices in how we choose to live our own lives.

Art can be the roadmap to leading a better life, I just wish we spent a little more time learning how to read the map and little less time trying to get to our destinations.