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Six Topics, Twelve Quotes

Allow me to demonstrate with twelve quotes, two quotes for each of six topics of general interest, why I think this educational theory has promise. I often paraphrase the quotes and add some commentary. My demonstration takes about ten minutes, not counting interjections and devil’s advocacy—which, I hasten to add, are more than welcome.

Starting with the topic of happiness the first quote is from Charles Kingsley, a Victorian who died in 1875. It begins:

“We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life. . .”

Comfort and luxury is a rather short list, so I’m going to substitute youth, beauty and pleasure, money, power and fame. Pleasure would cover comfort and money would cover luxury. So now we have:

“We act as though youth, beauty and pleasure, money, power and fame were the chief requirements of life when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.”

The companion quote comes from English writer A. C. Benson and I think he drives the point home with this remark:

“I have known some quite good people who were unhappy, but never an interested person who was unhappy.”


The next topic is beauty and pleasure. I’m going to choose pleasure because pleasure, unlike beauty, is readily available. The first quote runs:

“Those who are now pursuing pleasure are not only running away from boredom, but are acutely suffering from it.”

That’s G. K. Chesterton’s summary of a essay he liked by Aldous Huxley. The companion quote contains the all-important precept:

“Instant gratification is bad psychology. Pleasure must be earned because part of its very intensity comes from resistance or self-control. To gratify every impulse immediately destroys this intensity, as the breaking of a dam reduces all water to the same level.”

Everyone ignores that precept to a greater or lesser degree. Whenever you eat out of boredom or look into the fridge to see if there’s anything interesting in there and there isn’t, you’ve broken that precept.


On to emotions and feelings. The first quote is from Don Herold, an American humourist who died in 1966, though there’s no humour in this quote:

“This is the greatest paradox: the emotions cannot be trusted, yet it is they that tell us the most important truths.”

Like the words “love,” “logic,” and “religion,” the words “emotion” and “emotional” are tricky because they get used in all sorts of situations where there is no specific word for the thing which they’re meant to represent. The companion quote may make this clearer. It’s from Chesterton again and the opening phrase may need a bit of explanation. It runs:

“All the settlement and sane government of life. . .”

As a rule, we’re more likely to succeed if we govern our life by consistent principles, hopefully something more inspiring than trying to accumulate as much property as possible. But first we have to settle what those principles are. I think you’ll find that those principles often have their source in instincts or impulses or inspirations, things you wouldn’t necessarily call emotional, although they typically have an emotional component. Keeping this in mind here’s the full quote:

“All the settlement and sane government of life consists in coming to the conclusion that some instincts or impulses or inspirations have authority, and others do not.”

One of the best test cases that I can think of is that of sexual fidelity versus open marriage. You may have an impulse to commit adultery, but you may also have an instinct to remain faithful. Which one has authority? You may say it all depends on your philosophy of marriage. Bertrand Russell and his second wife Dora Black believed in open marriage, and she put her beliefs into practice by having another man’s child. The marriage didn’t survive. Russell wrote in his autobiography:

“In my second marriage I tried to preserve the respect for my wife’s liberty—[by which he meant her sexual liberty]—which I thought my creed demanded. I found however that my capacity for forgiveness and what may be called Christian love was not equal to the demands I was making on it. Anyone else could have told me this in advance, but I was blinded by theory.”

The theory, of course, proceeded from the intellect and not from the emotions.

Allow me a second example. My online source claims that the source’s uncle won a “quote of the week contest” for some newsletter with this:

“Love is what we call the situation which occurs when two people who are sexually compatible discover that they can also tolerate one another in various other circumstances.”

Cynical though it is, it seems to me that a good many marriages must have been contracted on that basis. In deciding which principle has authority, sexual fidelity or respect for one’s partner’s sexual freedom, I think one’s answer will depend on whether one falls into the emotional category described by the online source, or into the same category as Hugh Hefner before his first marriage to a certain Mildred Williams. Before the wedding Mildred (who was a Catholic) felt obliged to confess that she had had an affair while he was away in the army. Hefner called the admission “the most devastating moment of my life.” Obviously she didn’t love him as much as he loved her. In any case, his reaction was the normal one, the way anyone would react if they were “in love.” Everyone in love assumes, explicitly or implicitly, that the principle of sexual fidelity takes precedence over the principle of respect for one’s partner’s sexual freedom.


Our fourth topic is Eros with a capital E, the love between the sexes.

With this generalization-resistant topic it’s hard to know which pair of quotes to start with. I’ve decided to go with two cautionary quotes. The first is from M. Scott Peck and he begins with a phrase apologizing for the cynicism that’s about to follow:

“To put it in a rather crass way. . .”

Here’s the full quote:

“To put it in a rather crass way falling in love is a trick that our genes pull on our otherwise perceptive mind to hoodwink or trap us into marriage.”

The quote is cynical because it calls marriage a trap and ignores the fact that for large numbers of people marriage is often the happiest state of life. But cynicism doesn’t make a statement false. Sometimes marriage is a trap. The sentence, “She was trapped in an unhappy marriage,” is almost an idiomatic expression.

The second quote, from C. S. Lewis, makes the same point without the cynicism:

“Eros may unite the most unsuitable partners; many unhappy, and predictably unhappy, marriages were love-matches.”

I think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are a good confirming instance. They were crazy enough about each other to marry twice, failing at it both times. Although it was a love match, failure was almost guaranteed. At the time of their first marriage he was a budding alcoholic while she had tons of emotional baggage, as well as being high maintenance.


On to boredom:

The first quote is from Eugène Delacroix, a French painter from the first half of the nineteenth century:

“When a thing bores you don’t do it. Don’t pursue a fruitless perfection.”

In using the word “perfection” Delacroix was probably thinking of a painting whose subject didn’t interest him. So why waste time and energy trying to get it just right? I think we can make his precept more general if we replace “perfection” with words like “activity” or “goal” or “ambition.” Here’s the revised version:

“When a thing doesn’t interest you don’t do it. Don’t pursue an unrewarding activity or goal or ambition.”

The companion quote should serve to illustrate. It’s from a former female associate of a prestigious Manhattan law-firm. (Can you imagine how much time and effort and money it took to get her to that point?) This is what she had to say about her work:

“At best it’s tedious, and at worst the tedium will kill you. It deadened my senses. I’d go out at lunch and find myself envying people who scooped ice cream for a living. At least they could daydream all day.”

I broke Delacroix’s precept by pursuing an ambition to play the guitar when I didn’t have much talent (here’s a far worse case than me: The man, the guitar, the awful truth). I played well enough to please family members, but not well enough to please myself, especially when I noticed that friends who took up the guitar about the same time progressed much faster than I did. It seemed to come naturally to them.


The last topic is work.

“I would rather be a failure at something that I loved,” said George Burns, “than a success at something that I hated.”

He was speaking out of experience. He and his wife Gracie Allen were extremely successful as a comedy team, but after she retired because of failing health his career went into a slump for about a decade. But he never lost his passion for being an entertainer and his career eventually revived.

Here’s a bonus quote from Burns that shows how important it is to find the work that energizes you and to try and find it as early as possible:

“People have a way of hanging on to what makes them miserable. At least they know what they’ve got.”

But that’s not the companion quote, which is from Bertrand Russell and contains the precept. It’s a bit of a mouthful:

“I think that where it is possible to do work that is satisfactory to a person’s constructive impulses without entirely starving, he will be well advised from the point of view of his own happiness if he chooses it in preference to work much more highly paid but not seeming to him worth doing on its own account.”

I broke that precept by going into engineering without any enthusiasm, other than the feeling that I should go into one of the professions because they had prestige and because I had the academic ability. After five years of engineering the honeymoon, such as it was, was over and eventually I grew to hate it. I endured it for the next twenty odd years by doing as little of it as possible. So, economically as well as emotionally, engineering was the wrong kind of work for me; it simply went against the grain.

For theory click HERE.