Monday, 30 May 2016

The Body Beautiful - Part 1

As I approach my 200th column for the Straits Times's Mind Your Body supplement, I thought I'd take a trip down Memory Lane and share the first ever one, which was published way back in March 2008.


Beauty takes many forms.  A landscape can be beautiful.  So can a symphony or a poem.  Some people find beauty in ballet or football.  Others discover it in scientific equations or games of chess.
My personal list of heart-achingly beautiful things includes: the night sky; the Australian outback; Kate Bush’s song This Woman’s Work; the mathematical proof that there are an infinite number of prime numbers; and Kate Winslet.

But what is beauty?  What is the mysterious, magical quality that beautiful objects possess?  What common characteristics do beautiful objects share?  This is a fiendishly difficult question.  Philosophers have debated it for thousands of years without finding a definitive answer.
But, nothing daunted, in this and the following two columns I would like to explore one very specific aspect of beauty: namely that of the human form.
The body beautiful
People often say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  By this, they mean that individuals’ perceptions of physical beauty are largely subjective.  But I do not agree.
When very young babies are shown photographs of faces, they prefer to gaze upon those that are conventionally beautiful.  This suggests that there are innate criteria for gauging physical attractiveness.  Furthermore, people from diverse ethnic cultures tend to agree strongly about just how attractive individuals from other populations are.  Again, this suggests that universal criteria are being applied.
Of course, there are some individual and cultural differences.  Take skin-tone, for example.  When I was living in Singapore I was amazed to see face-whitening products on sale in drug-stores.  Here in the UK, people buy fake tan.
Despite these differences, by and large, people share similar ideas about what makes someone beautiful.  The ideal male has a strong, athletic body.  He is tall (but not too tall) with an upright posture.  His features are regular and his skin unblemished.  He has white teeth, bright eyes and lustrous hair.
Evolutionary psychology provides one theory about why we find such features attractive.  Good teeth, bright eyes, lustrous hair and upright stature all denote good health.  A strong, athletic physique implies the ability to hunt and fight well.  So the conventionally beautiful man is the ideal mate.  He is likely to produce healthy offspring and be a good provider.
Any woman who is predisposed to find such men attractive is correspondingly likely to mate with one, and therefore stands a better-than-average chance of passing on her own genetic material to future generations.  Insofar as such predispositions are genetically encoded and inheritable, they will gradually come to predominate among women.
Similar considerations explain men’s preferences for certain physical characteristics in women.
In praise of the body beautiful
To me, this theory of physical attractiveness seems very plausible.  In any case, there is no doubt that we humans take pleasure in faces and bodies of certain types.  In itself, this is no bad thing.  Why should we not take as much delight in shapely figures and handsome faces as we do in other beautiful objects?
And, since beautiful bodies are so attractive, who would not wish to possess one?  Not in the sense of wanting a physically desirable mate (although, clearly, most of us do).  But in the sense of wanting to be handsome or pretty oneself.
All else being equal, I would certainly prefer to be a few inches taller than I am, have whiter teeth and not be plagued by a receding hairline.
But here, a cautionary note is appropriate.  Despite what we may think, good-looks actually do very little to improve our happiness.  It is tempting to think, If only I were better-looking, I would be much happier.  But in fact beautiful people turn out to be scarcely happier than the rest of us.  So perhaps it is wise not to place too much emphasis on how we look.

It is natural for us to want to make progress in key areas of our lives.  So we need not be ashamed of wanting to look healthy, well-groomed and attractive.  But as with so much else in life it is all a matter of balance.  This will be the topic of my next column.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Walking With Plato excerpt in Scottish Herald

With the release of WWP scheduled for later this week, the Scottish Herald have published an excerpt from Chapter 3 in today's Sunday Herald. (link)

It's been pruned back to make it fit the available space, and therefore has a few jumps and starts, and some omissions. But great publicity nonetheless.

I think therefore I ramble: walking the West Highland Way with the great philosophers

THE road between John o’Groats and Inverness is almost unremittingly dull. The Great Glen Way, like the curate’s egg, is good in parts. But the West Highland Way is sublime. It runs 96 miles from Fort William to Milngavie, near Glasgow, through some of the wildest, remotest, and loveliest parts of the Scottish Highlands. It meanders through pastoral landscapes, passes between rugged peaks, stretches across desolate moors, cuts through leafy forests, and runs beside serene lochs.

Our first day’s walk on the West Highland Way took us 13 miles from Fort William to Kinlochleven and it was on this day that I began to think of myself, for the first time, as a walker.
In the early days of JoGLE, I had always found the last few miles of each day to be a dull, painful slog. But now I found them merely dull. The pain wasn’t there any more. Or, if it was, I had become inured to it. As a long-distance walker, I had gone from zero to hero, from bumbling novice to seasoned pro, in just a few short weeks.
Rannoch Moor is a vast wilderness of peat bogs, streams, lochs, and lochans, a 50-square-mile elevated plateau encircled by mountains.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, the narrator, David Balfour, says of Rannoch Moor: “A wearier-looking desert never man saw.” But he was fleeing for his life and dangerously ill at the time. So doubtlessly that coloured his perceptions.
My experience of it was very different. I found it to be a wild and lovely place. Something about it – something to do with its vastness and openness, and its harsh, untamed beauty – seemed to set my soul free.
Generally, in my everyday life, my thoughts writhe and churn inside my head like the proverbial can of worms. But there, on the moor, they seemed to find release. I felt smaller and less important than I usually do, and it was a good feeling.
I recalled that I had felt the same way 20 years previously while walking in the Lake District. I was in my early 30s at the time, and undergoing a crisis of faith. In the middle of it all, I took a fortnight’s camping holiday, alone, in the Lake District.
Each day, I would walk through the countryside and allow my thoughts to wander freely. And slowly, surely, and simply, the knots began to unravel. I began to understand who I was and what kind of person I wanted – needed – to become.
Mostly, it was the solitude that helped me to gain clarity. Solitude, by itself, though, wouldn’t have been enough. It wouldn’t have brought me the stillness and clarity that I needed. The walking was important too. There is something about walking – the steady, unhurried rhythm, the gentle stimulation of heart and lungs, and the pleasant synchronisation of mind and body – that soothes the spirit and frees the mind.
This is especially true of walking in the countryside, where the quiet beauty of the surroundings soothes the spirit still further, and where the wide-open spaces offer still greater freedom to the mind.
I knew nothing about Plato, except that he was an Ancient Greek, and that he was a philosopher. But “philosopher” meant thinker – and that’s what I wanted to be.
It was hard work, and I didn’t understand it all. But it excited me anyway, because it exposed me to a whole new way of trying to understand the world.
Socrates and his companions didn’t just tell each other what to think. They reasoned with one another. They talked, and they listened, and they thought things through. It was the complete opposite of everything I had ever known. And it was brilliant.
For the rest of the week, I carried that battered old copy of the Republic with me, and I walked with Plato. Plato introduced me to philosophy; and philosophy introduced me to Epicurus, Bertrand Russell, William James, Gensei, Hegel, and all of the other great thinkers that have kept me company ever since.
The next stage of the West Highland Way, a 13-mile jaunt through farmland, forests, and riverside paths, from Tyndrum to Inverarnan, passed quickly and pleasantly.
As I walked along, not at all focusing on, but nonetheless enjoying, the varied scenery, I found myself musing on what it is about the countryside that is so soothing to the spirit and so refreshing to the soul. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Or, at any rate, I couldn’t put it into words. I felt that it had something to do with the space, with the openness of the fields and the sky. And I felt that it had something to do with the gentle, almost imperceptible, pace at which things change.
The British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch expressed it far better than I ever could in her beautiful book The Sovereignty Of Good: “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 I suddenly 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.”
Perhaps all of this explains why so many troubled and depressive thinkers have been avid walkers.
Take the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, for example, a man so messed up and brooding and despondent that I consider myself positively cheerful by comparison.
By the age of 21, he had lost his mother and five of his six siblings. He had a religiously melancholic father who viewed these deaths as God’s punishment for the sins of his youth. He suffered physical problems, including a curved spine and – quite possibly – sexual impotence.
As a child he was ridiculed and bullied by his schoolmates, and as an adult he was ridiculed in the Danish press. To cap all of this, he suffered – perhaps unsurprisingly – from severe and chronic anxiety. He wrote in his journal: “The whole of existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation ... Great is my distress, unlimited.”
Mildly depressed people, such as my 30-year-old self, find that walking helps to put their troubles into perspective and to improve their mood; and more severely depressed people, such as Kierkegaard, found that walking helps to make their lives bearable.
Scientific evidence bears this out. Numerous studies have shown a positive link between walking and mental health.
For example, a study reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that walking 30 minutes a day boosted the moods of depressed patients faster than antidepressants.
Another study undertaken at California State University, Long Beach, found that the more people walked each day, the more energetic they felt and the better their mood. And a study undertaken by researchers at the University of Stirling revealed that walking had “a large effect on depression”.
I was fortunate, then, not to be walking for just 30 minutes a day, but to be walking for seven or eight hours a day. And not only that, but also to be walking through some of the wildest, most wide-open, and most inspiring places in Britain.
Small wonder, then, that I was beginning to feel healthier, happier, and more energised than I had felt in a long time.
Extracted from Walking With Plato: A Philosophical Hike Through The British Isles, by Gary Hayden, published by Oneworld, £12.99

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Flowers on the Road to Hell

Here's my latest Straits Times column, published today, 17 May 2016.

“Even on the road to hell, flowers can make you smile.”
I came across this lovely thought recently while reading 365 Dao: Daily Meditations by the Chinese American author and philosopher Deng Ming-Dao.
It had a special resonance for me, because it reminded me of a remarkable experience I once enjoyed.
Joy and self-forgetfulness
Some years ago – perhaps twenty - I went through a prolonged period of stress at work. I felt that I was doing my job badly and that each workday was a humiliating failure.
Back then, my daily walk to work was a heavy-hearted affair, a reluctant trudge to another day of anxious toil. But it wasn’t unremittingly grim. It was punctuated by occasional bursts of joy and self-forgetfulness.
My route took me through a local park, and sometimes a glimpse of morning sunlight filtering through red and gold autumn leaves, or of spring buds bursting forth from the bare branches of trees, would transport me.
My troubles would be forgotten, and the feeling of elation would sometimes stay with me for hours.
Even on the road to hell, flowers made me smile.
The power of beauty
It was a marvellous experience. I have often thought back to it, and wondered at the power of sunlight, leaves and flowers to affect such a swift and radical change in my state of mind.
The nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had a theory about this. It is an interesting theory, and - I think - a very plausible one. It runs along the following lines.
Most of the objects that attract our attention, during our day-to-day lives, do so because they are somehow connected to our will, to our desires. We focus on them because we wish to possess them, or use them, or enjoy them, or perhaps avoid them.
For example, my attention is currently focussed on my laptop because I am using it to write this column, which will enable me to earn some money and (hopefully) capture the interest of you, my reader.
Similarly, the mug of coffee in front of me attracts my attention because I want to drink and enjoy it. And so on.
It is the same for all of us. Most of the time, we view objects primarily in terms of the relationships they bear to ourselves. We view them through the lens of our needs and desires.
But sometimes, when our focus is directed to an object of great beauty, we lose ourselves in contemplation of it. We appreciate it not for what it is in relation to ourselves, but for what it is in itself.
Schopenhauer puts it like this:
“We stop considering the Where, When, Why and Wherefore of things but simply and exclusively consider the What … we devote the entire power of our mind to intuition and immerse ourselves in this entirely, letting the whole of consciousness be filled with peaceful contemplation of the natural object that is directly present, a landscape, a tree, a cliff, a building, or whatever it might be, and … we lose ourselves in this object completely.”
Fleeting beauty
That is precisely what happened to me, all those years ago, on my early-morning walks.
I lost myself in contemplation of sunlight, leaves and buds. I was conscious of them in a way that was unrelated to my will and desires. I had no use for them. I simply appreciated them.
And for as long as long as that experience lasted, I was filled with joy and peace.

In 365 Dao, Deng Ming-Dao expresses it nicely. He writes: “The tenderness of flowers arouses mercy, compassion and understanding. If that beauty is delicate, so much the better. Life itself is fleeting. We should take the time to appreciate beauty in the midst of temporality.”