A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 5)

My summer reading: Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has;

Martin Luther

As 150 years of literature and poetry make clear, Luther was not the only one worried about the dangers of Reason, the pride of the Enlightenment, with its promise of an endless linear transition from darkness to light.


In Gulliver’s Travels (1762), the protagonist visits Laputa, an island floating mid air. The inhabitants of this island are strange. But perhaps the strangest is that they are ‘pure Platonists’, drifting off into airy, intellectual speculation and forgetting all else.

Odd enough, but even more odd is that shortly before Gulliver’s arrival, the wife of the prime minster took up with a drunken, abusive old footman on the mainland below. The take away seems to be that women, creatures of nature, prefer passion to reason, even when it comes at significant personal cost.

This theme is later addressed by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy in which he explores the inherent tension between two opposing primal forces: (1) the Apollonian (rational) and (2) the Dionysian (irrational). Like a jug holds water, the Apollonian gives form to the Dionysian urge to life. If mankind is to transcend the meaningless of his existence, according to Nietzsche, he must find a way to embrace both as it would see, did Lilliputian women.


In Resolution and Independence (1807), the speaker, roaming the moors, comes upon an old man gathering leeches at a pond. Moved by the old man’s words, the speaker muses about the necessity of facing life with courage, remarkably, a solid Existentialist theme.

Yet as Barrett points out, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this poem is how the leech gatherer is situated in nature, along with the stone and the tree and the moor. This, Barrett reminds us, is not so much about a courageous man in nature but instead of a courageous man embodied in nature.

Is this forerunner for Heidegger’s ideas of being-in-the-world?

Quite possibly, says Barrett, even if such concept may have been furthest from Wordsworth’s thoughts.

Barrett reminds us that according to Heidegger, for man to come to grips with himself, he must first come to grips that he is-in; his being can only be a being-in within the limited confines of the physical environment (stones, trees, moors) in which he lives and the tangible objects (leeches and long grey staffs of shaven wood) with which he interacts.


In Dejection: An Ode (1802), Coleridge explores a very modern mood, feeling cut-off from all that which had once brought him joy and the resulting angst and anxiety.

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,

A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,

Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,

In word, or sign, or tear…


Barrett suggests this is a precursor to the angst and anxiety (‘sickness unto death’) arising in Kierkegaard’s self-reflections. Although Coleridge seemingly reached no conclusion as to how to mend his angst and anxiety, Kierkegaard did. Kierkegaard concluded that to bridge the gaping hole between (1) nothingness/death and the (2) promise of eternal everlasting life, one must ‘take a leap of faith’ and consciously embrace the challenges of life. Good Existentialism stuff!


In Faust (1808), the protagonist is in a melancholy slump. As he’s about to commit suicide, he hears a hymn celebrating the resurrection of Christ. He then takes a walk instead of his own life and upon returning home, he finds a stray dog has followed him. When the dog transforms into Mephistopheles, or the Devil, Faust is offered a deal that he figures he can’t refuse. After contracting to sell his soul to the devil, Faust is transformed from a withered old man into a handsome youth and after a series of adventures, through a contractual loophole known as the Grace of God, gets to heaven instead of hell.

He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still.


The take-away here is that he who tries hard enough in life, can be saved. This, Barrett reminds us, is the same theme with which Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or superman, struggles. It’s through accepting the simple fact that which was evil becomes good and which was good becomes evil, that Übermensch rises like a phoenix, reborn, from the ashes worldly morals.

NOTE: although the protagonist in Faust is redeemed by God’s mercy, Nietzsche’s Übermensch earns his freedom by transcending God.

Dostoevski and Tolstoy

In Notes from the Underground (1864), Dostoevkski’s protagonist, a petty clerk in the Russian bureaucracy, voices indignation at being miserably trapped in a rational utopia, a parody on The Crystal Palace, a celebration of the wonders of the Enlightenment in 19th century England.

In the 20th century, Sartre, Beauvoir and other Parisian Existentialists would echo that same frustration with bourgeois hypocrisy even whilst at the same time belonging to, and benefiting from, it.

In Crime and Punishment (1866), Dostoevski explores the will to power, another Nietzschean theme, even before Nietzsche had considered it.

Dostoevski’s protagonist, an ex-law student living in abject poverty, concludes he has the daring and strength to rise above the moral codes that constrain ordinary men. Putting his ideas to the test, he commits a senseless murder. Overcome by unanticipated guilt, the portagonist progressively deteriorates until at last, in Siberia serving a prison sentence, he realises that happiness cannot be achieved by reasoned plans but instead must be earned by suffering.

Although Nietzsche’s concept of will to power is complex and dense, in essence it runs along the same lines as the ex-law student’s dilemma: happiness grows as one’s personal power increases and although this may feel great, it doesn’t always lead to great results.

In Anna Karenina (1877), Tolstoy addressed an important Existentialist concern that was later taken up by Heidegger and his ideas about being-in-the-world.

Anna’s husband, Karenin, was a thoroughly rational type: dry, officious, and intellectual. But when seized by jealous thoughts about his wife, Karenin ‘felt that he was standing face to face with something illogical and irrational’ and ‘did not know what was to be done.’

This was his undoing; instead of standing face-to-face with that which was ‘illogical and irrational’, he’d been standing face-to-face with life, a reality he did not have the capacity to accept. Truth, Barrett reminds us, is not merely an intellectual exercise but instead, and embodied experience.

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 4)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

As Hellenist reason takes hold of Western culture, Christianity comes on the scene, and with it, new concerns and questions.

Faith vs. Reason

In the first century, Saint Paul, the Apostle, asserted that the faith he preached was foolishness to the Greeks, who demanded ‘wisdom’ (reason). With that, he’d set up a conflict between faith and reason that would prove more thorny than he could have envisioned.

As Barrett notes, over time faith and reason would become irreconcilable polar opposites. Christian faith, Barrett writes, is not only ‘faith beyond reason, but if need be against reason’. Worse, death, the fate of the 40 million that had so discombobulated Forster, Eliot, and Woolf, would become the fulcrum of those polar opposites.

If Jesus could rise from the dead, then faith would overcome the inevitability of death, a wonderful result. But once, as a long line of Christian Existentialist thinkers like Church Father Tertullian (150-225 AD), Saint Augustine (351-430 AD), and Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had argued, people realized that rationally no one (including Jesus) could rise from the dead, then faith would be lost to reason.

The Problem of Evil

In many respects, such concerns of these early Christians remain the bedrock of Existentialism as we know it today. Indeed, it’s arguable that Saint Augustine contributed more to the Existentialist cause than anyone else throughout history. His heart-felt concerns and fears as expressed in his Confessions, brought mankind to a new rung in the philosophical ladder. As would every good Existentialist following him, Augustine was internalizing personal experience. No longer would the question be ‘What is Man’ – the concerns of Plato and Aristotle. Now the question that mattered most was ‘Who am I?”

Saint Augustine also addressed another point crucial to Existentialism – the problem of evil and the negativity it throws into our lives. Augustine dealt this negativity by subsuming it into the goodness of God. But when Nietzsche declared God was dead (and with it faith), mankind was left adrift. What happens next? Barrett suggests that depends on what, in the intervening time, has happened to reason, that polar opposite of faith.

Nietzsche suggests that with the Enlightenment, reason had morphed into science, which – stay tuned – may not turn out to be such a good thing.

Chicken and Egg

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), another early Existentialist, brought to light another key philosophical issue that has plagued Western philosophers for centuries – the relationship between essence (what the thing is) and existence (that the thing is).

In contrast to other thinkers of his time like Scotus, Aquinas concluded that existence must precede essence. As Barrett puts it: ‘Man exists and makes himself to be what he is; his individual essence or nature comes to be out of his existence’.

Given the importance of this, it’s no surprise that the debate continued rage on (behind the scenes) until taken public by the 20th century Existentialists like Heidegger, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir:

  • Beauvoir argues that what it means to be a woman is not organically or metaphysically predetermined (essentialist), but culturally determined (existentialist).
  • Heidegger examined the nature of Being through his construct, Dasein, and concluded that it is not so much existence but instead lack of existence (death) that drives us to our destinies.
  • Sartre concludes that whether or not existence precedes essence in general, it most certainly must be the case with mankind.


As Nietzsche suggested, reason had indeed morphed into science but not everyone – even at the time of the Enlightenment – agreed that science would bring an endless linear transition from darkness to light.

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished being here rather than there, why now rather than then.

Pascal / 17th century French physicist and mathematician

With Pascal, an ardent yet despairing Christian, and a clever scientist to boot, we climb yet another rung on the ladder of Existentialism, as espoused in the 20th century by the likes of Heidegger and Sartre.

But wait – the whole story had not yet unfolded; like Pascal, not everyone was infatuated with the Goddess of Reason and so what comes next? Oh no, not the poets!

(to be continued)

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 3)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

The primary problem which Existentialism has tried to highlight is how little we Westerners understand ourselves, our human nature, and the forces by which our human nature has been formed.

As Barrett points out, those forces divide neatly into two historically influential opposing camps: Hebraism focuses on what’s wrong and Hellenism focuses on what’s right. As Barrett reminds us, it’s all well and good to focus, as did the ancient Greeks, on attaining perfection but there is always something that gets in the way and that something, which we’ve inherited from the ancient Hebrews, is sin.

How does this affect us today?

According to Barrett, this ancient opposition equates to the mind/body split which lies at the very heart of our (Western) core. The ancient Greeks couldn’t deal with the body and the mortality it implies. So they remained solely in their heads to remain in touch with eternity, through, for example, Platonic Forms (i.e. ideas of things that actually exist). By contrast, the ancient Hebrews couldn’t get out of their bodies, no matter how hard they tried. Hence right from the start they were forced to face their mortality which, after that incident with the snake in the Garden of Eden, had became a hard and fast reality.

Where is the balance?

This, Barrett reminds us, brings us to the famous myth of the soul in the Phaedrus: the driver of the chariot, or reason, holds the reins of both the white horses (symbolizing human spirit) and the black horses (symbolizing man’s bodily appetites and desires). The message is clear. If man is to achieve salvation, he must seize control through reason.

Note that this dualistic opposition between black and white is a Western construct. Witness the difference between the Chinese treatment of black and white, Ying and Yang.

According to Barrett, the effect of this left Western society in the position where ‘humanity, the universal, is more real than any individual man’. Existentialists like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have tried to reverse this unfortunate construction but have been hindered, no doubt, by the still lingering effects of original sin.

Sadly, this effects some more than others as Virginia Woolf was quick to point out by referencing ‘Milton’s bogey’ in her famous essay, A Room of One’s Own. In Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, Eve gets double blame for original sin by first allowing herself to be seduced by the snake and then seducing Adam. As the result, at least in the Western world, women have long been considered the intellectual inferior of men. It was this classic injustice that spurred Simone de Beauvoir to pen her own existentialist classic, The Second Sex.

(to be continued)

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 2)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.


Art reflects life and life during the early 20th century rise of Existentialism was fragmented and disjointed, at least it appeared thus based on Western man’s perception of the world, which in turn was based on ancient Greek notions of linearity. This is clearly laid out by Aristotle in his famous work, Poetics: drama (and by extension, life) must have a definable beginning, middle, and end – in that order.

For Western man, disruption of linearity leads inextricably to angst and anxiety. This is precisely what Existentialists like Heidegger (1889-1976) were trying to address.

For Heidegger, ‘time is no longer a reckonable sequence’ but instead ‘an inexhaustible inescapable presence’. In other words, real time, unlike time displayed on clocks and calendars, is primitive, primordial, spooky; real time, as understood by Heidegger, is all that man has and will ever have. Scandalously, sadly, said real time is also shorn from otherwise comforting pre-Reformation notions of eternity.

For Existentialists like Heidegger, real time is the reflection of a reality fraught with angst and anxiety, anxiety and angst that is the natural reaction to disruption within the ‘dense medium’ through which Western man drags himself every single day, the every day medium which is his existence, or Being.

As such, it’s little wonder, Barrett instructs, that early 20th century writers like Woolf, Eliot, and Forster, on the rebound from World War I, the first truly global conflict killing nearly 40 million, experimented with disjointed ideas of linear progression and calendar or clock time.


EM Forster

For example in Howards End, Forster juxtaposed physical manifestations of the old and new; the idyllic countryside (‘untroubled meadows’) is viewed by Mrs Munt from the train on her journey to her house, Howard’s End. She sees it as ‘awakening after a nap of a hundred years’ to such ‘life’ as is conferred by the ‘stench of motor-cars’. But if Mrs Munt was ‘equally indifferent’ to ‘history’ – ‘tragedy’ – the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, Forster was not.

He uses that stinky motor-car as a symbol for death and destruction – Charles (with his fit-for purpose ‘gloves and spectacles’) who virtually becomes his car (his father admonishes – your ‘one idea is to get into a motor’) kills Mr Bast, and the paddock is sacrificed for a garage to house the motor, and the motor-car ‘flattens’ a cat.

But no matter how often characters urge each other to ‘bridge’ the gap (between what is never made precisely clear), for the most part they seem to fail except perhaps through the marriage of Margaret (old order) and Henry Wilcox (new order) – neither of whom (interestingly) drives a ‘motor’!

TS Eliot

But whilst Forster seeks connections, TS Eliot seems to glorify disconnectedness, especially in regards to metaphysical reality; in his poem The Wasteland, there are numerous references to a troubled Christianity. For example, in the section entitled A Game of Chess, a reference to the ‘sylvan scene’ (an allusion to the 4th book of Paradise Lost by John Milton where Satan came in the view of Eden) serves as an appropriate forecast for the immediately following allusion to Philomela who was violently raped by her sister’s husband, Tiresias (who may be equated with Satan). The message would appear to be that all hell is breaking loose in creation.

As each different section of The Wasteland shifts to the next without transition (or sometimes without even obvious links), we get a sense of how frustrated and lost that society must have felt. But unlike Howards End, The Wasteland seems to suggest connections cannot ever be made. In What the Thunder Said, we learn from the poem’s speaker that he will be unable to ‘set my lands in order” because ‘London bridge is falling down’ – and that the ‘fragments’ have been ‘shored against my ruins’.

Virginia Woolf

Whilst both Forster and Eliot draw attention to the problems inherent in making connections in a fragmented reality, Virginia Woolf seems to suggest everything will sort itself out in the natural course of time. For example, in her autobiographical writings, Moments of Being, she states that she personally takes ‘great delight’ in pulling together her own ‘severed parts’ by dredging through memories (perceptions of time) – much in the same way that many of her fictional characters appear to do.

In Mrs Dalloway, the ebb and tide of Clarissa’s day are a jumble of events, places, and people bound together solely by (often disparate and fragmented) memories spanning more than thirty years. Quite how reflections on the ‘most exquisite moment of her whole life’ when she had been kissed by Sally Seton are connected with her own ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, and suspicions’ (conjured up by Lady Bruton having not asked her to lunch) is left to the reader’s (vivid) imagination. But the way they are presented as a given – we sense that Woolf was never in doubt that they were connected.

In Orlando, the only continuity between the hero turned heroine after a four-hundred year romp through history is his/her memories and face. Indeed, memory or personal perceptions of reality, are again here the binding thread – ‘running her needle in and out – up and down – hither and thither’ in a way that clock ‘time’ (which makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality’) can never do.


At the end of the day, all this fuss, literary and otherwise, regarding the disruption of logical linearity is merely a question of perception. There’s a reason, Barrett says, that unlike Western society, Oriental cultures did not give rise to Existentialism. Such cultures do not share the Western preoccupation with linear ordering and so have no need to examine or explain its breakdown.

In other words, the ordered, precise and linear world of Western society is nothing more than a mental construct reinforced by centuries of culture.

Change that construct, and you’re well on the road to resolving ‘angst’ or that deep seated, irrefutable, insatiable anxiety from which 20th century writers like Eliot, Forster, and Woolf and Existentialist philosophers like Heidegger, were suffering.

Might the 20th century efforts of these men and women shed light on the 21st century anxiety and angst which in the aftermath of Covid-19, we are now suffering?

(to be continued)

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 1)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

From the beginning, Barrett reminds us that contrary to popular belief, the groundwork for Existentialism was not laid in the cafes and bars of 20th century Paris but much earlier, with the 16th century Protestant Reformation. With the iconoclasm that accompanied that movement, the psychic underpinnings of man’s here-to-fore meaningful cradle to grave lives was cast adrift. This left man face-to-face with ‘nothingness’, a stark and shocking reality that in the 19th century, both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche made perfectly clear.

Both 20th century secularism and capitalism hastened our demise. By the mid-1950’s, when Barrett was writing, a new car or TV set delivered American men and women more meaning in their lives than ever could God. Onward forges capitalism until we find ourselves devoid of anything tangible to which we can hold except faceless corporations, sprawling factories, and of course, the next pay check.

By this time, it becomes obvious there is nothing left of the pious medievalist, much less classical Greek man. According to Barrett, modern man remains a mere fragment – a bare skeleton, of that long-ago man that as we are told in Genesis, was created by God in His own image. American president Donald Trump with recent his photo-op with the Bible, aptly sums this up for most, it’s not a pretty picture.

This is because with that picture, it becomes abundantly clear that we are an abstraction, at best, of what once we were. What’s worse, because of the inevitability of evolution, we cannot turn the tide. Now the gateway home to paradise, the Garden of Eden, is well and truly closed and locked. It is with this stark realization that we now all enjoy what the Existentialists have coined ‘angst’ or a deep seated, irrefutable, insatiable anxiety.

(to be continued)

Fire and Fury – as astrological assessment whether it’s more fact or fiction…

The official release date for the Fire and Fury, the book that President Trump apparently does not want us to read, was moved forward. We are told this decision was made by the publisher just hours after Trump’s lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter, claiming among other things, libel and breach of confidentiality.

release Fire and Fury.jpgWhat might we learn from the chart?

  1. Jupiter/Mars (17 Scorpio) are closely conjunct in the 9th house, traditionally the house of publishing and the legal system. According to Ebertin, the combination of Jupiter and Mars equates with successful creative activity and a fortunate decision, especially for learned people, jurists, writers, and government officials.
  2. Add to this that Pluto at 18 Capricorn sextiles that Jupiter/Mars, and we have a double dose of Pluto/Scorpio in the mix. According to Ebertin this suggests the ‘right’ (or correct) aim or objective as well as unusual successes. Doubtless, the publishers believe that their objective is ‘right’ although it remains whether others will come to agree. Unusual success? Likewise, time will tell but at the moment, it’s looking good.
  3. But what about the book itself? Is it, as some say, more fiction and fantasy than truth or does is have more substance than some might have us believe? Astrologically, I suggest that for this, we look both to the chart ruler (Saturn and Uranus as Aquarius is rising) and to Venus, the ruler of the 3rd house of communications.
  4. Saturn is very strong in Capricorn and is closely trine to the Moon in Virgo. This combination suggests conscientious attention to detail as well fear of compromise as the result of indiscreet actions. Astrologically, this is not what we’d expect if this book were the stuff of fantasy alone. Instead, this astrological signature is one of carefully researched material, which is responsibly presented with a constant eye on the potential repercussions should it contain information that isn’t at least  supportable, if not actually true.
  5. Uranus (24 Aries) is making a trine to Mercury (22 Sagittarius). This combination suggests astute intuition, intellectual pursuits, fortunate ideas, confidence, and optimism, as well as courage, determination, and sudden success. It’s true that the author and publisher of Fire and Fury stand to gain financially especially given all the attendant media hype. But this astrological signature also suggests that the book itself is something of an intellectual innovation and that it will influence others in unconventional and unexpected ways.
  6. Finally, Venus is in Capricorn. Here, she is neither weak nor strong. But in Capricorn, Venus is circumspect, self-controlled, and operating primarily from a sense of duty.  Venus is also closely conjunct the Sun, which suggests that, in the long-run, this book may benefit Trump (Sun = ruler = president) more than he might now believe.Unknown.jpeg

Summary = this astrological chart suggests that Fire and Fury is more fact than fantasy, at least in the sense that it is well-researched and circumspect. It also suggests that releasing the book early was a clever, and fortuitous move. Yes, it was a power play but one carefully thought out. The book can be expected to achieve something greater than mere financial success and in some sense, that was always its purpose. Interestingly, at the end of the day, this book may actually benefit President Trump.


The Future of Coaching – Vision, Leadership, and Responsibility

This afternoon, I joined the first of four webinars where Hetty Einzig speaks on the future of coaching.

Some of the ideas expressed were music to my ears.

1317552776The primary point, from which all else flows, is that the environment in which coaches practice now is not the same as it was forty years ago. Sports-based coaching models such as T-GROW still have much to offer, but they can no longer be our end game.

Although the implementation of change remains the primary purpose of coaching, it must be accomplished on a whole new level. No longer is it enough to pander to a client’s desires for increased personal performance. As coaches, we must accept that we now have a deeper and wider social responsibility than just catering to a single individual or organisation.

While it is true that the world has always been chaotic and confusing, it is even more so today not the least because technology reinforces this 24/7. If I’m sitting in New York during a terroist attack in Paris, I can experience Paris in real time from the mobile phone footage and the concurrent tweets of others. The resulting increased levels of stress and anxiety from this sense that no place is safe, ignites the need to control my environment.

If unchecked, such an intense focus on control leads to unsustainable levels of increased reporting requirements, accountability, security checks, validations, and authoritarianism. Feelings of lack of control and the unarticulated fear stemming from it, leads to increasingly divisive thinking – we are good and you are bad and so let’s build that wall ASAP!?

Yet this is not our reality. As technology makes our world smaller and smaller, we become more and more (not less) connected with each other. Although we like to believe ourselves to be throughly independent, we are not and can not be. That old adage that no man is an island has never been more true.

The great thing about coaching is that many of our clients are themselves in positions of tremendous power; movers and shakers, the initiators of change at every level. Instead of standing by the side lines and coaching these powerful men and women on how to become even more powerful, why don’t we partner up with them so as to better a more encompassing, ultimately more important, global  game?

All very well and good, you say, and of course you’re right. Lofty ideals such as were expressed today are for the most part, well… lofty. However, I’m willing to give Hetty the benefit of the doubt at least through the next three webinars.

Stay tuned – more later.

The Glass Bead Game / the ultimate in coaching

One of my favourite novels is The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse. It was published, I think, sometime in the 1940’s. Basically the plot revolves around a utopian community rather like a posh boarding school, where young boys are sent by their wealthy, influential parents to learn that they need to be tomorrow’s leaders. In most cases, at the end of their study, the boys go back out into the world where they become ‘movers and shakers’. However once in a while, a student does so well in his studies that he’s asked to remain at the school and devote his life to playing the Glass Bead Game.

Now, this game isn’t any ordinary game – indeed as readers, we don’t get a detailed sense of what it really entails. However, through the lens of the novel’s hero, Joseph Knecht, we do learn that it requires wide-ranging skills in areas as diverse as science, music, literature, art, history, western philosophy and eastern spiritualty. Interestingly, the game never has a winner – that is not its purpose after all. Best I remember (it was a long time ago when I last read it), the game is meant to push the players to become ‘all that they can be’ – sounds a good deal like coaching and not surprisingly, our hero, Joseph, does undergo a good deal of coaching.

Unknown-1.jpegOnce he’s Magister Ludi (head of the school and master of the game), Joseph’s time and attention becomes so much in demand, that he requires a personal coach to help him manage himself.  Not so unlike the busy CEO of a Fortune Five Hundred, I should think. He needs to manage his emotions, his people skills, time management, etc. etc.

But something goes wrong along the way (as it does in novels). Maybe the coaches weren’t focused enough or Joseph simply loses his way? Anyway, by the novel’s climax Joseph questions his loyalty both to the school and the game and asks to leave. Unfortunately, he failed to realise that he no longer was prepared for life outside his cloistered world – and only several days after attaining his ‘freedom’, he dies of a heart-attack whilst swimming in a cold mountain lake.

When I first read this novel, the thing that struck me was how narrow Joseph’s focus had become over the years – although he was wildly successful at his game, he seemed to be failing at life. Joseph’s situation is not an isolated case. How many times have you seen professionals so focused on performing well in their jobs that their marriages end, their kids hate them, and/or they end up very ill or dead?

In regards to coaching practice, this highlights something that I’ve been concerned about for some time. I take the point that I’m coaching adults – and hence not responsible for setting their goals. But don’t I still have some duty to my client when I clearly see him/her heading down a path that is all too likely to lead to his/her own cold mountain lake?

Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed & What It’s Doing to Us

In the western world, you have a duty of self-improvement – to be authentic, competitive,  thin, attractive, and (among many other things) coiffed and couture.

But did you realise that all the standards to which you aspire are culturally determined, even though you are meant to believe you developed them yourself?
shutterstock_514931104Worse, you’re so intent on becoming the hero/heroine of your own story and (after minor setbacks) living happily ever after, that you fail to question what being ‘happy’ really means. Worst of all, being (or pretending to be) ‘happy’ is so integral to 21st century life that when you realise that you’ve failed in any way, you’re bereft.

After all, isn’t it true that if you fail to achieve your dreams, you have no one else to blame but yourself? Isn’t it true that if you only try hard enough (coaching, self-help books, and/or motivational speakers) you’ll bound to succeed? Isn’t it true that there’s nothing that you can’t accomplish if you set your mind to it?


At least, this is the answer provided by Will Storr, in his recent book, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed & What It’s Doing to Us. According to Storr, the hard, cold reality is that you are imperfect and will stay that way.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t improve yourself. Of course, you can and you should! But it does mean that as long as you keep comparing yourself to an unachievable standard of perfection, you will never be happy. Make no bones about it, the pressure to be perfect (and consequently, happy) is so intense as to make you chronically miserable (or worse).

Power and Promise – Utopian Propaganda & Orwell’s Animal Farm

imagesIn the preface to his Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell says that his reason for writing the novel was to reveal what he believed to be the Soviet myth underlying Socialism – the political and economic model that he wholeheartedly embraced. According to Orwell, nothing had caused greater harm to the Socialist movement in England than that the majority of English people so blithely accepted the ‘lies of totalitarian propaganda’, apparently incapable of assessing the true nature of either the Nazi or Soviet regimes (Orwell, 112).

Propaganda, defined for this essay as ‘opinion management’ (Welch, 3), is oft associated with falsehood and lies, even though in reality, propaganda is ethically neutral (Welch, 17). Much of the ‘bad’ propaganda, like we have come to associate with the likes of Hitler and Stalin, is down to marketing of the utopian dream (Roemer, 103). Perhaps the reason that this type of propaganda gets such bad press is that, etymologically, utopia is both a ‘good place’ that is ‘no place’ (Vieira, 4)? After all, if the utopian dream carries with it both the affirmation of possibility as well as the negation of its fulfilment, then it ought to come as no surprise that attempts to put utopian ideals into practice will fail. But, as Orwell laments, such failure often does come as a surprise, not the least because people did not wish to see coming (Orwell, 111). So if ‘bad’ propaganda aims to sell us the impossible dream then what might we do to get a better grip on it? David Welch (17) suggests that to make more informed decisions about propaganda, we must gain a better understanding of its nature and process. I suggest that in achieving this worthy goal, Orwell’s novel may offer us valuable assistance.

Animal Farm recounts the rise of Soviet communism in the form of an animal fable wherein a democratic coalition of animals urged by Old Major, a prize-winning boar, over-throw their human oppressor, Mr Jones. Old Major kicks off the revolution by singing a catchy song entitled Beasts of England – bringing ‘joyful tidings’ of a ‘golden future time’ when the ‘fruitful fields of England’ shall be ‘trod by beasts alone’. Propaganda works best by reducing shared cultural ideologies and cosmologies – especially in regards to a lost Golden Age – to its lowest common denominator, that which is marketable for mass consumption (Welch, 10). Old Major knew this; he markets his vision of an English Arcadia, a lost utopian pastoral dream, to a mass of animals all too willing to consume this ‘new outlook on life’ (Orwell, 9).

The takeaway point is that propaganda works best when it sharpens and focuses existing trends and beliefs (Welch, 11). It is no accident that Old Major chooses a night when Mr Jones is too drunk to feed the animals to suggest his glorious alternative. By appealing to the animal’s dissatisfaction with their ‘miserable, laborious, and short’ lives when their stomachs are empty (Orwell,3- 5), Old Major not only focuses their generalised complaints on a specific cause but also encourages them to embrace an apparent solution. Old Major also knows that propaganda works best when it focuses on simple, strong, easily identifiable (black and white) emotions such as love/hate (Welch, 8). He directs the animal’s now heightened sense of injustice to its ‘single’ root cause – ‘Man’ – ‘the only really enemy we have’ (Orwell, 4). After this, Old Major has little more to say except to warn the animals that they must never become like Man (Orwell, 6).

The takeaway point here that there must be a meaningful correlation between the inspirational hopes generated by utopian propaganda and the citizens’ everyday reality; get the mix wrong and reader/listener disconnects (Vieira, 8 and Welch, 17). But get the mix right – pitch to a hungry animal that his life is one of ‘misery’ and ‘slavery’, then he will not only connect but connect strongly; the ‘soil of England is fertile’ and the ‘climate is good’, right? Then it only makes sense that such a place is ‘capable of affording food in abundance’, if only the animals put their backs into it. The principal energy of utopia is hope – a reaction to an undesirable present combined with an ardent desire to tackle all impediments to achieve that imagined alternative (Vieira, 6). Yet when, as is inevitable, the alternative itself carries impediments – i.e. there would be no sugar after the Rebellion (Orwell, 10) – then it is imperative to let no one (not even the pigs, who are undeniably ‘brilliant talkers’) brush aside these concerns. Elsewise, a dangerous precedent is set, one that will be difficult if not impossible to reverse, as the animals discover to their dismay. The question of whether or not they would continue to have sugar may not have been key to the future success of Animal Farm but when they later raise more important concerns – i.e. why the pigs should be the only ones to enjoy the best food, apples and milk – they are ever more easily brushed aside. Even though it may not be justifiable the pigs get all the good food – especially when this violates a basic tenet of Animalism – i.e. all animals are equal – these hapless animals quickly find that they have ‘no more to say’ (Orwell, 23).

With any utopia comes issues of power (Pohl, 51). Hence it should come as no surprise that propaganda is often used as an instrument by those wishing to secure or retain power in times of stress and turmoil (Welch, 4). This is most certainly the case in Animal Farm. After Old Major dies, the initial democratic coalition quickly gives way to consolidation of power in the pigs. After all, not only are they more clever than the other animals (they are ‘brilliant talkers’), but they also know how to read. Later, rivalry between Trotsky and Stalin after the death of Lenin is symbolised by the struggle for pre-eminence between two pigs, Snowball (Trotsky) and Napoleon (Stalin). In both cases, historical and fictional, utopian idealism falls by the wayside when the thirst for power rears its ugly head. Yet even though the animals were ‘silent’ and ‘terrified’ when Snowball is viciously expelled from the farm by Napoleon’s dogs (Orwell, 35) for no good reason, they were not yet finished with power plays.

Inherent in most utopias is the need for strict state/government regulation of every aspect of life (Pohl, 51). If each cloud has a silver lining, then each bright, shiny utopia has a ‘dark side’ – flying too high must, eventually, lead to a fall (Vieira, 14). Not only that, but if the citizens themselves are to fly high – maintain those impossible utopian standards, then a rigid set of laws are a must to keep them in line. How else will their ‘unreliable and unstable’ natures be repressed – the most pernicious not which is pride (Pohl, 57). Although forewarned that they might need to sacrifice some of their eggs for the common good, when the hens learn this will mean all of their eggs, they cry ‘murder’ (Orwell, 49); luckily only nine hens die as the result their ‘determined effort to thwart Napoleon’s wishes’. But still, this is not the end. The cruel methods by which Stalin eliminates the rest of his‘enemies’, is parodied by the fallacious confessions and cruel executions of all those whom Napoleon has come to distrust.

Years pass.

Life for everyone but the pigs, deteriorates.

Disillusionment sets in.

Finally, Napoleon invites a human farmer named Mr Pilkington to dinner and declares his intention to ally himself with his human neighbours against the working classes in both the human and animal communities. Worse, Animal Farm must revert back to its original name, Manor Farm. Watching this meeting through the farmhouse window, the common animals are no longer able to tell which are the pigs and which are the human beings – the only warning given to the animals by Old Major having been (sadly) ignored.

The End.

Undoubtedly, the promise of a Paradise on Earth is appealing; all the more because the masses to whom it is being marketed are generally ‘politically apathetic’ yet prone to ‘ideological fanaticism’ (Welch, 10). Undoubtedly, this is the case in Animal Farm. Even after all that has happened, at the end of the day the animals never give up hope – not for ‘even an instant’ do they lose their ‘sense of honour and privilege’ in being members of Animal Farm (Orwell, 85). Yet if they had realised that ideology is only a system of ideas and ideals (OED, n, 1), that ideals exist only in the imagination (OED, adj. 2), and that ideas are only thoughts and suggestions of possible courses of action (OED, n, 1), the animals story might have turned out markedly different. Instead of allowing their opinions to be managed such that they blithely accept utopian propaganda as their blueprint to bliss, they should instead have viewed it as a strategy for evaluating the reality of the present as well as one possible programme for gradual (responsible) change (Vieira, 21).




Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1993.

Pohl, Nicole. ‘Utopianism After More: The Renaissance and Enlightenment’, (51-78). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Roemer, Kenneth M. ‘Paradise transformed: varieties of nineteenth-century utopias’, (79-106). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Vieira, Fatima. ‘The concept of utopia’, (3-27). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Welch, David. ‘Opening Pandora’s Box: Propaganda, Power and Persuasion (3-18). Propaganda, Power and Persuasion: From World War I to WikiLeaks, ed. David Welch. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.