Reading Rilke


The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), in the bulk of his work explored the journey within, where one learns self-understanding. The importance of solitude formed a recurring theme in many of his poems. Solitude is a personal discipline. For individuals like Rilke, solitude provides a pathway to get at self-understanding via contemplation. Although there are many poems by Rilke that speak to the theme of solitude, I want to focus on one short poem he wrote titled, “I Love the Dark Hours,” from his work, The Book of Hours. Written in his young adult years (his twenties), The Book of Hours became the work for which he was most well-known until he penned Letters to a Young Poet. What might we glean from this little short poem that provides insight into the manner in which Rilke lived his life?

I Love the Dark Hours

I love the dark hours of my being./My mind deepens into them./There I can find, as in old letters,/the days of my life, already lived,/and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open/to another life that’s wide and timeless.


The phrase, dark hours of my being, right out of the gate in the first line of the poem, carries some weighty notions. The word, dark, no doubt, conjures up various meanings for each reader. Typically, the meanings attached to this word refer to experiences which we would rather not endure. Pain, loss, suffering, and struggle come to mind, experiences, while burdensome, bring some type of clarity of understanding, perhaps deepening us on some level. This is certainly the case in the work of St. John of the Cross in Dark Night of the Soul. Most assuredly this theme comes through in Rilke’s poems, and to some degree, such an experience may be a part of what is intended here. In the context of this poem, however, the dark hours of my being refers to something broader. In the fourth line of the poem, the days of my life, already lived, gives a fuller understanding to that which Rilke may be referring. All the days, all the hours, that he has lived remain the chapters of his past. Each day is a living in the light of the present. When tomorrow comes, today becomes yesterday and now resides in the dark of memory. This is not a darkness that cannot be understood, but it is something that must be reclaimed via reflection and memory. Hence, the second line: My mind deepens into them. Rilke analogizes the dark hours as old letters, something that can be reopened, reread, and possibly given new meaning or a better understanding. The old letters are held like a legend. That is, they form a narrative, a story of the writer’s life. And one reflects on these hours so that they are understood, closing the first stanza of the poem.

Once the protagonist of this poem allows his mind to deepen into the dark hours, that historical past already lived, the second stanza speaks to the possible consequence of such deepening. Then the knowing comes. Life continues but built on a deepened rather than a shallow understanding of ones past experiences. Such an understanding provides a foundation so that the protagonist can open to another life that’s wide and timeless.

Rilke’s Timeless Themes

Packed in this short poem are several themes that resound through much of Rilke’s writings. Impermanence, beauty, personal and spiritual development, and the importance of solitude are just a few of the themes important to Rilke, and they make up the threads of this little seven-line poem. Time is a key notion in this poem, composed of past and present. Life moves on – impermanence. What is one to make of a life of mutability? Throughout Rilke’s works, the value of solitude emerges again and again. The poet says his mind deepens into the dark hours of his being. Solitude is a time of contemplation and reflection, experiences that can bring understanding and wisdom to an individual. How has one lived, what has one learned from how he has lived, and where will his understanding take him as the knowing comes. Rilke looks forward to another life, limitless in its opportunities. Implicit in the lines of this poem, however, is the notion that one can open another life, only if one has reflected on life in such a way as to gain understanding on how to move forward. Without the solitude, without the contemplation, the time spent alone with oneself, would such another life, wide and timeless, be possible? I think Rilke would doubt that it could be so.

Rilke’s in the 21st Century

Rilke wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when society began a transition from an agrarian society to a more industrialized and urbanized one. His poems addressed the need to find that time and place to slow down, to note the experiences of nature, and to develop self-understanding rather than losing oneself in the maddening crowd. It is the aged-old challenge to know oneself. In this information age and its global pace, might Rilke have something to say to us today? I believe most people would answer that affirmatively. Yet in the age of groupthink, the desire to escape the crowd is more than frowned upon; it’s suspect. Anneli Rufus, Susan Cain, and Dianne Senechal have noted the pressure placed on introverts and designated loners to conform to the rules of the crowd. Extraversion and gregariousness are the symbols of a healthy personality, the standard to which shy individuals should raise themselves. Everyone wants to be the life of the party, for fear if they’re not, then something is wrong with them. Fit in is the rule, or you’re a misfit. Such social conformity may very well lead, not to a discovery, but a loss of one’s identity.

The struggle to know oneself and live out ones beliefs is, and always has been, a difficult task. Yet there’s a snafu here we must avoid. Seeking solitude and contemplating on ones old letters, I believe, is a worthy task. But it cannot become another social rule that people should engage. Perhaps it’s a challenge; however, I’m not sure that such a pursuit should even be offered as a challenge. The Rilkes of the world, and there are others, exist as an example for those who want to pick up the gauntlet they have thrown down for a world draped in global hustle and bustle. It’s one that I believe is worthwhile. There are those who will be drawn to Rilke’s take on life; there are those who will not. The question for the ones who are so drawn becomes: How does the one who seeks solitude, who desires that alone time of reflection and contemplation, and who desires personal development, find peace in a world where social conformity is the rule? That’s a tough task where one also desires to work, pay bills, and have healthy connections. Over the last few years there’s an increase in such tasks as values clarification and self-development. Literature is replete with these themes, particularly in counseling and self-help books. Yet one gets the feeling in reading some of this work that these pursuits are techniques still steeped into a world of groupthink. Camus’ rebel doesn’t seem to have won the day. And I don’t think it needs to win the day. It’s a pathway for those who choose to take it, and in doing so, they need to know the difficulties they will face, the isolation they may experience, and the sense of alienation they may come to know. They need to ask the question: Is it all worth it? The one thing for sure is that it can be worth it only if it’s taken on as a free choice. I don’t want to disparage self-help literature, but the work of personal development is not a a simple formula one can wrap up in seven, ten, twelve, or twenty steps, whatever one might create. The life of getting to know oneself is a way of life, not a series of formulas to take on.


Whereas in his early adult years, Rilke was known for his Book of Hours, he eventually became known for a series of letters he wrote to a young artist who sought him out for advice regarding the life of writing. The letters were collected into a compilation known as Letters to a Young Poet. Throughout the letters, Rilke’s poetic themes emerge in his encouragement of the young writer. Yet Rilke never tells him what to do. He never directly answers his question: Is my writing good? He warns him repeatedly not to place much stock in literary critics, not to write what he thinks others want him to write, but to write from his core, his heart. In order to accomplish such a task, Rilke tells him that he can only write from his core if he in fact knows, as much as possible, his core. Rilke states:

Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple, I must, then build your life in accordance with this necessity. 

None of this is to say that people shouldn’t seek feedback regarding their ideas, plans, and aspirations. This, in fact, is what the young poet did in writing Rilke over a period of time. And Rilke readily responded to his correspondence with many encouragements. He spoke to the young poet about what poets and artists he believed the young man should  read and experience. He encouraged and challenged him on how to find his own way in his writing. But Rilke never compromised his ideas with the young poet, encouraging him to seek solitude, develop his capacities, and moreover to develop his own sense of identity, both as a writer and a human being. In the closing of his first letter to the young poet, Rilke says:

I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.

Read Rilke if his take on things draws you to his letters, prose, and poetry. If not, there are better things for you to do. The life Rilke talks about is one for the choosing, not one chosen out of dictates from others. It’s a struggle that people have chosen to take on with various and sundry results. It may or may not be the path for you.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/January 14th, 2017


A Way of Living: Wendy McElroy’s The Art of Being Free

Book Review

[McElroy, W. (2012). The Art of Being Free: Politics versus the Everyman and Woman. Baltimore,MD: Laissez-Faire Books.]


As a person who is anti-politics, one thing I seek not to do on this site is write about politics, political events, and politicians. I neither belong to nor support any political party, I do not partake or involve myself in political events, nor contribute to political campaigns. I hold politics in disdain and, for the most part, to be antithetical to life. Rather than serving life, politics and politicians intrude upon and impede living on most levels. So this essay is the closest I’ll come to any political discussion. However, who I am discussing and her work that I’m reviewing are perfect for my purposes, which can be gleaned merely by looking at the title of Wendy McElroy’s book, The Art of Being Free: Politics versus Everyman and Woman. Inherent in the title is the idea that politics, rather than a necessity, if one wants to live freely, is something to abandon rather than embrace.

The Thrust of McElroy’s The Art of Being Free

Wendy McElroy’s The Art of Being Free is the application of a libertarian manifesto to the problems that people face in their day-to-day struggles in the arenas of politics, economics, and law. [Please note the small-case “l” in libertarian]. It is written for the person who faces those struggles on the streets of everyday living, hence the subtitle of the book: Politics versus Everyman and Woman. McElroy, a confessed Rothbardian, applies anarchical thought to the issues she discusses; however, she is her own thinker, not someone who merely restates what Rothbard advanced. Because the book both addresses the gritty issues of the day and does so in an appeal to the Everyman & Woman on the street, it is an intelligent, yet down-to-earth analysis, as well as an enjoyable read. Isn’t it about time that intelligence is once again defined as a discussion of issues where the rubber meets the road? Such an approach to living is called wisdom. One of the best things that can happen to a discussion about personal liberty is to remove the dialogue from the elitist, pedantic, and the academe, and bring it home to what McElroy describes as the working people. In addition to being a book on ideas, an arena where McElroy displays her passion, The Art of Being Free fulfills its title in addressing the art of living. And the art of living entails living out one’s passion, which, in turn means living as though the State is irrelevant.

Structure of the Book

Theoretical Footing

McElroy divides her work into four sections. Section I provides a “theoretical footing” that forms the thread that holds the work together. One encounters both an intelligent and a passionate love of ideas where McElroy describes her ideological framework within which her various discussions are set. She openly describes her theoretical perspective as classical liberal, libertarian, and radical individualism. Her discussion of Natural Law and natural rights set squarely on the history of ideas as witnessed in the writings of Lysander Spooner, Franz Oppenheimer, Albert Jay Nock, and Murray Rothbard. In classical liberal terms, she distinguishes the State from society and embraces spontaneous order in contrast to social design or social engineering. The right of an individual to his or her self – his or her body – forms her core value by which she examines all other concerns throughout the book.

Practical Application

Section II of McElroy’s work applies her theoretical foundations to the political, social, economic, and legal concerns of the day. These concerns are addressed in terms that everyday working people face as they struggle to carve out their lives for themselves in a free market. How are their businesses and fruits of their labor impacted by taxation and government spending policies? How are their daily lives restricted through mechanisms of social control? And how are their lives changed or devastated by legal sanctions that criminalize actions that would otherwise be considered harmless to others? The section addresses a wide variety of issues and concerns, including workers’ rights, public education , drug laws, issuing of passports, the post office, debtor’s prison, and constant militarism and war. Throughout McElroy’s discussions, the rights of the individual are upheld and her analysis of the State as contrasted to society is unrelenting.

An Historical Excursion

Section III of McElroy’s book provides an interesting historical excursion of ideas from individuals who have impacted the author’s libertarian journey. Moreover, the section highlights one of McElroy’s themes that ideas are not simply abstractions that exist apart from the day-to-day living of the Everyman & Woman. Ideas are not separate from people. And ideas have their impact through the passionate way that people live them out. The biographical sketches that the author produces in this section are both interesting and inspiring. Readers will become familiar with La Boetie, Voltaire, Thoreau, Garrison, and Hoiles. Several questions are addressed through the short discussions of these individuals’ lives. La Boetie addresses the question: Why should people obey unjust laws? Voltaire explores the question of how one navigates the relationship between freedom and tolerance. Although one hears the adage repeatedly that it takes the masses to change, or, you can’t fight city hall, a sketch of William Lloyd Garrison’s work addresses the question as to whether or not one person can truly make a difference. And furthering the theme of the work regarding the art of living, an inspiring discussion of R. C. Hoiles’ stance against the interment of Japanese in America during WW II, calls forth the idea of how an individual’s choice to live excellently might impact other people’s lives and become a shrine of how we should all strive to live out our passions and values. McElroy has a passion for ideas and readings in the history of ideas. And this section displays that passion in a manner that seamlessly fits the overall theme or her work.

Creating a Free Society

Having laid the theoretical foundations and discussed how to apply those foundations along with some historical examples of individuals who lived out ideas of liberty, Section IV deals with the how of bringing about free society. Rather than offering dictates to the masses, McElroy discusses the importance of various grassroots movements taking place in America, ranging from the fathers’ rights movements to advocates for homeschooling, and the growing public concern over the police state and abuse. She calls for us to ask what we can do in our own backyard in combating and eventually abolishing the State. Although as a libertarian, McElroy doesn’t have set rules for how everyone should live, there are some principles on which she stands and calls for us to consider. We must address the question of evil and banality of evil. What do we consider to be evil, and how do we stand against what we consider evil? We must confront the question of whether or not America is now a police state. If so, how did a supposedly free-loving people allow such a phenomenon to come into existence? Additionally, McElroy stands for an all-out abolition of the State as opposed to government by expedience and gradualism. Gradualism will only keep institutions of the State in tact. Because libertarians operate off the non-aggressive axiom, a call for an abolishment of the State is not a call for violent overthrow; but it is a call for individuals to stand against the State. Such actions as boycotts, refusing to support certain institutions financially, and not engaging in the political inanities of the day are some ways that people can diminish the State in their lives. The art of living free is not a project on the collective level, but one we each must strive to carve out in our own day-to-day lives and communities.


Libertarianism is a movement for working people. McElroy’s work stresses the importance of the Everyman & Woman. Her work speaks to me on several levels since I have been associated with academia now for some twenty-odd years. The Art of Being Free, rather than being some inane political rallying point, calls forth the question for me as to how I want to live. Where do I go from here? How do I live out my ideas and passions? I am not sure I can answer that question within the confines of academia. But regardless of where we work, I believe that the questions and concerns raised by Wendy McElroy are both inspiring and challenging. Although we are called to the challenges that life presents, especially today in terms of the State, we are also here to live. So as we face these challenges that power and State thrust upon us, how might each of us take these challenges on, while at the same time choosing to live in spite of the State? The art of living free – The Art of Being Free – is found in living out our passions and values, and living them out, at least from my perspective, as though the State – and politics – are irrelevant to our lives.

[Note: I first came across Wendy McElroy’s writings via her website Since then, I have followed her blog and various writings.]

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D./May 14, 2015



A Journey Through Time and Mind

Book Review

[Kaye, Alysha (2014): The Waiting Room: Published by Alysha Kaye


As I entered the narrative of Alysha Kaye’s The Waiting Room, I was immediately transported to my first viewing of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Steambath, with Tandy’s puzzlement and questions that develop throughout the play of why and how he ended up in a strange steamy room in the first place. And then there were those crazy doors, through which people exited to – well, who knows where? Similar to the ominous steam room in Friedman’s play, in Kaye’s novel people seemed to pop up and appear at a mysterious airport terminal. Likewise, the nonlinear structure of Kaye’s novel was reminiscent of Billy Pilgrim’s experience of coming “unstuck in time”, from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. But the similarities stop there. Alysha Kaye reveals in an interview that her inspiration for her novel came about due to a dream about an airport terminal. So rather than Tandy’s steam bath, Jude finds himself in an airport terminal waiting room, watching people appear and vanish, again through those mind bending side doors that lead us to ponder the destiny of those whose names are called to take their exit. With Friedman and Vonnegut, our questions about life were immersed in the experience of the absurd. But with The Waiting Room, our  hopes rest on a human quest of love, purpose, and meaning.

Love Stories & Philosophical Questions

People might look at me in a quizzical tone when I say romantic love stories can indeed embark upon important philosophical excursions. But why so? We have witnessed such literature from Tess d’urbervilles to The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And does not love itself open up all sorts of questions about our humanity, and, indeed, our raison d’être? Life, death, afterlife, identity, the existence of God, all come under discussion and scrutiny in The Waiting Room. And then there’s the ever-present haunting question: Do the strong passions people feel for living and for others truly matter in determining their destiny? The novel is indeed a journey through time and mindparticularly through the minds of Jude and Nina – and thereby a journey through our own minds as we reflect on the questions raised by these characters through their experiences. And then there is Ruth. Who is this character who appears as an anchor throughout the narrative, and what does she represent? For those readers who enjoy a work written in modernist tones, yet reflecting on traditional human questions, Kaye’s novel will be an enjoyable read indeed. Personally, I enjoy a short-story, novel, or movie that tells its tale in an unusual way. The Waiting Room, for sure, does that. As stated, its nonlinear use of narrative and the mysterious use of setting in the form of an airport terminal as a portal through time establish its mystical-realistic tone. Characters morph in front of our reading eyes, as does the narrative structure that drifts from prose to poetry, as in the exchanges between Alondra and Rosalio. The Waiting Room takes readers on a journey through a unique and creative style.

A Word about Self-Publishing

Recently, I read in another blog that Alysha had been looking at the possibility of having a publisher pick her her novel, but she decided to stay the independent route. Although I would say to anyonedo what is best for you to make a living in this crazy world of writing and publishing, I want to give a hardy hurrah for her decision. I thoroughly believe the future belongs to more independent self-publishers, or at least to those who take avenues counter to traditional publishing houses. I picked up my copy of The Waiting Room here in Austin at Book People. The internet, self-publishing, and alternative ways of getting people’s work out belong to this digital age. And I firmly believe it’s where cutting-edge works will come from, given that many publishing houses prefer formulas, not wanting to take risks. Likewise, even with a publishing house, unless a writer is well-known and popular already, writers still have to do their own marketing. So for sure, order your copy of The Waiting Room online, or find those places where you live that support independent writers and purchase a copy there. And spread the word about this enjoyable read.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/September 14, 2014

THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review

The Edge of Existence


None of us truly desire to face those challenges in life that take us to the edge of existence. If we did, at best we would be naive, at worst, we would be masochists.  Yet, if I were to guess, most of us probably ponder, “what if?”. We read accounts of human beings, like ourselves in most ways, who, not only survive, but come through the most horrifying experiences imaginable, finding meaning, purpose, and a new take or angle on life. Some write autobiographical memoirs of their struggles that, while they inspire us, also strike fear to our core with haunting questions. Could I have survived a Bataan Death March? A Nazi concentration camp? Due to beliefs and convictions I hold, could I endure persecution at the hands of an oppressive power, being stripped of everything for which I had worked? And more importantly, Could I have not only survived it all, but come through it a better person? The existential fact is, most likely, we cannot answer these questions until we, via fortuitous events, face such storms that life may bring. Many people may not desire to read and become acquainted with such historical recollections, believing that it’s some kind of voyeurism into a person’s horror or a  fantastical desire for escapism and adventure at another individual’s expense. Nonetheless, I have a different take. I think such foundational shattering autobiographies can introduce us to the reality that there is a spirit in being human that transcends what we normally might believe it is, in fact, to be human. I don’t dare claim that I have what it takes to survive the atrocities that some people have had to face. Even less would I proclaim that I could have come through such horrific experiences with the inspirational impact that some people indeed displayed. But human beings are storytelling creatures. These stories exist for those of us who care to learn from them.

The Lineup

This essay entails a short overview, an annotated short list if you will, of individuals whose personal stories about uninvited circumstances in their lives that entailed struggles and pain served to inspire countless readers over decades and centuries. The essay, moreover, is an invitation to explore these stories for readers who care to take the time and thought to do so. The lineup includes: 1) Boethius, and his historical work, The Consolation of Philosophy; 2) St. John of the Cross with a look at his inner search through his poem, The Dark Night of the Soul; 3) Victor Frankl, about whom I have written before on this blog; 4) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, via his works, The Gulag Archipelago  and The Oak and the Calf; 5) Prince Helmuth von Moltke, who tells his story through his endearing, Letters to Freya; 6) C. S. Lewis as he grapples with his faith in A Grief Observed; and 7) Vaclav Havel, whose long essay, “The Power of the Powerless” led him from prison to the first presidency of the Czech Republic. There are countless others, no doubt, who have faced the fires of life that tend to bring people back to core principles of how to live. I have chosen these seven whose stories and writings can serve as reminders of what the human spirit can accomplish.

Anicius’s Last Words

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480 -524 A.D.) found himself in a controversy between the Eastern and Western church of the early Middle Ages, a controversy he sought to avoid and even reconcile through some of his writings, known as tractates of theology. Finding himself thrust into the precarious position of a civil servant to the Ostrogoth emperor, Theodoric, Boethius had to walk a tightrope, for which his studies and literary trained mind from the time he was a child had amply prepared him. As a philosopher and a Christian, he hoped to reconcile the theological conflict between Rome and Constantinople through his persuasive writings. Theodoric, on the other hand, welcomed the split between East and West because he wanted free of Rome’s influence and theology, himself being an Arian, which the West viewed as a heretical position. Rather than seeing his civil servant’s writings as serving the emperor, Theodoric accused Boethius of treason and sentenced him to death, which was eventually carried out. Boethius authored The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison, awaiting his execution. The work is an inspiring piece from one who embraces his faith while facing the arbitrary rulings of one who politically holds the power of life and death. The classically trained mind of Boethius shows through in the work, utilizing the dialogical methods of Aristotle and Plato, fused with his Christian values and theological principles. Boethius, in this medieval genre known as consolatio, reconciles his fate via his philosophy and faith, bravely facing his end. Consolation stands as Boethius’s most powerful work, influencing writers and poets throughout the centuries, including Dante, Chaucer, and others. It serves as an example of how the human spirit can soar and embrace a higher purpose and meaning of one’s life in the face of adversity, injustice, and even death.

Juan de Yepes Y Alvarez

Also known as Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591), St. John of the Cross had studied for the priesthood under the tutelage of the Jesuits at the University of Salamanca, eventually entering the Carmelite Order. He met Teresa of Avila, a well-known mystic, who enlisted him to reform the Carmelites. Because of its mystic and ascetic leanings, the traditional Carmelites outlawed the sect that Teresa and John had formed. Because he refused to recant for what he believed were correct spiritual beliefs, John was imprisoned in a windowless cell. Daily he was whipped and fed nothing but bread and water, but he never gave in to his persecutors. Eventually, he escaped, scaling the walls of the prison, finding sanctuary in a nunnery among those who supported him. Regardless of what one thinks about asceticism and mysticism, the conflict between formal theologians and mystics echo through the centuries, not only in the Christian church, but in other religious settings as well. But what is important about Noche obscura del alma (Dark Night of the Soul) is that it evidences how the human spirit can transcend dire circumstances in ways that impact people centuries later. During his imprisonment, de la Cruz wrote some of his finest poetry, and today Dark Night of the Soul is recognized as a portrait and metaphor for those who go through their dark times to emerge on the other side with a deeper purpose and meaning toward life.

The Road from Fascism to Meaning & Purpose

” . . . to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” — Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) lived a long, fruitful, and meaningful life of 92 years. However, there was a moment in his history where he believed his life would be cut tragically short. No doubt, numerous works have described the horrors of Nazism in Germany from 1933 until the end of WW II. But Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is probably one of the handful that has had, and still has, a lasting impact on readers decades later. The book tells his story, not only of his survival in Auschwitz & Dachau, but also of how Frankl emerges on the other side of his experiences with a new outlook for living, and what life is all about. Frankl’s attitude toward his suffering can be described in no other way than awe-inspiring. It’s an account of an experience of which one might say, “I only hope in the most distant manner, that I could come through the dark side as Frankl did, while emerging in the light as he did. Yet, I don’t really want to know if I could.” Frankl would be okay with that sentiment because suffering is not something we search for. Suffering comes, but the meaning in the suffering is where the search begins. Frankl developed his logotherapy based on his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. His message, his attitude toward life, and his passion for living ring loud and true for those who have known him, or have read this and many other of his works. He is another star in the night from whom we can glean many lessons for living.

Writing in the Truth

Since then, all the life that has been given back to me has not been mine in the full sense; it is built around a purpose.”  — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), like the long life of Viktor Frankl, lived just short of 90 years. And like Frankl, at a moment in time, he thought he would not see his 50th birthday. Solzhenitsyn was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer, and according to his personal account, the only explanation he can offer of how he survived the disease involves a miraculous one. But living in the face of non-existence did not stop there. The Russian dissident was sent packing to the Gulag Archipelago for criticizing Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend. Because he survived his bout with cancer, Solzhenitsyn believed he possessed the purpose to write the truth about the Soviet Regime. And he likewise thought he would never know that time in his life that his writings would see the light of day and have an impact on people. But have an impact is an understatement. Solzhenitsyn has now become widely known for such writings as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, August 14, and Cancer Ward. The two works that speak directly to his experiences are, The Gulag Archipelago, a massive multi-volume work that details his thoughts and experiences while in the gulag, and The Oak and the Calf: A Memoir, in which he addresses the power of literature to speak the truth – in his case, the truth about the Soviet Regime. Expelled from Russia in 1974, he lived in America for a number of years, finally returning to Russia 20 years later after the dissolution of the Soviet Regime, to spend his final years back in his homeland. These two works by Solzhenitsyn are not only an inspiring story, his story, but also a call to stand for the truth, and to particularly stand against the injustice of power and oppression. He presents another experience that led one to a higher purpose that is an inspiration and call to us all.

The Security of Beehives

Prince Helmuth James von Moltke (1907-1945), as one can gather from his dates, lived a much shorter life than either Frankl or Solzhenitsyn. Unlike the first two dissidents that survived their horrors, living to tell their story even in more detail, von Moltke did not outlast the wrath of the fascists who imprisoned him for his opposition, condemned him to death, and eventually executed him. Although von Moltke had grown up in a family steeped in military history ( his grandfather had been a general serving under Bismarck), for the most part, he sought peaceful means to oppose Hitler’s regime. Indeed, although he was opposed to and voiced his opposition to the Nazis, he was innocent of a failed coup that several of his friends initiated to overthrow Hitler. Nonetheless, he was convicted of treason, sentenced and shot just before the armistice of WW II. One might say that it was love at first sight for the woman who was to become his wife, Countess Freya von Moltke (1911-2010). He began writing her love letters, as well as other communiques in 1929. Freya saved every letter that her husband wrote her from 1929 to the time of his death in 1945. In addition to being love letters, and how he gained strength knowing of her support, many of the letters, particularly those between 1939-1945 and just before his execution, address his thoughts on Hitler and Nazism. He likewise wrote two letters to hopefully be read later to his young sons at the time, explaining to them why he was imprisoned. In several of those letters, one gleans the principles on which von Moltke appealed to in his reasons for opposing Nazism. Freya preserved the endearing letters from her husband by hiding them in beehives on the family farm. Living a full life of 98 years, Freya experienced seeing her husband’s thoughts put into print when she published many of the letters written between 1939-1945 in the 1980’s. The Kreisau circle, involving Prince and Countess von Moltke and several of their friends and cohorts formed the core of Germans who opposed Nazism. A committed Christian, Moltke came to grips with how important faith was as he faced his final days, and how important were the principles on which he stood in standing against the opposition. Believing with all his fiber that Nazism would indeed fail, he left Europe with a question with which it had to grapple in the post-war era: ” . . . [how might the picture of humanity] be reestablished in the breasts of our fellow citizens?”

From Apologetics to the Crossroads

He is known and beloved by many, especially children, for his Tales of Narnia, and by others for his powerful works of apologetics. He befriended many, regardless of their beliefs, but also was somewhat of a recluse-like scholar who had studied medieval literature, becoming a tutor-instructor, both at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. However, in 1956, C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), found everything he had believed in, hoped for, and written about via his amazing intellect, challenged to the core with the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. He had married Joy for the purpose of providing her and her two children with citizenship in England, but over the course of a short time, the two fell in love, which became the subject of a movie entitled, Shadowlands. Although he had been with Joy for only four years, her loss impacted him deeply, in a way that surprised and shook this man of great intellect, this great apologist of the Christian faith. Consequently, his work, A Grief Observed, is different than any other work he penned. The book is written in the form of a journal that takes readers through Lewis’s doubts and eventually rediscovering of his beliefs, on even a deeper level. Regardless of one’s beliefs, those who have lost a loved one might find much comfort in this book, with the permission to doubt, to be angry, to question, and to stand at the crossroads of everything one might have held sacred.

Living in the Truth

Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) has an interesting list of descriptors that seek to explain all that this man did in his life: playwright, essayist, poet, philosopher, dissident, and politician. He stands on the edge of history, having the privilege of becoming the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993-2003). It was during the Prague Spring (1968) that Havel began his earnest work as a dissident when Russian tanks rolled into and occupied Prague. Being a descendant of a former “bourgeois” family, he was banned from the theater, which allowed him to engage more political activity. His plays were banned in his home country, and he was forbidden by the authorities to leave Czechoslovakia to see plays from other countries. His reputation as a dissident was solidified with the publication of the Charter 77 manifesto, written in response to the imprisonment of a Czech psychedelic band, “Plastic People of the Universe”. Havel attacked their trial, and as a result of his writings and opposition, he experienced multiple stays in prison at the hands of the Soviets. His longest stay in prison covered May 1979 until February 1983. It was during his time in prison that he wrote two important works that were to make his name known as a great philosophical thinker and leader that he was eventually to become, although reluctantly. Taking a page from von Moltke, Havel wrote letters to his wife during his time of imprisonment, that were later published as, Letters to Olga. In addition to these letters that encrypted his thoughts on the totalitarian regime that he opposed, he also penned a lengthy essay, entitled, “The Power of the Powerless”. In this essay, Havel states that the greatest power that people have when facing totalitarian oppression is to live the truth. The regime, because it is a lie, cannot continually stand against the truth. The simple truth regarding the rock band that he supported entailed not just their music or their anti-status quo looks and stance, but the truth that they, for no other reason than arbitrary power, were being denied the expression of their beliefs. Consequently, Havel believed that the greatest power the powerless have in the face of a totalitarian regime is incessantly to return to the core question of, what is the truth? Havel, eventually freed from prison, came to be the respected humanist leader of the Czech Republic for a number of years. His thoughts live on in his plays, poetry, Letters to Olga, and in his philosophical insights from, “The Power of the Powerless.”


It is not difficult to glean the common thread that weaves these seven thinkers and writers together in the history of thought. First of all, they are just that, thinkers and writers. They faced what anyone would consider next to impossible situations with the power of their convictions and mind, utilizing their skill to articulate their beliefs surrounding their ordeals. They each faced the ever-present possibility of annihilation, the edge of existence. Some forestalled that possibility, living long full lives – Juan de la cruz, Frankl, Solzhenitsyn, and Havel; others paid for their convictions with their lives – Boethius, von Moltke. Lewis survived his own ordeal, serving on the front in WW I, but he also survived the doubts that overtook him, following the death of his wife, Joy. As importantly, the individuals we witness here stood on the bedrock principles of their convictions to see them through whatever they had to face. Whether they lived or died, they stood on what they believed to be the truth. And with each of them they held fast to their belief  in the dignity of human beings, and that no one’s dignity should be sacrificed to the lies of oppression and evil. It would appear that the art and skill of living would call us to find those values we hold to be undeniable, commit to them, and live them out. But they must be values that place a premium on the lives of others, as well as ourselves. Each of us faces the edge of existence. Because we are not faced with what we perceive as immediate life-threantening situations, we may believe that we are not face-to-face with such an edge. Simply because we are not challenged by the extreme circumstances these individuals faced does not mean that we should not also clarify our core values by which we are to live. And that those values must exalt the dignity and integrity of what it is to be human. On some level, we must recognize what we believe to be true, and stand on that truth in whatever circumstances we are called to stand.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/July 14, 2014

THE ARTS: Literature




The Highwayman

Book Review

[Pirsig, R. (1984). Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: William Morrow & Co.]

[Key Words: Zen; science; art; Church of Reason; tensions; Chautauqua; Phaedrus; values; highway]


During my life’s journey, over the past few decades, I have read Robert Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at least twice. And by now, people who are familiar with Pirsig’s popular and successful work know that the book is about much more than either Zen or motorcycle maintenance; yet, at the same time, that’s exactly what it is about. This review is not necessarily addressing those who have read, familiarized themselves with, and have admired and been provoked by this book as I do and have. Instead, I hope to pique the interest of those who have not read and know little to nothing about this work. But rather than merely your interest, I also want to prep your thinking cap, angst, and courage to engage this work of literature and a man’s story that will take you on a journey. The highway on which Pirsig, his son, and friends travel is an apt metaphor, for this book is indeed a journey, not only into the depths of a man’s mind, but perhaps into a culture’s mindset, as well as a journey into the world of ideas and the consequences that ideas hold.

What’s in a Title?

A good writer or storyteller possesses the ability to entitle his work. The full title and subtitle of this book is Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. The title itself is thought provoking in that on some level it combines Zen and the mechanical know-how of maintaining motorcycles. Moreover, rather than the science of, or the mechanics of,  or the engineering of  motorcycle maintenance, the title touts the Art of such an endeavor. And then to add to an already interesting juxtaposition of thoughts, somehow, the reader is informed in the subtitle, that the topics of Zen and motorcycle maintenance provide a path of inquiry and exploration into values. Yet this is a well-suited title for this work and the author’s personal experience. And as a reader, you enter that experience, traveling the highway of that inquiry.

An Inquiry into Values

Lessons from life about living life itself come in a variety of packages and experiences. And drawing on centuries of philosophical inquiry, it’s no mere accident that the lessons from Pirsig’s Zen are encountered and reflected upon along a highway; nor is mere academic epistemology at play given that the inquiries into which Pirsig takes us are about what we know, and how we know what we know. And struggles with such questions are not about writing textbooks, but about how one is to understand, value, and live life in its fullness. Along the highway traveled by Pirsig and company, lessons about living come in yet two other forms: in a dialogic form known as Chatauquas, and in the shadowy form of a person from the past, known as Phaedrus. The narrative is propelled by tensions that rise and subside in fortuitous events along the journey, drawn from memory of the dialectic established by the conflict between rationality and the passion for living that defies pure rationality. And through mystic memories from the past, triggered by the journey, Phaedrus waits, still haunting the traveler from the roadways, hallways, and classrooms in the Church of Reason.

Tensions within Existence

If one attends to even a casual reading of the history of thought, one might be struck by the various tensions in existence that different explorers of ideas over the centuries have sought to work out, clarify, and resolve. Some common polarities that come to mind are: idealism and realism, classicism and romanticism, objectivity and subjectivity, rationality and irrationality, transcendence (spirituality) and materialism. These tensions also surface in various fields of endeavor, for example, how science tends to be pitted against art in our culture. They surface, as well, in our take on living. The polarization of the contemplative life versus the active life is a common theme in literature and liturgy. It appears that we are always trying to navigate these polarities to find our place in living. Rather than seeking to rid life of such tensions, one wonders if it is not best to let them be what that are: tensions in living. But Phaedrus, too, struggled with these polarities, and in his desire to integrate and resolve them so as to align with the Church of Reason, he entered upon a highway that few travel.

Conclusion: Enter at Your Own Risk

Is it worth the struggle to engage the question of how each of us is to make sense of life? Are all the questions and explorations worth the trouble, isolation, and pain that may come with the questioning? St. John of the Cross traveled his Dark Night of the Soul before finding rest in God. Boethius discovered his Consolation upon the morning of his execution. Frankl found meaning via the horrific experiences of concentration camps. And Solzhenitsyn found his path for expression in a gulag. Not one of us desires to travel these seemingly extreme paths in order to more fully understand our lives. But such paths were all too real to the people just mentioned. And many more have traveled thus. No doubt, many can go through life without questioning its meaning, and be content to do so. Others cannot. I invite you to travel the highway with Pirsig. You may not like all you encounter there. But then again, the journey might be worth the effort.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/June 14, 2014

THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review

20 Authors Who Have Had an Impact on My Thinking


What a title for an essay. At first, I had planned to focus on 20 books. That being too difficult, I decided on another route: 20 authors. There’s no way I could truly stop at 20 authors either, so I’ll probably throw in some other names along the way. Anyway, suffice it to say that the number 20 in the title of this essay is totally arbitrary. I had to begin and stop somewhere. Moreover, the authors that I discuss here are non-fiction writers. My list would be completely different if I had discussed those fiction prose writers and poets who have impacted my thinking. To construct a list combining fiction and non-fiction writers would be too difficult as well. And given my mental laziness, I like to avoid such difficulties where possible. Having categories for writers helps me do that. The list given here is for this category; of course, there are other categories. And not only is non-fiction the category explicated here, but I also have grouped the authors according to their worldview or other underlying assumptions, adding, in some cases, a subset of authors. Also it’s important that readers understand that I have not provided an ordinal system via the numerical list here from one-to-twenty. It’s simply a nominal list that could take any form under different discussions of these various writers.

The authors who make this list run the gamut of world views: Christian, atheists, agnostics, anarchists, etc. I will state straightforwardly that I am a Christian who found something valuable in all these writers, as well as others like them. What is common among these authors is that they expressly value the importance of worldview and living a life consistent with one’s worldview. Hence, I believe that one of the most important ways we go about the art and skill of living is seeking to clarify and understand our personal worldview and living it consistently the best we can. That is not an easy task, nor one that anyone, most likely, does perfectly. Yet these authors explore the imperative of deeply searching out one’s values and seeking to live them out in day-to-day life. There are countless authors I have read who feel the same, and their absence from this list today is not intended as a neglect of the impact they, too, have had on my thinking.

Finally, this essay is a survey or overview of these authors and their writings, touching on how they have influenced my thinking. As such, it is not an in-depth study of either the authors or their writings.

Authors 1 – 3: C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness

As a Christian, these authors helped me realize the importance the world of ideas can have for believers. There are camps within the Christian community, unfortunately, who tend to preach that writings of philosophers, artists, and thinkers in general, are works we should at best be leery of, and at worst not broach at all. These three authors put that legalistic way of thinking to rest for me, placing it in a well-deserved grave. Most people probably know C. S. Lewis from his fiction novels, particularly The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’s impact on me, however, stems from his non-fiction writings, particularly, The Abolition of ManMere Christianity, and A Grief Observed. Through his writings, Lewis evidenced the courage of his convictions that not only was he a Christian, but also he was a thinking one, a human being who had struggles regarding his faith, and one who could discuss his beliefs and values within the world of philosophical ideas. He was known, respected, and admired by many from various walks of life.

Francis Schaeffer crystallized the importance of worldview for me as a Christian, particularly with his works, The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason. Before reading his works, I first attended a conference he held entitled, How Should We Then Live?, a title of one of his other books I read. Schaeffer’s name, particularly in the late 1960’s and throughout the next couple of decades, was well-known by seekers all over the world who were searching for some kind of purpose and meaning in life. These nomads in life would travel to L’Abri, Switzerland to Schaeffer’s cottage in the Swiss Alps and converse with him about various ideas. Even those who disagreed with him highly respected him as courteous, kind, and concerned for their well-being.

Os Guinness in his works, The Dust of Death and The Call, likewise solidified for me, not only the importance of worldview as a Christian, but the importance of personally seeking out one’s relationship with a personal God. The sweeping panorama of The Dust of Death regarding the 1960’s and its aftermath still remains a turning point for someone like me, who grew up during those times. Presently, I’m finishing one of his more recent works, The Long Journey Home, regarding different worldviews’ responses to the reality of evil.

A subset within this first category of authors would includes such writers as James Sire (The Universe Next Door; Habits of the Mind), Mark Noll (Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), and Dallas Willard and Robert Foster, both who have written on the Christian disciplines.

Authors 4 – 6: Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard

Having travelled too many political inroads over the years, I have reached what I feel to be a resting place, although one still evolving, in anarchism. (Anarchism requires clarification and proper definition, which is not the purpose of this essay.). Suffice it to say that I grew up a traditional conservative without really exploring what that meant. In the late 1960’s, I gravitated with many toward leftist liberalism and a flirtation with Marxism. In the 1980’s, I returned to a more Reganesque conservatism, and eventually to Classical Liberalism and libertarian anarchism. Writers who influenced me along the way were those within the school of Austrian Economics, such as Ludwig von Mises. As an economist, he definitely would be on this list, had I not narrowed it down to 20 names. But the three I have listed here most definitely shaped my thinking toward a proper understanding of anarchism. Simply put, I have come to despise politics altogether; I do not view the political realm as having much of an answer to anything important; and if someone can truly listen to most political speeches these days and not want to vomit, then more power to them.

Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man spoke to my core regarding not only what biography and autobiography should encompass, but also provided a path for living with its basic aim to live, not because of, but in spite of, the State. Although such a way of living is more and more difficult to traverse these days, Nock provides evidence of one possible way of carrying it out. The consummate anarchist, Nock never bent to nor worshipped the State, and chose to live his life via his own path. Although I might not totally agree with every premise he held to, I admire the courage of his convictions and willingness to live consistently by his ideas. His book, Myth of A Guilty Nation, led me to rethink the entire political structure of the State, and particularly the Military Industrial Complex, which I no longer trust.

Frank Chodorov, although an admirer of Nock, cut his own path as a thinker. He expanded on Nock’s thought in The Rise and Fall of Society, in which he contrasts society with the State. Chodorov’s collection of essays, Fugitive Essays, covers a gamut of topics regarding political and social commentary. His work, Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, pretty much sums up my feelings toward the State. His essays and other works provided one more nail in the coffin for Statism from my perspective, turning my thinking toward a more anarchist position. Chodorov, by the way, is an excellent writer, expressing ideas in a clear, straightforward, and concise manner.

Murray Rothbard has written several important works in the area of economics, including a two-volume history of economic thought, and provided an Austrian perspective on the Great Depression in America’s Great Depression. However, it is his work on natural rights and natural law, The Ethics of Liberty, that has influenced me the most. Although I do not agree with every premise he holds, I find him and these other authors to be birds of a common feather with whom I’m comfortable to travel.

A subset of authors who fit well with these three would include Ludwig von Mises (Human Action), Henry Hazlitt (Economics in One Lesson), and H. L. Mencken (various collections of essays).

Authors 7 -8: Jacque Barzun and David Gress

I thoroughly enjoy historical overviews that provide a panoramic view of the history of ideas and philosophical movements. Jacque Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence  is one work that most definitely scratches that itch for me. His magnus opus, covering “500 years of Western Cultural life” is the work of a consummate historian of ideas and cultural critic. More than anything else, this ambitious work shows who we are in the West, emerging from the past 500 years to the present.

David Gress’s From Plato to NATO is a similar work. In today’s academics where the West is criticized along various multicultural lines, Gress argues that the West is a combination of successes of great ideas and failures to live up to those ideas. It is a mistake to try to sum up the West as either a bastion of liberal thought or a horror shop of fascist oppression.

Authors 9 – 10: Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn

A scientist, I am not, but I do enjoy works on the philosophy of science. Several of Karl Popper’s works have piqued my interests, including Conjectures and RefutationsThe Logic of Scientific Discovery, and The Open Society and Its Enemies. I particularly like Popper’s arguments for indeterminism (anti-deterministic) and his interactionist stance on the mind-body question. Above all, I like Popper’s humility regarding our knowledge – that what we don’t know is infinitely greater than what we do know. Some would argue, however, that Popper was not very humble in his interaction and debates with others.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions gave us the much-used – and probably overused – notion of paradigm shift. His work challenged the logical positivist view of science, and some believe he was progenitor to the postmodern critique of science. Both Kuhn and Popper were critics of logical positivism, and Popper, indeed, is known for his critique of the verification factor that defines logical positivism.

A subset of authors within this category would include Imre Lakatos and Michael Feyerbend.

Authors 11- 12: Cal Newport and Robert Greene

Recent readings of So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Newport) and Mastery (Greene) have altered my thinking toward what Newport calls the passion hypothesis. Although I still believe in some sense of a calling toward our work or career, I have come to heavily favor the emphasis that both Newport and Greene place on skills development. Neither author minimizes the place of passion in our lives, but they do impress upon readers the importance that passion about work comes through developing skills at what we do – skills developed over a long period of time involving patience, trial-and-error, and hard work. I have written reviews of both these books here and here on this website.

A subset of authors within this category would include Daniel Pink (Drive), Charles Duhigg (Habit), and Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers).

Authors 13 – 15: Anneli Rufus, Susan Cain, and Diana Senechal

I am a loner. There, I’ve said it! No, seriously. I like being alone, I do not like crowds, and I enjoy quietness. In the DSM (that monstrosity of pathology of every walk of life) we have what is designated as Social Phobia, to let all shy people know that they’re “sick” and they need fixed. Although I do not want to minimize the emotional pain that comes with what is called performance anxiety, and the fact that people want to work through such anxieties, our culture is one that over-values extraversion. What it undervalues or does not understand, it labels as pathological. These three authors speak to that imbalance.

Anneli Rufus (The Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto) addresses her childhood experiences of being labeled different and weird because she was shy, liked being alone, and would rather spend time with herself and her interests than with larger crowds of relatives or friends. She makes a wonderful distinction between a true loner – someone who relishes being alone, and one who is lonely or feels rejected by others.

Susan Cain’s Quiet reflects the problems that introverts and shy people experience in our culture. She emphasizes the problem that those who are introverted or more shy than others tend to be viewed as having something wrong with them. It never enters an extravert’s mind that perhaps many introverts don’t care to change who they are.

Diana Senechal’s The Republic of Noise applies the introvert-extravert problem to education. She highlights the over-emphasis on group learning and groupthink in today’s public schools. These group activities overlook those students who enjoy being alone, study and learn better when they are alone, and are made to feel that something is wrong with them when they would rather work alone.

All three of these books resonated with me and who I am. And when I really feel ornery, I can fall back now on these works and – not necessarily tongue-in-cheek – let people know when they try to involve me in groupthink: Leave me the hell alone, and let me work the way I please – Thank you.

Authors 16 – 17: Viktor Frankl and Albert Camus

There are several existential writers who I enjoy reading and have gleaned much from their works. The philosophy of existentialism, to a large extent, meshes with who I am, although I would place tenets of the philosophy within a theistic framework, which would cause some existentialists to shudder, I’m sure. A couple of writers who heavily influenced me over the years are Viktor Frankl and Albert Camus.

Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a hauntingly triumphant tale of one man’s struggle with the Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz and Dachau. His struggle to find purpose and meaning in these seemingly meaningless and arbitrary events, gave rise to Frankl’s Logotherapy, an approach that helps people find meaning in their suffering. The tale is not only immensely human, given Frankl’s experience, survival, and loss of his family, but it is also inspirational, in that we see a man come through such a bitter experience without becoming embittered himself. I have reviewed this work and the life of Frankl elsewhere on this website, here.

Many readers are most likely familiar with Camus’s novels, The Stranger and The Plague, or perhaps his popular Myth of Sisyphus. The non-fiction work that has endeared me to this writer is his Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. In this work, Camus deals with a variety of topics from fighting in the French underground during Nazi occupation of France, to seeking to negotiate the warring factions connected with the Algerian terrorists activities. I admire Camus, not necessarily for all the basic premises he holds, but because he seeks passionately to be consistent with his philosophy of life. James Sire tells an interesting story regarding Camus and his yearly conversations with a missionary who worked in France every summer. Is it possible that Camus was considering evidence for the Christian faith near his untimely death?

A subset within this category would include authors such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre, along with contemporary therapists such as Irvin Yalom, Rollo May, and Emmy van Deurzen.

Author 18: Wendy McElroy

Wendy is one of those authors who could be easily placed in the group with Nock, Chodorov, and Rothbard. Although she’s influenced by Rothbard and other anarchists, she has cut her own path as a writer, so I consider her separately. I first came to know of Wendy’s writings via her website, Her independent feminism is based on libertarian principles and resonates with my views toward the State.

Her two works, The Art of Being Free and XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography drew me not only to her ideas, but also led me to admire how magnificent of a writer she is. In The Art of Being Free, McElroy establishes her philosophical framework for liberty on a libertarian and anarchist basis. In XXX, she explores the world of pornography via interviews with women who work in the industry, dispelling many of the myths that surround those who work in that arena. Not a connoisseur herself, she nonetheless defends women’s right to work in the industry without criminalization of their activities.

Author 19: F. A. Hayek

F. A. Hayek, too, could easily be considered along with Nock, Chodorov, and Rothbard, and is even more closely aligned with Ludwig von Mises and the school of Austrian Economics. However, like McElroy, Hayek, cut his own path, writing not only about economics and politics, but also exploring such areas as psychology and the philosophy of science. He is not quite the anarchist of the first group or McElroy, but Hayek is an avid defender of freedom. His major work that influenced me was the one by which most people know him, The Road to Serfdom. In this work, Hayek predicted, described, and warned of the encroaching State on the activities of a free society, particularly in form of the Welfare State. It is still a classic read to this day. His works The Sensory Order (psychology) and The Counter-Revolution in Science (philosophy of science) evidence his broad interests and intellect, placing him in similar crowds with Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.

Author 20: Robert Pirsig 

Why Pirsig and Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Simply put, because the work, par excellence, deals with worldview, values, and the struggle to live consistently with what one has concluded about how to live one’s life. The subtitle of the book, “An Inquiry into Values”, is just that, and worth every mile you journey with Pirsig along the way. Today skepticism and relativism have appeared to engulf and undermine the notion of truth. Perhaps we’re in one of those decadent eras that Barzun describes. But Pirsig’s struggle is heroic, honest, and courageous.


As I stated in the “Introduction”, these authors listed here seize the opportunity to explore questions revolving around the art and skill of living, which this website, Contemplations, seeks to do as well. They are writers who have given us their works in the name of searching for the truth. They are 20 authors worth the read, along side those subsets I delineated, as well as many others. All I can encourage one to do is dive in, join the journey, and explore the question: How Should We Then Live? 

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D./April 14, 2014

THE ARTS: Literature

Achieving Mastery in Life

Book Review

[Greene, Robert (2012): Mastery. Viking Press.]

[Key Words: Mastery; Dimensional Mind; apprenticeship; mentor; calling; Life Task; inclinations]


Consider the field of endeavor in which you are presently engaged. Then contemplate these questions. How do you assess your skill level at what you do? Would you claim that you have mastered the work in which you are involved? If not, do you desire to achieve a skill level by which you would be considered a master of your craft? On a further note, contemplate a diverse set of career paths and consider the following question: What common ground might exist among a professional musician, a boxing coach, a fighter pilot, a highly trained linguist, a robotics engineer, a Zen practitioner, and a sculptor, among others? Moreover, what do Lenardo da Vinci, Mozart, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Henry Ford, and Buckminister Fuller have in common? And if we set our mind to it, could we possibly have something in common with them? Robert Greene, in his thought-provoking book, Mastery, sets out to answer such questions. In doing so, as a Classical Studies major and writer who has devoted a lifetime to the study of power, he introduces readers to power’s ultimate manifestation: becoming a master at one’s chosen craft.

The Elusive Nature of Mastery

If we can come to understand, as Greene suggests, what it takes in our lifetime to master our field of endeavor, then why does mastery appear to elude so many of us? The biographies of those who have achieved mastery that Greene explicates ring a clarion bell that such achievement is open to all of us. The strategies toward a lifetime of mastery that he delineates provide a well-lighted path that we can follow. And the keys to mastery that he shares open a secret door for all of us to enter. Yet mastery slips through the fingertips of so many hands seeking to grasp it. Although achieving mastery is simple on one level, its apparent simplicity masquerades its thorny difficulties. And as we read through Greene’s detailed account, both the simplicity and complexity surrounding such achievement become clear.

The Structure of Mastery

Greene’s masterful work (pun intended) paints a thorough and comprehensive portrait of how people have acquired high levels of achievement in their lives. In do doing, he provides a pathway to mastery through six chapters. Each chapter delineates a necessary milestone along the road toward mastering one’s Life Task. Within each of the six chapters, Greene describes in biographical form the struggles that particular individuals endured to find their way to high levels of achievement in their chosen fields. Some of these people are indeed household names, while others may be unknown to most. But one common theme among the biographical details rings clear: mastery is available for any to pursue, whether one is a child protege like Mozart, or one of common intelligence, like Charles Darwin or Freddie Roach. Greene sets out to explode the myth that mastery is attainable only to the gifted, superior, or genius. Mastery can be accomplished by those who set their mind to it. But it requires deep commitment to long, hard work.

In addition to biographical data, each chapter contains what Greene designates as “Keys to Mastery” and “Strategies” for accomplishing the tasks set by each chapter. Finally, each chapter closes with a thematic discussion of what Greene calls “Reversal”. Reversal refers to the difficulties and obstacles that individuals had to overcome on their path toward mastery. Such difficulties may be personal, familial, or social. Once again, Greene explodes the common notion, and sometimes the excuse we may use, that achievement only happens to the highly gifted, privileged, and lucky.

Chapter titles depict the task or goal to be explored that one must navigate toward a life of achievement. In addition to the “Introduction”, Greene sets out six tasks for achieving mastery: 1) Discover Your Calling: The Life Task; 2) Submit to Reality: The Idea of Apprenticeship; 3) Absorb the Master’s Power: The Mentor Dynamic; 4) See People as They Are: Social Intelligence: 5) Awaken the Dimensional Mind: The Creative-Active; and 6) Fuse the Intuitive with the Rational: Mastery. Greene is a realist and addresses the fortuitous events that occur in people’s lives that aid their path toward achieving mastery. But the other side of the coin is that the individual accounts that Greene provides show that they were ready for, recognized, and seized upon any luck that came their way, and put it to use for their betterment.

Navigating the Tasks toward Mastery

As stated above, each chapter provides detailed strategies for how to achieve the six tasks that make up the book’s meat. What Greene finds common among those who achieve mastery is that they follow their inclinations. That is, they discover their Life Task and do not waiver from it regardless of internal or external pressures. Secondly, in pursuing their goals, masters find an apprenticeship that allows them to learn from others who are themselves masters. However, once the apprenticeship is complete, it is equally important for the apprentice to break from the influence of the mentor and move on and surpass the mentor through innovation and creativity. Likewise, those who achieve mastery must develop the ability to measure well their social contexts. Who is good support? Who might be an enemy? How does one navigate the social milieu in which one is immersed? What battles should be fought, and which ones should not be engaged so as not to waste valuable time and creative energy? As one moves past the apprenticeship, the dimensional mind becomes paramount for the person pursuing mastery to engage in active and creative endeavors. The dimensional mind seeks to make connections among diverse experiences and phenomena, broadening one’s perspective, in addition to the detailed perspective that comes through specialization. And finally, the one who achieves mastery synthesizes the intuitive and the rational. Masters tend to intuitively know how to choose, engage, and solve important problems. Masters appear to achieve their goals, conquer problems, and continually accomplish and produce in an effortless manner. However, such apparent ease, rather than being due to magic or genius, is drawn on a bank of countless hours of practice, apprenticeship, and pursuit of endeavors in which masters experience both failure and success.


Between the covers of Robert Greene’s book, Mastery, lies a wealth of information. And it is information that we should take to heart if we desire the fulfillment in life that comes with doing things well, accomplishing tasks that speak to our self-efficacy, and providing the kind of work that contributes to others’ well being. This book review comes on the heels of another review I did of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Both authors sound forth a clarion call for the necessity of developing and building skills, creating the craftsman’s mindset. One important contrast between the authors is Greene’s expressive  belief in a “calling”, or finding one’s Life Task. Such a concept may appear at odds with Newport’s negation of a “passion” that one must find, preceding one’s pursuit of mastery. Greene, however, likens a calling to those inclinations we have; moreover, he emphasizes that calling alone will not help one achieve mastery. Individuals must practice, apprentice, and develop their skills through thousands of hours of endeavor. Mastery provides a thorough study for anyone who wants to engage a field of endeavor and reach, through concerted effort, the level of being a master. I wish Greene would have addressed concerns for us who are older now, and how we can expect to achieve a level of mastery in our lives. However, he does state that although it’s beneficial to begin such quests early in life, the good news is that it’s never too late for anyone who sets his or her mind toward achieving mastery. And regardless of our age, background, or IQ, the path is the same: hard work. The road is clear on the one hand, but full of obstacles that we do not recognize on the other hand. We, along with proteges and geniuses, must travel the road that Greene lays out.

It’s not an easy road. But if it were that easy, there wouldn’t exist those whom we consider masters of their craft.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/March 14, 2014

THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review

Transitions: The World of Work

Book Review 

[Newport, C. (2012). So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Business Plus Press.]

[Key Words: Passion Hypothesis; craftsman mindset; career capital; control; mission; Cal Newport]

[This article marks the second in a series on Transitions I will be developing for this blog. The first essay in this series addressed Age and Retirement. The transition to be explored here involves entering the world of work or transitioning into a new career. The article takes the form of a book review of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I believe what he says in this thought-provoking book is wise counsel for anyone entering the market or transitioning to a new career path.]


In our culture work or career forms a major important aspect of our identity. Likewise, there is no shortage of advice from various career consultants, counselors, and coaches on how to choose a career, how to match one’s personality to a particular job, and how to find fulfillment and happiness in one’s chosen field of endeavor. Many times these discussions focus on personality types, work environments, market niches, and a myriad of other details that can produce information overload for those seeking meaningful work. But rarely do we come across information that emphasizes the importance of job seekers taking stock of the skills they bring to their career quest. One particular work I read recently is an exception: Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Newport’s Thesis: “Skills Trump Passion”

Newport’s work deconstructs a highly accepted and admired myth in our culture that has developed over the past several decades. As though it is wisdom flowing from an oracle, a common truism regarding pursuing a career has remained unchallenged and unquestioned for some time now.  We are told time and again that the only way we will find fulfilling and meaningful work is to follow our passion. Newport designates this idea as the passion hypothesis, which states that people possess a hidden, preexisting passion that they must discover and match to the work world so as to find work they will love. Once we discover our passion, fulfilling work ensues, and we become successful because we have hit upon the work we were meant to do. Newport turns this notion on its head. In order to corral the kind of job we desire, skill development must come first. Fulfilling work, rather than emerging from a given passion, comes from possessing skills and being good at what we do. Newport challenges people, rather than to seek a preexisting passion, to develop skills so as to become good at something. Such skills open the the door to job opportunities not heretofore considered. Good work skills are a springboard into avenues we wouldn’t recognize otherwise without having developed our skills.

We might be tempted to ask: If Newport is right, how do we decide which skills to develop? Many times people fall into modes of work by simply pursuing jobs they need to pay bills, and then discover they are good at performing in certain areas. Other times, we might indeed have an interest, but mere interest in a particular type of work does not mean that we possess the skills to succeed in what we’re interested. If we are interested in a particular field of endeavor, rather than focusing on whether or not it’s a match to some inner passion we possess, we should instead focus on what skills it takes to pursue our field of interest. Then we should develop the skills necessary to excel in that field. Too many people give up on their so-called “passion” because they lacked the skills to carry it out, believing that passion rather than effort would bring about their desired success.

Exploding the “Passion Hypothesis”: Newport’s Four Rules

Rule # 1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, indeed turns common advice regarding the job hunt on its head by challenging what he calls the passion hypothesis. He organizes his thought around his four rules for finding work one loves. Rule # 1 states simply, don’t follow your passion. Within the framework of this rule, he discusses several people who appeared to be products of the passion hypothesis, yet on further investigation, he demonstrates that they obtained their success through a series of tasks by which they developed rare and valuable skills. Likewise, he presented cases where people followed their passion, but lacked the important skills to reach their goals of doing what they love. We might counter – what about those who have followed their passion and succeeded? Newport does not deny that there are cases where a preexisting passion my have served a person well, but he claims that such cases are rare. What is not rare is the necessity of skill development so that people become exceptional at what they do, which, in turn, opens a channel into satisfying and fulfilling endeavors.

Rule # 2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You

If we don’t possess a given passion to which we must match certain work, then what do we do to find work fulfillment? Newport answers with Rule # 2, the core of his book: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You. And how do we accomplish that? It is here where Newport’s discussion resonates strongly with what I believe. We accomplish Rule # 2 the only way it can be accomplished – by developing skills that are valuable to the world of work. Skill development, however, does not come about by wishing for it or discovering hidden jewels within. It comes about through effort. Newport discusses the importance of what he calls the craftsman mindset. People must develop the habits of building their craft. Constructing one’s craft means exploring all the necessary skills required to become, not only good at what one does, but also as accomplished as one possibly can. Skill development not only takes effort, but it also requires time, perhaps mentoring, and hit-and-miss failures that are valuable learning lessons. It is here that we may balk at finding the work we love. We can talk about our passion to accomplish something grand, but when we have to face the time, effort, and hard work that skill development requires, then we find out if we’re willing to do what it takes to accomplish our tasks. Skill-building involves effort and time that is not necessarily fun, and quite frankly can be boring at times. But the payoff comes with the opportunities skills provide. The more skills we develop, the more opportunities we have available. Such skills Newport designates as career capital, which are descriptions of rare and valuable skills one possesses for the working world. This important capital transforms into currency for creating the kind of work we will find fulfilling. Newport is emphatic that the craftsman mindset and career capital are created, not simply discovered as already existing. We must build our skills and create our career capital.

Rules 3 & 4 Build On Rule # 2

Newport’s Rule # 3 & Rule #4 address other characteristics important for  pursuing the kind of work people love. However, they cannot be accomplished without valuable skills and the career capital generated by those skills. In other words, Rule # 2 is foundational to Rules 3 & 4. Rule # 3 speaks to the importance of control for finding work we love. Newport straightforwardly defines control as having a say in what you do and how you do it. He views control as one of the key characteristics of fulfilling work. But it comes about on the basis of our career capital. In other words, we obtain control – purchase it if you will – via the career capital one has built. If we try to obtain control in our work world without a well-developed skill set, we’ll most likely miss the mark. Newport warns his readers about two types of control traps. One trap involves our trying to obtain control without the necessary career capital to pull it off. Risk taking and going for something worthwhile are indeed courageous acts of the will, but wisdom must also accompany courage. Even with a well-developed skill set, control is a risky endeavor with unseen obstacles. A second control trap is laid when we possess solid career capital. It is at this point that companies or corporations may influence us to stay on with them rather than go out on our own so as to gain more control over our work lives. Newport applies a simple rule here: Turn down the promotion. And move on.

A fourth rule that contributes to our creating the work we love is what Newport calls a mission. A mission provides a unifying goal for one’s career. Newport recognizes here that it’s important that people find their work meaningful on some level. However, again, a mission does not preexist; it can only come about via career capital that we have built up so that a mission becomes definable via our knowledge and skill set.

Transitioning into the World of Work

From the counseling perspective, the work world falls primarily into the personal dimension. But as with most endeavors, it can touch, influence, and be influenced by all four dimensions [physical, social, personal, spiritual]. As one who enjoys counseling people who are trying to find their way in the world of work, reading Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, led me to recognize mistakes I have made regarding my own work pursuits, as well as the way I have worked with clients in the past. I too have fallen victim to the passion hypothesis during my life. Yet simultaneously, I recognize how strongly I resonate with Newport’s emphasis on the craftsman mindset. I think it is here where we can answer the question regarding how much effort we’re willing to put into our pursuit of fulfilling work. The rubber meets the road in terms of the amount of time and effort required for skill development. I recognize in myself, as well as my clients, that I would prefer to be at Point A – the top of my game. But the real question is: Am I willing to do what is required to reach Point A? We must become craftsmen.  Before making a major move regarding work and career, we must assess the career capital we presently possess; we must take stock of the skills we lack as well, and begin building them.

There is one important fact we must recognize about Newport’s work. He does not claim that passion about our work is unimportant. He claims that for most of us, rather than preexisting, we develop our passion through becoming skilled at what we do. Secondly, and equally important, Newport is not defining success merely by wealth. Although there may be other questions I have regarding Newport’s thesis, I firmly believe that there is no escaping the need to build one’s craft. The necessity of the craftsman mindset touches on all fields of endeavor – writers, musicians, actors, entrepreneurs, or cognitive scientists. It is equally important that we honestly take stock of the skills we both possess and lack. And in doing so, it’s imperative that we find those people we trust to provide honest, harsh – yet constructive – feedback regarding our work.

Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You is an important work that has reshaped the way I think about the world of work for myself and for my clients. If you haven’t read it yet, pick it up. You will be challenged on several levels.

John V. Jones, Jr. Ph.D., LPC-S/February 14, 2014


THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review