All posts by Steve

About Steve

I am an American lawyer currently living in Suzhou, China, where I've come with my wife for her work. I practiced law in Iowa City, Iowa for 29 years before closing my practice in September 2012 to come to India. Since then, I've worked with Mind Merchants LPO of Jaipur helping them primarily with their legal research service, I've now begun to offer my services to other lawyers as a freelance to help with drafting and case preparation needs. I also have blogs about my reading and ideas, as well as one about my travel.

The Master & His Emissary: The Divided Brain & the Making of the Modern World by Iain McGilchrist

This is another cross-post from my personal reading blog, but one that I nonetheless believe pertinent to the topics discussed here. This book addresses how our brains are structured and function and how all of this is reflected in our culture. It’s brilliant and really thought-provoking. It’s all about how we perceive the world around us, which (needless to say?) holds huge implications about how we attempt to persuade others (and ourselves). So, without further preface:

The Master & His Emissary: The Divided Brain & the Making of the Modern World by Iain McGilchrist

  • by Stephen N. Greenleaf
  • April 17, 2014
  • 6 min read
  • original

Growing up in America as a member of the Baby Boom generation, I know that I’ve lived in the best place and the best time in the history of the world—or at least very close to it. Canada, some European countries, Australia, and later Japan can lay some claims to being the best places ever, but suffice it to say that I’ve been lucky. Yet, despite all the material comfort and security that my country and culture have allowed me, there’s still a sense that things aren’t as they should be. The twentieth century is full of contradictions: untold wealth and material prosperity with horrific wars, deep economic depressions, the threat of nuclear annihilation , and a culture that sometimes seems alien to human concerns and that degrades the natural environment. Thus, despite my good fortune, I’ve been sympathetic to critiques of our culture. My introduction to such a critique came from Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter-Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1969), which I was assigned to read in my freshman year in college for my course “Introduction to Political Theory”. From that introduction, I went on to read the likes of Hannah Arendt, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Phillip Rieff, the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, William Irwin Thompson, Wendell Berry, and others. I’ve found resonance with critiques of contemporary Western culture (which has been adopted in many essentials by a large part of Asia as well). I hasten to add that I’m well acquainted and sympathetic to the champions of our contemporary world, too, and as this is also “the best of times”. I appreciate the positive perspective as well.

I mention all this because now I have now encountered a new diagnosis and critique of many of the problems of Western culture that strikes me as uniquely insightful and truly ingenious.

College literature professor turned psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, has written a two-part book about the anatomical split in our brains and how that split in functions affects how we perceive the world and creates our culture. According to McGilchrist, we can consider our culture from the perspective of the different functions of the two different hemispheres of the brain.(For some further background, see my earlier post about McGilchrist’s RSA Animate presentation and the book he wrote as a follow-up to this masterwork under review here.) In the first part of the book, McGilchrist focuses on anatomical and functional details of the brain, with the well-known but often misunderstood division of the left and right hemispheres. The split is not, as first thought, a neat division of language and logic on the left versus vision, music, and feeling on the right. Functions for each of these skills draw on both sides of the brain. However, the brain is divided and is different on each side. In fact, it doesn’t even sit symmetrically within the cranium: it’s torqued (Yanklovian torque) as if twisted it slightly from the bottom so that the right front is slightly larger than its left counterpart, and the left posterior just a bit larger than its right counterpart. This anatomical anomaly, in addition to the fact that the two sides are joined by a bridge, the corpus collosum, that serves as the gatekeeper of the traffic between the two halves, gives some clue to the division of functions within the brain. The gatekeeper often performs its most important work when it inhibits traffic between the two halves. Why? Because each half has its own outlook or way of perceiving the world.

McGilchrist spends much of the book examining the two different ways each side of the brain perceives the world: the right deals with living, dynamic, unique, and context-dependent portions of the environment. The left side deals with (and creates) the static, still, and minutely focused parts of our attention. Each side has evolved to deal with two different needs. The two sides of the brain cooperate, but they their perspectives are largely separate. Thus, language involves both sides of the brain, but the left side, with its emphasis on static and detailed information dominates in vocabulary and syntax issues. Thus, while an impulse toward speech may originate in the right brain, those impulses must pass to the left side to obtain full expression. Here is where stroke victims and the subjects of split-brain surgeries (severing the corpus collosum to alleviate epileptic seizures) provide amazing clues about the differing functions of the two hemispheres. McGilchrist wades through this research to deepen our understanding and appreciation of these issues.

But if the book was only a catalog of “our amazing divided brain!” it would prove interesting but not profound. The profundity and deep value of the book comes from McGilchrist’s ability to trace the effects of this division of the brain into daily life, especially into a portrait of its effect on the formal culture of the West. (He doesn’t address Eastern culture, begging off for a lack of acquaintance.) McGilchrist’s knowledge of Western culture, especially literary and philosophical culture, is impressive. McGilchrist argues that Western culture since the Enlightenment, and especially after the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, has been dominated by a left-brain perspective. It has focused on the static, the manufactured (i.e., not living, not organic), that which we can manipulate and control, and that which pays easily identifiable dividends. The left-side also prefers the literal to the metaphoric and the artificial to the natural. McGilchrist finds this especially true in the 2oth century when examining contemporary literature and philosophy as well as the broader cultural milieu.

McGilchrist finds times in Western cultural history when attitudes, beliefs, and practices, reflecting the two differing perspectives and functions of the brain, were balanced, such as Periclean Athens and the Renaissance. Problems arose early, on the other hand, when the pre-Socratics, such as Heraclitus, with his emphasis on flux and change, were shunted aside by Plato and Aristotle, who preferred the static and “reason” as the ideal. Indeed, from Plato through Kant Western philosophy emphasized the left-hemisphere perspective (with some exception for Spinoza: “Spinoza was one of the few philosophers, apart from Pascal, between Plato and Hegel to have a strong sense of the right-hemisphere world.” McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 3804-3805). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.). In the wider culture, religion offered a good deal of counter-balance to the left-sidedness of philosophy. McGilchrist argues that with Hegel, philosophy begins to take a corrective turn. He writes:

Hegel, along with Heraclitus and Heidegger, has a particular place in the unfolding story of the relationship between the cerebral hemispheres, in that, it seems to me, his philosophy actually tries to express the mind’s intuition of its own structure – if you like, the mind cognising itself. His spirit is like an unseen presence in this book, and it is necessary to devote a few pages to his heroic attempts to articulate, in relation to the structure of the mind or spirit (Geist), what lies almost beyond articulation, even now that we have knowledge of the structure of the brain.

McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 5477-5481). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Along with Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, among German-language philosophers, receive extended and sympathetic treatment (demonstrating that McGilchrist willingly suffers through some dense and challenging prose to retrieve nuggets of insight). Also receiving favorable treatment and consideration are lesser known figures like Husserl, Scheler, and Merleau-Ponty: each gives voice and insight into to the function of the right brain. Finally, McGilchrist considers the American pragmatists John Dewey and William James for their useful perspectives on philosophy and the organic nature of reality.

McGilchrist, following Leon Sass, agrees that modern culture displays many of the traits of schizophrenia. Publisher’s Weekly writes of Sass’s book Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought: “Does the schizophrenic’s chaotic inner world resemble modern art and literature? Sass, a clinical psychologist and Rutgers professor, argues that schizophrenia and modernism display striking affinities: fragmentation, defiance of authority, multiple viewpoints, self-referentiality and rejection of the external world in favor of an omnipotent self or, alternately, a total loss of self. While the parallels he draws often seem superficial, there is much to ponder in Sass’s notion that schizophrenia’s core traits are exaggerations of tendencies fostered by our culture.” As this quote suggests, McGilchrist, following Sass, finds striking resemblances that McGilchrist identifies as a manifestation of a left-brain perspective run awry. Identifying and counter-acting this trend is a defining part of McGilchrist’s project. He writes:

 Is all of this worth the effort? I think so. It’s a very valid and live issue, I believe. How we view our world, what perspectives we take, will change the course of our actions. If we do in fact give predominance to the left-brain perspective, we will reap consequences that will likely back-fire upon us. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we have loosed its magic on the world, but there are grounds to believe that we have lost control. We need the Master, the living world of the right-brain, to come to the rescue.


Emotions: The Dalai Lama & Paul Ekman in Conversation

So how do I justify bringing the Dalai Lama into my blog? Simple. He  and the Buddhist tradition delve deeply into the nature of the emotions. And in this instance, the inquiry is deepened by conversing with American psychologist Paul Ekman, the expert on the facial expression of emotions and on emotions in general. “Okay”, you may say, “but what’s this to do with persuasion or lawyering?” Well, why there are times and places where you may benefit from having a Spock or Sherlock as your lawyer, but most often you’ll want to keep that person holed-up in the back office because they don’t deal well with people. And a good deal of lawyering isn’t about the clever, it’s about the effective. All the IQ in the world only goes so far without EQ.  The ability to understand and monitor the emotions of ourselves and others is a key component of EQ. Frankly, I don’t think that lawyers (or anyone) can get enough of this. Will it ruin the stereotype of lawyers as sharks? No, some will continue that line of conduct. Will it make us all into compliant pacifists?  I don’t think so: EQ can also involve the strategic use of anger or disgust as emotions to exhibit in appropriate circumstances. The question becomes whether we control the emotion or the emotion controls us. Think about this in any persuasive situation, which, knowing your Aristotle, you realize includes pathos.

This is a fascinating book. I recommend it to anyone for its conversational format, relaxed and personal tone, and its intriguing insights into this aspect of our humanity.

Emotional Awareness: A Conversation Between the Dalai Lama & Paul Ekman

  • by Stephen N. Greenleaf
  • 3 min read
  • original

Leading psychologist Paul Ekman received an invitation to a Mind and Life Conference with the Dalai Lama in 2000. He went because he knew it would it please his daughter, an admirer of the Dalai Lama. Ekman himself had no great knowledge of Buddhism and no religious beliefs or practices of his own. What happened as a result of this initial encounter changed Ekman’s life, both personally and professionally. He hit it off with the Dalai Lama, experiencing a warmth and openness that affected him emotionally and that puzzled him as a scientist. And he learned things about the Buddhist tradition that triggered new perspectives and research agendas from him about the emotions and how we humans can learn to better cultivate them. This book records conversations held between Ekman and the Dalai Lama over several years. These transcripts and sidebars become a treasure-trove of insight into this most basic human (and animal) phenomenon that Buddhism has explored more than two millennia via introspection (meditation). Now science is taking a closer look at, especially with the advances in neuroscience and other techniques that provide us new ways of viewing and testing emotions. This book allows any reader can come away with a better understanding of how we live our emotional lives, and how we can cultivate those emotions for our own good and the good of those with whom we live. No small accomplishment.

The first two of the Four Noble Truths espoused by the Buddha state his assessment of the human condition. The First Noble Truth: Life is unsatisfactory. (More often, we see the original Sanskrit or Pali translated as “suffering”, but I agree that this word is perhaps too aggressive in its portrayal of the original insight.) The Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering [or unsatisfactoriness] is attachment. Attachment, as you learn, can mean craving for something (greed), craving to escape something (aversion, hatred), or ignorance of the situation (delusion). So what has this to do with emotions? Via natural selection, mammals, and especially humans, developed emotions that refined our ability to approach or avoid. Mixed with our hyper-sociability (Jon Haidt), we developed a wide variety of emotions that attract or repel us from various perceived situations. Natural selection armed us over millions of years with these mind tools, but with the advent of civilization (living in cities instead of small hunter-gatherer groups), our array of emotions, such as anger and hatred, for instance, could lead us astray. Robert Wright argues in his course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology (now offered on Coursera) that Buddhism is an antidote to some aspects human behavior instilled in us by natural selection. Instead of acting on our feelings of attachment (“Yum, doughnuts! Let’s feast”) or aversion (“Your rotten SOB”), we learn to get between our emotions—developed for quick perceptions and responses—and our actions. This is a fundamental insight shared between HHDL and Ekman, each coming at the issue from their different traditions but finding a lot of agreement. Ekman calls a pause in our reactions a “refractory period”, which may be micro-moment, or—with cultivation—something much longer.

After spending time defining emotions—different from moods, we should note—the two discuss how we might learn to tame them (and not, as some think Buddhism suggests, eliminate them). Here we learn of the benefits of meditation as a mechanism for developing awareness, a meta-awareness (B. Alan Wallace) that allows us to observe the development of an emotion within us and thereby make a conscious decision about how we shall (or shan’t) act in response to the impulse. This ability, along with the conscious cultivation of compassion, allows us to take ourselves in happier and more sociable directions than the naturally selected traits of our emotions might push us.

The above is just a taste of what the book covers. In addition to insights into basic and ongoing Western scientific research about the emotions and the Buddhist insights cultivated over 2000 years, we learn about the participants, especially Ekman. Ekman’s insight that he changes over the course of these conversations (estimated at about 39 hours) is really moving. Ekman grew-up with a very difficult father, and Ekman shares insights he gains about himself and that relationship. Ekman’s growth of insight and appreciation gives the book an emotional (in a very good way!) valence that adds spice to the wonderful scientific and Buddhist knowledge and wisdom that we garner through it.

The emotions are an endlessly fascinating topic. The quality of our lives is a function of our emotions. Much of morality and ethics revolve around our emotions and how we handle them. Indeed, not just Buddhism, but all of the Axial religions and philosophies—later Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Socratic philosophy and its progeny, especially Stoicism, Confucianism, and aspects of Taoism and Hinduism—are efforts to re-direct human conduct from older, more atavistic (and now less well-adapted) traits vested in humans via natural selection. These religions and philosophies (philosophy, that is, “as a way of life”, in the words of Pierre Hadot) developed in response to a very different environment (civilization) than that of the hunter-gatherers from whom we descended. The challenge to us is to use the wisdom of these traditions and refine them (no more required, I suspect) to best fit our contemporary needs. This book goes a long way in forwarding that project. We must thank Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama for their courage in reaching across traditions to help us find our way.

P.S. This is a second take on this book. Indeed, blog 5/682 (i.e., near the beginning of my blogging) addresses my listening to this as an audio book. It was definitely worth a second take!

Legal Writing Potpourri #2

1. R+W Legal Consultants links to an academic paper from Judith Fischer entitled “Add Punch to Your Legal Writing“. Only three pages long, it works as a nice cheat sheet  for cleaning up your legal writing.

2. Legal Writing Prof blog  points to the latest in the ABA Journal from legal writing guru Bryan Garner about words that we lawyers should excise from our vocabularies. While I’m tempted to keep an occasional “whereas”, in fact, Garner is certainly right. I work to expunge “shall” in any legal document. I drafted a lot of ordinances and contracts without it, and the monstrosity “and/or” is just that: a monstrosity. (Remember: “Or includes and“. Yes, well worth a couple of minutes of reading time.

3. Legal Writing Prof blog also does a brief review of a new book by William Domnarski that addresses (in part) legal writing. Not having read the original pieces discussed, I hesitate to comment too much. However, I agree with Legal Writing Prof that good writing is good writing, and what lawyers do is add legal terminology (different that mere jargon or “word gravel”) to their prose. Also, Bryan Garner (see above) is a very useful resource. Finally, writing and thinking go hand in hand.

Trial Practice Potpourri #1

1. Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm’s Persuasive Litigator blog ought to be on any trial lawyer’s subscription list, so you don’t have to depend on me. That having been said, I’ll share this (and other items) for your benefit. This article, “Counterpunch: Ten Ways to Fight Back on Cross” provides excellent advice to witnesses who are going to be cross-examined. Excellent advice. I wish I’d have had it to use with my witnesses. Any future witnesses will have the benefit of it if they work with me!

2. Legal Skills Prof blog via Scott Fruehwald cites an article by Katheryn Stanchi about how strong to come on in persuasion. Great issue. I once gave what I thought was a rousing closing rebuttal in a med mal case. After losing and talking to some jurors, some mentioned that I came on too strong–and I’m a mild-mannered Midwesterner! It’s tough to get just the right tone. This article gives the topic some serious thought.

3. If you don’t subscribe to and read Paul Luvera’s Plaintiff Trial Lawyer Tips, you should. You shouldn’t rely on me or anyone else to keep you abreast, at least if you do any plaintiff’s personal injury work. This particular entry addresses storytelling, a common theme among trial practitioners. I’d like this article and others to provide more particulars, more examples.


Legal Writing Potpourri #1

1. The (New) Legal Writer comments on the new edition of the Redbook (3d. Ed.). I’ve never used it, but guru Bryan Garner does, and the (New) Legal Writer is enthusiastic about its value; i.e., he’s buying.

2. A new book that I haven’t read but that looks worth exploring sometime: Sketches on Legal Style by Mark Cooney. Let me know if you read it first!

3. Legal Writing Skills blog cites an article on writing purposeful sentences. It includes examples and citation to the original article upon which it’s based. You can’t get enough of this because long, confusing sentences are endemic to legal writing. Don’t miss an opportunity to inoculate yourself.

Thinking & Imagining Like Sherlock Holmes

We lawyers, as I suspect most of the rest of the population, would like to think ourselves like Sherlock Holmes, what with our keen intellects and sharp eyes. But in fact, we are human, all to human. Holmes, as a literary creation, is most emphatically not human. But he does present an alluring ideal, and the book reviewed below suggests that we can take steps to closer approximate that ideal. If all of us were more Holmes-like in many respects (his sociopathy  a huge exception), we’d be better at whatever we do.

Was Holmes (as written by Conan Doyle) a sociopath? (Certainly as played by Benedict Cumberbatch on Sherlock.) Perhaps. In portrayals he seems at times unobservant of others, lacking as it were, a theory of mind. A major defect, but as I say, with this said, he provides a fun role model. Read the review below and then enjoy the book.

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

  • by Stephen N. Greenleaf
  • 2 min read
  • original
Few literary characters have the staying power of Sherlock Holmes, the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle. Years of book spin-offs, movies, and television don’t seem to have diminished our appetite for this rather bizarre fellow. Recent incarnations include the rather frenetic portrayal of Holmes by Robert Downey, Jr. in the two Guy Ritchie films, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s more recent (and to my mind more faithful) incarnation set in contemporary London (with Martin Freeman providing a superb Watson). Why are we so intrigued by this (almost) super-human misfit? I think because he is human and not super-human—that he does things that we can imagine doing. I think Maria Konnikova shares this perception.

Ms. Konnikova is a psychologist who grew-up hearing Holmes stories read to her by her father in her native Russian. Now with a doctorate in psychology, she unpacks the dynamics of Holmes and his foil Watson to share with us ways in which we might emulate the great (fictional!) detective. For this task, Konnikova draws extensively on both the Holmes stories of Conan Doyle and cutting-edge psychological research.

It turns out the Holmes-Watson pairing matches well with the “thinking fast and slow” paradigm of Daniel Kahneman (more prosaically designated as System 1 and System 2 thinking). Watson goes quick and instinctive, while Holmes thinks; Watson glances, Holmes observes. To put it in a nutshell, Holmes makes the sustained and energetic effort to observe and consider what he perceives, while Watson wants to cut to the chase (a surgeon, no doubt).

Konnikova details the ways these two men go about their detecting work in light of what modern psychology has taught us. She highlights the scientific frame of mind used by Holmes that looks for evidence and tests hypotheses. She considers what information he puts (or doesn’t put) into his “brain attic”. Holmes is rather single-minded in his pursuit of information needed to make him the world’s only “consulting detective”, unlike Watson, who fills his mind with the drivel of the evening paper. But perhaps the most surprising difference between the two is that Holmes uses his imagination. He does so in a systematic and focused way, not in flights of fancy or mental woolgathering. Like Einstein’s thought experiments (riding that beam of light), Holmes tests and weighs alternatives in his mind based on the empirical evidence that he gathers and considers in the light of logic. We learn that imagination is at least as important, if not more important, than logic in resolving the problems that Holmes faces.

We also learn that creativity plays a huge role in how Holmes operates. He improvises in each new situation, drawing on different mental practices as circumstances require—some need the magnifying glass, while others may constitute a “three-pipe problem” that mark an effort of sustained mental work. (Or a three nicotine-patch problem if you’re Cumberbatch’s incarnation in smoke-free London.) Konnikova emphasizes the dexterity and flexibility of the great detective’s mind.

Konnikova concludes with the important point that Holmes never stops learning. He does err (rarely), but he reflects and learns from those errors, and he’s always getting his (non-mandatory) continuing education through his own self-guided study. How many times does Holmes cite a precedent to the unenlightened inspector or to Watson? He knows his subject matter!

This is both an informative and immensely entertaining book. Large doses of Holmes mixed with intriguing perspectives from contemporary psychology make it fun to read. And, I hope, after having read it and reviewed it, we find ourselves a little more Holmes-like in resolving our problems, although, I hope with more social tact than our rather introverted detective. Also, I don’t think that I could ever match the eagle-eyed abilities that he possesses. As an aging, life-long four-eyes, I believe myself nearly hopeless in this regard!


Checklists via Atul Gwande’s The Checklist Manifesto

Another older but still pertinent review. Read, enjoy, and apply.

I’ve finished Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto (2009, 175 p.). Yes, I read a whole book about the humble checklist. Yet, as one would expect from someone who is a regular New Yorker contributor, it’s very well written. The basic premise is simple: with increasingly complex undertakings, no person can keep the necessary mental notes needed to do everything that must be done when it should be done. This includes surgeons and their staff, airline pilots, contractors, and yes, even lawyers. (I give myself credit for professional reading on this one.) Gawande gives us a tour of how something as complex as a skyscraper gets built, and built right. He takes us to Boeing to see how simple checklists operate airplanes and save lives. He also takes us into surgery with him and his peers to see how they deal with these problems. Many of his accounts, especially of surgical and airline emergencies, are fascinating and scary. His own challenges getting a working checklist into his O-R makes for interesting reading as well. In sum, it’s a short, fascinating account of how a simple, rather old-fashion device can do a lot of good. Cooks use them all the time: they call them recipes.

Telling a Moving Story: Fiction & Screenplays

This is an older review of two books that I read. They both merit continued attention by lawyers and others for the reasons set forth at the end of my post. Use this blog as a gateway into reading them. Of the two, I think that the McKee book Story is the most useful for trial lawyers.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

How Fiction Works & Story


I finished James Woods’s How Fiction Works (2008, 248p) today. Woods talks about the conventions and practices of fiction in the tradition of E.M. Forster. The elements of fiction are enthralling, as they convey life. After having recently finished Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997, 419p), the two books come up for easy comparison. Woods discusses the conventions of various authors, most well kn0wn, and how details, realism, character, language, metaphor, and other literary devices mix in the history of fiction from as far back as the Bible. I enjoyed the work as a reminder of the aesthetic enjoyment of reading fiction arising from supreme craftsmanship. Very good indeed, although not as enjoyable as Story, which is an amalgam of high culture (lots of Aristotle referenced) with plentiful dishes of “how to” added. For trial lawyers (or those who have followed the example of the likes of Grisham or Stephen H. Greenleaf and moved to full-time writing), the books have a practical import on how to convey our clients’ stories, which is the stuff of trials.

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Stephen King On Writing–Lawyers Ed.

So why I’m I posting a blog on Stephen King? (Yes, the Stephen King.) Lazy? I’ve already written it for one of my other blogs? I can’t say that’s not a factor, but I have a better response. My premise:

Any source that improves writing benefits lawyers

That’s my justification. That simple. Of course, if you read my review (included–with my permission–in full below), you’ll learn that I found the book entertaining as well as sage. I enjoy King’s voice as well as his advice. If nothing else, if you apply my two favorite tips from the end of the review, you’ve received value for your effort.

One more thing to remember: King has sold around a gazillion books because he tells intriguing stories. We lawyers can’t fabricate our stories, but we can tell those client stories well or poorly, depending on our writing and presenting skills. Taking advise from a master, not just in the mechanics of writing, or in the area of fiction (assuming you not planning a Grisham), but also in the art of telling a story, will prove worthwhile. Enjoy.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

  • by Stephen N. Greenleaf
  • 2 min read
  • original
I owe Stephen King a big, fat apology. For many years, I thought him a horror hack, someone who only writes creepy stuff for the more gullible among us. Of course, doubts crept in over the years. Several movies based on his work, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile (which I saw only about a year and half ago), and Stand by Me were all movies with compelling stories. Some, like The Green Mile, incorporate a fantastic element, but all tell compelling stories about interesting people even without a fantastic element. I was intrigued when I saw that King had written 11.22.63, and I saw that it received good reviews. As you may have read, I gave it a good review, too. So, Stephen King, I’m sorry for typecasting you, which reflects poorly on me and not at all on you. (If you, reader, retain some prejudice against the fantastic in literature, then you won’t count Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, or say, Italo Calvino or Garcia Marquez, among your favorite authors. Well, so be it if you insist. Just know that don’t need to go the Fantasy/SF section of the bookstore to find the fantastic.)
So how is this nonfiction book of King’s? Excellent. It’s divided into three parts. The first part is a memoir of his youth and his beginnings as a writer. As someone who, like King, grew up in America in the 50’s and 60’s, I share many of his experiences and cultural references. But King had a tougher start than I did. He was raised by a single mother (dad hit to road when Stephen was about age three), and they never had much money. But Stephen and his brother were bright and inventive. Stephen got into comic books and Tom Swift (“Junior” by Victor Appleton II, like me, or the older ones? He doesn’t say). Like many a writer, illness kept him at home one year (requiring him to repeat a grade) so he read to pass the time. Later Stephen got into horror books and movies. I’m certain he would have watched the ones that I liked to watch on late Saturday nights, like Rodan, the giant Pteranodon that comes out of the mountain and blows down miniature Japanese cities. And I’m sure he’d know the one about the giant Gila monster in the American southwest created by atomic testing. The giant lizard creeps up on teenagers parked in the desert making out, when, just as they getting intimate, the monster strikes. (“That’ll teach ’em!”) Yes, I understand much of the background of Stephen’s cultural upbringing. Now I appreciate some of the sources of his inspiration.

The second section of the book deals with “The Toolbox”: vocabulary, grammar, adverbs (he hates ‘em), and so on. The third part deals with the practicalities of writing and publishing fiction. While not quite as personal or entertaining as the first part, King never loses his sense of humor (which I quite like) or his sense of perspective. King has sold about a gazillion books, but it hasn’t seemed to have gone to his head. He did develop a drug and alcohol addiction, but he made it to the other side. He married his college sweetheart, and they raised a family and now have grandkids. King knows of his good fortune and shares his wisdom freely.


If you have any inclination to read a book about writing that’s also entertaining and personal—the not Strunk and White or F.L. Lucas type of book—this is a superb choice. Educational and edifying with some great tips that most any writer can use: cut the adverbs and cut 10% of your initial draft are my two favorite take-aways.

Thymos: The Lost Ingredient of the Soul

End of Hx & the Last Man by FukuyamaBelow is my review of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Why am I posting it here? Well, it’s my blog and I’ll post what I want. No, it’s more than mere whim. I think that Fukuyama has written one of the most important works of political theory (philosophy, if you prefer) in this book. I read about 15 years ago for the first time, and as I explain below, a recent event spurred me to re-read it. But what has this (controversial) work of political theory have to do with persuasion, law, or lawyers? A lot.

Among the projects undertaken by Fukuyama in this work is a rehabilitation of the concept of thymos in political thought. If you’ve read Plato’s Republic, you will recall the tripartite division of soul established in the dialogue. Two parts, reason and desire, have endured well over the centuries, and they passed   in to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of liberalism founded by Hobbes and Locke. However, thymos, understood as “spiritedness”, “dignity”, perhaps “pride”, was shunted aside in English-speaking tradition. But not so in the German tradition, especially with the work of Hegel and Nietzsche. Hegel makes thymos, displayed in the dialectic of lordship and bondage (or master and slave), the key dynamic in history.

So how is this ancient and philosophical idea relevant? To persuade anyone, we must know what motivates them. Their desires, of course. To the extent that they are open to reason, the use of reason. But in my 30-plus years of practicing law and dealing with disputes, it’s almost always about more than money (material desire). And reason will not go very far. No matter how well we evaluate the economics of a claim, understand the Prisoner’s Dilemma, or weigh probabilities, something more is usually involved, even with businesses. That missing element was usually some variation of “I’ve been wronged and someone ought to acknowledge that a wrong done to me”. This was true of divorces, employment law cases, and personal injuries–almost all cases involving a litigated dispute.

This is not always easy for us to understand, and it’s difficult of the lawyers to deal with. For instance, we have the stereotype of the person who’s suffered a personal injury greedily seeking to pin blame on someone to get money, something akin to a shakedown racket. This can happen, but in most of my cases, I represented persons (or survivors in a family where someone has died) who believed that that have suffered a real wrong. They felt cheated and abused in addition to the loss of income and companionship they experienced. Doctors and hospitals that apologize for mistakes suffer fewer suits, resolve suits more quickly, and pay less in claims than those who stonewall. They do so by addressing the need for recognition–recognition of loss. Families and individuals came to me because insurance companies wouldn’t pay or bills went beyond insurance coverage and because doctors wouldn’t level with patients and families about what went wrong. Lawsuits become a matter of money as a medium (or currency) for matters well beyond economics.

Employment law involved similar issues. A woman fired after taking time off work to deal with depression is fired, but the employer claims that she resigned. That lie, in addition to the disregard for her well-being, drives the case much more than the economic loss. Attorneys and mediators must translate these issues into dollar and cents terms, but wise attorneys and mediators acknowledge the hurt and insult suffered by a claimant. And divorces? I got out of the divorce business because the issues of emotional harm and insult were so complex and vexing. Trying to deal with these issues, and not just the money, became too demanding. (Only later did I realize that one never escapes these issues in life.)

In persuasion, we have to understand the motivations of those who we seek to persuade. Sometimes money will do the trick with nothing more needed. Sometimes we can reason with a truly neutral decision-maker (but even a neutral judge wants recognition and acclaim for her wise decision). But often the overweening issue remains thymos, the demand for recognition of our fundamental dignity and the need to rectify any insult to its integrity.

Just as we still refer often to Aristotle’s trio of logos, pathos, and ethos as hallmarks of persuasion, we should appreciate Plato’s understanding of humans as motivated by desire, thymos, and reason (logos). (Desire is the dominant motivation, reason the least powerful.) Understanding and using these insights provides us with a better appreciation of those we seek to understand and persuade.

N.B. The post below, formatted by Readability, is mine own from one of my other blogs. I’m most happy if you want to visit there, but you don’t have to receive the full benefit of the comments above without any additional effort.

“Thank you, John Ralston Saul”: The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama

  • by Stephen N. Greenleaf
  • 4 min read
  • original

At the Jaipur Literature Festival, I looked forward to hearing a program on “History Strikes Back & the End of Globalism”. It was dialogue between John Ralston Saul & Hubert Vedrine (a former French foreign minister). I hadn’t read either author, although Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards is packed with my other books back in Iowa City). I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Glamorous Nomad and C joined me. We were in for a surprise.

Saul opened the session by singling out “some guy called Francis Fukuyama” for writing one of the “stupidest books in the last 25 years”. In this book, Saul claimed, Fukuyama declared the end of history. Saul continued that Fukuyama then wrote another “stupid” book (unnamed) and yet Fukuyama still makes money. I was flabbergasted, while C and the Glamorous Nomad (who’s read Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order) simply walked out. I was shocked and puzzled. Also angry, but this bit of intellectual character assassination intrigued me enough to stay. I’d read The End of History and the Last Man about 15 years ago or so, and I’d thought it brilliant. Had I missed something?

The good news from this is that it’s led me to re-read The End of History and the Last Man (1992; with a New Afterward, 2006). (I’d purchased a copy here in India last October because I thought it worth a re-read; perhaps a bit of intuition here). To start with the conclusion: the book is brilliant. It’s one of the best books about politics that I’ve read. It is also one of the most discussed and criticized books about politics since its publication. Saul’s low blows aren’t new or novel. Why so? I suspect because few people have read it carefully or have grasped its true significance.

What Fukuyama wrote, shortly after the fall of Communism in 1989, was that History (may have) come to an end. (I know: China, North Korea, Viet Nam, and Cuba—these regimes survived, but Communism as a living ideology was dead, a few zombies notwithstanding.) Fukuyama, building on the work of Hegel and Hegel’s 20th century interpreter, Alexandre Kojeve, argues that liberal democracy may have answered as fully as possible the “struggle for recognition” that has driven History. By the way, there is history and then there is History. “History” with the capital “H” is not a Teutonic affectation on my part, but it’s the term for the Hegelian understanding of the fundamental pattern of change in human history. (With a small “h”, history is the story of the stuff that happens.) Hegel believed that History came to an end in 1805 at the Battle of Jena, when the ideas of the French Revolution, imposed by the military might of Napoleon, defeated the forces of reaction.

Fukuyama’s intellectual project and linage are not familiar to most readers. Few have any direct knowledge of Hegel. Most, like me, only learned about Hegel as the precursor to Marx. I expect only a handful of persons know of Kojeve. (I didn’t.) Thus, History is a new concept to most readers, and many seemed to have confused the End of History with end of stuff happening, which isn’t what Fukuyama argued.

But History isn’t the most important subject of the book for me. The most intriguing part comes from Fukuyama’s project of reinstating thymos into our understanding of human motivation. If you’re read Plato’s Republic (or about it), you know of Plato’s tripartite division of the soul into Reason (logos) on top (for the Philosopher-Kings) and desire (appetite) at the bottom for the masses. In the middle, he places thymos, often translated as “spiritedness” for lack of a better English equivalent. This attribute manifests in the Guardians, the warriors who protect the polis. Fukuyama notes that thymos dominates in aristocratic warrior societies. Thymos receives a new and unique treatment in the Anglo-American liberal tradition starting with Hobbes and Locke. To deal with “vainglory” or “pride” (as manifestations of thymos), these authors and their successors—including Madison and Hamilton—work to subsume thymos under the devices of desire. Bourgeois man becomes interested only in fulfilling desires and living rationally. So Anglo-American tradition argues and hopes. But fortunately for the U.S., Madison, Hamilton, and their peers knew that strong men will still strive, and they put in place many checks on power. In the German tradition, Hegel puts thymos front and center as a part of the “struggle for recognition” that drives the dialectic of master and slave (or lordship and bondage, if you prefer). This struggle for recognition drives History. With the French Revolution, the Christian project of equality before God now translates into equality between individuals in the social and political realm. Work becomes dignified as a replacement for the thymotic urge to prove one’s worth on the field of battle, the warrior-aristocrat ideal.

Fukuyama also discusses whether contemporary liberal societies will see a true End of History by granting recognition to all and by channeling thymotic urges into more productive pursuits than war. Fukuyama points out that among all the factors leading to the outbreak of WWI, we shouldn’t ignore the popular expression of thymos that led millions to greet the coming of the war with glee. Many greeted the war as an outlet for pent up desires. This is an astute observation. Now, perhaps, war has become too terrible for its use as such a popular outlet for thymos. Fukuyama also explores whether the twin ideals of liberty (which fosters outlets for thymos in individuals) and equality (our urge to see each acknowledged as equals) can co-exist over a long period as often antagonistic goals.

Fukuyama levels a sharp critique of realism in international relations, especially in its academic guise typified by Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer. Fukuyama argues that academic realism posits that nothing has changed since Thucydides and that nations are motivated only by the desire for greater power viz. any potential rivals. Changes (history) in the motivations of actors or the system of international relations count for nothing in the purer forms of realist theory. Fukuyama is certainly correct in his critique. Legitimacy has become a major touchstone of action in the international realm as well as in the domestic realm.

I highly recommend this book. Fukuyama isn’t as naïve or brazen as his detractors would like to portray him. Like Thucydides and Machiavelli, Fukuyama examines the world today to gain deeper insight into the most significant issues in political thinking.

Postscript: If you want to see and hear John Ralston Saul’s attack on Fukuyama (and Hubert Vedrine’s more measured comments, go here, starting about 3:40 minutes. My question in defense of Fukuyama and challenging Saul comes at 49:45. I didn’t speak as artfully as I would have liked, but I think that I get my point across. The answer is vague. In fact, I believe I have a good deal of sympathy for Saul’s perspective, but his modis operandi in attacking Fukuyama and Huntington was disgraceful. He should—as should we all—at least accurately and honestly state our adversaries’ positions if we are to attack them in abstentia.