When I was young, I was the opposite of cool, and I had a correspondingly low opinion of the concept. Sure, I liked Fonzie, but when I thought of people being cool, I thought of classmates putting on airs to get attention.
Now I'm much older. I'm still not cool,
but I have a much better appreciation of the concept. "Cool," it turns
out, was not invented in 1957 (pace Miles Davis's album "The Birth of
Cool" from that year), and not even in the modern era. The original
cool goes back to the ancient Greeks and the Stoics' concept of
"apatheia," or equanimity. They aimed to free themselves from their
passions to attain this state of calm, and what is a cool person but one
who remains calm and collected in the face of upsetting circumstances?
The concept was adapted and extended by Epicurus, who used the term
"ataraxia," or tranquility -- freedom from stress and worry.
philosophical school that promoted ataraxia was the Sceptics. Since they felt that no
knowledge was certain, there was no reason to get upset about the things that we only think we know. If you believe in being cool, you don't have to be a sceptic, but being sceptical does seem to imply a value in not overreacting. Scepticism revived in the 17th century. We are all familiar with Descartes's famous observation that all knowledge begins
with doubt, and his irreducible minimum statement of existence -- I think, therefore I am. Scepticism went hand in hand with the developement of the scientific
method, which aims to question all things and test them empirically.
Ironically, therefore, a philosophy that doubts the certainty of
knowledge contributed in a major way to the developement of modern
But the sceptical approach to cool is secondary, it
appears to me. What is more important to most people is not how we
understand the world but how we react to it. Being cool is one of a few
different approaches. Another one would be Christian patience, in
which believers are urged to put their faith in God and bear suffering
willingly because it is part of God's plan. Tertullian (d. AD 225) was an early Christian thinker who emphasized the virtue of patience. Like sceptical ataraxia, Christian patience begins with limited knowledge; unlike the sceptical view, however, the Christian is obliged to patience because he trusts that God has a plan for him. The Christian concept of patience is more active, implying continued activity in the face of disappointment.
The Romantic notion, by
contrast, seeks for authentic emotions, even -- especially -- those
involving passionate expressions of one's feelings. Then there are
those people who approach life without theories or preconceived notions,
who allow their emotions to carry them along because it has not
occurred to them to do anything else.
There is something to be
said for just expressing your emotions naturally. That's the Romantic
ideal, after all: just to be yourself, and not act according to a
plan. Unfortunately, people who allow their emotions to dictate their
behaviour are typically considered childish and anti-social, and for
good reason. You wouldn't want someone to say whatever he feels
regardless of other people's feelings, and you wouldn't want someone
whining every time he didn't get his way. Self-control is almost a
pre-requisite for living in a civil society.
This is especially
the case for leaders. Who would want to be governed by someone who
could not control his emotions? A president might start a nuclear war; a
policeman might beat a suspect to death for resisting. We look to
leaders to take measured responses, both for their practical effect and
for their ability to reassure us. Think of FDR explaining that
Americans had nothing to fear but fear itself. (A dubious proposition,
but the sort of thing we expect from a leader.)
There is actually a biological basis for cool, which is associated with decreased levels of cortisol and increased levels of serotonin. Cortisol stimulates the fight-or-flight response, which is the antithesis of cool. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which is well-known since the development of drugs such as Prozac that increase its level in the human brain. It has a calming effect; low values are associated with increased aggression, and high values are associated with higher social status. And while I suspect individuals with high serotonin levels are more likely to achieve higher social status, it is also true that higher social status can increase serotonin levels (see this TED talk).
I am inclined to think that being cool is a desirable characteristic
and a reasonable thing to strive for. People understandably look to cool people as their leaders, and strive to be cool themselves in order to achieve social status. This brings us to the big problem with cool: how do you separate the people who really possess the ability to remain calm under stress from those who merely want to create that image? In other words, what is authentically cool? In my next entry, I will discuss the problem of