Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Being Cool

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.

Another 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 science.

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).

So 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 authenticity.

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