I noticed a tweet from Patrick O’Shaugnessy (CEO of O’Shaugnessy Asset Management) the other the day that caused me to pause my endless scrolling. In his tweetstorm, he said, “As you keep going, say past 100 books, you start to realize all the good ones, even those on wildly different topics, are all related.”
He could not be any more correct. Many of the greatest books from the most well-known authors have common threads or insights about the life of humans or how we interact with one another. In other words, books might fall into completely different categories, yet arrive at the same conclusions. From Russian novelists to British philosophers or from historians to evolutionary biologists, the idea is the same: they have their own unique world-views, yet arrive on the same conclusions around the human condition, helping us to open the doors of our own minds to better understand ourselves and our relationships to others and the world around us.
Personally, I find it incredibly satisfying and eye-opening to read a line from a particular author that directly relates to ideas from a completely different author from a different time period or part of the world. It shows that, even across centuries, the inner lives, struggles, and triumphs of humans remain the same. What follows are a pattern of themes that I’ve noticed the most over the past two years reading on a spectrum of topics including philosophy, psychology, economics, biology, physics, and literature. Of course this does not represent an exhaustive list; however, across this diverse group of fields, the following themes surfaced time and again.
The Eternal Battle for Meaning and Understanding
From philosophy to novels, biographies and descriptions of our universe, authors across the disciplines dive into this theme of meaning and understanding, and the fight we as conscious beings go against every day. While the exploration of this idea can take many forms, the same conclusions hold steady. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl explores the idea of suffering and its contribution to to our sense of meaning. He says,
“Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.”
Frankl develops this sense of meaning through his experiences in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, explaining, “In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”
French philosopher and author Albert Camus echoes this sentiment in his existentialist essay The Myth of Sisyphus through his idea of The Absurd, defined as our futile struggle for meaning and understanding in a world devoid of inherent meaning. In the Myth of Sisyphus, he contemplates what he deems philosophy’s most pressing question: whether or not to commit suicide. At the end of his exploration, he turns to Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology, a man condemned to eternally push a boulder up a hill, only to watch it fall down the other side. Camus rejects his initial question, saying about Sisyphus and man’s futile effort for meaning, that,
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
Even 19th century Russian short-fiction writer Anton Chekhov joins this sentiment, in one of his short stories, Ward №6, writing, “An ordinary man expects the good or the bad from outside, that is, from a carriage and a study, but a thinking man expects them from himself.”
These great authors all come to the same conclusion; The universal struggle for meaning and understanding can only be reconciled through our own minds and perceptions of our own lives. No one or thing can give it to us — we must find it and embrace this struggle ourselves. As the ancient Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius writes in Meditations, “What stands in the way becomes the way.”
All of these authors recognize that meaning won’t fall into our laps; it’s up to us to find it, create it, and welcome that struggle into our lives with open arms. To the best of my knowledge, that’s all that can be done.
Viewing Reality as it is
“Despite all theories, you will feel that you are isolated from life so long as you are divided within. But you will cease to feel isolated when you recognize, for example, that you do not have a sensation of the sky: you are that sensation.”
Here, British philosopher Alan Watts shows in his book The Wisdom of Insecurity the idea that present moment is all that exists, and our reality simply IS nature. No separation exists.
Stefan Zweig, a 20th century Austrian novelist, takes a different look upon this idea in The World of Yesterday, describing the life of his fellow artists as, “In even rhythm, leisurely and quietly, the wave of time bore them from the cradle to the grave.” Zweig understands the fact that a human life is but a blip in the vastness of reality. Both authors portray this theme of untangling and understanding reality through different mechanisms: Watts through a philosophical lens, and Zweig through an interpretation of the true swiftness of the passage of time.
Frank Herbert, author of the famous 1965 science fiction novel Dune, also instills this idea in his main protagonist, Paul Atreides, when Paul exclaims,
“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path. Were the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Paul does not become paralyzed by his emotion: he understands what he feels, why he feels it, and how to see himself in the absence of his fear.
Finally, how could you wrap this theme up completely without incorporating stoic thought? Seneca, another ancient Roman philosopher, in his book “On the Shortness of Life”, masterfully peers straight through our messy reality, describing a complex feeling many humans still have trouble articulating and recognizing 2000 years later, writing “Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations but just regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”
The Inherent Solitude of Human Experience
Most of us dislike being alone. Especially having access to our friends and family 24/7, many people cannot even fathom going a single day without interaction with other humans. Yet, some of the greatest authors have noted that even despite modern technology, each of us lives a unique and isolated existence. Alduous Huxley, a prominent British writer famous for his novel Brave New World, provides some context in his book Doors of Perception. He writes,
“By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”
Joseph Conrad, another famous early 20th century Polish-British writer, echoes this sentiment in his novella Heart of Darkness where his storytelling protagonist explains, “… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence — that which makes its truth, its meaning — its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream — alone….”.
Essentially, Conrad and Huxley describe how other humans, no matter how hard we try to convey through language or actions, can ever fully understand the richness of our inner subjective experiences. They say: you can tell me about your pride after finishing a marathon, or convey your loneliness after a break up, but I can never feel exactly what you feel, condemning you to your own subjective island. Maybe this is why it’s so easy for us humans to quickly fall into feelings of loneliness when not distracted.
This theme of subjective isolation helps describe why modern neuroscience has such trouble understanding the human brain and consciousness: you cannot measure, see, or record what it FEELS like, as an individual, to, for example, view the color red. Helping us to better understand this phenomena, Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, in his book The River of Consciousness, writes,
“Why, out of a thousand possible perceptions, are these the ones I seize upon? Reflections, memories, associations, lie behind them. For consciousness is always active and selective — charged with feelings and meanings uniquely our own, informing our choices and interfusing our perceptions.”
In parallel to Huxley and Conrad, Sacks describes our subjective life from a scientific perspective, yet arrives at the same conclusion: I view the world because of my unique past experiences, that no one else can ever replicate nor truly understand.
Desire for Security
Every one of us has had a desire of security for something: a relationship, job or prized possession. Yet, this goes even deeper, molding our behaviors and desires at the lowest levels of cognition. Our friend Alan Watts has quite a bit to say about security in his book titled, of course, The Wisdom of Insecurity. He describes how us humans long for, yet engage in a futile struggle for security, always trying to gain more and more, by rhetorically asking, “How long have the planets been circling the sun? Are they getting anywhere and do they go faster and faster in order to arrive? How often has the spring returned to the Earth? Does it come faster and fancier every year?”
Erich Fromm, a German psychologist, deeply understands this human desire for security, contrasting it with our inherent freedom to make hundreds of choices every day. He writes about this struggle for security in his book Escape From Freedom, published at the height of World War II, stating,
“The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self. Masochism is one way toward this goal. The different forms which the masochistic strivings assume have one aim: to get rid of the individual self, to lose oneself; in other words, to get rid of the burden of freedom.”
Fromm sees us as terrified of the infinite possibilities in life; we desire security, and thus, a sense of belonging.
This behavioral tendency, this desire for security, can have disastrous ramifications on a large scale, as FA Hayek, an Austrian economist, notes in his book The Road to Serfdom, also written at the height of World War II. Discussing the sentiment of the population that allowed the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, he says,
“…the generation to which we belong is now learning from experience what happens when men retreat from freedom to a coercive [secure] organization of their affairs. Though they promise themselves a more abundant life, they must in practice renounce it; as the organized direction increases, the variety of ends must give way to uniformity. That is the nemesis of the planned society and the authoritarian principle in human affairs.”
This yearning for security can become so powerful that it causes ordinary, good people to become monsters.
Carl Sagan, a renowned American scientist and author in the 20th century, can help us wrap up this idea of a desire for security; in his book, The Varieties of Scientific Experiences, he writes, “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”
The Difficulty and Illusion of Thinking for Yourself
This final theme could not contain more relevance for today, when the sheer amount of data, media, and news bombard us with information we have to parse and try to make sense of. Using this information to create your own views is NOT easy. Fromm felt especially worried about this inability to think for ourselves, even in the 40’s, writing in Escape from Freedom that
“….we can have thoughts, feelings, wishes, and even sensual sensations which we subjectively feel to be ours, and yet that, although we experience these thoughts and feelings, they have been put into us from the outside, are basically alien, and are not what we think, feel, and so on.”
In a modern context, Fromm means that we tend to create our worldview from news sources, people, or social media accounts that we trust and take at face value. If someone places high trust in CNN, and they say “Trump is evil and should be impeached,” we tend to develop that sentiment too without realizing how or why we think that and without digging deeper into other data points.
Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder, founder of Palantir, and early Facebook investor, understands the difficulties of thinking for oneself and attributes that characteristic to his success. In his book Zero To One, he writes, “The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd, but to think for yourself.”Clearly if thinking for yourself was easy, we’d all be multi-billionaires like Thiel.
Finally, in arguably one of the most famous American novels of all time, Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell calls out this illusion of thinking for yourself when she writes about her main character, Scarlett, saying,
“It did not occur to her that the idea was Rhett Butler’s. It came so patly and fitted so well with what she was thinking.”
Across eras, countries, and genres, some of the greatest authors and most successful people all recognize the simple fact that thinking for yourself and knowing the source of your thoughts is immensely challenging.
If you couldn’t tell by now, the ultimate point is: there’s a reason that certain themes appear time and again throughout the years in the most well-regarded and famous books. They convey useful wisdom that’s been shared across the centuries, which ultimately can be used to understand, improve, and enhance lives.
Of course, plenty of other themes besides these five exist across books and authors. Let me know what you think I missed!