The good life

I hope you will, dear reader, indulge your author somewhat for a slightly introspective and wide-ranging post. Last month, your author turned 40, which is somewhat of a milestone in popular reckoning and traditionally a time for a pause and reflection. Aside from looking forward to racing in a new age category for the local Masters races, there is not too much to report; a few threads of recent considerations may, however, be woven together as follows.

To step back for a moment, introspective pondering inevitably leads to the most basic questions that science, philosophy and religion have tried to answer: how did we get here, where are we going, and what do we do while we’re here? The answer to the latter is inevitably another question: what is the good life? The philosopher G.E. Moore contributed one answer, which was used as one of the guiding principles of the Bloomsbury Group: “One’s prime objects in life [are] love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience, and the pursuit of knowledge.”

Interestingly, modern neuroscience has done much to corroborate Moore’s philosophical position, particularly on experience and learning. Shimon Edelman, professor of psychology at Cornell University, suggests that our contentment is boosted by being in a ‘flow’ state. “Flow is the enjoyment derived from being engaged in an activity that is challenging, but not frustratingly so. You’re not challenged if you’re not tested, so I think we have this drive that pushes us to maybe overstep the boundary every now and then. And for success, we get rewarded incredibly with this feeling of well-being and excitement.” There’s certainly a corroboration with cycling there, particularly if we push ourselves in challenging situations but not beyond our immediate capabilities. It’s not so much the goal that matters – getting to the top of a climb, say, but the experience of getting there.

We might also conclude that knowledge does not have to be pursued solely by the experiences of ‘getting out there’. We can all relate to the pleasure of a good book and the insights it might offer through prompting us to think about the world around us. As Harvard English professor Helen Vendler has written, corroborating Moore and Edelman: “Without reading, there can be no learning; without learning, there can be no sense of a larger world; without the sense of a larger world, there can be no ardor to find it; without ardor, where is joy?”

Moore and the Bloomsbury Group were interested in the creation and enjoyment of the aesthetic experience, or – simply – art: its creation and appreciation. It’s not such a leap to think that ‘art’ can have a broad definition. Without making any claims to its quality, one might regard this blog as art, hence your author’s enjoyment in creating it (and appreciating the art of other cycling bloggers). Interestingly, though, there is no mention of the acquisition of art. Indeed, Edelman cautions against consumption: “If you have some money to spend and you spend it on buying goods that’s not nearly as effective in making you happy in the long run as buying experiences. If you buy an experience, you can basically revisit it and enjoy it over and over again, whereas with material goods, the fun goes away.” It’s a useful caution. Even economists agree on the law of diminishing returns as one consumes more; are we any more happy despite being surrounded by easy opportunities for consumption?

Yet such a caution might be unduly limiting. What is a bicycle if not a means to experience? Some goods are ‘necessary’, therefore, to achieve the experiences that make us happy. And what if the goods themselves are ‘art’, that the experience of appreciating them can be revisited and that they can be enjoyed over and over again? One might argue, therefore, that buying certain things can achieve two purposes that contribute to the good life – they allow gratifying experiences, and they are works of art in themselves and can be appreciate aesthetically.

Turning to the latter, we might see that design and luxury can contribute to an aesthetic experience beyond the limitations of consumption. A well-designed bike can be used for riding but can also give pleasure to its owner from the appeal of its attractive form and ingenious function. And this can be highly subjective and personal. Many of us do not need the latest ‘halo’ bike to be aesthetically engaged with our steed. Some do, and we should not judge what gives enjoyment to others, but simpler pleasures can be just as satisfying to a particular individual.

On this basis, your author must confess to some indulgences, what might be called small luxuries. To this list might be added Moleskine notebooks, Waterman pens, G. Lalo writing paper, cycling books, merino base layers from Icebreaker in New Zealand, and North American – especially Canadian – whisky (which is very affordable and highly underrated versus expensive Scottish varieties; see here, for example). Some of these are means to other enjoyable experiences – letter writing to distant friends (pens and paper), expanding one’s knowledge (cycling books), conquering climbs in comfort (merino base layers) – but do have an aesthetic appeal in themselves. One can always appreciate good ‘art’.

To this list has been added a recent acquisition (to celebrate the milestone noted above): a Rapha silk scarf. Your author has been mildly obsessed with said item for some time, defying all good reason. (In his defence, as David Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”) One must confess some mixed views of this luxury cycling goods company (more on that in a later post) but one can certainly not argue with its fine aesthetics. The scarf has not disappointed and can be appreciated in itself, as well as having some functionality in its wearing as an enhancement of one’s riding experience (it would also certainly be a fine choice for wiping down hand-stitched tubulars). And, purchased as part of the winter sale, it was certainly cheaper than the usual cyclist’s mid-life purchase of Super Record.

This post, therefore, might be construed as a plea for some philosophizing on your next ride. You might, on your next ride, wonder as to the utility of a particular set of carbon wheels on another rider’s bike, or their particular choice of attire (a silk scarf, for example). But we should not be so quick to judge. If we give it some thought, we are all in our own way pursuing our individual conceptions of the good life – and indulgences small and large are part of that. As riders, though, we are all ultimately united in our pursuit of the experiences that cycling can give us (including the relationships that it can foster). It gives us the immediate satisfaction of being in the ‘flow’ and those experiences – big and small – become lodged in our memories for revisiting later for our enjoyment. As one popular philosopher has said, “The point of departure, is not to arrive.” Now that’s the good life!

This hirsute gentleman has a particular conception of the good life (Rapha pic)

4 thoughts on “The good life

  1. Amen!
    One of the most wonderful things I’ve read in a long while. Sometimes someone manages to put into words the feelings and thoughts you have in your own head.
    Bravo.

  2. A fine post, thanks! It would be very helpful if you give us some hints on where to find the quotes… your writing often makes me want more, more, more of the authors quoted. Found the very readable little “On Sport” by Roland Barthes because of one of your posts … I had known some of his work, but not that book.

    Have fun with your new scarf.

  3. Suze – good find on the Barthes book. Yes, it’s an under-appreciated source of great quotes from him, and not so well known. And who knew that he’d have something to say about hockey! Guy

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