We Have To Cultivate Our Garden

I am told that successful blogs have to have strong graphics for the same reason that people need to shout in a crowded room to make themselves heard. The idea that the size of the audience can affect the message is an interesting one. Think about the mainstream press. The larger the circulation of a publication the more likely it is that the editorial content is going to be targeted by special interest groups, PR agencies, advertisers and and other ‘interested’ experts. The result is that most content in the mainstream press today is not original to the publisher but has been ‘placed’ there by one or more outside interest groups.

It is possible that this relationship between the message and the size of the audience holds true for most spheres of human activity. Take politics for example. A young idealist decides to go into politics wanting to reach as many people as possible, and hopefully change the world. But, having made that decision, his or her focus now has to change, from personally exploring and living the vision, to selling it. To do so, the young idealist has to make compromises, cut deals and spend valuable time massaging egos. The vision itself has to be cut and shaped to fit the distribution channel. Sometimes it is pounded completely out of shape and occasionally it metamorphoses into a monster. But more frequently, the vision is simply gutted of substance until all that is left is appearance. What went wrong? It’s not just the nature of politics. There is a deeper truth here, which is that if you attempt to reach out to a mass audience your message is likely to be distorted.

Let’s forget about changing the world for a minute and just think how difficult it is to teach even one person anything. My experience as the parent of a teenager has convinced me that nobody ever really learns anything unless they experience it for themselves. You certainly can’t teach anyone the really important things in life, how to be a good person, to love learning, to appreciate the simple things in life such as friends, family and community. These things have to be experienced. Furthermore, the experience has to include making mistakes. Betray a friend’s trust and you possibly lose a friend. Goof off on your homework and you will not go to the college of your choice. Cheat on your wife and …well, you get the idea.

If it’s true that we can’t communicate with very large numbers of people without distorting the message and if it’s also true that, even if we were able to communicate with them authentically, no real learning would take place, what are the implications? Here’s one for thoughtful contemplation. Imagine for a moment that we could design a perfect world, with no suffering, no illness, no need to work and material plenty for all. What would the citizens of this world be like? Would they be good people, who loved learning and appreciated the simple things in life? Or would they be spoilt know-nothings who lacked character because they never had to strive, to suffer or to work hard to achieve anything? Just think how much time, effort and money politicians already spend trying to build this ‘perfect’ world and you will understand the importance of the answer to this question.

If we can’t teach the really important things and if it turns out that it’s just not a good idea to hand the good life on a plate to people, (even if this was possible) what hope is left for an improvement of the human condition? I am reminded of the last sentence of a book I was forced to read in college, Voltaire’s Candide. At age 19 I could not appreciate the genius of Voltaire, who had his chief character, Candide, ignore the insistence of Pangloss, that this is the best of all possible worlds, and say simply, “we must cultivate our garden”. There is much debate about what Voltaire meant by this but I read it as a prescription to get on with our own lives, improving society not through vast schemes of social engineering, but one unit at time, starting with ourselves. Isn’t that challenge enough?*

*Members of the remnant will recognize the distinctly Nockian themes in this post.


“The reason there’s so much ignorance is that those who have it are so eager to share it.” Frank A. Clark

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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14 Comments on “We Have To Cultivate Our Garden”

  1. nzumel Says:

    “Imagine for a moment that we could design a perfect world, with no suffering, no illness, no need to work and material plenty for all. What would the citizens of this world be like? Would they be good people, who loved learning and appreciated the simple things in life? Or would they be spoilt know-nothings who lacked character because they never had to strive, to suffer or to work hard to achieve anything?”

    I like to think the best of people, so I want to believe the former. I do believe that the theoretical tenants of both capitalism and socialism (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether those two systems are truly “opposites”) do in fact assume that people are inherently honest and good. The extent to which either of them fail is the extent to which the latter is true.

    So much for theory….


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Nina, thank you for this thoughtful comment. Actually, Marxism and classical liberalism (I prefer this term to capitalism which has a much narrower focus) do not share a common, benevolent view of human nature. I tried to illustrate this in an earlier post on human nature at:

      Marx believed that our nature was determined by the social relations of production. Once the proletarian revolution removed the exploitative bonds mankind could change these relations to release the full human potential. This is essentially a benevolent view of human nature shared by most socialists and liberals today, who believe that education and the environment can help people fulfill their true potential. The classical liberal position, as first formulated by Adam Smith, was that man is an imperfect, fallible creature and there was no point in trying to change this. Consequently institutions had to be designed to check, for example, the natural inclination of greedy businessmen to gain control of the legislative process and give themselves special privileges. Competition and the rule of law were the two main bulwarks that classical liberalism used to prevent a concentration of power.

      It is interesting to note that so much political squabbling takes place today because people have different conceptions of human nature and are often not even aware of it.


      • nzumel Says:

        Ah, but I believe both (I only said that I *wanted* to believe that people are inherently good; I will settle for: most people are mostly good, some aren’t very good at all).

        But my original statement wasn’t really about socialism vs classic liberalism; it was about socialism vs free-market capitalism. Again, on a theoretical basis, and again, begging the question of whether the two concepts are true opposites. It seems to me that if one argues that the law of supply and demand can bring about an economic equilibrium that is mutually beneficial to society at large, then one is arguing that no one is trying to game the system. In other words, everyone is basically honest. And to the extent that isn’t true, free-market capitalism fails.

        It is true that different underlying beliefs about human nature make some of us argue past each other; it is more true that the deliberate misunderstanding/misuse of political/economic terms like “liberal”, “fascist”, “socialist”, etc. practically beg all of us to argue past each other. — That statement isn’t about our conversation right now, by the way; I think we are understanding each other tolerably well, or at least trying to. I’m just speaking in general.


  2. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Nina, thank you. Great discussion. I concede that free-market capitalism assumes that most but not all people are honest. Clearly no system can work if everyone is a crook. Contrary to your statement it also does assume that some people will try to game the system, and that is the reason for having the rule of law – to make sure they don’t succeed.

    I should add that free market capitalism provides incentives to honor agreements, build a sound reputation and take the long term view in harvesting resources. Because under socialism the state controls so many more activities there is a greater incentive to bribe government officials to obtain contracts and/or monopoly privileges. Also, because so much depends on fluctuating political fortunes there is a tendency to take a shorter term view when it comes to harvesting resources. Lastly the lack of respect for private property in socialist societies goes hand in hand with a lack of respect for individual rights. In short, honesty is likely to be more characteristic of a free market capitalist country than a socialist country.


  3. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    I’m warming up for a comment on this one 😉 (and strangely I made a major thesis on exactly Voltaire’s “Candide” when I was 17)


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Hanne. I look forward to your reply.


      • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

        Malcolm, It is such a wonderful read with good questions. I fully support the idea of “one unit at a time, starting with ourselves.” The ripple effect from even the smallest actions is for sure never to be underestimated and to take it even further; how a barely noticable shift within, not necessarily played out in action, changes the whole dynamic in the surroundings… Fascinating stuff! 🙂

        Reading the first part of your post. how the message gets distorted, I came to think of a particular moment, the only moment I remember in fact, in the movie “The Kingdom of Heaven” where the main character refuses to do not even a little evil for the supposedly greater good…

        A ‘perfect world’ probably looks very different depending on who is to describe it, however we all respond to kindness… “cultivate our gardens” is a beautiful thing to do “in the best of all possible worlds”


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Hanne, thank you for these thoughtful comments. I’ve been reading about the Stoics recently and I think they must have been the inspiration for Voltaire’s advice about cultivating our garden. It is a Stoic precept that there is no way we can control people and events around us so if we want to improve the world it is inevitable that we are going to get frustrated. However, they argued that we do have complete control over how we think and how we act so internal improvements are possible for everyone without loss of tranquility.

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          Interesting. Is stoicism close to Buddhist philosophy with it’s strong focus on practising meditation and quieting the mind?

          Anyway; I definitely think the stoics in this regard were not far off, actually I think they were spot on! 🙂 I’ve often had this thought that maybe the only place we truly have freedom of choice is our approach to what’s stirring within and willingness to learn to understand it in order to act and not just react. True freedom might live within only and reaching this understanding, it will give us a strong compass to navigate in the at times wild storms of the world. And I’ll dare the suggestion that this can transform the so-called ‘reality’…. so-called, because I sometimes wonder; what is reality anyway? Whose reality? I’ve come across an interesting phenomenon in this regard; if you are positive, open-minded and seeing possibilities where others don’t or they are not obvious, you are often judged naive. On the other hand, if you are negative, overly careful and seeing limitations, you are just being realistic…

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          No, there are many similarities such as contemplating the transitory nature of the world around us and the pursuit of tranquility, but spending time on meditation is not one of them. The rest of your comment however could have been written by a Stoic philosopher 🙂

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          tapping into a previous life as a stoic.. or not 😉

        • Hanne T. Fisker Says:

          An old post (my first) about reality just sprang to mind. Today I would word it quite differently and with much less certainty and much more honest humility, however the essence of what I was pointing towards still rings true to me:
          Cancelled Reality

  4. nicciattfield Says:

    Reflexivity as the start of change makes sense to me. The idea of agency or ability to make a contribution only really happens when you know what difference you’d like to make. But little actions can make a contribution too. I remember in 2010 being totally moved by somebody listening to me for an hour around freedom in public spaces. And that experience of being listened to felt like complete freedom. There’s such a lot of power in empathy and respect. I think sometimes we think the only form of power is political. But when people can share in the presence of others, it is powerful too. I think change is about giving space for those voices, and allowing people space (whatever the person would like to share).


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Nicci, you are right on all counts. I wrote this at a time when I was feeling particularly negative about the possibility of social change (not that I am that much more positive now).


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