A résumé, that piece of paper designed to reflect your best self, is one of the places where people still tend to use typeface to express themselves. It does not always go well, according to people who spend a lot of time looking at fonts. Bloomberg asked three typography wonks which typefaces make a curriculum vitae look classiest, which should never, ever be seen by an employer, and whether emojis are fair game.
We went digging for a complete set of professionally fly fonts and returned with just one consensus winner: Helvetica.
“Helvetica is so no-fuss, it doesn’t really lean in one direction or another. It feels professional, lighthearted, honest,” says Brian Hoff, creative director of Brian Hoff Design. “Helvetica is safe. Maybe that’s why it’s more business-y.”
There are other options that, like Helvetica, are sans-serif, meaning their letters do not have the tiny “feet” that adorn the “T” in Times New Roman, for example. Do not choose a cheap imitator, the experts counsel. “If it’s me, [I’m using] Helvetica. Helvetica is beautiful,” says Matt Luckhurst, the creative director at Collins, a brand consultancy, in San Francisco. “There is only one Helvetica.”
Unless you’re applying for a design job, human resource professionals probably wouldn’t notice a knockoff font. But you would be on the wrong side of good taste. Could you live with that?
Say you’re a high roller and want to actually purchase a font. Go with Proxima Nova, which Hoff calls a “cousin to Helvetica” with less of an edge.
“It has a softer feel. Helvetica can be more stiff, and Proxima Nova feels a little rounder,” Hoff says. Proxima Nova is apparently a hit among suits. “I never met a client that didn’t like that typeface,” he says. That kind of popularity does not come cheap: Just one style of the font costs $29.99 at myfonts.com, and the entire 144-member family costs $734.
If you are very experienced, use Garamond to get your long rap sheet to fit into a single page. “Garamond is legible and easy for the eye to follow,” says Luckhurst. “Garamond has all these quirks in it, so what that does is allow the eye to see where it should go.”
There’s some controversy over the classic Times New Roman. “I don’t have any problem with Times New Roman,” says Martina Flor, a letterer and designer in Berlin, Germany. She acknowledges that it has the reputation of being staid, but says the font is not to blame. “It has been a system font for a long time. It’s been used and misused a lot.”
Using old faithful might send the wrong sign to your future boss, though. “It’s telegraphing that you didn’t put any thought into the typeface that you selected,” says Hoff. “It’s like putting on sweatpants.”
If you want something intentionally upscale, try Didot. “It’s very tall, it’s a little fancy, [and] it’s a little feminine,” says Luckhurst. It’s a good option for a fashion job, but not much else, he adds. “It’s like wearing the black dress to the ball. Do you wear a tuxedo to your job interview?”
It may go without saying, but do not use the flowery Zapfino type on anything you will show an employer. “It’s just really swoosh-y. If it’s your wedding invite and that typeface is for you, go for it,” says Luckhurst.
Do not even use anything that looks like Zapfino, says Flor. “All the fonts belonging to this family of connected scripts wouldn’t be right for your résumé,” she says. They are hard to read, she says, and not designed to express anything longer than a headline.
“You don’t have a typewriter, so don’t try to pretend that you have a typewriter,” Luckhurst says. “You have been using a computer to do a handwritten thing. You haven’t used a computer properly, and you haven’t handwritten properly.” Damn. Don’t use Courier, I guess.
We probably do not even need to discuss this, but you should never use Comic Sans unless you are designing the investment issue of a national business magazine. Do not even look at Comic Sans. It should not be on your résumé “unless you are applying to clown college,” says Hoff. “There are other whimsical fonts out there that you can buy that would give a similar impression and feel, but not necessarily be a Comic Sans.” Hoff is being gentle, but take it from me: Don’t look for a Comic Sans-like font. Just let it go.
Should you put emoji in your résumé? Prayer hands, a cat with hearts for eyes, followed by a dress shirt with a gold tie? “I think it’s a great idea. Put a lot of emojis on the bottom. Some chicken wings. They will love it,” says Luckhurst. “Maybe an emoji is your logo. Maybe you just really key in on the 100 logo, that’s your thing, you put it everywhere.”
“It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.”
Nearly four decades before Joseph Campbell(March 26, 1904–October 30, 1987) refined his enduring ideas on how to find your bliss and have fulfilling life, the legendary mythologist penned The Hero with a Thousand Faces (public library) — his seminal theory outlining the common journey of the archetypal hero across a wealth of ancient myths from around the world. Campbell’smonomyth model has since been applied to everything from the lives of great artists to pop-culture classics like Star Wars.
This wonderful short animation from TED Edpresents a synthesis of Campbell’s foundational framework for the eleven stages of the hero’s quest — from the call to adventure to the crisis to the moment of return and transformation — illustrating its timeless potency in illuminating the inner workings of so many of our modern myths and the real-life heroes we’ve come to worship:
But perhaps Campbell’s most important and enduring point from the book has to do not with the mechanics of the hero’s journey but with the very purpose of hero-myths in human life. He writes in the opening chapter:
It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may very well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid.
The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what [Carl] Jung called “the archetypal images.”
It’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members’ interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.
And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.
So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.
And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.
And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.
It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.
Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.
I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.
It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.
We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)
And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.
You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:
The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.
I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?
It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.
Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.
They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.
But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.
I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.
In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.
Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.
I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.
A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.
Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.
Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.
According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.
Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.
Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.
I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.
I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.
We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.
We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.
We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.
We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.
We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.
We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.
Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.
We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.
We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.
Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.
• This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.
That means that you can become more creative with the right time and effort. Whenever you are picking up a new skill, though, it is good to find role models who have the abilities you want and to follow their lead.
Over the past 10 years, I have written quite a bit about creativity. Along the way, I have encountered the stories of a number of individuals who have inspired me to think about what it takes to improve my own creative abilities. These individuals have been able to solve problems (both practical and artistic) in new ways. Here are five habits that emerge from their efforts.
THEY STUDY THE DETAILS.
A number of people I have talked to have worried that their ability to be creative might be hampered by knowing too much. They feel like having too much knowledge will curse them into sticking with their routines.
Creative individuals delve into the details of the problems they are trying to solve. When Fiona Fairhurst and her design team at Speedo were trying to create a swimsuit that would help swimmers shave seconds off their times, they looked at all kinds of ways to reduce the forces of drag. Their final design drew from many different sources including the structure of shark skin and the use of stretch materials that decreased swimmer’s muscle vibrations.
Similarly, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral noticed that pesky cockleburs would stick to his dog’s fur after going out for a walk. He studied the cockleburs under a microscope and found that they stuck so persistently because tiny hooks on the seed would get caught in the dog’s tangled fur. Using this principle, he had cloth manufacturers create synthetic cocklebur hooks and dog fur and invented Velcro.
THEY HAVE DEVELOPED A DISCIPLINED ROUTINE.
The standard image of the creative genius is one of a tortured soul who works in fits of inspiration in between bouts of self-destructive behavior. But, many of the most creative people are much more disciplined than that. They treat their creativity like a job and work at it consistently.
A classic example of this type is the prolific authorStephen King. If ever there was someone whose work would fit the expected output of a tortured soul, it would be King’s. Yet, he has talked often about the role of routines in his work. He writes every morning. As he points out, routines for creativity are just as important as routines for sleeping. You cannot wait for the muse. You have to work hard before it appears.
THEY REALIZE THAT EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT
As a college professor, my least favorite question asked by students is: “Will this be on the exam?” The answer to that question is always: “Yes, but it may not be my exam.” That is because you never know what the source of a great idea is going to be. The stories behind creative ideas are fascinating to read, but they are only clear in retrospect.
For example, James Dyson’s inspiration for the bagless vacuum cleaner came from his knowledge of the industrial cyclones used to clear the air in sawmills. When Dyson’s curiosity led him to learn about sawmills, he could not have known that knowledge would form the basis of a multimillion dollar company.
A key to creativity is to pursue knowledge without a sense of whether it will be relevant in the future. Too often, people assume that they can judge in advance what they need to understand and what they do not. Instead, creative people build up their knowledge base so that they will be ready for the opportunities that come later.
THEY CONSIDER THE TIMING.
Truly successful creative endeavors are products that fit into their time. That means that creative individuals need to understand both the technical aspects of their craft as well as the context in which the work is being done.
Consider the great jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. Davis cut his musical teeth during the bebop era. Bebop was characterized by fast flurries of notes played with technical precision over fast chord changes. He began to react against this style in recordings starting in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the world was ready for the sound that characterized albums like Birth Of The Cool (which was released well after it was recorded) and Kind Of Blue, which had an enormous impact both on listeners and other players.
By the late 1960s, Davis was ready to react against the prevailing context again with his early fusion album Bitches Brew. The key to the success of these works was an understanding of the system in which they were being recorded and heard.
On the technical side of innovation, Steve Jobs was a master at understanding the role of the system. The iPod was not the first MP3 player on the market. Jobs thought deeply about the user and the situation in which the iPod would be used. The attention to the context in which the device would be employed led to the parallel development of iTunes, which made the iPod a true plug-and-play device.
THEY KNOW WHEN TO GIVE UP
Finally, when you look at stories of creativity, it is easy to be seduced by the persistence of creative people. Not only did James Dyson take inspiration from far-flung sources, but he also spent years working on the prototype of the original Dyson vacuum.
There is a danger in drawing the lesson that creative people stick with every idea in order to see them through. Economists have the concept of a sunk cost. Sunk costs are the time, energy, and money that have already been invested in a project. Good decisions do not allow sunk costs to have an undue impact on choices. Just because you have already spent a lot of time or money on a project does not mean that time will have been wasted if you walk away from the project. Instead, you should evaluate projects by whether they are likely to succeed with continued effort, independent of the investment you have made so far.
Richard Nisbett and his colleagues have studied successful creative individuals (like academics who work at the forefront of their disciplines). The ones who are most successful in the long run are actually those who are willing to walk away from projects that are not succeeding, even when they have already put considerable effort into those projects. That is, creative success means knowing when to throw in the towel and move on to something else.
“We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling.”
“Do not despise your inner world,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum admonished in her letter of advice to the young. “By acceptance of all aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the wisdom of the heart half a century earlier, “the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, ‘the dance of life.’”But in a culture that consistently mistakes perfection for wholeness, we are discouraged from dancing with the brokenness, messiness, and imperfection of our interior lives — and yet only when do so can we begin to feel whole and measure our lives in terms of deep meaning rather than superficial success.
How to do this is what New York Times columnist David Brooks, one of the finest writers and thinkers of our time, explores in The Road to Character (public library) — an elegant and lucid case for how fostering a “counter-tradition of moral realism” can help us snap out of the “self-satisfied moral mediocrity” that defines modern life, which leaves us in a state of “unconscious boredom” (notthe creatively and spiritually fruitful kind), “not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth.” What emerges is a pitch-perfect clarion call, issued not with preachy hubris but from a deep place of humility, for awakening to the greatest rewards of living.
Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.’ Click image for more.
I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.
Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too — the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.
Brooks argues that we live in a constant tussle with these two contradictory parts of ourselves that rip the psyche asunder with their conflicting demands — the ambitious and status-oriented achiever, driven by the “résumé virtues” and stimulated by external rewards, and the moral aspirant propelled by the “eulogy virtues,” which offer their own internal satisfactions. The former is goaded by cultivating and showcasing our personal strengths; the latter by contemplating and confronting our inner weaknesses.
Illustration from ‘Herman and Rosie’ by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.
We are called to fulfill both personae, and must master the art of living forever within the tension between these two natures.
Central to his premise is the aspiration toward what Martin Luther King, Jr. called self-purification, with a side of Bruce Lee’s famous “be like water” philosophy and notes of Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön’s assertion that “our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material.” Brooks expounds the idea that the most reliable path to our highest selves is found in surrendering (rather than succumbing) to our greatest flaws in order to transcend them; that stumbling along this path, rather than hindering our progress, is what moves our character-expedition forward. He writes:
We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling — in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.
The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance here and there, sometimes lurching, sometimes falling to her knees. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature, her mistakes and weaknesses, with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. She is sometimes ashamed of the perversities in her nature — the selfishness, the self-deceit, the occasional desire to put lower loves above higher ones.
But humility offers self-understanding. When we acknowledge that we screw up, and feel the gravity of our limitations, we find ourselves challenged and stretched with a serious foe to overcome and transcend.
The stumbler is made whole by this struggle.
Brooks notes that our second, more luminous nature — the stuff of “eulogy virtues” — operates in a way opposite to the “straightforward utilitarian logic” of the striving résumé-self:
It’s a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy.’ Click image for more.
We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life.
The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce that it becomes all-consuming… The noise of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.
Brooks is interested in what it takes to cultivate a heart wise enough to maintain an “inner constancy” in the face of popular disapproval — after all, there is a reason why many of the luminaries we most revere have in common the capacity to withstand rejection. To be sure, Brooks approaches this quest by practicing his non-preachy insights, plunging straight into his own perceived shortcomings with confident vulnerability:
I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness. I now work as a pundit and columnist. I’m paid to be a narcissistic blow-hard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality. I’ve also become more aware that, like many people these days, I have lived a life of vague moral aspiration — vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose, while lacking a concrete moral vocabulary, a clear understanding of how to live a rich inner life, or even a clear knowledge of how character is developed and depth is achieved.
Illustration from ‘The Storm Whale’ by Benji Davies. Click image for more.
And yet this is something we all do, in varying degrees at various times, as we settle into the morally fail-safe trajectory of life:
You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You follow your desires wherever they take you, and you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else. You figure that if the people around you seem to like you, you must be good enough. In the process you end up slowly turning yourself into something a little less impressive than you had originally hoped. A humiliating gap opens up between your actual self and your desired self.
What Brooks calls for is learning to embrace this gap so tightly that we squeeze it shut — something that requires a sort of determined humility in the face of our imperfections. It is in this faceoff with our dual selves that character is built. (Perhaps Joan Didion put it best when she wrote in her timelessly magnificent meditation on self-respect: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”) And yet the willingness to do so seems strangely old-fashioned — something that belongs to the spiritual and philosophical traditions of yore rather than to the self-improvement industrial complex of today. With an eye to this forsaken lore, Brooks writes:
My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind. Over the last several decades, we’ve lost this language, this way of organizing life. We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate. We’re not more selfish or venal than people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built.
The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the [résumé] realm can produce deep satisfaction… The ultimate joys are moral joys.
To restore the balance between the “résumé virtues” and the “eulogy virtues,” Brooks proposes what he calls a Humility Code — a fifteen-point contract with ourselves that offers greater moral clarity on “what to live for and how to live.” Among them:
1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. Day to day we seek out pleasure, but deep down, human beings are endowed with moral imagination. All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue. As John Stuart Mill put it, people have a responsibility to become more moral over time. The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquillity that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle. The meaningful life is the same eternal thing, the combination of some set of ideals and some man or woman’s struggle for those ideals. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.
2. Proposition one defines the goal of life. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence. We have a tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite. We know what is deep and important in life, but we still pursue the things that are shallow and vain. Furthermore, we overestimate our own strength and rationalize our own failures. We know less than we think we do. We give in to short-term desires even when we know we shouldn’t. We imagine that spiritual and moral needs can be solved through status and material things.
3. Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. We are divided within ourselves, both fearfully and wonderfully made. We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing. We thus have the capacity to struggle with ourselves. There is something heroic about a person in struggle with herself, strained on the rack of conscience, suffering torments, yet staying alive and growing stronger, sacrificing a worldly success for the sake of an inner victory.
5. Pride is the central vice. Pride is a problem in the sensory apparatus. Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. Pride makes us more certain and closed-minded than we should be. Pride makes it hard for us to be vulnerable before those whose love we need. Pride makes coldheartedness and cruelty possible. Because of pride we try to prove we are better than those around us. Pride deludes us into thinking that we are the authors of our own lives.
10. We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape. You are living your life and then you get knocked off course — either by an overwhelming love, or by failure, illness, loss of employment, or twist of fate. The shape is advance-retreat-advance. In retreat, you admit your need and surrender your crown. You open up space that others might fill. And grace floods in. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. You don’t flail about in desperation, because hands are holding you up. You don’t have to struggle for a place, because you are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.
13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. If you try to use your work to serve yourself, you’ll find your ambitions and expectations will forever run ahead and you’ll never be satisfied. If you try to serve the community, you’ll always wonder if people appreciate you enough. But if you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus just on being excellent at that, you will wind up serving yourself and the community obliquely. A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?
At a time when advances in science and technology have changed our understanding of our mental and physical selves, it is easy for some to dismiss the discipline of philosophy as obsolete. Stephen Hawking, boldly, argues that philosophy is dead.
Not according to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Goldstein, a philosopher and novelist, studied philosophy at Barnard and then earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton University. She has written several books, won a MacArthur “Genius Award” in 1996, and taught at several universities, including Barnard, Columbia, Rutgers, and Brandeis.
Goldstein’s forthcoming book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, offers insight into the significant—and often invisible—progress that philosophy has made. I spoke with Goldstein about her take on the science vs. philosophy debates, how we can measure philosophy’s advances, and why an understanding of philosophy is critical to our lives today.
You came across The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant as a kid. What were your first thoughts?
I grew up in a very religious Orthodox Jewish household and everybody seemed to have firm opinions about all sorts of big questions. I was interested in how they knew what they seemed to know, or claimed to know. That’s what I would now call an epistemological question. I was allowed to read very widely, and I got the book The Story of Philosophy out. I must’ve been 11 or 12. And the chapter on Plato… it was my first experience of a kind of intellectual ecstasy. I was sent completely outside of myself. There were a lot of things that I didn’t understand, but there was something abstract and eternal that underlay all the changing phenomena of the world. He used the word “phantasmagoria,” which is one of those words I had to look up, and probably one of the few times I’ve encountered it. I couldn’t quite understand what I was reading, but I was hooked.
When did your formal education in philosophy start?
I didn’t think I was going to study philosophy. I also loved science, and took out lots of books about science as a kid, and, oh gosh, I ruined my mother’s kitchen by trying to do do-it-yourself chemistry experiments. There were all kinds of things that interested me. One of the things about philosophy is that you don’t have to give up on any other field. Whatever field there is, there’s a corresponding field of philosophy. Philosophy of language, philosophy of politics, philosophy of math. All the things I wanted to know about I could still study within a philosophical framework.
What did your religious family think about your pursuit of philosophy?
It made my mother intensely uncomfortable. She wanted me to be a good student but not to take it too seriously. She worried that nobody would want to marry such a bookish girl. But I ended up getting married at 19. And I wasn’t an outwardly rebellious child; I followed all the rules. The problem was, I was allowed to think about whatever I wanted to. Even though I decided very early on that I didn’t believe in any of it, it was okay as long as I had freedom of mind. It was fine with my family.
How early do you think children can, or should, start learning about philosophy?
I started really early with my daughters. They said the most interesting things that if you’re trained in philosophy you realize are big philosophical statements. The wonderful thing about kids is that the normal way of thinking, the conceptual schemes we get locked up in, haven’t gelled yet with them. When my daughter was a toddler, I’d say “Danielle!” she would very assuredly, almost indignantly, say, “I’m not Danielle! I’m this!” I’d think, What is she trying to express? This is going to sound ridiculous, but she was trying to express what Immanuel Kant calls the transcendental ego. You’re not a thing in the world the way there are other things in the world, you’re the thing experiencing other things—putting it all together. This is what this toddler was trying to tell me. Or when my other daughter, six at the time, was talking with her hands and knocked over a glass of juice. She said, “Look at what my body did!” I said, “Oh, you didn’t do that?” And she said, “No! My bodydid that!” I thought, Oh! Cartesian dualism! She meant that she didn’t intend to do that, and she identified herself with her intentional self. It was fascinating to me.
And kids love to argue.
They could argue with me about anything. If it were a good argument I would take it seriously. See if you can change my mind. It teaches them to be self-critical, to look at their own opinions and see what the weak spots are. This is also important in getting them to defend their own positions, to take other people’s positions seriously, to be able to self-correct, to be tolerant, to be good citizens and not to be taken in by demagoguery. The other thing is to get them to think about moral views. Kids have a natural egotistical morality. Every kid by age three is saying, “That’s not fair!” Well, use that to get them to think about fairness. Yes, they feel a certain sense of entitlement, but what is special aboutthem? What gives them such a strong sense of fairness? They’re natural philosophers. And they’re still so flexible.
There’s a peer pressure that sets in at a certain age. They so much want to be like everybody else. But what I’ve found is that if you instill this joy of thinking, the sheer intellectual fun, it will survive even the adolescent years and come back in fighting form. It’s empowering.
What changes in philosophy curriculum have you seen over the last 40 years?
One thing that’s changed tremendously is the presence of women and the change in focus because of that. There’s a lot of interest in literature and philosophy, and using literature as a philosophical examination. It makes me so happy! Because I was seen as a hard-core analytic philosopher, and when I first began to write novels people thought, Oh, and we thought she was serious! But that’s changed entirely. People take literature seriously, especially in moral philosophy, as thought experiments. A lot of the most developed and effective thought experiments come from novels. Also, novels contribute to making moral progress, changing people’s emotions.
Right—a recent study shows how reading literature leads to increased compassion.
Exactly. It changes our view of what’s imaginable. Commercial fiction that didn’t challenge people’s stereotypes about characters didn’t have the same effect of being able to read others better, but literary fiction that challenges our views of stereotypes has a huge effect. A lot of women philosophers have brought this into the conversation. Martha Nussbaum really led the way in this. She claimed that literature was philosophically important in many different ways. The other thing that’s changed is that there’s more applied philosophy. Let’s apply philosophical theory to real-life problems, like medical ethics, environmental ethics, gender issues. This is a real change from when I was in school and it was only theory.
In your new book, you respond to the criticism that philosophy isn’t progressing the way other fields are. For example: In philosophy, unlike in other areas of study, an ancient historical figure like Plato is just as relevant today.
There’s the claim that the only progress made is in posing problems that scientists can answer. That philosophy never has the means to answer problems—it’s just biding its time till the scientists arrive on the scene. You hear this quite often. There is, among some scientists, a real anti-philosophical bias. The sense that philosophy will eventually disappear. But there’s a lot of philosophical progress, it’s just a progress that’s very hard to see. It’s very hard to see because we see with it. We incorporate philosophical progress into our own way of viewing the world. Plato would be constantly surprised by what we know. And not only what we know scientifically, or by our technology, but what we know ethically. We take a lot for granted. It’s obvious to us, for example, that individual’s ethical truths are equally important. Things like class and gender and religion and ethnicity don’t matter insofar as individual rights go. That would never have occurred to him. He makes an argument in The Republic that you need to treat all Greeks in the same way. It never occurs to him that you would treat barbarians (non-Greeks) the same way.
It’s amazing how long it takes us, but we do make progress. And it’s usually philosophical arguments that first introduce the very outlandish idea that we need to extend rights. And it takes more, it takes a movement, and activism, and emotions, to affect real social change. It starts with an argument, but then it becomes obvious. The tracks of philosophy’s work are erased because it becomes intuitively obvious. The arguments against slavery, against cruel and unusual punishment, against unjust wars, against treating children cruelly—these all took arguments.
Which philosophical arguments have you seen shifting our national conversation, changing what we once thought was obvious?
About 30 years ago, the philosopher Peter Singer started to argue about the way animals are treated in our factory farms. Everybody thought he was nuts. But I’ve watched this movement grow; I’ve watched it become emotional. It has to become emotional. You have to draw empathy into it. But here it is, right in our time—a philosopher making the argument, everyone dismissing it, but then people start discussing it. Even criticizing it, or saying it’s not valid, is taking it seriously. This is what we have to teach our children. Even things that go against their intuition they need to take seriously. What was intuition two generations ago is no longer intuition; and it’s arguments that change it. We are very inertial creatures. We do not like to change our thinking, especially if it’s inconvenient for us. And certainly the people in power never want to wonder whether they should hold power. So it really takes hard, hard work to overcome that.
How do you think philosophy is best taught?
I get very upset when I’m giving a lecture and I’m not interrupted every few sentences by questions. My style is such that that happens very rarely. That’s my technique. I’m really trying to draw the students out, make them think for themselves. The more they challenge me, the more successful I feel as a teacher. It has to be very active. Plato used the metaphor that in teaching philosophy, there needs to be a fire in the teacher, and the sheer heat will help the fire grow in the student. It’s something that’s kindled because of the proximity to the heat.
What is it like teaching philosophy to students from a variety of backgrounds?
A good philosophy professor needs to be very aware of the different personalities in her class. I’ve had students who’ve become so very uncomfortable. They needed a lot of handholding. Some came from very religious backgrounds, and just the questioning sent them into a free-fall. We made our way through. Some of them ended up being my strongest students. Two of them are very successful professional philosophers. But they required a lot of extra time because they felt it so deeply. You’re being asked to rethink all sorts of opinions. And when you see that the ground is not very firm, it can distance you from your own family, your upbringing. I went through this. My own philosophical journey distanced me from my family, the people I loved most. That was very difficult, so I know what they’re going through. It can be a very intense journey.
What’s happened to the popularity of philosophy as a subject since you studied it?
It’s gone down. Our college students today are far more practical. When I was in college, which was in the last hey-day of the radical movement, it was a more philosophically reflective time. Now, they want to get good jobs and get rich fast.
Despite this, and the fact that so many students are facing massive debt and a bleak economy, how can you make the case that they should study philosophy?
I wouldn’t say that they must go into philosophy, and frankly, the field can’t absorb that many people, but I would say that it’s always a good thing to know, no matter what you go on to study—to be able to think critically. To challenge your own point of view. Also, you need to be a citizen in this world. You need to know your responsibilities. You’re going to have many moral choices every day of your life. And it enriches your inner life. You have lots of frameworks to apply to problems, and so many ways to interpret things. It makes life so much more interesting. It’s us at our most human. And it helps us increase our humanity. No matter what you do, that’s an asset.
What do you think are the biggest philosophical issues of our time?
The growth in scientific knowledge presents new philosophical issues. The idea of the multiverse. Where are we in the universe? Physics is blowing our minds about this. The question of whether some of these scientific theories are really even scientific. Can we get predictions out of them? And with the growth in cognitive science and neuroscience. We’re going into the brain and getting these images of the brain. Are we discovering what we really are? Are we solving the problem of free will? Are we learning that there isn’t any free will? How much do the advances in neuroscience tell us about the deep philosophical issues? These are the questions that philosophers are now facing. But I also think, to a certain extent, that our society is becoming much more secular. So the question about how we find meaning in our lives, given that many people no longer look to monotheism as much as they used to in terms of defining the meaning of their life. There’s an undercurrent of a preoccupation with this question. With the decline of religion is there a sense of the meaninglessness of life and the easy consumerist answer that’s filling the space religion used to occupy? This is something that philosophers ought to be addressing.
This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and length.
We ask everything of love. We ask it to be anarchic. We ask it to be the glue that holds the family together, that allows society to be orderly and allows all kinds of material processes to be transmitted from one generation to another. But I think that the connection between love and sex is very mysterious. Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together. They can, I suppose, but I think rather to the detriment of either one or the other. And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t. And why do people want to be in love? That’s really interesting. Partly, they want to be in love the way you want to go on a roller coaster again — even knowing you’re going to have your heart broken. What fascinates me about love is what it has to do with all the cultural expectations and the values that have been put into it. I’ve always been amazed by the people who say, “I fell in love, I was madly, passionately in love, and I had this affair.” And then a lot of stuff is described and you ask, “How long did it last?” And the person will say, “A week, I just couldn’t stand him or her.”
Susan Sontag’s private thoughts on love, culled from her published diaries, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.
I have loved people passionately whom I wouldn’t have slept with for anything, but I think that’s something else. That’s friendship — love, which can be a tremendously passionate emotion, and it can be tender and involve a desire to hug or whatever. But it certainly doesn’t mean you want to take off your clothes with that person. But certain friendships can be erotic. Oh, I think friendship is very erotic, but it isn’t necessarily sexual. I think all my relationships are erotic: I can’t imagine being fond of somebody I don’t want to touch or hug, so therefore there’s always an erotic aspect to some extent.
Our ideas of love are terribly bound up in our ambivalence about these two conditions — the positive and negative valuations of childhood, the positive and negative valuations of adulthood. And I think that, for many people, love signifies a return to values that are represented by childhood and that seem censored by the dried-up, mechanized, adult kinds of coercions of work and rules and responsibilities and impersonality. I mean, love is sensuality and play and irresponsibility and hedonism and being silly, and it gets to be thought of in terms of dependence and becoming weaker and getting into some kind of emotional slavery and treating the loved one as some kind of parent figure or sibling. You reproduce a part of what you were as a child when you weren’t free and were completely dependent on your parents, particularly your mother.
It’s the most frequent word in the English language, accounting for around 4 percent of all the words we write or speak. It’s everywhere, all the time, so clearly it must be doing something important. Words have meaning. That’s fundamental, isn’t it? So this word “the,” a word that seems to be supporting a significant portion of the entire weight of our language, what does this word mean? It must mean something, right?
We can say, roughly, that “the” means the word it is attached to refers to a specific, individual object. When I say “I have the apple,” I mean a certain apple, not just “an apple”—any old apple, or “apples” in general.
But, of course, it’s not quite that easy. Sometimes “the” doesn’t indicate a specific object, but a whole class of objects. When you say you know how to play “the piano” or that exercise is good for “the heart,” there is no specific piano or heart you have in mind. “The pen is mightier than the sword” isn’t about specific pens or swords or even about specific instances of their metaphorical counterparts, acts of writing and acts of aggression.
“The” does not seem like a difficult word, but it’s very hard to explain to someone who isn’t a native speaker. Why do we say, “I love the ballet,” but not “I love the cable TV”? Why do we say, “I have the flu,” but not “I have the headache”? Why do we say, “winter is the coldest season,” and not “winter is coldest season”? For speakers of Russian, Korean, or any language that doesn’t have a “the,” these are important questions.
The only satisfactory answers are found, not in an explanatory definition, but in lists of situations where “the” is used. Such a list is what you find, in fact, if you look up “the” in the dictionary, something native speakers almost never do. Why would they? It’s not “anthropomorphism” or “jejune” or one of those words people need dictionaries for. But dictionary-makers are tasked with defining all the words people use, not just the glamorous ones, and sometimes the simplest words turn out to be the hardest ones to define. The entry for “the” on Merriam-Webster.com lists 23 places where it can go, among them “before the plural form of a numeral that is a multiple of ten to denote a particular decade of a century or of a person’s life <life in the twenties>” and “before the name of a commodity or any familiar appurtenance of daily life to indicate reference to the individual thing, part, or supply thought of as at hand<talked on the telephone>.” These uses are related to each other in a loose and complex way, but it’s impossible to pull out the single definitive meaning that underlies them all. You simply have to list them. And that list is the meaning.
The OED lists 50 entries for “the,” some of which are only historical relics. It was once correct to play “the chess,” to learn “the dressmaking” and “the mathematics,” and to read “the French,” all for “the posterity.” The “the” dropped out of those situations. The fact that it doesn’t go before those words anymore is also part of its meaning.
So the meaning of “the” is the combination of the situations where it is appropriate and the situations where it is not appropriate. This makes it quite different from straightforwardly definable words like “octahedron” (“a three-dimensional figure having eight plane faces”), but not much different from “different” or “see” or “now” or any of the everyday words we use all the time. We like to think of words as little containers of meaning that we pack and unpack as we communicate, but they are not containers so much as pointers. They point us toward a body of experience and knowledge, to conversations we have had and things we have read, to places in sentences where we have and haven’t seen them. Words get their meanings from what we do with them. Especially the word we use the most.