On an “A4” Life
What an insult can teach us about priorities and reason
Frequently, we are assailed by inputs on how we should live our lives. All the media consumed in our daily regimens instruct us to be one way or another. A panoply of superstition, falsehoods, and lewd ideas enter our minds from our phones or books; our ears are subject to endless noise about how to find “our inner selves” and how to live in the “now”. We are taught who or what to scorn at; who or what is right or wrong to support. And that there is no objective truth.
Worst of all, in the west we are paradoxically told, and in contrast to the doctrinal prescription of demanded support to a cause or person vis-à-vis our position on the political spectrum, that there is no right or wrong and that it would be caustic to hold that belief in the sphere of open rhetoric and the public realm. That there is no higher or more beautiful piece of art, that all views on life, if marketed nicely are to be given safe harbour and accepted unquestionably. This has long annoyed me and I am sure many others.
In a long 14-hour drive from Athens to Istanbul on the highways ranging from Attica to Thrace, I ruminated on an old jibe intended as a questionable piece of unsolicited advice that greatly troubled me once:
“you know, not everyone wants to live an A4 life”.
On its own, this phrase is not at all rude or factually wrong. But it was, as mentioned, meant as a woven insult. Perhaps many of us working in Brussels may hear something similar upon a return visit home, in different, similarly woven, ways.
This phrase is meant to use the paper size, A4, as a metaphor for a life restricted in the cold white bounds of printer paper. Perhaps also implying weakness; it can be burned, crumpled or forgotten in this metaphor. But where would humanity be without square paper to record and instruct the joint destinies of history?
For all that is not recorded in bounds eventually disappears into nothingness.
Now, just as the first time I heard it, I was perplexed by the stupidity and rank disregard for logic of that statement and everything that it stands for. Stuffed with lack of foresight and couched in deeply, dare I say, privileged logic.
Below are some thoughts on the virtues of an ordered life and the follies of creative non- “A4” paths in life which ultimately prove destructive.
As a disclaimer, be it far from thought that I seek to lecture others on how to live their lives, that would be a narcissistic affair; ugly and grotesquely simplistic in a short essay. Considerations ought to be made in anyone’s life — the below merely offers a glimpse of perspective.
As a start…
So, first, what is an “A4 life”? In the context of that jibe, it is a boring life — led by protocol and order, making joy and peace subservient to all else. However, this view is detestable to say the least. An A4 life simply put, should mean a life complete; a balance of personal pleasure and duty to others and the world around you.
Better phrased, this style of life is reflective of a series of conscious choices one makes about what they do with the precious time they have on this Earth.
It places real value on the personal effort to, in those conscious choices, make real and valuable considerations of their impact on yourself and your periphery, both wider and more immediate. The key tenants of an A4 life include placing value on security, self-respect (i.e. understanding the value of both tenderness and strength and when to make use of each and to what extent), an obedience to reason, and most of all, a keen self awareness for those around us.
These core principles are multiplicitous in application, through which any person may secure perhaps what is most desirable in life for them. These tenants may lead some to sit comfortably by a fireplace and read, and others to climb mountains or jump out of aeroplanes — but surely contentment will be found.
These are not my ideas alone, I have been strongly inspired by Marcus Aurelius’ thinking, with a focus on responsibility, virtue, and to underline what the great American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series, 1841)
Nowadays, scorn is placed for thinking inside the box, that we must break free — free from the bounds of virtue too perhaps. And, while I recognise that not everyone is searching or destined for greatness, we can all attain inner rather than outward greatness at least.
Even the most beautiful symphonies, the most vibrant paintings, the annals of human history and thought, are recorded and preserved in square frames. If you want life to be meaningful and impactful, there is no time to float freely in bliss.
The failings of “airy” lives — the antithesis of A4
For lack of a better word at present, the antithesis of a complete and well balanced life can be described as creatively “airy” lives. These lives live with fairies and in the clouds. Perverse poetry, but alas, no use to us here on earth where we have been placed for better or worse. The main descriptive prinzip of this approach to life is that of the folly of dreams.
Lulled by comfort and deafened to reason, we all like to live in our dreams and and set the world aside — escaping from the seemingly terrifying bounds of a blank sheet of printer paper used as the metaphor for this most complex of philosophical questions, what makes a desirable life?
I have met people who base their lives on dreams, which really are metastasised visions of aspirations which reach into the absurd. Dreams are the most perfect liars, for our own subconscious knows best how to trick us into believing the unbelievable despite reason and logic. Dreams are also perfect in another sense, they are meaningless to others, meaning that the periphery of real life can be damned to our own fantastical imaginative ambitions.
In order to achieve anything in this world, one must have certain aspects of luck, but most importantly, must have goals. Sound and reasoned goals pave Roman roads which outlast the ragged and quickly overgrown paths in the woods of our imagination.
So is it ‘boring’ to prioritise goals over dreams? No, it makes reality all the more exciting, in the sense that now one can realise that they can actually set out to achieve something that is not locked in a realm of fantasy.
The other constantly exhausting factor that plays into lives lived in the air is that of false expectations. Through our delusions, our naturally optimistic lens on the world wishes for all to be possible. Many times we are led to believe that anything is possible and that all is within our grasp at our command.
However, in this juxtaposition between reality and imagination, a trap is laid in front of us; blinded by optimism we fail to see the laestrygonians in front of us. For without setting reasonable limits to our expectations through the measured approach of setting goals to a complete vision, we end up exhausting ourselves at every setback instead of reevaluating the situation that we face in reality.
But most of all, the most painful failing of airy lives is the absolution of responsibility. As humans in a collective society there befalls a responsibility on each person to acknowledge the limit of their liberties and their boundaries on the effects of others.
There is however, another type of responsibility — the one we have to ourselves. We can observe this responsibility by honouring the privilege to be alive at the present, however imperfect the world may be. The responsibility to ourselves comes primarily from a need to obey reason. It is imperative to obey rational thought and an ordered logic in most aspects of our lives, for we have this unique ability amongst the other creatures of this Earth.
Real progress in one’s life is made through the calculation of sacrifice, mostly that of a personal nature. We must, in order to progress in our goals, be willing to make personal sacrifices to any rate of luxury we may be used to. In relationships for example, we must sacrifice the luxury of intolerance and replace in its stead, ample tolerance (but with limits bien sûr) — one can not share a life of love without making room for another’s.
Thinkers across the world and through the epochs have tried much harder and at innumerably more detailed lengths than I, to describe what a desirable life means to them. While abstract, the most important take away from the above is simple — live in the real world.
For a ship without the sails of reason can only keep you afloat in the sea, but when the storm gathers on the horizon, and when the deep approaches, no wind can guide you to Ithaca.
Whatever one does in life, none can be left worse off when virtue and reason balance each other. Virtue, being the true embodiment of Rousseau’s amour propre is dangerous on its own and can lead to vanity and egoism. But balanced with reason, an understanding that we are not the centre of everyone else’s universe, grants an equilibrium and peace.
So, as referenced before, an A4 life is not a boring one, or one dictated to by protocol. It is a life principally considerate of balance and moderation which allows us to make what we can with the lives we are living in the present.
I hope that the above has provided a glimpse at a morsel of perspective and can eventually prove useful to any reader.
Lastly, some words of The Lord Kenneth Clark have always echoed in my soul since I first heard their utterance in the final episode of his documentary series Civilisation.
“At this point, I reveal myself in my true colours as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that Order is better than Chaos, Creation better than Distruction. I prefer Gentleness to violence, Forgiveness to Vendetta.
On the whole, I think that Knowledge is preferable to Ignorance. And I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that, in spite of recent triumphs of science, Men haven't changed much the last 2,000 years. And in consequence, we must still try and learn from History; History is ourselves.
I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy. The ritual, by which we avoid hurting other peoples’ feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which, for convenience, we call nature…
Good people have convictions, rather too many of them. The trouble is that there is still no centre. The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic-materialism. And that isn’t enough. One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.”
Athens — Αθήνα
Suggested listening for a re-read: Mendelssohn Symphony n. 3 / Karajan, Berliner Philharmoniker
All photographs are my own and under copyright