Thursday, January 16, 2014

Via Negativa


The Pope asked Michelangelo: 'Tell me the secret of your genius. How have you created the statue of David, the masterpiece of all masterpieces?' Michelangelo's answer: 'It's simple. I removed everything that is not David.'

Let's be honest. We don't know for sure what makes us successful. We can't pinpoint exactly what makes us happy. But we know with certainty what destroys success or happiness. This realisation, as simple as it is, is fundamental: Negative knowledge (what not to do) is much more potent than positive knowledge (what to do).

Thinking more clearly and acting more shrewdly means adopting Michelangelo's method: don't focus on David. Instead, focus on everything that is not David and chisel it away. In our case: eliminate all errors and better thinking will follow.

The Greeks, Romans and medieval thinkers had a term for this approach: via negativa. Literally the negative path, the path of renunciation, of exclusion, of reduction. Theologians were the first to tread the via negativa: we cannot say what God is, we can only say what God is not. Applied to the present day: we cannot say what brings us success. We can pin down only what blocks or obliterates success. Eliminate the downside, the thinking errors, and the upside will take care of itself. This is all we need to know.