Human 39: Ben Sixsmith
“My name is Ben, and I am a writer. I thought about “columnist” or “commentator” but in truth my main skill, to the extent that I have one, is not political insight or erudition but being able to put words together in a relatively elegant and entertaining style. I was born in Bath, England and moved, in my early twenties, to Tarnowskie Góry, Poland, where I have had the luck to live and work for more than eight years. I have written for The Spectator, Quillette, The American Conservative, UnHerd, The Catholic Herald, First Things and a variety of other outlets. I am currently finishing a book of short stories.”
Ben is a human mammal. Here are his thoughts:
What brings you the most joy in life?
Love. Creativity. Beauty. Praise. I was tempted to leave out the last one but it would be dishonest to claim that joy is not a product of the satisfaction of the ego as well as the heart and soul.
What does success mean to you?
Narrowly, success is the achievement of one's goals. Who could deny that Genghis Khan was a successful statesman? But I think that having a successful life means, or should mean, uniting accomplishment with integrity. If, for example, I wrote a fantastically well-received essay that expressed arguments I did not actually believe in, or that was founded on incompetence or dishonesty, I could not count it as a success.
What do you see as your greatest achievement?
In my teens I had a major breakdown that involved chronic anorexia. As much as I hope to write a really brilliant book one day I think recovering from mental illness will remain my greatest achievement because, if nothing else, it preceded any semblance of professional success.
What are you most grateful for?
I am most grateful for being born in England, to wonderful parents, and for having the chance to move to Tarnowskie Góry, Poland, which I knew nothing about but have come to love. In my professional life, I am very grateful for editors like Claire Lehmann of Quillette and Freddy Gray of The Spectator, who took a chance on me when I was totally obscure.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I have “I'll regret this when I'm older” tattooed across my back.
Who or what has had the biggest influence on your life?
I wouldn’t want to be so presumptuous as to name anyone and have them be held responsible.
What do you regret?
I most regret wasting my adolescence. In fact, most of my regrets involve wasting time and opportunities. I have to remind myself that feeling regretful is, in most cases, a waste of time.
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was nine or ten I wanted to be a writer, so in a sense I have achieved my childhood dreams. On the other hand, when I was five or six I wanted to be a football player by day and a police officer by night – so that little boy would be gravely disappointed.
If you could pick one thing to be the best in the world at instantly, what would you choose?
I'm tempted to say mixed martial arts. It must feel good to stand in front of anyone and know that you could kick their arse. But I'm going to have to go with poker. I'm not actually a fan but I would have a lot more time to focus on being good at things that I am interested in if I had a few million pounds in the bank.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Being miserable about life will only make things worse. Nothing comes without hard work. Get a haircut and start going to the gym. Then again, if I didn’t listen to anyone else, why would I listen to myself?
If you could have a conversation with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
I would talk with my mum. As for “famous" people, though, I would love to talk to the English comedian Peter Cook – who was apparently at his funniest in informal conversations – or the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski – about Poland, life and politics. Hopefully, they wouldn’t spend the whole conversation screaming “WHAT AM I DOING HERE” and “WHAT DO YOU MEAN I'M DEAD”.
What do you doubt most?
Whether there is intelligence that transcends mankind's. Then, on other days, I doubt whether life could have existed without it.
What is the role of luck in our lives?
Tremendous. There are your genes. There is your childhood environment. There are the people you happen to meet. I was walking across the road the other day and almost got run down by a driver who had turned without braking. If I had been walking just a little slower, or if he had been driving just a little faster, that might have been it for me.
But luck is not enough. You have to make something of it. Even most lottery winners waste all of their money.
What would you do with your life if you had unlimited financial resources?
Write, support other writers and invest in Tarnowskie Góry and the people who live there. I would also build an enormous house with a gigantic library – both to read there and because the books would serve as good soundproofing if I was going to get drunk with the boys.
If you could have the definitive answer to a single question, what would you ask?
Is there a God?
Do human beings have free will?
I think so. But even if we don’t we might as well behave as if we do. I'm sure Patricia Churchland does.
Do you believe in God?
Maybe. That’s an unsatisfying answer, I know, but answering a question that has Aquinas, Leibniz and Anscombe on one side and Hume, Nietzsche and Russell on the other is not easy.
Could we be living in a simulated universe?
Perhaps. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to play The Sims. If you gave your character a swimming pool and waited until they went for a dip you could delete the steps and watch them flail around in the water until they died. A lot about our species would make sense if it was the product of a sadistic juvenile imagination.
What is the single greatest achievement of humanity?
For most of our existence as a species we struggled to find food and fuel. Now, we have more problems associated with their abundance than their scarcity. Sure, that is something of a backhanded compliment. But it is a bizarre kind of achievement.
I was also tempted to say “orchestral music”.
What do you see as the biggest existential threat to humanity?
I suspect the increased lethality and accessibility of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Malign superintelligences deserve a mention, too. Distinct from existential risks, additionally, is the civilisational risk of a steep decline in institutional competence.
What does it mean to live a good life?
I'm no moral authority. Still, I think a good life would be to fulfil one's potential while helping other people to fulfil theirs. For some, this means being a noble statesman or a pioneering artist. For others, it means being a good spouse, a loving parent and a loyal friend.
What is a good death?
I'm sure it depends. For some, it is having the time to wish their friends and family goodbye. For others it is, “Look out for that bus!” “What bus?” “Blam.” Of course, a truly exceptional death is sacrificing one's life for the sake of others. But the most we can hope for is maximal dignity and minimal pain.
What question should I have asked you?
“Ben, your boundless genius amazes me. How are you so talented?” I would have answered, “Oh, too kind.”
Thanks for your time, Ben!
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