Happy Birthday, Christopher Hitchens: A Letter to a Young Contrarian

Why you should speak now, or take your arguments with you to your grave

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Today would have marked the 63rd birthday of acclaimed author and professional contrarian Christopher Hitchens, who died of esophageal cancer last December. "One should try to write as if posthumously," he famously—prophetically even, were such a contention not to be blasphemous to him—declared three days before he became gravely ill in 2010. Perhaps he had this dictum in mind when he penned, on a challenge from his New School students, Letters to a Young Contrarian, condensing years' worth of his advice "to the young and the restless" into a series of letters written as if to just one of them—a form borrowed from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet.

This particular excerpt distills a great deal of Hitch's lens on life in just one short paragraph:

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the 'transcendent' and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for your.

These words of wisdom join other astute advice to young guns from such cultural figures as John Steinbeck, C. S. Lewis, Albert Einstein, and Jackson Pollock's dad.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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