Archive for the ‘virtue’ Category

“Must Life be Tragic?”

March 2, 2012

The second 2012 Berry Lecture in Public Philosophy last night featured my old friend Rob Talisse, co-author of Reasonable Atheism and author of eight other books in his first nine years at Vanderbilt, according to John Lachs’s introduction). His topic: “Must Life be Tragic?”

It is, of course, for us humans, if we just mean that we’re going to die and we know it. None of us will achieve all that is worth achieving. We can dream of far more than we can ever attain, in a finite lifetime.

But Talisse meant to say more than that. He is a quick, aggressive, insightful, iconoclastic thinker. His thesis was in part that pluralists (like me), who hold “value”to be varied and incommensurable, make life even more tragic for ourselves by acknowledging a greater plurality of uncompensated unique goods than does the non-pluralist who thinks that “value is one big thing.”

But note: as Talisse is defining the term, a philosopher like John Stuart Mill is a non-pluralist: value for him is one big thing, namely utility (or pleasure, or happiness). The way I typically use the term, Mill is a pluralist. How could he not be? He was William James’s hero, an exponent of liberty and eccentricity. They always entail variety, often of the incommensurable type.

But that’s another conversation. What most intrigues me this morning is the implication that I make my life more tragic because I acknowledge that I might have traveled other roads in life, might have pursued other goods than those available to a professional philosopher. Those other goods are whispering to me: “I ought to be pursued by you.” But I’m a finite human, I can’t have it all. And that adds a layer of tragedy beyond the impending loss we all must anticipate, by virtue of our intrinsic mortality.

I find it strange to think of merely hypothetical (though possible) goods laying claim on how I apportion my days. It’s the other way around, seems to me: we all make claims on the world. Claims are mirrors of desire, which the world apart from us entirely lacks. But Talisse says that view commits a kind of “value phenomenalism” he finds objectionable. Still another conversation.

So, let’s pretend I could have become a great St. Louis Cardinal. But instead I chose to stay in school and eventually became  an academic who occasionally writes and talks baseball but will never fulfill that old childhood dream of playing it at the highest level. I’ll not make it to Cooperstown, not even as a writer/sage. A few have, but I’m no Grantland Rice. And there are no plans to open a philosophy wing at the Hall of Fame. They do host an annual academic symposium there, in which I did participate once, but that’s not the same. I’ll do my thing again this month at the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference, but that’s not the same either.

So my life is thus, on Talisse’s telling, more tragic than if I were to renounce the pluralist line. I could then silence that annoying, nagging whisper: No, I’m pursuing my highest good right here in the philosophy department. I ought not to have chased that illusory baseball dream.

Instead I have to say that philosophy and baseball were for me incommensurable, heterogeneous goods. I can never know that one was my optimal good. I must always fret that my choice cut me off, permanently and ineradicably, from my best life. So whatever life I’ve lived or might have, was inevitably going to be tragic for its renunciations.

But: is the hypothesized fact that I could not be a philosopher and a great ballplayer, but had to choose and may have chosen the wrong incommensurable good, really so tragic? Isn’t the greater tragedy of life, beyond mere mortality, the fact that many of us fail to achieve many complementary goods that we need not renounce, that were “compossible,” but that we’ve simply and contingently failed to secure?

I can be a good philosopher, spouse, dad, friend, neighbor, humanitarian, philanthropist, amateur athlete, whatever… but for whatever failures of will or imagination or industry or ambition, I end up achieving only a subset of those goods. I never really lose a moment’s peace thinking about the games I haven’t played. I do sometimes fret about missed opportunities I can’t possibly blame on my choice of vocation.

But it’s March, it’s Spring Break, it’s Spring Training! It would be a personal tragedy not to enjoy it at least as much as I enjoyed Rob Talisse’s lecture last night.

What good shall I do this day?

June 4, 2011

Ben Franklin comes down to us with the reputation for spontaneity and fun, but he was a self-made man of regular habits too. Great cliches are rooted in home wisdom: “early to bed, early to rise”…

The morning question, what good shall I do this day?

Great question, and “prosecute the present study” is of course part of a great answer. But so is “diversion.” We all know what happens to boys who are all work and no play. Ben was not a dull boy. Wonder what he’d have planned to do with five days in Chicago, after visiting Wrigley & the Sox & John Hancock & the Field Museum & the Pier?

now

January 1, 2010

My sister asked the other day what I’d be resolving for the New Year, but– naturally– I put off formulating a reply. So here it is:

I resolve to stop procrastinating.

That’s for 2010 and beyond, and it applies to everything. For once, I agree with John Tierney

“Recovering procrastinators of pleasure should try a simple New Year’s resolution: Have fun … now!”

Raw energy, “pure delight”

August 27, 2009

Rebecca Solnit’s new book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster “investigates the fleeting, purposeful joy that fills human beings in the face of disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and even terrorist attacks…” My favorite example, which she discusses: William James’s reaction to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his first-hand account of which exudes a strange joy and gratitude for the mere opportunity to be present to witness such unanticipated destruction and its amelioration. It is, I once wrote,

James’s personal account of the great San
Francisco earthquake, an account that must be at least curious
and possibly illuminating to anyone who has ever been visited
with an earthquake experience of his own. My own small quake
experience was in Palm Springs, California, on May 7, 1995, a
relatively insignificant shimmy on the Richter scale (5.0) but
enough to awaken me from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. with an
immediate, inexplicable awareness of exactly what was happening.
I confess that the dominant feeling for me, then, was fear.
James’s firsthand account of the events of April 18, 1906
is, by contrast, not one born of fear at all:
@EXT: [L]ying awake at about half past five . . .I felt the bed
begin to waggle. . . . Sitting up involuntarily and taking a
kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face. The room was
shaken like a rat by a terrier . . . [My] emotion consisted
wholly of glee . . . at the vividness which such an abstract idea
or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into
sensible reality and verified concretely. . . . I felt no trace
whatever of fear; it was pure delight . . .
@TEXT:James described his total quake experience as “mind-
enlarging,” reporting in the quake’s aftermath a sense of
cheerful solidarity among the survivors, “a kind of uplift in the
sense of a ‘common lot’ that took away the sense of loneliness
that (I imagine) gives the sharpest edge to the more usual kind
of misfortune. . . .”88
It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the first things
James wrote after the quake was an essay called The Energies of
Men. Like Emerson and Thoreau before him, he was alert to the
very human significance of natural events. An earthquake, even a
puny one, is a release of vast amounts of energy. We are
conservators and expenders of energy, too, but much of our effort
is dissipated. “The human individual lives usually far within his
limits . . . [H]e energizes below his maximum, and he behaves
below his optimum,”89 habitually. But here is our greatest seed
of hope: our bad habits were made to be broken. Like Emerson,
James is a champion of self-reliance and the spirit of reform.
Perhaps more than Emerson, he is also a champion of hope as the
collective human urge so admirably displayed by those San
Franciscans whose “hearty frame of mind” and eagerness to make a
fresh beginning amidst natural devastation he found so
uplifting.

an account that must be at least curious and possibly illuminating to anyone who has ever been visited with an earthquake experience of his own. My own small quake experience was in Palm Springs, California, on May 7, 1995, a relatively insignificant shimmy on the Richter scale (5.0) but enough to awaken me from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. with an immediate, inexplicable awareness of exactly what was happening. I confess that the dominant feeling for me, then, was fear.

James’s firsthand account of the events of April 18, 1906 is, by contrast, not one born of fear at all:

Lying awake at about half past five… I felt the bed begin to waggle… Sitting up involuntarily and taking a kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face. The room was shaken like a rat by a terrier… [My] emotion consisted wholly of glee… at the vividness which such an abstract idea or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into sensible reality and verified concretely. . . . I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight . . .

James described his total quake experience as “mind-enlarging,” reporting in the quake’s aftermath a sense of cheerful solidarity among the survivors, “a kind of uplift in the sense of a ‘common lot’ that took away the sense of loneliness that (I imagine) gives the sharpest edge to the more usual kind of misfortune. . . .”

It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the first things James wrote after the quake was an essay called “The Energies of Men.” Like Emerson and Thoreau before him, he was alert to the very human significance of natural events. An earthquake, even a puny one, is a release of vast amounts of energy. We are conservators and expenders of energy, too, but much of our effort is dissipated. “The human individual lives usually far within his limits . . . [H]e energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum,” habitually. But here is our greatest seed of hope: our bad habits were made to be broken. Like Emerson, James is a champion of self-reliance and the spirit of reform.

Perhaps more than Emerson, he is also a champion of hope as the collective human urge so admirably displayed by those San Franciscans whose “hearty frame of mind” and eagerness to make a fresh beginning amidst natural devastation he found so uplifting.

another successful misattribution

August 22, 2009

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is success.

inaccurately attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson



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