September 22, 2016

“Blockadia” is where the climate action is, these days.

Where’s that? Nowhere, everywhere, “wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill.” Or frack, or lay pipe, or in some other way disrupt and despoil local lands and communal traditions. It’s a “roving transnational conflict zone” immediately focused on environmental integrity but ultimately about democratic control of vital resources by those whose lives and livelihoods depend on them.

Who are the Blockadians? Increasingly, everyday people. Professors, students, grandmothers, all kinds. Increasingly not stereotypical activists. Klein travels the globe in this chapter, finding Blockadians in Greece, Russia, China, Canada, Texas, “the middle of nowheres” that become “centers of everywhere.”

All of this is so heartening, so encouraging of hopefulness that a critical mass of concerned citizens might actually begin not just to hold invasive corporate marauders and their government sponsors accountable for damages but actually to anticipate and prevent home invasion before it happens.

But, remember the 2010 BP oil spill? It was such a horror, now it’s another old news story nearly forgotten. Do we have collective memory enough to make Blockadia a permanent place? Wendell Berry says we all just need to recommit ourselves to the concept of home, making global thinking the unforced flower of local action and “affection.” “If each of us loved our homeplace enough to defend it, there would be no ecological crisis, no place could ever be written off as a sacrifice zone.”

He’s surely right, if we can see and value the sweetness of home wherever anyone hangs a hat. “Look again at that dot…” We may not get it right in the first several drafts, but if we persevere we may endure.

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Anselm, Aquinas, and Emerson’s eyeball

September 21, 2016

It’s Anselm’s ontology and Aquinas’s Aristotelian “special pleading” today in CoPhi, with a side of Emersonian transparency.

Anselm’s famous argument, less popular among theologians than some philosophers, merits Russell’s respect. Is there “a bridge between pure thought to things,” an armchair way of knowing? Wouldn’t it be nice! But subordinating reason to faith, believing before understanding, gets things backwards. Existence runs faster than our knowledge of essence, Aquinas concluded, so you can’t really know God from your armchair.

And yet, Aquinas’s five “ways” of knowing about unmoved movers, first causes, necessity, perfection, and purpose, though fair, forceful, sharp, and clear, are plenty sedentary. They too place the cart before the horse, the conclusion before the argument. 
And that’s why good philosophers get up out of their armchairs and move themselves to walk, talk, and think before they issue their summas. They roam, they take in nature’s pagaent, and sometimes they ecstatically effuse.

Image result for emerson transparent eyeballCrossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all

Ralph was getting carried away there, the way poets can. Nobody’s ever nothing, no seer sees all. But knowers go looking and seeing, they don’t just muse from their seats. And then, like the other poet we mentioned, they frequently and unapologetically contradict themselves. “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit,” we see what we project. So we’d better look often, all over. Only the armchair affords a single prospect.
Happy birthday H.G. Wells, who said “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” WA
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Dim desperation

September 20, 2016

“Our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea,” declared William James a century and a quarter ago in an essay whose title cuts to the chase of Naomi Klein’s next chapter: “Is Life Worth Living?” If we think it is, we might think twice about following the geoengineers who propose to dim the sun, spray sulfur into the stratosphere, induce a permanent haze, create a virtual volcanic parasol, or do any of the other mammoth-scale projects whose unforeseen outcomes could very well make life unlivable.

Or, in a last-ditch Hail Mary situation they could be our final dimming prospect for salvation. We’re not quite there yet. not quite to Plan B. But what’s Plan A, if not harnessing the sun and other sources of life here on the surface of our earth?

Klein reminds us that it is indeed our salvation we’re talking about here. “In pragmatic terms our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely.” So maybe we want to instruct the engineers to tread lightly and put the parasol away, until our science is at least an island and not just a drop in the sea.

James’s theme is suicide, Klein’s ecocide. How to resist both? James had an idea: “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Or at least the will to postpone Hail Mary. It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

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Angell, Apples, Augustine, Boethius

September 19, 2016

It’s Augustine and Boethius in CoPhi today, and peripatetic thoughts on solitude and silence. 

First, happy birthday to the great New Yorker editor and writer Roger Angell. He made himself a place in Cooperstown, saying baseball is “a great game for writers because it’s just the right pace. You can watch the game and keep score and look around and take notes. Now and then you even have time to have an idea, which in many sports you don’t have room for.”

Young Augustine had ideas, some not half bad, but he was also stuffed with a sense of his and our sinfulness. He prayed hard for deliverance in due course but first dallied with delight and the dark-and-light Manichean struggle that seemed to suit his temperament. Unlike the Greeks he was sure that space and time are ex nihilo. Bertrand Russell thinks his philosophy of time, unlike the core of his theology, is worthy of consideration. The idea that Adam freely bit an apple and corrupted the rest of us for all time, though, infants and John Calvin included, was not so brilliant. He might have said more, we may say in hindsight, to address the impending darkness of medieval time.

Boethius, on the other hand, impresses Russell greatly despite his Platonism. Finding his greatest consolation in the philosophy of the Stoics, he didn’t whine over his appalling imprisonment or weep for his sins. 

Frederic Gros says you can’t ever really walk alone. I agree, as did Charles Schulz. One thing to be said for canines (and maybe this is what the Cynics really admired most): they don’t wear you down with too much chatter. Sometimes I do think I too could turn and live with them.
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Weekend update. Highlight of parents’ weekend in Illinois: the annual Apple Festival in Murphysboro where we met an old woman who said she’d been at the very first one, 65 years ago. We came home with apples, apple butter, apple cider, apple pie… but without apple-induced anxiety for our eternal souls. Life is still good.

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Not the messiah

September 15, 2016

Speaking of cynics…

A cynic, as we deploy the term nowadays, is someone whose highest regard is for his own self-interest, who considers himself too cool for rules, who mocks and scorns the public and its problems. But he may also, simultaneously, be a gifted and charismatic self-promoter, skilled in the arts of public relations and image-polishing, a lively fellow well-met and fun to be with, widely admired and envied, welcome on all the chat shows, followed by millions in social media, an opinion-leader and trend-setter whose influence and largesse politicians lust for.

Meet Richard Branson. He’s no Diogenes, with the original Cynics “ardent passion for ‘virtue’ but little interest in material wealth or the standard conventions and ‘amenities of civilization’.” But he is a bit of a dog, it turns out, not necessarily with respect to our best  friends’ qualities of love and loyalty but displaying their inconstant tendency, their swerving and meandering sense of direction guided by their latest sniff in the wind.

That, at any rate, is the picture of Sir Richard that emerges from Naomi Klein’s “No Messiahs” chapter. His pledge a decade ago to spend $3 billion battling climate change and developing alternatives to fossil fuels has withered, his $25 million dollar Earth Prize has disappeared, his fleet of carbon-spewing Virgin flyers has expanded considerably and they’re “burning significantly more carbon than when the pledge period began.” A Friend of the Earth naturally concludes: “Branson’s reinvention as a guilt-ridden planet-wrecker volunteering to use his carbon profits to solve the climate crisis was little more than a cynical ploy.”

So sad. He’s really not the messiah. Nor is Warren Buffett or Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg or C. Boone Pickens. Or Brian Cohen. There’s still no sign that help will come to save us and our pale blue dot from ourselves and our false messiahs.

But we didn’t have to follow Brian, and we don’t have to follow Richard. We just have to keep on swelling the ground with a canine kind of loyalty to our home the earth, and the cynics will be forced to follow us.

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Ancient therapy

September 14, 2016

It’s Cynics, Skeptics, Epicureans, & Stoics today in CoPhi.

Cynics weren’t so cynical as many of us have become. Diogenes “had an ardent passion for ‘virtue’ but little interest in material wealth or the standard conventions and “amenities of civilization.” He did not value the common script that people called honor, wisdom, and happiness. Like Thoreau, he considered himself rich in the extent of all he could afford to let alone. He and his friends were, says our walking guide Gros, the only authentic peripatetics. He so loved dogs that he decided to live like one.
Pyrrho the skeptic cultivated indifference and neutrality, with respect to belief and conduct. Timon the skeptic acknowledged appearances but withheld all assent to their reality.
Epicurus disdained luxury, sought tranquility, and said neither death nor the gods are anything to fear. Sex for him (despite his movement’s spurious reputation) was overrated, friendship underrated. His priority was the avoidance of pain, not the voracious chase for pleasure. He died like a Stoic.
Seneca died like a Stoic’s Stoic, either heroically or foolishly depending on how much you value consistency and fatalism. Like Diogenes he inverted the conventional view of riches, preferring “the example of a virtuous life.” 
“It is remarkable that Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius,” slave and emperor respectively, “are completely at one on all philosophical questions.” Epictetus said, and all of the philosophical therapists we’re seeing today, Aurelius to Zeno, agreed: “I am a citizen of the universe.” In that highest allegiance they all felt “safe,” and at home. Their civic sense, I say, is far superior to the Spartan chauvinism that inspired Plato’s vision of republican perfection.

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Fruits and roots

September 13, 2016

“Fruits, not roots” is our next chapter today from Naomi Klein, opening the “Magical Thinking” section of This Changes Everything.

It’s a strong pragmatic slogan favored by the likes of William James, emphasizing as it does the greater value and impact of outcomes (“fruits”) over origins (“roots”). It counters the “magical thinking” and false reassurance that we’re going to be “saved at the last minute” by the market, by billionaires of conscience, by technology, or something. That sort of thinking is rooted in denial, denial in ideology, ideology in what James called “moral flabbiness” and our national disease.

The cure? Clear-eyed focus on the perilous probable outcomes of such wishful thinking, and a groundswell of popular sentiment demanding a switch to something else. How do you create a groundswell?

For starters, you don’t go and join the other side, give aid and comfort to the enemy, or pretend that we’re all fighting the same good fight. Fred Krupp is the villain primus inter pares in this regard. As leader of the Environmental Defense Fund, as Klein sees it, he flipped the wrong switch, from “sue the bastards” to “create markets for the bastards.” He scolded aggressive greens for being too shrill and called for more humility and compromise. He gave up the fight.

Some pragmatists would offer a different characterization of such a run to the middle, suggesting that confrontation only marginalizes, that cooperation wins in the end. Klein’s point is that it’s too late for that kind of thinking, which in the present context is really just another tepid variety of magic. There was a time when genuine bipartisanship coalesced around responsible centrism to save the earth, a time that gave us the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, the Water Quality Act… That time has passed. We’re now, very clearly, in a fight. Its fruits depend on our success in cultivating and spreading another kind of roots: grassroots. 

And that’s today’s good news: “a resurgent grassroots climate movement has now arrived, and it is winning a series of startling victories against the fossil fuel sector.” The ground has just begun to swell, the movement to grow. Can we help?

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Progress, Plato, Aristotle

September 12, 2016

More Platonic reflections from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in CoPhi today, and Russell on Aristotle.

Goldstein continues her reply to the philosophy jeerers and their slight that philosophy bakes no bread and gets us nowhere. She might have recalled William James’s opening salvo in Pragmatism acknowledging the former but entirely repudiating the latter.

Believing in philosophy myself devoutly, and believing also that a kind of new dawn is breaking upon us philosophers, I feel impelled, per fas aut nefas, to try to impart to you some news of the situation.

Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas. It ‘bakes no bread,’ as has been said, but it can inspire our souls with courage; and repugnant as its manners, its doubting and challenging, its quibbling and dialectics, often are to common people, no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives. These illuminations at least, and the contrast-effects of darkness and mystery that accompany them, give to what it says an interest that is much more than professional.

In fact, philosophy constantly progresses in this way, by illuminating the “covert presumptions” that lie buried beneath our awareness. Facing, discussing, and sometimes revising or rejecting our various unexamined convictions can be the epitome, and always is the requisite condition, of progress at the level of reflective thought. What is truth, beauty, or goodness? You may think you know, but we need to talk about it.
The path of progress for Plato is dialogic, argumentative, and collaborative, like much scientific discourse; but unlike most scientific results, those of philosophy register most powerfully in personal terms, and are revealed in the progressive personal transformations of individuals rather than in “paradigm shifts”  impacting whole disciplines and epochs.

What is Platonism? It’s an unfamiliar idea about ideas, that when they embody truth they do so by subsisting in an abstract realm beyond the reach of everyday sense (and common sense). “A Platonist asserts that the abstract is as real as the concrete, the general as realized as the particular.” Or moreso. A Platonist is the diametric opposite of a Pragmatist.
And, a Platonist asserts the eternal intertwining of goodness, beauty, and truth: a Sublime Braid that cashes out for Plato’s Socrates as humility and piety of a secular sort, a “strengthened kinship with the cosmos” through an uplifted infatuation with wisdom and “love for that which isn’t oneself.”

Aristotle’s student Alexander, “arrogrant, drunken, cruel, vindictive, and grossly superstitious,” was evidently not a good philosopher. Russell doubts he learned much from his tutor, but he did us the service of keeping Hellenic civilization alive long enough to produce a big chunk of our curriculum.

Aristotle was optimistic and teleological (or purpose-driven), convinced that “the universe and everything in it is developing towards something continually better.” Coulda fooled us, or most of us. (But Goldstein’s husband Steve Pinker, with his Better Angels, might offer qualified agreement.)

Aristotle’s “good,” unlike Plato’s remote and abstract Form, is immanent and practically universal. It’s that activity of the virtuous soul called eudaimonia, flourishing, or happiness. Everybody wants some, for its own sake. Aristotle’s god is another story.

And what is virtue? It’s any action that tends to produce happiness (but don’t confuse happiness with fleeting pleasure. One swallow does not make a summer.

Some more possible points for discussion today: If Aristotle’s metaphysics is Plato diluted by common sense, what’s so common about it? Does each of us have an “essence”? What do you think of Aristotle’s airy and impersonal God? Is happiness the only thing in the world that’s intrinsically good, for its own sake? Is Aristotle’s golden mean really golden, or is it vapid, formulaidc, and equivocal? Is it true what Fish said to Boghossian, that philosophical conclusions “do not travel”? What can that possibly mean, from a peripatetic or pragmatic point of view? 

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, “regarded as the kicking-off point for the rise of Classical Greece and the birth of Western civilization” (if you want to call it that). We’re debating, at this late date, the deplorability of racists and other haters? People who casually fling the ugly word that rhymes with stitch, and worse, are offended by that perfectly apt and descriptive word?  That’s deplorable.
Why is it so hard to live in the present? Past and future do seem more safe, sane, and secure. But here and now is where it’s always happening, and here and now is where we store our past and hatch our possible futures. Here’s where the progress has to happen.
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Sustainable spirit

September 8, 2016

We are Extractivists. We are addicted to extracting and depleting finite resources. We’ve got to leave it in the ground, against the wishes of powerful private profiteers and their paid operatives who intend to drill and dig until it’s all out, and against our own wishful denial of reality. Facing reality means challenging the model of limitless material growth and consumption. That’s the message of Naomi Klein’s next chapter: “We extract and do not replenish…” That can’t be sustained indefinitely.

Klein nominates Sir Francis Bacon as the patron saint of our profligacy. Knowledge is power, the power to subdue and “hound nature… penetrating into [her] holes and corners.” Klein enjoys noting the “poetic justice” of his catching pneumonia while trying to subdue a chicken. Nature does bite back.

The anti-extractivist ethic recognizes and reveres our reciprocal interdependency with the Earth and all its life-structures and forms. Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, for instance, places us firmly within the biotic community not as master but as citizen-steward. Rachel Carson called out the arrogance of presuming to control nature, an attitude “born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”

Thoreau stands as the anti-Bacon in this narrative.  “The earth I tread on is not a dead inert mass. It is a body—has a spirit—is organic—and fluid to the influence of its spirit—and to whatever particle of the spirit is in me.” That’s no spooky spirit, it’s simply the salute of life respecting life, living light to live long and prosper. It’s the spirit of survival and sustainability, and it’s the spirit we’ll need to propel us to the stars. The cosmic piety of Sagan and Tyson and Roddenberry (“we are star-stuff” etc.) has its roots in the natural piety of Wordsworth (“my heart leaps up”) and James and Dewey.

Happy Trek Day. #LLAP

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Caving with Plato

September 7, 2016

More Russell and Goldstein on Plato today in CoPhi.

Gold, silver, and bronze don’t just honor Olympians in Plato’s “perfect” world, they sort and order persons. His “royal lie” is about as hostile to democracy and equal opportunity as it gets, his sense of justice as a matter of discharging our assigned roles without complaint or overreach is shackling and stultifying, his confidence in the unique capacity of the guardian caste to discern and distinguish knowledge from opinion is immodest and elitist.

But, the cave makes for a nice metaphor if we don’t pretend it limns more than the shadowy recesses of the un-philosophic mind. He thinks it points to the very gates of heaven, the ideal world of Form. Escaping the cave, for Plato, is apprehending and ascending to another world. For us Aristotelian skeptics it makes more sense to correct our shadowy misapprehension of caveland by seeking not another world but greater clarity about this one.

Still, the philosopher’s compulsion to return to the cave bearing light is also the teacher’s, and the Buddhist master’s. It’s a humanely-motivated and compassionate impulse. It’s why you’d want to bring Plato to the Googleplex.

So, amidst my mild Plato-bashing I must remember to credit his good points. They include generational respect for the larger experience of older people, a call for gender equality way ahead of his time, and a probing curiosity to know the real world(s).

We’ll also continue our consideration and practice of the peripatetic life, observing with Frederic Gros how prolonged habitation outdoors inverts our normal sense of where we’re most at home, and how slowing down has a way of filling up the hour. Speed, on the other hand, kills. As Thoreau asked, how can you kill time without injuring eternity? One world at a time, one step at at time, and the pure presence of that shining moment.
Happy birthday Joe Klein, who

said of Donald Drumpf: “He has a feral intelligence. He reminds me of the Emperor Caligula who got his greatest pleasure from destroying his opponents and humiliating them, and he is brilliant at that.” He told Joe Scarborough: “I think that we have a citizenship deficit in this country where people don’t look at the issues. They do not study them at all and I think that […] the American people are more comfortable with reality TV than with reality.” WA

And in that dull flickering light, happy Philo T. Farnsworth day.

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