A world away

May 27, 2016

Finally, a Spring morning warm and uneventful enough to invite Angel (the dog) and me immediately outdoors to greet the rising sun. Other recent mornings may have been as warm at this hour, but somehow none has felt as warm and welcoming.

Plus, Younger Daughter’s officially out of school now. No point in waiting around to make sure she’s up and then to see her off, she’ll not make an appearance for hours yet.
Put the pool up yesterday, between raindrops. Another magnet pulling us out to meet the day.

So here we are again, Angel and I, out back on our Little House porch. Just yards (a backyard) away from the big house, but a world away from Linda Pastan‘s “riptide of daily life, hidden but perilous.” Me: sipping coffee, measuring the hour by Sol ‘s transit above the hammock, between the trees (the one on the right bearing that “HOME” sign)…watching last night’s raindrops slowly evaporate… listening to birdsong… waiting for a whisper from a muse, any muse. She: waiting for her walk, patiently for now but soon with a whimper and whine.

Pastan’s line is echoed this morning by John Cheever: “…we are suspended above [chaos] by a thread. But the thread holds.” Until it doesn’t. But out here on our porch, chaos seems far enough way to ignore for a bit. Out here there’s no temptation to check the headlines or anyone else’s status updates. Our status: calm, composed, watching, waiting, thinking and not thinking, anticipating, at home.

6:30/5:35, 65/89, 7:54

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What’s real

May 26, 2016

We took our Stroll out into the empty, summery courtyard late yesterday afternoon, pondering our “Knowledge is power” chapter and wondering if it’s true that what can’t be measured and quantified is not quite real. I say no. I think that’s what Louis Jenkins says too, in today’s poem.

The speaker points out that we don’t really have
much of a grasp of things, not only the big things,
the important questions, but the small everyday
things. “How many steps up to your back yard?… 

With the right measurements we can build bridges and rockets and computers, cure diseases, etc. etc. But we must also acknowledge the limits of quantifiable engineering, and the depths of imprecise and subjective (hence non-quantifiable) but still very real experience. Such is the source of some of our best poetry, music, literature, and philosophy. More than that, the lack of an appreciation and aptitude for the non-quantifiable dimension of life would deprive us of some of our most winning human qualities: empathy, compassion, toleration, respect.

Some students balk at this, mostly I suspect because they’re frustrated by encounters with others’ subjectivity (as imperfectly represented in language) rather than fully attentive to their own. Words are slippery, compared to numbers. We love that about them, we humanists and innumerists (see, I think I just made up another slippery word), while engineers and mathematicians mistrust them. We should all mistrust them, but they’re a currency we must trade in if we want to scratch beyond the bare surface of inner life.

“The fons et origo of all reality is subjective,” said William James. Subjectivity is real. It’s “the deepest thing in our nature, a dumb region of the heart which is yet our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Taking it seriously means admitting the Buzz Lightyear principle: reality goes to infinity and beyond. That’s the objective truth.

5:45/5:35, 65/89, 7:53

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Old nonsense

May 25, 2016

“Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air,” urged Ralph Waldo Emerson, born 213 years ago today. And, fFinish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Speaking of old nonsense, today’s stroll (it’s Week 3 of our 13-week “Stroll Through Western Civilization” course) brings us to Plotinus and the Great Chain of Being, the idea that we occupy a midpoint between divine perfection and imperfect nullity, a notch below the angels and above the animals. Matter on this scale is literally next to nothing.

Nonsense. William James, contemplating the mortal remains of a dear friend, spoke of the “sacred” matter that had been capable of assuming such exquisite form.

We’re animals too, “higher” by our own account but not by a pre-ordained and locked-in hierarchy. We’re links in a chain, but it’s only a conceit of perspective that allows us to think our link is somehow more the point of the chain than all the others. “Despite the Great Chain of Being’s traditional ranking of humans between animals and angels,” writes Richard Dawkins, there is no evolutionary justification for the common assumption that evolution is somehow ‘aimed’ at humans, or that humans are ‘evolution’s last word’.”

Plotinus said it’s only the lower part of our souls that can suffer. The torturer’s assaults cannot touch the higher part of us that permanently and imperturbably “remains in repose, in contemplation.” I understand why someone might want to think that, but I don’t begin to understand how.

Oh, yeah: it’s our “higher” capacity for delusion that explains it.


6 am/5:36, 68/87, 7:52

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Cicero

May 24, 2016

I found myself saying nicer things about the Stoics than I’d intended, yesterday, as we wrapped up our Maymester Happiness course. Maybe I’ll continue that trend on Wednesday as our “Stroll Through Western Civilization” continues. (It was great seeing two of our fellow strollers last night at the Masters of Liberal Arts Open House, and some hot prospects for next time as well.)

I probably come across as more generally unsympathetic to the Stoics than is truly the case. I’m not hostile, just sometimes impatient with what seems their occasional surrender to circumstance when what’s really demanded is a fight. They’d say that’s an emotional judgment, and that we need to pick our fights with the greatest deliberation. A fight with Nero wasn’t going to save Seneca’s own skin, true enough, and it wasn’t going to look good in the philosophy books alongside a lifetime of counsel against anger and futility.


But lying down and dying at the behest of a crazed despot doesn’t look so good either.

I do still think Roman philosophy gets an undeservedly bad rap. Cicero in particular is way underrated as a philosopher, and in most texts underrepresented. Jennifer Hecht rectified that a bit in her Doubt: A History.

Cicero‘s wonderful dialogue with a Skeptic, a Stoic, and an Epicurean, Nature of the Gods, would have been fun to join. “Cotta” says it all: 

Are you not ashamed as a scientist, as an observer and investigator of nature, to seek your criterion of truth from minds steeped in conventional beliefs? The whole theory is ridiculous… I do not believe these gods of yours exist at all, least of all the uninvolved, uninterested ones like the Epicurean-inspired Disinterested Deist Deity. If this is all that a god is, a being untouched by care or love of human kind, then I wave him good-bye.

If you want truth, as JMH observes, you have to avoid making things up.

Novelists and other artisans of the well-chosen and well-spoken word (like Hecht, a poet and historian as well as a terrific philosopher) have appreciated Cicero more than most of my philosophy colleagues. There’s Tom Wolfe‘s A Man in Full, for instance, in which Epictetus gets the star treatment.

Robert Harris’s Conspirata was good company last Fall on my daily commute up and down I-24, and before that Imperium. Simon Jones’s narration is delightful, even if he sounds a lot like Arthur Dent.

And then there’s the Victorian Trollope’s compendious Life of Cicero.

The older I get, the longer my reading list grows. Cicero said that was one of the consolations of aging. He was a wise old consul, and an honest Stoic.

After the loss of his daughter Tullia in childbirth, [Cicero] turned to Stoicism to assuage his grief. But ultimately he could not accept its terms: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?”

But my favorite mention of Cicero in all of literature is still from Emerson:

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books. [An honest Stoic, 2.1.13]

==
Lucretius (our first selection in the Hitch anthology, from De Rerum Natura) was another Epicurean, but he downplayed the god-talk.The finality of death and the absence of the gods did not seem depressing; indeed, they seemed to add to the sweetness of life.

Marcus Aurelius, as close to a philosopher-king as the West would ever know: “I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature.”He had a Big Picture cosmic perspective. From a vantage “raised up above the earth,” consider life’s brevity and our common humanity. We are one species, as Carl Sagan liked to say, and our time here is brief. Don’t squander it in fear, worry, malice and meanness.

Now, fast forward (past those refreshingly-strange gnostics and their contempt for the creator God) to Boethius, “last of the Romans, first of the scholastics.” His Consolations of Philosophy“completely ignored Christianity.” That’s really hard to do. We” talk about it next week.

Also coming soon, the tragedy of Hypatia. Her alleged killer Cyril nearly killed philosophy and science and civilization as well, and was rewarded with Sainthood. Also, a prominent spotlight of shame on Cosmos. [Romans & redeemers, 2.16.10… Back to the garden, 2.15.10… Seneca falls, 2.17.10]
==
What does “cosmopolitan” really mean? Don’t trust Google on this, it takes you straight to that silly magazine with its sex tips and “lifestyle” advice. Funny, or sad, how current linguistic use has corrupted these grand old terms. (Think also of “epicurean,” “cynic,” maybe even “platonic”…)

The question arises in connection with Anthony Appiah’s book and interview. Kosmopolites is the Greek root meaning citizen of the world, thecosmos. What a large identity to claim, and yet what a miniscule corner of existence we actually occupy.
The cosmos used to coincide strictly with the known terrestrial world, before anybody’d ever even circumnavigated it. Now we’ve seen our tiny world from space, in perspective.

So now we know: it’s a really big cosmos, and we are here.

So far as we can tell we’re the only part, around these parts anyway, that knows it’s part of a cosmos. We’re the cosmopolitans.

Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls, and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ realized its true meaning: citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos

More Saganportalmotecalendargolden recordapple pie

So who was the first cosmopolitan in philosophy? Socrates, possibly, he’s said to have declared himself a citizen of the world – but still so loyal an Athenian that he insisted on having his hemlock. Scholars wonder if that was really him or Plato talking.

Whether Socrates was self-consciously cosmopolitan in this way or not, there is no doubt that his ideas accelerated the development of cosmopolitanism and that he was in later antiquity embraced as a citizen of the world. In fact, the first philosopher in the West to give perfectly explicit expression to cosmopolitanism was the Socratically inspired Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century bce. It is said that “when he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world.” SEP

That doesn’t sound “cynical” in the perverted modern sense at all, does it? Diogenes spent a lot of time under the stars. He knew where he was. [The real cosmopolitans, 9.18.12]

6 am/5:36, 56/87, 7:52

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Happily home

May 23, 2016

Our condensed Lifelong Learning version of Happiness concludes today, with my summation of the best that’s been thought and said on the subject by philosophers in my tradition. My take is as idiosyncratic as anyone’s, and like anyone I could change my mind tomorrow.

But today? Today I find “the best of the west” in the words and happiness advice of Michel de Montaigne, David Hume, William James, Bertrand Russell, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Maira Kalman, and Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Montaigne wasn’t always happy, but he had a near-death experience – fell off his horse, swam in and out of consciousness, later reflected that if that’s dying it’s overrateed – that freed him from his worst fears and taught him how to live. Sarah Bakewell summarizes: Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Be convivial; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Give up control; Be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer.

Montaigne leaps from the pages of his essays (which he invented – not just his own, but the very form) as mindful, both ruminative and constantly attentive to the present moment. He has good advice for the walker.

When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.

He walked often in the beautiful orchard. He was yet another peripatetic. We’re everywhere, in the annals of western philosophy. “My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.” Like Emerson and Wordsworth and so many others he might also have said “my books are in my library but my study is outdoors.”

David Hume’s happiness advice is implicit in a little coda that should be dispensed on Day 1 in every graduate program to every would-be scholar: “Be a philosopher, but amidst your philosophy be still a man.” Stay human. Be kind. Seek the good. Be happy. Don’t overreach.

Alison Gopnik turned to Hume to solve her midlife crisis.

Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people… (continues)

And so he was. “He lived an admirable life and a warm, generous spirit breathes through all his writings. I find that very attractive.” Me too, Simon Blackburn, along with the guile-less humility of his “supreme happiness” in “reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking”… and the acute simplicity of this statement: “Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness.”

As for the rest of the best, there’s so much more to say than we’ll have time for – here, there, ever. I’ll just wrap it up now with Jennifer Hecht’s wonderful woods analogy, according to which life is like a journey through a forest. We can either deplore our shaded transit and wish for escape to some place more airy and open, any place but the “seemingly endless, friendless woods.” Or?

Or, “hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done.”

And so we are.

6 am/5:37, 53/83, 7:51

Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us.

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Older, wiser, happier

May 21, 2016
I started collecting admirably-graceful older people last year, in Bioethics, to balance an equation that usually focuses on dysfunction among the elderly. People like Jimmy Carter and the late Stewart Udall topped the list. 
In March, after researching this year’s presentation for the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference and visiting the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame and Museum in KC, I added the amazing Buck O’Neill to this list.
Here are two more.
Roger Angell, himself a Hall of Famer for his baseball writing in the New Yorker, and editor-extraordinaire for John Updike and other literary lights, wrote one of the most heartening things ever about growing old. 

Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows. “This Old Man

Michael Kinsley is only 65, but he’s been dealing with Parkinson’s for years. “Sometimes I feel like a scout from my generation, sent out ahead to experience in my 50s what even the healthiest boomers are going to experience in their 60s, 70s and 80s.” 
We appreciate the reconnaissance, Michael, but why so modest? Why stop in the 80s? The example of your positive attitude and laughter, if not your condition, should keep many of us ticking into nonagenerian and even centenarian territory. 
Ultimately, there’s no substitute for good genes and the healthier years they bring. But there’s no substitute for a wink and a smile, either.

7 am/5:38, 62/72/52, 7:49

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“Abundant blessings previously acquired”

May 20, 2016

Dining with Older Daughter at our favorite Indian buffet, followed by a Throwback Thursday Sounds game in the “best seats in the house” under a clear sky and a full moon on a pleasant spring evening: that’s the stuff of happiness, when you’re paying attention.

I’m not sure those were really the absolute best, but that’s what the public address announcer called them when they flashed us up on the giant guitar scoreboard with “Booster” the mascot, to “smile and wave” in payment for our upgrade.

That was the deal: swap our cheap spot on the grassy berm in left field for the pricey full-service seats behind the plate at club level, and all we had to do was smile and wave at the crowd for a few seconds. Easy. I felt a little bad for having earlier chided the mascot, when he greeted us at the gate, for not being  “Ozzie” (his much-cooler predecessor). But I’m sure he’s (she’s?) used to it, especially on Thursdays when they try to conjure a sentimental mood with retro uniforms and cheaper beer.

Got to gather these simple throwback moments and not take them for granted, you never know when they’ll end. Whenever I sit with Older Daughter or her sister at the ballgame now I’m flooded with wonderful memories of doing the same at old Greer Stadium when they were small. Only yesterday, it seems.

Old Cicero was right, “the fruit of growing older is the memory of abundant blessings previously acquired.” With such an attitude, and a collection of gathered moments, the accumulation of years “sits light upon me, and not only is not burdensome, but is even happy.”

Roger Angell is a Cicero for our times, an elder statesman equally at home in the ballpark and in belles lettres. His This Old Man, both the eponymous essay and the book, belongs on the informal reading list I’ve been urging my Lifelong Learners to assemble. I’ll try not to forget to mention it on Monday.

Sounds 6, Sacramento 5.

6 am/5:39, 61/72/57, 7:49

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Democracy in America

May 19, 2016

“Democracy had proved to be a disappointment to nearly everyone in Greek intellectual circles in the mid-4th century BC,” and it’s been pretty disappointing lately too. We talked about that in class last night.

One of us, speaking as a millennial, doesn’t vote and doesn’t know anyone who does.

Another, though, from my demographic, deplores low voter-turnout and the misbegotten efforts of conservatives to encourage it. When just 10% of the registered electorate actually bothers to participate, thus leveraging an outsized and often unjust influence, the sad undemocratic result may just be the “democracy we deserve.” 

Happily, many of us have managed to sustain a battered but unbroken democratic faith through all drumpf and travail. Indeed, “it would be nice to see Civics required as part of our elementary public education curriculum” – not the old-school civics that forces youngsters to mimic rote pledges of allegiance and memorize random names, dates, and meaningless facts, but the kind that reads and reflects on Dewey and Whitman, celebrates genuine democracy, and calls out its internal subverters. 
My favorite civics lesson ever came from the great white north of Northern Exposure‘s fictional Cicely, Alaska, pre-Palin, and its philosopher-dee-jay “Chris-in-the-morning”:

Image result for chris in the morningChris (on-air): My friends, today when I look out over Cicely, I see not a town, but a nation’s history written in miniature. Inscribed in the cracked pavement, reverberating from every passing flatbed. Today, every runny nose I see says “America” to me. We were outcasts, scum, the wretched debris of a hostile, aging world. But we came here, we paved roads, we built industries, powerful institutions… Of course, along the way, we exterminated untold indigenous cultures and enslaved generations of Africans. We basically stained our star-spangled banner with a host of sins that can never be washed clean. But today, we’re here to celebrate the glorious aspects of our past. A tribute to a nation of free people, the country that Whitman exalted. (reading)”The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives and legislators, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people.” I’ve never been so proud to be a Cicelian. I must go out now and fill my lungs with the deep clean air of democracy. Northern Exposure 3.15, Democracy in America

Does that stained star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free? We’ll see. I’m not ready to toss in the towel just yet, ’tis a gift to be free.

5:45/5:39, 52/76, 7:48

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Diogenes at the Googleplex

May 18, 2016

How would Plato respond to the Googleplex, Rebecca Goldstein wonders? He’d be wowed, astounded, and bemused by the latest in cave technology. He’d have plenty to say.

How about Diogenes? Rebecca Solnit suggests he might have the opposite reaction.

Kierkegaard liked to cite Diogenes: “When the Eleatics denied motion, Diogenes, as everyone knows, came forward as an opponent. He literally did come forward, because he did not say a word but merely paced back and forth a few times, thereby assuming he had sufficiently refuted them. Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Solvitur ambulando, of course, is what he wasn’t saying. It’s not an instance of what Wittgenstein would later call passing in silence whereof one cannot speak, but more an application of the principle of parsimony or the wielding of Occam’s Razor. Words only muddy an issue any fool should be able to grasp immediately.

The late great songwriter Guy Clark died yesterday. They played an interview on NPR in which he made precisely that point, that a good song is no more complicated than it has to be. Tell it straight and simple, and whenever possible show, don’t say. Leave something to the listener’s imagination and perceptual acuity.
Solnit goes on to mention Edmund Husserl, the phenomenologist who “described walking as the experience by which we understand our body in relationship to the world” rather than following the usual philosopher’s script of emphasizing either the senses or the mind, abstracted from their motile embodied context. If Husserl’s student Heidegger had payed closer attention, he might not have elevated Being over becoming. He might have walked away from the fascists, or at least distanced himself a little more, before getting bogged down in his own words.
==
Happy birthday Tina Fey, who understands the hubris of verbal excess. 

In response to people who claim that women are not funny, she said: “My hat goes off to them. It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.”

5:30/5:40, 56/68/51, 7:47

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Walk or ride

May 17, 2016

“I go for a walk through the forest near my house, just as Aristotle walked along the beach at Assos,” writes Arthur Herman, recounting the bounteous profusion of nature’s teeming, towering, bewildering, constantly changing flora and fauna at his feet. “This is nature, the real world buzzing and blooming around us.”

Herman says Aristotle was already onto the core truth of evolution millennia before its time, noting nature’s dynamic of identity-through-ceaseless change. It’s a truth that eluded Mayberry’s Goober, when he briefly adopted the appearance of a philosopher and wondered “if a man’s hisself, how can he change?” We’re all continuously becoming something, all the time, turning potentiality into actuality or into something short of it. We’re all on a journey.
For Plato, the journey was an attempted ascent from  the cave. For Aristotle, whether we ever actually spill out into a metaphysically higher light or not, every increment of fresh observation in the forest, on the beach, under the open sky is an opportunity to shed a little more light. [Nice and timely poem today, Seamus Heaney’s “The Skylight” – “…extravagant Sky entered and held surprise wide open…”]
Image result for diogenes the cynicAnd for Diogenes, to whom we turn tomorrow in chapter six, the journey is a search for honesty and freedom. That’s a quarry that can be especially elusive. Better bring the dogs. Don’t let the Emperor or your teacher or anyone block your light.
My good friend the new Gradual Student offers another nice metaphor, of life’s journey as a rickety bus ride. They killed Socrates when he went back to the cave. Will the other riders be more forgiving, when the enlightened rider re-boards?

I think we’re all bozos on this bus,” whether we’ve read the Republic or not.


And I think Ken Kesey was right, we’re all a little cuckoo. “You’re either on the bus or off it.” We’ve got a ticket to ride, but I’m with Aristotle. I’d prefer to walk.

6 am/5:41, 54/77, 7:46

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