Archive for October, 2009

Boo!

October 31, 2009

jesus and mo halloween

A student asked what I think of Halloween. What’s not to love about a holiday devoted to dressing up and hoarding candy? And some great costumes came to class yesterday. Fun!

I don’t think much, however, of the Halloween-deniers for whom “Satanic” denotes something real and menacing.   Scaring the hell out of small children is not cool.  But millennia of humans have done and continue to do precisely that, with baseless jack-o-lanternterrorizing tales of eternal torment. That’s why there are so many adult hell-raisers still abroad in the 21st century.

This form of child abuse, like all the others, is a blind, unexamined, self-perpetuating cycle that’s been repeated generation after uncritical generation. It needs to stop.

But Halloween’s still OK. Trick or treat!

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James bio – 8

October 30, 2009

statue_of_liberty_-newyork-_harborIt’s the autumn of ’86, the Statue of Liberty’s just been dedicated in New York Harbor, and James is immersed in the writing of his seminal Principles of Psychology.

But he’s also doing and thinking about many other things. He’s exploring hypnosis and other “exceptional mental states” (again, check out his incredible free-form channeling of Hegel under the intoxicating influence of nitrous oxide).

He and Alice are building a home at 95 Irving Street in Cambridge, near Harvard, and renovating their Chocorua,  New Hampshire getaway (reducing to just eleven “doors opening out”).

He’s exploring the evolutionary implications of human instinct and will.

He’s getting better acquainted with colleague George Santayana, beginning to turn Harvard’s philosophy program into something very special, and becoming a legendary teacher.

And he’s about to reunite in Europe with his beloved, mysteriously troubled sister Alice. Busy days.

james study“Actively involved with both family and students, redesigning and rebuilding one home and designing and building another from scratch– all while finishing a book almost three thousand pages long in manuscript– Williamchocorua James was constructing his life with all the energy he had.” A time of career achievement, and a time of  warm and cozy domesticity. (That’s his Irving Street study on the left, and Chocorua on the right.) James seems comfortably at home in his universe.

And at last, on the eve of the Gay ’90s, Principles is finished. James is much too hard on himself and his book, “a loathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsial mass.” In fact, most psychology experts continue to regard it as a classic and a work of genius. But he was ready for something completely different.

(Note: in August 2010 the William James Society will commemorate the centenary of James’s death in the Chocorua house in 1910. But  in our narrative, of course, he’s not dead yet.)

Money

October 29, 2009

“Everybody knows that money doesn’t buy happiness.”

The Series has begun, please indulge my pet metaphor: Jennifer Hecht’s next pitch rides up and in, crowding “Everybody” with the retort that smart philosophers “really don’t all say this.”

Aristotle, for instance, acknowledged that happiness “requires a degree of comfort.” But only a small degree, “abundance does not correlate with happiness” to anywhere near the degree that poverty correlates with unhappiness.

It’s commonly, winkingly noted that the roots of our material culture in America run from Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” back to John Locke’s “life, liberty, and property (estate).” The insinuation is that Jefferson was importing a crass idea under cover of a pretty, idealized euphemism.

Less often acknowledged, and much more intriguing, is Jefferson’s Epicureanism. He admired its naturalism– he so despised supernaturalism that he snipped those parts out of his Bible— its  secularism, and its happy vision of simple, virtuous pleasure. “Epicurus ran a coed, hedonistic philosopher’s retreat called the Garden,” encouraged serious reflection for its own sake, and valued personal freedom and independence above institutions, congregations, and confederations.

For his part, Jefferson valued his own “garden” at Monticello— a commune-like compound, staffed by slaves who we now know were as good as family, if not quite accorded the status and dignity of friendly equals in the Epicurean sense. But we also now know that money was a problem for him, too. He sold his books to create the library of congress, not only as a public-spirited act of generosity but because he really needed the dough.

Hecht: “There are obvious happiness advantages to having some money,” and not only for those with little. “The difference between a phenomenal wheelchair and one that is just good enough is not trivial.” Nor, during the Series, is the difference between an ordinary TV and a crisp-&-pretty hi-def model.

But let’s not get carried away. The road to hell is paved with obsessive, self-righteous  monomania.

sunny

October 28, 2009

Doesn’t seem like it’d take a rocket scientist or child prodigy to bump Kant’s interesting, but typically irrelevant, unhelpful, counter-factual, global question– “What if everyone did it?”– in favor of the more pointed, practical, specific query “What if I did it now, in this situation?” Categorical imperatives feel like straight-jackets.

J.S. Mill (1806-73), the prodigy (he read Greek at age 3, at his father’s insistence… and suffered a breakdown at 20), and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the hedonic calculator (hardly a rocket scientist, but very good with numbers), were all about consequences. Mill, dodging the charge that too much focus on unqualified pleasure is a porcine philosophy, insisted on adding a quality distinction. There’s that pig again.  “Better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” Better to be a disgruntled Socrates than a happy fool.

Best of all, of course, to be Socrates satisfied. But this is a question of value and priorities. Nietzsche, jabbing Bentham and Mill and the utilitarian mindset,  said only the English place pleasure above all. That was false then, and it was heedless of Mill’s efforts at quality control. It’s laughably false now. We wallow in our pleasure-centered culture of mindless lowbrow entertainment, torpid and sluggish. Hand me the remote.

Maybe what we need is more Aristotelian virtue, especially with its emphasis on balancing  moderation, temperance, and enjoyment, avoiding extremes, and making an effort to achieve excellence in all its human forms– intellectual, emotional, moral, physical.

Aristotle’s search for the mean between extremes, for the right act performed in the right way at the right time for the right reasons, has much appeal. Its flexibility is its greatest virtue, but some find it unhelpfully vague.

Or do we need Nietzsche‘s “revaluation of all values,” a repudiation of “master-slave” or “herd” morality, of the comforts and conveniences of modern middle-class consumerism, and an embrace of the strong, proud, few “dynamic individuals” who would be Ubermenschen?

That didn’t work out so well for the young man in Little Miss Sunshine. He was a bit superior,  disaffected, andlittle miss sunshine anything but heroic while he stood silently beyond the circle of his family. The formula of his happiness, Nietzsche insisted, was “a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal.” But a formula is not enough.

“Give style to your character”, sure. Be yourself, be an original. But don’t be snarly and unpleasant and rude and lonely and spiteful. A sunny disposition moves more people off their couches than misanthropy.

Darren posed a question for us the other day, inspired by a new film that presents a less than sunny scenario: you’re entrusted with a box, attached to which is a button that will bring you a million dollars. The cost of pushing it? Someone, somewhere will die.

This is the kind of example most often offered in criticism of utilitarianism, and of consequentialist ethics in general. But if I ask myself “What if I push the button?” in a sincere attempt to clarify the moral implications of my act, and answer honestly, I’m not going to push it. Am I? A human being will die! A presumption of the moral life is that, as moral agents, we are not killers-for-hire. That goes for Ubermenschen and Benthamites as much as for Kantians and commandment-keepers. Has life become so cheap?

“Why be moral?” is  a good question, but asking it in a moral context presupposes the questioner’s commitment to finding an answer. While the search continues, we do need a “standard or standpoint.” A narrowly self-serving slide to relativism, egoism, and selfishness, even if it pulls up short of murder, is just not unacceptable. We can still serve ourselves while respecting the humanity of our fellow humans (and not just our friends), Ms. Rand. We must.

Maybe the story is more complex than the “Box” trailer makes it sound; but if you’re tempted to consider pushing that hypothetical button, for even an instant, please take some time to reflect on your moral philosophy (or lack thereof). Looks like you’ve got a vacuum to fill. Better let in some fresh air and fellow-feeling and sunshine.

wicked

October 27, 2009

curveballI told you Jennifer Hecht has good breaking stuff. The curveball she hurls in today’s reading is wicked, especially coming right on the heels of Brandon’s report on our cultural “happy pill” addiction the other afternoon:

“It is a modern myth that some mood drugs are good and some are bad… our public rhetoric is mythically against drugs, and yet our individual lives include all sorts of intoxicants, stimulants, antidepressants, and other happiness drugs.”

Sounds like maybe she’s going to defend a libertarian loosening of attitudes and statutes on this hot-button issue, maybe even defend the idea that psycho-pharmacology promises a royal road to happiness? But then the pitch veers sharply through the zone and it’s past you. Before the final pitch of this inning (“Drugs”) she “would not counsel the use of illegal drugs for happiness… if you get caught, you won’t be happy.”

Alright, I’ll drop the baseball metaphor. World Series doesn’t start ’til Wednesday. (I’m picking the Yanks in six.) But Hecht’s approach to drugs is not easy to score. I think the best angle on it is from William James’s famous, notorious remarks on alcohol:

“It is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning.”

And:

“The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function. . . . Not through mere perversity do men run after it. ”

Some might call alcohol and other intoxicants “artificial,” but James is not pointing to the genesis of an episode of imaginative flight but, rather, emphasizing the resultant expansiveness, the sense of cosmic unity and affirmation, and the general feeling of existential reconciliation. These are not artificial, no matter the instigating agency. They are vehicles of transcendence. But subjectivity and transcendence are not unqualified goods; they are rimmed by relations of consequence that must figure prominently in our final evaluations.

I think that’s Hecht’s approximate position, too. We’re “trapped in our era’s assumptions and anxieties” about chemicals, legal and otherwise, and she wants to snap us out of our trance so we can think more clearly about the admissible limits of self-medication and its possible contributions to our happiness.

Coffee-PostersJames again: “How at the mercy of bodily happenings our spirit is… [A] cup of strong coffee at the proper moment will entirely overturn for the time a man’s view of life. Our moods and resolutions are more determined by the condition of our circulation than by our logical grounds.”

(Nice pun, Willy. As one who begins every day with strong coffee and thrives under its influence, I take particular interest in this passage. I remain confident that my better early-morning moments are mine and not Starbucks’.)

Hecht: “You were happy today. Does the fact that you had two cups of strong coffee and a dose of over-the-counter painkiller have anything to do with our assessment of this happiness?”

Could be. “Imagine that coffee beans could be cultivated so that they packed more of a euphoric punch.” Yeah!

illegal smileillegal smilebrainondrugsAnd what if it wasn’t coffee, but something flatly illegal?

How about it, John Prine?

Or Bertie Russell? “I am not prepared to say that drugs can play no good part in life whatsoever.” Moments when a wise physician will prescribe opiates are “more frequent than prohibitionists suppose.”

Hecht: “We have drugs that can help make people happy– short-term bliss, long-term grins.” We should think about it. And we should think about all the money we’re wasting on all the wrong wars.

All that said, I confess that I’m no Tim Leary or Albert Hofmann (his obit) or Aldous Huxley. I don’t even like nitrous oxide. Coffee, beer, and whisky are my drugs of choice. I don’t believe I abuse them, though I’m not going to ask my GP to review my position on that.

I do agree with Huxley, though: “I cannot discover that I was any stupider (under the influence) than I am at ordinary times.” I have occasionally experienced “that state of uninhibited and belligerent euphoria which follows the ingestion of the third cocktail.” And you know what? I liked it.

Hecht: “When we drink alcohol we can think about it as a possibility for minor metaphysical events, not only as a technique to numb ourselves. We can see it as a different kind of intelligence rather than as stupidity.”

But be VERY careful, don’t overestimate your intelligence, and don’t drive. (Dr. Hofmann was very lucky, on his bicycle. And for the record, he made it to 102 but his son, an alcoholic, died at 53.)

And if you’re ingesting something of more ramifying impact, don’t skip class , don’t neglect your children or other relationships or your health and mental stability. “Here are some of the things long-term happiness requires in the short term: studying for exams; caring for children… being responsible at work; forgiving friends and spouses who have hurt you terribly; keeping the promises of marriage… taking a walk…” There’s more, but I have to go walking now.

See you in class.

P.S. Happy birthday, Older Daughter! (Don’t read this post ’til you’re 21.)

good life

October 26, 2009

michelangelo_moses_264pxCurtain call for the law-giver, exodus-leader, and alleged miracle-worker Moses. He anchors the morality chapter because he purveyed the commandments to his people, and was thus esteemed an agent of righteousness. But like others to come down a mountain with prophetic and unsparing words– Zoroaster and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra come immediately to mind– that burning look in his eyes raises eyebrows. Has he really brought good news? Does he in fact know the way to freedom and the good life in a land of milk and honey, or will he lead his followers astray?

Alleged miracles, prophecy, and goodness, I say, because it’s not enough merely to receive and memorize the rules, one must grasp and absorb the virtue they purport to defend before they can be credited with allowing the dutiful rule-follower to commence and keep a good and moral life.

Yesterday’s post implied a criticism of most childhood religious education as a form of indoctrination: it seems to be all about mastering and memorizing the rules, much as we learn to mumble our allegiance to a flag before we’ve learned the meaning of most of the words, recited by rote, supposed to impress a tradition’s gatekeepers.

The title of this chapter needs some explaining, in an American context, and Moses symbolizes part of the problem. Those of us raised in a religious environment because our elders thought that was the best, perhaps the only, way to instill a sense of values and virtue, may still be accustomed to thinking of morality mainly in terms of rules, commandments, and “thou shalt nots.” We may or may not, then, get around to asking for the rationale behind those rules in particular. It can’t just be that they’re “in the book,” or on the stone tablets, or from the horse’s (or even Moses’) mouth. That may seem to be authoritative, but it’s not conclusive or reasonable. It is, in fact, a fallacy to settle a question by invoking an authority.

We were just talking about the Holocaust, and freedom. William James called free will “the moral business.” Clearly there’s a crucial connection between morality, goodness, and the freedom to actually pursue and possibly attain the good life. This is one game you can’t win through intimidation, Adolf.

There’s much to be said for Immanuel Kant’s reason-and-duty-bound approach to the moral business. But there’s also the historical reality of Kant’s heirs, who thought it their duty to defend the Reich and its Fuhrer. What were they missing?

Epicurus thought the good life was about pleasure. But don’t be fooled: “The pleasant life is not the product of one drinking party after another or of (sex or food)” or other sensual delights. “On the contrary, it is the result of sober thinking.” Hmmm.

Kant was no Epicurean or hedonist, but you don’t have to be a hedonist to reject deontology– a fancy name for duty that disregards consequences. They matter.

Aristotle was closer to right in saying that pleasure is the happy residua of activities worth doing for their own sake, not something you can hope to plug into without effort or risk of disappointment. Life in a happiness box would not be intrinsically rewarding, in Aristotle’s sense.

What about “success” as the core of the good life? Depends on what you mean by that. Too many of us have slipped into the error of meaning something shallow, with a price tag but possibly little real value. “The exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success is our national disease.” That was true over a century ago. Isn’t it still?

Asceticism, the life of simplicity and self-denial, carries connotations of deprivation and poverty from which most of us have been carefully taught, in this consumer paradise, to recoil. Cynicism has a better, hipper rep. But Diogenes the Cynic had simple needs. “Move over, you’re blocking my sun,” he told the Emperor. Who needs glory, fame, riches, or power?

Aristotle on happiness. What we all do need, according to Aristotle, is an integrated and balanced life of virtue in community. “Happiness is nothing less than an entirely good life,” a life of sustained excellence that is transparently good and nourishing in every respect, not just because it conforms to an inherited tablet of invariable moral rules. Genuine happiness, eudaimonia, living well and doing well, flourishing… that’s the highest good, desired for its own sake.

swallow“The Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue…Moreover this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.”
Nicomachean Ethics

After reading a flock of midterm essays in Happiness 101, I can confirm our text’s observation that most of us nowadays have drifted far from the old Greek notion of happiness as a public and shared social experience towards a more insular and interior sense of personal satisfaction. If we’re content with ourselves and our own situation, we tend to think, that’s as happy as we can ever hope to be. There’s a hard-bitten stoicism in the modern view, mixed strangely with elements of hedonism and fatalism and resignation. What can I do? What, me worry? But Aristotle’s Greeks would have considered someone who felt contentment amidst public misfortune “insane, not happy.”

parted

October 25, 2009

mosestencommandSpeaking of miracles…

Our next Intro chapter is on morality and the good life. Curiously, our authors chose Moses for the “cover.”

Seems to me one huge source of religious, political, and personal intolerance through the ages has been the notion that the rules recognized within one’s own tribal tradition have been commanded, written in stone, and passed down from above. No questions asked. Our duty is not to wonder why, or wherefore, or to what end, but simply to obey. And persecute the infidels. Don’t imagine for a moment that other ideas about how to be good and how to live, let alone how to live well and flourish, might be worth considering and respecting. Or at least tolerating.

Here’s where philosophy and the  old-time religion must part ways.

Throw the book at ’em, Chuck.

monster

October 24, 2009

Yesterday’s Holocaust panel discussion, with so many stories of survival against acts of the most inconceivably vicious inhumanity, was an inspiration and testament to the indomitable, resourceful, naturally-resilient human spirit. I’m afraid I found considerably less inspiring, though, the attempt of some panelists to extract religious succor and supernatural salvation in the horrific events they witnessed and experienced.

Both of the liberators, Mr. Gentry and Mr. Dorris, spoke of the shock and awe of finding themselves at death’s door, in hell, at Dachau. Both prayed to be delivered from the stench, literal and moral, of the evil inferno their fellow humans had devised to torture other fellow humans.

“Take care of me,” Mr. Gentry says he implored his God. “And he did.” And then his buddy, three feet away, was blown to kingdom come.

During Q-&-A Mr. Gentry said he gradually came to understand that a soldier can’t count on anyone to save him, not even a blustering, profane, street-wise Chicagoan named Mike. He can only trust in his God.

Mr. Dorris told a more uplifting story of praying for deliverance from hell on earth, and having his human faith reaffirmed by  an act of simple human kindness and gratitude when a prisoner attempted to repay his participation in their rescue with what must have been his last pitiable treasure on earth, the remnant of a cigarette butt he’d been hoarding in an old rusty can.

And then Mr. Lesser related his sickening, heartbreaking account of the Nazi “monster” who mauled and murdered an infant as her parents and siblings begged for a merciful decency that was not to be. He grabbed the baby by the ankles and smashed her savagely against the door-post.

Pressed by a questioner later to say whether religion was any kind of solace for him in attempting to make sense of such senseless barbarism, Mr. Lesser played the inevitable “free will” card. As usual, it was insufficient.

As Mrs. Hahn simply observed, this– the Holocaust– was not God’s work. Humans did it, freely or not.

What would be more monstrous: humans behaving brutally, hatefully, and maliciously when they might, theoretically, have chosen otherwise? Or, an omniscient, all-knowing Immortal freely creating humans with a capacity for brutality, hatred, and malice, and with a will to express it? (Notice, please: an omniscient creator would have to have known in advance that his brutal Nazi, all his brutal Nazis, and Klansmen, and Janjaweeds et al,  would in fact not chose otherwise.)

It’s a rhetorical question, each of us will answer it for ourselves. If a different answer than mine is what carried those brave survivors and liberators through the dark days and nights of their travail in those unspeakably obscene death camps, I will not begrudge them a moment’s comfort.

blowing cloverBut for myself, Emerson’s words in the Divinity School Address, illustrating the free human capacity for intolerant oppression (“This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man,” etc.) come back  with renewed force and fresh application:

“[Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and hefalling rain knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

“The blowing clover and the falling rain”: much less monstrous, much more miraculous and inspiring, to me.

James bio – 7

October 23, 2009

jameswithsonIt’s 1883, James is 41 and a success in his chosen vocation (about to be promoted to full professor). Like many who marry relatively late, it’s taken him awhile to settle comfortably into the group dynamic of family life and the checks it inevitably places on a bachelor’s accustomed unconditioned freedom. But settle he has, and the stability and safe haven of  home are reflected in the growing confidence of his philosophic voice.

Death has not taken a holiday. His mother and father are recently departed. Younger brother Wilky will soon join them. Then, William and Alice will lose a child (18-month old Herman). We forget how precarious  life was, day to day, not so long ago.

The shocking death of his little son coalesced with the lingering grief James continued to feel for his parents. Years later he would attest: “To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent, the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred for ever after… That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”

James had no insuperable problem with metaphysical materialism. Determinism, however, was another matter.BLoggers Dilemma graphicThe Dilemma of Determinism” began as a Harvard lecture in 1884, and it would remain one of James’s clearest statements of objection to the denial of free will. Like I.B. Singer’s, his position was unequivocal (if also a bit ironic and self-deprecating). Did he believe in free will? “Do I have a choice?”

Citing the example of a brutal spousal murder, James again challenges the reader to feel the preposterous implausibility of hard determinism. “For the deterministic philosophy, the murder [was] necessary from eternity.” Can we believe it? No, “something else would really have been better in its place.”

James sees the dispute between determinism and freedom as decisive, as requiring definite decision. One must choose between these incompatible visions:

“Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may now be really possible; and the one becomes impossible only at the very moment when the other excludes it by becoming real itself. Indeterminism thus denies the world to be one unbending unit of fact. It says there is a certain ultimate pluralism in it… To that view, actualities seem to float in a wider sea of possibilities from out of which they are chosen… Determinism, on the contrary, says they exist nowhere, and that necessity on the one hand and impossibility on the other are the sole categories of the real. Possibilities that fail to get realized are, for determinism, pure illusions: they never were possibilities at all. There is nothing inchoate, it says, about this universe of ours, all that was or is or shall be actual in it having been from eternity virtually there… The issue, it will be seen, is a perfectly sharp one, which no eulogistic terminology can smear over or wipe out. The truth must lie with one side or the other, and its lying with one side makes the other false.”

James has also now begun serious work on what will eventually be published as Principles of Psychology, and he’s named the “wonderful stream of consciousness” for which he is still largely remembered. His delightfully pictorial imagination likens consciousness to avian flights and perchings (the transitive and substantive forms of experience), flights and perchingsand he refuses to accept the notion that whatever is real is always conceptually and nominally precise. Language is limited. It dulls our powers of discernment and discrimination. Non-verbal experience is rich, but difficult to contain and identify. It acquaints us, for instance, with vague feelings of relation (like the feeling of “if,” “and,” or “but”) that are no less real  than more substantive things. It is evanescent, impressionistic, fluid, streamy.

One of my favorite James quotes come from this middle period. “What an awful trade that of professor is– paid to talk, talk, talk. What an awful universe it would be if everything could be converted to words, words, words.”

Being open and hospitable to the non-verbal dimensions of life, and being conscientious in his devotion to building the fledgling field of psychology into an inclusive science, James at this time got seriously into the world of the paranormal. He attended countless psychic seances  conducted by “spirit mediums,” alert to possibilities no longer taken seriously by scientists in our time but still wildly popular with the devotees of contemporary media stars like James van Praagh and John Edward.

It  bothered  James that there was “a mass of (alleged) testimony about such things, at which the only men capable of a critical judgment– men of scientific education– will not even look.”

Is such testimony fraudulent? You won’t know if you don’t check it out. If you don’t, you’re as guilty of self-deception as the worst “spiritualist” showman. “There is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomenon are impossible.”

Carpe vitam

October 22, 2009

hecht_bw-thumbJennifer Michael Hecht‘s The Happiness Myth “reads like your favorite college teacher on caffeine…”

(Hecht at Hampshire College… interviewed…)

My favorite college teachers taught that way too. I’m on caffeine, but only occasionally rise to their electric level of energy and excitement. (You can take the boy out of the midwest, etc.)

But I have to agree about Hecht, totally. She’s smart and funny and thorough and fair, and a very good poet to boot. Her Doubt: A History will be one of the anchors in our Spring “Atheism and Spirituality” course.

She’s the perfect act to follow Eric Wilson, giving a hearty Bronx cheer to the notion that sad people are deeper or more in touch with their mortality and the inherent tragedy of self-consciousness. I’ve sported one of her countless aphoristic gems as my email signature for several months. Time for a change, I guess, but I’ve really grown attached to it:

Make yourself face death and become familiar with it. But once you have done that, you have to firmly guide your attention back to life. Just walk your mind away from the dark edge of the beautiful springtime field and into its lovely center.

I found those lines not long after losing Mom and Dad. They were the very words I needed to hear then, and they’ve become a mantra. The “lovely center of life,” so easy to misplace, so central to the hunt for meaning and purpose. Carpe vitam, seize the life.

The myth in question is the “mental corset” of supposing that the prejudices of our particular historical moment regarding a raft of things including our bodies, what we put into them, the consumption of pop culture, how we comport ourselves in public and with other persons, our sexuality, etc. etc., are conclusive. “This book seeks to prove that the basic modern assumptions about how to be happy are nonsense.” There have been, will be, and are other ways of seeing the world and inserting yourself successfully into it. Brian Cohen said it best: “You don’t have to follow me,” or them, or it. “You don’t have to follow anyone. You’re all individuals.” Yes you are.

But not really. We’re enmeshed in relationships, another mine-field of modern prejudice. Hecht echoes G.B. Shaw’s reminder that our significant relationships span generations. Pace Shakespeare, “Life is no brief candle [but] a splendid torch… I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” But in case this sounds treacly, she quickly temporizes the sentiment. “Neither Shakespeare nor Shaw must have been to High School or a faculty meeting.”

Hecht has  good breaking stuff, as we say in baseball. She throws curve-balls. “The idea that drugs create fake happiness is a prejudice… A good day includes more playing than would add up to a happy life… Insight and wisdom can be useless against a dark mood… We live in little cognitive comas… We today are ridiculously goal-oriented… As lame as the game [of modern life] is, it is also a majestic continuation of human culture and we are lucky to be part of it…”

Last I heard, Hecht is currently engaged in writing a new book about Bertrand Russell, who– surprising those who know him asbertrand-russell a serial philanderer and early “free love” enthusiast– said parenting had been his greatest joy. “The secret to happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.’

Hecht cites William James on “the pop culture of 1902,” the so-called mind-cure movement that was not so different from our own Secret-smitten New Age. (Secret review) I think we’ll be hearing from Kristen about that today.

A propos of the Holocaust Conference getting under way in our building today, Hecht notices: “survivors of an almost fatal experience are understood to be happier than other people,” experiencing “posttraumatic bliss.” (’09 Conference schedule)

pigFinally, Hecht has standards. Reminding us of Pyrrho’s famous pig, who impressed Montaigne by riding out a storm at sea with much greater equanimity (and, crucially, much less comprehension) than his human shipmates, and of J.S. Mill’s declaration that it’s “better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” she comments:

“This whole pig-versus-philosopher debate is pretty hilarious, yes?”

Yes. But I agree with Spinoza and Hecht. “The happiness of a drunkard is not the happiness of the wise,” though of course there are happy occasions when it has its place too. Bottom line: “Knowledge and wisdom are worth it,” it can be everything to have found true love and meaningful work, and both– all-– can end in a flash, without warning.

The Wisdom section concludes with a lesson we’ll want to master in “Atheism and Spirituality”:

“Secular happiness requires the same kind of meditative work that religion requires.” Or as Richard Starkey once said: You know, it don’t come easy.

Let us think on these things…