Archive for February, 2011

“Tiger” craves freedom

February 28, 2011

Eagle Man tells us of fearless, freedom-loving Tiger today, and of the horse called Heat.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Today’s exam, following another presentation or two, will not include material from the latest Nature’s Way reading assignment (ch.7-8).

Much to his credit, Eagle Man explicates tiger symbolism by promptly drawing our attention to “freedom from want” and then to mental freedom. “Most folks won’t budge an inch from the beliefs instilled in them since childhood.” There’s hope, though, that young people increasingly reject rigidity and crave “other points of view and the freedom to explore them.” That’s precisely the pluralism Wade Davis was pleading for at TED. (It’s what my alma mater’s mascot symbolized to me, too, back when I first started to study philosophy.)

“We need to be allowed Tiger’s freedom as we walk our own trails of proof and error.”

Indigenous people “did not presume to have the only path to truth.”

“Creator has allowed us free will… and a free-thinking mind to insulate us from the dangerous dictates of zealous soothsayers… (spreading the doctrine of original sin and the like)… never give up your freedom to a human being…”

“…the only ‘real truth’ is what we can directly observe… A Nature-based spirituality cannot encompass a conventional religious hierarchy.”

Heat was the first horse of Black Elk’s apocalyptic vision, the symbolic embodiment of desecrating excess. The greenhouse effect is natural and good in delicate equilibrium, but we’ve thrown it catastrophically out of kilter. Eagle Man gathers the now-familiar facts of global warming, and extends them.

Did you know, for instance, that by the end of this century it is forecast that “ongoing warming will have enlarged the zone of potential malaria transmission from an area containing 45% of the world’s population to an area containing about 60%” and that “deaths related to heat waves is projected to double by 2020”?

And that’s only from the first horse’s mouth, there’s more. Kinda puts exam day in perspective.

[2010 set record global temperatures, tied with 2005 as hottest on record… the evidence at…floods & droughts in 2010]


February 26, 2011

More from an anthropologist impressed by Polynesian tradition, on valuing ancient wisdom and the intelligence of intuition and feeling.

“We live in a world bloated with data, yet starved for wisdom… The link between past and future is fragile…  Throughout the world there are cultures with vast sums of knowledge… The planet is our canoe, and we are the voyagers.”

This is a beautiful talk by Elizabeth Lindsey, and it’s inspired a spirited comments thread. I do have to admit some sympathy for this guarded reaction: “I’m leery of mysticism and elders who think they know best  due to some ancient tales.”

cultural diversity

February 25, 2011

Wade Davis is right: many of us pay lots of deserved attention to threatened biodiversity but neglect the loss of human cultural diversity, every bit as precious and as vulnerable. His The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World is a finalist for the Orion Book Award, “given annually to a book that addresses the human relationship with the natural world in a fresh, thought provoking, and engaging manner.” It’s based on his Canadian Massey Lectures. He also did a Long Now Foundation talk on the subject.

And he’s a TEDster too. Gorgeous photos, lovely idea: agents of destruction can become facilitators of cultural survival. Pluralism means the preservation of possibility for our species.

here it comes

February 24, 2011

We have an exam today in Intro to Philosophy, and the first midterm report presentations. Two* will be on the Fab Four. In their honor:

*From Brad (#10) and Andrew (#15).

You never know what you’re gonna get, in these pop culture & philosophy reports, but some possibilities revealed by a peek at the table of contents include the lads’ critique of consumer culture and quest for authenticity, Paul on love, the ethics of chemically-induced altered states (but aren’t all states of consciousness chemically-induced?), Eastern metaphysics (“life goes on within you and without you”), skepticism…

Other reports today: The Atkins Diet and Philosophy, co-edited by last year’s MTSU Lyceum speaker Lisa Heldke (“What does the low-carb revolution mean for our lives, our most fundamental values, and our place in the cosmos?… new insights into major philosophers such as Dewey, Nietzsche, and Marx by means of Atkins” – Jasmine); the NFL-Patrick, #14– (I may have to recycle an old post on the subject, or at least recommend this piece by Malcolm Gladwell, or “This is your brain on football“)– and Justin on Pink Floyd (#15):

What does the power of great art have to do with madness? Should psychedelic drugs make us doubt the evidence of our senses? How did power, sadism, and conformity turn education into mind control (not that we need either)? Can a rock band keep its identity as its members change? What can we learn from the synchronicities between The Dark Side of the Moon andThe Wizard of Oz? Did Friedrich Nietzsche foreshadow Syd Barrett? When did you realize that you are the hole in reality? How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?

Today, STUDENTS, we’ll sign up for Daily Questions to carry us through the rest of the semester. If you’ve not done one yet, be sure to sign the dotted line today. Coming next week, in addition to our regular READING ASSIGNMENTS (O 40-57 on Tuesday, PW 51-69 on Thursday):

House (Brandon, #10); Taylor on Harry Potter (Why isn’t the Mirror of Erised adequate for real life? Does prophecy rule out free choice? What can dementors and boggarts teach us about joy, fear, and the soul?); Nhu on Groundhog Day; Nick on Star Wars; Tabethia and Dalorian on Hip Hop (#10); Pete on Lord of the Rings; Warren on being neither her nor there (??); Lanna on Dexter (and not Facebook); Spurgeon on Calvinism (#14); Lindsay on Radiohead (#15); and more. Can’t wait!

If anyone does Jimmy Buffett I hope they’ll not repeat the faux pas of the student who last semester announced that he really didn’t like Buffett’s music at all but just couldn’t find any of the other books. He didn’t know that I’m one of the contributors to that particular volume.

Someone asked what I would advise anyone who found themselves in that situation. Well, I advise not waiting ’til the last minute to find that out. That’s not what I call the “porpoise-driven life.”

whale & owl

February 23, 2011

Presentations continue in NW. Harrison, Willie, and Jason are up next.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: The first exam is on Monday, with 20 questions to  be drawn from the quizzes. There should be time for two presentations beforehand. Essays are due from non-presenters a week from today.

In Nature’s Way today we read that whales (and dolphins) have intuitive powers of communication that leave our paltry human linguistic capacity in the dust. They’re telepathic, they know the minds and the arsenals of their two-legged predators, and they’re in touch with all of Nature.

We, on the other hand,  have only modest powers of  intuition– and what little we do have we fear and mistrust. Eagle Man is in touch with his own inner Doolittle, though, and drew vigorous nodding assent from his friend the “big very holy fish” about our mutual responsibility to Mother Earth.

I hope that didn’t sound “superioristic or belittling.” I’m okay with “skeptical,” though, and there’s plenty here to test the credulity of even the most modest skeptic.

Vision Quest, Sun Dance, and Sweat Lodge are said to stimulate intuition and displace the “pettiness of daily living.” I’m bemused to note, btw, that “a vision quest may include long walks in uninhabited, monotonous areas.” By that definition I’ve been questing all along myself, without knowing it. “It is an individual experience and often subject to the emotional, spiritual, and physical make-up of the person.” Precisely.

Sun Dance seeks “a continuity between life and death – a regeneration. It shows that there is no true end to life, but a cycle of symbolic and true deaths and rebirths. All of nature is intertwined” and mutually inter-dependent. It’s the circle of life, again, but with more piercing self-inflicted pain. Suffering is thought to be redemptive and natural. I think the amelioration of suffering is even moreso.

And “the lodge often ends on the statement mitakuye oyasin,”* being

a place of spiritual refuge and mental and physical healing, a place to get answers and guidance by asking spiritual entities, totem helpers, the Creator and Mother Earth for the needed wisdom and power.

Can’t hurt to ask.

*All is related to all. Is that mysterious intuition, or just good old-fashioned insight?

Wotai, a special stone allegedly containing picturesque images within, is another tough nut to crack. But Eagle Man is appropriately humble about it. “I am but a mere human. What do I know on this matter?” He’s definitely saying more than he knows.

“Will Creator intervene someday and save our world?” Eagle Man seems to urge a “beseeching” attitude, but I follow the Sagan line on this:

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. Reflections on a Mote of Dust

It disturbs me whenever I hear my fellow humans beseeching the gods or the stars or the aliens to come and bail us out. Bailouts clearly don’t work.

“Modern materialists” don’t care about generations unborn, but is that because they’re consumerists or atomists? Is it even true, in either sense of the term? Plenty of consumers are naively addicted to the horn of plenty, and blinded by its bounty; but materialists of my stripe are as caring as anyone. But maybe he didn’t mean my tribe.

I don’t honor Great Spirit, if that means acknowledging a designing, animated, pre-evolutionary intelligence at work in the Universe. I’m far from alone in that. Does Eagle Man really mean to say that all of us are, therefore, selfish and manipulative?

“What you never see does not exist, according to the Sioux.” But, being “owl-like” enables us to “connect with what ordinary senses cannot perceive.” Okay, owl really sees through the darkness. His night vision is impressive, but I’m still leery of the idea that we can be owlish in our metaphorical ability to see what’s permanently hidden from daylight. How do we detect and expose false sightings? How do we maintain integrity of vision?

The Yuwipi ceremony can “bring ancestors of the past into phenomenal, physical form.” Resurrection? Really? Or if not, what?

Maybe I need a few drags on that pipe Eagle Man says he put down. Sorry, I’m skeptical of that claim too.

This all sounds a lot like the Dhammapada insistence (on my notepad this morning) that “we are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” I just can’t bring myself to believe it. Our thoughts themselves are risen, emergent, evolved, evolving, both making our world and made by it. Native wisdom seems to me to be tapping into a fundamental part of our story, but only a part of it.

But, not to lose sight of the bigger picture here, Eagle Man and I share plenty of common ground. His Cuckoo’s Nest “go to hell” confrontation in the Bible Belt is priceless. “A ho! It is so!”

And after all, as a pragmatic pluralist I’m still bound to agree, too, with Eagle Man’s favorite Jesuit Father Stoltzman: “By their fruits you shall know them.” The fruits of sustainable living on a harmonious, holistically-integrated planet will stifle my skepticism more quickly than any merely verbal riposte.  Let’s all agree not to proselytize. Pass that peace pipe.

Philo to Boethius

February 22, 2011

Philo, extending Paul’s hybridization of Christianity and Greek philosophy, said God is Good, i.e., the Christian God is Plato’s Form (Idea) of the Good. A dubious but popular proposition, transforming both traditions into something much greater as a cultural and historical force than their respective parts would seem to merit.

Note to STUDENTS: Exam #1 is on Thursday. Bring your review questions today. We’ll also talk a bit about writing philosophical essays, due from all non-presenters next week.

[writing & thinkingwriting philosophyquotesmorewriters on writingadvice to writers]

The exam will take less than 30 minutes, so…

Midterm Report presentations also begin Thursday, with Brad (#10) and Andrew (#15) on the Beatles & Philosophy and Jasmine (#14) on the Atkins Diet, followed by Brandon (#10) on House, Patrick (#14) on the NFL (and chronic traumatic encephalopathy?), and Justin (#15) on Pink Floyd.

On deck: Taylor on Harry Potter, Nhu on Groundhog Day, Nick on Star Wars, Tabethia and Dalorian on Hip Hop (#10), Pete on Lord of the Rings, Warren on ?, Lanna on Dexter, Spurgeon on Calvinism (#14), and Lindsay on Radiohead (#15).

If more of you wish to sign up for presentations, you’ll need to let me know today. I’ll let you know who else might be working on your topic, for those wishing to consider a collaborative presentation.

We were talking about Stoics the other day. Did you note the post on Stoicism in Georgia? And on NPR last night, it was claimed that the father of our country was a Stoic and not, as commonly supposed, a Deist.

But moving on…

Origen noticed that Plato’s two worlds (intelligible & visible) resemble Christianity’s heaven & earth. He found this significant, but was also inclined to take both stories allegorically and not literally.

Plotinus thought Christianity was “an offensive, mythic little cult” and tried to improve it with his neo-Platonic emanations. His God was a lot like Aristotle’s:

“he had no personality, did not know of us, had not created the world,
took no interest in it, and would never judge it or anyone… It was Plotinus who made Plato and Aristotle seem religious.” (JMH)

It was also Plotinus who downgraded the status of matter, nature, and the human body as inferior by comparison with the higher stages of emanation. After him, Christianity cracked down on dissent. Free-thinking was not tolerated, and the Dark Ages commenced with the horrific murder, probably ordered by Cyril (later rewarded with Sainthood), of the great female Alexandrian philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Hypatia.

The library’s contemporary successor was better protected last month, when students made sure history would not repeat

Boethius, favorite philosopher of Confederacy of DuncesIgnatius J. Reilly, “recounts [in Consolation of Philosophy] in polished literary language, an imagined dialogue between the prisoner Boethius and a lady who personifies Philosophy.” [SEP… SQU] “It describes the plight of a just man in an unjust society. It is the very basis for medieval thought.”

She consoles his persecution at yet another Emperor’s bloodied hands. He was a Stoic’s stoic. Distressing, how they always seem to end up tragically dead. (Don’t confuse his Consolation with Alain de Botton’s Consolations.)

Let’s go ahead and look a couple of pages forward in the Osborne text (and a couple of posts backward, to Bart Ehrman‘s visit last Friday):

The name of Muhammad has come to symbolize, for many, an intransigent, inflexible, violent species of piety. For others it still evokes the humble merchant’s son’s message of humility and brotherhood. “Islam” and “Muslim” mean submission, and whatever the total truth about the historical Muhammad it’s clear that a religion centered on unqualified submission was always  bound to conflict with philosophy’s devotion  to freedom of thought and expression.  You can submit to inherited authority or you can question and challenge it. You can’t do both. [Muslim spirit, modesty… “Why I am not a ___”… holy books]

Yet, as Jennifer Hecht points out, there is a theological tradition shared by many Muslims–Kalam–  which holds that reason and logic should be used to show that God is beyond human understanding. But if reason and logic are the prime tools of human understanding, this is an unpromising and paradoxical approach.

More intriguingly:

among the early Muslims there were a few deeply independent scholars who doubted almost all the features of God that made him godlike, i.e., that God was good, that he made the universe, or that he cared about humanity. They were often referred to as atheists.

And they were, to say the least, shunned. Ostracized. Marginalized. Dealt with.

But that’s not the whole story. The Faylasufs (or Falsafahs) “held that the God of the Greek philosophers was identical to Allah… was reason itself.”

Once upon a time, for centuries in fact, “Muslim skeptic” was not an oxymoron. Nowadays, you’re more likely to encounter a former-Muslim skeptic like the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq. His namesake precursor Muhammad al-Warraq referred to God as an idiot,

because “He who orders his slave to do things that he knows him to be incapable of doing, then punishes him, is a fool.”


“People developed the science of astronomy by gazing at the sky, and no prophet was necessary to show them how to gaze… We can know the world on our own.”

Lion among many

February 21, 2011

In  today’s reading of Nature’s Way, we learn that Lion teaches gender equality and that indigenous thought favors pluralism. We are all “one among many… each an essential connection in the web of life.”

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Still waiting to hear from some of you regarding your midterm presentation topics. Send that along ASAP. Today Colin leads off with a report on land use in Appalachia.* Also today, expect a visitor bearing treats. She may be able to tell us something about the circle of life that’s also a tree, too.

We’ll plan to continue on Wednesday with Harrison on the “non-prevalence of supernatural perspectives on native wisdom/mythology,”Willie on “trance-based knowledge and spirituality in the context of globalisation,” and Jason on “how the fundamental ideas of religion are supported by math & science.”

Then, Kayla, Kevin, Paul, Garrett, and Connor on topics they’ve not yet declared.

Also noteworthy: have you listened to “Krista Tippett on Being” (formerly known as “Speaking of Faith”)? She often explores the intersection of environmentalism and spirituality, most recently with “Planting the Future”: “A remarkable Kenyan woman and environmentalist speaks from experience about the links between ecology, human flourishing, war and peace, and democracy. And she shares her thoughts on where God resides.” A while back she did “Architecture of Decency,” about “creating beautiful and economical structures that are unique in the world — and that nurture sustainability of the natural world as of human dignity” in west Alabama. “Land, Life, and the Poetry of Creatures” discusses “a new approach to thinking about human domination of the Earth and its creatures… our collective grief at destruction of the natural world and… a ‘chastened’ yet ‘tenacious’ hope.” The show is addictive, like TED Talks… one of which she also recently did: “Reconnecting with Compassion“.

One more thing: Exam #1 is a week from today. I suggest looking over the old quizzes, from which 20 objective-format questions will be drawn.

*Possibly related to Colin’s report: mountaintop removal. (Check out this video… could Google Earth’s eye in the sky be the fulfillment of Black Elk’s vision?)

Those of us who protest mountaintop removal do it for the environment, but we’re also fighting to prove we are not unwarranted burdens. Our water and air are being poisoned, but the most dangerous toxin is the message that people don’t matter.

People do. And the thing is, real lions don’t seem to me to have all that much regard for people of either gender. Maybe we’ve all been Disneyfied by Simba et al.

Maybe Huxley was right.

For his successful progress, throughout the savage state, man has been largely indebted to those qualities which he shares with the ape and the tiger; his exceptional physical organization; his cunning, his sociability, his curiosity, and his imitativeness; his ruthless and ferocious destructiveness when his anger is roused by opposition. But, in proportion as men have passed from anarchy to social organization, and in proportion as civilization has grown in worth, these deeply ingrained serviceable qualities have become defects. Evolution & Ethics

But on the other hand, writes Eagle Man, “wolf is a misunderstood animal.” Huxley saw wolf’s potential too, and saw its cultivation as a hopeful model:

The intelligence which has converted the brother of the wolf into the faithful guardian of the flock ought to be able to do something towards curbing the instincts of savagery in civilized men.

The question here is whether we think nature already embodies all the lessons we must learn, or if we’re in the process of working some of them out through the natural/historical development of our own instincts and impulses. Can human nature improve on nature per se?

The so-called “feminine principles” of acceptance, emotional expression, peacefulness sound to me like a human contribution to pre-human nature’s own implicit values. They just might add something the leonine world is missing.

Whatever you think about lions, the important issue is how we humans can best go about making our young men more accepting, expressive, pacifistic. (The young women of my acquaintance don’t always model those virtues so perfectly either, frankly.)

“Old Europe” apparently balanced its male and female energy equitably, under the watchful and nurturing gaze of its  benevolent Creator. The Celts and Druids did too. But then what happened? Creator looked away, Deist-fashion? Or what?

Eagle Man, under the prodding of his hekoya, admits that tragic natural disasters challenge our full appreciation of divine benevolence. He nonetheless continues to affirm that there’s “far more benevolence than evil” under the sun. And there is, I’m sure. But that’s small consolation when the storm or flood washes you or your loved ones away.

“I have always doubted that a mere man could alter what Creator made.” The impotence thesis is troublesome. Are we epiphenomenal, or are we problematic for Creation? If the former, why are we here thinking about our ethical responsibilities?

Children raised in a society of gender inequality are unfit for  freedom, Eagle Man asserts. I wonder what he thinks about the turmoil in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt… What do you?

I love Eagle Man’s ghost dream, even though I don’t believe in ghosts. He seems to think it was more than a dream, “zany” as that sounds to rationalists like me. The mind-body problem seems to have clear implications for the Spirit World, doesn’t it? Or are these just artificial Cartesian distinctions we’re free to drop, if we embrace indigenous natural realism?

Most intriguing, in today’s text: the “East Power” & “Sky Power” optimism about communications technology. Did Black Elk really foretell satellites and Google Earth’s eye in the sky? And, I wonder again: what does Eagle Man think about Watson and “our new computer overlords”?

The “Mount Rushmore of organized religion,” headed by Billy Graham and Preacher Bob… Hilarious!

“Maybe we did come from Wind Cave. But who knows?” This may just be Eagle Man’s agnostic and pluralistic nod to Darwinian evolution. But if we come from a tree of life whose lower trunk reveals our consanguinity with Eagle, Lion, and Wolf (not to mention beetle and slug and worm et al), and if the genetic, paleontological, and other evidence for that patrimony continues to mount, agnosticism will become too tepid an attitude.

On the other hand, a certain kind of Darwinian fundamentalism swings too far the other way.

In the end, the absence of evidence for a godly hand in evolution isevidence of godly absence, for evolution and selection show precisely the characteristics they would have if they were purely material, mindless, and purposeless processes… There is no more evidence that god directed evolution than there is that god keeps the engine working in your car—and yet nobody keeps an open mind about the possibility that god is pushing their pistons.

Nobody? Every day in Native Wisdom class suggests otherwise, and I’m gradually learning not to mind. But the big question here for me remains: how much of what we need to learn, in order to live responsibly with one another and all life on this planet, can only be taught and learned by an evolved and evolving humanity?


February 19, 2011

Our anticipation was not disappointed, the Ehrman talk yesterday afternoon filled the large auditorium as well as the closed-circuit spillover room (of the same building, btw, where our latest campus outlaw had been apprehended at the beginning of the week).

It must also have filled the Bible thumpers in the house– and there were just a few, judging by some of the Qs from the floor during Q-&-A– with discomfort. Bart was respectful but firm, as when he responded to one: “I don’t believe iconic paintings of the Blessed Virgin weep tears of oil paint, but if you do I have no problem with that.”

He’d already respectfully and methodically assembled damning evidence of the Bible’s “copy of a copy of a copy…” of an errant copy pedigree. But still he declined to insist on construing this most errant text-by-committee’s obviously all-too-human provenance as conclusive proof of the adventitious nature of Christian holy writ. Only those literalists and fundamentalists who assert the Bible’s straight, immaculate, unadulterated descent from the Creator’s mouth to our ears need feel subverted by this scholarship.

Not that they will, or will admit it. Nor will the True Believers of other faiths admit that sauce for the goose sauces their gander too. One thanked Bart for pointing out the Bible’s imperfections. “We Muslims have been saying that for years.”  Bart was too modest and polite to point out the findings of Koranic scholars that their holy book

could well stand as the supreme example of a man-made text, worked over and doctored to an unfathomable extent, and subsequently endowed with a transcendental provenance by the associative and projective proclivities of the human imagination… ‘if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence simply doesn’t make sense…. The fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible.’

Then someone asked if Bart would be willing to discuss his own personal journey from evangelical fundamentalism to agnosticism. He gave us the short version of God’s Problem:

I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly-disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.

…If God is at work in the darkness, feeding the hungry with the miraculous multiplication of loaves, why is it that one child– a mere child!– dies every five seconds of hunger. Every five seconds.

Unlike my colleague who described himself, at the post-talk party, as a “F*$k You, you’re wrong!” kind of guy, non-pluralistic and proud of it, Bart refrains from insisting that his own response to the problem of suffering is coercive. It’s for each of us to wrestle with, and decide in conscience.

Speaking of the post-talk party: I loved hearing from Bart what it’s like to meet Stephen Colbert in the Green Room (he’s been on the show twice) and then try to keep up with his lightning wit under the klieg lights.

It was also terrific, at the party, to hear from a colleague in another department that ours has gained a strong reputation for the way we responded to administrators’ attempts, awhile back, to question the need for a philosophy department at all. If nothing else, we’re needed to sponsor Lyceum talks like yesterday’s.

Thanks for coming, Bart. (And thanks for inviting him, Mike.) Give our best regards to Chapel Hill.

“Misquoting Jesus”

February 18, 2011

We’ve been anticipating Bart Ehrman’s visit for a long time. The day is here.*


The Department of Philosophy is happy to announce a lecture by
Professor Bart D. Ehrman
“Misquoting Jesus: Scribes Who Changed the Bible and Readers Who May Never Know”
Friday, February 18 at 3:30
State Farm Room of the Business and Aerospace Building

The lecture is free and open to the public. Professor Ehrman will be signing copies of his books immediately following his lecture.Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Professor with the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Among Professor Ehrman’s fields of scholarly expertise are the historical Jesus, the early Christian apocrypha, the apostolic fathers, and the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.He is the author of over twenty books.  Among his most recent are a Greek-English edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press), an assessment of the newly discovered Gospel of Judas (Oxford University Press), and three New York Times Bestsellers: Jesus Interrupted (an account of scholarly views of the New Testament), God’s Problem (an assessment of the biblical views of suffering), and Misquoting Jesus (an overview of the changes found in the surviving copies of the New Testament and of the scribes who produced them). His books have been translated into twenty-seven languages.The lecture is part of the annual Applied Philosophy Lyceum sponsored by the Department of Philosophy with appreciation to the Distinguished Lecture Committee.

Bart Ehrman radio interview w/Gina Logue, WMOT

Aristotle & beyond

February 17, 2011

Aristotle’s view of virtue was quite Socratic: it’s the most valuable thing, it’s nothing if not useful, it’s the most (one-) worldly of aspirations and it’s the fount of our character and our happiness. In a word: it’s excellent… arete.

With his commitment to close observation of nature he lays claim to being the first scientist, but centuries of medieval cleric-stagnation turned him into the great symbol of anti-scientific dogma. The idea of purpose and potential as the twin engines of all growth and development do not enjoy scientific approval anymore. The idea of an Unmoved Mover does not move many cosmologists, either.

Aristotelian flourishing, on the other hand, “eudaimonia“– is pretty hot right now. Too bad there wasn’t a stock offering a while back. But the point, of course, is that it’s a present and an intrinsic good. Never mind the interest and future payout.

There are three obstacles to happiness, Epicurus said– fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the gods– but all can be removed easily enough.

Death is no problem because when we are alive we are not dead and when we are dead we don’t know it… Fear of pain is worse than pain itself. Accept the pain, embrace the sting… and you’ve vanquished your worst foe, the one in your head.” (J.M. Hecht)

Strike one, strike two… and since any gods there may happen to be, out there in the empty spaces between the stars, are quite evidently “totally unconcerned with human affairs,” fear strikes out. Be happy.

Seneca‘s end was not so happy, but it was more or less consistent with his life. He did not strain against the leash of perceived necessity. But does he illustrate the limits the of therapeutic acceptance, and cross the line into defeatist resignation? [text… J-L David painting]

Other Stoics are better role-models. Cicero‘s De Natura Deorum(On the Nature of the Gods) is a neglected classic. Bottom line: “If you want truth, you have to avoid making up anything.”

Marcus Aurelius had a cold unblinking eye for harsh home-truths. He poses a question never more timely than right now, for a celebrity-besotted society like ours:

He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will also die very soon… But suppose that those who will remember are even immortal, and that the remembrance will be immortal, what then is this to thee? And I say not what is it to the dead, but what is it to the living?

Not enough to live for, is what. But the Philosopher-Emperor finds life worth living all the same, for those who cultivate a properly-stoic sensibility. Contented are those who learn to comprehend the universe,

by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every several thing, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.

Our time is brief, but  so then also is our pain. From this perspective, the trite modern phrase about not sweating the small stuff (because it’s all small) can become meaningful and profound.

The skeptic Sextus Empiricus offers an interesting observation on anthropomorphic God-projection, as Jennifer Hecht summarizes: divine virtues are thought to be “fully realized versions of human virtues.” But “that did not make sense unless God had our weaknesses.”

Weaknesses like impotence, fallibility, and ignorance: whose acknowledgement by us is also our greatest strength. So, says Sextus, your God is too small.

But of course, as a skeptic, he must always add: for all we know.

My other class this semester is Environmental Ethics and Native Wisdom, so I’m especially interested at the moment in our section on indigenous philosophies… of the Americas and Africa in particular. It’s really too bad there’s so scant a written record, and too bad we can’t all plug into the rich oral traditions of their hey-days. 

“Tribalism” has been too long miscast as the inferior, primitive precursor to individualism. Being true to oneself is not incompatible with being responsibly communal. Individuality is not the opposite of socially-embedded personality. Nature is not opposed to human culture, it is its prerequisite and its deepest identity.

The “jokester” or “trickster”  in indigenous thinking (heyoka = “sacred clown”) is an extremely useful figure, reminding us not to take our own ideas too seriously. That medicine is in short supply lately.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: I need to know your midterm report plans today. We’ll begin presentations next week. On Tuesday, we’re doing O 27-39 and we’ll review for Thursday’s  exam.