Archive for December, 2011

Eat, drink and be merry

December 31, 2011

Happy New Year! Or, as Aldous Huxley put it in The Perennial Philosophy:

“Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” This is not a very noble, nor even a very realistic kind of morality. But it seems to make a good deal more sense than the revolutionary ethic: “Die (and kill), for tomorrow someone else will eat, drink and be merry.”

“The Epicurean versus the Revolution” – Best American Poetry

what a queer disease

December 29, 2011

Most prescient tweet of 2011, from @WillmJames:

William JamesWhat queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together?

He meant printed text, of course, but the “things” we stare at include all our gadgety hand-helds too. It’s definitely time for a digital holiday, time to stare more at clouds and trees and stars and other sentient lifeforms, and less at squiggles and symbols.

“Best Spiritual Writing 2012”

December 26, 2011

Spent some time yesterday with the latest annual installment of the alleged Best Spiritual Writing. The series  editor Philip Zaleski is a convert to Catholicism but usually fair-minded and ecumenical. Last year’s edition was introduced and selected by lapsed Catholic Billy Collins. This year it’s Philip Yancey, who casually tosses off this grating aside in his introduction: “The New Atheists do not strive for objectivity.”

Some do, some don’t. Same goes for many new theists.

But the real problem is not an absence of good will in search of demonstrable objectivity, by conscientious religionists, humanists, naturalists, theists, and atheists. They can search all they want without finding that.

No, the real problem is a failure of empathy and an appreciation for the subjectivity of those who experience the world differently. It’s James’s perennial blindness in human beings who insist on treating the spectrum of belief and nonbelief as a catalogue of others’ errors… except, of course, for one’s own privileged experiences and inerrant beliefs.

Zaleski again has issued a volume focused provocatively on “original thought, fluent expression, and vivid personal experiences” that bring light to many subjective corners. For that I can tolerate his and his guest editors’ occasional grating asides, and maybe even begin to understand something of the sensibilities behind them.

What’s the meaning of all this?

December 24, 2011

What it’s really all about, Charlie Brown: love, good will, revelry, innocence, childhood…

and peace.

“The Swerve”

December 23, 2011

The Swerve may sound like another baseball book, like a secret hidden pitch, but in fact it’s the story of the “hidden natural explanation for everything that alarms or eludes you,” namely atoms: it’s all “atoms and void and nothing else.”

But “nothing else” is very misleading. Stephen Greenblatt‘s account of how the fifteenth century rediscovery of LucretiusDe Rerum Natura modernized and humanized the world is chock full of unexpected atomic configurations. One of them is Montaigne‘s cosmic speculation about going around the wheel more than once. It’s an intriguing, demystified, naturalistic intimation of Nietzsche’s version of the ancient hypothesis of eternal recurrence:

“Since the movements of the atoms are so varied,” he wrote, “it is not unbelievable that the atoms once came together in this way, or that in the future they will come together like this again, giving birth to another Montaigne.”

And if you can believe that, is there much you can’t believe?

But it’s far truer to the spirit of Lucretius’ hero Epicurus (and to his heroes Leucippus and Democritus) to recognize the incredible improbability of the swerves that resulted in you and me. The fundamental humanist insight is that we probably go around just this once and had better grab our gusto while we can.

I do love the way Greenblatt concludes, with Thomas Jefferson’s proud, fearless, under-sung declaration: “I am an Epicurean.”

“The Art of Fielding”

December 22, 2011

Chad Harbach’s first novel was a perfect change of pace at semester’s end, so compelling I wasn’t tempted to check twitter or email or the Times even once yesterday. I’ll never again commence winter break without immersing in a cool fiction. But I do feel about closing it as Harbach’s legendary ur-Cards shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez felt about leaving the field after the last out:

It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.

But I’ll return to this book and its truly novel combination of elements: baseball, the pursuit of perfection, the vicissitudes of fortune, literature (especially Melville), philosophy (especially the Stoicism of Aurelius and Epctetus). Harbach is one of my people: captivated by words but all too aware of their limitations, and ours.

Talking was like throwing a baseball… You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them — you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren’t yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the nonbaseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends, was made of words.

Words have never expressed our common plight more succinctly, “The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and  will not.”

One of Harbach’s characters loves the work of Whitman, which he intends to read to an injured and convalescing young friend & lover. But “he should have brought Tocqueville. Or William James.”

Yes, bring it. A sequel would be great.


Coda: happiness today

December 20, 2011

Grades in. Time to exhale.

Soon as I pushed the “submit” button yesterday, I received a query from one of our public information officers:

Since you taught a class on “The Philosophy of Happiness,” would you have a moment to respond to this reporter? His deadline is 1 p.m. Central Dec. 21.

The reporter’s questions:

What constitutes happiness today? It used to be about the American Dream, but that concept is slipping away. Are we happier today than we were? Why or why not? How is happiness sought after differently today than, say, 50 years ago? Why are we less happy?

My off-the-cuff reply:

I teach a course on the philosophy of happiness at Middle Tennessee State University. For what it’s worth, my impression is that students increasingly pursue happiness as an inner transformation, an adjustment of aspiration away from success defined strictly in material terms (what philosopher William James called the old American worship of the “Bitch-goddess Success”) and towards a greater appreciation of the transience and fragility of life. I detect a shift of values, a heightened interest in pursuing work and relationships that are personally meaningful.  Students in my classes exhibit more interest in a spiritual search for enlightenment (Buddhism is hot, especially in the hands of western converts like Matthieu Ricard), and I detect new receptivity to the perspective of a Bertrand Russell in his 1930 book (way ahead of its time in some ways)  “The Conquest of Happiness.” Russell pointed out that happiness can be conquered if we’ll acknowledge how indifferent the large universe is to our small everyday concerns; then, and only then, can we hope to rise abo ve them.

I don’t know if we’re less happy now, but I’m pretty sure we’re less glib about the meaning of happiness than those earlier generations for whom it was imagined to be readily available for a price. The old line about fools who know the price-tag of everything but  the value of nothing definitely applies.

I guess that’s as good a coda for “Happiness & the Secret of Life” as I’m likely to produce.

Now what? Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Winifred Gallagher say it’s as important to devote purposive forethought to our leisure, as to our work. So I’m turning my serious attention today to finishing The Art of Fielding. Then, The Swerve. Then, ho-ho-ho, it’ll be time for some serious last-minute holiday shopping.


Kids say the darndest things

December 16, 2011

I have a bad habit of complaining about grading. The volume of it can be overwhelming, on the Friday before Monday’s submission deadline. Honestly, though, the content of student essays is frequently instructive, and some of their short-answer exam responses are priceless. Two questions stand out, this morning. I thought they were softballs.

  • What does “Cogito, ergo sum” mean? Who said it?
  • Where and when (approximately) was the Scopes “monkey trial”?

Every schoolgirl & boy, it turns out, does not know it was Descartes who said “I think, therefore I am.” Some got the translation but attributed it to everyone from Aristotle to Spinoza to Schopenhauer. The “best” alt-Latin proposal: “God only.” (?!)

And almost none of the native Tennesseans in my classroom said “Dayton, TN in the twenties.” One picked the 16th century, another 1970. This after I had banged on and on about my single degree of separation from the event, via my first landlord.

So students, your holiday assignment: read Edward Larson’s Summer of the Gods and Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey, and watch the late Harry Morgan (& Tracy & March, & Darren) in Inherit the Wind.

Or at least read the words of my dear old “dollar in your ear”-plucker, the Damned Yankee Dr. Winterton Curtis.

I thought of Scopes, when, in 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh stopped from his plane at the airport of Paris, and, not realizing that a crowd awaited him, introduced himself by saying, “I am Charles Lindbergh and I have flown the Atlantic.”  John T. Scopes at Dayton was that kind of man. Reporters were present in such numbers that I could well believe the statement they numbered more than 200 and that never before had there been so many reporters present at any trial.  Notable among them was H. L. Mencken, who had made himself so odious to the orthodox by his scathing criticisms of the Fundamentalist Crusade and its Crusaders.  As no seats were reserved for the expert witnesses we sat in the press chairs.  Many times I sat next to Mencken.  He resisted my attempts at conversation, but I got the flavor of the man from listening to his talk with other reporters.

The courtroom audience impressed me as honest country folk in jeans and calico.  “Boobs” perhaps, as judged by Mencken, and holding all the prejudices of backwoods Christian orthodoxy, but nevertheless a significant section of the backbone of democracy in the U.S.A.  They came to see their idol “the Great Commoner” and champion of the people meet the challenge to their faith.  They left bewildered but with their beliefs unchanged despite the manhandling of their idol by the “Infidel” from Chicago….

And that’s really how I feel, finally, about the students who can’t distinguish Descartes (or Scopes) from a hole in the ground. They’re the salt of the earth, good-hearted, well-intentioned, trustworthy, and with a bit of a cultural literacy deficit to fill. But we all have our gaps, we must all be lifelong learners.

Good to the last drop

December 15, 2011

Gave the last CoPhi finals of 2011, after one last round of presentations: Hannah on karma, Nick on abiding “Dudeism,” and Amanda on philosophy and coffee.

Amanda cited my favorite James quote on the subject: “A cup of strong coffee at the proper moment will entirely overturn for the time a man’s view of life.”  There’s a growing literature in the field of java studies. We’d already noted Uncommon Grounds a few weeks ago, in connection with Jennifer Hecht’s discussion of the Enlightenment (A festival of reason). As Steven Johnson knows, a cup is where a lot of good ideas come from. Amanda told us about Coffee: Grounds for Debate, which includes essays like “The Unexamined Cup is Not Worth Drinking,” “The Karma of Waking Up,” and “The Bean and the Golden Mean”.

Editors Austin and Parker write that

philosophy benefits from coffee, which sharpens attention and can heighten creativity… a philosopher is a machine that turns coffee into theories.

Well, that’s not so flattering. But “the concerns of philosophy demand our attention,” and I love the advice to “use your coffee time for paying attention to the world.” My experience is not just what I agree to attend to, it’s  what I’m actually awake for. And like the semester just concluded, it’s good to the last drop. It’s good just before a walk or a workout too.

Now, I must attend to grading.

our “most important function”

December 13, 2011

The “cryptic James quote” Weiner’s epigraph reminds me of, in which James commits to the “task” of defending experience against philosophy as his “religious act”:

Although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.

And what I once wrote of it: James’s “religious act” is, in essence, his formulation and dogged advocacy of a naturalistic creed that can permit itself to take seriously the experience of the private imagination and lonely heart in its struggle for release from isolation and despair and its striving for the vindication of hopefulness.

I still don’t understand precisely what James meant, but I know he meant to support the Lonely Hearts and passionate believers of the world.  Like Jennifer Hecht, he found belief one of our best muscles. He believed in believing, in the action and “experience” it sponsors and sustains. He aimed, he said, to “defend experience against philosophy.”

The problem I have set myself is a hard one: first, to defend (against all the prejudices of my “class”) “experience” against “philosophy” as being the real backbone of the world’s religious life-I mean prayer, guidance, and all that sort of thing immediately and privately felt, as against high and noble general views of our destiny and the world’s meaning.

He’s quite right, the class of professional academic philosophers looks askance at such a “well-nigh impossible” project. And maybe they should. Is immediate private feeling what we need more of, to grasp our “most important function”? Or do we need more experience in thinking?

Yes. Some days and nights we need more of the one, some more of the other. This morning I’m feeling the need for both. E pluribus unum.