Connecting dots

It’s already the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.  I’ll ask students today where they were, that brilliant horrible historic morning. Most of them were probably in the 1st grade.  Older Daughter was in Ms. Bellar’s kindergarten class at Brookmeade. My wife called the school when the first tower fell, to ask if and how the news was being conveyed to the kids. The secretary was an unworldly lady, her generation’s version of an unsophisticated isolationist. “What’s that got to do with us here in Nashville?”

One of our discussions last week touched on the relevance of space exploration, and a similar sentiment was expressed. What’s space got to do with us here on Earth?

Simple, I said. It’s home. It’s not “out there,” and people who live as though the stars and galaxies were remote and irrelevant to our day-to-day concerns have isolated themselves in a bubble of false security. They’re lost in the cosmos.

Interesting that peace and security were also centerpieces of our discussion yesterday in EEA. Paul Hawken’s “blessed unrest” is blessed precisely because, amidst the chaos and trouble of our times, he finds seeds of hope for a more peaceful and secure world in the unorchestrated coalescence of so many local movements devoted to securing the conditions for life for our kids and their world.

They’re emerging against a backdrop of real progress in human history: we really are a less violent, more secure species than we were not so many centuries ago. It’s hard to realize that, as regional wars and sectarian conflicts rage without end around the globe and 9/11 rolls around once a year to remind us of our capacity for carnage and cruelty. But it’s so. Read and watch Steven Pinker, on our better angels. “We are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”

But then there’s football. Here’s the Gladwell link I keep telling people about. I hope everyone reads it. (The surprising defenders of MMA are probably going to be harder to reach, with this message, than I first realized.)

Well, I could go on about that and tomorrow probably will. For now, I’m pleased to notice one of the more gratifying aspects of my work as a teacher: I’m the connector of dots, the one who’s supposed to point out the unanticipated ways that various events and ideas and philosophers can come together and cast needed light.

Talking yesterday in class, for instance, it dawned on me that groups 1 and 3 were barking up the same tree: Pyrrhonian deep skepticism and moral/cultural relativism. Simon Blackburn voices the right reply to those who say we can function without beliefs, or without discriminating between better and worse beliefs, when he points out that this is simply impractical and socially dysfunctional. Not only might you get run over by a racing chariot or step off a cliff, you also scatter seeds of discord within your community and perhaps even your family.

So I too “would defend the practical importance of thinking about ethics on pragmatic grounds.” To pretend  with “Rosy the Relativist” that we can all simply have and act on our own truths, our own facts, without confronting and negotiating our differences and critically evaluating our respective statements of (dis)belief, really is “farcical.” Lord knows.

Groups 2 and 4 were also unintentionally echoing one another across the room yesterday. One discussion was about Epicurus and happiness, the other Michael Sandel‘s objections to performance enhancement in sports and elective genomic enhancement in general. He’s concerned, ultimately, that we’ll design ourselves right out of the possibility of accomplishing our own goals and, ultimately, achieving meaning in our lives. We won’t do that, though, if we live simply and naturally in the company of friends who’ll help us conquer our fears and address our many questions about life, the universe, and everything. That’s the Epicurean way, when we decide nature’s already provided enough for our peace of mind and our contentment. That’s ataraxia.

So finally there are these dots, connecting Epicurus and Pyrrho:

Epicurus, though no friend to skepticism, admired Pyrrho because he recommended and practiced the kind of self-control that fostered tranquillity; this, for Epicurus, was the end of all physical and moral science. Pyrrho was so highly valued by his countrymen that they honored him with the office of chief priest and, out of respect for him, passed a decree by which all philosophers were made immune from taxation.

Tranquility and a free ride: now that would make me happy.


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