Cultivating our classroom garden

Voltaire and Leibniz are up, today in CoPhi.

Yesterday in Happiness we had a constructive, positive conversation about J.S. Mill’s recovery after a pressure-cooker childhood of experimental education, thanks to his belated discovery of the indispensable importance of cultivating an inner life. Identifying one’s own peculiar sources of joy, one’s wellsprings of personal delight, is crucial. Saving the world while sacrificing yourself may sound noble, but it’s literally self-defeating. Fortunately young JSM rallied in time.

And then, a report purportedly on happiness (“the happiest people we know” was the original proposal) that instead featured a YouTube video of Christian apologist William Lane Craig bashing evolution and an attack on Richard Dawkins for not debating him. It didn’t make me happy, having just read Dawkins’ rationale in Brief Candle in the Dark. (He views Craig as a scripted science-denier and defender of genocidal scripture, not an honest debater.)

But it did remind me of my resolve to do the Atheism course next semester in a different spirit, to foster a climate of mutual affirmation, to make sure we all spend our classtime articulating views positively, not engaging in paltry polemics. Our theme will be Atheism & the Afterlife, exploring the reasons why godless people happily affirm mortality.

Today will be good practice. Voltaire was a master of parodic satire, which can be executed in a positive way but is more often construed by its targets as hostility. If I were a Leibnizian, I’d have a hard time not responding defensively to Dr. Pangloss. But I might find it easier to engage a discussion of what Voltaire meant when he urged us all to “cultivate our garden.” We’ll focus on that, on Voltaire’s garden and on ours. The classroom will be our garden, our crop will be civility. The best of possible worlds surely must be, as J.S. Mill also discovered, a world of happy, productive cultivators.

5:30/7:01, 48/78

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