Archive for May, 2016

Superstition

May 31, 2016
A late morning post today, after a pre-dawn trip “carrying” (as my Tennessee in-laws say, in a locution that still conjures for me an amusing image) Grammy to her plane back to the midwest. Glad I’m not flying today, with the end-of-holiday throng. My turn’s coming though, next week in California. 

In class tomorrow we look at the late Roman period and its odd beliefs. A student takes issue with Arthur Herman’s observation that “by the measure of the age, Emperor Constantine was not a superstitious man.”

Constantine and his troops believed the prognostication of a  “pagan oracle” that “an enemy of Rome would be killed,” worshipped Sol Invictus (the Sun God), and interpreted dreams as omens. “It’s almost like a scene from a Mel Brooks film.” Or Monty Python.

Fair enough. But consider:

Their world was full of unexplained phenomena, darkness and fear. To Romans these superstitions were a perfectly natural part in the relationship between gods and men. The Roman habit of interpreting natural phenomena as signs from the beyond stemmed from the Etruscans… [They thought] the signs they read were sent to them by a mythical boy called Tages, who in their mythology was to have been ploughed up from the earth. They would seek to read the future by examining the entrails of sacrificial animals, the liver being of special importance for that purpose…

Stones, trees, springs, caves, lakes, swamps, mountains – even animals and furniture – were all deemed to be hosts to spirits (numina). Stones in particular were often seen to contain spirits, especially if they were boundary stones, dividing one man’s property from the other. It is very telling that the Latin word for such a boundary is terminus and that there actually was a Roman god called Terminus. This odd deity took the form of a huge piece of rock which rested in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Apparently several attempts to move the bolder when constructing the temple had failed. And so it remained within the temple, because it had ‘refused to move, even for Jupiter’…

Children were told stories of nasty creatures who’d come to eat them if they weren’t good. From the Greeks they had Mormo, a terrifying woman with donkey legs. And the Roman Lamia who stalked around looking for children to eat… 

That’s just the tip of the Romans’ iceberg of magical thinking.

But we shouldn’t feel too superior. Many of us still tell children tales of hell and monstrosity, seek The Secret, and tremble to imagine the other side of mortal life. Most of us don’t buy the Epicurean comfort that death is literally nothing to us.

On the other hand, Pew research polls show that religion is in sharp decline in the U.S. Our auguries now point to a more secular future, if we can avoid frightening ourselves to death before it arrives.

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Artificial reverence

May 30, 2016

Memorial Day in America was created in 1868 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” So many have died since, in most of those conflicts to no clear point. 90,220 in Vietnam alone, and over a million civilians.

And yet, so few of us think seriously about the priceless human cost, or act constructively to curtail it in the future.  James Fallows is right, there’s now a deep disconnect between most of us and those who risk the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.

When I was a kid in the ’50s and ’60s and then older in the ’70s, American pop culture reflected a country familiar enough with its military to make fun of it at times. You had shows like “Gomer Pyle,” or “Hogan’s Heroes,” or “”McHale’s Navy.”

You had works of art like “South Pacific” or novels like “Catch 22″ and even movies like “MASH,” respected the importance of the military and the important things it did that were heroic in the large scale, like World War II, but it was still made of real people with their real foibles.

But we — now we have started to have this artificially reverent view of the military that’s also distant and disengaged.

Saying “Thank you for your service” is easy. It does not really “support the troops.” Strewing flowers might, as an occasion to think hard about all the lives senselessly lost to political foolishness and then act (or vote, at least) accordingly.

6 am/5:34, 69/89/62, 7:56

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Walker Percy

May 28, 2016

Walker Percy would have been 100 today. He was a Christian existentialist with a literary sensibility I nonetheless found irresistible when I first read him in the seventies. I’m still amused by his characters’ understated humor and quiet rebellion against what he saw as our lost and fallen condition. He tried to pick a fight with Carl Sagan in Lost in the Cosmos, also more amusing than annoying. His lifelong friendship and correspondence with Shelby Foote is an inspiration. I love the mental picture of young Foote on Faulkner’s porch in Oxford while young Percy waits in the car, too embarrassed to meet his hero. Percy, Foote, & Faulkner

“You can’t make a living writing articles for The Journal of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. The thought crossed my mind: Why not do what French philosophers often do and Americans almost never — novelize philosophy, incarnate ideas in a person and a place, which latter is, after all, a noble Southern tradition in fiction.” It’s not as easy as he makes it sound. He didn’t have many rivals, doesn’t have many successors. Richard Ford is kind of a secular Percy. I’m searching for others.

“Search” is Percy’s big theme. His heroes search for God and make fun of people like me, who search for godless happiness, purpose, and meaning. But the search is the thing, whatever its quarry. “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

It was such a surprise and delight to stumble across and rent the “teahouse” Percy and Foote built near “Lost Cove” in Sewanee, Tennessee in the thirties, twenty years ago. When I wrote of it later I heard from Percy’s grandson, who was searching for it. Really.

6 am/5:34, 73/78/64, 7:54

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A world away

May 27, 2016

Finally, a Spring morning warm and uneventful enough to invite Angel (the dog) and me immediately outdoors to greet the rising sun. Other recent mornings may have been as warm at this hour, but somehow none has felt as warm and welcoming.

Plus, Younger Daughter’s officially out of school now. No point in waiting around to make sure she’s up and then to see her off, she’ll not make an appearance for hours yet.
Put the pool up yesterday, between raindrops. Another magnet pulling us out to meet the day.

So here we are again, Angel and I, out back on our Little House porch. Just yards (a backyard) away from the big house, but a world away from Linda Pastan‘s “riptide of daily life, hidden but perilous.” Me: sipping coffee, measuring the hour by Sol ‘s transit above the hammock, between the trees (the one on the right bearing that “HOME” sign)…watching last night’s raindrops slowly evaporate… listening to birdsong… waiting for a whisper from a muse, any muse. She: waiting for her walk, patiently for now but soon with a whimper and whine.

Pastan’s line is echoed this morning by John Cheever: “…we are suspended above [chaos] by a thread. But the thread holds.” Until it doesn’t. But out here on our porch, chaos seems far enough way to ignore for a bit. Out here there’s no temptation to check the headlines or anyone else’s status updates. Our status: calm, composed, watching, waiting, thinking and not thinking, anticipating, at home.

6:30/5:35, 65/89, 7:54

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What’s real

May 26, 2016

We took our Stroll out into the empty, summery courtyard late yesterday afternoon, pondering our “Knowledge is power” chapter and wondering if it’s true that what can’t be measured and quantified is not quite real. I say no. I think that’s what Louis Jenkins says too, in today’s poem.

The speaker points out that we don’t really have
much of a grasp of things, not only the big things,
the important questions, but the small everyday
things. “How many steps up to your back yard?… 

With the right measurements we can build bridges and rockets and computers, cure diseases, etc. etc. But we must also acknowledge the limits of quantifiable engineering, and the depths of imprecise and subjective (hence non-quantifiable) but still very real experience. Such is the source of some of our best poetry, music, literature, and philosophy. More than that, the lack of an appreciation and aptitude for the non-quantifiable dimension of life would deprive us of some of our most winning human qualities: empathy, compassion, toleration, respect.

Some students balk at this, mostly I suspect because they’re frustrated by encounters with others’ subjectivity (as imperfectly represented in language) rather than fully attentive to their own. Words are slippery, compared to numbers. We love that about them, we humanists and innumerists (see, I think I just made up another slippery word), while engineers and mathematicians mistrust them. We should all mistrust them, but they’re a currency we must trade in if we want to scratch beyond the bare surface of inner life.

“The fons et origo of all reality is subjective,” said William James. Subjectivity is real. It’s “the deepest thing in our nature, a dumb region of the heart which is yet our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Taking it seriously means admitting the Buzz Lightyear principle: reality goes to infinity and beyond. That’s the objective truth.

5:45/5:35, 65/89, 7:53

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Old nonsense

May 25, 2016

“Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air,” urged Ralph Waldo Emerson, born 213 years ago today. And, fFinish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Speaking of old nonsense, today’s stroll (it’s Week 3 of our 13-week “Stroll Through Western Civilization” course) brings us to Plotinus and the Great Chain of Being, the idea that we occupy a midpoint between divine perfection and imperfect nullity, a notch below the angels and above the animals. Matter on this scale is literally next to nothing.

Nonsense. William James, contemplating the mortal remains of a dear friend, spoke of the “sacred” matter that had been capable of assuming such exquisite form.

We’re animals too, “higher” by our own account but not by a pre-ordained and locked-in hierarchy. We’re links in a chain, but it’s only a conceit of perspective that allows us to think our link is somehow more the point of the chain than all the others. “Despite the Great Chain of Being’s traditional ranking of humans between animals and angels,” writes Richard Dawkins, there is no evolutionary justification for the common assumption that evolution is somehow ‘aimed’ at humans, or that humans are ‘evolution’s last word’.”

Plotinus said it’s only the lower part of our souls that can suffer. The torturer’s assaults cannot touch the higher part of us that permanently and imperturbably “remains in repose, in contemplation.” I understand why someone might want to think that, but I don’t begin to understand how.

Oh, yeah: it’s our “higher” capacity for delusion that explains it.


6 am/5:36, 68/87, 7:52

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Cicero

May 24, 2016

I found myself saying nicer things about the Stoics than I’d intended, yesterday, as we wrapped up our Maymester Happiness course. Maybe I’ll continue that trend on Wednesday as our “Stroll Through Western Civilization” continues. (It was great seeing two of our fellow strollers last night at the Masters of Liberal Arts Open House, and some hot prospects for next time as well.)

I probably come across as more generally unsympathetic to the Stoics than is truly the case. I’m not hostile, just sometimes impatient with what seems their occasional surrender to circumstance when what’s really demanded is a fight. They’d say that’s an emotional judgment, and that we need to pick our fights with the greatest deliberation. A fight with Nero wasn’t going to save Seneca’s own skin, true enough, and it wasn’t going to look good in the philosophy books alongside a lifetime of counsel against anger and futility.


But lying down and dying at the behest of a crazed despot doesn’t look so good either.

I do still think Roman philosophy gets an undeservedly bad rap. Cicero in particular is way underrated as a philosopher, and in most texts underrepresented. Jennifer Hecht rectified that a bit in her Doubt: A History.

Cicero‘s wonderful dialogue with a Skeptic, a Stoic, and an Epicurean, Nature of the Gods, would have been fun to join. “Cotta” says it all: 

Are you not ashamed as a scientist, as an observer and investigator of nature, to seek your criterion of truth from minds steeped in conventional beliefs? The whole theory is ridiculous… I do not believe these gods of yours exist at all, least of all the uninvolved, uninterested ones like the Epicurean-inspired Disinterested Deist Deity. If this is all that a god is, a being untouched by care or love of human kind, then I wave him good-bye.

If you want truth, as JMH observes, you have to avoid making things up.

Novelists and other artisans of the well-chosen and well-spoken word (like Hecht, a poet and historian as well as a terrific philosopher) have appreciated Cicero more than most of my philosophy colleagues. There’s Tom Wolfe‘s A Man in Full, for instance, in which Epictetus gets the star treatment.

Robert Harris’s Conspirata was good company last Fall on my daily commute up and down I-24, and before that Imperium. Simon Jones’s narration is delightful, even if he sounds a lot like Arthur Dent.

And then there’s the Victorian Trollope’s compendious Life of Cicero.

The older I get, the longer my reading list grows. Cicero said that was one of the consolations of aging. He was a wise old consul, and an honest Stoic.

After the loss of his daughter Tullia in childbirth, [Cicero] turned to Stoicism to assuage his grief. But ultimately he could not accept its terms: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?”

But my favorite mention of Cicero in all of literature is still from Emerson:

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books. [An honest Stoic, 2.1.13]

==
Lucretius (our first selection in the Hitch anthology, from De Rerum Natura) was another Epicurean, but he downplayed the god-talk.The finality of death and the absence of the gods did not seem depressing; indeed, they seemed to add to the sweetness of life.

Marcus Aurelius, as close to a philosopher-king as the West would ever know: “I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature.”He had a Big Picture cosmic perspective. From a vantage “raised up above the earth,” consider life’s brevity and our common humanity. We are one species, as Carl Sagan liked to say, and our time here is brief. Don’t squander it in fear, worry, malice and meanness.

Now, fast forward (past those refreshingly-strange gnostics and their contempt for the creator God) to Boethius, “last of the Romans, first of the scholastics.” His Consolations of Philosophy“completely ignored Christianity.” That’s really hard to do. We” talk about it next week.

Also coming soon, the tragedy of Hypatia. Her alleged killer Cyril nearly killed philosophy and science and civilization as well, and was rewarded with Sainthood. Also, a prominent spotlight of shame on Cosmos. [Romans & redeemers, 2.16.10… Back to the garden, 2.15.10… Seneca falls, 2.17.10]
==
What does “cosmopolitan” really mean? Don’t trust Google on this, it takes you straight to that silly magazine with its sex tips and “lifestyle” advice. Funny, or sad, how current linguistic use has corrupted these grand old terms. (Think also of “epicurean,” “cynic,” maybe even “platonic”…)

The question arises in connection with Anthony Appiah’s book and interview. Kosmopolites is the Greek root meaning citizen of the world, thecosmos. What a large identity to claim, and yet what a miniscule corner of existence we actually occupy.
The cosmos used to coincide strictly with the known terrestrial world, before anybody’d ever even circumnavigated it. Now we’ve seen our tiny world from space, in perspective.

So now we know: it’s a really big cosmos, and we are here.

So far as we can tell we’re the only part, around these parts anyway, that knows it’s part of a cosmos. We’re the cosmopolitans.

Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls, and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ realized its true meaning: citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos

More Saganportalmotecalendargolden recordapple pie

So who was the first cosmopolitan in philosophy? Socrates, possibly, he’s said to have declared himself a citizen of the world – but still so loyal an Athenian that he insisted on having his hemlock. Scholars wonder if that was really him or Plato talking.

Whether Socrates was self-consciously cosmopolitan in this way or not, there is no doubt that his ideas accelerated the development of cosmopolitanism and that he was in later antiquity embraced as a citizen of the world. In fact, the first philosopher in the West to give perfectly explicit expression to cosmopolitanism was the Socratically inspired Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century bce. It is said that “when he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world.” SEP

That doesn’t sound “cynical” in the perverted modern sense at all, does it? Diogenes spent a lot of time under the stars. He knew where he was. [The real cosmopolitans, 9.18.12]

6 am/5:36, 56/87, 7:52

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Happily home

May 23, 2016

Our condensed Lifelong Learning version of Happiness concludes today, with my summation of the best that’s been thought and said on the subject by philosophers in my tradition. My take is as idiosyncratic as anyone’s, and like anyone I could change my mind tomorrow.

But today? Today I find “the best of the west” in the words and happiness advice of Michel de Montaigne, David Hume, William James, Bertrand Russell, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Maira Kalman, and Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Montaigne wasn’t always happy, but he had a near-death experience – fell off his horse, swam in and out of consciousness, later reflected that if that’s dying it’s overrateed – that freed him from his worst fears and taught him how to live. Sarah Bakewell summarizes: Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Be convivial; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Give up control; Be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer.

Montaigne leaps from the pages of his essays (which he invented – not just his own, but the very form) as mindful, both ruminative and constantly attentive to the present moment. He has good advice for the walker.

When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.

He walked often in the beautiful orchard. He was yet another peripatetic. We’re everywhere, in the annals of western philosophy. “My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.” Like Emerson and Wordsworth and so many others he might also have said “my books are in my library but my study is outdoors.”

David Hume’s happiness advice is implicit in a little coda that should be dispensed on Day 1 in every graduate program to every would-be scholar: “Be a philosopher, but amidst your philosophy be still a man.” Stay human. Be kind. Seek the good. Be happy. Don’t overreach.

Alison Gopnik turned to Hume to solve her midlife crisis.

Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people… (continues)

And so he was. “He lived an admirable life and a warm, generous spirit breathes through all his writings. I find that very attractive.” Me too, Simon Blackburn, along with the guile-less humility of his “supreme happiness” in “reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking”… and the acute simplicity of this statement: “Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness.”

As for the rest of the best, there’s so much more to say than we’ll have time for – here, there, ever. I’ll just wrap it up now with Jennifer Hecht’s wonderful woods analogy, according to which life is like a journey through a forest. We can either deplore our shaded transit and wish for escape to some place more airy and open, any place but the “seemingly endless, friendless woods.” Or?

Or, “hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done.”

And so we are.

6 am/5:37, 53/83, 7:51

Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us.

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Older, wiser, happier

May 21, 2016
I started collecting admirably-graceful older people last year, in Bioethics, to balance an equation that usually focuses on dysfunction among the elderly. People like Jimmy Carter and the late Stewart Udall topped the list. 
In March, after researching this year’s presentation for the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference and visiting the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame and Museum in KC, I added the amazing Buck O’Neill to this list.
Here are two more.
Roger Angell, himself a Hall of Famer for his baseball writing in the New Yorker, and editor-extraordinaire for John Updike and other literary lights, wrote one of the most heartening things ever about growing old. 

Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows. “This Old Man

Michael Kinsley is only 65, but he’s been dealing with Parkinson’s for years. “Sometimes I feel like a scout from my generation, sent out ahead to experience in my 50s what even the healthiest boomers are going to experience in their 60s, 70s and 80s.” 
We appreciate the reconnaissance, Michael, but why so modest? Why stop in the 80s? The example of your positive attitude and laughter, if not your condition, should keep many of us ticking into nonagenerian and even centenarian territory. 
Ultimately, there’s no substitute for good genes and the healthier years they bring. But there’s no substitute for a wink and a smile, either.

7 am/5:38, 62/72/52, 7:49

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“Abundant blessings previously acquired”

May 20, 2016

Dining with Older Daughter at our favorite Indian buffet, followed by a Throwback Thursday Sounds game in the “best seats in the house” under a clear sky and a full moon on a pleasant spring evening: that’s the stuff of happiness, when you’re paying attention.

I’m not sure those were really the absolute best, but that’s what the public address announcer called them when they flashed us up on the giant guitar scoreboard with “Booster” the mascot, to “smile and wave” in payment for our upgrade.

That was the deal: swap our cheap spot on the grassy berm in left field for the pricey full-service seats behind the plate at club level, and all we had to do was smile and wave at the crowd for a few seconds. Easy. I felt a little bad for having earlier chided the mascot, when he greeted us at the gate, for not being  “Ozzie” (his much-cooler predecessor). But I’m sure he’s (she’s?) used to it, especially on Thursdays when they try to conjure a sentimental mood with retro uniforms and cheaper beer.

Got to gather these simple throwback moments and not take them for granted, you never know when they’ll end. Whenever I sit with Older Daughter or her sister at the ballgame now I’m flooded with wonderful memories of doing the same at old Greer Stadium when they were small. Only yesterday, it seems.

Old Cicero was right, “the fruit of growing older is the memory of abundant blessings previously acquired.” With such an attitude, and a collection of gathered moments, the accumulation of years “sits light upon me, and not only is not burdensome, but is even happy.”

Roger Angell is a Cicero for our times, an elder statesman equally at home in the ballpark and in belles lettres. His This Old Man, both the eponymous essay and the book, belongs on the informal reading list I’ve been urging my Lifelong Learners to assemble. I’ll try not to forget to mention it on Monday.

Sounds 6, Sacramento 5.

6 am/5:39, 61/72/57, 7:49

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