Archive for July, 2016

Rousseau’s Reveries revisited

July 30, 2016

Rousseau predicted Drumpf? No, nobody could have predicted Drumpf. Rousseau was just one of many whose philosophy of chauvinism, paranoia, and resentment preceded and paved his way.

On the other hand, Rousseau’s acknowledgement that the collective good is more than a sum of individual interests was far more public-spirited than “the corn-haired guy” (as he’s known south of the border) seems capable of grasping.

Pankaj Mishra’s essay includes a paragraph my fellow MALA strollers and I should follow up on:

Heinrich Meier, in his new book, “On the Happiness of the Philosophic Life” (Chicago), offers an overview of Rousseau’s thought through a reading of his last, unfinished book, “Reveries of a Solitary Walker,” which he began in 1776, two years before his death. In “Reveries,” Rousseau moved away from political prescriptions and cultivated his belief that “liberty is not inherent in any form of government, it is in the heart of the free man.”

If things don’t go well in the next 100 days, a lot of us are going to have to think about moving “away from political prescriptions.” Or just moving away. Just moving.

6:55/5:55, 74/90/71, 7:52

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The dailiness of life

July 29, 2016

“It is out of the dailiness of life that one is driven into the deepest recesses of the self,” said Stanley Kunitz, who once had the great satisfaction of tossing a potted plant in the face of his college president. That must have been a revealing moment of self-recognition for him, though it can’t have been a daily sort of occurrence.  

The “dailiness of life” is habitual, repetitive, ordinary, familiar, a surface phenomenon. It takes a poet, perhaps, fully to experience and chart its corresponding depth. Most of us lose ourselves, our selves, in everydayness. But I think of my daily round of routine as a canvas inviting and awaiting creative response. A page a day, as they say, is a book a year. The creative selves I admire most have submitted and then reveled in the dailiness of life.

Charles Darwin planted a 1.5 acre strip of land with hazel, birch, privet, and dogwood, and ordered a wide gravel path built around the edge. Called Sand-walk, this became Darwin’s ‘thinking path’ where he roamed every morning and afternoon with his white fox-terrier. Of Bertrand Russell, long-time friend Miles Malleson has written: “Every morning Bertie would go for an hour’s walk by himself, composing and thinking out his work for that day. He would then come back and write for the rest of the morning, smoothly, easily and without a single correction.” Gymnasiums of the Mind

Dailiness frees minds and extends lives. “An hour a day keeps death away. An analysis of data from a million people has found that an hour of moderate physical activity a day is enough to cancel out the deadly effect of working at a desk all day.”
Stanley Kunitz, philosopher-poet of dailiness, lived for a century. No surprise.

7 am/5:54, 77/83/70, 7:53

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Passing the baton

July 28, 2016

Our summer stroll through western civilization is nearing its last lap. I’ll miss it.

One of last night’s discussion topics was James’s description of Walt Whitman: “a sort of ideal tramp, a rider on omnibus-tops and ferry-boats, and, considered either practically or academically, a worthless, unproductive being… He felt the human crowd as rapturously as Wordsworth felt the mountains, felt it as an overpoweringly significant presence, simply to absorb one’s mind in which should be business sufficient and worthy to fill the days of a serious man.” 
A society of tramps might not work. Who’d run the buses and boats, if we were all just riders? But we agreed that a healthy society encourages the presence of a few “tramps” whose shared absorption in the passing scene provides an indispensable critical lens on our various complacencies and un-self-critical bustle and busy-ness.
We also agreed that there are no truly free markets, that those who live only for themselves are hardly virtuous, that George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” warning against totalitarian servitude must not be divorced from his commitment to social justice, and that our civilization depends on the continued civil conversation of opposites including Platonists and Aristotelians, empiricists and rationalists.
And then we rushed home to catch the President’s gracious, fearless valedictory and baton-passing. Shifting metaphors briefly, the relay race of civilization goes on. Strollers must occasionally sprint. But we’ll catch our breath again, and the conversation can resume. Believe me.

6:30/5:53, 75/79/71, 7:54

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July 27, 2016

There’s light at the end of Arthur Herman’s cave, but you have to squint past Ayn Rand and some dubious claims and insinuations about the virtue of selfishness, the inevitability of economic chaos, and the necessity of militaristic aggression in the name of freedom to spot it. It’s the recognition that our stroll with Plato and Aristotle goes on, that we’ll glean insight and wisdom from the empiricist and rationalist traditions so long as we continue to walk and talk with them both. It’s the light of mental breadth, pluralist inclusion, and civil conversation.

But a big question remains. Are free markets our last best hope as a civilization, or the biggest obstacle to its survival? Herman does not finally resolve that question to my satisfaction, so we’ll be putting it to Naomi Klein in Environmental Ethics starting in about three weeks. Her claim:

“…our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life… But because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us. Gentle tweaks to the status quo stopped being a climate option when we supersized the American Dream in the 1990s, and then proceeded to take it global.” Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate

It all comes down, once again, to securing the conditions of freedom. One of them is gender equality and opportunity. I hope every mother, father, and brother is as cheered this morning as I am to have seen that glass ceiling shatter for our daughters in Philadelphia last night. Light, more light!

6:20/5:52, 74/90/72, 7:55

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Soma time

July 26, 2016

“Most of one’s life is one prolonged effort to prevent oneself from thinking,” thought Aldous Huxley. That’s why his Brave New Worlders were so smitten with the happy distraction of soma. It may be why we consume our politics as entertainment.

Last night’s convention debut was entertaining enough. The impromptu comedy act of Franken and Silverman was good, we got to hear the First Lady’s own words from the First Lady herself, and Bernie did his bit for party unity. 
In a thoughtfully-devised politics we’d now look forward to hearing the nominee’s substantive speech Thursday night, we’d then reflect on our stark choice, and next week we’d vote. 
In our circus politics, instead, we’ll spend unconscionable sums on 100+ days of entertaining, often outrageous, mostly irrelevant campaign distraction and false-or-misleading advertizing first. Then we’ll roll the die.
What fun. Pass the soma, please.

6:15/5:52, 75/95, 7:56

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July 25, 2016

Star Trek Beyond was great fun. It’s always a deep delight to revisit the franchise that’s given us a hopeful future since 1966. The dual dedication to Anton Yelchin and Leonard Nimoy was sad and poignant. Idris Elba’s villain’s misuse of life-extending technology underscored the point: the time of our mortal lives is necessarily bounded, “forever” is not for us.

I’m still struggling, though, to make sense of the whole Spock/Admiral Spock duality. The young Commander learns that the future version of himself has died. It’s a lesson with profound personal implications, to be sure. But how is it possible for any “logical” thinker not to have known it already?

As Spock is continually re-learning, it’s probably best not to overthink such things. LLAP.

5:40/5:51, 76/94/74,7:56

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Carroll’s Considerations

July 23, 2016

Sean Carroll is one wise theoretical physicist and “poetic naturalist.” His Ten Commandments Considerations, resisting the unfortunate human impulse to tell one another what to do, deferring instead to one another’s mental freedom:

  • Life Isn’t Forever.
  • Desire Is Built Into Life.
  • What Matters Is What Matters To People.
  • We Can Always Do Better.
  • It Pays to Listen.
  • There Is No Natural Way to Be.
  • It Takes All Kinds.
  • The Universe Is in Our Hands.
  • We Can Do Better Than Happiness.
  • Reality Guides Us.

Naturalists accept that life is going to come to an end — this life is not a dress rehearsal for something greater, it’s the only performance we get to give. The average person can expect a lifespan of about three billion heartbeats. That’s a goodly number, but far from limitless. We should make the most of each of our heartbeats.

The finitude of life doesn’t imply that it’s meaningless, any more than obeying the laws of physics implies that we can’t find purpose and joy within the natural world. The absence of a God to tell us why we’re here and hand down rules about what is and is not okay doesn’t leave us adrift — it puts the responsibility for constructing meaningful lives back where it always was, in our own hands.

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
Big Picture at Google (video)

5:49/5:49, 75/92

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July 22, 2016

To take a walk, says the poet, pack a rod.

This is farming country.
The neighbors will believe
you are crazy
if you take a walk
just to think and be alone.
So carry a shotgun
and walk the fence line.
Pretend you are hunting
and your walking will not
arouse suspicion.

I never worry about what the neighbors may think. “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad” etc. Some of them are out here walking with me, in the relative cool of summer morning. The others, snoozing and lazing away the only habitable part of this infernal heat wave, are the crazy ones.

But this is Tennessee. This is America. Any and all may be packing, and carrying an attitude. Best walk softly and conceal yours.

5:40/5:49, 76/97

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July 21, 2016

The train stops in Lewis Carroll’s, John Locke’s, and Harry Potter’s Oxford today. Any one of them might plausibly have said “it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” But it was Alice’s creator who said it, and who had her believe “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Good for him. For her. The wonderful thing about a tabula rasa is how easily it can be filled with fun and magic.

Carroll penned so many marvelous lines. This one, in a better world, would shut down that insane mistake by the lake (“it’s a put on”) in Cleveland this week:  “I don’t think…” then you shouldn’t talk, said the Hatter.”

Christ Church College is next on our itinerary.

6 am/5:48, 73/97, 7:59

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Magnificent desolation

July 20, 2016

Taking the v-train to old Oxford today, in that other possible world.

In this one we’re talking Nietzschean post-nihilism, Jamesian pragmatism, Jefferson deism, and inevitably the specter of living in a time when  liars, plagiarists, and sociopaths may inherit the earth. A far cry from the world we imagined on this day in 1969, when Buzz Aldrin toasted the moon’s “magnificent desolation.”

When Neil Armstrong got back he talked about looking at Earth from space: he said: “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

If only we could send Colbert’s orange manatee with the giant ego for a lunar lesson in humility.

5:50/5:47, 74/95/72, 8:00

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