Archive for September, 2016

This morning is not old

September 30, 2016
A better answer to the student who asked how it feels to be old.

There are questions that I no longer ask
and others that I have not asked for a long time
that I return to and dust off and discover
that I’m smiling and the question
has always been me and that it is
no question at all but that it means
different things at the same time
yes I am old now and I am the child
I remember what are called the old days and there is
no one to ask how they became the old days
and if I ask myself there is no answer
so this is old and what I have become
and the answer is something I would come to
later when I was old but this morning
is not old and I am the morning

in which the autumn leaves have no question as the breeze passes through them and is gone

WA-Old Man At Home Alone in the Morning by W. S. Merwin

6:15/6:43, 55/70, 6:30

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Original sin

September 29, 2016

Whenever the subject of original sin comes up in class, I’m challenged to give it a fair hearing. Why would anyone take seriously the suggestion of sinfulness as something you could inherit? But people do take preposterous customary things seriously. 

Today’s poem will help, next time the subject arises. A god really should be

reasonable, like Emerson or Thoreau
without their stranger moments.

Just take away the transparent eyeballs, please, and give us more transcendent moments of exhilaration striding across bare commons. More natural effusion, less arbitrary omnipotent vindictiveness.

… it made no sense
that we’d need to be saved before
we’d even had the chance
to be wrong.

On the other hand, peoples and nations do inherit a responsibility to rectify wrongs that have been perpetrated by forebears and have continued to hamper the lives of our fellow humans. That’s what Naomi Klein is talking about in her chapter on invoking the treaty rights of indigenous First Nations to block fossil extraction like the Alberta tar sands project.

If we’re going to try to reap environmental victories in that way, we need to compensate the indigenous populations who’ve sacrificed so much and inherited so little. It falls to we the living to make good on our ancestors’ promises. We didn’t have the chance to be wrong in the past, when those treaties were disingenuously drawn. But we have the chance to be right in the present.

6:30/6:43, 50/63/49, 6:32

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Descartes & Montaigne

September 28, 2016

Did you see The Choice last night? You need to.

And then today in CoPhi you need to think about choosing Descartes or Montaigne. I’m with Michel.

Poor Rene Descartes, a night person summoned by the Queen of Sweden to give her a daily pre-dawn philosophy tutorial. It killed him. “Most philosophers since Descartes have attached importance to the theory of knowledge,” says Russell, and his cogito “makes mind more certain than matter, and my mind (for me) more certain” than yours. It makes thinking more certain than being.

He hadn’t read or been impressed by his counterpart Michel de Montaigne, evidently. Que sais je? I know nothing firm enough to form a foundation for the edifice of certain knowledge, and neither do you; but we know, thanks to Montaigne, how to write an essay, how to get back on our horse after a spill, and how to live in “large and fruitful disorder.”

And then he died, six months short of his sixtieth birthday “in dumb silence.” He would undoubtedly have have appreciated the irony.

6 am/6:42, 50/84, 6:33

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Love trumps stupid

September 27, 2016

Too bad moderators aren’t empowered to pull the plug when debaters rudely, repeatedly interrupt. That would have preempted last evening’s reality programming almost immediately, and we’d have been spared yet another public display of contempt for facts, decency, and decorum. The transcript of last night’s spectacle doesn’t quite capture the tone, but it speaks clearly enough of the candidates’ respective tempers, truthfulness, and “stamina.” It doesn’t much speak to the issue that changes everything, but there was this:

CLINTON: …Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it’s real.
DRUMPF: I did not. I did not. I do not say that.
CLINTON: I think science is real.
DRUMPF: I do not say that.

The record does show otherwise.

Today’s This Changes Everything chapter says what the world needs now is love, which really ought to trump stupid.
I hope millennials who tuned in weren’t too disillusioned, like the indigenous British Columbian students Klein tells us about. We badly need their energy, clarity, and passion to turn us around and make us get our facts straight. 
And we need to divest (How toWhy), to get our schools and other public institutions to divest, and at least get our school’s president to think again about endorsing the climate commitment (ACUPCC) so many of his progressive colleagues have already signed on to. It’s been almost four years since we initiated that conversation, he’s had time to give it serious consideration. I think it’s time to revisit it, time for a transition and an “energy descent action plan” of our own. We who also think science is real are not isolated and alone. We too can “find ways of expanding public spaces and nurturing civic involvement.” 
But let’s not interrupt our guest.

5:20/6:41, 56/79/54, 6:35

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Machiavelli & Hobbes, Osgood & Scully

September 26, 2016

What a memorable weekend, beginning Friday night with Ron Howard’s Eight Days A Week at the Belcourt. The lads from Liverpool are timelessly, endlessly inspiring. Opie still impresses too.

Then there was Saturday’s superior sushi at Sonobana. Try the crawdad roll, if you go.
Yesterday’s departure of two grand old men, honeyed voices of the airwaves I’ve been making a ritual point of hearing my entire adult lifetime, was even more moving than anticipated: Charles Osgood, from Sunday Morning, and Vin Scully, from the Dodgers. Two more exemplary long lives for my collection, two more ringing endorsements of Theodore Geisel’s smart optimism: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” See you on the radio, Charley. And a very pleasant good evening to you, Vin. It’s been good to know you both, though of course we’ve never actually met. The connective power of broadcast speech outpaces mere proximity, and shrinks the planet in the best way.

The lives they’ve lived stand as a strong rebuke to the low estimation of humanity we find in today’s CoPhi philosophers, a pair of Power Politics proponents who expected the worst from people.
Italian Niccolo Machiavelli was all about appearances. He admired lions and foxes but seems in many ways to have been more like a chameleon, changing colors and stripes to suit situations, procure patronage, and manipulate people. Really, though, only the human animal is capable of the kind of duplicity and means-end rationalization he urged. Russell liked him more than I do, for his absence of “humbug.” If “success” in a leader means simply staying power, a talent for deception, and a mania for winning, I vote for failure.
Brit Thomas Hobbes (“Tommy,” my first PoliSci prof familiarly named him, “mainlining on utopia”) was a peripatetic who derived great energy from his daily perambulations. Frederic Gros doesn’t tell us that in his little “Energy” chapter, but Hobbes would certainly have agreed that the solid support of earth under foot makes realistic alliance with the pull of gravity. He thought we ought to build similar stability into our public institutions.
“He would go out for a long walk every morning, striding quickly up hills so as to get quickly out of breath” and to get ideas, which he preserved by extracting a quill from his walking stick. He seems to have been hail, healthy, hardy, and happy, living into his 90s (but not an optimist). Not the guy you’d expect to stump for a maximum state like his awe-inspiring mortal God “Leviathan.”

Hobbes was a “rigid determinist” but something got him up and going each morning, out into the English countryside. Did it really feel involuntary? Does it? Not to me.

He didn’t find any intrinsic  difference between religion and superstition, but thought the former might have its uses for the state. Like everything else, legislation governing what belief and conduct to allow in “utopia” is supposed to make life (not people, contrary to what a student once told me) less nasty, brutish, and short. Hobbes had nothing against vertically challenged individuals.

It’s a good day to be thinking about what qualities we desire in our leader and our nation. I’m not holding my breath for an edifying debate tonight, but as Mr. Osgood always said: “we’ll be watching.” Too bad he and Vin aren’t on the ballot. As Vin once said, we’re all “day to day.”
6 am/6:40, 67/74/51, 6:36

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September 22, 2016

“Blockadia” is where the climate action is, these days.

Where’s that? Nowhere, everywhere, “wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill.” Or frack, or lay pipe, or in some other way disrupt and despoil local lands and communal traditions. It’s a “roving transnational conflict zone” immediately focused on environmental integrity but ultimately about democratic control of vital resources by those whose lives and livelihoods depend on them.

Who are the Blockadians? Increasingly, everyday people. Professors, students, grandmothers, all kinds. Increasingly not stereotypical activists. Klein travels the globe in this chapter, finding Blockadians in Greece, Russia, China, Canada, Texas, “the middle of nowheres” that become “centers of everywhere.”

All of this is so heartening, so encouraging of hopefulness that a critical mass of concerned citizens might actually begin not just to hold invasive corporate marauders and their government sponsors accountable for damages but actually to anticipate and prevent home invasion before it happens.

But, remember the 2010 BP oil spill? It was such a horror, now it’s another old news story nearly forgotten. Do we have collective memory enough to make Blockadia a permanent place? Wendell Berry says we all just need to recommit ourselves to the concept of home, making global thinking the unforced flower of local action and “affection.” “If each of us loved our homeplace enough to defend it, there would be no ecological crisis, no place could ever be written off as a sacrifice zone.”

He’s surely right, if we can see and value the sweetness of home wherever anyone hangs a hat. “Look again at that dot…” We may not get it right in the first several drafts, but if we persevere we may endure.

6 am/6:37, 66/93, 6:42

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Anselm, Aquinas, and Emerson’s eyeball

September 21, 2016

It’s Anselm’s ontology and Aquinas’s Aristotelian “special pleading” today in CoPhi, with a side of Emersonian transparency.

Anselm’s famous argument, less popular among theologians than some philosophers, merits Russell’s respect. Is there “a bridge between pure thought to things,” an armchair way of knowing? Wouldn’t it be nice! But subordinating reason to faith, believing before understanding, gets things backwards. Existence runs faster than our knowledge of essence, Aquinas concluded, so you can’t really know God from your armchair.

And yet, Aquinas’s five “ways” of knowing about unmoved movers, first causes, necessity, perfection, and purpose, though fair, forceful, sharp, and clear, are plenty sedentary. They too place the cart before the horse, the conclusion before the argument. 
And that’s why good philosophers get up out of their armchairs and move themselves to walk, talk, and think before they issue their summas. They roam, they take in nature’s pagaent, and sometimes they ecstatically effuse.

Image result for emerson transparent eyeballCrossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all

Ralph was getting carried away there, the way poets can. Nobody’s ever nothing, no seer sees all. But knowers go looking and seeing, they don’t just muse from their seats. And then, like the other poet we mentioned, they frequently and unapologetically contradict themselves. “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit,” we see what we project. So we’d better look often, all over. Only the armchair affords a single prospect.
Happy birthday H.G. Wells, who said “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” WA
6 am/6:36, 63/90, 6:44

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Dim desperation

September 20, 2016

“Our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea,” declared William James a century and a quarter ago in an essay whose title cuts to the chase of Naomi Klein’s next chapter: “Is Life Worth Living?” If we think it is, we might think twice about following the geoengineers who propose to dim the sun, spray sulfur into the stratosphere, induce a permanent haze, create a virtual volcanic parasol, or do any of the other mammoth-scale projects whose unforeseen outcomes could very well make life unlivable.

Or, in a last-ditch Hail Mary situation they could be our final dimming prospect for salvation. We’re not quite there yet. not quite to Plan B. But what’s Plan A, if not harnessing the sun and other sources of life here on the surface of our earth?

Klein reminds us that it is indeed our salvation we’re talking about here. “In pragmatic terms our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely.” So maybe we want to instruct the engineers to tread lightly and put the parasol away, until our science is at least an island and not just a drop in the sea.

James’s theme is suicide, Klein’s ecocide. How to resist both? James had an idea: “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Or at least the will to postpone Hail Mary. It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

6 am/6:36, 65/88, 6:45

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Angell, Apples, Augustine, Boethius

September 19, 2016

It’s Augustine and Boethius in CoPhi today, and peripatetic thoughts on solitude and silence. 

First, happy birthday to the great New Yorker editor and writer Roger Angell. He made himself a place in Cooperstown, saying baseball is “a great game for writers because it’s just the right pace. You can watch the game and keep score and look around and take notes. Now and then you even have time to have an idea, which in many sports you don’t have room for.”

Young Augustine had ideas, some not half bad, but he was also stuffed with a sense of his and our sinfulness. He prayed hard for deliverance in due course but first dallied with delight and the dark-and-light Manichean struggle that seemed to suit his temperament. Unlike the Greeks he was sure that space and time are ex nihilo. Bertrand Russell thinks his philosophy of time, unlike the core of his theology, is worthy of consideration. The idea that Adam freely bit an apple and corrupted the rest of us for all time, though, infants and John Calvin included, was not so brilliant. He might have said more, we may say in hindsight, to address the impending darkness of medieval time.

Boethius, on the other hand, impresses Russell greatly despite his Platonism. Finding his greatest consolation in the philosophy of the Stoics, he didn’t whine over his appalling imprisonment or weep for his sins. 

Frederic Gros says you can’t ever really walk alone. I agree, as did Charles Schulz. One thing to be said for canines (and maybe this is what the Cynics really admired most): they don’t wear you down with too much chatter. Sometimes I do think I too could turn and live with them.
Image result for you''ll never walk alone if you're lucky you'll have a dog snoopy

Weekend update. Highlight of parents’ weekend in Illinois: the annual Apple Festival in Murphysboro where we met an old woman who said she’d been at the very first one, 65 years ago. We came home with apples, apple butter, apple cider, apple pie… but without apple-induced anxiety for our eternal souls. Life is still good.

6 am/6:35, 71/87/61, 6:47

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Not the messiah

September 15, 2016

Speaking of cynics…

A cynic, as we deploy the term nowadays, is someone whose highest regard is for his own self-interest, who considers himself too cool for rules, who mocks and scorns the public and its problems. But he may also, simultaneously, be a gifted and charismatic self-promoter, skilled in the arts of public relations and image-polishing, a lively fellow well-met and fun to be with, widely admired and envied, welcome on all the chat shows, followed by millions in social media, an opinion-leader and trend-setter whose influence and largesse politicians lust for.

Meet Richard Branson. He’s no Diogenes, with the original Cynics “ardent passion for ‘virtue’ but little interest in material wealth or the standard conventions and ‘amenities of civilization’.” But he is a bit of a dog, it turns out, not necessarily with respect to our best  friends’ qualities of love and loyalty but displaying their inconstant tendency, their swerving and meandering sense of direction guided by their latest sniff in the wind.

That, at any rate, is the picture of Sir Richard that emerges from Naomi Klein’s “No Messiahs” chapter. His pledge a decade ago to spend $3 billion battling climate change and developing alternatives to fossil fuels has withered, his $25 million dollar Earth Prize has disappeared, his fleet of carbon-spewing Virgin flyers has expanded considerably and they’re “burning significantly more carbon than when the pledge period began.” A Friend of the Earth naturally concludes: “Branson’s reinvention as a guilt-ridden planet-wrecker volunteering to use his carbon profits to solve the climate crisis was little more than a cynical ploy.”

So sad. He’s really not the messiah. Nor is Warren Buffett or Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg or C. Boone Pickens. Or Brian Cohen. There’s still no sign that help will come to save us and our pale blue dot from ourselves and our false messiahs.

But we didn’t have to follow Brian, and we don’t have to follow Richard. We just have to keep on swelling the ground with a canine kind of loyalty to our home the earth, and the cynics will be forced to follow us.

5:40/6:32, 71/92/68, 6:53

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