Archive for October, 2017

I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Sisyphus, paterfamilias?

October 31, 2017

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Sisyphus, paterfamilias?

October 31, 2017

“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Really, Monsieur? Why?

That’s our big Happiness question today. Last time I pondered it publicly it happened to be Older Daughter’s birthday, prompting me then to wonder if Sisyphus had kids. If so, the existential urgency of pushing that rock might have been a little more salient. What he or we call his happiness would have been inseparable from his familial commitment. 

If all the days of your life, save one or two, were filled with unpleasant drudgery, but those one or two were as ecstatic as the birth of a child, would you call yourself happy? I think I would. Fortunately I’ve had many more than one or two great days, and relatively few days of dread. Thanks to my walking habit, even most of those were salvaged by a happy hour away from the rock of pointless routine. And because I find my teaching vocation mostly gratifying, most of my routine feels purposive, not pointless (except when pushing paper and filling out forms for our administrative overlords).

If Sisyphus had no children, no down-time to himself, and no hope for early retirement, I really can’t imagine him happy. (Maybe he was a secret Buddhist, meditating on the transience of existence and willing the good of all sentient beings, behind his rock.) Nor can I really imagine Samuel Beckett’s “Unnamable” happiness: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” But apparently, happily, some can.

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal

October 30, 2017

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Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal

October 30, 2017

“I hate IB,” says Younger Daughter as she slaves over her art project at 5 am. What she really hates is having to deal with the fallout from chronic procrastination. As old Seneca said, we have plenty of time. We waste it. The International Baccalaureate program is about developing the “intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world” – and it’s about learning not to procrastinate.

On the other hand, we tend also to love, with the late Douglas Adams, that lovely whooshing noise deadlines make. I spent most of yesterday anticipating the whoosh, with my Baseball in Literature and Culture conference presentation in Kansas bearing down. It’s nominally about Vin Scully, but ultimately about gratitutde and finding meaning in a secular world. I’ll mention All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly, and their claim that “the most important things, the most real things..well up and take us over, hold us for a while, and then, finally, let us go.” They whoosh. 

And on the other other hand: it was supposed to be her Spring Break last week. I sympathize.

Three Frenchmen today, in CoPhi (after we wrap up all remaining group reports): Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal – a humanist skeptic, a rationalist/foundationalist, and a fideist gambler, respectively. The first and last were known for slogans in their native tongue: “Que sais-je?” (“What do I know?”) and “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.” (“The heart has its reasons that reason does not know at all.”)

Descartes, of course, preferred his previously noted Latin cogito declaration. I can’t help repeating Kundera’s quip: that’s the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothache. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life, than of the body’s various aches and pains. I’m more certain of them every day. Fortunately, solvitur ambulando is still my working slogan.

Descartes wanted only good apples in his sack, by Nigel’s analogy. He was prepared to waste a lot of perfectly acceptable beliefs, in order to avoid potential errors. Unlike James he thought our errors are awfully solemn things, not necessary and instructive steps along the way of life and learning. He rejected what Pyrrho and Montaigne both  accepted, the inevitability of uncertainty. As Sarah Bakewell says of Montaigne, “Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection in this way, and even to embrace it.” Pascal also hated not knowing, but decided the best route ultimately was not the Rationalist Road.

Might we be dreaming? Doubting Descartes, early in his Meditations, says what do you mean we? Ultimately he decides we’re all here, at least as awake as Gilbert Ryle’s ghost can be. If we can trust our clear and distinct perceptions we can rule out the evil demon hypothesis, and stop worrying that we might be brains in vats, or humans in matrix-like pods, or something.

Descartes’ “most practical critic” was the American C.S. Peirce, who said we shouldn’t pretend to doubt in philosophy what we don’t question in life. One of Descartes’s surprising contemporary admirers is A.C. Grayling. He thinks Descartes was wrong about consciousness and the mind-body problem, but wrong in wholly constructive ways that have benefited subsequent philosophy.

Montaigne, Bakewell points out, answered his own question about “How to live” with hard-won but much-treasured lesson that Epicurus was right, death per se is not one of our experiences. He learned that from his own “near death experience,” which he says taught him that nature drips a comforting anaesthetic into our veins when we need it most. “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”

But, “as Seneca put it, life does not pause to remind you that it is running out.”

Many readers through the past half-millennium have been struck by the contemporaneity of Montaigne’s mind, his capacity for “living on through readers’ inner worlds over long periods of history” and speaking to them like a friend and neighbor despite the distance of centuries and the differences of culture. He achieved that authorly immortality so many have aspired to, but so few actually attained.

He achieved, in his own terms, freedom. “Be free from vanity and pride. Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties. Be free from habit. Be free from ambition and greed. Be free from family and surroundings. Be free from fanaticism. Be free from fate; be master of your own life. Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.”

“Given the huge breadth of his readings, Montaigne could have been ranked among the most erudite humanists of the XVIth century. But in his Essays his aim is above all to exercise his own judgment properly. Readers who might want to convict him of ignorance would find nothing to hold against him, he said, for he was exerting his natural capacities, not borrowed ones. He thought that too much knowledge could prove a burden, preferring to exert his ‘natural judgment’ to displaying his erudition.” SEP

And, as we’ve already apreciated about him, Montaigne was a peripatetic who said his mind wouln’t budge without a big assist from his legs.

Pascal’s best thoughts (and worst) are in his best-known book, Pensees.  His best invention was a rudimentary calculator called the Pascaline. His most noted argument was for a wager that asked “what have you got to lose” by believing? That depends on how you think about the integrity of belief, and on how much you value your Sundays. I’m betting there’s both more in heaven and earth (if you invert the terms) than Pascal dreamed.

Pascal said: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.” (But, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”)   And “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.” (That’s what Mark Twain, and really all the wittiest wits, said too.) And “To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.” (But Nigel says he said he wasn’t one.)

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” But, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” That’s why Descartes took the Rationalist Road. Pascal sticks to Faith Street: “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the truth.”

So, how do you know you’re awake and not dreaming? Is it meaningful to say “life is but a dream”? Does “Inception” make any sense at all? Are you essentially identical with or distinct from your body (which includes your brain)? If distinct, who/what/where are you? How do you know? Can you prove it? Is there anything you know or believe that you could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? If so, what? How do you know it? If not, is that a problem for you?

Do you believe in immaterial spirits? Are you one, or hoping to be? Can you explain how it is possible for your (or anyone’s) material senses to perceive them?

At what age do you hope to retire? What will you do with yourself then? Will you plan to spend more time, like Montaigne, thinking and writing?

Have you had a near-death experience, or known someone who did? What did it teach you/them? How often does the thought occur to you that you’re always one misstep (or fall, or driving mistake) away from death?

What have you learned, so far, about “how to live”? Have you formulated any life-lessons based on personal experience, inscribed any slogans, written down any “rules”?

Do you agree that, contrary to Pascal, most nonreligious people would consider it a huge sacrifice to devote their lives to religion? Why? Is the choice between God and no-god 50/50, like a coin toss? How would you calculate the odds? At what point in the calculation do you think it becomes prudent to bet on God? Or do you reject this entire approach? Why?
[Orig. publ. 3.28.17] Happy birthday Cy Young, Sam Walton, & Lady Gaga. On This Day

At 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry begins when a pressure valve in the Unit-2 reactor at Three Mile Island fails to close. Cooling water, contaminated with radiation, drained from the open valve into adjoining buildings, and the core began to dangerously overheat. This Day

Aikin & Talisse on swamping and spitballing (YouT)

Priority registration begins Monday. The Philosophy of Happiness (PHIL 3160) returns, Fall 2017 – TTh 2:40, JUB 202. One more thought from Pascal: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

5:30/6:40, 58/70/50, 7:03

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Hyperborea

October 26, 2017

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October 26, 2017
[Originally published 10.22.15]
“We are Hyperboreans,” proclaimed poor hyper-driven Nietzsche in the opening lines of The Antichrist. He was truly a man out of time, never at home with his contemporaries or at ease with the (“all too”) human race. What did he mean? And what did he mean, “we“? Where is Hyperborea?
It’s nowhere yet. When, then? 
Nietzsche often wrote of the philosophers of the future, with whom he identified. His prophet Zarathustra, laughed out of town, said he’d come too soon. Hyperborea is his dreamworld of free spirited Ubermenschen who’ve shucked their mere humanity and crossed the abyss (“man is a rope over an abyss”), having made their transition to a post-human world free of resentment, envy, and legalistic constraint. Their creative revaluative power is unbounded, except by their own wills.
The rest of us, who don’t make the crossing, presumably will be the couch-potato left-behind leftovers whose liberal champions (in Nietzsche’s slanted estimation) were people like J.S. Mill. “Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.” 
The preceding sentence in that Twilight of the Idols aphorism, by the way, profoundly inspired Viktor Frankl, in his Nazi captivity: “If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how.”
Are Hyperboreans happy? You would think so:

HYPERBOREA was a fabulous realm of eternal spring located in the far north beyond the land of winter. Its people were a blessed, long-lived race free of war, hard toil, and the ravages of old age and disease.

But happiness in the “all-too-human” English sense, concerned to maximize the common flourishing of the greatest number, is not what Nietzschean Hyperboreans are seeking. Their happiness is a harder colder thing, something most of us might find difficult to distinguish from monomania, intolerance, and incivility.

Better to live among ice than among modern virtues and other south winds! … We were brave enough, we spared neither ourselves nor others: but for long we did not know where to apply our courage. We became gloomy, we were called fatalists. Our fatality — was the plenitude, the tension, the blocking-up of our forces. We thirsted for lightning and action, of all things we kept ourselves furthest from the happiness of the weaklings, from ‘resignation’…

Nietzsche never shakes fatalism, so far as I can tell, but combined with his stoicism it becomes for him a great “gift” of affirmation and the source of “our happiness.” Eternal recurrence in Hyperborea is not my idea of the good life, but Nietzsche’s popularity endures with a small but assertive few for whom “a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal” is the road from here to there. Perhaps we can tolerate them.

Podcast-Nietzsche’s HyperboreansCoPhi-Nietzschean happiness
5:40/7:02, 53/81

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Renaissance

October 25, 2017

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October 25, 2017

[Orig.publ. 3.23.17]
We conclude Gottlieb’s Dream of Reason today  in CoPhi, with the Renaissance. Scholastic hairsplitting was down, classical antiquity was up, scientific reason was heating up, the Enlightenment was on deck. Rene Descartes waits in the wings with his cogito, ergo sum.

But, why cogito? Why not spiro (I breathe…)? Indeed, as Milan Kundera suggests, why not rideo? (I ache…) “‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches.” Descartes’ reply, that his thinking is of the essence because it is indubitable, is dubious. But we’ll get to that, let’s not put Descartes before the horse.

The Renaissance was not a period of great achievement in philosophy, but it did certain things which were essential preliminaries to the greatness of the seventeenth century. In the first place, it broke down the rigid scholastic system, which had become an intellectual strait jacket. It revived the study of Plato, and thereby demanded at least so much independent thought as was required for choosing between him and Aristotle. In regard to both, it promoted a genuine and first-hand knowledge, free from the glosses of Neoplatonists and Arabic commentators. More important still, it encouraged the habit of regarding intellectual activity as a delightful social adventure, not a cloistered meditation aiming at the preservation of a predetermined orthodoxy… The attitude of Renaissance scholars to the Church is difficult to characterize simply. Some were avowed free-thinkers, though even these usually received extreme unction, making peace with the Church when they felt death approaching. Most of them were impressed by the wickedness of contemporary popes, but were nevertheless glad to be employed by them.  Russell

The new Renaissance humanist movement placed more stock in the quality and clarity of writing, than the logical contortions and convolutions of theological apologetics. It laid new emphasis on the philosophical subdisciplines of ethics and political philosophy, with the likes of Machiavelli and his “manly” prince, and Hobbes’ nightmare state of nature, both offering bleak “realistic”/materialistic assessments of human nature. Most modern-day humanists have a much sunnier outlook.
IHEU Happy Human

“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.” 

Some are even Brights, espousing a “naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural or mystical elements.”

The Dutch humanist Erasmus “made scholasticism seem absurd and petty,” or maybe he just made it reveal its pettiness and absurdity. (Did you see what Senator Franken said about absurdity, btw?) French comic parodist Rabelais knew absurdity when he saw it, too. 

Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate polymathic Renaissance Man, said scholars should study the world directly and not spin their wheels recycling old untested ideas and musty books. “Go direct to the works of nature.” He really thought “the knowledge of all things is possible,” “the noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding,” and “learning never exhausts the mind.”  He bought Ockam’s razor. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” He was a pre-pragmatist. “I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” And, “people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” Maybe that’s where Dr. Seuss got “If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew, just go right along and you’ll start happening too.”
The Florentine explorer Vespucci betrayed more than a bit of old world prejudice when he said the New Worlders were more Epicurean than Stoic, more hedonistic than dutiful.

Francis Bacon, often extolled as a “prophet of modern science,” nonetheless wanted to “build on astrology, alchemy, and magic” because (as we’re always told he said, but almost never told why) “knowledge is power.” Neil Tyson’s favorite scientist Newton was also, oddly, an occultist and alchemist. But by his time was that was no longer considered normal science, so he downplayed it. The science-magic continuum would continue to dissipate, even though Sir Arthur C. Clarke famously said “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Indistinguishable by scientific illiterates, he meant. Magical thinking is entertaining at Hogwart’s, but the sooner we dispel the demon-haunted world of irrational fear and superstition the better.

Still, the continuum was in place long enough for Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler all to be impressed by Platonism and sun-worship. “The sun can signify God himself to you,” said Platonist Ficino. We are all star-stuff, and owe our lives to our nearest star. But it’s a mark of scientific rationality to be struck and even moved by such relationships (see the Sagan quote from last time, about the intrinsic spirituality of science) without bowing down in worshipful submission.
What a “remarkable development” was Gutenberg’s printing press, giving rise to “a deluge of books” and mass literacy. Too bad so many of us these days don’t take advantage of it. As Mark Twain said, there’s no practical difference between one who can’t read and one who won’t. Or, one who won’t write or read more than 140 characters at a time. Looking at you, Mr. President. “There is not much thinking going on. He hears things that please him and repeats them, like a magpie making a nest.”

Montaigne was an underrated Renaissance figure, father of the essay, moderate skeptic (“Que sais-je?”), and anti-Descartes. More on him soon. His cousin Sanchez first named what we call “scientific method” and said it could support only “limited claims about the appearances.” Limited, but also correctable and growing.
Martin Luther‘s protestant reformation partook of just enough Renaissance spirit to refuse to accept papal and ecclesiastic infallibility. He was not without his own dogmatic streak, however. “A good Christian should look to the Scriptures, interpreted in the light of his conscience and his own religious experience, in order to find out what to believe.” But shouldn’t he also listen to others, and learn from their experience too? If “reason is the devil’s whore,” we’re in big trouble. 

The French mathematician Gassendi “revamped Epicurus’ picture of the universe” to make it more Bible-friendly, saying atoms swirl in the physical realm but their laws don’t apply in the spiritual world. Christian atomism was convenient, at least. But is it tenable? Mustn’t a scientific naturalist refrain from such speculation, and stick to his atoms?

Metaphors are important. Descartes proposed to support the new scientific worldview of Galileo with a building construction metaphor, that of firm foundations. Raze the edifice of belief to the ground, build it up again with bricks of indubitable certainty. But can we get enough of those to make the metaphor stand?

Some questions: Is there a sharp difference between writing well and thinking logically? Why do you think so many scholastic/medieval philosophers were poor writers? How can you become a better writer and clearer thinker? Was Machiavelli right, about how power works in the real world? If European explorers like Vespucci understood that European knowledge was at best incomplete, at worst just wrong, why were so many of them still so confident that the natives they encountered in the New World were sub-human? Why in general are humans still so quick to denigrate those who are different, or who have different customs?
Is there any proper place for astrology and magic in the modern world? It’s been estimated that the average social media user could read 200 books in the time they spend online. What would they gain? What would they lose? What’s the right balance? Do you trust your own conscience and experience more than that of religious leaders like the Pope? Does knowledge need foundations? Can you agree with Machiavelli about leadership without being a sexist or an autocrat? Are people fundamentally selfish, in your experience? Are you? Can people change?
Peripatetic news update. 10K steps may not be enough for optimal health. “It takes effort, but we can accumulate 15,000 steps a day by walking briskly for two hours at about a four-mile-per-hour pace… This can be done in bits, perhaps with a 30-minute walk before work, another at lunch, and multiple 10-minute bouts throughout the day. Our metabolism is not well-suited to sitting down all the time.”
It was on this day in 2010 that President Barack Obama (books by this author) signed into law the Affordable Care Act, the most sweeping piece of federal legislation since Medicare was passed in 1965. Universal health care had long been a dream of the Democratic Party. The passage of the bill extended health care to almost 32 million Americans.

And today marks the first day in 1942 when the U.S. government began moving Japanese-Americans from their West Coast homes to internment camps. Between 110,000 and 120,000 people were forcibly relocated. Some Japanese-American men were drafted into the War even as their families remained incarcerated. The camps remained open until 1945. WA

5:30/6:47, 40/71, 6:59

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Becoming J.S. Mill

October 24, 2017

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Becoming J.S. Mill

October 24, 2017

[Originally published 10.20.15.]

It’s John Stuart Mill today in Happiness. “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Sounds simple, but most of us are not the most adept promoters. Nor was Mill, as a twenty-something just getting over a mental collapse precipitated by his father’s pressure-cooker experiment in utilitarian pedagogy.

We may actually have regressed, since Mill’s time: many of us, it has emerged in class, are uncomfortable with the promotional program. We don’t want to seem too happy, or too interested in being happy. Could some of that attitude be swayed by Mill’s civic-minded emphasis on promoting the general happiness, and not merely one’s own? Maybe it’s less uncool to take an interest in others’ flourishing?

And maybe Mill was right when he said most of us do better not to pursue happiness so actively at all, that it is

only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for the great majority of mankind.

If he’s right about this, and about the danger of too much outward “analysis” uncompensated by sufficient inward “cultivation” of enjoyment via music, literature, and other sources of personal delight, we must beware the shoals of academia. Young Mill was a prodigy, and a recovering analyst. He found music and poetry just in time.

But isn’t it amusing, he worried that he and we would eventually weary of Mozart and music generally. “I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations.” I recall thinking the same thing in my own youthful enthusiasm for the Beatles. The inveterate and perennial habit of youth is to imagine it has discovered the transient apex of possibility, soon to be lost and lamented.

Wordsworth’s poetry seems to have been Mill’s greater salvation, not because he was the greatest poet but because he was the right one, at the right time, for the overstressed homeschooled utilitarian-in-utero.

What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.

In a word (or two), Wordsworth taught Mill the value of subjectivity and feeling. Objective analysis and dispassion have their place in life, but a happy life also cultivates its own enthusiastic delights. The greatest happiness for the greatest number is good, but must not be allowed to displace one’s own capacity for joy.

5:40/7 am, 44/73

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