Archive for November, 2019

I’ve just posted on my Blog about: RIchard Ford’s Thanksgiving happiness

November 28, 2019

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RIchard Ford’s Thanksgiving happiness

November 28, 2019

Around Thanksgiving every year I pick up one of my favorite novels, Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land (#3 in his wonderful Frank Bascombe trilogy). It takes place around Thanksgiving, c.2000. “Thanksgiving ought to be the versatile, easy-to-like holiday, suitable to the secular and religious… [it] won’t be ignored. Americans are hard-wired for something to be thankful for. Our national spirit thrives on invented gratitude.”

Here’s one of Frank’s ruminations on happiness, recalling “one shining moment of glory that was instantly gone” when he caught a foul ball and impressed his kid. Ian almost totally relate… but can’t agree that “happy is a lot of hooey.”

Front Cover“The kind of happy I was that day at the Vet when “Hawk” Dawson actually doffed his red “C” cap to me, and everyone cheered and practically convulsed into tears – you can’t patent that. It was one shining moment of glory that was instantly gone. Whereas life, real life, is different and can’t even be appraised as simply “happy”, but only in terms of “Yes, I’ll take it all, thanks” or “No, I believe I won’t.” Happy, as my poor father used to say, is a lot of hooey. Happy is a circus clown, a sitcom, a greeting card. Life, though, life’s about something sterner. But also something better. A lot better. Believe me.”

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: “I too am an Epicurean”

November 26, 2019

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“I too am an Epicurean”

November 26, 2019

It’s our penultimate lesson in how to be an Epicurean, today in Happiness, with the chapters on “Science and Scepticism” and  “Social Justice.” (And, sneak peaks of reports on Stoicism and Watts redux, and a surprise.)

“Our life has no need now of unreason and false opinion,” but now more than ever that’s what we have in spades. See yesterday’s dawn mention of Kurt Andersen “plunge,” and Moscow Marsha, and really just about everything in the headlines over the last several years. Will we ever get out of Fantasyland? Maybe, when Fred Rogers’s children take the lead. 
Or we could just accept the atomic premise that most of what happens depends on the swerving “little particles” over whose movements we exercise minimal control. But we can save that discussion for the last chapter – “Should I be a Stoic instead?”

Meanwhile, convenient as it would be for those of us in the most egregiously emitting nations to do so, we can’t afford the luxury of accepting things like climate change as entirely beyond the scope of our involvement. We have a moral responsibility to seek solutions. Being an epicurean does not mean retiring to our respective gardens and awaiting the apocalypse. What would Thomas Jefferson do?
What he said was:

I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece & Rome have left us. Epictetus indeed has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines: in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice. the merit of his philosophy is in the beauties of his style. diffuse rapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. his prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been defied by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention…

I do love the Monticello Sage’s Plato-bashing here, notwithstanding the latter’s truly admirable and visionary gender utopianism. But one of chapter 12’s epigraphs does make things uncomfortable for a Jeffersonian: “A free life cannot acquire great wealth, because the task is not easy without slavery…” He kept his slaves but squandered much of his wealth on books and wine. We hold these truths to be self-evident… Noble words, ignoble deeds.

Was Marx an Epicurean at heart? His  youthful ideal “society of the future would be recreational and allow for individual whims and preferences,” like Bertrand Russell’s. He too was an epicurean, of sorts. But his critics will remind us, he also said “better red than dead.”

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational potboilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and the capacity.
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least 1 per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle… “In Praise of Idleness” [b’p]

Some questions: Is Epicurean scepticism peculiarly well-suited to this moment in history?

Will we ever, or should we even desire to, explain everything in terms of micro-phenomena?
Should an Epicurean concerned about climate change become an activist? Should calculations of personal happiness and the enjoyment of one’s own life be decisive for him/her in addressing that question? Is it self-destructive to affirm “the view that the fate of all plants, animals and humans resides with a loving and intelligent deity?

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Fred Rogers dedicated his life to “the child in all of us…which longs to help in the creation of a new and better world…the most essential element in the development of any creation…must be [the] love that begins with the simple expressions of care for a little child.”

November 25, 2019

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“When the schools in Lower Alabama finally desegregated and everyone [my grandmother] knew, including my grandfather, urged her to retire, she ignored them all. “A child is a child,” she said and kept on teaching.”

November 25, 2019

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Russell, Ayer, Sartre, de Beauvoir…

November 25, 2019

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Russell, Ayer, Sartre, de Beauvoir…

November 25, 2019
Today in CoPhi, with the annual holiday of gratitude looming, we begin with Bertrand Russell and intend then to move on in the Little History to Ayer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus, and if we’re exceptionally ambitious to Wittgenstein and Arendt. And, more American Philosophy: A Love Story (we’re nearly to the section with James’s heart-wrenching hike up Mt. Marcy in the summer of ’96) and more Fantasyland, speaking of which…

First a quick un-reality check, sampling the bizarre up-is-down bullshit currently being peddled on Fox. An exchange yesterdayCHRIS WALLACE: Senator Kennedy [Rep., LA.], who do you believe was responsible for hacking the DNC & Clinton campaign? Russia or Ukraine? KENNEDY: I don’t know. Nor do you. W: The entire intel community says it was Russia. K: Right. But it could be Ukraine. Fiona Hill is entitled to her opinion. 

The Ethicist rightly points out the insidious implications for democracy of such gaslighting by Trump’s defenders: Radical skepticism issues in the claim that others don’t know something that is, in fact, part of the common knowledge of those who are following the evidence, undermines the possibility of common action. Building a separate “reality” leaves us baying at each other in the dark.

And Kurt Andersen takes “a full appalling plunge,” situating the whole sorry scene in, of course, Fantasyland.

There. I don’t feel better about the state of the nation vis-a-vis truth, facts, and reality; but at least I’m not ignoring it.

Here’s what I read yesterday that I do feel good about: the Times magazine’s profile of Mr. Rogers,  who dedicated his life to “the child in all of us — that part of us which longs to help in the creation of a new and better world.” He told a commencement audience: “the most essential element in the development of any creation, any art or science, must be love. A love that begins with the simple expressions of care for a little child.”

It’s good to feel good about ourselves. “When people help us to feel good about who we are, they are really helping us to love the meaning of what we create.”

Also good: Margaret Renkl’s tribute to her family matriarchs, like her grandmother Mildred. “When the schools in Lower Alabama finally desegregated and everyone she knew, including my grandfather, urged her to retire, she ignored them all. “A child is a child,” she said and kept on teaching.” That’s how you build a better world, one decent choice at a time. Hell is not other people, as Sartre said, but a child’s hell in particular might be the product of other people’s unlovely indifference and dishonesty.

Bertrand Russell had thoughts about hell.

“There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” 

Today’s featured philosophers are all over Brainpickings and Arts & Letters Daily:

“We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more,” Albert Camus wrote as he contemplated how to live honorably thorough shameful times at the peak of World War II, a quarter century before he became the second-youngest Nobel laureate.

It took another seer of uncommon insight and unrelenting humanism to consider this necessary mending work as the maelstrom of injustice was only just beginning to seethe in the entrails of the world. That is what Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970), who would himself receive the Nobel Prize shortly after the war for his “varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought,” examines in the preface to the 1935 edition of his book-length essay In Praise of Idleness (public library) — his insightful inquiry into the relationship between leisure and social justice… (continues)


In Praise of Idleness-“To correctly calibrate modern life around a sense of enough — that is, around meeting the need for comfort rather than satisfying the endless want for consumerist acquisitiveness — would be to lay the groundwork for social justice. In such a society, Russell argues, no one would have to work more than four hours out of twenty-four — a proposition even more countercultural today than it was in his era. He paints the landscape of possibility:

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational potboilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and the capacity.
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion…

How to Grow Old
Russell places at the heart of a fulfilling life the dissolution of the personal ego into something larger. Drawing on the longstanding allure of rivers as existential metaphors, he writes:

Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.

In a sentiment which philosopher and comedian Emily Levine would echo in her stirring reflection on facing her own death with equanimity, Russell builds on the legacy of Darwin and Freud, who jointly established death as an organizing principle of modern life, and concludes:

The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

(more Russell)
Echoing Kierkegaard’s unforgettable admonition — “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy,” the Danish philosopher wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness — Camus considers how the trance of productivity robs us of the very presence necessary for happiness:

Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself. If an anguish still clutches me, it’s when I feel this impalpable moment slip through my fingers like quicksilver… At the moment, my whole kingdom is of this world. This sun and these shadows, this warmth and this cold rising from the depths of the air: why wonder if something is dying or if men suffer, since everything is written on this window where the sun sheds its plenty as a greeting to my pity? I can say and in a moment I shall say that what counts is to be human and simple. No, what counts is to be true, and then everything fits in, humanity and simplicity. When am I truer than when I am the world? My cup brims over before I have time to desire. Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.
The great courage is still to gaze as squarely at the light as at death. Besides, how can I define the link that leads from this all-consuming love of life to this secret despair? If I listen to the voice of irony, crouching underneath things, slowly it reveals itself. Winking its small, clear eye, it says: “Live as if …” In spite of much searching, this is all I know.

Complement the altogether beautiful Lyrical and Critical Essays with Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, his illustrated wisdom on love, and the beautiful letter of gratitude he wrote to his childhood teacher after receiving the Nobel Prize.

(more Camus)


… can’t help but wonder whether the publicity stunt was necessary. After all, physicist Richard Feynman — who won the Nobel Prize himself a year after Sartre — put it best in his eloquent denouncement of awards:

I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish academy just decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize — I’ve already gotten the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it — those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors.

Making a fuss out of declining an award seems not much different from making a fuss over accepting it — both make the award more real than it need be if one were truly interested in breaking free from the system. Why can’t the private pleasure of finding things out be enough, award or no award? Then again, Sartre had a peculiar relationship with the real and the irreal — and that might be what makes his declination all the more interesting. Perhaps what he wrote in his passionate love letters to Simone de Beauvoir applies here as well: “Try to understand me: I love you while paying attention to external things.”


Beauvoir, who lived through two World Wars, devoted much of her work to the notion that happiness is not only possible but our moral obligation — a notion rooted not in a rosy wishfulness but in an incisive intellect that used every tool of skepticism to probe untruth and dispel ignorance. A devout lifelong atheist, she reflected at the end of her life that while many of her philosophical ideas evolved over the decades, her atheism remained unflinching. She held a strong conviction that the dogmas of religion preclude the critical thinking and analytical reasoning necessary for philosophical inquiry and for the evolution of human thought itself — an interference particularly pronounced when it came to the question of whether one is to take an optimistic or pessimistic attitude toward life and human nature. Beauvoir writes:

Faith is often an appurtenance that is given in childhood as part of the middle-class equipment, and that is unquestionably retained together with the rest of it. If a doubt arises, it is often thrust aside for emotional reasons — a nostalgic loyalty to the past, affection for those around one, dread of the loneliness and banishment that threaten those who do not conform… Habits of mind, a system of reference and of values have been acquired, and one becomes their prisoner.

With an eye to the ultimate delusion of religion — that of personal immortality, to which the pious cling as a hedge against the terror of the void that death presents — Beauvoir adds:

Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly. And to crown all, the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself.

But out of this courageous confrontation with difficulty arises an unexpected fountain of hope — that more lucid and muscular counterpart to blind optimism. Beauvoir writes:

In what colors do I see this Godless world in which I live? Many readers tell me that what they like in my books is my delight in happiness, my love of live — my optimism. But others, particularly when they write to me about my last book, Old Age, deplore my pessimism. Both these labels are oversimplified.
My natural bent certainly does not lead me to suppose that the worst is always inevitable. Yet I am committed to looking reality in the face and speaking about it without pretense… It is just because I loathe unhappiness and because I am not given to foreseeing it that when I do come up against it I am deeply shocked or furiously indignant — I have to communicate my feelings. To fight unhappiness one must first expose it, which means that one must dispel the mystifications behind which it is hidden so that people do not have to think about it. It is because I reject lies and running away that I am accused of pessimism; but this rejection implies hope — the hope that truth may be of use. And this is a more optimistic attitude than the choice of indifference, ignorance or sham.

(more de Beauvoir)
Alfred Jules (“Freddie”) Ayer (1910-1989) was a brash young English logical positivist who took the philosophical world by storm in the 1930s, insisting that whatever couldn’t be verified must be “nonsense.” Late in life, he had an experience his younger self would certainly have dismissed as such. 

The experience, make of it what you will, seems to have improved him.

A sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false. 

Stealing money is wrong” has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!! 

Theists of all kinds have very largely failed to make their concept of a deity intelligible; and to the extent that they have made it intelligible, they have given us no reason to think that anything answers to it.

The existence of a being having the attributes which define the god of any non-animistic religion cannot be demonstratively proved… [A]ll utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical.

Much later in life, Ayer had a Near Death Experience and wrote about it in an essay he titled “What I Saw When I Was Dead“… “My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no God.”

A few days later he added: “What I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief.”

His wife summed up his transformation delightfully when she said “Freddie became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.”

He now admitted: “There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis — about the meaning of what we say — and there is all of this … all of life.”

Not long before his NDE, Ayer had an improbable run-in with prizefighter Mike Tyson. “Ayer, small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old — was entertaining a group of models at a New York party when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell. ‘Do you know who [the bleep] I am?’ Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ‘I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.’ ‘And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,’ Ayer answered politely. ‘We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’

That must have been an interesting conversation.

2010-01-01 | A.J. Ayer was a philosopher of renown and a steadfast atheist. In the end, his closest friend was Father Frederick Coplestone more » …2019-09-23 | Wittgenstein is more cult than argument. His followers know he was right, even if they don’t know what he actually meant more » 2016-05-18 | Wittgenstein’s charisma. He lived philosophy as a personal struggle. That made him severe, ruthless, censorious, and depressed. And bewitching more » (More Wittgenstein @aldaily…)
2019-03-22 | Hannah Arendt knew that being human in inhuman times is hard, occasionally impossible work. She is a thinker of the difficult, a thinker for now more » …2019-09-12 | In the 1920s, Arendt was Heidegger’s “wood nymph.” When they met again in 1949, she found him childish and dishonest, a recluse lost in the hills more » (More Arendt @aldaily)

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Marsha doesn’t care what the president knew or when, she’s just there to provide cover for his crimes. Senator Baker, like any truly-patriotic Republican, would be appalled.

November 24, 2019

from Twitter

RT @gtconway3d: The man fought for and was wounded for his country, he devoted his career to protecting its national security—and then he simply told the truth. This is the reward he gets from a United States Senator. Disgraceful.

November 23, 2019

from Twitter