Darrow’s creed

I’ve always dismissed the form of magical thinking that imagines it possible to “attract” people and things merely by thinking them, but yesterday was fleetingly tempted to entertain it when I received an unsolicited email from someone I happened just then to have been thinking of.  Then I tried to recall all the times I’ve not opened emails from people I happened to have been thinking of, and realized the magic is merely a slick trick. Impressive in the moment, though.

Anyway, that email from a respected younger colleague discussed our mutual interest in the famous Scopes defender Clarence Darrow. My correspondent reflected on Darrow’s striking views concerning free will and criminal responsibility, and their relevance to conversations we’d had this past semester surrounding “neuro-existentialism” and the challenges posed by neuroscience to conventional notions of blame, punishment, “correction” etc.

I was reminded of a passage in John Farrell’s biography Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, from which I’d learned that Darrow and “my first landlord” Winterton Curtis, who made such an impression on me in my early youth, had conversed in Dayton Tennessee in 1925. Curtis divulged to Darrow that he’d just received a terminal cancer diagnosis and thought he had no more than a year to live.

I wonder how the dominoes of my life would have fallen, if Curtis had died three decades before my birth. My parents would never rented rooms in his home, he’d never have “pulled” dollar bills from my 6-year old ears, my father would never have speculated that the Curtis connection had something to do with my subsequent scholarly interest in evolution.

But that’s magical thinking too, isn’t it, to pluck particular contingencies from the converging streams of our lives and imagine that they were inordinately pivotal? Still, I’m fascinated by this particular what-if. And by another…

Curtis wrote to Darrow later, Farrell recounts, thanking him for “sharing a creed–‘that those who strive to live righteously as they see fit in this life need not fear the future.” What if we all shared that creed? We might think the resulting ethos of toleration and social comity was magical, indeed.

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