Archive for the ‘love’ Category

In love with ourselves

September 3, 2011

Older Daughter and her cohorts in the High School class of ’13 were treated yesterday to something I regret having missed in my own ancient secondary schooling: exposure to a flesh-and-blood living American philosopher. Most of them probably didn’t know how lucky they were, but to her credit she later pronounced John Lachs a “cool dude.” She’s right.

Lachs is the distinguished Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt, a pre-eminent authority on American philosophy (especially George Santayana) and a philosopher of the first rank in his own right. He founded the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, and he’s educated generations of grateful Vanderbilt students (including me) since arriving from Yale (by way of McGill in Montreal, where he says he lost his hair to the cold) in 1967.

While we were chatting in the wings before he took the stage, a young woman approached to pass along greetings from her Dad, one of his innumerable former students . You must get that all the time, I remarked. Yes, he admitted, from their children and grandchildren. He’s still much too youthful for that to seem likely, but lots can happen in 44 years.

Older Daughter also approached to pay her respects. She finally got to express in person her gratitude for the gift of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly that Mrs. Lachs had been kind enough to send a dozen or so years ago.

Dr. Lachs then delivered an animated talk on being “In Love With Ourselves,” a condition likely as he says to distort vision and engender arrogant self-regard. Self-confidence is a good thing, narcissism something else again. Love life, love people, try to be worthy of their love, respect yourself.

The danger we all face is that when we fall in love with ourselves, we lose all sense of our limits.  We begin to think that we can do everything and that we must pronounce judgment on all manner of things beyond our competence.  Some fall in love with the sound of their voice and claim the right to serve as arbiters of taste or paradigms of virtue.  Others become indignant if people fail to defer to them and seem reluctant to acknowledge their excellence.  “Do you know who I am?” they say, pulling themselves up to their full height, but forgetting the great comic, W.C. Fields’, follow-up line of “Isn’t there someone here to tell you?”

If that doesn’t put a self-important person in her place, maybe the cosmic perspective will. Cue the Galaxy Song.

By one estimate, there are six hundred billion galaxies in a world that has existed for roughly fifteen billion years.  The eighty years I can expect to live on a minor planet of a middling star in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies is not likely to yield memorable results on a cosmic scale.

Dr. Lachs concluded his remarks with a borrowed greeting card caution: “Do not accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”  Good advice. But I also like my bumper sticker’s categorical imperative: “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” Shoot for the stars.

Plato loves play-dough

February 14, 2010

My sister always sends the best birthday cards…

Speaking of Plato, on Valentine’s Day: his Symposium is one of the great treatises on love, but he ends up taking it too far in the wrong direction, towards impersonal and universal love of Being and the Form of Beauty, and away from tangible human-to-human connection.

But he was right, romantic interpersonal love (for all its splendors) is a relatively short-term and incomplete experience.  We should cultivate many varieties, including love for our progeny and our species. (A fun and breezy survey of some of the varieties of love, btw, is in Chris Phillips’ valentine to his favorite dead philosopher Socrates in Love.)

One of the best forms (lower-case), available to us all (not just the materially wealthy, Katherine Fulton points out) is philanthropy.  Can you picture your portrait on your great-grandchildren’s wall in 100 years? What will you give them?

How nice, to wake to this iHome podcast  on this very morning:

peaches or onions?

October 14, 2009

Common onion - Allium cepaMan is an onion made up of a hundred layers… Herman Hesse

Man is a peach, with a solid, single pit in the center (the soul). BQpeach

Leaving the Produce dept:

No man is an island… John Donne

Man is by nature a social animal… Aristotle

Man is a network of relationships… Antoine de Saint-Exupery

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… the paragon of animals.  Shakespeare

In other words, we’re a complicated species of critter. This big brain we all haul around can be a huge asset, or a huge liability. On a given day it’s apt to be both. It’s the organ of our freedom, and of self-imposed constraints.

Jean-Paul Sartre‘s point about freedom is that if we’re ever free to choose then we always are. But note: “free to choose” does not mean free to guarantee the objective enactment in the world of all our choices. Darn! This is about commitment, not about results, as Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion learn. Double-darn!!

The alarm sounds at 5 a.m., and if I’ve not already been awakened (as Thoreau said) by my “genius” then I face a choice. On a cold winter’s morn, especially, the path of least resistance is clear. But if I’m a goal-oriented striver I’ll resist the easy path, I’ll opt for the cold floor and the bleary stumble down the hall towards coffee and life. If I’ve read my Sartre, I’ll represent this scenario to myself as an instance of my freedom.

But if I’m in “bad faith,” I might think: I have to get up, I have to go to school, I have to pass this course, get my degree, get my job and my spouse and my 2.37 children. In other words, I’ll think of myself as an object with certain fixed attributes. I’ll not embrace my “dreadful” freedom.

Dreadful? In our tradition, freedom is supposed to be liberating. It’s one of the conditions whereby we get to pursue our personal happiness. Monsieur Sartre, no apologist for anyone’s tradition, has little use for our American brand of flourishing. The search for happiness, too, seems on his view to be in bad faith. It’s not at all clear why a preference for seriousness and solemnity should be any different. But let’s cut him some slack; his country was being over-run by Nazis when he came up with this stuff.

Head back across the Channel, though, and consult Adam Smith (1723-1790). The American ideology has always invoked the magical authority of fatcathis “invisible hand” in support of the proposition that individuals behaving selfishly in free markets would invariably result in “the overall good of society,” thus always and paradoxically  ratcheting up the spiral of freedom  for ambitious individuals on their respective missions of personal acquisition and self-aggrandizement.

Actually, though, Smith– a close pal of David Hume– agreed with the skeptic that free-market capitalism can only secure a rich and rewarding freedom in the largest sense when individuals seek to coordinate their respective entrepreneurial aspirations with the well-being of the community at large. Contrary to inherited convention, “Smith believed that people are not essentially selfish or self-interested but are essentially social creatures who act out of sympathy and fellow-feeling for the good of society as a whole. A decent free-enterprise system would only be possible in the context of such a society.” Passion for Wisdom

And what about love? It may not be all you need, or the whole meaning and purpose of existence, but it seems to have a lot to do with self-possession, self-discovery, self-overcoming… let’s just say real self-hood. If there is a wider self capable of surmounting narrow egoism and saving us from self-absorption, it’s surely predicated on love directed outward. (William James explores this “wider self” in Varieties of Religious Experience.)

“The presumption of a shared identity” based on relatedness and connection instead of insularity and isolation, the exchange of me for we, means we’re not all alone in the vast cosmic dark. Solipsism is wrong. The egocentric predicament is defeated. “We are not isolated individuals searching desperately for other people; we already have networks or relationships,” to lovers and friends and colleagues and the companionship of nature.

aristophanesAnother fable from Plato: once we were “double-creatures,” with two heads, four arms, four legs, and hubris to burn. The capricious Zeus decided to take us down a notch, lopping us in half, dooming us to wander the earth in search of our other “better” half. When, if you succeed in finding your soul-mate, the search is over. If you don’t, you’re incomplete and unfulfilled.

I don’t much like that story, I’ve seen versions of it make too many people– romantic types especially– too unhappy in solitude, and too expectant in relationships. Some people are as whole as they can be alone. Others are miserable in tandem harness. Our authors read the Symposium more broadly and positively: “the complete self is people together and, sometimes, in love.

John Prine is one of the wisest and wittiest song-writers ever, and his song about peaches is one itself.

But onions, without a hard and ineliminable core but with lots of interesting overlap and complexity, win this contest.


Pitch the pit, and with it the inviolable, unrelated, essential soul in the center of everything.

Still, you probably should go ahead and blow up your TV, and try to find Jesus on your own. Maybe you don’t have to go to the country, or across the pond, to do that.