Archive for the ‘optimism’ Category

Two doctors

June 6, 2013

What am I searching for? Not a lost shaker of salt, and not God. I’m searching for a way.

A way to live, a way to love living, a way to let others live and love in their own ways, a way to live in peace and harmony with all other lifeforms on my planet and in my universe. Sounds simple enough. And isn’t that the meaning of life, after all?

To search is to profess optimism that the object being sought may be found. Or at least it’s to express an attitude of meliorism, the confidence that doing one’s bit in the search adds value to living and improves the general lot, while enhancing one’s own well-being .

Walking the planet, or pedaling it, is melioristic. It models a low-impact, highly self-reliant and socially responsible way of living. It declares our “salvation neither inevitable nor impossible” but in the balance, awaiting our actions and attitudes. (Pragmatism VIII, “Pragmatism and Religion”)

It’s also therapeutic, emotionally and physiologically. “I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.” Wouldn’t G.M. Trevelyan be impressed by Michael Milton?

Planet walkers

June 5, 2013

Searchers are optimists, and walkers are searchers. Are walkers optimists?

Well, I am. I wouldn’t say I was born that way. I recall a pessimistic teenage phase, coincident (or not?) with pounding headaches and an infatuation with William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. I walked away from it, and them, and from my initially-declared Poli Sci major, after my sophomore year in college. Thank goodness.

I know, there are and always have been pessimists who also walked. Schopenhauer springs instantly to mind. Nonetheless, every walk is an optimistic undertaking. And, I suspect, every self-avowed pessimistic walker is a closet optimist. Can’t prove it, but to paraphrase Camus: one must imagine daily walkers happy. More on that anon.

I discovered Walker Percy and his character Binx Bolling’s “search” in college. Percy saw the search as looking ultimately for a way out of this world, which he and his religious confreres viewed as “fallen” in its natural state. But reading his books, and then standing in his gazebo and surveying his “lost cove,” convinced me that his search was really for a way to love living.

I discovered a happy documentary worth sharing, last night:

Philosophical walkers are like John Francis: planet walkers. That’s another name for cosmopolitans, citizens of the globe and the universe who choose to accept responsibility for the whole. Every step symbolizes that choice, and that sense of a shared and universal identification with the natural world and all its lifeforms. In one of the stranger TED Talks on record, Francis declares “we are the environment, and how we treat each other is really how we’re going to treat the environment.” Similarly, he told  the Atlantic,

The environment is therefore also about human rights, civil rights, gender equality, economic and education equity. It is about all the ways we relate to one another because how we relate to each other manifests itself in the physical environment around us.

That’s a way, Walker.


June 4, 2013

Excellent advice for the Philosopher-Slob of New Orleans, Ignatius J. Reilly, and for us all:

Get out of that womb-house for at least an hour a day. Take a walk, Ignatius. Look at the trees and birds. Realize that life is surging all around you. The [heart] valve closes because it thinks it is living in a dead organism. Open your heart, Ignatius, and you will open your valve. A Confederacy of Dunces

But Ignatius does not want to open his heart or raise his spirit.

“I refuse to “look up.” Optimism nauseates me. It is perverse. Since man’s fall, his proper position in the universe has been one of misery.”

A sad case, which ended in author John Kennedy Toole’s suicide just before his literary debut, and despite Walker Percy’s enthusiastic patronage.

Percy was also given to bouts of sadness, but he calmed them with irony and bourbon and went on to inspire the likes of Walter Isaacson.

When I was growing up in New Orleans, my friend Thomas and I used to go fishing across Lake Pontchartrain. We’d stop for lunch at his uncle’s house on the Bogue Falaya, a lazy river teeming with turtles. I was baffled about what “Uncle Walker” did for a living, since he always seemed to be at home, sipping bourbon. He was a kindly gentleman, whose placid face seemed to know despair but whose eyes nevertheless often smiled. His daughter said he was a writer. One summer I read Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer,” and it dawned on me that writing was something you could do for a living, just like being a doctor or a fisherman. The novel’s wry philosophical depth opened my eyes to what Percy called “the search,” poking around for clues about why we are here. At the end of that summer, I tried to get him to expound on the religious themes in the book, but he fended me off. “There are two types of people who come out of Louisiana,” he said. “Preachers and storytellers.” It was better to be a storyteller.

Percy inspired me too, not with his theology– definitely not– but with his wonderful stories, and a style of detached observation that was humane, sympathetic, funny, and indeed searching.

Searchers are implicit optimists, by my definition: they’re on the trail of something, they’re curious and hopeful. They may have met despair but they’ve chosen not to act and live in it. Like Sisyphus. Unlike poor Ignatius and his creator.

Also inspiring: Percy’s lifelong friendship with Shelby Foote.

And their teahouse.


Better angels

March 6, 2013

No, not Trout and Pujols. They’re just the better-compensated Angels.

Lincoln’s marvelous closing lines from his 1st Inaugural came to mind during our discussion yesterday of the endemic human proclivity to resolve differences violently.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

(I think I prefer Day-Lewis, but let’s not fight about that.) Bill had asked us if we thought Hobbes was right, that we just can’t help ourselves, that it’s so ingrained in our permanent and instinctive nature that we’ll always require an iron-fisted external authority to keep an uneasy and temporary peace.

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” George Santayana, a Platonist, evidently said that, not (as the Internet would have us believe) Plato. Like Yogi Berra, Plato did not say half of what he said. (Socrates probably didn’t say half of what Plato said he did either.) But Santayana did say:

“There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”

“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.”

“Love make us poets, and the approach of death should make us philosophers.”

“We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.”

“Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”

“The mass of mankind is divided into two classes, the Sancho Panzas who have a sense for reality, but no ideals, and the Don Quixotes with a sense for ideals, but mad.”

(But maybe the two classes are those who think there are just two classes, and everybody else.)

As usual, more of us yesterday  seemed reflexively pessimistic about the human prospect. Also as usual, I put in a modest word for possibly-naive optimism. Most of us in that room, after all, weren’t being bellicose or territorial. We seemed a pretty good-natured bunch. Could Rousseau have been right just to this extent, that it’s our political and corporate institutions that tend to bring out our worst? Remember Ike’s “military-industrial complex“?  It hasn’t gone anywhere.

But there’s our glimmer of hope. Better institutions might deliver better behavior. It’s worth a try.

Steven Pinker enlisted Lincoln too, to counter our pessimism and point out that against all odds we are becoming a less violent species.

Well, recurring to George’s two classes: I vote for ideals tempered by reality improved by ideals tempered by reality and on and on. I’d love to believe things could only get better, but our satisfaction is not guaranteed. We’ll have to work for it.

And on that note, I still have some work to do in preparation for SAAP 13. My airport taxi arrives in about 22 hours.

Finish each day

February 22, 2013

I’d read a lot of Emerson over the years and never come across this piece of practical wisdom in precisely this formulation, before Maria Popova passed it along from Jon Winokur’s Advice to Writers yesterday: “Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two.”

Here’s the more common version, brought nearly to life:

Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

Whichever way The Sage really said it, I do try always to rise fresh and ready. My sleep rarely interposes as solid or lasting a wall as I’d like, but the spirit of daily renewal in anticipation of another good day’s work is what the dawn’s all about for me too, and for melioristic pragmatists in general.

So, and despite a detour to the doc’s office with Younger Daughter yesterday, I’m back at it today with “new dawnings” for the impending American Philosophy conference. The symposiasts at my session won’t find me a hard sell, I was already sure there’s a pragmatic line running from Emerson and Thoreau through Rorty and Putnam and Cavell. And Lincoln. [“What Would Lincoln Do?”] And beyond.

Sometimes, when preparing to gather with colleagues in a professional setting, it’s tempting to think you must speak and communicate with such clarity as to remove all possibility of being misunderstood. But that, Emerson knew, is an impossible bar to clear.

Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

And to be merely competent is also to be misunderstood. To be human is to make mistakes. Big deal.  I like to remind myself, before traveling to meet my peers, of what James said about our fallibility in Will to Believe:

Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

So I’ll just keep on rising before the dawn of day, catching a few reflections, committing a few errors, and occasionally glancing out and up for inspiration. One more insight, Mr. Emerson? “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”

Keep going, keep moving forward

August 1, 2012

The sun at dawn this morning is a fireball mounting the treetops, seeming to shout “get up , get moving!”

Yesterday we got up and hit the road at dawn for yet another distant college campus tour. Kayla in Chattanooga is our favorite student guide so far. “I love my school!” She really sold it. But Older Daughter’s decided she doesn’t like “sprawly” campuses. So far as I’m concerned, they’re the best kind. And we haven’t begun to see “sprawly,” anyway. But, I must remind myself, I’m just the driver.

In our absence the mailman delivered a treat, a “classic reprint” of Dr. Curtis’s Science and Human Affairs from the Viewpoint of Biology (1922). Reading it, I know exactly why he was invited to Dayton to defend the humanity of science and the science of humanity: he was the Carl Sagan of his day.

The humanistic philosophy of life, which flowered in Greece and which has blossomed again, is not the crude materialistic desire to eat, drink, and be merry. It is a spiritual joy in living and a confidence in the future, which makes this life a thing worthwhile.

The Cosmos we know today is unbelievably complex and more is being disclosed. Things undreamed of in our philosophy continually appear… The biological discovery of man’s place in nature did more than change traditional beliefs; it gave a point of departure  into a future, unknown but fraught with possibilities.

What science intends, both for the immediate and the remote future, is to keep going. The scientist believes that his rationalistic method offers a means of moving forward… The future is bright with a promise that stands at the threshold of realization.

There you go again, Dr. C., pulling dollars from my ear. It’s a trick that never gets old. The secret? Keep moving.



July 25, 2012

Back on my perch after  another summer road-trip, this one to the sweltering American breadbasket. I was going to lay low ’til August but sometimes, as they say in Mayberry, things have just got to be brung out.

I spent some time with Irv Yolem’s Schopenhauer Cure yesterday, and then with Carlin Romano’s mention in America the Philosophical of the vitriolic philosophy blogger Brian Leiter. I think I’ll find it helpful to myself this morning to think a bit about the uses and abuses of misanthropy.

Old Arthur hated his species,  probably due in large part to a bad formative start with his hard-hearted Mama. She never missed an opportunity to tell him what a drag he was, as a youth, on her freedom. He more than fulfilled her vision of him, long after she was gone. He isolated himself from both his fellow “bipeds” and his own bipedal nature, thinking himself superior.

And who knows, that very attitude may have fueled the imagination and will to write the books that almost give pessimism a good name. What we can’t know, except through the fictive  speculations of people like Yolem, is whether Schopenhauer’s misanthropy seemed to himself to make his own life worth living, in his own mind. We do know he said it did not make him “happy.”

Leiter is merely emblematic of the cheap culture of snide  and sneering rudeness so prevalent and apparently popular on the Internet. I don’t know if it makes him or his readers happy to be that way. It doesn’t me. I tend to avoid his posts and their comments, as I try to avoid mood-dampening & heart-shrinking contaminants generally.

So what I just want to bring out about all this is a small piece of hard-earned self-knowledge: I find that I am a happier and a better person when I actively resist the misanthropic impulse, and do not surrender to it as Schopenhauer and Leiter apparently did.

I also picked up the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion yesterday. I like him. He may be naively humane, but at least he’s no misanthrope.

My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none, is entirely in keeping with this. I am confident that it is both possible and worthwhile to attempt a new secular approach to universal ethics… We all prefer the love of others to their hatred. We all prefer others’ generosity to their meanness. And who among us does not prefer tolerance, respect, and forgiveness of our failings to bigotry, disrespect, and resentment?

I know I do. Anger, in my experience as apparently in the DL’s, is not a usefully generative fuel. But I’m a pragmatic meliorist, and pluralist. I presume to speak only for myself here.

I believe in magic

June 23, 2012

I do believe, I do, I do! I believe in natural magic, the magic of reality. Don’t read Rowling without it.

…the magic of a thunderstorm over Grand Canyon, of the Milky Way on a cloudless night far from light pollution or of a scanning electron micrograph of an ant’s face. Or, for that matter, the magic of a lover’s kiss. Fairy-tale spells, miracles and myths — they make good stories. But the truth — science — is more magical, in the best and most thrilling sense of the word, than any myth or made-up miracle. Richard Dawkins

The magic even works in Kentucky.

Who knows what great magic may lie ahead, as reality unfolds? As Arthur C. Clarke put it,

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God–but to create him.”


“Before you become too entranced with gorgeous gadgets and mesmerizing video displays, let me remind you that information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all.”

And finally:

“I am an optimist. Anyone interested in the future has to be otherwise he would simply shoot himself.”

The infinitely healing dawn

June 19, 2012

The View from Lazy Point begins with a perfect pairing of epigraphs and gets better, so far, with every turn of page.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon… Live in fragments no longer. Only connect. -E.M. Forster

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. That makes it hard to plan the day. -E.B. White

Saving the world means connecting the dots between ourselves and the world, and living whole (holistic) unfragmented lives of natural piety.

At this rate Carl Safina may be the most quotable marine biologist ever, or at least since Rachel Carson.

There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.

Safina insists from page one that “we are natural,” that being natural means being forever at risk, and that “the future is by no means doomed.” Wise up, homo sapiens, we can still save ourselves and our compadres on earth if we’ll just grasp that we’re all “facets of the same gemtone.” Like all good naturalists he respects and regenerates with the dawn. His June chapter concludes,

Even with so fine a start to today, imperfections are evident. I know this, though: this morning, full of such rich, deep, savage beauty… indicates that there remain on Earth some remnants of a long-lasting world, some yardstick.

It’s easy to see why the dawn near Lazy Point and Montauk, on Long Island, might inspire such confidence.

I’m planning the rest of my day around the savoring of the rest of this book. Then I’ll see what I can do about saving the world.

Writing is an act of optimism

June 15, 2012

I was disappointed to miss Richard Ford‘s appearance here last night. He signed my copy of Independence Day in June ’96 at the old Davis-Kidd in Nashville, and we had a brief but engaging conversation about teaching and living. Oh well. Oh Canada.

So I did the next best thing, and hunted up his recent appearances on YouTube. There are a few. I’m impressed by Ford’s seemingly effortless ability in Q-&-A sessions to call up just the right illustrative quotation.

I’m also impressed by Ford’s commitment to always finding something, in even the bleakest of stories, to affirm and assent to.

Q. Would you say you are a positive writer who explores existential failures in your books?

I feel that’s exactly what I am – an optimist, who believes with Sartre, that to write about the darker possible things is an act of optimism. But what I’m looking for is drama, which occurs when people are at a loss, and not succeeding. I try to find a vocabulary which makes those things expressible. In the process of making those expressible to a readership, it becomes an act of optimism, because it imagines a future in which these things will be understood, and be mediated in some way. Writing for me is always an act of optimism. I probably wouldn’t do it otherwise, no matter how dark things are. CSM

He discourages young writers from setting out to make a career of it, unless they just can’t help themselves. Every author he knows, successful or not, works “like a dog.” (Strange expression: my dogs actually have it pretty easy.) But that’s because they want to, are driven to, are unable to settle for any other vocation.

But, he wonders, if you’ve made that commitment why would you settle for less than the best in terms of your own output? Why would you be content merely to cobble competent sentences rather than try to craft something truly great and enduring?

It’s obvious, as a review noted recently, that Ford takes extreme care in the production of each of his sentences. (“I estimate my success by how the words sing to me.”) Sorry I didn’t get to see him doing that live and in person last night. Next time.

Ford in the great white north… Road tripExplain nothing in publicFord on livingfiction’s business