Posts Tagged ‘cosmopolitanism’

Augustine, Boethius, Anselm & Aquinas, Appiah, Allen

February 5, 2013

AugustineBoethiusAnselm & Aquinas, and Appiah on cosmopolitanism are up today in CoPhi. But Allen‘s the philosopher who’s influenced me most. More on that in a bit.

Is anyone, from God on down, “pulling our strings”? We’d not be free if they were, would we? If you say we would, what do you mean by “free”? Jesus and Mo have puzzled this one:


Here too: Free Willy! But as usual, the Atheist Barmaid is unpersuaded.

(As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed. They’re just a couple of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless fun, zealots, not blasphemy. But if it provokes a little thought, it’s useful.)

Augustine proposed a division between the “city of god” and the “earthly city” of humanity, thus excluding many of us from his version of the cosmos. “These two cities of the world, which are doomed to coexist intertwined until the Final Judgment, divide the world’s inhabitants.” SEP

Boethius was consoled by the thought that God’s knowing he was about to be tortured to death in no way impaired his, Boethius’s, freedom. That’s apparently because God knows things timelessly, sees everything “in a go.” I don’t think that would really make me feel any better, in my prison cell. The real consolation of philosophy comes when it contributes to the liberation of mind and body. But it’s still very cool to imagine Philosophy a comfort-woman, reminding us of our hard-earned wisdom when the going gets impossible.

And then, of course, they killed him. The list of martyred philosophers grows. And let’s not forget Hypatia and Bruno. The problem of suffering (“evil”) was very real to them, as it is to so many of our fellow world-citizens. You can’t chalk it all up to free will. But can we even chalk torture or any other inflicted choice up to it, given the full scope of a genuinely omniscient creator’s knowledge? If He already knows what I’m going to do unto others and what others will do unto me, am I in any meaningful sense a free agent who might have done otherwise? The buck stops where?

[Christians 2, Philosophers 0… Christians & MuslimsJandMoandPaulMystics, scholastics, Ferengi… faith & reason…]

Undeterred by such questions, Anselm continued to stump for the divine moral perfection (and omnipotence and omnscience) of a being “than which none greater could be conceived.” His Ontological Argument is either ingenious or ridiculous, but is not persuasive. Strange argument indeed.

Aquinas was sure there had to be an uncaused cause in back of everything, or else we’d never get to an end of explaining. Well, we probably won’t. Not ’til the would-be explainers themselves are gone. But is an uncaused cause really a step forward, explanatorily speaking?

The appeal of Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism is summed up, for me, in his observation that the fundamental aim of our philosophical conversations is to enable us “to live with people, whether you agree with them or not.” That’s helpful.

Appiah is the headliner at this year’s annual March meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, this time in New Jersey, with the conference theme “American Philosophy and Cosmopolitanism.” [Appiahn WayThe Real Cosmopolitans]

I’ve found members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for instance, to be amongst the most agreeable people on the planet – and I couldn’t disagree more with many of their ideas. Simon Critchley’s Stone essay last September includes one friendly Mormon’s cheerful announcement that “we, too, can become Gods, American Gods, no less.”

Well, that was the premise and the title of an entertaining fiction from Neil Gaiman. But what would Augustine, Anselm, Boethius et al think about it? Not much.

The great secret is that, through heroic effort and striving, God was a man who became exalted and now sits enthroned in the heavens. You see, God was not God from all eternity, but became God.

A Woody Allen character was once accused of playing God. “I have to model myself on someone.”

Woody’s not God, nor even remotely a God (a Phil Connors/Groundhog God). He’s very human. But he asks great questions (recently answered some too), shoots great scenes, and cares. [DS]

(My favorite Manhattan scene, btw, asks What Makes Life Worth Living?)

But everyman a God is really not a serious proposition, is it? Anymore than the notion of one man, one planet? Can it really be true that Joseph Smith’s followers anticipate living forever off-world with their families and robots, Jetson-like? Or is that just another example of uninformed bias? (We could ask that Mormon Girl on Twitter what they really believe. Or check out the Book of Mormon.) Anyway, live and let live. It’s a big cosmos.

The real cosmopolitans

September 18, 2012

What does “cosmopolitan” really mean? Don’t trust Google on this, it takes you straight to that silly magazine with its sex tips and “lifestyle” advice. Funny, or sad, how current linguistic use has corrupted these grand old terms. (Think also of “epicurean,” “cynic,” maybe even “platonic”…)

We started to talk about this yesterday, in connection with Anthony Appiah’s book and interview. We’ll discuss it some more today. Kosmopolites is the Greek root meaning citizen of the world, the cosmos. What a large identity to claim, and yet what a miniscule corner of existence we actually occupy.

The cosmos used to coincide strictly with the known terrestrial world, before anybody’d ever even circumnavigated it. Now we’ve seen our tiny world from space, in perspective.

So now we know: it’s a really big cosmos, and we are here.

So far as we can tell we’re the only part, around these parts anyway, that knows it’s part of a cosmos. We’re the cosmopolitans.

Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls, and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ realized its true meaning: citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos

More Saganportalmotecalendargolden record… apple pie

So who was the first cosmopolitan in philosophy? Socrates, possibly, he’s said to have declared himself a citizen of the world – but still so loyal an  Athenian that he insisted on having his hemlock. Scholars wonder if that was really him or Plato talking.

Whether Socrates was self-consciously cosmopolitan in this way or not, there is no doubt that his ideas accelerated the development of cosmopolitanism and that he was in later antiquity embraced as a citizen of the world. In fact, the first philosopher in the West to give perfectly explicit expression to cosmopolitanism was the Socratically inspired Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century bce. It is said that “when he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world.” SEP

That doesn’t sound “cynical” in the perverted modern sense at all, does it? Diogenes spent a lot of time under the stars. He knew where he was.

growing the tribe

April 17, 2010

What fun! Scott Pratt‘s Lyceum lecture at our department yesterday (“Creation and Liberation: The Ontology of American Indian Origins”), a spirited defense of Native American traditions and their significant but overlooked contribution to the pluralism of classical American philosophy, gave us lots to think and talk (and later drink and talk) about. If we want to save ourselves from ourselves, he suggested, we have something to learn about our place in nature from our predecessors on this continent.

Scott teaches at the University of Oregon, a beautiful campus I fondly recall visiting for a philosophy conference in February 1999. It was grey and dreary when I left Tennessee, but green and cheery when I de-planed in Eugene. He’s the author of the important Native Pragmatism: rethinking the roots of American Philosophy.

I’m not prepared to endorse his suggestion that native creation myths constitute any kind of “knowledge,” but maybe some of them do embody (as he said) a “disposition” to wisdom that can coexist peaceably and fruitfully alongside so-called western ways of knowing.

In any case, my reading-and-reflecting list is longer this morning, and that’s good. In particular, Scott mentioned George Tinker (American Indian Liberation)and Daniel Wildcat (Red Alert) as essential.

My concern is that we not settle for a kind of pluralism that treats all identity as local and tribal, and thus reduces our best way of knowing, science, to just one more tribe among all the others.  We should grow the tribe, expand our sense of who we are to the species level and beyond. If “indigenous” just means “of a place,” it is crucial to our survival that we understand ourselves as all belonging to the same place, the same nature, planet, cosmos. As Anthony Appiah has written, we must be cosmopolitan, not narrowly parochial and tribal. In that context nature and culture can coexist, and pluralism becomes potentially liberating, not stifling.

(So, I’m inspired to wonder, how about this for a new course idea: Experimental ethics, native wisdom, and environmental responsibility?)

cosmic trust

April 8, 2010

The author of Passion for Wisdom has plenty to say about passion, wisdom, reason, and much else. He was a great advocate of gratitude, a gifted teacher, and (not least) a lover of fine natural spirits. His approach is reminiscent of Dewey’s “natural piety.” But the centerpiece of today’s reading in Spirituality for the Skeptic, for me, is the concept of “cosmic trust.”

Bob Solomon trusted a universe that, indifferently of course and without personal malice, swept him away at an age most of us think of as before anyone’s “time.” He collapsed in a Zurich airport in December 2007, a youthful sixty-something. That untimely end makes so much of what he writes in this book tug poignantly at the heartstrings.

Trust, with passion and love, forms the tripod of Solomon’s version of naturalized spirituality. It entails risk and a certain lack of control, it cultivates as much of Nietzsche’s “amor fati” as seems reasonable but, Solomon wisely acknowledges, we  cannot accept everything. Open-eyed affirmation is not the same as Panglossian stupidity, but it is a form of optimism. The world is not the best possible, but we must all  still do what we can to push it along in that direction. Pessimism doesn’t push hard enough. Metaphysical optimism doesn’t really push at all, trusting too much. The affirmation Solomon advises looks more like James’s meliorism, with no guarantees of smooth sailing and the ever-looming threat of shipwreck. And so we sail on, as Mr. Fitzgerald said, boats against the current scanning for the green light of home (and the promise of an “orgiastic future”).

Cosmic trust inevitably conjures Carl Sagan and his quest for the feeling of being “at home in the universe.” It’s an “ontological security” in one’s own existence and confidence in one’s place in the world.” We’re all entitled to that, though Solomon rightly rejects feelings of exclusive personal entitlement. This “at home-ness” is our common birthright, as children of the cosmos. We’re not strangers in a strange land here at all, there’s no place else we need to get to. Maybe we could borrow Jennifer Hecht‘s sign?

Or Crash Davis’s line: “It’s a long season, you gotta trust it.” Life, that is. We must live as though we knew it to be a long season. Tomorrow’s another day, right up until it isn’t. Stay within yourself. Give 110%. [Bull Durham: cliches…”I believe“…William Blake]

We should secretly admit otherwise, to ourselves, as we go about the daily busy-ness of our lives, and then file that admission away for future use. It’s really much too short to end at any age, but it can feel long and it will, when we slide safely and trustingly into home. Remember: home is not elsewhere, it’s where we begin and where we end. It closes the circuit. Touch ’em all.

(Here is where I should acknowledge Solomon’s ambivalence towards sports and sports metaphors. Who could blame him, a transplant deep in the heart of Texas, where rabid Longhorns– like rabid partisans everywhere– seem constantly on the verge of madness? I’m ambivalent about it too, and there’s no question the “us versus them” mentality it models is one of the scourges of our species. But darn it, it’s just fun to have a home team to root for. And rooted.)

Spirituality is about moving on, forgiving the world for the misfortunes it (inevitably) inflicts upon us. Thus spirituality is also called wisdom. Setting sail after hitting hard shoals is a forgiving form of spiritual wisdom, too.

Cosmic trust is also about cosmic responsibility, which we must accept if we’re ever going to survive and flourish. Mostly, for now, it seems many of us are still stuck in what K. Antony Appiah calls the pre-cosmopolitan “if you don’t want to be my brother, I’ll bash your skull in” phase of our evolution.

Seneca falls

February 17, 2010

You may have thought the old injunction about being your brothers’ keeper was of strictly-Christian origin, but Seneca the Stoic said it too:  No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself. Lucius Annaeus Seneca

That was the best response we could come up with yesterday, in A&S, when we were talking about how we as a community could or should respond to atrocities like Huntsville: attend to the dysfunctional maladaptations of our peers, be willing to get involved, to “intervene” before they act in desperation and violence. If only the Huntsville shooter had studied Seneca on anger... the world does not reliably conform to our desires. And yet, for Seneca, in so far as we can ever attain wisdom, it is by learning not to aggravate the world’s obstinacy through our own responses, through spasms of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia.

It might not be enough, but it does defy the stereotype of Stoics as passive sideline bystanders  without control over external events. We should all do what we can.

Seneca’s also a good guy to have around when you’re faced with a scary medical situation.

And he’s probably a better source (but not a better example!) than Epicurus on death, with his glibly-dismissive attitude: it is “nothing to us, since when we exist death is not yet present, and when it is present, then we do not exist.” Seneca’s smarter to advise treating the end as something, not nothing, and to realize that living in utter denial of death is not really living at all. But neither is an unrelenting, morbid fixation on mortality. As  Jennifer Hecht says, we must acknowledge death and look it square in the eyes. Then, if we’re wise, we’ll turn our backs on the eternal dark and get on with living in the light. Of course that includes celebrating the lives of precious departed loved ones.

Tyrants condemned Socrates and Seneca to death, but nature condemns us all. We need to admit that, so we may then stop fearing it and obsessing about it. That’s not morbid, it’s liberating. It frees us up as well to entertain a wider sense of self than that bounded by our skin– an identity as wide as the cosmos (which is why the Stoics considered themselves cosmopolitans). “Through difficulties to the stars!”

And as Simon Critchley has also already pointed out:

>For Seneca, anxiety is caused by fear for the future… The philosopher enjoys a long life because he does not worry over its shortness. He lives in the present… the only immortality that philosophy can promise is to permit us to inhabit the present without concern for the future.

>For Stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, the human being is a compound of soul and body. But soul for the Stoics is “divine breath.” At death it is rejoins the “divine macrocosm”– not unlike the Taoist image of soul as a drop re-absorbed by Mother Sea.

Epicurus and Seneca make a good pair, since Monday’s weather’s forced us to double them up. They have their differences, but (recalling last week’s discussion) they have in common a commitment to unperturbed and graceful living that does not fret about events beyond one’s own control. The native human capacity to frame how we think about our experience is crucial for our happiness. In Seneca’s case, even self-inflicted death at the fiat of a crazed emperor was no cause for upset.

Still… wasn’t he way too compliant with the crazy emperor’s orders? Did he preserve his stoic calm at too great a cost? Should he have strained at the leash just a little bit? Pushed back against Fortuna’s wheel? Should it so easy, or so casually decided, to just walk away from life?

Also in our reading today, in Dead Philosophers:

St. Paul, no friend of philosophy but profoundly influential of subsequent Western thought on death and resurrection,  met the same fate as Seneca: death at Nero’s command.

St. Augustine greeted the death of his teenage  son with peace of mind. Having been baptized together a couple of years earlier, “anxiety over our past life fled away from us.” Augustine himself died at age 76, reading and weeping over the psalms of David.

Boethius, another philosopher unjustly condemned to death, imagined an encounter with Philosophia, a 50-foot woman who claims that happiness, goodness, and God are identical. But Boethius never mentions Christianity in his Consolation of Philosophy. He was  cruelly tortured before being bludgeoned to death.

They could all use a little ataraxia, no? Or at least apatheia

dead stoics society

February 10, 2010

Simon Critchley has as eye for the bizarre and unseemly side of philosophy.  In today’s reading we learn that Diogenes abused himself in the marketplace, saying he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing his stomach. It’s not too surprising to learn that he never married, but it is dispiriting to think of him as the original poster boy for cosmopolitanism.* Maybe he just meant to abuse public decency laws everywhere in the world… like fellow Cynics Hipparchia (herself a disappointing “first female philosopher” who was bettered by Hypatia**) and Crates. I do like his comment on Plato’s metaphysics: The table and cup I see, but I do not see tableness and cupness.

*Carl Sagan’s notion of what it means to be a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the cosmos, is far more inspiring. We speak for Earth:

Also noted by Critchley:

>There is no more relevant ancient philosopher for our time than Epicurus, who said “when it comes to death we human beings all live in an unwalled city… living well and dying well are one and the same.”

>For Seneca, anxiety is caused by fear for the future… The philosopher enjoys a long life because he does not worry over its shortness. He lives in the present… the only immortality that philosophy can promise is to permit us to inhabit the present without concern for the future.

>For Stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, the human being is a compound of soul and body. But soul for the Stoics is “divine breath.” At death it is rejoins the “divine macrocosm”– not unlike the Taoist image of soul as a drop re-absorbed by Mother Sea.

>Epictetus, an early exponent of self-reliance, said we are “disturbed not by things but by the opinions which we have of things”… If we keep death constantly before our eyes and in our mouths, then our terror of it and our attachment to worldly things will fall away.

>Marcus Aurelius said “live each day as though one’s last”… Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present.

But, crucially: “living in the present” is not the same as not caring about the future. Real cosmopolitans care. We may cultivate an attitude of indifference towards our personal, individual deaths, but the prospective, premature,  self-inflicted death of our species would be something to mourn. It’s also– and this may be un-Stoical– something to deplore and to resist, while we’re still here to do it.

*Sagan also composed the best tribute I’ve seen to Hypatia, who said in a most Saganesque moment: To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.

Sagan’s Cosmos can be found here.

Whole Earth

November 21, 2009

“Mr. [Stewart] Brand got his first look at the big picture one afternoon in 1966 while sitting on a roof in San Francisco [and consuming LSD]… He printed up buttons asking, ‘Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?'” NYTimes, 2.27.07

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold–brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.”  Archibald MacLeish

Rabbi Rami notes in his blog “Toto”: In the current issue of Kosmos (Fall/Winter 2009) Mark Gerzon offers a two-part exploration of global citizenship. Using the analogy of upgraded computer software, Mark identifies five iterations of citizenship:

Citizen 1.0— Worldview based on one’s self (egocentric).
Citizen 2.0— Worldview based on one’s group (ideocentric).
Citizen 3.0— Worldview based on one’s nation (sociocentric).
Citizen 4.0— Worldview based on multiple cultures (multicentric).
Citizen 5.0— Worldview based on the whole earth (geocentric).*

Rami rightly points out that this is not a new insight, but maybe its time is coming. He asks:

As more and more of us become Citizen 5.0 what will happen to Religion 2.0? As I become more geocentric, can I maintain Zionism? As I recognize the blending of many spiritual teachings in my own life can I maintain Judaism as my singular religious identity?

For me the answer is clearly “no.” The more global I become the less exclusively anything I become. The more global I become the more I find myself articulating what I believe to be true using metaphors drawn from all the world’s religions. The more I live with Citizen 5.0 the more I experience Religion 5.0 and refuse to be limited to any one faith. My loyalty is to truth, and no religion has a monopoly on that. I draw from art, literature, philosophy, science, music, mysticism, myth, etc. to create a rich 5.0 tapestry of reality reflecting what I experience as real. And I no longer care where it comes from.

It could come from a hydrated moon, maybe?

*Citizen 6.0— Worldview based on the whole cosmos (cosmopolitan).

sex, race, culture

November 9, 2009

headThis guy looks like a football hero, wonder if he suffered brain damage too. (Apparently his people did “practice ritual bloodletting and played the Mesoamerican ballgame“…)

Yes, the World Series is ended, the Titans are better, but I’m still boycotting the NFL. (I was already boycotting NCAA and High School football long  before reading Malcolm Gladwell… unlike my pal at TPA Saturday, who said football is now his religion.)  But that’s not our topic, multiculturalism is.

As noted yesterday in connection with K. Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, the point is not to deny one’s heritage but to embrace one’s humanity, in all its multi-faceted strangeness and wonder and time-spanning majesty. Do men and women, black and white and red and yellow people, Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists (and atheists and agnostics and humanists and Brights) think differently? Sure. So? You have a problem with that? Why?

Many of us naively thought, a year ago, that the election of Barack Obama signaled the end of our long national nightmare of race hatred. It’s still reasonable to hope that it signaled the beginning of the beginning of the end, perhaps, but clearly we’re not all cosmopolites yet.

Socrates may have been the first announced Cosmopolite in the west, declaring himself a proud and loyal Athenian but also a citizen of the world. Or maybe Diogenes the Cynic. Carl Sagan was one, too: a true cosmopolitan is not just a citizen of the planet, but of the cosmos. We’re travelers in time and space.

And where are the women, in philosophy? “We know of female students in Plato’s Academy and female thinkers in the Middle Ages”– do you know the tragic story of Hypatia?– but indeed, “most of them never got the opportunity to run their own schools, found it hard to have their ideas preserved in writing, and have been written out of the official history of the tradition.” Virginia Held is right, it’s a serious distortion of our humanity to identify it with masculinity. But be careful, feminists (of whom I am one): it’s an equal distortion to exalt femininity above all. The revolution we need is not the overthrow of phallocentrism in favor of its distaff counterpart (I don’t dare play with names here!) but the transcendence (not the annihilation) of gender.

But constructive change has begun to come in this arena too. Plenty of women philosophers were in attendance at the TPA conference over the weekend, there is no reputable department of philosophy anywhere across the land without female faculty.  Here’s a list compiled by the BBC, and here’s another.

And although she’s on nobody’s philosophy faculty, I consider Carl Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan a very good philosopher as well.

[NOTE to students: the dog park ate your homework again this weekend, and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” But take heart: one by one my distractions (excuses?) are falling away. Meanwhile, we can try following Lao-Tzu’s cosmopolitan advice: try not to “force your will on the environment, go with the flow.”]

Coming home

July 6, 2009

Best thing about a holiday, beyond the obvious (that it’s  restful , restorative, life-giving and fun) is the reminder it gives that our ways of living, where and how and why we plow through our days in precisely the ways we do,  are selected or inherited from an array of possibilities. It could all be otherwise.

We know that already, of course, sort of, but bringing the awareness of contingency and possibility to the fore periodically keeps a person flexible and open to the unforeseen and unforeseeable.

Taking a holiday in another place can also deepen your appreciation of other lives and the fact that there are many ways of being human. Of course it can also reinforce your prejudices, if you regard those other lives in a skewed and jaundiced perspective. And you have to make allowances for the tendency, when away, to see the sights through tinted lenses. But still, the small break in routine offers big lessons if we’re receptive. Might even turn us into cosmopolites.

The other great thing about a holiday: appreciating what you’ve got, and seeing it all afresh, when you get home.  Coming home’s the point of it all, in the game of life. Sister Wynona Carr said Jesus is standin’ at home plate, but I’m thinking here more of the old Anglo-St. Louis poet who said,

the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.


It was great to take in the dawn from a different perch for a few days. It’s great to be home. The Ashevillian Tom Wolfe (“you can’t go home again”) was mistaken about that.