Posts Tagged ‘Emerson’

“We must cultivate our gardens”

May 31, 2013

My wife has many talents I do not share, including the proverbial master gardener’s “green thumb.” I’ve never tried to compete, have in fact evaded and tried to escape the whole earth-scratching, seed-planting, weed-yanking, endless-summer-watering routine. I’ve pretty much ceded that turf to her, with an Emersonian shrug. My version of transcendental domesticity also craves mobility and freedom, leaving the nurture of non-sentient life to better hands.

I delight in long free walks. These free my brain and serve my body. . . . But these stoopings and scrapings and figurings in a few square yards of garden are dispiriting, driveling, and I seem to have eaten lotus, to be robbed of all energy, and I have a sort of catalepsy, or unwillingness to move, and have grown peevish and poor-spirited.

And yet, for reasons still mysterious to me, this spring I decided I’d try and tend a tiny plot of earth. Don’t know why. But it was with real pleasure and anticipation that I stooped to the work of preparing the ground near my back porch and the old shed to host a pair of petunia plants, one white, one purple. “To garden well,” as Michael Pollan says, “is to be happy amid the babble of the objective world, untroubled by its refusal to be reduced by our ideas of it, its indomitable rankness.”

I’m trying.

Wish I’d taken a picture, before the ravenous rabbits arrived to devour my work.


Daunted but not defeated, I’ve gone to a hanging basket of impatiens. So far, so good.


But if my garden fails to grow I’ll be philosophical about it and just walk away.

Then I’ll walk back in an hour, to the pool.

And then to that hammock.

Where I’ll write a book this summer.

Nice work if you can get it.

Affecting the quality of the day

March 30, 2013

Well that was interesting: logged on as usual but, for the first time in 1K+ dawns, was met by an ominous “Oops” from wordpress. “Small system error” etc. (??!!)

Small death, more like. (Just watched Princess Bride the other night with Older Daughter, Mandy Patinkin’s “prepare to die” still echoing with fresh awful resonance.) The set and comforting habit of a thousand dawns does not die quietly. I’ve heard tales of blogs mysteriously disappearing into the void, never to be recovered.

But not today, thank goodness. “Refresh” worked. (Hope I’ve been doing the “export” backup correctly.)

So what I was just about to say, before the “system” so rudely interrupted…

If the days are gods, Emerson must’ve known, they’re not clones of the Judeo-Christian god: they’re not officially “all good.” A case could be made, though, for the worst of them fitting Dawkins’  description.

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

(What a confrontation he and He might have at the Pearly Gates, as cleverly imagined here.)

No, the day-gods are Greek and Roman: powerful, unpredictable, delightful, terrible, capricious, reassuring, painful, pleasant, emotional, disconnected, willful, forgiving, mean, generous, dreary, sunny, short, long, busy, boring, creative, sluggish.

And at daybreak, whenever we rise to meet them, they’re still always full of challenge and possibility. And for us too, most important of all, they’re mortal. Hence the deep wisdom of Henry’s  observation: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Affecting the quality of the day is how we mortals pursue happiness, or don’t. The quality of my day was elevated yesterday by a few things, lunch with Older Daughter at Woodlands not least. Then the pleasure of assembling a flyer for PHIL 3160, The Philosophy of Happiness, for which students at my school will soon be registering in droves. Then Jon Miller and the Giants on the MLB channel from SF, stoking my eager anticipation of another season in the sun.

If the days are gods, what does that make Opening Day?

Ralph, Bart, & Jesus

December 14, 2012

I thought it was pretty much all over but the grading, except for one last exam yesterday. But we also had one last report presentation: Jesus!

Jacob, standing by his man and citing C.S. Lewis’s weird and cryptic statement about prophets who claim to be poached eggs etc., said we finally have just three basic belief options:

  • Jesus was not who he claimed to be, God (the, not just a… like Phil Connors) and he knew it. Or,
  • He was sincere but deluded. Or,
  • He was the real deal.

Well, I told the class, at least two more options leap instantly to mind: he was misrepresented, and he was misunderstood. Call them the Ehrman* and Emerson options, respectively.

Ehrman contends that the New Testament is riddled with contradictions about the life of Jesus and his significance. He has provided compelling evidence that early Christianity was a collection of competing schools of thought and that the central doctrines we know today were the inventions of theologians living several centuries after Christ.  Commonwealth Club

Ehrman has lived those contradictions. He was “born again” at 15 in Kansas (where he was a pal of my colleague Mike Hinz, btw, which is why Bart spoke on our campus February before last), a religion student at arch-conservative Moody Bible College (where all his teachers were required to sign an oath to represent only one perspective on the question of Biblical literalism and “inerrancy”), Wheaton College, and Princeton, and a devout Christian well into his career at Chapel Hill. The problem of suffering ultimately disabused him of his faith and made him a “heretic.” He came to understand that we shouldn’t follow anyone or anything with unwavering, unquestioning obeisance. We’re all individuals. We all have to think for ourselves.

rweJesus Christ estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! …`This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man’ …He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain. Emerson, “Divinity School Address

We could do a course on this Emersonian sort of naturalized religious sensibility. Throw in the Jefferson Bible, along with some other ways of moving naturalism forward. Some Jamesian pluralism, some Deweyan natural piety, some humanistic science.

Maybe we will.

*Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed  the Bible and Why

Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible

Forged: Writing in the Name of God-Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer

Grace, courage & wisdom

September 14, 2012

As I was saying: freedom to think what you want to think, when you want to think it – an inner life, in other words – is one of our very most prizable possessions.  Pulling your own strings from the inside, as it were, no matter what else may be going on out there beyond your reach: that’s stoic freedom.

And that’s the Stoics’ fundamental presumption, mirrored in William James’s attentive version of free will. More on that later in CoPhi, when we pick up John Lachs’ Stoic Pragmatism.

Inner freedom so expressed is a variant on a familiar prayer for serenity as something reasonable to pray, work, and strive for.

May we have grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things we can and should, and wisdom to know the difference.

There are different versions of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer, but the core of it is a stoically steely resolve to focus one’s energies on what might actually be responsive to them. Instead, we too frequently squander time and tranquility trying to move immovable objects and then go crazy when they resist our wills.

I don’t pray, myself, except in a quasi-Emersonian way.

Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul… But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness.

Quasi, I say, because unlike Emerson I don’t toss the term “god” around lightly, and wouldn’t presume to channel His or It’s spirit in my own soliloquies. I think (and feel) those to be my own self-reliant affair. The sort of prayer that takes to bended knee and beseeches god(s) for favor, on the other hand, feels servile and phony to me. I’m not very churchable.

But I do endorse The Sage’s refusal to beg for cheap and selfish ends. All worthy actions are prayerful in a nobler sense, for a truly free and natural earthly spirit. “The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar…”

Or how about the prayer of the cyclist arched over his bike? I “prayed” before class yesterday, all the way from Percy Priest Dam to the Shelby Bottoms Bridge. I felt free, and full of grace.

And then at 3 am I felt cramps below the knees. Too late to hope or pray I die before I get old, though that was never my preference anyway.

So today it’s back on the bike, continuing to pedal-pray for courage and wisdom. And luck. And a foot massage would be nice. I’m not begging, just puttin’ it out there.


Postscript, 8:30 a.m., Percy Warner Park, “Inspiration Point”-

From a seed, fields of dreams


Circles rippling outward

August 22, 2012

Another reason to read, write, & walk: to expand the circles of our imaginative attachment to the world. “The eye is the first circle,” observed Emerson. “The horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end.” 

Emerson understands education as a process of enlargement, in which we move from the center of our being, off into progressively more expansive ways of life… such rippling outward happens every day, too, as when a child leaves her family and goes out into the painful, promising world of school. Then the child’s circle of knowing has to expand to meet the new circumstances, or she’ll suffer for it. Mark Edmundson

Spent most of the morning yesterday discussing the “rippling outward” Older Daughter will soon commence, as she and we go deeper into the college selection process. The good news, our counselor advised, is that there are so many good schools out there. Her “transition” promises to be an exciting growth opportunity, no matter who she chooses or who chooses her.

Same goes for the commencement of a brand-new school year for me. Convocation is on Friday, followed by the first departmental staff meeting. (The growth opportunity there, if anyone asks me, lies in shrinkage: less is more.)

And then, classes begin anew. We’ve again come full circle.

Round and round we go. Maybe this is the circuit when we’ll really know our place better at the end, which of course is always also the next beginning. Walk on.

Where to, humanity?

October 3, 2011

Cards & Phils are all tied up, 4-4, in the 6th inning of Game #2 (we’ll not talk about Game #1), as I sit down on Sunday night to think about Monday’s class. Mill, Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, Dewey, James… they were all evolutionists, but were any of them baseball fans? Well, Mill was a cricketer, Nietzsche a “footballer.” Dewey praised the “tense grace of the outfielder.” One of James’s students tried to interest him in the game once, without success:

Morris Rafael Cohen records, “When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote ‘The Moral Equivalent of War‘ I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations.”

And that’s a good segue to Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche. All were concerned, in one way or another, with the prospective greatness of humanity. A common misunderstanding of Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis had him defending the “survival of the fittest” ethos as social policy. But Darwin was no Social Darwinist, preferring instead the cooperative liberal vision of his countryman Mill.

And then there’s Nietzsche, heralding the Ubermensch (“I teach you the Overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”), aspiring to a personal future “beyond good and evil,” heaping scorn and abuse on comfortable “couch potato” English values (like democracy and “utility”), and insisting that hardship is the cost of greatness.

Nietzsche liked Emerson, and his “self-reliance.” The “Divinity School Address” must have pleased him too, with its repudiation of Judeo-Christian(-Islamic) supernaturalism and “monstrous distortion” of Jesus’ message that our life is a natural miracle, “one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Nietzsche read German translations of Emerson’s essays, copied passages from “History” and “Self-Reliance” in his journals, and wrote of the Essays: that he had never “felt so much at home in a book.” Emerson’s ideas about “strong, overflowing” heroes, friendship as a battle, education, and relinquishing control in order to gain it, can be traced in Nietzsche’s writings. Other Emersonian ideas-about transition, the ideal in the commonplace, and the power of human will permeate the writings of such classical American pragmatists as William James and John Dewey. SEP [affinity]

Thoreau reputedly lived a lot like Nietzsche, in (relative) hermetic isolation. But did you know that during his sojourn at Walden pond, on property owned by Emerson, he made regular town-rounds and dropped his laundry off at Mom’s? [pics]

Peirce imagined the ideal end of intellectual history, defining truth as the view destined to be agreed upon. “Agreement” is not a term often associated with Nietzsche.

And what did James think of Nietzsche? Lumped him with Schopenhauer as a pair of rats, and pitied “poor Nietzsche’s antipathies.”

(5-4 Cards in the  7th…)

Are We Still Evolving?… Darwin & friendsEvolution & cooperationbest idea evermeanings evolvebest way to begin each day (Nietzsche?!)… nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach yainto thin air (Nietzsche on hardship)…recurrence (“When N. Wept”)… “I am dynamite

NOTE TO STUDENTS: We’ll finish PW this week. On Monday & Tuesday,

M 3 PW 104-113. Mill & Darwin, Nietzsche, Emerson & Thoreau, Peirce & Dewey, James.

And note: next week it’s time to declare your report intentions: solo or collaborative, presentation or essay, and what’s your topic? Signups on the 10th & 11th.

See you all in class.

PostscriptCards win!

I wonder: does an interest in spectator sports help or hinder the evolution of our species? This morning my feeling is, if the future has no MLB postseason I don’t want to go. “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie…”

In reality there is no “I, Me, or Mine”

September 22, 2011

We’re smack in the middle of our reading of Ricard’s Happiness, the chapters concerned with the “poisonous” emotions. (Co-Phi students of Stoicism, take note.) Desire, hatred, and envy stand out, and stand between us and our happiness. But fortunately they can be tamed, according to Ricard.

You can understand a lot about how Buddhists propose to tame the beast of emotional insecurity by attending closely to George Harrison’s wonderful song I, Me, Mine. It’s his life-story too.

“George was always quick to point out that in reality there is no I, Me, or Mine…”

All thru’ the day I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
All thru’ the night I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Now they’re frightened of leaving it
Ev’ryone’s weaving it,
Coming on strong all the time,
All thru’ the day I me mine.

I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine.

All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Even those tears I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
No-one’s frightened of playing it
Ev’ryone’s saying it,
Flowing more freely than wine,
All thru’ Your life, I me mine.

I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine,
I-I-me-me mine.

All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
Even those tears I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
No-one’s frightened of playing it
Ev’ryone’s saying it,
Flowing more freely than wine,
All thru’ your life I me mine.

So what remains, if we let go our hold on ego and self and its possessions? What are we trading in for, if we sing along with the lads? Not other thing-substitutes, surely.

No. We’re going for a feeling here, a feeling not unlike Emerson’s in Nature. William James called it, paradoxically, the sentiment of rationality. Andre Comte-Sponville offers an apt analogy (which will betray the reason for my attraction to his book):
You are taking a walk… You feel great. It started out as an activity for recreation or exercise… and then it gradually turned into something else– a subtler, deeper, nobler pleasure. Something like an adventure, but an interior one. Or like an experience, but a spiritual one. You wish for nothing other than the step you are taking at the very moment you take it, nothing other than the landscape as it is, at this very instant, with a bird emitting its cry, another bird taking wing, the strength you feel in your calves, the lightness in your heart and the peace in your soul… This is plenitude.
This plenitude: Is it rationality? Is it sentiment? Is it real? Is it sufficient?
It might be happiness, yours or mine, but that’s for each of us to experience at first hand for ourselves. “Experience as a whole is self-containing and leans on nothing…” This is a humanist’s happiness, naturalized and personalized. Maybe it is, as James avers, the essence of humanism.
But, without a solid ego at the core? I need to hear George’s next verse.
NOTE TO Co-Phi STUDENTS: A small fly in our Clicker ointment… the online tutorials indicate that we’re going to need to reformat our powerpoint slides, in order to get them to work with the clickers. So, I’m offering extra credit to anyone who’ll work on that for us.  JPO

Writing advice from the Sage of Concord

April 23, 2011

For all those students busily assembling final essays this weekend, and everyone else in search of a muse:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, though his own prose style is not to everyone’s taste, had useful advice about perseverance and perspective. He tried to inspire the “meek young men in libraries” who felt cowed by the legend of the virtually-present authors there, reminding them that “Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.”

I don’t suppose most of the young men and women hunched over their keyboards nowadays do most of their scholarship in the library anymore, but the point is still valid: find your own voice, nobody else can do that for you. As for the Sage himself,

Out of his own repeated failures—from which, however, he arose each morning ready to try again—Emerson carved sentences of useful, practical advice…

The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say. Good writing and brilliant conversation are perpetual allegories.

All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word…

All that can be thought can be written.

That last statement may seem daunting, and may defy the mystic’s (and Jamesian’s) claim that all cannot be converted to words. But like it or not, when it’s time to write your essay you can’t be a mystic.

There’s more sound advice in Robert Richardson’s First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process.

And there’s plenty of good kick-in-the-pants inspiration in Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work. 

It’s about getting off your behind and starting something. And once you start, you have to finish; you don’t get off the hook half way through.

Overcome your “Resistance,” face down your fear, write good words, drop the dead ones. You can do it. You can. Five pages is nothing, really. (But it is your minimum, STUDENTS.)

Have fun. Do the work. And when it’s time for a break, check out this wonderful little TED Talk about keeping it all in the right perspective. No plane-crashes today.

Chris Anderson on “On Point”


February 9, 2011

Continuing with Red Alert!- Repeated reminders of the collaborative, related quality of indigenous knowledges (it’s always pluralized here) are supposed to innoculate us against the hubris of thinking ourselves the Creators or world-makers.

Wildcat renounces “New Age secrets” and romantic tribal mythology, but also the “hard-fact skeptics” who doubt the very concept of relational and collaborative knowledge co-created with our non-human confreres. Is he stepping on your toes with any or all of that renunciation? There definitely has developed an undeniable affinity between friends of earth-centered native wisdom and many New Age types.  There’s been enough native resistance to proselytizing protestants, too, to cheer a freethinker.

Just in case “New Age” is unclear, here’s the sort of thing I have in mind:

And, of course,

[The Secret Behind the SecretQuantum Quackery]

Inter-species communication with animals” is cool, but do we really have anything vital to communicate to one another? All I seem to get from my dogs and cat is “feed me-feed me…” But prairie-dogs apparently have more to say, at least amongst themselves. [Krulwich, PrairiedogeseRadiolab]

Is knowledge really  a gift? I’m still captivated, I s’pose, by the western bias of thinking that nature’s secrets have to be pried away. I’m always grateful to the hard-working scientists who do the prying, but have a hard time finding others to thank.

“Linear temporal universal history” & “progress and civilization” have fallen into disfavor with historians and sociologists of knowledge, but what takes their place? Is Peirce’s “ideal end of inquiry” too linear and progressive? [Talisse on Peirce & Dewey] How about Emerson’s “circles”, a nice complement to Black Elk’s.

We’ve got wind to burn, but the water’s drying up and running out in the desert. Can all those Phoenicians and Tucsonites be resettled in the Great Plains?

I like this Menominee creation story, but 7 generations won’t cover the transition from four legs to two. Seriously: what’s wrong with the “epic of evolution” as our universal human creation story? It’s everybody’s.

We were talking about Protagoras and his infamous “man is the measure” statement in Intro yesterday. I really don’t find it arrogant, or relativistic. Relationalistic, sure. But there’s not a problem with that, is there?

I love that Wildcat is prepared to enlist John Dewey as an honorary indigenous philosopher, on the trouble with nature-culture dualism and other unsustainable dichotomies.

Are we weeds? David Quammen (“Planet of Weeds“) thinks maybe so.

If the world’s air is clean for humans to breathe but supports no birds or butterflies, if the world’s waters are pure for humans to drink but contain no fish or crustaceans or diatoms, have we solved our environmental problems? Well, I suppose so, at least as environmentalism is commonly construed. That clumsy, confused, and presumptuous formulation “the environment” implies viewing air, water, soil, forests, rivers, swamps, deserts, and oceans as merely a milieu within which something important is set: human life, human history. But what’s at issue in fact is not an environment; it’s a living world…

we might reasonably imagine an Earth upon which, 10 million years after the extinction (or, alteratively, the drastic transformation) of Homo sapiens, wondrous forests are again filled with wondrous beasts. That’s the good news.

I’ve always thought some weeds are attractive enough, though. If we take appropriate steps to begin reclaiming and reconstructing our humble place in nature, and squeeze back in to our corner of the “Big Picture,”  maybe we’re weeds Mother Earth can tolerate.

Finally, James Lovelock gets a shout-out. He’ll be shouting back, when we get to his Vanishing Face of Gaia. Its ominous subtitle: a final warning.


December 31, 2010

Here I sit at my Dad’s old dining room table, gazing out onto the patio where we sat and spoke of final things in 2008… when it was clear to us all that his leukemia was finally non-negotiable. It’s one of my best memories of him, that afternoon in the glorious May sunshine when all pretenses were dropped and we admitted to one another that neither of us could possibly know if there was another side where we’d meet again “up yonder.” Total honesty in the face of inexorably real human finitude was tonic, parting was such sweet sorrow.

So here we all sit, at another year’s end. What to say? I like what Pico Iyer says in his introduction to The Best Spiritual Writing of 2010. The “spiritual,” which he reminds us was spurned as a term (not as experience) by “our most soaring celebrant of spirit, Emerson,” is

in our daily lives, or it is nowhere; it is in our breathing in and out, and in the space where we leap and don’t know what we’ll find

Spirituality– or happiness or daylight– exists precisely where we didn’t think to look for it.

Well, I guess I’ll continue looking. In 2011.

Happy New Year.