Posts Tagged ‘Groundhog Day’

Rising in freedom

March 28, 2013

It’s an exam day, so I’m free to think and talk about whatever I please this morning. In fact, my family’s on Spring Break this week (half of them at the beach), so I’ve been free to alter daily routines in all kinds of ways. Coulda slept in an hour this morning. But I and my dawn habit chose otherwise.

FreeThe Existentialists warn us against the “bad faith” of supposing our freedom merely occasional and intermittent. Like Phil Connors, we’re always free to pound the alarm into submission.

(Thanks for the .gif of endless repetition, Quinlan.) We don’t have to get up, go to work or school, give or take that “miserable” exam James said good students should care less about, the night before.

Then again, freedom really does become dreadfully burdensome when it drives us to subvert our own larger goals and aspirations. Sleeping in and skipping out might feel free today, but how will it feel in six weeks when you get that disappointing course grade? Or in six years, when you still don’t have that degree?

No, when my alarm rings I find it far more constructive to side with the pragmatic defenders of habit, routine, repetition, and the illusion of  personal compulsion. I do “have to” get up, because I’ve already made the choice to live well and be at least as happy as Sisyphus. Existence precedes essence, sure. But who wants only to exist? We want to flourish.

And also, of course, because body clocks are harder to pound into submission than digital alarms.

Where do you want to go today?

March 29, 2010

That was Bill Gates’s old question, not unlike ours in Intro today (as posed by Bob Solomon & Kathy Higgins): “Where to, Humanity? Mill, Darwin, and Nietzsche”… and not unlike the instigating question in next Fall’s new “Future of Life” course.

I worked up a slideshow on this, after discovering the Slideshare tool over the weekend and having no trouble at all putting up my baseball shows. This morning it’s balking. I’ll keep working on it. Meanwhile, the story can be summarized thusly:

J.S. Mill (of his own free will) articulated a vision of human good as a progressive, perpetual  historical expansion of human rights and individual liberties. The only reason for limiting any person’s freedom is in order to protect the freedom of others. His “harm principle” says do your thing, just don’t interfere with anyone else’s right and opportunity to do the same. (And he meant anyone’s, women included. His friend Harriet helped him see the light on that.)

Charles Darwin‘s revolutionary account of evolution by natural selection cast that enterprise in a new light. As Dan Dennett would put it much later, freedom evolves and so do we.  That ought to bode well for Mill’s project and ours. But this suggests a momentous question: Could humans still be evolving? If so, into what? Could we be living some brief, intermediary existence between the “lower” animals and some higher, mightier, or more adaptive creature than ourselves? [Charles & EmmaDawkins & Dennett on D…his birthday and Abe‘s…ScopesBBCPBS]

Enter Fritz Nietzsche, offering the incredible suggestion that human beings were nothing but a bridge between the ape and the Ubermensch. The future of human nature was now called into question. What will we make ourselves, what will humanity become? [Drunk on the ground]

Good question. Is the suggestion really so incredible? Some have found it inspiring, others terrifying. We’ll see if we find it instigating in class.

And we’ll wonder if, in the immortal words of CSNY, we have all been here before. Deja vu all over again, Yogi? Or do we only go around once, and need to grab the gusto while we can? Or was that precisely the point of Fritz’s gift to his shrink? Isn’t it also, btw, what “Phil” learned in Groundhog Day? (Woody in Manhattan, too…)

Hitch

February 2, 2010

(Happy Groundhog Day! Rise and shine, Hitch, it’s time to get out of Punxsutawney. Remember, Phil’s only a god. Not the God…)

Christopher Hitchens is the Bad Boy of New Atheism, the most strident,visible non-accommodationist out there. He stands to Dawkins roughly as T.H. Huxley stood to Darwin, a bulldog and verbal brawler who loves polemical confrontation and takes no prisoners, a lightning rod who seems only more energized by reciprocal jolts of scorn and hostility.

Dawkins is nobody’s wallflower, but next to Hitchens he’s positively courtly.

So it might seem a challenge to find in Hitchens a continuation of the positive theme we’ve been accentuating with all our A&S authors so far. More than anyone, Hitchens has earned the reputation and perpetuated the stereotype of atheist-as-naysayer, and of atheism as  a negative and depleted worldview.

And yet, his editor’s introduction to The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-believer commences with a nod to Albert Camus’ Dr. Rieux (“The Plague”): there are more things to admire in men than to despise. Hitchens is not a misanthrope, he is not Schopenhauer.

A couple of pages on, he’s upholding atheism as the impassioned defender of life in our world:  atheists have always argued that this world is all that we have, and that our duty is to one another to make the very most and best of it. That’s affirming and positive, no?

And: The Golden Rule is innate in us...the miracle is that there are no miracles or other interruptions of a wondrous natural order. We don’t need ’em, nature’s wonder enough. The onus shifts, from this perspective, to those whose “death wish” is to leave it all behind on a wing and a prayer for an unseen heaven. What’s nihilistic about loving the world?

Hitchens reiterates a Dawkins point that really ought to go far towards neutralizing the stereotype: everybody is an atheist in saying that there is a god– from Ra to Shiva– in which he does not believe. All that the serious and objective atheist does is to take the next step and to say that there is just one more god to disbelieve in.

He repeats Jonathan Miller’s analogy (I’ve heard this from Sam Harris too): “I do not have a special word for saying that I do not believe in the tooth fairy or in Santa Claus.” But then, the fans of the tooth fairy do not bang on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. A measure of push-back is in order, he’s saying. That’s not pure negativity, it’s strategy.

Then again, his insisting on the more descriptively-accurate moniker “anti-theist” might be construed as a bit gratuitously aggressive. But there’s a positive rationale, to distinguish his view from that of atheists who say that they wish the fable were true. That’s the utter negation of human freedom, which we should be happy to repudiate.

Human life is worth living, on its own terms. And what lovely terms they are, any one of them enough to absorb a lifetime and none of them implicated in the supernatural or the oppressions of the coercive-communal: the beauties of science and the extraordinary marvels of nature; the consolation and irony of philosophy; the infinite splendors of literature and poetry; the grand resource of art and music and architecture. You can love the Parthenon without joining the cult of Athena.

Hitchens shares Dawkins’ anger about childhood indoctrination, inflicting the terrors of hellfire upon the most innocent, trusting, and vulnerable members of our species. At least the Vatican’s put Limbo on the shelf.

But he also appreciates the power of gentle humor to deconstruct theistic pretense. Why wouldn’t an all-knowing creator reveal some knowledge we might recognize as beyond the ken of uneducated bronze-age shepherds?

Hitchens has no use for Stephen Jay Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria or for theistic evolution in general. Either one attributes one’s presence here to the laws of biology and physics, or one attributes it to a divine design. If you try to have it both ways you must embrace what he caricatures as a most ridiculous scenario: for all these millennia, heaven watched with indifference and then– and only in the last six thousand years at the very least– decided that it was time to intervene as well as redeem… The willingness even to entertain such elaborately mad ideas involves much more than the suspension of disbelief.

Hitchens’ combative posture, let’s admit, makes for entertaining spectacle. But will it succeed strategically, in winning non-theists a more prominent and respected  voice in the public discourse of our times? Can it be balanced and modulated by the more temperate tones of a Sweeney or a Hecht or… or who? Where will the next generation of Sagans and Goulds come from, when the time for armed resistance has passed?

Here he defends the subtitle of his God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Meanings of Life

September 14, 2009

Our next chapter is “The Meaning of Life” (illustrated by “The Death of Socrates,” implying that meaning may come from noble, principled self-sacrifice… but that’s just one example).

I taught a course at Vanderbilt under this title a few years ago. It was mis-labelled. We pondered many meanings, and concluded that many meanings are exactly what accrue to life, every well-lived life. That’s so not only because different individuals and cultures value different objects and ideals, but because each of us– like Woody Allen’s character in “Manhattan”– has  a collection of  things that make life worth living:

The items on his list will not coincide with those on most of ours, but the point to notice is that he and we can make our respective lists, and in the process discover what it is in life that motivates us to get up off our figurative sofas and chase our dreams. Many of us would say that the chase itself is intrinsically meaningful.

Our authors take a different tack, focusing on four alleged sources of meaning that seem to point to something “outside of [people’s] lives” supposed to confer meaning: children, God, a supernatural afterlife, and (paradoxically) absurdity. Option #4 most obviously calls for a leap into the irrational dark, treating meaninglessness as meaningful, somehow. But all of them may defy the demand for a straightforward answer to the Big Question of meaning. All may “postpone” a satisfying response.

Children. The joys of child-rearing do indeed strike many of us as deeply meaningful, though also deeply fraught with risks and disappointments. But in order for parenthood to be meaningful for me, as a parent, it can’t simply be a vicarious hope that our children (or theirs, or Generation x+’s) will find meaning in life. Strictly future meaning is too, well, futuristic.

God. “Belief in God seems only to make the question more urgent; belief does not solve it.” Divine meaning and purpose is not obviously transferable to mortals. Some, though, do appear to be more “god-intoxicated” than others– Spinoza, Calvin, Ned Flanders…

Afterlife. What if “the rewards of [a] next life will be available only to those who live this life to the fullest?” Aren’t we back, then, to Square One?

Absurdity. “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Easier said than swallowed. A meaningless struggle doesn’t fill my heart, though Camus’ car crash was full of poignant irony. What to say, though, about  my interest in team sports? It does often feel absurd to care so much about how it goes for  “my team,” but it also feels like a source of valuable connection to the world and other people, past, present, and future. Maybe life is a ballgame.

Freud is quoted as saying that “the goal of all life is death.” I hope that was a mis-translation. The end is death, the goal is to live. Santayana said there’s no cure for birth and death, “save to enjoy the interval.”

Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” idea offers an intriguing angle on this question. There’s a suggestive typo in our book ( on p. 48) that would skewer the philosopher’s intent: Nietzsche’s view was that the credible meanings of life are internal and natural, not “external” (in the sense of transcendent or other-worldly).  He wants you to ask yourself how you’d handle the supposition that “this life as you now live it and have lived it” is IT. There’s a nice dramatic rendering of this idea in the film “When Nietzsche Wept,” as the philosopher counsels his shrink– Freud’s collaborator Josef Breuer.)

And then, there’s Groundhog Day. Bill Murray returns to Punxsutawney, PA again and again, but not eternally… just till he gets it right. He learns how to live well, treat others respectfully, and  enjoy the present. Then he can leave, happily and with no regrets. That was, after all, the intent of Nietzsche’s “gift.”

So we’re back to Woody. Make your lists.