Posts Tagged ‘John Lachs’

John Lachs and the mystique of teaching

April 12, 2013

John Lachs was charming as always, and as spontaneous, mirthful, elegant-& earthy…

Above all he was fully present with us, for three solid classroom hours on either side of lunch yesterday. And still, he apologized for having to leave for an alumni meeting back at Vandy before our last class.

Refused his honorarium too, insisting on picking up the lunch tab himself. Add generous to the “as always” list.

So many memorable moments of wisdom and insight, discussing consciousness, rectitude, stoicism, pragmatism, music, writing, “progress,” happiness, life and death. “All of life is an experiment.” And, “I’m not a libertarian but I am a friend of liberty.” In the spirit of James, he counsels a “hands off” attitude towards every soul’s birthright and privilege, to be left alone, each to discover their own bliss in their own ways. “One of the great joys of my life is to think…”

The whole scene just really epitomized for me the magic and mystery (and mystique) of my profession, bringing together the wisest and the freshest, spanning seasoned experience and youthful possibility across the generations in potentially life-altering philosophical dialogue. The man who witnessed horrible carnage in the streets of his Hungarian childhood and grew up to become an affirming philosopher of liberty and light, offering his own story to millennial children of the ‘nineties who must learn the lessons of history to avoid repeating its atrocities.

John Dewey’s “continuous human community” was right there on full display in my classrooms yesterday, asking and answering and wondering across the years. The opportunity for such occasions is why we do what we do, we teachers who know ourselves and our charges as links in a chain of indeterminate (but possibly glorious) portent.

On days like yesterday the question is not Why study philosophy?, it’s Why doesn’t everyone?

And for me, personally, it was very special to profess in public the hold on my heart of that wonderful little book with its dual inscriptions: one penned by my late father in the twilight of his days, the other by  my forever-young father figure. This morning I’m inspired and renewed, all over again.

Welcome, John Lachs!

April 11, 2013

JLinLove“There is something devastatingly hollow about the demonstration that thought without action is hollow, when we find the philosopher only thinking it.” John Lachs also said, in Intermediate Man:

“Once attention is shifted from the future and we begin to enjoy activities at the time we do them and for what they are, we have transcended the mentality that views life as a process of mediation toward distant ends.”

And so, “normally it is quite within our power to regard our doings as so many ends. This could render each of our acts self-validating and joyous.”

Dr. L has graciously agreed to drive down from Nashville this morning and help us validate our classes. We’ve begun reading his Stoic Pragmatism  (Indiana, 2012) and have some questions, we MTSU CoPhilosophers:

  • In your book you cite Alfred North Whitehead’s statement that “all of philosophy may well be a series of footnotes to Plato.” Do you agree with this opinion? Why or why not? 
  • Is there a particular philosopher who has influenced the writing of Stoic Pragmatism or any of your other books?
  • Under the section of Ethics, there are three philosophers with different aspects of ethics. Those philosophers are Mill, Kant, and Butler. Do you agree with one of the philosophers over the others? Or do you have a different opinion on the topic?
  • Would you consider Plato and Aristotle the backbone of philosophy since the disagreement between them on the method of philosophy is still with us today? (Evan, H1/4)
  • How can stoic pragmatism be practically applied? (Matthew, H1/3)
  • What is his/your view on happiness?
  • How is the synthesis and analysis of something not considered “producing new knowledge”?
  • What is the relationship between philosophy and religion, and what is your religious stance? (Mason, H1/2)
  • In SP you say “The APA needs to establish a commission to study the full range and effectiveness of philosophy,” do you think this would help start the change in different departments realizing the importance of philosophers and including them on their team and faculty? 
  • You said in your book “Thinkers maintain that philosophy can do everything while others insist it can do nothing… philosophy is a result of other fields,” philosophy is a department that focus is on a variety of different specialties that add a new dimension of analysis on a variety of matters. Why do you think other specialists are not embracing philosophers for their input? (Yusra)
  • How do you think philosophers’ sometimes vastly different opinions from each other will affect the way different professions are guided, as well as the government, if a Council of Ethics is formed? Who will determine what ideas are better than others? 
  • Can you expound on what you mean when you say “philosophy is receptive to religious considerations”? (Keaton)
  • Which Philosopher(s) most impacted your Philosophical career path? 
  • Did you ever believe in something other than Stoic Pragmatism?
  • Would you suggest the younger generation be exposed to more Philosophical studies and concepts? (Katy, 14/1)
  • Where do you think Philosophy is going in the future? Will it  evolve, or stay as it is through time? Does it have a future beyond the university? Alternative jobs in philosophy? (Skye, 14/2)
  • How would you structure the “ideal philosophy distribution” in a university if you had the chance? 
  • Do you consider Philosophy more of a subject or a way of thinking?
  • Do you think that we need to learn by imitation or by experience at our college age? Would the outcomes of our lives be better if we chose one over the other? (H1/4, Evan)
  • How prevalent would you say pragmatism is in American philosophy today?
  • How does pragmatism relate to postmodernism?
  • Where most people find materialism in the US, you describe it somewhat differently: “The truth is that we are in love with the future, worshipping its promise and answering all its demands.” How does this relate to materialistic decisions not based upon the future? You cite the example of people saving for retirement or preparing for the next promotion, but what about people over their heads in credit card debt or drop out of high school?
  • After describing the benefits of pragmatism in one paragraph, you write: “These are the reasons that pragmatism takes the place of lame versions of Marxism and religious thought as the philosophy of hope and effort.” Do religion and pragmatism have similar goals? If so, are they held to the same standards? Do you see pragmatism becoming (or already become) the philosophical basis of American culture, similar to Stoicism in ancient Rome?
  • An essential idea in pragmatism is the possibility of progress. How do we recognize true progress, and how do we then foster it? (Nathan, H1/4)
  • Do you think Stoics would agree that an ‘ugly’ man could be happy (keeping in mind that Aristotle would say no)? How are things like beauty and intelligence and their role in being happy perceived by the Stoics?
  • How would you say that western philosophies deal with social problems differently than more traditional or eastern philosophies?
  • Do you think the Greek Stoics are harder to bring into a modern context?
  • Doesn’t it seem contradictory to believe that every thing that happens is a determined event but then also believe we are capable of having control over the way we react?
  • What is your favorite course to teach at Vandy and why? (Sean, 16)
  • Can philosophy produce public intellectuals today? (Matt G., 16/1)
  • You say you arrived at the position of being a Stoic Pragmatist somewhat recently at the time of your books publication, but how do you know that you won’t change your mind, or clarify your viewpoint further in the future. What makes this instance in your life different than previous times you may have thought you had it figured out? 
  • I forget, but Dr. Oliver, I saw you write our next question down on your notepad so if you could remind me what it was, that would be great haha. Thanks (H1/1, Logan)

Hmmm. I’m not sure I can decipher my own scrawl. Was it the question about epiphenomenalism? Or about philosophizing with children? Or maybe we can just ask Dr. L if he can set me up with his publisher?

Thanks for coming, Dr. L! Most Vandy philosophers must leave there, to discover that I-24 runs  in both directions. But you’ve always been one to meet people where they are.

Postscript, 4.14.13. “Many thanks for the invitation to speak with your students.  I found them smart and inquisitive, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  No honorarium needed; it was an end in itself.”

“The point is to change the world”

November 28, 2012

It’s not enough for an inquisitively industrious species merely to understand, we seek transformation. “We” includes Marxists and pragmatists and eco-activists and maybe even some (pragmatized) stoics. So we turn to John Lachs’ second chapter in Stoic Pragmatism today in CoPhi, and to Ecotopia in EEA. Final report presentations begin as well.

“It is unseemly to question one’s heritage.” I don’t think Lachs really means that, not fully. Philosophy questions everything, especially what’s been passed along without critical assessment. But he’s right to notice that there’s no shaking our origins, even when we manage to rise above them. “You can take the boy out of the country,” the midwest, etc., but if he’s been steeped early in (say) Hegel, as Dewey was, he’ll have a hard time entirely letting go.

My first philosophical collaboration was with undergraduate peers at Mizzou in the ’70s. We hung out on Friday afternoons at Michael’s pub on campus (long gone) and tried to settle the universe’s hash (including one memorable occasion when one of us thought he could prove free will by doing something really stupid with a beer stein). We called ourselves “The Hegel Society” (possibly aping the St. Louis Hegelians of local memory),  and in spite of my developed preference for pragmatism I still can’t help thinking in terms of geist. (But, I no longer think progress is inevitable, or that history often isn’t simply one damned meaningless thing after another).

So… sometimes we reflect our heritage most when we’re trying hardest to distance ourselves from it. Might as well own our starting places, then move on. That’s real growth, the “progressive enrichment of experience and improved control over circumstances” that comes from deep self-knowledge.

Lachs acknowledges his own growth in moving on from his earlier epiphenomenal phase. You can’t change the world if your very consciousness is an ephemeral by-product disengaged from events.  He distances himself as well from Hegel’s detached, owlish, spectatorial stance towards history, and steps up to offer guarded support for Peirce’s focus on the future while holding on to a special fondness for luminous “firsts,” immediacies, and non-verbal experiences. “Delightful absorption” in the present is hard to beat, and “much of what is interesting and truly important in life cannot be put into words.” Philosophers don’t like to admit that, for obvious vocational reasons. We must continually “fire our volley of vocables,” after all. But silence can be golden.

I don’t think, with Lachs, that pure non-verbal presence is “the only spirituality open to nonreligious people”– I still hold a brief for Dewey’s “continuous human community,” in that regard– but it’s right up there.

Lachs is also a friend of progress. “If we do not permit ourselves to suppose that we progress, we ban pragmatism as a mode of thought and a way of life.” Progress is not inexorable or inevitable, as Hegel and some Marxists would once have had it, but it is real. A pair of Steves, Pinker and Johnson, have lately been making this point.

Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) says violence has been in steady decline for quite some time, while Steven Johnson (Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age) says the “networked” present marks the high-water mark (so far) of human achievement. When Sully Sullenberger landed his plane safely in the East River, well, he didn’t land that all by himself. Many humans, many technologies, many evolved support systems were his co-pilots. [Pinker on Social Science Bites with Nigel]

Only time will tell for sure, of course, but I’ll bet not many of us would volunteer to go back and live in an earlier century when medicine was primitive, human intercourse was fierce and brutal, and longevity was predictably brief. What does that tell us?

Such a rich chapter, and I’ve not yet even mentioned Lachs’s mention of my two favorite James essays (“Blindness” and “Moral Philosopher“). Tomorrow, and tomorrow. Speaking of which…

Is “ecotopia” our glorious Tomorrowland? Can we ditch the fossil fuel burners, get off the grid, give up heavy consumerism and the forty-hour workweek, and get on with better lives in the great Pacific Northwest? Doubtful, but for some of us irresistibly alluring (except for the war-games and some of the emotional histrionics and cringe-inducing male casual-sex fantasies). But even if the late Ernest Callenbach‘s vision is all a pure fictional fantasy,

Ecotopia still poses a nagging challenge to the underlying national philosophy of America: ever-continuing progress, the fruits of industrialization for all, a rising Gross National Product.

Well… there’s progress, and then there’s real progress. We need not “give up any notion of progress,” just the debilitating and self-destructive one we’ve been burning at both ends. And we really should give up our traditional and habitual greed, short-sightedness, superstition, ignorance, and fear. Just listen to JL. Just read Callenbach’s last letter.

Will we ever get there, to a genuine and sustainably “stable state” in balance with nature? Surely so, if we can plausibly imagine there will  be a flourishing and recognizably-human civilization still here in a century. Surely not, if we’re committed to keeping on doing what we’ve been doing. We need to commit to something better.

That’s my prediction. Please don’t wake me if I’m wrong. And maybe don’t wake me period. As John Lachs says, there is “something deeply appropriate in dying when our purposes are fulfilled.” And as the other JL would agree: if we want to progress, we really must “clear the field for the next generation.”

Gross national happiness

November 27, 2012

We had a pleasant visit with our esteemed university president yesterday in Environmental Ethics class. He didn’t formally commit to signing the ACUPCC yet, but said he’d study it some more. And he said we were already plenty green, greener, in fact, than most of us know.

He said our new Student Center and Science Building, for instance, are LEED-certified. If that’s true, we should be trumpeting the news. The community needs to hear about it, we need to stand up and get credit for doing the right thing. That’s leading by example, and it’s how real and lasting change comes to a society: via snowball. One small signature can catalyze events. A low profile doesn’t make waves, but it doesn’t make change either. It’s more like an epiphenomenon.

But the president’s parting words were a reminder that ours is a very Red state, and our allotment from the legislature is down 40% from just two years ago. Science Building? We should just be glad we have one at all, and we’d best be careful what they study in there. Better not confirm the reality of climate change.

No, he didn’t say that. He did say we need to plead our case with our elected representatives. So here they are.

In chapter one of Stoic Pragmatism John Lachs (who has never shied away from an opportunity to educate our “leaders” in public, even when he considered himself an epiphenomenalist) repeatedly alludes to the real problems of ordinary human beings as deserving (if not typically taking) priority over the technical problems of philosophers. He notes that

The recently published Encyclopedia of American Philosophy [which he and Rob Talisse co-edited, and to which I was privileged to contribute a couple of modest entries] promises additional resources for leaving what has been called “the linguistic turn” behind and facing at last the multitude of real-life problems that beset us. Many philosophers have already turned in this new direction.

Environmental ethicists and bioethicists have “turned,” for instance. As John Dewey said back in 1917, philosophy will be fully healthy only when its practitioners break free of their self-imposed bubble of specialized scholastic isolation and speak up in public about issues of common concern.

Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men. John Dewey, “The Need for a Recovery in Philosophy”

In this spirit Lachs writes:

The U.S. would be a better nation if, in addition to a Council of Economic Advisors, it also had a Council of Ethics staffed by philosophers.

Now why didn’t I think of that, back when I was serving my term on the American Philosophical Association‘s sub-committee on alternative jobs for philosophers? But he’s right, and I’d add: we need a council to demonstrate ways of enhancing not GDP but GNH, Gross National Happiness. Better appoint some Bhutanese to show us how it’s done. They’ll know where to find a genuinely new direction and “additional resources.” They’re familiar with the geography of bliss. Just leave at least one spot on the Council of Happiness Advisors for a western academician with an interest in the philosophy of happiness.


Stoic pragmatism

November 26, 2012

It’s an exciting day: John Lachs, my old mentor at Vandy, will put in a virtual appearance in CoPhi to kick off our reading of his new book Stoic PragmatismAnd Sidney McPhee, President of our school, will appear  for real in EEA [JUB 202, 2:20 pm] [works by JLwikiJL@dawn/DS]

I hope Dr. M heeds Dr. L’s  main message: “Stoic pragmatists are committed to making life better…” We can’t green the planet or save life on earth all by ourselves, but we can do a lot more than we’ve done to make life in our small corner of it better. And greener. There’s a lot we can do to exemplify sustainable forms of life.

Leading by example is what John Lachs is all about.

That’s the public Berry Lecture Lachs delivered at Vanderbilt last February, drawn from chapter three and described in this space as characteristically crisp, elegant, and insightful. “The limits of human capacity and the vagueness of the ideal make attainment of perfection impossible, yet its lure ruins our satisfaction with what is clearly excellent and therefore good enough.” He’s not calling for mediocrity or laziness, but he is calling us to pursue our happiness and our ideals with a measure of stoically-informed common sense. Our standards of excellence must be ours, and thus must be imperfect. Plato would object, but he was of course an unrealistic metaphysician. Perfection was always an illusion, in Forms and Gods alike. [“An Imperfect God,” nyt] Some Christian fundamentalists even imagine God will wreck our economy, for our own good.  Or (as Van Jones tweets) that the “end times” are nigh “and we’ll all be forced to become Muslims.” That’s definintely not good enough, I’d say.

I first met Lachs as a “green” (in this context meaning inexperienced, not environmentally attuned)  grad student back when we both were young. Long story short: his interest in the American pragmatists James and Dewey, like his general joie de vivre,  was infectious. I committed to working under his tutelage on a Dewey-centered dissertation that ultimately transmuted into a celebration of James’s philosophy (with just a side of Dewey). I gave up on my project more than once. He never did. He’s a prince, a model, an inspiration, and a continuing fount of wisdom. That’s what somebody says at amazon, anyway.

Lachs writes:

Age clarifies… the arrival of self-recognition warrants celebration… only recently [have] I managed to characterize my attitude to life as that of a stoic pragmatist… The great question we face again and again is how long to pursue our goals with all our energy and when to pack it in… pragmatists are unlikely ever to give up, while stoics may acquiesce too soon.

I’m really glad I caught Lachs in a pragmatic mood, back in grad school. I was an accidental stoic before my time, when I really needed to be engaged with discovering what I could still do, not complacently settling for what I’d already done. Thanks to his strong shot of pragmatic encouragement– I fondly recall his cheerleading emails, as I labored over the final lines of my final chapter, imploring me to “go go go!!!“– I’m where I am today, not looking to pack anything in just yet, looking for others (like President M) to encourage in turn.

And like my teacher I’m happy, in all my delighted finitude, to be here.

Equal time for Isocrates?

August 9, 2012

Speaking of  cosmopolitanism:

The impulse to break free of narrow, confining, ultimately arbitrary partisan affiliations of nation, party, sect, ethnicity, etc. etc. etc., and link one’s personal fortunes to the much larger “tribes” of humanity, life, and existence itself is at bottom the fundamental engine of philosophy. That’s my view, that’s what I’ll again be trying to “profess” in various ways, with various texts and talks, when the bell rings for the new semester in a couple of weeks.

This time I’ll be doing it in the Intro course with new texts, finally setting Robert Solomon’s Passion for Wisdom aside and featuring first, in this Olympian season, a distinctively Anglo angle from Nigel Warburton (A Little History, Philosophy Bites). Then, we’ll swim back across the pond for John Lachs’s Stoic Pragmatism.

Philosophy begins in wonder, and traditionally Socrates is one of the standard-bearers of that state of mind. But I’m wondering what to do with Carlin Romano‘s startling plea for equal time for Socrates’ overlooked and underappreciated countryman Isocratesdismissed by many as a mere sophist and rhetorician much more than a single letter away from socratic status.

Cosmopolitan in outlook, Isocrates, much as he revered Athens, viewed the Greek-speaking (and, one might say, Greek—thinking) world as far larger than one’s own city… Isocrates’s cultural Panhellenism [was] a “brotherhood of culture, transcending the bounds of race,” so that the description of “Greek,” in Isocrates’s words, “is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood.

That’s not the full measure of transcendence we need, unless “our culture” means something a lot more pan- than Hellenic. Or American. On my view we’re all going to have to stop counting medals and waving flags and tearing up at anthems and chanting “U-S-A” just because some of our nearer neighbors have mastered the breaststroke or can spike a volleyball.

But, it’s a step. More to wonder at.

A conversation for all ages

June 1, 2012

It’s a gloomy cool morning but that’s more than offset by the compensating brilliance of the occasion here: it’s  Younger Daughter’s birthday. She treated me to breakfast at IHOP yesterday, now it’s my turn to flip the flapjacks for her and her sleepover party pals. Oh, to be so young and free again.

“Age clarifies,” begins John Lachs in his just-published Stoic PragmatismClarity is a wonderful gift, but so is youthful indeterminacy. So many still-untested hypotheses, so many experiments yet to try, so much fun on the horizon.

The spirit of youth is indefatigable “can do” energy and enthusiasm. Age is more realistic, having tried and succeeded and failed at so much more. The two, age and youth, have things to tell one another. Too bad each tends to think it already knows it all. “I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors,” snarled young Henry Thoreau. Kids  these days, they rejoined. We rejoin. Why don’t you pick up your room?! (And then, as Ron Padgett reminds, then save the world.)

I certainly don’t dispute the practical wisdom of stoic pragmatists who know, with Lachs, that “there’s nothing infinite about us.” But I still envy the young their intrepdity, from which I daily draw practically-infinite encouragement and inspiration. They remind me of my own misplaced sense of sky-high possibility.

Henry’s whole statement on this matter, so delightfully and so youthfully over the top:

What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new… Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

Yes, it’s way over the top. I began hearing valuable, earnest advice from my mentor John Lachs before I was thirty and I’m still hearing it. Some of it has finally registered. I’ll pass it along to my Intro students in the Fall. If they read carefully, they’ll hear much more than a cautionary  warning not to repeat the hubris of Ozymandias.

True enough, from dust we arose and to dust we’ll return. But within those natural boundaries there’s plenty of room to roam, and so many ways to find our personal, familial, communal, and social delights, to be good (or “good enough,” as Lachs likes to say) and to be happy. How to do it, and how to allow others the respectful autonomy to do it too, is a conversation for all ages.

A joyful wisdom

May 24, 2012

The past is the past, but the future can be a Long Now. That’s what Faulkner really meant to say, whether he knew it or not.

But I wonder if he knew or approved of John Dewey‘s view?

We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. [More Dewey quotes]

That’s a Stoic attitude. (See Marcus Aurelius.) All these guys were Stoics of one sort or another, as John Lachs first taught me many years ago. Life is for the living, in an expanding and inclusive present that continually renews itself day after day, year after year.  Stoics have their dreams, but also their responsibilities.

And as William Irvine says, Stoics can have their fun too. Stoics for life possess a joyful wisdom.

more than good enough

March 31, 2012

Yesterday’s baseball conference was a hit. My own humble presentation on “the meaning of life,” featuring lines from the eponymous baseball poetry and prose of Donald Hall and William Carlos Williams, was serendipitously followed by a last-minute program change.

Former ad-man and Mizzou grad school dropout Mark Sickman spoke of the “emergence of baseball poetry in hip hop and the blogosphere,” pointed us to his slick new baseball poetry website, and gave us all this pretty picture & poem.

The early session on Art of Fielding was terrific, but I had to ask Shawn O’Hare of Carson-Newman College (“Baseball as Narrative Metaphor”) how he could possibly have been “born a Mets’ fan” as he insisted. I have no doubt he was indoctrinated as one, like David Brooks, just as I was indoctrinated to love and not question my team in St. Louis (See slide #12).

I don’t think Shawn quite grasped the distinction.

But he did offer real insight into Chad Harbach’s rookie novel, as did Steve Andrews of Grinnell. Art of Fielding is all about striving for perfection and inevitably falling short, learning to accept mortality and failure as inescapable in every human life including the most artful.

It’s about discovering the Aristotelian “auto-telic” dimension of life, about doing things for the intrinsic satisfaction of doing them and not for their instrumental rewards. It’s about persevering, practicing, not over-thinking:  something all academics need to remember, especially at an academic conference about overpaid twenty-somethings who have little life-wisdom to share.

As Roger Angell said to James Earl Jones’s pontifical recluse writer in Field of Dreams who implied that baseball might very well be the meaning of life: “Get a grip.”

No, if you want meaning from baseball you’re well-advised not to try squeezing it from the empty gourds of athletes like Pete Rose, who (as Steve told us) admitted that he didn’t read and so hadn’t considered the life-lessons he might have taken from others’ ethical lapses before committing his own and landing in “my prison without bars.”

I love what legendary (though fictional) Card shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez said: “It always saddens me to leave the field.” It felt to him like death.

It always saddens me to leave the last session of the Baseball Conference. But it doesn’t feel like death to me, it feels like the beginning of another season in the sun. Play ball! It ain’t over ’til it’s over, etc.  It’s not a perfect game, but as John Lachs and Roger Kahn have said, it just might be good enough. And as always, I already can’t wait for next year.

Good enough for greatness

February 24, 2012

My old teacher John Lachs delivered this year’s inaugural Berry Lecture at Vanderbilt last night. “Why is Good Enough not Good Enough for Us?” It was just as I’ve come to expect of his talks through the years, thoughtful and elegant and crisply performed. It spurned Platonism, the impossible and stultifying “pursuit of perfection” which he said

 is not the search for something definite and well-known. The limits of human capacity and the vagueness of the ideal make attainment of perfection impossible, yet its lure ruins our satisfaction with what is clearly excellent and therefore good enough.

This isn’t the “good enough” of Lake Wobegon, where things could always be worse, but the genuine good of areth [aretê] that ought to be enough to fill our hearts and entice our eagerness for the morrow. But most of us fall prey to perfectionism at one time or another, and cheat ourselves of the life satisfactions we’ve earned.

After the talk I asked Lachs if he’d seen Moneyball. He hasn’t. But consider the case of poor Billy Beane, Oakland Athletics General Manager. Incapable of relishing his small-market team’s record-setting win streak or his own unorthodox contributions to that achievement, he’s a “perfect” illustration of  Lachs’s thesis. The A’s didn’t win the Big One at season’s end, so the perfectionist GM considered himself and his team a failure. He couldn’t give himself a moment’s pause to mark and remember their remarkable success.

In A&P yesterday afternoon we heard from Daniel about another sort of perfectionist, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Uber-prophet who came too soon. Forever too soon, for the humans he thought “all too human.” Fritz was not much of a team player, but  there are legions of Nietzscheans among us still. I considered myself one, back in my early days of grad school before discovering Willy James’s less antipathetic humanism.

I do like Nietzsche’s impulse, manifest in his “gift” of eternal recurrence, to find our permanent life in nature good enough and affirm its perpetual return. But the discipline of sublimated  self-overcoming he preached and roughly practiced is too stern and self-denying for my taste. The so called will to power, the “striving to transcend and perfect oneself,” is an example of what Lachs called

our Faustian tendency to want to have and do everything… our compulsion to pursue unreachable ideals [in] the eternal dissatisfaction that permeates Western industrial society.

Reach for the stars, by all means, but as Casey Kasem used to say as he counted down to #1, keep your feet on the ground.The “good enough” perspective “substitutes joy in the immediacies of life for all-encompassing guilt.” Of course we should all be doing what we can to ameliorate the suffering and sadness that afflict so many, and not only those in our own back yard.  The Peter Singers of the world may ask too much of us, but those to whom much is given have much to give back. We need to have an answer. And yet…

This world as we know it really is more than good enough. It might even be great, like those post-lecture beers at Blackstone’s. Just wish I’d remembered to phone home. But nobody’s perfect.