Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

What the Stoics have done for us

January 31, 2013

It’s a terse and breezy reading assignment in CoPhi today, on the Stoics EpictetusCicero, and Seneca. Should leave students plenty of time to do some extra research and fill out the meaning and context of these squibs:

 ’Being philosophical’ simply means accepting what you can’t change, for instance the inevitable process of growing older and the shortness of life.

‘Stoic’ came from the Stoa, which was a painted porch…

Like the Sceptics, Stoics aimed for a calm state of mind. Even when facing tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, the Stoic should remain unmoved. Our attitude to what happens is within our control even though what happens often isn’t.

Stoics think we are responsible for what we feel and think. We can choose our response to good and bad luck… They believe emotions cloud reasoning and damage judgment.

Epictetus started out as a slave. When he declared that the mind can remain free even when the body is enslaved he was drawing on his own experience.

The brevity of life and the inevitability of aging were topics that particularly interested Cicero and Seneca.

Cicero said old people can spend more time on friendship and conversation. He believed the soul lived forever, so old people shouldn’t worry about dying. [Epicurus already told us they needn’t worry in any event.]

For Seneca the problem is not how short our lives are, but rather how badly most of us use what time we have.

The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse… studying philosophy and get[ting] rid of those troublesome emotions.

[“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“… Seneca on anger (de Botton)]

But Nigel Warburton‘s question is on target: at what price? If you’re even half human, like Mr. Spock, you’ll only damage yourself by suppressing your affective side. Calm may not be the greatest good, after all.

Anyway, Roman philosophy is under-rated. The Romans have done a lot for us.

And not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

We also give a listen today to Alexander Nehemas on friendship. He says the imperative of personal loyalty “can’t be accommodated within the constraints of morality,” and sometimes should be allowed to trump moral values. I’ll be interested to hear of instances in which any of us have perceived a conflict between our values and our friends, and of how we’ve resolved them.  Ever had a Huck Finn moment, an “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” resolution of a conflicted conscience?

Well, Huck was no Epicurean. He still credited hell as a plausible possibility. But even an Epicurean can face down the moral equivalent of hell, the misapprobation of one’s nurturing community. No one wants to be cast out of The Garden, but in the end you have to be able to live with yourself before you can be a really good communitarian.

And, to be a good communitarian you also have to be a good citizen of the earth. Paul Hawken reminds us that knowing our way around our natural habitat is a prerequisite of responsible and civilized citizenship. “Living within the biological constraints of the earth may be the most civilized activity a person can pursue, because it enables our successors to do the same.” But we mostly fail on that score, in the industrialized world. We live like Oncelers, not like friends of the earth.

We have little understanding of where our water and food come from, the impacts of our cars and homes, the activities undertaken by others around the globe to support our lifestyle, and the effects we have on the environment and its people. Blessed Unrest

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not. The Lorax

All right, then, we’ll go to hell too. Unless we wise up, as Huck would say, right quick, and go whole hog for our biotic community, our home and host the world.

“What is philosophy?”

January 22, 2013


That’s a funny question, apparently. Several of our Philosophy Bites respondents respond by simply laughing, or changing the subject, or stonewalling. “Philosophy is an unusual subject in that its practitioners don’t agree what it’s about.” No kidding. That may be the understatement of the millennium. Gathering philosophical consensus amongst professional philosophers is a lot like herding cats.

But a few common themes do emerge: the quest for clarity, as my colleague the pragmaticist (sic.) would insist. The Sellarsian urge to see how things hang together. (I met Sellars once, after he gave a talk at my undergrad alma mater. He wasn’t hanging together too well, he and Quine in the kitchen.) The stubborn refusal to accept convention and common sense without a critical challenge.

A few of the cats’ meows:

Richard Bradley: “Philosophy is 99 per cent about critical reflection on anything you care to be interested in.”

Clare Carlisle: “Most simply put it’s about making sense of all this . . . We find ourselves in a world that we haven’t chosen. There are all sorts of possible ways of interpreting it and finding meaning in the world and in the lives that we live.”

Donna Dickenson: “Philosophy is what I was told as an undergraduate women couldn’t do—by an eminent philosopher who had best remain nameless. But for me it’s the gadfly image, the Socratic gadfly: refusing to accept any platitudes or accepted wisdom without examining it.”

Anthony Kenny: “Philosophy is thinking as clearly as possible about the most fundamental concepts that reach through all the disciplines.”

Will Kymlicka: “Well I’m in a philosophy department but I’m always wondering what exactly I have in common with many of my colleagues, because, to be frank, I don’t necessarily understand the work they do in the philosophy of language or metaphysics. ”

Ray Monk: “Philosophy is the attempt to understand ourselves and the world.”

A. W. Moore: “I’m hard pressed to say, but one thing that is certainly true is that ‘What is Philosophy?” is itself a striking philosophical question.”

Raymond Tallis: “My dream of philosophy is to make the universe we live in mind-portable…”

Michael Sandel: “Philosophy always intimates the possibility that things could be other than they are. And better.”

*Thomas Pogge: “I think wisdom is understanding what really matters in the world. In my view what really matters is the enormous injustice that’s being perpetrated on the poor in this world.

Jeff McMahan: “Can I just laugh? I have no idea what philosophy is.” 

TwainCatBottom line seems to be: philosophy is whatever philosophers think they’re doing, but don’t try telling them what to do. That really would be like herding cats.

On the other hand: to paraphrase Mark Twain, messing with cats teaches you things you can learn no other way. It just might be worth the scratch and bother.

Slow and steady

July 26, 2012

Thanks to my friend Dean for reminding me of a quote I can use in Philosophy Walks:

A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Mark Twain is commonly credited with this, though it has “never been verified.” Like Yogi Berra, he probably never said half the things he said.

But no matter, the point for my purposes is: philosophy must lace its shoes with care, while careless popular opinion, dogmatic religion, and sloppy ideology race ahead. Falsehood moves faster, but philosophy wins in the long run. It gets the benefit of a good walk.

Don’t know if this one’s been verified, but Nietzsche (whose own view of truth is complicated) may have said:

“If I feel well, I will walk, sometimes for hours. I scribble as I walk and often do my best work, have my finest thoughts, while walking “

postcard from MO

December 30, 2010

I don’t know if it’s really one of the best places, but it used to be home. Now it’s a long slow slog through Kentucky and Illinois (where yesterday there was rain in the air and  snow still  on the ground) away. But step-Mom made it worth the trip last night with her gift of local hero Twain’s century-postponed  autobiography, which– Keillor’s slam notwithstanding– I’m more than happy to have.  It’s a hefty thing, though, literally hard to hold. The many pics and manuscript reproductions would be hard to Kindle-ize, though, no?

Would Twain have blogged? Yes indeed, judging by his remarks on how best to approach self-portraiture:

Start at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.

That may be a recipe for ADD, but it suits this medium perfectly. For better or worse.

Twain & James

February 27, 2010

Jennifer Hecht places Mark Twain in the 20th century, though he– like William James– came to fame and fortune (and loss) in the 19th. Both died in 1910,  Twain famously exiting with the comet he came in on.

Twain’s credentials as a free-thinker are well-known. James is remembered more for his belief in believing, especially others’ believing, and for respecting faiths of all kinds when they proved adaptive and beneficial for living. His will to believe was pure, pragmatically speaking.

So it probably surprises some to discover this 1901 James declaration:

“I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.”
I wish Ms. Hecht had found room for a paragraph or two on James, alongside those on Twain. Fortunately there’s an excellent book-length study by Gary Horn that brings them smartly together: Mark Twain and William James: Crafting a Free Self.

And here’s some good advice from Mr. Twain for all who dread getting started with some project or other– such as a mid-term essay, say? First task: write a sentence. Second task: write another one. Do it ’til the habit forms. Or you could do a presentation.
As WJ said: life (not to mention that infernal essay!)  will be built in doing and suffering and creating. It may not be the way you want to spend your weekend, but as I tell myself when deadlines loom: this is one of the ways we distinguish ourselves from our knuckle-dragging cousins. This is what makes us the rational animal. Right, Sam?


December 6, 2009

“In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.” Mark Twain

As Mr. Emerson put it: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”

Are we up to it, Mr. Clemens?

The Rock

October 6, 2009

“Some emotions make us flourish, others sap our well-being, others make us wither.”

No kidding. I’ve been talking up the positive emotions, and so does Ricard just a few paragraphs on: “positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire” to include joy, interest, contentment, and love.

Great. But a friend reports his 10-year old daughter’s recent diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, and the attendant emotions are just as you’d expect: “feeling stuck, tired, angry, & not much fun to be around.” I have a 10-year old too, I’m sure I’d be every bit as demoralized and debilitated by that news as he is. There are moments in life when overt demands to flourish ring false.

I’m not about to advise my friend to buck up and be happy. That would be insensitive and probably counter-productive. But I wonder if I’d be able to tell myself that, were we to find ourselves in his family’s  situation.

Ricard mentions William James’s concept of “sustained, voluntary attention“– the key, for James, to free will, self-determination, and ultimately to happiness itself. (Winifred Gallagher just wrote a great big book on this.) When life snaps you over the head with a two-by-four, can you still turn your attention away from “disturbing” emotions to positive, nurturing thoughts? I know, Buddhist meditators can do it for hours on end. But Buddhist meditators, afflicted by many forms of suffering and denial, still tend not to have 10-year olds with Type 1 diabetes. Or is that an outworn, culturally-confused stereotype?

Maybe it is. Buddhists in America especially come in all shapes, sizes, and domestic situations. But I’m afraid the “calming” exercise in this chapter is not a lot more specifically instructive to me than the earlier advice to expand my mind. “With a deep feeling of appreciation, think of the value of human existence and of its extraordinary potential for flourishing. Be aware, too, that this precious life will not last forever…” Carpe diem? Memento mori? I think Hallmark could do better.

In general I have nothing but admiration for such sentiments, which come to me in almost precisely this form and with some considerable frequency– usually on sunny days when I’ve placed myself in my own form of meditative receptivity, while hoofing it around and watching the thoughts rise and fall.

What I still want to understand is how Buddhists and other serene folk summon such comfort and joy when the days and nights are dark and long and the news is heartbreaking. We’re passionately “attached” to our children, we grieve when they suffer, we curse the impersonal universe that dispenses weal and woe so indifferently, and at such moments feel anything but appreciation for life’s maldistributed “potential.” (Is that what Heidegger meant by “presence in the mode of absence?”) At such moments, what we want is to be dealt a new hand… not to be urged to be effusively grateful for the crummy old one.

And we’re going to need a better “exercise,” there’s not much consolation in this one.

Chapter Ten, to Ricard’s credit, picks up the challenge. “There’s no question here of ceasing to love those whose lives we share.” No, there’s not.

“As for anger, it can be neutralized by patience.” Again, details here are wanting. But this is key, if only I could figure out how to make it fit my psychological  locks: “You are overwhelmed by a sudden tide of anger… But look closely. It is nothing more than a thought… It is a temporary condition, and you do not need to identify with it.”

But when conditions objectively “suck,” as my friend observes, shouldn’t we identify with the emotions that express our sharp revulsion? It feels like the right response–not the most pleasant, not the happiest, not the healthiest, just the right one. Why is that wrong? Why are we entitled to stuff those emotions and opt for the positive ones, when conditions do not elicit them spontaneously?

Of course, liberation from anger at the moment it arises would be wonderfully soothing– to me. It would not mitigate a little girl’s anguish, would it?

But is the point, rather, that even righteous anger does no good and might do harm? That begins at last to speak to me, as did the Oklahoma City Dad’s refusal to endorse Timothy McVeigh’s execution (ch12). One more death, one more angry act of retribution, eases no one’s pain.  “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” leaves us all blind and gummy.

Once again, though, the exercise does not work for me. “Don’t unite with the anger… keep on just  observing [it], it will gradually evaporate under your gaze.” Yes, eventually we’ll all evaporate. Just now, though, when the anger is a tight little knot and the world does not feel much like home, is observation the best response? It might be. But it feels like a waste of perfectly good adrenaline.

schopenhauer1Ricard quotes “the great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer,” and his coupling of striving and desire. The Mark_Twainimplication is that desire always frustrates, is  “everywhere impeded,” always struggling, fighting, suffering. We can escape desire, or suppress it. But Mark Twain said the best way to conquer temptation is to yield to it. Is that not, sometimes, a gratifying strategy? (I don’t know what Shania says about desire, that’s whose image Google wanted me to put here. You prob’ly did too.)

As for dismantling hatred and hostilities: Buddhists and cheek-turning Christians have much to teach us all about this. I confess I simply do not comprehend the sensibility that is capable of feeling love and compassion for even the most hateful and hostile others, simply because they too “strive to achieve happiness and avoid suffering.” I suppose I am deficient in fellow-feeling. I hope I would refrain from calling for Tim McVeigh’s head, but I don’t feel bad about not extending to him the love and compassion I feel for my kids. Should I? Please explain.

My reflections on this book began with some quibbles about renunciation. Ricard is explicit, now, in denying my presuppositions: “Renunciation is not about depriving ourselves of that which brings us joy and happiness… saying no to all that is pleasant… Genuine happiness– as opposed to contrived euphoria– endures through life’s ups and downs.” And smooths them out? “We can get off the endless roller coaster of happiness and suffering.” That’s fine, I’m not that fond of roller coasters anyway. And I’m very fond of Ricard’s next authorial citation: “Simplify, simplify.”

But I still think William James has had the sharpest insight into our correct default position on the question of desires: fulfill as many of them as we can, erring on the  side of the presumption that more (not fewer) satisfactions will raise the sea level of our happiness.

william-james“Take any demand however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make. Ought it not, for its own sake, to be satisfied? If not, prove why not. The only possible kind of proof you could adduce would be the exhibition of another creature who should make a demand that ran the other way. The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired. Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount; it makes itself valid by the fact that it exists at all.” The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Is this wrong? If you read it as an excuse for narcissistic, ego-grabbing, non-reciprocal, non-altruistic selfishness, read on:

“Were all other things, gods and men and starry heavens, blotted out from this universe, and were there left but one rock with two loving souls upon it, that rock would have as thoroughly moral a constitution as any possible world which the eternities and immensities could harbor. It would be a tragic constitution, because the rock’s inhabitants would die. But while they lived, there would be real good things and real bad things in the universe; there would be obligations, claims, and expectations; obediences, refusals, and disappointments; compunctions, and longings for harmony to come again, and inward peace of conscience when it was restored; there would, in short, be a moral life, whose active energy would have no limit but the intensity of interest in each other with which the hero and heroine might be endowed. We, on this terrestrial globe, so far as the visible facts go, are just like the inhabitants of such a rock.”

Our emotions and desires need not pull us apart. They can bring us together, here at The Rock. We just gotta follow the rules,barney_fife keep our cool, resist pointless anger, and practice a little tough love (as well as loving-kindness) with the rule-breakers. Don’t be spiteful and immature. (And, don’t get a swell-head like Goob did once.) Ol’ Barn had it all figured out. “Frood wrote a book about it, Andy.”

Mr. Deity

September 20, 2009

Spent a lot of time yesterday thinking about how to approach “God” in class this week. People are touchy. Many of them have been raised to think of  Him (or His son) as a personal acquaintance, and don’t want to be present for conversations in which the very concept of divinity and supernaturalism is questioned. But we must have that conversation, in philosophy. And I can’t have it without laughing at the silly things humans have said and done in the name of piety. There’s just too much good God humor in circulation to ignore, and much of it is dead on target.

So I won’t tip-toe around God in respectful silence. But I will offer this disclaimer: just as “Jesus” and “Mo” in the eponymous cartoon are not to be understood as The Son of God (Man?) and Savior of Humanity, or The Holy Prophet and Messenger of Allah, but just as a couple of caricatures of a couple of guys… similarly, when I say “God” I just mean the blank canvas onto which humans have projected many amusing speculations about a Supreme Being. None of those projections is itself a Supreme Being, none is itself something one can blaspheme against. The humans themselves deserve respect, as humans. But they also deserve a nudge to the ribs and a prod to the mind. We all owe that to one another.

That disclaimer may or may not disarm anyone’s feeling of offense, but I hope it clarifies my attitude. No offense intended, and I think none can possibly be taken by anyone who does not intend to be offended in the first place.

Now, look at some of this stuff and tell me, whatever your particular “raisin,” if you don’t agree: humans have said and done and believed a lot of silly things in the name of God:

First, there’s a lot of gratuitous groveling and averting of eyes and fearful ducking from thunderbolts. Did you see the New Yorker cartoon last week in which a man returns from work, walking through the front door with a bolt through the back, as his unsympathetic spouse says “I told you not to buy that book by Christopher Hitchens!

Then, of course, there’s all the tortuous bending and stretching to make sense of gratuitous pain and suffering in the world.

The late George Carlin– don’t look for him in Heaven– asked, having heard enough about “God’s will” accounting for the deaths of innocent children in tornadoes (for example), “Who does this guy “God” think he is?!” George’s routine probably will offend even many of those who find his act funny, with its relentless, scatalogical profanity. But I’d defend his humanity any time.

And then, there are all those misplaced formal arguments attempting to prove, logically, the existence of God.

BTW: “The Lord” does make an appearance in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide. He’s a cat.

One thing seems clear. If a God is watching all this, He must have a sense of humor: He made a bunch of silly humans, and is tolerating a bunch of smart-ass critics. What would they say, were they to make it so far as the Pearly Gates? Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain, and many others have said something along these lines: “Sorry, Lord. The evidence was against you.”

Undesirable persons

July 11, 2009

Round Rock outplayed the Sounds last night, with lots of web gems and fewer mistakes. We were happy to be there, except for the overbearing Faith Night crowd. It got tedious between innings especially, when the Public Address announcer went down the endless list of churches represented. (I found myself humming the “spam” tune, substituting “church church church church…”) I knew it was going to be a long evening when we took our seats and the Church Lady in front of us stood and yelled loudly to our rear:  “Helloo, Pastor! Pray for us!!” Then she turned to me and said “You’ll get used to us.” Not really. Then, in about the 3d inning, the Church Lady behind us just knew that we were in the wrong seats and found an usher to tell us so. We weren’t, but she knew what she knew.  As Mark Twain said, approximately: it’s what you know that just ain’t so that causes unrest.

I’m still waiting for the Sounds to sponsor a Heathen or a Reason night, or at least offer a free slider coupon to free thinkers. It’ll be a while. But if Jackie Robinson could believe in 1952 that racial bigotry would one day be overcome in a free society, I can believe that we non-faithheads will have our day too.

I would love to have heard old Mr. Clemens’  observations on the scene last night. He didn’t suffer fools but he fully expected and charmed them. He’s another free spirit who negotiated hard reality and the hell of (some) other people more smoothly than Nietzsche:

twainOne of the proofs of the immortality of the soul is that myriads have believed in it. They have also believed the world was flat.

Dying man couldn’t make up his mind which place to go to — both have their advantages, “heaven for climate, hell for company!”

We may not doubt that society in heaven consists mainly of undesirable persons.

But man is the reasoning animal, no? Hal Holbrook as Twain… and more Twain quotes.