Posts Tagged ‘meliorism’

Finish each day

February 22, 2013

I’d read a lot of Emerson over the years and never come across this piece of practical wisdom in precisely this formulation, before Maria Popova passed it along from Jon Winokur’s Advice to Writers yesterday: “Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two.”

Here’s the more common version, brought nearly to life:

Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

Whichever way The Sage really said it, I do try always to rise fresh and ready. My sleep rarely interposes as solid or lasting a wall as I’d like, but the spirit of daily renewal in anticipation of another good day’s work is what the dawn’s all about for me too, and for melioristic pragmatists in general.

So, and despite a detour to the doc’s office with Younger Daughter yesterday, I’m back at it today with “new dawnings” for the impending American Philosophy conference. The symposiasts at my session won’t find me a hard sell, I was already sure there’s a pragmatic line running from Emerson and Thoreau through Rorty and Putnam and Cavell. And Lincoln. [“What Would Lincoln Do?”] And beyond.

Sometimes, when preparing to gather with colleagues in a professional setting, it’s tempting to think you must speak and communicate with such clarity as to remove all possibility of being misunderstood. But that, Emerson knew, is an impossible bar to clear.

Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

And to be merely competent is also to be misunderstood. To be human is to make mistakes. Big deal.  I like to remind myself, before traveling to meet my peers, of what James said about our fallibility in Will to Believe:

Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.

So I’ll just keep on rising before the dawn of day, catching a few reflections, committing a few errors, and occasionally glancing out and up for inspiration. One more insight, Mr. Emerson? “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”

“Fintlewoodlewix”

May 20, 2010

Our home-sweet-home? Continuing the Douglas Adams theme…

Bill McKibben says we’re not on Earth anymore. We need a new name for the warming new planet we’ve been carbonizing. He proposes Eaarth, with a suitably-alien pronunciation (in the fashion of Governor Terminator).

But that’s not weird enough for some. “Why not change it more?” asks a Guardian blogger.

It seems rather indulgent to write a whole book about this idea and only add one vowel. McKibben, who admits he liked the sci-fi look of the word, says it reflects the fact that the planet in question is “a lot like our own … but different enough”.

The word Earth apparently originates from the Anglo-Saxon word for ground or soil, erda. There are, of course, already hundreds of alternatives from different cultures and languages. Famous alternatives include Terra or Tierra, Gaia and Fintlewoodlewix, the name given by the original Golgafrincham inhabitants in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Okay, now might be a perfect time to panic after all.

But Bill is not panicking. His book is not ultimately as  bleak as you might imagine. We may fail to stem the tide of a planet no longer hospitable to our form of life, but we may succeed. He’s for trying. Me too.

cosmic trust

April 8, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

suffering

September 29, 2009

“They suffer, Majesty.”darius1_01

That’s the squashed version of human history, boiled down from 36 thick volumes for the King of Persia (as recounted by Matthieu Ricard).

“Yes, they suffer, at every moment and throughout the world. Some die when they’ve just been born; some when they’re giving birth. Every second, people are murdered, tortured, maimed, separated from their loved ones. Others are abandoned, betrayed, expelled, rejected. Some are killed out of hatred, greed, ignorance, ambition, pride, or envy. Mothers lose their children, children lose their parents. The ill pass in never-ending procession through the hospitals. Some suffer with no hope of being treated, others are treated with no hope of being cured. The dying endure their pain, and the survivors their mourning. Some die of hunger, cold, exhaustion, others are charred by fire, crushed by rocks, or swept away by the waters…

These are not mere words but a reality that is an intrinsic part of our daily lives: death, the transitory nature of all things, and suffering.”

Bleak. But not so bleak as the misnamed optimism of a Leibniz, one of those western philosophers “for whom suffering is inevitable and happiness out of reach” (though of course he’d never say so). Sartre, in his very different style, may be another. (He pretty much does say so, despite all the existentialist bravado about radical freedom.)

And so Buddhists commit to alleviating as much of it as they can for others, and liberating themselves.

Suffering is real, and an enumeration of instances can overwhelm. But all is not suffering. If it were, there could be no meaningful alleviation– let alone liberation. The problem of evil is mirrored by the happy problem of gratuitous good: there is a lot of “pointless” joy to be had in the world, by those who’ll have it. (“Cards win. Cards win!”)

But the melioristic impulse Ricard highlights in ch6 is admirable. I’ve written about it:

Above all, his keynote celebrates
the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may
prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push
back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.
These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal,
the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the
optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically
defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in
the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is
true,”13 James will insist on another way around or through the
poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection
reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only
believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and
injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing,
in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals
who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction
must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who
are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be
pitied than envied.
What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real
suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real
capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our
humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our
felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for
dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from
responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels
reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble
benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the
Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-
appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity”
workers, et al.) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing
for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament
James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?
It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian
optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies
that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is
Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the
Rational is the Real.”14 What a startling, potentially
stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in
the world of our collective experience!

Meliorists relish the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.  These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal, the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true,” pragmatic meliorists will insist on another way around or through the poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing, in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be pitied than envied.

What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity” workers, et al) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?

It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the Rational is the Real.” What a startling, potentially stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in the world of our collective experience!

And so I give Ricard and Buddhism all credit for working to make the best of suffering and even learn from it. “Resigning ourselves to it with a simple ‘that’s life!’ [ignores] any possiblity of the inner change that is available to everyone…”

Right. But this talk of mainly- inner change is a shift from the bolder meliorist resolve to push back at suffering’s external sources. I confess, I’m not much impressed by this suggested exercise:

gray cloud“Imagine that you are taking upon yourself, in the form of a gray cloud, the disease, confusion, and mental toxins of [suffering] people, which disappears into the white light of your heart without leaving any trace. This will transform both your own suffering and that of others… “

It will? Or will it transform how I feel about suffering? Sounds pretty Stoic. Is that the change we need?

Don’t misunderstand me: we should do what it takes, internally, to allow ourselves (amidst suffering) to “feel a great happiness.” But we should also refrain from describing that inner transformation as (in itself) effective remediation. Moral holidays are  necessary. They’re not sufficient.

Raw energy, “pure delight”

August 27, 2009

Rebecca Solnit’s new book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster “investigates the fleeting, purposeful joy that fills human beings in the face of disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and even terrorist attacks…” My favorite example, which she discusses: William James’s reaction to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his first-hand account of which exudes a strange joy and gratitude for the mere opportunity to be present to witness such unanticipated destruction and its amelioration. It is, I once wrote,

James’s personal account of the great San
Francisco earthquake, an account that must be at least curious
and possibly illuminating to anyone who has ever been visited
with an earthquake experience of his own. My own small quake
experience was in Palm Springs, California, on May 7, 1995, a
relatively insignificant shimmy on the Richter scale (5.0) but
enough to awaken me from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. with an
immediate, inexplicable awareness of exactly what was happening.
I confess that the dominant feeling for me, then, was fear.
James’s firsthand account of the events of April 18, 1906
is, by contrast, not one born of fear at all:
@EXT: [L]ying awake at about half past five . . .I felt the bed
begin to waggle. . . . Sitting up involuntarily and taking a
kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face. The room was
shaken like a rat by a terrier . . . [My] emotion consisted
wholly of glee . . . at the vividness which such an abstract idea
or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into
sensible reality and verified concretely. . . . I felt no trace
whatever of fear; it was pure delight . . .
@TEXT:James described his total quake experience as “mind-
enlarging,” reporting in the quake’s aftermath a sense of
cheerful solidarity among the survivors, “a kind of uplift in the
sense of a ‘common lot’ that took away the sense of loneliness
that (I imagine) gives the sharpest edge to the more usual kind
of misfortune. . . .”88
It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the first things
James wrote after the quake was an essay called The Energies of
Men. Like Emerson and Thoreau before him, he was alert to the
very human significance of natural events. An earthquake, even a
puny one, is a release of vast amounts of energy. We are
conservators and expenders of energy, too, but much of our effort
is dissipated. “The human individual lives usually far within his
limits . . . [H]e energizes below his maximum, and he behaves
below his optimum,”89 habitually. But here is our greatest seed
of hope: our bad habits were made to be broken. Like Emerson,
James is a champion of self-reliance and the spirit of reform.
Perhaps more than Emerson, he is also a champion of hope as the
collective human urge so admirably displayed by those San
Franciscans whose “hearty frame of mind” and eagerness to make a
fresh beginning amidst natural devastation he found so
uplifting.

an account that must be at least curious and possibly illuminating to anyone who has ever been visited with an earthquake experience of his own. My own small quake experience was in Palm Springs, California, on May 7, 1995, a relatively insignificant shimmy on the Richter scale (5.0) but enough to awaken me from a deep sleep at 4 a.m. with an immediate, inexplicable awareness of exactly what was happening. I confess that the dominant feeling for me, then, was fear.

James’s firsthand account of the events of April 18, 1906 is, by contrast, not one born of fear at all:

Lying awake at about half past five… I felt the bed begin to waggle… Sitting up involuntarily and taking a kneeling position, I was thrown down on my face. The room was shaken like a rat by a terrier… [My] emotion consisted wholly of glee… at the vividness which such an abstract idea or verbal term as “earthquake” could put on when translated into sensible reality and verified concretely. . . . I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight . . .

James described his total quake experience as “mind-enlarging,” reporting in the quake’s aftermath a sense of cheerful solidarity among the survivors, “a kind of uplift in the sense of a ‘common lot’ that took away the sense of loneliness that (I imagine) gives the sharpest edge to the more usual kind of misfortune. . . .”

It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the first things James wrote after the quake was an essay called “The Energies of Men.” Like Emerson and Thoreau before him, he was alert to the very human significance of natural events. An earthquake, even a puny one, is a release of vast amounts of energy. We are conservators and expenders of energy, too, but much of our effort is dissipated. “The human individual lives usually far within his limits . . . [H]e energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum,” habitually. But here is our greatest seed of hope: our bad habits were made to be broken. Like Emerson, James is a champion of self-reliance and the spirit of reform.

Perhaps more than Emerson, he is also a champion of hope as the collective human urge so admirably displayed by those San Franciscans whose “hearty frame of mind” and eagerness to make a fresh beginning amidst natural devastation he found so uplifting.