Posts Tagged ‘Thoreau’

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?

Transcendentalism at home

March 29, 2013

Thinking this morning about the Transcendentalism chapter of my book-in-progress on walking and philosophy.

Good philosophy transcends mere theory and solves some of the practical problems of life, said Thoreau. Take housework. Please.

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.

Simple solution. (But what to do about that cat on my desk? Can I fling him too? Wanted to, when he woke me in the wee hours battling his counterpart on the other side of the French doors in the library.)

Another practical problem a walker must solve, especially this time of year, is yardwork – not how to do it, but how to hold it safely at bay, away from our sacred hours of perambulation. Henry’s friend Emerson:

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.

Precisely. But it’s a simple solution again: toss that rake and shovel, slide away from the barrow, step over the mulch-pile, stride swiftly and repeat. Don’t look back.

The days are gods.

Safe at home

November 15, 2012

Alain de Botton has interesting thoughts on home. “Perfect” is probably out of reach, but we could definitely do a lot better. Too many of our homes do make us “cross and angry.” Our true home, after all, extends well beyond walls. “Look again at that dot…”*

We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical: to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us.


buildings are able to solve no more than a fraction of our dissatisfactions or prevent evil from unfolding under their watch.


Architecture, even at its most accomplished, will only ever constitute a small, and imperfect (expensive, prone to destruction, and morally unreliable), protest against the state of things.

Right. The state of things is that our little mote of terra firma, our modest corner of real estate, is in a volatile and fragile market. We delude ourselves to think we can go on forever playing the territorial game, regions and states, one against the others. Our buildings may be aesthetically appealing or not, may provide shelter from the storm or not, but they cannot sustain our belligerent nationalistic pride. We must come to think of home as the entire human abode, spaceship earth, the ultimate earthship.

Neil Tyson came to Vanderbilt, night before last, and reminded us that “the universe has a shipload of stars.” That could be bad for one’s ego, or it could be mind-expanding. “We are stardust.”

Home as safe haven, as  sturdy vehicle into the future, as mirror of our sustainable souls… the essence of home has far more to do with our states of mind than with our building design and materials. It’s a small ship, in a big  sea of stars. We are not alone, and as Thoreau said: why should we feel lonely? “Is not our planet in the Milky Way?”


Don’t get any ideas

October 29, 2012

The calendar says it’s still October, but the Series ended last night as the big storm gathers and the grading-pile calls.  It’s winter.

Time again to recall the wisdom of Thoreau (“live in each season as it passes”) and Santayana:

To be interested in the changing seasons is, in this middling zone, a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.

Anyway, tensed time is supposed to be an illusion, right? We deceive ourselves in thinking that spring is far in the past or future. Be here now.

I notice, btw, that the estate of William Faulkner is suing Woody Allen for using that line about the past not even being past in “Midnight in Paris.” Come after me too, rebs, I dare ya. It’ll liven my winter.

One of my other favorite lines from that film: “He walks. He gets ideas.”

But I’m stalling. Grade, grade, grade.

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.

Progress, marriage, perfection

May 30, 2012

Three words not often together, yoked here with some great advice from Ron Padgett on our wedding anniversary, mine and Sharon’s. Perfection seduces but eludes, even in the best marriage of true minds. What would Mrs. Plato say?

But I’m still stubbornly resisting Padgett’s “Don’t think that progress exists. It doesn’t.” If you’d told me back on May 30, 1993 that we’d be right here, with two great kids, a load of mostly happy memories, a pack of exciting plans, and our health, I’d have said that sounds like  progress to me.

Get some sleep.

Eat an orange every morning.

Be friendly. It will help make you happy.

Hope for everything. Expect nothing.

Take care of things close to home first. Straighten up your room before you save the world. Then save the world. Be nice to people before they have a chance to behave badly.

Don’t stay angry about anything for more than a week, but don’t forget what made you angry. Hold your anger out at arm’s length and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass ball collection.

Wear comfortable shoes.

Do not spend too much time with large groups of people.

Plan your day so you never have to rush.

Show your appreciation to people who do things for you, even if you have paid them, even if they do favors you don’t want.

After dinner, wash the dishes.

Calm down.

Don’t expect your children to love you, so they can, if they want to.

Don’t be too self-critical or too self-congratulatory.

Don’t think that progress exists. It doesn’t.

Imagine what you would like to see happen, and then don’t do anything to make it impossible.

Forgive your country every once in a while. If that is not possible, go to another one.

If you feel tired, rest.

Don’t be depressed about growing older. It will make you feel even older. Which is depressing.

Do one thing at a time.

If you burn your finger, put ice on it immediately. If you bang your finger with a hammer, hold your hand in the air for 20 minutes. you will be surprised by the curative powers of ice and gravity.

Do not inhale smoke.

Take a deep breath.

Do not smart off to a policeman.

Be good.

Be honest with yourself, diplomatic with others.

Do not go crazy a lot. It’s a waste of time.

Drink plenty of water. When asked what you would like to drink, say, “Water, please.”

Take out the trash.

Love life.

Use exact change.

When there’s shooting in the street, don’t go near the window.

-“How to be Perfect” by Ron Padgett

And what else happened on May 30, Mr. Keillor? Well, Thoreau published his first book. He knew something about progress and its absence, wondering if we ride the rails or they us, if we really have anything to say through our shiny new gadgets etc. He also knew that real progress is a personal affair.

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

But did the bachelor of Walden Pond know that the most satisfying progress is inter-personal, and connubial? I’ll bet not.

Walking and breathing

May 15, 2012

Philosophy Walks (PW) has to begin somewhere. One good candidate: Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” which was probably where I first encountered the notion that perambulation and cogitation go together. [full text]

The same essay also expressed the coordinate discovery that one could walk away from discursive thinking, and that doing so might just as frequently be a good idea. Simplify, simplify.

The excellent public radio show “To the Best of Our Knowledge” just did a terrific hour on HDT, btw.

But on second thought, beginning with a sophisticated transcendentalist essay would be too far down the road already. The act of walking is much more elemental and pre-reflective than that. PW needs to crawl before it tries to saunter. I should first explore the genre of walking literature that sings its praises more simply.

Alan Cook’s Walking the World begins at the beginning:


Step, step, step, step,
left, right, left, right,
rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm,
chin up, shoulders back,
arms swinging, muscles singing,
blood is coursing through the body,
breathing, breathing, breathing, breathing.
Payoff for this undertaking?
Dawn is breaking, world is waking…

And so it goes. This is the right tone, the right rhythm to set out with.

Walking is the world’s oldest physical activity for human beings. People have walked since long before bicycles were invented. Walking also became the world’s first sporting event, predating the first marathon run by Phidipides to announce the victory of the Greeks over the Persians. Maybe if he had walked he wouldn’t have dropped dead at the finish.

But let’s not get carried away. We all drop dead at the finish, the point is to enjoy the journey and not fret so much about the destination. Left, right, left, right…  Breathe in, breathe out. Keep it simple in the beginning, and simplify again as needed.

An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day, for a lifetime.

Moms, birds, beans

May 14, 2012

We had a nice Mother’s Day, treating Mom to a Dalts brunch and then presenting her with the backyard birdfeeder from Wild Birds Unlimited she’d admired.

That’s an appropriately symbolic token of what mothers do for us all, I think. Moms are all about feeding, nurturing, and civilizing our wildness, while also standing back and simply appreciating (sometimes applauding) the grace and independence they’ve helped instill. Good mothers know we’ve got to spread our own wings eventually, and soar or plummet as we will.

I spent a good portion of my rainy afternoon saunter yesterday recalling my own Mom’s genius for nurture. She was a nurse, and a good one. Hard to believe she’s been gone more than four years already.

Mom was not a close observer of nature. I don’t recall many outdoor moments with her. Wish I could go back in time and introduce her to the therapeutic benefits of time on shank’s mare, in the open air. Might have saved her a lot of time and trouble with shrinks and their prescriptions.

I did give her a copy of Walden once, possibly on a Mother’s Day. She didn’t enjoy Henry’s praise of simplicity, having come up from a hard-scrabble childhood herself. Thoreau’s obsession with bean cultivation, in particular, annoyed her greatly. I thought she was missing the point. But maybe she got it well enough. As someone says in Michael Specter’s New Yorker essay this week:

The idea of… benign nature is ridiculous. The Bambi view of nature is totally false. Nature is violent, amoral, and nihilistic. If you look at the history of this planet, you will see cycles of creation and destruction that would offend our morality as human beings. But somehow, because it’s ‘nature,’ it’s supposed to be fine.’

It’s not always fine, for Bambi or for us. The excessively sentimental “Mother Earth” feeling that captivates some environmentalists is a load of beans.

Speaking of which: I finished Ecotopia this weekend. We’ll probably read it in Environmental Ethics, its excesses are instructive. But so is its critique of ours. More on that later.

What sort of space makes you solitary?

March 17, 2012

Awoke in a foul and complaining mood this morning. First, because I’m home alone. It’s Spring Break for everybody else in the family. They lit out for the beach yesterday afternoon, straight from school, and left me stranded here with the dogs & cat & fish & a pile of grading. I enjoy my solitude, but prefer to take it in the rough proximity of loved ones.  Not to hurt the cat’s feelings, or minimize the consolations of a purr at your elbow… but it was just simply too quiet here last night. The silence was deafening.

Plus, I didn’t get to see them off because I had to go straight from the auto shop (brake job, they were worn down to a millimeter) to meet with another arbitrary rejection from the Academic Committee That Cannot Be Named.

And  topping it all, I have a headache.

But if you complain, as Eric Idle told Michael Palin, it does you no good etc. etc.

So here’s something to feel good about, reported in TimeA Daily Walk Can Reduce the Power of Weight-Gaining Genes

It’s the first study to bring the effect of exercise down to the genetic level, and to measure how physical activity can change the way genes work — in this case by inhibiting the activity of genes that promote weight gain. MORE:How Exercise Can Change Your DNA

The study also documented an increase in the activity of these genes among those who were more sedentary. For every two hours spent in front of the television every day, there was a 0.3 kg/m2 increase in Body Mass Index (BMI). The fact that walking and TV watching each had independent effects on BMI hints that it’s important both to increase exercise and reduce sedentary time in order to lose weight.

Losing weight is not my issue, but gaining momentum can be. What I really lose on my daily hour ramble is (for instance) angry feelings about obtuse academics, and feelings of excessive solitude, and aches in the cranium.

So I gotta get out there right now. Sorry cat, you don’t get to go. A purr will take a person only so far, and I too believe it’s really  crucial to walk the dogs – and not just for the many, many health benefits. This morning I’ll be pondering one of Thoreau’s more interesting reflections on what it really means to be alone.

Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such—This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another. What do we want most to dwell near to? Not to many men surely, the depot, the post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house, the school-house, the grocery, Beacon Hill, or the Five Points, where men most congregate, but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction. This will vary with different natures, but this is the place where a wise man will dig his cellar…. Walden

Henry was wrong about one thing: I’ve found that an exertion of the legs can close some of the gap between people. I’ll probably have to walk from here to the gulf, though, to feel better about that *&%$! committee.

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…”