Wednesday, September 30, 2009


"There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist. Mark Twain

Talking about the old pessimist Schopenhauer today-- he was a young pessimist once, too-- I mused that he'd lived to a relatively ripe old age for someone so sure that life was a mistake and a burden. (In fact, he made it to just 72. His disposition made him look at least that old, in photographs, long before his eventual expiration date.)

Camus said we must imagine Sisyphus happy. Schopenhauer, too? He does seem to have enjoyed his misery and misogyny and misanthropy, and even to have lived for it. He could've checked out early. Life: love it or leave it. Isn't that the existentialist/pessimist credo? In fact, he rejected suicide on philosophical grounds even though personal events brought it close to home.

"His father killed himself in 1805. [That might explain some things, eh?] However, he insists that suicide is a cowardly act... we do not really [on his metaphysical view] will but are willed by an unconscious agency over which we have no power. The problem with suicide, then, is that it maintains the illusion of willfulness. For Schopenhauer, the only permissible suicide is the self-starvation of the ascetic..." But why is even that "permissible," if we're all under the sway of a voracious and implacable Will, endlessly striving for no purpose larger than its own blind and pointless continuance?

The young Schopenhauer, btw, had not only been a romantic figure for the trendy young pessimists who made him their paragon; he was himself disappointed in love. Matthieu Ricard's statement seems tailor-made for our philosopher: "We can respond to heartbreaks by trying to forget them, distracting ourselves, moving away, going on a trip, and so on, but these are merely plaster casts on a wooden leg." Schopenhauer's cast was metaphysical. Did it assuage his heartbreak? Doubtful.

For the record: "he was found dead sitting in his chair on 21 September 1860." He hadn't missed any meals. Simon Critchley

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

practical immortality

Magnificent debut last night for Ken Burns' latest tour de force, The National Parks. Loved the Muir look-alike historian's closing quote: "This," immersion in, identification with the natural world, "is true freedom. A good, practical sort of immortality." Looking for something larger than yourself to connect with? You could do lots worse than Nature. Episode 2 is on right now. That's reality TV.

Meanwhile, on another practical immortality front it's reported that longevity science is gaining new credibility. "Low-calorie diets and drugs that mimic their effects were all the rage at a Harvard Medical School conference on aging..." Did they find Democritus' secret?

I still think Muir's version is more promising. Paige's, too.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bertie Russell, action hero

"Well, this is unexpected"...

No kidding! — "a comic book about the quest for logical certainty in mathematics.... The story proper opens on Sept. 4, 1939, three days after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Bertrand Russell is giving a public lecture at an American university on the role of logic in human affairs. Angry isolationists in the audience challenge Russell to explain how logic could justify participating in a world war. Ah, he responds, but what is logic? In a series of flashbacks, Russell recounts his epic struggle with that question..."

Great! Keep 'em coming, Logicomix!

craving reality

Garrison Keillor was talking about reality biting him in the butt. In his own more elegant nineteenth-century Transcendentalist way of speaking, that's what Henry Thoreau was talking about too. Face-to-face is better. But I'm not sure "we crave only reality" still, here in the 21st century. Reality tee-vee, maybe. Welcome to the cave. (Speaking of which: check out the ursine version of Henry, it's an inspiration. The reality of work need not be drudgery, he reminds us.)

"Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we
come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business." Walden

Sunday, September 27, 2009

show must go on

Garrison Keillor was back on the radio last night, not long after checking himself into the hospital following what was reported as a small stroke. He talked it: about a guy who'd lost years of memory and his ability to carry a tune, after a stroke; and about autumn as a time to think about mortality; and about his gratitude for the good and competent people who staff our hospitals and keep us ticking.

And he's written about it:

And that is a gift to the man who has been struck by a stroke: our common humanity. It's powerful in a hospital. Instead of a nice linen jacket and cool jeans and black T, you are shuffling around in a shabby cotton gown like Granma in "Grapes of Wrath," and you pee into a plastic container under the supervision of a young woman who makes sure you don't get dizzy and bang your noggin.

Two weeks ago, you were waltzing around feeling young and attractive, and now you are the object of Get Well cards and recipient of bouquets of carnations. Rich or poor, young or old, we all face the injustice of life — it ends too soon, and statistical probability is no comfort. We are all in the same boat, you and me and ex-Governor Palin and Congressman Joe Wilson, and wealth and social status do not prevail against disease and injury. And now we must reform our health insurance system so that it reflects our common humanity. It is not decent that people avoid seeking help for want of insurance. It is not decent that people go broke trying to get well. You know it and I know it. Time to fix it.

Mr. Keillor is one guy who knows what he'd do with his 24-hour death sentence. He'd do another show.


Meanwhile, back in the "real" world...

Doonesbury 9.27.09


They did it. Cards win Cards win!

Saturday, September 26, 2009


The Cards are stuck on 1, the Rockies rallied and the Cubbies rocked. (Gotta love baseball poetry! Annie Dillard went on about that once, repeating "Terwilliger bunts one" until it turned the language to goo. Good writing does that sometimes.)

Sticking to the baseball theme...

Satchel Paige's Rules for Longevity

1. Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.

2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.

4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social rumble ain't restful.

5. Avoid running at all times.

6. Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.

Friday, September 25, 2009

magic number

"One is a magic number," I recall from Schoolhouse Rock a couple years ago. And it happens that 1 is the magic number for "my team" the Cards, this day. A victory over Colorado tonight, or a Cubbies loss to the Giants, will put El Birdos (their silly name from my '60s youth, in the days of Gibson and Brock and Flood and Cepeda) officially into the post-season.

St. Louis8964.582---5-5L146-3243-329/23 @ HOU, L 0-39/25 @ COL, 8:10P
Chicago7973.5209.516.55-5W144-3035-439/24 @ SF, W 3-29/25 @ SF, 10:15P
Of course it doesn't really matter, cosmically or globally or even locally. But then again, it really does; it matters intensely that we all find something (relatively) silly to care about, in these days of adversity and struggle and war and shouted accusations. We need to play. We need a holiday.

Roger Angell:

This belonging and caring is what our games are all about; this is what we come for. It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team... [But] caring deeply and passionately, really caring—is a capacity or emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.

He says, and he's right, that a little silliness is a small price to pay for sanity.

But there was nothing silly about this great athlete's presence on the diamond.

nice office

Michael Shermer is a kindred spirit, to me and Emerson (not that I've approached their literary fecundity, yet). Just as the Sage of Concord distinguished the residence of his books from the un-roofed places in which he did his best thinking, so Shermer tweets:

My office (I AM working while riding, listening to audio books, writing next book in head):

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Frank Pajares

For years, Frank Pajares of Emory University maintained the best unofficial William James site on the web. And so it comes as a huge sadness to learn, belatedly, that Professor Pajares passed away earlier this year. I never met him in person, though he was kind enough to post news of my James book's publication a few years ago. His whimsical personality was evident. Like me, he loved Calvin and Hobbes. Like me, he would have appreciated someone observing in connection with his own passing what James observed of Emerson's:

The pathos of death is this, that when the days of one's life are ended, those days that were so crowded with business and felt so heavy in their passing, what remains of one in memory should usually be so slight a thing. The phantom of an attitude, the echo of a certain mode of thought, a few pages of print, some invention, or some victory we gained in a brief critical hour, are all that can survive the best of us. It is as if the whole of a man's significance had now shrunk...into a mere musical note or phrase suggestive of his singularity — happy are those whose singularity gives a note so clear as to be victorious over the inevitable pity of such a diminution and abridgement.

Good-bye, Professor. Thank you.


Fantastic discussion today, thanks to the willingness of class members to share their own stories and challenges. Turns out we moved beyond chapter 7 ("The Uses of Adversity") prematurely, Tobi's question about focus in the present brought us back to it.

Childhood disease or abuse, traumatic stress in the theater of war that then threatens to disturb the peace (your own, and that of the people you love), human brutality towards fellow humans who happen to be vulnerable because young or weak, mental illness, respiratory failure... the sources of adversity in life are practically endless, and it can sound heartless to tell the victim to buck up and move ahead. "That's life." Right. But that doesn't make it easy.

But of course, we have no happy alternative to re-gathering our resources, concentrating our force as will and ability allow, and moving forward as best we can. It's made a lot easier when your fellow humans sympathize and lend support. Even just moral support.

Here's a positive point Haidt makes about one of the useful strategies available to us all: if you can't bring yourself to talk it out---or even if you can-- write it down. "You have to use words, and the words have to help you create a meaningful story. If you can write such a story you can reap the benefits of reappraisal... even years after an event. You can close a chapter of your life that was still open, still affecting your thoughts and preventing you from moving on with the larger narrative. Anyone, therefore, can benefit from adversity..."

But after all, "major adversity is unlikely to have many-- or perhaps any-- beneficial effects for children."

Which is not to say that you shouldn't always look for silver linings. But wouldn't it be nice if we could eliminate more of those ugly black clouds in the first place?

Atheism and Spirituality

Hot off the presses:

New course, Spring 2010-

Philosophy 4800.3 -- Readings in Philosophy: Atheism and Spirituality. TTh 2:40--4:05, JUB 202.

"I'm not religious. I'm spiritual."

We've all heard people say that. Perhaps you've said it yourself. But what does it mean? Can an atheist say it? What, precisely, do atheists believe-- and believe in? What makes a non-religious person "spiritual"?

This course will tackle these and many other questions drawn from reflection on philosophical texts from Epicurus, Pascal, David Hume, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and John Dewey (among others), as well as more recent writings and public polemics involving "New Atheists" Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.

We''ll hear from Julia Sweeney about "letting go of God" and gaining new spiritual perspective. We'll look at the humanistic and skeptical traditions of doubt, and we'll also consult the wisdom of the late Carl Sagan, whose posthumous Varieties of Scientific Experience echoes, honors, and complements William James's Varieties of Religious Experience.

And we'll wonder if the Brights (who reject the supernatural) live up to their name.

Contact Dr. James P. Oliver (, 898-2050, 307B JUB) for information and further details.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

not nice

James Wood, criticizing both the New Atheists and some of their critics (including the literary critic Terry Eagleton) says their God-- the one they disbelieve in-- is too literal, too much like Santa in the clouds. Real believers believe in something more abstract and subtle and ethereal, less substantial and anthropomorphic. That, and the non-literal value of religious ritual and "mythos" (as opposed to "logos"), is Karen Armstrong's line in her new Case for God, too.

Doesn't this run the risk of vaporizing God into something too thin to grasp, even imaginatively?That's the old knock on the "god of the philosophers."

But if you make Him too "real," there's another risk: you won't like him. That's the upshot, for many, of considering Leibniz's theodicy and the problem of evil. Does anyone want to worship and pray to a control freak?

wanna bet?

"If there is a God," said Blaise Pascal, "He is infinitely incomprehensible. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake to decide the question? How, therefore, shall Christians be blamed for not being able to give reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which reason cannot be given?

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it.

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are in the game. Which will you choose then?

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God exists.PascalsWager2

If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.

Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. Labour to convince yourself, not by accumulating proofs of God, but by weakening your passions. The people who know the road which you would follow and are healed of the ills of which you would be healed. They began by acting in every way as if they believed, by taking holy water, having masses said, and so on. This will naturally make you believe and will stultify you. This way leads you to faith, let me tell you that it will lessen the passions which are your stumbling-blocks. Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others?

pascals-wagerObjection. Those who hope for salvation have happiness in that; but they have as a counterpoise the fear of hell.

Reply. Who has most reason to fear hell: he who is in ignorance whether there is a hell, and who is certain of damnation if there is; or he who certainly believes there is a hell and hopes to be saved if there is?" -Squashed philosophers

The real Calvin, btw, was dour, God-fearing, and convinced that salvation is beyond the gambler's calculations. Thomas Hobbes, an atheist, said life in a state of nature must have been "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Our Calvin's wager seems the better bet, seems to me: Dad's a proven provider.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Science and mysticism in the U.S.A.

Great stuff on the Bob Edwards show this morning:

Americans built the bomb, walked on the moon, decoded the human genome, and created the internet. Yet only half of American adults know the earth orbits the sun once per year. What happened to scientific literacy in America and who is to blame for its decline? Journalist Chris Mooney and scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum (check their blog, the Intersection) examine these questions in their book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. Then, writer Mitch Horowitz, editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin Press, is a well-known scholar and expert on the occult. His new book Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation explains how the esoteric movement spread throughout America and what its impact is on our nation today.

Much of this superstitious, supernatural, pre-scientific folderol can actually be traced to a couple of teenage sisters and some quick-buck schemers in the 19th century, Horowitz reports.

Time for a re-valuation of values here, no?

happy yet?

Are we having fun, in Happiness 101?

I know I did today, from the small ovation acknowledging that I'm not dead yet-- health and the drugs that are helping restore it are at the top of my happy list today-- to the Python song ("Is mankind evolving or is it too late?") through the discussions of virtue, transcendence, and Herodotus.

"Call no man happy 'till he dies," btw, is said to be a misattribution. "Herodotus actually attributes this to Solon..." And several variants are on record, including "Deem no man happy, until he passes the end of his life without suffering grief." Hmmm. That sheds some light on things. If that's what he said, I have to disagree emphatically. We're a more resilient species than that. I grieved hard for my parents last year, it hurt a lot... and I'm happy today. Yesterday too.

Hope we talk again about "trans-end-dance," moving beyond the "end" really is a crucial step towards permanent personal flourishing. And think some more about what you'd do if you knew you had a day to live. If you can answer that honestly, you'll know what makes you happy-- at least on my reckoning. No bucket list here.

I agree with those who say we shouldn't constantly pester ourselves with that question, but I still see no harm and lots of benefit in saying to yourself as often as you can (and mean it): "I'm happy!"

Don't forget to look at that other Python clip, if you really want to know the meaning of life.

One more thing I meant to to mention today: the "most-emailed" New York Times article in recent days has been Maureen Dowd's column claiming women are less happy than men. True?

Next up: Monsieur Ricard, the monk of Monk and Philosopher fame. Who knew a Frenchman could radiate such bliss? What would Sartre* say?

*Here's what he said: "Ah, and the myth of Happiness; there are those spellbinding slogans which advise you how to be happy as quickly as possible; there are the films with the happy endings, which every evening show life in rose colors to harassed crowds.

There is that language, laden with optimistic expressions, "Having a good time," "enjoy yourself," "life is fun," "Don't worry, be happy," etc. - and then there are those who are pursued into the most conformist happiness by an obscure malaise that does not know what to call itself... An American said to me, "The trouble is that each of us is haunted by the fear of being less American than his neighbor."

Monday, September 21, 2009

God and science together

It is unfortunate that recent polemics have been pitched as a contest to the death between science and God. Time Magazine sponsored a debate under that heading ("God vs. science") a couple years back between Richard Dawkins and genome project leader Francis Collins (author of The Language of God, now head of the NIH). Fact is, having your science and God too is not disallowed by the logic of atheism.

Collins is not the only Darwinian who believes in God. Darwin himself believed in God for most of his adult life, or at least did not actively challenge that inherited belief; and even when he seemed to lose his own faith, after the death of his little girl Annie, he continued to defend others' faith. He was a Jamesian ahead of his time.

I've mentioned "theistic evolutionists." Ken Miller (Finding Darwin's God) is one...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Four Horsemen"

Students through the years have often told me that, so far as they knew, they'd never met or spoken with a real live atheist. They half-expected that such an encounter would be signaled by horns and cloven hooves and the acrid scent of sulfur.

So, whether you like these guys or not, please take note: no horns, no hooves (though some of the footwear looks questionable)... can't prove the absence of sulfur, that'll require some faith. Hitchens is a bit slouchy, sure, but whisky and smokes aren't exclusively devil's fare.

Here are Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), and Sam Harris (The End of Faith).

And here's a fifth horsewoman, the sweet and charming Julia Sweeney, SNL vet & lapsed-Catholic convert to the cavalry:

true prayer

Zev Chafets wonders if the 75% of Americans who say they pray regularly are doing it right. He asks lots of experts, who have lots of views. If he'd consulted the self-reliant Sage of Concord, he'd have heard: "don't grovel!" (Complete works of Emerson... more RWE... James on RWE centenary)

Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous. Prayer that craves a particular commodity, — any thing less than all good, — is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends...

Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will. Regret calamities, if you can thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend your own work, and already the evil begins to be repaired...

As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect...

But that's another post.

real virtue

Maybe it is time to trot out again old Ben Franklin's proposal for a new political party, our old ones haven't worked well together for a very long time. A United Party for Virtue, composed of excellence-seekers "acting only with a view to the good of mankind," is a pretty dream. (Hap Hyp, ch8).

But could just anybody join, on their mere word of wishing to transcend sect and narrow self-interest? I know what we'd all soon be shouting at one another: "You lie!"

Still, Aristotelian virtue-- maximizing potential, pursuing purpose, selflessly embracing the common interest-- sounds really good. It sounds excellent, in fact. Arete!

(Don't know much about Aristotle? Here's a three-minute primer from a vulgar Aussie-- mildly amusing, slightly informative.)

And Poor Richard is a good model of virtue in the American grain, not "goody goody" but (as Maira Kalman illustrates) with good and industrious intentions and a whole lot of zest and sparkle and wit. Sign me up.

And btw: HBO captured him perfectly, I hope. I much prefer his spirited wisdom to John Adams' New England testiness, even though I don't much follow Old Ben's advice about public anonymity. But young Ben, I'll bet-- the printer and Almanac publisher-- woulda been a blogger, under one name or another.

Can't say much for his singing in 1776, though.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

free-range kids?

Will we ever learn?

Jon Haidt scorns the old, long-rejected behaviorist dogma that "Unconditional love-- holding, nuzzling, and cuddling children for no reason... was the surest way to make [them] lazy, spoiled, and weak... John Watson wrote of his dream that one day babies would be raised in baby farms, away from the corrupting influences of parents. But until that day arrived, parents were urged to use behaviorist techniques to rear strong children: Don't pick them up when they cry, don't cuddle or coddle them, just dole out benefits and punishments for each good and bad action." (Happiness Hypothesis ch.6)

Might as well throw them to the wolves.

Recently, more humane voices had squelched the behaviorist din (and rescued infant organisms from the den): "children need love as well as milk," and touch, and secure, reliable, attached, nurturing parents who demonstrate no-strings affection.

But the hydra has been rearing its head again. One of its faces belongs to the ubiquitous Dr. Phil (no relation), who "tells us in his book Family First that what children need or enjoy should be offered contingently, turned into rewards to be doled out or withheld so they 'behave according to your wishes.' And 'one of the most powerful currencies for a child is the parents’ acceptance and approval.'"

And TV's Supernanny (or is it -ninny?) says, “The best rewards are attention, praise and love,” and these should be held back “when the child behaves badly until she says she is sorry,” at which point the love is turned back on.

I'm with Haidt on this one, and with Alfie Kohn when he writes that he'd be "glad to see less demand for skillful therapists if that meant more people were growing into adulthood having already felt unconditionally accepted." (Hap Hyp ch7)

Unconditional love doesn't mean total comfort and ease. The character-building benefits of (some) adversity in a child's life are evident and attractive, just as the squishy softness of privilege's children is repellent. I heard actor Wallace Shawn on Bob Edwards last Thursday, reading his autobiographical essay on the subject. Ick! (There's just something about the lives of New Yorker children... recalling Mr. Gill of Starbucks' fame).

But this new "free range" movement, letting small children walk (or ride the subway!) to school unaccompanied by a trusted adult? No. This is not Gilligan's Island, and we're supposed to be raising humans here. But yes, give them permission to eat a cookie without calling. That seems safe enough.

Only in America

"A person’s last days can be spent in any number of ways. But on the phone pleading with an insurer, that’s only in America."

What a damning, enlightening world tour from T.R. Reid. His The Healing of America "blends subjective and objective into a seamless indictment of our own disastrous health care system, an eloquent rebuttal against the arguments used to defend it, and appealing alternatives for fixing it. Mr. Reid starts with a methodical clarification of terms. First: universal health care. Far from a single socialized system, the various plans other countries use to cover all their residents are quite distinct. Some are as private as our own, and most offer considerably more in the way of choice..."

Whatever you call it, the system enjoyed by public employees and office-holding politicians in this country provides a huge safety net and security blanket. If it's good enough for your congressman, isn't it good enough for your kids?

But don't think this kind of reform is going to happen until those congressmen are out of the pockets of the insurers. Are we going to do the right thing, hold the insurers accountable, and put that safety net where it belongs-- under all our people, and all our kids? Or are we going to just continue to do the insurers' bidding? I say it's time to "nail those guys"-- the ones with the pockets and the ones in 'em.

Friday, September 18, 2009

James bio - 2

Time for our next installment from Richardson's James biography.

WJ BrazilThis week's reading includes young William's attempts to buck up his younger brother's spirits in a letter that evokes images he'd imbibed while traveling with scientist Louis Agassiz's South America expedition, in the 1860s (more on that, and more). I wrote about this once, while drawing a connection between John Dewey's naturalistic version of spirituality and James's.

In an uncharacteristic moment of self-revelation the stolid Yankee once apparently confided in his old student Max Eastman about a youthful "mystical experience" from his [John Dewey's] early stint in Oil City, Pennsylvania:

The essence of the experience was a feeling of oneness with the universe, a conviction that worries about existence and one's place in it are foolish and futile. "It was not a very dramatic mystic experience," Eastman continued. There was no vision, not even a definable emotion—just a supremely blissful feeling that his worries were over. Eastman quoted Dewey, ". . . to me faith means not worrying. . . . I claim I've got religion and that I got it that night in Oil City."

This melds very well with a homiletic, therapeutic, stoic, yet somehow joyous and de novo expression of James's unique view, dating from his prephilosophic youth but anticipating his most mature thought:

"Remember when old December's darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as fullgull of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one's evil moods over one's way of looking at the cosmos."

I find it compelling, and not at all coincidental or incongruous, that the two great pragmatic meliorists of classical American Philosophy each achieved in their twenties the same quasi-stoic insight that, as we have noted, carried the world's oldest person happily through her many days. [The world's oldest person had just died when I wrote that; her position was quickly filled, of course. But it's not a job with a lot of long-term security.] The power of imaginative self-transcendence to conquer egoistic distemper, especially when coupled with the wide-open perspective of life as a self-replicating, self-correcting chain, is unrivaled. It has been conclusively "verified." The spirit of acceptance and the spirit of reform belong together. The mature James, for one, is full of admiration for the spirit of acceptance in whatever blissful forms it may assume in the actual lives of men and women. And he is full of expectancy and hope.

He wasn't so sunny while aboard ship during the Brazilian expedition: he became very depressed and homesick, and probably would at that time have been incapable of cheering himself with the letter he sent to Bob.

But the 23-year old James was already a kind of incipient Stoic, in 1865. He was much more of one when he got his land legs back under him. One of the more engaging graduate seminars I've participated in was "Pragmatism and Stoicism," jointly offered by John Lachs and John Stuhr at Vanderbilt.

It's hard for some people to get that link (Pragmatists and Stoics, not Lachs and Stuhr). Some think that Pragmatists are all about "go-go-go"-ing, trying to change the world and ameliorate its wounds, never noticing cliffs and sharp edges. Not so. A wise Pragmatist knows there's a time to put on the Stoic's hat and accept external conditions as they stand, while turning inward and conjuring some skimming gulls.

And a wise Jamesian is prepared to act on the belief that such an inward turn is freely available to us all.

But at 25, we learn in this week's reading of Robert Richardson, James has now added another vocation to his "reject" list-- "Medicine is busted," he told a friend-- and is one step closer to a breakdown and posssible suicide that would have been anything but stoically reasonable.

Here, in case you ever need cheering-up. A little YouTube might have done young WJ some good.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

best kind of immortality

"How do you determine a student's grade?"

"Well, I add up the grades for the essays, quizzes, the midterm and final. I average them out. Then I consult my stomach."

That's what the late Fred Stocking, Williams College Shakespearian scholar, told his student (now NPR reporter) Barbara Bradley Hagerty. And it's my new stock answer to the perennial question.

Haggerty's radio tribute to her teacher is sweet. Old Shakespearians really are a breed apart. Aren't they, Dean?

And what a farewell:

"It's been a privilege knowing you," he said, and I burst into tears. Fred patted my hand. "I'll live on in your memory," he said. "It's the best kind of immortality."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

offending views

A thoughtful reader has brought to my attention the potential of yesterday's post, featuring the cartoon characters "Jesus" and "Mo," to offend. That wouldn't be news to anyone who paid close attention, as I did, to the Danish cartoon fiasco a few years back. An illuminating debate ensued at "Butterflies & Wheels," I hope anyone inclined either to take offense or give it, in such matters, will spend some time sifting these arguments... and will reflect on the meaning of Constitution Day.

My position is that none of us is exempt from the winds of free expression in a free society. I never go out of my way to offend, but I'm not going to go out of my way to muzzle myself either. In my profession we talk a lot about academic freedom, and that's very important. But this is bigger than that. This is freedom.*

By the way: those characters are just a couple of fictional line-drawn caricatures. Neither of them is a prophet or a savior. They're funny to me because they reflect the artist's humanity and sharp perspective, and I think they celebrate the humanity in us all.

Unfortunately, for too long it has been a standard human trait fiercely and unsympathetically to oppose those whose perspectives are not our own as though one's own perspective were privileged and immune from criticism, or even just simple rejection. "If you're not for us, you're against us!" (Where have we heard that before?)

Religion, historically and trans-culturally, has been a particularly obstreperous and instransigent immunizing agent; and "religious" an adjective deployed to hush everyone to respectful silence if they could not in conscience be vocally supportive.

Karen Armstrong's new book The Case for God seems to weigh in on the side of those who would tell us all to shut up. But "silence is just that. It is a kind of lowest common denominator of the human mind," notes Simon Blackburn. "The machine is idling." We can't idle our way out of hostilities built on generations of bad thinking.

For once, I find myself in bed with a Baptist theologian on this: she's peddling nonsense. I could scream that, or I could join those who gently skewer the view through laughter. I re-posted the cartoon because a gentle skewer seemed nicer.

But I'm sorry if any reasonable person still takes offense.

* post-script: Don't confuse this with the Bushism that the 9/11 terrorists attacked because they "hate our freedom." Jonathan Haidt has perceptive things to say about that in ch4 of Happiness Hypothesis. "The myth of pure evil is the ultimate self-serving bias, the ultimate form of naive realism. And it is the ultimate cause of most long-running cycles of violence because both sides use it to lock themselves into a Manichaean struggle... Neither the hijackers nor Osama bin Laden were particularly upset because American women can drive, vote, and wear bikinis. Rather, many Islamic extremists want to kill Americans because they are using the Myth of Pure Evil to interpret Arab history and current events. They see America as the Great Satan, the current villain in a long pageant of Western humiliation of Arab nations and peoples... However terrifying it is for terrorists to lump all civilians into the category of 'enemy' and then kill them indiscriminately, such actions at least make psychological sense [but, I hope it goes without saying, are wrong], whereas killilng because of a hatred of freedom does not."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

beyond words

Look who's reading Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins (besides that Baptist guy):

driven to distraction

On balance, today's class was good. Wasn't it?

Sure, it threatenend at moments to degenerate into a "town hall," I think that was our moderator's frustrated judgment. As I said to her afterward: we humans could all do a better job of expressing our disagreements without implied rancor, and without trying to hog the arena. I include myself in that critique.

We should go out of our way to be explicit about this: our views may differ, but I'm open to what you can teach me. Jonathan Haidt is deliciously on target: "each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is." It's always the other guy who's blinded by interest and ideology.

But William James said it first and said it better in On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings: If you don't agree with me, you must be blind. That's the ancestral blindness we all inherit. Let's all try harder to remove the motes from our eyes, to speak in turn, and to give one another a fair and respectful hearing.

And that's exactly what we've been doing, during most of our class-time. Lots of interesting things came up again today, and while one of us thought we were in danger of going around in circles I think we were going up and down and all around, and I think that's cool.

So, can there be a false sense of happiness? Are we distracted from the real deal by our drugs and our families and our various worldly attachments (material and organic)? Can you be spiritually and relationally connected but not attached? What's "natural" for humans, and what's so special about being natural anyway? Isn't it sad when children are denied nurture, instruction, and bonded love with other humans who can show them how we live together? And most surprising to me: can feral children be happy, in human terms? So what, if they can't? I didn't know there was an issue here, but I happily await my re-education on the point.

I did a journal reply myself today, and will do so again. I wrote: since happiness is, whatever else it is-- a virtue, a trait of character, a myth,...-- an experience, we shouldn't be casually dismissive of happy episodes just because they don't last forever. What does? Sic transit, Gloria! Between never and forever there are lots of good moments and hours for beings like ourselves to savor and enjoy. Take your transitory happiness as it comes, don't de-value it just because it must go.

And, whatever else it is, happiness must be a feeling of at-homeness in the universe, in our communities, in our classroooms, in our homes. If that feeling is a distraction, distract me. Accelerating Intelligence News