Friday, January 24, 2014

John J. Compton, 1928-2014

I was saddened yesterday to learn of the passing of one of my favorite mentors, John Compton. (Tennessean)
"The most exciting thing in life is to try to enhance our understanding of the human condition. The job of a philosopher is to think out the premises and presuppositions of the culture around them; to try to understand and interpret the most fundamental issues around us during the time we live."
Born in Chicago, Compton earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the College of Wooster and his master’s and doctorate in philosophy from Yale University. His father, Arthur Compton, won the Nobel Prize in physics for helping to develop the first self-sustaining atomic chain reaction, resulting in the controlled release of nuclear energy.
“After World War II and the explosion of my father’s ambiguous creation, the world – insofar as I would have any part in it – needed more reflection and more emphasis on the values for which we live..."
I recall many happy holiday receptions in his home, many instructive hours in his classroom, and I recall with special fondness a moment in the Vanderbilt bookstore early in grad school, when he ambled over and exclaimed of the book I'd just picked up, "Willy James!"

His daughter was also a very good teacher, of my daughter, of High School French. That's the way of good teachers, to replicate and transmit ripples of good, down the generations.

He was quite right to tell me, at my PhD defense: "too many words!" Still trying to heed that wise counsel of conscience.

 I agree with my old classmate & roomie who says JJC was the very epitome of what a college professor should be. And I agree with John Lachs, who says of his departed colleague: “He was a kind, elegant man and a very good philosopher.”

Takes one to know one.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bliss, exuberance, & delight

I learned this relatively early in life, it's why I'm usually up at dawn.
"Way too late in life, Els learned that the time to concentrate yourself was right before sunrise. His greatest art now was to walk two hours before the neighborhood woke. Moving his legs left him blissful. Had he discovered the routine in young adulthood, he might have long ago amassed a portfolio of playful, exuberant creations that pleased him and gave delight to others." Richard Powers, Orfeo
Portfolio in progress.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Endless pockets of wonder

Had a nice Sunday afternoon hike with Younger Daughter, up to Lea's Lookout at Percy Warner Park. She thought it'd be cute to text her sister, away at college, a skyline pic with the insinuating dig: "We just went for a hike, what are you doing?" 

Older Daughter's quick reply: "I'm reading Lucretius."

That's not a bad way to spend an afternoon either, but she later conceded finding De Rerum Natura a difficult read. Most students nowadays probably feel that way, about an almost 2,000 year-old epic Roman poem. But it's definitely worth the slog, kids.  The view is bracing.

It might help to take a look at Jennifer Hecht's gloss in Doubt, where she points out that Lucretius was an Epicurean naturalist and celebrant of our place in the material cosmos. He was a doubter who affirmed the meaning and value of mortal life, an atomist for whom death is nothing to fear and life is all the sweeter for its brevity. He "perfected the irreligious sneer," in a good way, especially directed at those whose religious dogmas prevent them from appreciating nature's "endless pockets of wonder."

Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve updates the story of the Renaissance "discovery" of Lucretius. The author is also struck by the wonder that struck his subject.
Wonder did not depend on gods and demons and the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way he thought we should live our lives.
How? Fearlessly, happily, naturally. Standing firmly, not kneeling. Moving forward. Boldly going to the summit on our own strong legs.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A good poem

Mary Oliver's "Mindful," in Why I Wake Early, begins-
Everyday I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight...
She must be a happy woman. A role-model, more or less.

As is Robert MacFarlane, the long-distance walker of "Old Ways" whose book of that title I've just finished. He was interviewed by the Times:
Why not just drive?
Ha! Well, many of Chaucer’s pilgrims traveled on horseback; while the hajj to Mecca now involves air travel for the majority of pilgrims. But there are two obvious differences between walking and vehicular travel. The first is that walking is a full-body experience; mind and body function inseparably, such that thought becomes both site-specific and motion-sensitive. The second is that on foot you are unshielded from the world. There is no sheltering glass or steel between you and the weather, and whoever or whatever you might encounter. Walking a path, you greet or chat with the people you meet: I can’t remember ever having flagged down a stranger’s car on the other side of the highway to talk things over.
He and Mary Oliver fundamentally are making the same point: delight makes life worth living, and there's more than enough delight in the world to go around. But we have to go out and meet it directly. Accelerating Intelligence News