Delight Springs

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sticking around

I wonder if anyone's written a history of philosophers' walking sticks? I suspect the field is open. Here's one you can go and look at, if you don't mind looking as well at its famed mottled motionless owner.

What I love most about my teaching job is that it keeps teaching me new things about our subjects. Utilitarian pioneer Jeremy Bentham is another example. Had the strange experience of sitting on my Little House porch last night and hearing myself on the radio, harshing on Bentham as a proponent of a too-crude philosophy of happiness. I think I was too harsh.

It should come as no surprise that the philosopher who had his body preserved and housed for public display in University College London had other charms and quirks, but I only just learned of them since swinging by our campus library after class one day not long ago. We tend to reduce philosophers' charms and quirks to just the arguments. That's a mistake. Argument is important, in philosophy, but it's not all there is.

The first volume of Parekh’s Critical Assessments reports that (like Kant and Rousseau) he too was a walker and an eccentric, an understatedly-”amusing” man.
Bentham was an extremely amusing man, and in many respects rather boyish. Most of his life he retained an instinctive horror of being left alone… He had a large black tom cat of an ‘uncommonly serious temperament’ which he nicknamed the ‘Doctor’ and ‘The Reverend Doctor Langborn’… He had amusing names for his daily activities and favourite objects. His favourite walking stick was called Dapple, after Sancho Panza’s mule, and his ‘sacred tea-pot’ was called Dick. His daily routine included ‘antejentacular circumgyration’ or a walk before breakfast, an ‘anteprandial circumgyration’ before dinner, and an ‘ignominious expulsion’ at midnight accompanied by the ‘putter-to-bed’, the ‘asportation of the candle’ and the ‘transportation of the window.’
So yes, he was weird. But also “basically a warm, generous, and kind” man. He wanted to reform the misery-inducing industrial culture of his time and place, and to improve the basic quality of life of his fellow human beings.
Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you, will invite you, to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own…
Sorry, Mr. Mill, that’s just not what I’d call a “pig philosophy.” It’s humane and compassionate, and it deserves a hearing too.

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