Delight Springs

Monday, September 29, 2014

Machiavelli, & civil disobedience

Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli (and Hobbes, coming next) knew it, a world full of testimonial injustice. Not to mention intrigue, plot, war, and violence. The more things change...

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. The intended implication of "manly" is not so much machismo as hu-manity, with a twist. Machiavelli's manly prince judiciously wields and conceals the guile of the fox and the brutality of the lion, all the while brandishing an image of kindhearted wisdom. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says. But Skinner and others think he's gotten a bad name unfairly. (See videos below.)
A new detective mystery starring Nicco has recently been published, btw, and was featured on NPR. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of FortuneOne of our groups, I think, is doing a midterm report on Superheroes & Villains. Room for one more?

I'm a bit puzzled by the sentimental fondness some seem to feel for "machiavellian" politicians. Haven't we had enough of those? Wouldn't we rather be led by Ciceronians and Senecans and Roosevelts, evincing qualities of compassion and (relative) transparency? Don't we wish them to affirm and work for the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor's great post-White House achievememt?

But, Bertie Russell agrees that Machiavelli has been ill-served by invidious judgments that assimilate him to our time's conventions and accordingly find him objectionable, instead of appreciating his fitness to live and serve in his own day. Russell praises his lack of "humbug." Give the devil his due.

“I never say what I believe and I never believe what I say,” declared Machiavelli. “If I sometimes say the truth, I conceal it among lies”... more»

  1. Text to Text | 'The Prince' and 'Why Machiavelli Still Matters ...

    The political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli wrote “The Prince” as a manual on leadership and governing during the late Italian Renaissance, ...
  2. In Tuscany, Following the Rise and Fall of Machiavelli

    Five centuries after “The Prince” was written, visiting spots in and around Florence that track the arc of Machiavelli's life.

Arthur Herman makes the case for assigning Machiavelli to Team Aristotle.

Looking for a firm modern presidential declaration of anti-Machiavellian sentiment? Jimmy Carter said: "A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful, and restrained. It can afford to extend a helping hand to others. It is a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other signs of insecurity."

We're talking civil disobedience too, today. Again Nigel slights the Yanks, in not mentioning Thoreau“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”  And,

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?
So, here's my Discussion Question today: Have you ever engaged in an act of deliberate law-breaking, in order to challenge what you considered an unjust law? Are there circumstances in which you would do so? Would you risk arrest on behalf of social justice, climate change, or anything else? Will you at least support those who do? Are you a compliantist, a gradualist, or a transgressive reformer? [Is it civil disobedience to lie to the court during the empanelling of a jury, saying for instance that you don't oppose the death penalty in every case when in fact you do?]

Russell, incidentally, himself a civil disobedient in the great tradition of Socrates, Gandhi, King, et al - ("On April 15 1961, at the age of 89, Bertrand Russell gave a speech calling for non-violent civil disobedience in his campaign for British unilateralism, i.e. to get Britain to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons and membership in NATO") -  gives Thoreau only passing attention as an American representative of the romantic movement of the 19th century.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Living is the trick

It's the birthday of my favorite sportswriter not from Murfreesboro TN, Walter "Red" Smith. He said:
“There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” 
“Ninety feet between bases is perhaps as close as man has ever come to perfection.” 
“Dying is no big deal; the least of us will manage it. Living is the trick.” 
And thanks to Mr. Keillor's Almanac I also learned this morning that a poem called "Once" concludes:
"And time is short. You have to live it."
My favorite Murfreesboro writer, of course, is Grantland Rice. His birthplace is memorialized at the corner of Spring and College, right on my daily commute to school.
“For when the One Great Scorer comes To mark against your name, He writes - not that you won or lost -
But HOW you played the Game." 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Anselm, Aquinas, & politics

It's more Saints today in CoPhi, and more Harvards: Anselm & Aquinas (with commentary on the latter from Anthony Kenny), Robert Nozick and political philosophy. Inexplicably, our politics chapter omits discussion of the most important political philosopher of the 20th century, John Rawls. We'll rectify that in class.

Anselm stumped for the divine moral perfection (and omnipotence and omniscience) of a being “than which none greater could be conceived.” His Ontological Argument is either ingenious or ridiculous, depending on who you ask. But it rarely persuades those who do not come at it armed with antecedent faith. "Faith seeking understanding," or maybe just the appearance of rational cover.

Anselm considers reason subordinate to faith. 'I believe in order to understand,' he says; following Augustine, he holds that without belief it is impossible to understand. God, he says, is not just... St Anselm, like his predecessors in Christian philosophy, is in the Platonic rather than the Aristotelian tradition. For this reason, he has not the distinctive characteristics of the philosophy which is called "scholastic," which culminated in Thomas Aquinas. Russell
In the time of Aquinas, the battle for Aristotle, as against Plato, still had to be fought. The influence of Aquinas secured the victory [for Aristotle] until the Renaissance; then Plato, who became better known than in the Middle Ages, again aquired supremacy... Russell
 Indeed, "Aquinas fully endorsed Aristotle..." (Cave & Light)

 Aquinas was sure there had to be an uncaused cause in back of everything, or else we’d never get to an end of explaining. Well, we probably won’t. Not ’til the would-be explainers themselves are gone. But is an uncaused cause really a step forward, explanatorily speaking?
Both of those guys were committed, of course, to belief in a heavenly afterlife. Samuel Scheffler, in the Stone recently, wrote of the afterlife here. Here, of course, is where people live the lives their beliefs inform. Life, not god or supernaturalism, is the natural impulse behind religion. Dewey's continuous human community is another way of naming nature's afterlife.
But what if you learned that the species would expire within a month of your own passing? That's Scheffler's thought experiment. He thinks he and we would be profoundly unsettled, that life would suffer an instant meaning collapse, and that this shows how invested we all are in a natural afterlife for humans (though not each of us in particular) on earth. He thinks "the continuing existence of other people after our deaths -- even that of complete strangers -- matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones." That's what he means when he begins his essay: "I believe in life after death."
He also explained his view on Philosophy Bites.
Our old dead Italian Saints said nothing about this, so far as I'm aware. Anthony Kenny does say Aquinas still agreed with Aristotle about "the best way to spend your lifetime down here on Earth," that happiness is ultimately an activity rather than a feeling, and that "the supreme happiness for rational beings was an intellectual activity." To Aristotle's standard "pagan virtues" he added faith (in Christian revelation), hope (for heavenly ascent), and charity (toward god and neighbor).

But the charity he seems to admire most in Aquinas is of the intellectual variety, "always trying to balance arguments from both sides" and treat those whose conclusions he disputes with civility.

Neither of today's 20th century Harvard philosophers was a Saint, but both were civil.
Robert Nozick began his academic career as a narrow analyst and wunderkind libertarian, but evolved well beyond his starting place. He came to realize that astringent libertarianism neglects "the reality of our social solidarity and humane concern for others." He came also to the view that "thinking about life is more like mulling it over" than like pinning it with a syllogism. "It feels like growing up more." He kept growing, 'til stomach cancer took him at age 63.

Nozick's chapter on dying in The Examined Life begins,
THEY SAY NO ONE is able to take seriously the possibility of his or her own death, but this does not get it exactly right. (Does everyone take seriously the possibility of his or her own life?) A person's own death does become real to him after the death of both parents.
He's right about that, in my experience.

Before his death (as Yogi Berra might have said) Nozick gave us the good old Experience Machine. We just talked about this the other day. Here's a Yalie to talk about it too.

John Rawls, says Carlin Romano, wrote "the most important book of English-language political theory since Mill's On Liberty. His goal was a coherent theory of "justice as fairness" whose appeal would span the spectrum, after emerging from behind a "Veil of Ignorance." Not everyone buys it, but we all talk about it. Michael Sandel does too, to a much bigger class than ours, albeit mostly virtual & MOOCy.

And now there's a musical stage show. How many political philosophers can say that?! Rawls@dawn

Also a propos of politics, happily included in our chapter today: historicity, Kantian respect, egalitarianism, libertarianism, affirmative action ("reverse discrimination"), the Marxist critique of sham democracy, and paradoxes of conscience. Plenty, as usual, on our plates.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Boethius and the animals

How about that Climate March

Today in CoPhi it's the pagan/stoic/Christian/Platonist martyr Boethius, and then the rights of animals. 

We saw last time that Bertrand Russell had little regard for how Augustine, despite his philosophical sophistication when it came to hard-nut conceptual problems like time, ironically squandered much of his own on a preoccupation with sin, chastity, and staying out of hell.

Russell liked Boethius, or aspects of his thought at least. Boethius was also perplexed by time, and initially unimpressed by the alleged capacity of timeless divinity to accommodate both omniscience and free will. Like Russell, I'm struck by this "singular" thinker's ability to contemplate happiness (he thought all genuinely happy people are gods) while practically darkening death's door.

Boethius was consoled by the thought that God’s foreknowledge of everything, including the fact that Boethius himself (among too many others) would be unjustly imprisoned and tortured to death, in no way impaired his (Boethius’s) freedom or god's perfection. Consoled. Comforted.Calmed. Reconciled.

That’s apparently because God knows things timelessly, sees everything “in a go.” I don’t think that would really make me feel any better, in my prison cell. The real consolation of philosophy comes when it contributes to the liberation of mind and body (one thing, not two). But it’s still very cool to imagine Philosophy a comfort-woman, reminding us of our hard-earned wisdom when the going gets impossible.

And then, of course, they killed him. The list of martyred philosophers grows. And let’s not forget Hypatia and Bruno. [Russell] The problem of suffering (“evil”) was very real to them, as it is to so many of our fellow world-citizens. You can’t chalk it all up to free will. But can we even chalk torture or any other inflicted choice up to it, given the full scope of a genuinely omniscient creator’s knowledge? If He already knows what I’m going to do unto others and what others will do unto me, am I in any meaningful sense a free agent who might have done otherwise? The buck stops where?

For those keeping score, add Boethius to Aristotle's column.

And now, for something completely different: animals. Not very many philosophers of note have denied that animals are capable of feeling pain. But Descartes did.

"Speciesism" is generally understood to to convey a pejorative connotation, but I went on record a long time ago as a species of speciesist. A pragmatist is bound to give priority to human interests, but an animal-loving pragmatist will always urge the rejection of allowing them to run roughshod over our furry fellow travelers whose planet it also is. Still, if animal research will save human lives I'm going to cast my vote in favor.

[Full movie]

Kant's view that harming animals is wrong because it damages OUR character and relationships, however, is too speciesist for my blood.

I'm happy our text gives me another opportunity to put in a word for quirky old Jeremy Bentham, who rightly noted that pain and suffering know no species bounds. [Animal Rights... A Utilitarian View] Other critters don't process it with the magnifying  human sort of emotional complexity, nor do they typically bear any detectably solicitous mutual regard of the human kind (though some primates and puppies do display what we're bound to anthropomorphize as tenderness and affection). But that doesn't make them robots.

Happily, Jeremy's now feeling no pain.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Created sick, commanded to be well

A student yesterday told us that God is love, that her purpose in life is to share and spread it, and that all who "deny" God are destined to an eternity in Hell. After all, we're all given a choice. And, none of us deserves grace.

But, what if someone sincerely disbelieves in that loving God, on the basis of an honest evaluation of the evidence and its absence? Their choice, their foul, their eternal damnation. Feel the love.

It's certainly not the first time I've heard the casual expression of such breathtaking inhumanity in my classroom, here in God's country. But this time it really rang a bell, on a day when we also discussed Hume's Law and its corollary that Ought implies Can. I was reminded of Mel Gibson, going with "the chair" and consigning his saintly God-fearing wife to the flames:
“Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She’s a much better person than I am. Honestly. She’s, like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it’s just not fair if she doesn’t make it, she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.”
And, I was reminded of the late Saint Hitch's lament for theistic incoherence: created sick, commanded to be sound.
Oh, wearisome condition of humanity, Born under one law, to another bound; Vainly begot, and yet forbidden vanity, Created sick, commanded to be sound.
― Fulke Greville (quoted by Christopher Hitchens)

What we have here, picked from no mean source, is a distillation of precisely what is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality. Its essential fanaticism, its consideration of the human being as raw material, and its fantasy of purity. 
Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I'll repeat that. Created sick, and then ordered to be well.
And over us to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship; a kind of divine North Korea. Exigent, I would say, more than exigent greedy for uncritical praise from dawn until dusk. And swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. An eternal, unalterable, judge, jury and executioner, against whom there could be no appeal. And who wasn't finished with you even when you died. However! Let no one say there's no cure! Salvation is offered! Redemption, indeed, is promised, at the low price, of the surrender of your critical faculties. 
Religion, it might be said, must be said, would have to admit, makes extraordinary claims, but, though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims. To insist that we are created and not evolved, in the face of all the evidence.
Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. 
Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, "Beautiful, almost perfect. Now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia, that I may do the work of the Lord"? No!
As the great physicist Stephen Weinberg has aptly put it, "In the ordinary moral universe, the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you'll need religion. 
Religion, and in fact any form of faith, -because it is a surrender of reason, it's a surrender of reason in favor of faith, is a fantastic force multiplier. A tremendous intensifier, of all things that are in fact divisive rather than inclusive. That's why its history is so stained with blood. Crimes against humanity, crimes against womanhood, crimes against reason and science, attacks upon medicine and enlightenment, all these appalling things. There is no conceivable way that by calling on the supernatural, you will achieve anything like your objective of a common humanism, which is I think you're quite right to say, our only chance of, I won't call it salvation. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Augustine, free will, & free speech

It's Constitution Day again, and again I look forward to making a small public profession of fealty to academic freedom. (We'll line up in the courtyard of Peck Hall, some of us, and take turns reading lines from the document whose 1st amendment secures our unreserved right to speak our hearts and minds.) Couldn't do this, without that.

Is anyone, from God on down, “pulling our strings”? We’d not be free if they were, would we? If you say we would, what do you mean by “free”? Jesus and Mo have puzzled this one, behind the wheel with with Moses...
..and with "Free Willy." But as usual, the Atheist Barmaid is unpersuaded.

(As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed, or the sea-parter Moses; and neither I nor Salman Rushdie, the Dutch cartoonists, the anonymous Author, or anyone else commenting on religion in fictional media are blasphemers. We're all just observers exercising our "god-given" right of free speech, which of course extends no further than the end of a fist and the tip of a nose. We'll be celebrating precisely that, and academic freedom, when we line up to take turns reading the Constitution this morning.

No, they’re just a trio of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless provocation, and fun.  But if it makes us think, it’s useful.)

Augustine proposed a division between the “city of god” and the “earthly city” of humanity, thus excluding many of us from his version of the cosmos. “These two cities of the world, which are doomed to coexist intertwined until the Final Judgment, divide the world’s inhabitants.” SEP

And of course he believed in hell, raising the stakes for heaven and the judicious free will  he thought necessary to get there even higher. If there's no such thing as free will, though, how can you do "whatever the hell you want"?  But, imagine there's no heaven or hell. What then? Some of us think that's when free will becomes most useful to members of a growing, responsible species.

Someone posted the complaint on our class message board that it's not clear what "evil" means, in the context of our Little History discussion of Augustine. But I think this is clear enough: "there is a great deal of suffering in the world," some of it proximally caused by crazy, immoral/amoral, armed and dangerous humans behaving badly, much more of it caused by earthquakes, disease, and other "natural" causes. All of it, on the theistic hypothesis, is part and parcel of divinely-ordered nature.

Whether or not some suffering is ultimately beneficial, character-building, etc., and from whatever causes, "evil" means the suffering that seems gratuitously destructive of innocent lives. Some of us "can't blink the evil out of sight," in William James's words, and thus can't go in for theistic (or other) schemes of "vicarious salvation." We think it's the responsibility of humans to use their free will (or whatever you prefer to call ameliorative volitional action) to reduce the world's evil and suffering. Take a sad song and make it better.

Note the Manichaean strain in Augustine, and the idea that "evil comes from the body." That's straight out of Plato. The world of Form and the world of perfect heavenly salvation thus seem to converge. If you don't think "body" is inherently evil, if in fact you think material existence is pretty cool (especially considering the alternative), this view is probably not for you. Nor if you can't make sense of Original Sin, that most "difficult" contrivance of the theology shop.

"Augustine had felt the hidden corrosive effect of Adam's Fall, like the worm in the apple, firsthand," reminds Arthur Herman. His prayer for personal virtue "but not yet" sounds funny but was a cry of desperation and fear.
Like Aristotle, Augustine believed that the quality of life we lead depends on the choices we make. The tragedy is that left to our own devices - and contrary to Aristotle - most of those choices will be wrong. There can be no true morality without faith and no faith without the presence of God. The Cave and the Light
Bertrand Russell, we know, was not a Christian. But he was a bit of a fan of Augustine the philosopher (as distinct from the theologian), on problems like time.

As for Augustine the theologian and Saint-in-training, Russell's pen drips disdain.
It is strange that the last men of intellectual eminence before the dark ages were concerned, not with saving civilization or expelling the barbarians or reforming the abuses of the administration, but with preaching the merit of virginity and the damnation of unbaptized infants.
Funny, how the preachers of the merit of virginity so often come late - after exhausting their stores of wild oats - to their chaste piety. Not exactly paragons of virtue or character, these Johnnys Come Lately. On the other hand, it's possible to profess a faith you don't understand much too soon. My own early Sunday School advisers pressured and frightened me into "going forward" at age 6, lest I "die before I wake" one night and join the legions of the damned.  

That's an allusive segue to today's additional discussion of Aristotelian virtue ethics, in its turn connected with the contradictions inherent in the quest to bend invariably towards Commandments. "Love your neighbor": must that mean, let your neighbor suffer a debilitating terminal illness you could pull the plug on? Or is the "Christian" course, sometimes, to put an end to it?

We also read today of Hume's Law, Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy, the old fact/value debate. Sam Harris is one of the most recent controversialists to weigh in on the issue, arguing that "good" means supportive of human well-being and flourishing, which are in turn based on solid facts. "The answer to the question, 'What should I believe, and why should I believe it?' is generally a scientific one..."  Brain Science and Human Values

Also: ethical relativism, meta-ethics, and more. And maybe we'll have time to squeeze in consideration of the perennial good-versus-evil trope. Would there be anything "wrong" with a world in which good was already triumphant, happiness for all already secured, kindness and compassion unrivaled by hatred and cruelty? I think it might be just fine. Worth a try, anyway. Where can I vote for that?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Stoics & ethics

Ken Burns' Roosevelts debuted last night. I never stop marveling at his skill in making old black and white images spring to life. "It is the great arrogance of the present to forget the past," he said, and "Do something that will last and be beautiful." 

It’s a terse and breezy reading assignment in Little History today in CoPhi, on the Stoics EpictetusCicero, and Seneca. We're also looking at the first half of our chapter on Right & Wrong, concerned mainly with deontologists and utilitarians. (They're bumping last year's complementary discussion of Stoics & Pragmatists.)
 ’Being philosophical’ simply means accepting what you can’t change, for instance the inevitable process of growing older and the shortness of life. 
‘Stoic’ came from the Stoa, which was a painted porch. 
Like the Sceptics, Stoics aimed for a calm state of mind. Even when facing tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, the Stoic should remain unmoved. Our attitude to what happens is within our control even though what happens often isn’t. [The Philosophy of Calm, Ph'er Mail]
Stoics think we are responsible for what we feel and think. We can choose our response to good and bad luck… They believe emotions cloud reasoning and damage judgment. 
Epictetus [don't confuse him with his predecessor Epicurus] started out as a slave. When he declared that the mind can remain free even when the body is enslaved he was drawing on his own experience. [Tom Wolfe's Epictetus, nyt]
The brevity of life and the inevitability of aging were topics that particularly interested Cicero and Seneca. 
Cicero said old people can spend more time on friendship and conversation. He believed the soul lived forever, so old people shouldn’t worry about dying. [Epicurus already told us they needn't worry in any event.]
For Seneca the problem is not how short our lives are, but rather how badly most of us use what time we have. 

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today… The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” Maria Popova, Brainpickings 

The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse… studying philosophy and get[ting] rid of those troublesome emotions. 
The New Yorker (@NewYorker)
Seneca’s plays were gore-fests. His wealth was vast. He counselled tyrants. And he called himself a Stoic?

But Nigel Warburton‘s question is right on target: at what price? If you’re even half human, like Mr. Spock, you’ll only damage yourself by suppressing your affective side. Calm may not be the greatest good, after all. On the other hand, Stoicism is widely misunderstood - even by Vulcans.

Anyway, Roman philosophy is under-rated. The Romans have done a lot for us.

And not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

Stoicism, with its general mindset of not allowing oneself to be moved or harmed by externals beyond one's control, and the crucial assumption that our own thoughts are ours to manage, always courts the cold of Vulcan indifference but also offers the last line of defense for prisoners of war and victims of malice. If you really can persuade yourself that physical pain is nothing to you, that emotional stress can't touch you, that's quite a defensive weapon.

And if Stoicism can turn the chill of age into the warmth of experience, friendship, and joyous memory, that's quite an achievement. The older I get, the more I appreciate old Seneca's wisdom about time (not that it's in such short supply but that we're such bad managers of it). But I continue to question his passive compliance with crazy Nero. Is that Stoicism or impotent resignation? Surely there's a difference.

The Euthyphro Dilemma is on our plate today. "Is the pious or holy [or, ethically speaking, the right or the good]  beloved by the gods because it is holy [right. good], or holy (etc.) because it is beloved?" Euthyphro didn't grasp the issue. Do we? Either God's not the source of good, or good's good only nominally and arbitrarily. Nigel implies there's something destructive or Hobson-ish about this choice, but isn't it just blindingly clear that pole A is the one to grab? Well no, it won't be to many students. A good discussion is called for.

"Deontology," a scary word for a scary over-devotion to "duty." Or so I'll say, today.

And, time permitting, I'll put in some good words for both Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill's respective versions of consequentialist utilitarian hedonism. Let's not choose, let's pick cherries.

Finally, the bonus topic: Robert Nozick's Experience Machine. Fire it up, we'll see if anybody really wants to step inside.

I'm "flipping" my classes these days, which practically means less of my "content" explicated during the precious minutes of classtime (though it's still right here for the taking, as always) and more group discussion. I like my DQs today, especially Do you think the only thing preventing you from being good is the fear of divine retribution for being bad? Or do you think that to be good one must simply believe in goodness and reciprocity ("Do unto others" etc.)? 

In other words, Julia Sweeney, Why aren't the godless all "rushing out and murdering people"?

And, Is it better to be a sad but wise Socrates than to be a happy but ignorant fool?

Don't worry, be happy is not too far off the path of wisdom,  is it? 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Terror-free on 9/11

Another 9/11. Will there ever be one to eclipse that horrific day 13 years ago? Watching the President announce our latest war on terror last night, it really feels like we're stuck in one of those sci-fi time loops. We need something to spring us. We've got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

Humans have always found and will always find something to be terrorized by. Blaise Pascal, we noted in class, was so frightened by the cosmos itself ("the eternal silence of these infinite spaces") that he felt compelled to subdue his own exquisitely rational/mathematical mind and brainwash himself into believing life in our universe comes with ultimate satisfaction guaranteed. Don't bet on it.

The inherent mortal terror of existence is precisely this knowledge that we must die sooner or later, one way or another, without any sure promise of a 2d act. Nor have we any assurance of solid reviews for the show.

We have a hard time remembering our good luck and being suitably appreciative (let alone grateful and joyous): we get to die, because we got to live. We're here now, invited to savor the free lunch of existence.

So: we'll speak again in class today of Epicurus and the simple life, the life of freedom and fearlessness, the privilege of existence. Even when dying a miserably painful death, our philosopher took time to disarm fear and celebrate life. "On this truly happy day of my life, as I am at the point of death, I write this to you. The diseases in my bladder and stomach are pursuing their course, lacking nothing of their usual severity: but against all this is the joy in my heart at the recollection of my conversations with you."

And that's how to beat terror. A good and timely reminder on this date, in this time. We're not dead yet, nor are our children, nor theirs to come. If you want to be happy, be. Live.