Delight Springs

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


A late morning post today, after a pre-dawn trip "carrying" (as my Tennessee in-laws say, in a locution that still conjures for me an amusing image) Grammy to her plane back to the midwest. Glad I'm not flying today, with the end-of-holiday throng. My turn's coming though, next week in California. 

In class tomorrow we look at the late Roman period and its odd beliefs. A student takes issue with Arthur Herman's observation that “by the measure of the age, Emperor Constantine was not a superstitious man.”

Constantine and his troops believed the prognostication of a  “pagan oracle” that “an enemy of Rome would be killed,” worshipped Sol Invictus (the Sun God), and interpreted dreams as omens. "It’s almost like a scene from a Mel Brooks film." Or Monty Python.

Fair enough. But consider:
Their world was full of unexplained phenomena, darkness and fear. To Romans these superstitions were a perfectly natural part in the relationship between gods and men. The Roman habit of interpreting natural phenomena as signs from the beyond stemmed from the Etruscans... [They thought] the signs they read were sent to them by a mythical boy called Tages, who in their mythology was to have been ploughed up from the earth. They would seek to read the future by examining the entrails of sacrificial animals, the liver being of special importance for that purpose...
Stones, trees, springs, caves, lakes, swamps, mountains - even animals and furniture - were all deemed to be hosts to spirits (numina). Stones in particular were often seen to contain spirits, especially if they were boundary stones, dividing one man's property from the other. It is very telling that the Latin word for such a boundary is terminus and that there actually was a Roman god called Terminus. This odd deity took the form of a huge piece of rock which rested in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Apparently several attempts to move the bolder when constructing the temple had failed. And so it remained within the temple, because it had 'refused to move, even for Jupiter'...
Children were told stories of nasty creatures who'd come to eat them if they weren't good. From the Greeks they had Mormo, a terrifying woman with donkey legs. And the Roman Lamia who stalked around looking for children to eat... 
That's just the tip of the Romans' iceberg of magical thinking.

But we shouldn't feel too superior. Many of us still tell children tales of hell and monstrosity, seek The Secret, and tremble to imagine the other side of mortal life. Most of us don't buy the Epicurean comfort that death is literally nothing to us.

On the other hand, Pew research polls show that religion is in sharp decline in the U.S. Our auguries now point to a more secular future, if we can avoid frightening ourselves to death before it arrives.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Artificial reverence

Memorial Day in America was created in 1868 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” So many have died since, in most of those conflicts to no clear point. 90,220 in Vietnam alone, and over a million civilians.

And yet, so few of us think seriously about the priceless human cost, or act constructively to curtail it in the future.  James Fallows is right, there's now a deep disconnect between most of us and those who risk the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.
When I was a kid in the ’50s and ’60s and then older in the ’70s, American pop culture reflected a country familiar enough with its military to make fun of it at times. You had shows like “Gomer Pyle,” or “Hogan’s Heroes,” or “”McHale’s Navy.”
You had works of art like “South Pacific” or novels like “Catch 22″ and even movies like “MASH,” respected the importance of the military and the important things it did that were heroic in the large scale, like World War II, but it was still made of real people with their real foibles.
But we — now we have started to have this artificially reverent view of the military that’s also distant and disengaged.
Saying "Thank you for your service" is easy. It does not really "support the troops." Strewing flowers might, as an occasion to think hard about all the lives senselessly lost to political foolishness and then act (or vote, at least) accordingly.

6 am/5:34, 69/89/62, 7:56

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Walker Percy

Walker Percy would have been 100 today. He was a Christian existentialist with a literary sensibility I nonetheless found irresistible when I first read him in the seventies. I'm still amused by his characters' understated humor and quiet rebellion against what he saw as our lost and fallen condition. He tried to pick a fight with Carl Sagan in Lost in the Cosmos, also more amusing than annoying. His lifelong friendship and correspondence with Shelby Foote is an inspiration. I love the mental picture of young Foote on Faulkner's porch in Oxford while young Percy waits in the car, too embarrassed to meet his hero. Percy, Foote, & Faulkner

“You can’t make a living writing articles for The Journal of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. The thought crossed my mind: Why not do what French philosophers often do and Americans almost never — novelize philosophy, incarnate ideas in a person and a place, which latter is, after all, a noble Southern tradition in fiction.” It's not as easy as he makes it sound. He didn't have many rivals, doesn't have many successors. Richard Ford is kind of a secular Percy. I'm searching for others.

"Search" is Percy's big theme. His heroes search for God and make fun of people like me, who search for godless happiness, purpose, and meaning. But the search is the thing, whatever its quarry. “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

It was such a surprise and delight to stumble across and rent the "teahouse" Percy and Foote built near "Lost Cove" in Sewanee, Tennessee in the thirties, twenty years ago. When I wrote of it later I heard from Percy's grandson, who was searching for it. Really.

6 am/5:34, 73/78/64, 7:54

Friday, May 27, 2016

A world away

Finally, a Spring morning warm and uneventful enough to entice Angel (the dog) and me immediately outdoors to greet the rising sun. Other recent mornings may have been as warm at this hour, but somehow none has felt as warm and welcoming.

Plus, Younger Daughter's officially out of school now. No point in waiting around to make sure she's up and then to see her off, she'll not make an appearance for hours yet.

Put the pool up yesterday, between raindrops. Another magnet pulling us out to meet the day.

So here we are again, Angel and I, out back on our Little House porch. Just yards (a backyard) away from the big house, but a world away from Linda Pastan's "riptide of daily life, hidden but perilous." Me: sipping coffee, measuring the hour by Sol 's transit above the hammock, between the trees (the one on the right bearing that "HOME" sign)...watching last night's raindrops slowly evaporate... listening to birdsong... waiting for a whisper from a muse, any muse. She: waiting for her walk, patiently for now but soon with a whimper and whine.

Pastan's line is echoed this morning by John Cheever: "...we are suspended above [chaos] by a thread. But the thread holds.” Until it doesn't. But out here on our porch, chaos seems far enough away to ignore for a bit. Out here there's no temptation to check the headlines or anyone else's status updates. Our status: calm, composed, watching, waiting, thinking and not thinking, anticipating, at home.

6:30/5:35, 65/89, 7:54

Thursday, May 26, 2016

What's real

We took our Stroll out into the empty, summery courtyard late yesterday afternoon, pondering our "Knowledge is power" chapter and wondering if it's true that what can't be measured and quantified is not quite real. I say no. I think that's what Louis Jenkins says too, in today's poem.
The speaker points out that we don’t really have
much of a grasp of things, not only the big things,
the important questions, but the small everyday
things. “How many steps up to your back yard?... 
With the right measurements we can build bridges and rockets and computers, cure diseases, etc. etc. But we must also acknowledge the limits of quantifiable engineering, and the depths of imprecise and subjective (hence non-quantifiable) but still very real experience. Such is the source of some of our best poetry, music, literature, and philosophy. More than that, the lack of an appreciation and aptitude for the non-quantifiable dimension of life would deprive us of some of our most winning human qualities: empathy, compassion, toleration, respect.

Some students balk at this, mostly I suspect because they're frustrated by encounters with others' subjectivity (as imperfectly represented in language) rather than fully attentive to their own. Words are slippery, compared to numbers. We love that about them, we humanists and innumerists (see, I think I just made up another slippery word), while engineers and mathematicians mistrust them. We should all mistrust them, but they're a currency we must trade in if we want to scratch beyond the bare surface of inner life.

"The fons et origo of all reality is subjective," said William James. Subjectivity is real. It's "the deepest thing in our nature, a dumb region of the heart which is yet our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things." Taking it seriously means admitting the Buzz Lightyear principle: reality goes to infinity and beyond. That's the objective truth.

5:45/5:35, 65/89, 7:53
A Stroll in May (slideshow)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Old nonsense

“Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air,” urged Ralph Waldo Emerson, born 213 years ago today. And, fFinish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

Speaking of old nonsense, today's stroll (it's Week 3 of our 13-week "Stroll Through Western Civilization" course) brings us to Plotinus and the Great Chain of Being, the idea that we occupy a midpoint between divine perfection and imperfect nullity, a notch below the angels and above the animals. Matter on this scale is literally next to nothing.

Nonsense. William James, contemplating the mortal remains of a dear friend, spoke of the "sacred" matter that had been capable of assuming such exquisite form.

We're animals too, "higher" by our own account but not by a pre-ordained and locked-in hierarchy. We're links in a chain, but it's only a conceit of perspective that allows us to think our link is somehow more the point of the chain than all the others. "Despite the Great Chain of Being's traditional ranking of humans between animals and angels," writes Richard Dawkins, there is no evolutionary justification for the common assumption that evolution is somehow 'aimed' at humans, or that humans are 'evolution's last word'.”

Plotinus said it's only the lower part of our souls that can suffer. The torturer's assaults cannot touch the higher part of us that permanently and imperturbably "remains in repose, in contemplation." I understand why someone might want to think that, but I don't begin to understand how.

Oh, yeah: it's our "higher" capacity for delusion that explains it. Douglas Adams knew all about that. Happy Towel Day! "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Emerson, born on this day in 1803, on talent vs. character, why we resist change, and the key to personal growth.

6 am/5:36, 68/87, 7:52

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


I found myself saying nicer things about the Stoics than I'd intended, yesterday, as we wrapped up our Maymester Happiness course. Maybe I'll continue that trend on Wednesday as our "Stroll Through Western Civilization" continues. (It was great seeing two of our fellow strollers last night at the Masters of Liberal Arts Open House, and some hot prospects for next time as well.)

I probably come across as more generally unsympathetic to the Stoics than is truly the case. I’m not hostile, just sometimes impatient with what seems their occasional surrender to circumstance when what’s really demanded is a fight. They’d say that’s an emotional judgment, and that we need to pick our fights with the greatest deliberation. A fight with Nero wasn’t going to save Seneca’s own skin, true enough, and it wasn’t going to look good in the philosophy books alongside a lifetime of counsel against anger and futility.

But lying down and dying at the behest of a crazed despot doesn’t look so good either.

I do still think Roman philosophy gets an undeservedly bad rap. Cicero in particular is way underrated as a philosopher, and in most texts underrepresented. Jennifer Hecht rectified that a bit in her Doubt: A History.

Cicero‘s wonderful dialogue with a Skeptic, a Stoic, and an Epicurean, Nature of the Gods, would have been fun to join. “Cotta” says it all: 
Are you not ashamed as a scientist, as an observer and investigator of nature, to seek your criterion of truth from minds steeped in conventional beliefs? The whole theory is ridiculous… I do not believe these gods of yours exist at all, least of all the uninvolved, uninterested ones like the Epicurean-inspired Disinterested Deist Deity. If this is all that a god is, a being untouched by care or love of human kind, then I wave him good-bye.
If you want truth, as JMH observes, you have to avoid making things up.

Novelists and other artisans of the well-chosen and well-spoken word (like Hecht, a poet and historian as well as a terrific philosopher) have appreciated Cicero more than most of my philosophy colleagues. There’s Tom Wolfe‘s A Man in Full, for instance, in which Epictetus gets the star treatment.

Robert Harris’s Conspirata was good company last Fall on my daily commute up and down I-24, and before that Imperium. Simon Jones’s narration is delightful, even if he sounds a lot like Arthur Dent.

And then there’s the Victorian Trollope’s compendious Life of Cicero.

The older I get, the longer my reading list grows. Cicero said that was one of the consolations of aging. He was a wise old consul, and an honest Stoic.
After the loss of his daughter Tullia in childbirth, [Cicero] turned to Stoicism to assuage his grief. But ultimately he could not accept its terms: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?”
But my favorite mention of Cicero in all of literature is still from Emerson:
Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books. [An honest Stoic, 2.1.13]
But they were probably not in libraries when they had their most original ideas. Our study is out in the world.

6 am/5:36, 56/87, 7:52

Monday, May 23, 2016

Happily home

Our condensed Lifelong Learning version of Happiness concludes today, with my summation of the best that's been thought and said on the subject by philosophers in my tradition. My take is as idiosyncratic as anyone's, and like anyone I could change my mind tomorrow.

But today? Today I find "the best of the west" in the words and happiness advice of Michel de Montaigne, David Hume, William James, Bertrand Russell, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Maira Kalman, and Jennifer Michael Hecht.

Montaigne wasn't always happy, but he had a near-death experience - fell off his horse, swam in and out of consciousness, later reflected that if that's dying it's overrateed - that freed him from his worst fears and taught him how to live. Sarah Bakewell summarizes: Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Be convivial; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Give up control; Be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer.

Montaigne leaps from the pages of his essays (which he invented - not just his own, but the very form) as mindful, both ruminative and constantly attentive to the present moment. He has good advice for the walker.
When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me.
He walked often in the beautiful orchard. He was yet another peripatetic. We're everywhere, in the annals of western philosophy. “My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.” Like Emerson and Wordsworth and so many others he might also have said “my books are in my library but my study is outdoors.”

David Hume's happiness advice is implicit in a little coda that should be dispensed on Day 1 in every graduate program to every would-be scholar: "Be a philosopher, but amidst your philosophy be still a man." Stay human. Be kind. Seek the good. Be happy. Don't overreach.

Alison Gopnik turned to Hume to solve her midlife crisis.
Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.
In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people... (continues)
And so he was. "He lived an admirable life and a warm, generous spirit breathes through all his writings. I find that very attractive." Me too, Simon Blackburn, along with the guile-less humility of his "supreme happiness" in “reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking"... and the acute simplicity of this statement: "Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness."

As for the rest of the best, there's so much more to say than we'll have time for - here, there, ever. I'll just wrap it up now with Jennifer Hecht's wonderful woods analogy, according to which life is like a journey through a forest. We can either deplore our shaded transit and wish for escape to some place more airy and open, any place but the "seemingly endless, friendless woods." Or?

Or, "hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you're done."

And so we are.

6 am/5:37, 53/83, 7:51

Look again at that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Older, wiser, happier

I started collecting admirably-graceful older people last year, in Bioethics, to balance an equation that usually focuses on dysfunction among the elderly. People like Jimmy Carter and the late Stewart Udall topped the list. 

In March, after researching this year's presentation for the Baseball in Literature and Culture Conference and visiting the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame and Museum in KC, I added the amazing Buck O'Neil to this list.

Here are two more.

Roger Angell, himself a Hall of Famer for his baseball writing in the New Yorker, and editor-extraordinaire for John Updike and other literary lights, wrote one of the most heartening things ever about growing old. 
Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows. "This Old Man"
Michael Kinsley is only 65, but he's been dealing with Parkinson's for years. “Sometimes I feel like a scout from my generation, sent out ahead to experience in my 50s what even the healthiest boomers are going to experience in their 60s, 70s and 80s.” 

We appreciate the reconnaissance, Michael, but why so modest? Why stop in the 80s? The example of your positive attitude and laughter, if not your condition, should keep many of us ticking into nonagenerian and even centenarian territory. 

Ultimately, there's no substitute for good genes and the healthier years they bring. But there's no substitute for a wink and a smile, either.

7 am/5:38, 62/72/52, 7:49

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Abundant blessings previously acquired"

Dining with Older Daughter at our favorite Indian buffet, followed by a Throwback Thursday Sounds game in the "best seats in the house" under a clear sky and a full moon on a pleasant spring evening: that's the stuff of happiness, when you're paying attention.

I'm not sure those were really the absolute best, but that's what the public address announcer called them when they flashed us up on the giant guitar scoreboard with "Booster" the mascot, to "smile and wave" in payment for our upgrade.

That was the deal: swap our cheap spot on the grassy berm in left field for the pricey full-service seats behind the plate at club level, and all we had to do was smile and wave at the crowd for a few seconds. Easy. I felt a little bad for having earlier chided the mascot, when he greeted us at the gate, for not being  "Ozzie" (his much-cooler predecessor). But I'm sure he's (she's?) used to it, especially on Thursdays when they try to conjure a sentimental mood with retro uniforms and cheaper beer.

Got to gather these simple throwback moments and not take them for granted, you never know when they'll end. Whenever I sit with Older Daughter or her sister at the ballgame now I'm flooded with wonderful memories of doing the same at old Greer Stadium when they were small. Only yesterday, it seems.

Old Cicero was right, "the fruit of growing older is the memory of abundant blessings previously acquired." With such an attitude, and a collection of gathered moments, the accumulation of years "sits light upon me, and not only is not burdensome, but is even happy."

Roger Angell is a Cicero for our times, an elder statesman equally at home in the ballpark and in belles lettres. His This Old Man, both the eponymous essay and the book, belongs on the informal reading list I've been urging my Lifelong Learners to assemble. I'll try not to forget to mention it on Monday.

Also worth remembering is Michael Kinsley's aging advice, and example: keep a sense of humor about it all.

Sounds 6, Sacramento 5.

6 am/5:39, 61/72/57, 7:49

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Democracy in America

"Democracy had proved to be a disappointment to nearly everyone in Greek intellectual circles in the mid-4th century BC," and it's been pretty disappointing lately too. We talked about that in class last night.

One of us, speaking as a millennial, doesn't vote and doesn't know anyone who does.

Another, though, from my demographic, deplores low voter-turnout and the misbegotten efforts of conservatives to encourage it. When just 10% of the registered electorate actually bothers to participate, thus leveraging an outsized and often unjust influence, the sad undemocratic result may just be the "democracy we deserve." 

Happily, many of us have managed to sustain a battered but unbroken democratic faith through all drumpf and travail. Indeed, "it would be nice to see Civics required as part of our elementary public education curriculum" - not the old-school civics that forces youngsters to mimic rote pledges of allegiance and memorize random names, dates, and meaningless facts, but the kind that reads and reflects on Dewey and Whitman, celebrates genuine democracy, and calls out its internal subverters. 

My favorite civics lesson ever came from the great white north of Northern Exposure's fictional Cicely, Alaska, pre-Palin, and its philosopher-dee-jay "Chris-in-the-morning":
Image result for chris in the morningChris (on-air): My friends, today when I look out over Cicely, I see not a town, but a nation's history written in miniature. Inscribed in the cracked pavement, reverberating from every passing flatbed. Today, every runny nose I see says "America" to me. We were outcasts, scum, the wretched debris of a hostile, aging world. But we came here, we paved roads, we built industries, powerful institutions... Of course, along the way, we exterminated untold indigenous cultures and enslaved generations of Africans. We basically stained our star-spangled banner with a host of sins that can never be washed clean. But today, we're here to celebrate the glorious aspects of our past. A tribute to a nation of free people, the country that Whitman exalted. (reading)"The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives and legislators, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people." I've never been so proud to be a Cicelian. I must go out now and fill my lungs with the deep clean air of democracy. Northern Exposure 3.15, Democracy in America
Does that stained star-spangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free? We'll see. I'm not ready to toss in the towel just yet, 'tis a gift to be free.

5:45/5:39, 52/76, 7:48

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Diogenes at the Googleplex

How would Plato respond to the Googleplex, Rebecca Goldstein wonders? He'd be wowed, astounded, and bemused by the latest in cave technology. He'd have plenty to say.

How about Diogenes? Rebecca Solnit suggests he might have the opposite reaction.
Kierkegaard liked to cite Diogenes: “When the Eleatics denied motion, Diogenes, as everyone knows, came forward as an opponent. He literally did come forward, because he did not say a word but merely paced back and forth a few times, thereby assuming he had sufficiently refuted them. Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Solvitur ambulando, of course, is what he wasn't saying. It's not an instance of what Wittgenstein would later call passing in silence whereof one cannot speak, but more an application of the principle of parsimony or the wielding of Occam's Razor. Words only muddy an issue any fool should be able to grasp immediately.

The late great songwriter Guy Clark died yesterday. They played an interview on NPR in which he made precisely that point, that a good song is no more complicated than it has to be. Tell it straight and simple, and whenever possible show, don't say. Leave something to the listener's imagination and perceptual acuity.

Solnit goes on to mention Edmund Husserl, the phenomenologist who "described walking as the experience by which we understand our body in relationship to the world" rather than following the usual philosopher's script of emphasizing either the senses or the mind, abstracted from their motile embodied context. If Husserl's student Heidegger had payed closer attention, he might not have elevated Being over becoming. He might have walked away from the fascists, or at least distanced himself a little more, before getting bogged down in his own words.
Happy birthday Tina Fey, who understands the hubris of verbal excess. 
In response to people who claim that women are not funny, she said: "My hat goes off to them. It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that because you don't like something, it is empirically not good. I don't like Chinese food, but I don't write articles trying to prove it doesn't exist."
5:30/5:40, 56/68/51, 7:47

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Walk or ride

"I go for a walk through the forest near my house, just as Aristotle walked along the beach at Assos," writes Arthur Herman, recounting the bounteous profusion of nature's teeming, towering, bewildering, constantly changing flora and fauna at his feet. "This is nature, the real world buzzing and blooming around us."

Herman says Aristotle was already onto the core truth of evolution millennia before its time, noting nature's dynamic of identity-through-ceaseless change. It's a truth that eluded Mayberry's Goober, when he briefly adopted the appearance of a philosopher and wondered "if a man's hisself, how can he change?" We're all continuously becoming something, all the time, turning potentiality into actuality or into something short of it. We're all on a journey.

Our journey through the forest struck Plato's and Aristotle's heirs, the Hellenistic Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics, as an opportunity to make themselves at home there and everywhere. Initially, writes Jennifer Michael Hecht, they "felt a desperate desire to get out of the seemingly endless, friendless woods." But thanks to the applied philosophical therapeutics of their "graceful-life philosophies" they learned to love the place. "Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you're done.

But, back to Plato. For him the journey was an attempted ascent from  the cave. For Aristotle, whether we ever actually spill out into a metaphysically higher light or not, every increment of fresh observation in the forest, on the beach, under the open sky is an opportunity to shed a little more light. [Nice and timely poem today, Seamus Heaney's "The Skylight" - "...extravagant Sky entered and held surprise wide open..."]

Image result for diogenes the cynicAnd for Diogenes, to whom we turn tomorrow in chapter six, the journey is a search for honesty and freedom. That's a quarry that can be especially elusive. Better bring the dogs. Don't let the Emperor or your teacher or anyone block your light.

My good friend the new Gradual Student offers another nice metaphor, of life's journey as a rickety bus ride. They killed Socrates when he went back to the cave. Will the other riders be more forgiving, when the enlightened rider re-boards?

"I think we're all bozos on this bus," whether we've read the Republic or not.

And I think Ken Kesey was right, we're all a little cuckoo. "You're either on the bus or off it." We've got a ticket to ride, but I'm with Aristotle. I'd prefer to walk.

6 am/5:41, 54/77, 7:46

Monday, May 16, 2016

The cynical solution

You don't realize how much stuff a college dorm can hold until you have to empty it. Took about four hours of schlepping between dorm room and two packed-to-the-gillls vehicles yesterday... a nice break in the monotony of the drive up and back.

And the happy result: family all home and reunited, until Older Daughter's next move in about three weeks, destination Hollywood via Chavez Ravine. (I'm looking forward to catching a glimpse of the great Vin Scully, she's looking forward to a glimpse of her professional future.)

Another happy weekend event: the neighbors down the street hosted a block party, with bourbon, beer, barbeque, and bluegrass  I'd just been complaining about how we don't make enough of an effort, most of the time, to know the people in our neighborhood. As with so many inertial complaints, the solution was simple. Somebody just had to step up and issue the invitations. Thanks for your generosity and initiative, neighbors.

Today's lifelong learning philosophers thought happiness pretty easy to solve: the Stoics and Skeptics both say it involves a therapeutic recognition and acceptance of our limitations. We can only do and know so much. As the overworked sports cliche has it, they tell us we can be happy if we just learn to "stay within ourselves" and don't overreach.

The original Hellenistic Stoics and Skeptics were cousins of the Epicureans and Cynics. What they all had in common was a sense that humans could indeed take the initiative and create the conditions of their own well-being by living in accord with nature. They "hoped to move philosophy beyond the bounds of formal discussion" established in the groves of Plato's and Aristotle's academes, writes Arthur Herman in The Cave and the Light, and to impress everyday people with the value of reflective thinking that informs deliberate and ameliorative living. They "would have been at home on Facebook or Twitter as any contemporary blogger."

Image result for diogenes the cynic

Diogenes the Cynic was a dog philosopher, finding canines more reliable than humans. Homeless, fearless, and deconstructive, he famously told Alexander to "stand out of my sunlight." He had no use for social status or convention, or for intellectual conundrums that fail to recognize a practical solution even when staring it in the face. [Diogenes @dawn]

Solvitur ambulando! He'd have been fun at a block party. Probably not so much help on moving day, though: we'd have had to step around the "School of Athens" lounger while he complained about the light.
Happy birthday, Studs Terkel! Studs was no cynic, but Diogenes would have loved him anyway. "Why are we born? We're born eventually to die, of course. But what happens between the time we're born and we die? We're born to live. One is a realist if one hopes."

5:30/5:41, 51/70, 7:45

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Grit in the glass

The Stoics and Skeptics are glass-half-empty people, a lack-centered disposition and temperament not to my taste. But they're also be calm and  carry on people of perseverance and grit. That deserves a lot of credit.

“Begin each day," advises Aurelius, "by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”  I don't endorse that - we've all had many better days, better meetings - but I do admire the proactivity, the advance work, and the charity of the assumption that even the most obnoxious people are doing the best they know how to do.

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” True, and on the quality of the thoughts of others whose deeds flow from those thoughts. Stoics don't like to talk about that, and the vulnerable mutual dependency it implies, but it's true too. That's why we can't be content to work only on ourselves, and why I can't accept the Stoic proposition that only our respective interiors can be landscaped. We must ameliorate external conditions too, or die trying.

For Schopenhauer, external conditions and inner life alike are wholly controlled by the impersonal, implacable, voracious Will. We can't starve it to death but we can learn to feed it on our schedule, and feed it less.

“It is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.” Yes, but the best skeptics know it's imperative to seek it together and in public, and to share our finds. That's why they write books, live with dogs (Schopenhauer's were all called "Atman"), and stay on Earth as long as they can. We must imagine them (the best of them) happy. Glass half empty? I'll have another.

6 am/5:43, 59/63/43, 7:43

Friday, May 13, 2016

Reubenesque reunion

Looking ahead to Sunday's trip up I-24 to help Older Daughter gather and schlep her stuff back to Tennessee, and to Monday's Happiness, when we'll be talking Stoics and Skeptics.

When she was home last summer, Older Daughter and I bonded over homemade Reuben sandwiches and Tina Fey. She was on a Netflix binge-mission to see every last "30 Rock" episode. When she discovered my proficiency at grilling kraut, corned beef, and rye (with a side of vinegar chips and a deli pickle) the show and the sandwich became our lunchtime Thing.

So naturally, when I thought about her homecoming yesterday around lunchtime I just had to make a Reuben and text a picture of it to her. "Brushing up." -"Can't wait!"

Do Stoics get excited about family reunions, and express their excitement in silly-happy gestures? Or is that too emotive for a sensibility that, in the popular imagination at least, generally dampens and discourages overt displays of affection that risk deepening our dependent attachment on sources of happiness (like beloved other persons) beyond ourselves and our immediate control? You can't master events, they say, but you can and should manage your mental response to events.

I hope most Stoics are still in touch with an affectionate inner responsiveness, even if it doesn't always show. Just as we were saying the other day, happiness so frequently is the unforced flower of simple life and its small occasions when we allow ourselves to feel it. Every day can be Mother's Day.

The popular imagination is fed by pop-cultural stereotypes. I'm always picking on Mr. Spock, in class, and pointing out how ill-served his human half is by the suppression of spontaneous good cheer. Violent emotion may indeed be a kind of madness, but severe self-repression and hyper-reserve are just as crazy. To paraphrase David Hume: be a Stoic, but amidst your stoic vulcan philosophy be still a (hu)man.

Oliver Burkeman is a modern-day stoic/skeptic, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. He disparages "the modern-day 'cult of optimism'" and extols the Stoics. "For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility, not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word, 'happiness.' And tranquility was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one's circumstances.”

I can't be indifferent to any positive "circumstance," from a well-grilled Reuben to an overdue reunion. Excitable cheer is not everything, but it's still a big part of what happiness means to me.

In the right frame of mind, Oliver, we don't have to "chase after enjoyable experiences" - they'll come right to us. We just have to be ready to catch them.

5:45/5:43, 59/77

Thursday, May 12, 2016

No drones on our journey

What a different vibe on campus, this time of year - calm and quiet, unhurried, plenty of parking. Our classroom in the Business and Aerospace Building, home base for our summer stroll through civilization, is like Leibniz's monads: no windows. But unlike those misbegotten monads we have a remedy for our insular condition: we'll break out for at least twenty minutes every hour, into the empty corridors and open air.

I was amused to see that our classroom is across the hall from the unmanned aircraft office, or (as I prefer to call it) the Center for Drone Studies. The concept of sending mechanical proxies to do our work, especially our dirty work, is profoundly antithetical to the peripatetic model. We have to do our own strolling, if we want to find the nectar in the journey.

We're a small but varied and voluble group, it's going to be a great course. We barely began discussing some important themes sure to recur - the evident gap between the historical Socrates and his dialogic representation by Plato, the limits of perfectionism, whether there really is a universal and mathematically precise "language of nature" applicable to everything, including politics. All part of the "big picture," and we're on our way to find it.

Before class I met the charming retired couple from our May mini-Happiness class. They've been everywhere, and they're still eagerly traveling and learning. They know where to find that nectar. They know philosophy travels.

5:30/5:44, 66/82/54

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Another journey begins

Image result for cave light hermanAnother Opening Day in May! Our first Stroll Through Western Civilization class meets late this afternoon, starting with the first three chapters of Arthur Herman's The Cave and the Light.

Right off the bat, I want to call the class's attention to a different bit of body language than we usually notice or stress when gazing at the centerpiece of Raphael's "School of Athens" - not the hands, but the feet. Those guys are taking a stroll, as they debate the relative merits of transcendent versus earth-centered philosophy. And so will we, figuratively and (when summer weather and mood allow) literally, as we stride through centuries of Platonic perfectionists, Aristotelian peripatetics, and other "footnotes" (as Alfred North Whitehead said) to Plato and Aristotle.

Midway through our course we'll bring A Philosophy of Walking explicitly into the conversation. In fact I'll bring it up right away today, while Frederic Gros waits in the wings. Chris Orlet's "The Gymansiums of the Mind" is a good first step.
If there is one idea intellectuals can agree upon it is that the act of ambulation – or as we say in the midwest, walking – often serves as a catalyst to creative contemplation and thought. It is a belief as old as the dust that powders the Acropolis, and no less fine. Followers of the Greek Aristotle were known as peripatetics because they passed their days strolling and mind-wrestling through the groves of the Academe. The Romans’ equally high opinion of walking was summed up pithily in the Latin proverb: “It is solved by walking.”
Nearly every philosopher-poet worth his salt has voiced similar sentiments. Erasmus recommended a little walk before supper and “after supper do the same.” Thomas Hobbes had an inkwell built into his walking stick to more easily jot down his brainstorms during his rambles. Jean- Jacques Rousseau claimed he could only meditate when walking: “When I stop, I cease to think,” he said. “My mind only works with my legs.” Søren Kierkegaard believed he’d walked himself into his best thoughts. In his brief life Henry David Thoreau walked an estimated 250,000 miles, or ten times the circumference of earth. “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” wrote Thoreau, “unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from worldly engagements.” Thoreau’s landlord and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson characterized walking as “gymnastics for the mind.” (continues, Philosophy Now)
How much more solidly grounded is a philosophy that travels? A lot, I say. William James called for a shift in philosophy's center of gravity, towards the "earth of things." You don't have to take very many steps before you begin to feel the literal sense of that shift. Boots on the ground, or sandals (or Skechers) feel more real, less abstract, than so much ethereal Gradual School seminar palaver.

Rebecca Goldstein's perspective on all this is novel. In Plato at the Googleplex she cites an exchange between Paul Boghossian and Stanley Fish over moral relativism and the relevance of philosophy. Fish says philosophy's conclusions "do not travel." Goldstein observes:
"These lines from Fish might have come straight out of one of Plato's nightmares.  
Picture Plato waking all of a heart-pounding sudden on an airless Athenian summer night, these words thundering in his head: Philosophy doesn't travel. Were these the words of some doom-declaiming oracle or fragments of his own internal doubt... He feared that the conclusions reached around philosophy's seminar table might stay around philosophy's seminar table."
Not for us they won't. We'll take them out into the courtyard of our Lyceum. There's a Starbucks on the other side of it, and beyond that the Boulevard - if any of us needs further incentive to travel.

To the journey!

5:30/5:45, 71/86