Friday, February 8, 2013

Worries Incompatible With Wisdom

Here is a thought-provoking perspective on the value and aims of studying the liberal arts.  Imagine a university promoting itself in this way today, saying, in effect, "You should study the liberal arts, and most likely this will help you not to worry about the wrong things."

“While there are many sorts of arts, the first to proffer their services to the natural abilities of those who philosophize are the liberal arts….The liberal arts are said to have become so efficacious among our ancestors, who studied them diligently, that they enabled them to comprehend everything they read, elevated their understanding to all things, and empowered them to cut through the knots of all problems possible of solution….They are called “liberal” either because the ancients took care to have their children [liberos] instructed in them; or because their object is to effect man’s liberation, so that, freed from cares, he may devote himself to wisdom. More often than not, they liberate us from cares incompatible with wisdom. They often even free us from worry about [material] necessities, so that the mind may have still greater liberty to apply itself to philosophy.”*
Photo by David O'Hara
This is one of the things you don't need to worry about.


It may not be immediately obvious that there are cares that are "incompatible with wisdom," but it doesn't take too much reflection to see that there are certain kinds of worries that we really are unwise to cling to.
Photo by David O'Hara
My dog worries about hot-air balloons. I do not know why, but that's okay.


I don't think that "cares incompatible with wisdom" means "foolish cares." John is not simply being polite; he is also being compassionate, and acknowledging that we do not generally choose our troubles, and it can take training, and hard work, not to worry about them.  Sometimes, worrying isn't even a choice, and we should be slow to damn those who worry uncontrollably.

*John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon. Daniel D. McGarry, trans. (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2009) Book I, ch 12. P. 37.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Steinbeck and Greene On Respect For Enemies

These two passages seem like they ought to be put together somehow.  The first is from Steinbeck, the second is from Greene. Although the first is non-fiction and the second is fiction, they both deal with the same thing: soldiers who found themselves lamenting the deaths of their enemies, and who admired their enemies' fighting.  The two passages remind me, in turn, of Josiah Royce's Philosophy of Loyalty, where he claims that soldiers may be loyal to their fellow soldiers but also to the same spirit of loyalty in their enemies, even though they are not loyal to their enemies themselves.  I am also reminded of William James's point in "The Moral Equivalent of War" where he says that no one would repeat the American Civil War, but, just as surely, no one would erase it from history.  The conflict engenders virtues and sacrifices that it would be just as wrong to seek as to destroy.
“Some years ago my neighbor was Charles Erskine Scott Wood, who wrote Heavenly Discourse.  He was a very old man when I knew him, but as a young lieutenant just out of military academy he had been assigned to General Miles and he served in the Chief Joseph campaign.  His memory of it was very clear and very sad.  He said it was one of the most gallant retreats in all history.  Chief Joseph and the Nez Percés with squaws and children, dogs, and all their possessions, retreated under heavy fire for over a thousand miles, trying to escape to Canada. Wood said they fought every step of the way against odds until finally they were surrounded by the cavalry under General Miles and the large part of them wiped out.  It was the saddest duty he had ever performed, Wood said, and he had never lost his respect for the fighting qualities of the Nez Percés.  ‘If they hadn’t had their families with them we could never have caught them,” he said.  “And if we had been evenly matched in men and weapons, we couldn’t have beaten them.  They were men,” he said, “real men.”
And here's Greene:
“Trouin said, ‘Today’s affair—that is not the worst for someone like myself.  Over the village they could have shot us down.  Our risk was as great as theirs.  What I detest is napalm bombing.  From three thousand feet, in safety.’  He made a hopeless gesture.  ‘You see the forest catching fire.  God knows what you would see from the ground.  The poor devils are burned alive, the flames go over them like water.  They are wet through with fire.’  He said with anger against a whole world that didn’t understand, ‘I’m not fighting a colonial war. Do you think I’d do these things for the planters of Terre Rouge?  I’d rather be court-martialled.  We are fighting all of your wars, but you leave us the guilt.”
These are things that I, who have never had to fight a war, can only gaze at from afar, with wonder, and sadness, and gratitude.


John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley In Search Of America, (New York: Penguin, 1983) 159-160.  
Graham Greene, The Quiet American, (New York: Modern Library, 1992) 196-197.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Epimenides, Or Religion Without Metaphysics

This week I've been reading and re-reading Howard Wettstein's The Significance of Religious Experience and, at the same time, talking with my friend John Kaag about creativity and wonder in Peirce and the other classical Pragmatists.

At the end of his Cambridge Conference lectures of 1898, Peirce quoted a phrase from the Book of Acts, ch 17.  The phrase is "live and move and have our being."  It appears in a speech by St. Paul, the only time the Greek Testament records a Christian conversing with philosophers.  Paul quotes two Greek writers in that speech, Aratus and Epimenides.

The citation of Epimenides is relevant to the Areopagus, the place where Paul is speaking, as I have written elsewhere.   Paul quotes Epimenides' poem, the Cretica, in which Epimenides says of Zeus. "In him we live and move and have our being."

Epimenides had been summoned to the Areopagus several centuries prior to Paul's visit.  The Athenians were suffering from a long plague and none of their sacrifices had ended it.  As Diogenes Laertius recounts,* Epimenides suggested that if their sacrifices to the gods they knew were not availing them, perhaps they should sacrifice to an as-yet unknown god.  

The difficulty is that if you don't know the god, how do you know what the god wants?  What are the proper prayers?  What are the right sacrifices?  Who should make them?

Epimenides' solution appears to have been to confess ignorance and then to engage in the ritual to the best of his knowledge.  In the absence of settled doctrine, he leaned on human practice.  As Epicurus once pointed out, (see the very first line in Epicurus's Principal Doctrines) if your god gets angry about that sort of thing, it's probably not a god worth worshiping anyway.

To put a positive spin on that, consider how the Epimenides story ends: he directs the sacrifices, and the plague ends.  And the Athenians leave the altars to an unknown god on the slopes of the Areopagus, where Paul finds one centuries later.  Maybe, just maybe, it's possible to pray without knowing everything about God.  And maybe, if there's a God, that God knows we don't know much about God at all, and is okay with that.  Maybe religion is, as Wettstein suggests, like mathematics, something we can engage in even in the absence of settled knowledge about the underlying metaphysics.  I hope so.

Foreground: Agora of Athens; Background: Acropolis (L) and Areopagus (R) of Athens.

I took this photo from the temple of Hephaestus on the West end of the ancient agora of Athens.  The ruins in the foreground are the old marketplace and civic buildings.  At the top left is the Acropolis and the Parthenon; just to the right of the Acropolis is the Areopagus, which currently hosts no buildings, though if you look closely you can see some tourists walking around on the hill.  Presumably Epimenides built his altars on the slope leading up to the Areopagus.  According to the story in Acts, St Paul preached first in the agora and then on the Areopagus, walking up past an altar left by Epimenides. 

* We also find reference to the altars erected by Epimenides in Pausanias (I.i.4); and in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius.  Lucian's Philopatris alludes to it as well, but it is possible that he is referring to Acts 17.  Epimenides is quoted more than once in the Greek scriptures; he is also quoted in Titus 1.12.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

An Ounce Of Prevention

An old Chinese legend tells about a man who was searching for the world's greatest physician.*  He learns of a man who can heal any illness, and he assumes that this healer must be the one he is seeking.  The healer denies this, saying that another physician is even greater.  The greatest physician is the one who can heal any disease before it even begins.

I've lost track of how many times I've heard someone say recently that the point of the Second Amendment is, first of all, to safeguard the other rights enumerated in the Constitution, and second, that a well-regulated militia is necessary in case we ever need to overthrow a government that has turned into a tyranny.

I have a little (though not much) sympathy with the second of those positions, but the first is, I think, simply wrong.  Here's why: the First Amendment is itself an extremely powerful tool, and it is fitting that it should precede the Second, because an attempt to solve problems by reasonable words should always precede the attempt to solve our problems by force.  In other words, if we exercise our First Amendment rights responsibly, we will never need to invoke the Second to overthrow our government. One of the beautiful things about our Constitution is the way it provides means for us to address unjust power grabs by our government officials without starting an insurrection.

But the bigger problem is one of what fills our hearts and minds: Focusing our attention on preparing to overthrow a future tyranny is like a physician preparing to euthanize a patient who might someday become ill. Yes, it is possible to "cure" any illness by killing the patient, but it's not good medicine.  We need more than just preparedness to kill a disease; we need to promote good health as well.

If you're concerned about the nation becoming a tyranny, buying more guns is a poor response.  Here are some far better responses:
  1. Support good schools. One of the best defenses against a nation falling apart is a well-educated populace.  People who are able to think for themselves are less likely to let others do their thinking for them, which is one of the surest defenses against abdicating to a tyrant.  People who know their rights and their history will be well-prepared to fight to defend them.  People who only know how to fight but don't know what they're fighting for promote instability in government.
  2. Promote economic opportunity for everyone.  We celebrate Dr. King as a promoter of equal rights, but it's worth remembering that for him those rights were closely tied to the opportunity to exercise them and to help one's family to flourish.
  3. Encourage bright people in your community to become teachers. Public school teachers play too important a role for us to not want our brightest minds in our classrooms.  I'm not just talking about STEM fields, either.  Literature, history, social sciences and arts are the disciplines that shape our imaginations.  Without good art and good stories, you don't have a nation, period.   
  4.  Subscribe to your local newspaper. Here are two of the most important professions for any democracy: law and journalism.  Without defense attorneys to defend rights, equal rights don't mean much.  And without investigative journalism, power will corrupt governors unchecked.  Your subscription is your share of the paycheck of people who will watch the custodians of the state.  There's not much more important than that.
Democracies are not just defended by military might; the first lines of defense are in those places where the diseases to which democracies succumb are cured before they begin: teachers, lawyers, and journalists all practice preventive medicine for democracies.  If your sole response to the threat of tyranny is to pick up a gun, you should rethink your political medicine, and begin to practice like the world's greatest physicians, eliminating the diseases before they begin.


* Thomas Cleary tells this story in the translator's introduction to his edition of Sun Tzu's The Art Of War (Shambhala: Boston and London, 1988) p. 1.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Howler Monkeys of Petén, Guatemala

Each year I co-teach a January-term class on tropical ecology in Guatemala and Belize.

Photo by David O'Hara
One of the wonders of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve
One of my favorite experiences when I return to Guatemala is hearing the howler monkeys at night.  Their voices travel for miles through the forest, it seems.  My students are often alarmed by the noise, because the monkeys will approach silently and then begin to howl in the treetops overhead with voices that seem to belong to something much bigger than a mono aullador, as they are called in Spanish.

During one of my last trips I made this video.  We were setting up camp in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, or Biosfera Maya, en route to Tikal, when several troops of howlers began to sing nearby.  We followed the voices to one of the nearest troops so we could get a closer look at these gentle beauties, our placid arboreal cousins.  Enjoy the sound.


If you're interested in bringing your students to this fairly well-preserved rainforest and arranging local guides, you might check out the Asociación Bio-Itzá, an indigenous Mayan group dedicated to preserving their forest, their ancestral knowledge, and their language.  They have a small rustic facility on their rainforest reserve and a Spanish-language school for foreigners (with very reasonable prices) on the north shore of Lake Petén Itzá, not far from the airport at Flores and from the beautiful ruins of Tikal. 


(A friend tells me he extracted the sound from this video of mine and uploaded it to the wikipedia page on howler monkeys.)