Category Archives: books

The Sausage Sisters

In the middle of the second week of national political conventions, I’m reminded of a post from a bit over a year ago about what I have learned about political systems from my dachshunds.

It has been a rough ten days at our house. Not because Jeanne had knee replacement surgery a week ago Tuesday and has been rehabbing, first in the hospital then in a short-term facility, until returning home yesterday afternoon. Not because I have been worried about her, about the piles of grading that never seem to get any smaller, and about overcoming my visceral dislike of health-care facilities as I visit her every day. 100_0712No, it’s been a rough ten days because the girls at home, our three four-legged daughters, have been missing Mom more and more as their suspicion that Dad is a sub-par canine care provider is confirmed more fully as each day passes. Why doesn’t Dad do things—feed us, entertain us, talk to us, sit on the couch with all three of us, give us treats because we are breathing properly—in the manner to which we have become accustomed? What the hell is Dad’s purpose, anyways?

Our three daughters—Frieda, Winnie, and Bean—have shared the space a foot or two above the floor with each other in our house for the past six years. Frieda came first, nine years ago, with Bean and Winnie joining the pack about eight months apart in 2008-09. And it is definitely a pack. IMG_9677Frieda, a late-middle-aged dachshund with perhaps a bit of chihuahua thrown in (don’t tell her we noticed) is clearly the alpha dog—indeed she is the alpha living creature in the house, trumping not only her sisters but her parents in both will and importance when necessary. Bean (Boston Terrier) and Winnie (another dachshund—pure bred) are still trying to figure out who is second in the pack; after six years under the same roof they still fight over who gets to sit closest to Mom and who gets to drag the most raggedy toys around. 100_0685Winnie and Bean are both rescue dogs, with all the personality peculiarities and peccadilloes that accompany such a start in life. Bean’s need for serious therapy is so great that she will get her own blog post soon. This one’s about Frieda and Winnie—the “Sausage Sisters,” as my oldest son has named them—and how my years of observing and loving them gave me unexpected insights into Plato’s Republic.

When I unexpectedly took on a Philosophy of the Human Person course as an overload just a few weeks before the beginning of the current semester because of a colleague’s unexpected illness, I decided that this was my opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do for many years—teach an entire introductory philosophy class with no text other than Plato’s Republic. republicNow, a few days from the end of the semester, twenty-five students and I have pulled it off—our text for today’s penultimate class is the final ten pages of the dialogue, and my students will join the ranks of the .01% of human beings alive who have read this greatest of all philosophical works in the Western tradition from cover to cover. The overall question of Republic is What is justice?—a question Plato investigates from various angles, including the comparison of justice in various communities as large projections of justice in similarly structured individuals. Over the past few weeks, as we compared Plato’s favored form of governance—aristocracy (“rule of the best”)—with his next-to-least favorite—democracy (“rule of the many”)—while also contrasting individuals with aristocratic and democratic souls, I thought “I know these people. They live in my house.” And I brought my illustrative tale of two dachshunds to class.

Although it takes three hundred pages for Plato to fully answer the What is justice? question, he provides his definition of justice just a little more than a third of the way through the dialogue. Justice in a community arises when the various classes of rulers, soldiers, artisans and providers play their differing assigned roles effectively without striving to be anything other than what they are. JusticeThe hallmark of justice, in other words, is harmony between the factions and each group knowing its place in the pecking order. Social classes in a less-than-just society would be at odds and in competitive conflict with each other. Similarly in the just and “best” (aristos) individual, the various parts of the soul are in harmony, ruled by reason, energized by directed passion, and served appropriately by the satisfaction of the appetites. The person with the just, aristocratic soul, in other words, has her priorities straight, in proper ranking, and does not stray from them.

Frieda is a case in point. “Herself,” as Jeanne and I often refer to her, has three Friedalinapriorities—food, sleep, and affection. In that order. And she does not waver from them. Frieda is obsessed with food—there are apocryphal stories of her eating a whole pie when she was a young thing—and she will materialize immediately in the kitchen from anywhere in the house if she hears or intuits a promising food-related vibration. She eats Bean’s and Winnie’s food if she gets the chance, often before her own, just because she’s the alpha dog and she can. She gets a heart pill once every morning, an event starred on her daily calendar because she receives it embedded in a piece of human food (hot dog, banana, anything handy that’s edible). 500074-R1-050-23A_024Frieda sleeps at the top of the bed between Jeanne’s and my heads, a location that has been “hers” since time immemorial. And her affection requirements are specific and unwavering. She loves to be rubbed under her chin, often leaving her snout pointing at the sky after such a chin rub if it hasn’t lasted long enough, frozen in position until the person doing the rubbing picks up the cue and continues. She has specific locations that she must occupy when sharing a piece of furniture with a human—on my right side in the recliner (even though I prefer her on my left) and behind Jeanne on the couch (although Jeanne would prefer her to be anywhere but behind her). Frieda has shown interest in only one toy in her life, the “piggy” that dissolved from overuse some time ago—playing with toys or playing at all, for that matter, is beneath her. 500074-R1-010-3A_004She is the alpha dog, the queen of all she surveys, and she has her priorities straight. The embodiment of Plato’s aristocratic soul.

Plato’s regard for and opinion of both democracy and those with democratic souls is, shall we say, rather low. We love democracy for its freedom, for its theoretical commitment to egalitarianism and the equal value of all human beings, its openness to variety and new ideas, and for its facilitation of choice. And these are all reasons that Plato rates democracy toward the bottom of his types of government. democracyHis primary critique is that democracy is selling itself and others a lie by pretending that everyone is the same and that all human concerns are equally valuable, when deep down we know that none of this is true. In the soul of a democratic person, all things are equally valuable—the democratic person flits from interest to interest, from idea to appetite, from today’s passion to tomorrow’s obsession, while lacking the ability to prioritize, to rank, or to place the details of her or his life in proper order. It’s interesting, it’s attractive, it’s chaotic, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Democracy is no way to run a society or a life.

100_0870Consider Winnie, for instance. Winnie is cute, loveable, a classically marked black-and-tan dachshund who loves affection and biting strangers on the foot or ankle for no apparent reason. Winnie loves to eat, but also loves toys with squeakers in them, following Mom around about a foot behind her heels, burrowing under blankets, barking at nothing, and endless affection. Just like the democratic person, Winnie has many interests and obsessions. And just as the democratic person, they all are equally important. dynamism-of-a-dog-on-a-leash1Winnie has a difficult time walking a straight line because her attention can so easily be attracted by the slightest thing. We sometimes describe her as “skittish,” but she’s really just a democratic soul incapable of prioritizing. Food, toys, attention, barking, simultaneous fear of and aggression toward strangers (and Dad walking in the back door after having been gone for thirty seconds throwing out the trash) occasionally send Winnie into sensory overload, marked by running around the house frantically squeaking a raggedy toy until she collapses flat on her back with all four legs straight up. 10382538_742444875835442_7623295977732445797_oIt is amusing to watch, just as it is amusing to observe on Facebook the inability of many people to prioritize in terms of importance between sharing a picture of their latest meal and participating in a discussion about global warming. Democratic souls in action.

Some years ago books like “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” were all the rage. “All I Really Need to Know about Plato I Learned from My Dachshunds” is not quite as catchy, but I’ll bet it would attract philosophy majors. Now if the Sausage Sisters could just help me with Hegel or Heidegger.198889_112520288827907_1958039_n

Home for Each Other

Twenty-eight years ago today my father said a few words over a beautiful redhead and me. Celebrate with us!

small victoriesIn her recent book Small Victories, Anne Lamott includes a hilarious chapter describing her year as an early sixty-something on Match.com. Four years after her last serious relationship ended, she decided to go high-tech and find some dates on-line. If she had asked me, I would have advised against it. I know a handful of people who have gone the Internet dating route and ultimately wished they hadn’t, matcheither because they failed to find anyone close to acceptable or, even worse, because they actually found someone and are now living to regret it. As she put her Match.com profile together, Anne asked herself what she was really looking for. Fun? Adventure? Sex? As it turned out, she realized that she was really looking for something better than all of the above.

Union with a partner–someone with whom to wake, whom you love, and talk with on and off all day, and sit with at dinner, and watch TV and movies with, and read together in bed with, and do hard tasks with, and are loved by. That sounds really lovely.

“Wow,” I thought as I read her description. “That sounds like Jeanne and me—except that Anne forgot about the three dogs in bed part.” And Anne is right—it really is lovely.

Both of us inched past six decades on earth recently; it is a surprise when I realize that we have now spent almost half of our lives on earth together. A surprise, because in some ways it seems longer than that—I have to concentrate to remember details of my life before we met over twenty-eight years ago. People in their early thirties have a lot of history behind them and are carrying a lot of baggage—mine included a failed marriage and two young sons—Trudy and Bruce June 1982but in many ways I feel as if my life truly began when my parents introduced the two of us the day before Thanksgiving so many years ago. I suspect that  knowledge of everything the ensuing twenty-eight years would hold might have given us pause. But lacking such knowledge, we did what people who have fallen in love frequently do—we decided to give it a shot. As Kierkegaard once said, even though life can only be understood backwards, it has to be lived forwards.

And as they say, life is what happens while you are making other plans; or, I might add, what happens when you are too busy with the details of the daily grind to notice. The best thing anyone has ever said to me about Jeanne’s and my relationship came from a very wise friend in the middle of a particularly challenging time a number of years ago. “You and Jeanne are home for each other,” my friend said. And she was right. Homes need repairs on occasion, need sprucing up at other times, require regular infusions of resources, and should not be taken for granted—it is a terrible thing to be homeless. That applies to the physical structures we live in as well. But the space that Jeanne and I inhabit has truly become what Anne Lamott was looking for (and didn’t find) on Match.com—a place to comfortably live.

I think many of the people who knew us individually before we met wondered how two people who are so different would be able to make a long-term relationship work. We still are very different, but have built our days and nights around the things that we love and appreciate together. 100_0712Our three dogs. Great television. Going to the movies. Going to Friars games. Texts more often than phone calls. A shared commitment to trying to figure out what faith means and what God is. And the simple but profound joy of having one person in the world who knows me better than I know myself, a person who I don’t need to try to impress or to convince of my value and worth on a daily basis, who knows both the best and the worst I can be and is still there. And the pleasure of returning that favor of love.Jeanne singing

Jeanne and I occasionally argue about who is going to die first—she says that she is and I say that I am. It’s not that I am uninterested in living as many years as possible—I’ll take as many as I can get as long as I’m accompanied by all my faculties. It’s just that I don’t want to be homeless. Happy Anniversary to the person who agreed to build a home with me many years ago when we were too young and in love to know what we were doing—thanks for twenty-eight years of finding out together what love really is!The lovely couple

Lady M

My Life as Lady Macbeth

The new semester begins in less than two months and I’m pumped! I’m particularly anxious to be back in the classroom again because I’m coming off a year’s sabbatical and have not been in front of a class for fifteen months. In addition, this will be the first time in over ten years that I have not had to balance my teaching energies with significant administrative duties. I’ve already been asked to chair one committee and be a member of two others this coming year, but that’s nothing compared to running a department or program. I’m not complaining, though–I learned a lot about myself and my leadership style over the past decade. I wrote about this a couple of years ago as I entered my final year of running a large interdisciplinary program on my campus . . .

NiccoloOver five hundred years ago, Niccolò Machiavelli raised a classic question in The Prince: for a person with power seeking to keep or increase that power, Is it better to be loved or to be feared? This question came up in two separate seminars during Old Testament week with my freshmen in only their second week of college. The texts for the day were the first twenty-five chapters of Genesis along with the first twenty-five of Exodus; the main character in these texts—God—seems in his omniscience to have decided Machiavelli’s question millennia before Machiavelli ever showed up. For an extraordinarily powerful being who also happens to be capricious, vengeful, manipulative, insecure and self-absorbed, fear is far more effective than love. My students frequently wondered why God so often found it necessary to express divine power in over-the-top and destructive ways, given that nobody doubted who was more powerful in a God-human comparison, nor was it likely that anyone was plotting an overthrow of God’s rule. GodThe ancient Israelites and their forebears had probably read Milton’s Paradise Lost and found out what happened to Lucifer when he tried that. And apparently God wasn’t aware that Machiavelli’s question applies only to those whose power can actually be lost. If one is omnipotent, one can do whatever the hell one wants.

But for mere mortals lacking the ability to generate world-wide floods or to drop creative plagues on non-compliant people, Machiavelli’s question remains pressing. If one finds oneself in a position of power or authority and is seeking to use that power effectively, is it better to cultivate love or fear among those under one’s authority? Although teachers sometimes sound as if they are entirely powerless in the face of pressures from all constituencies, in fact a teacher in the classroom finds herself in a situation of almost complete power that demands a constant, flexible, lived answer to Machiavelli’s question. A teacher’s success or failure depends on how she or he shapes love and fear into a structure solid enough to withstand challenge but flexible enough to address the ever-changing atmosphere of the classroom on a daily basis. dept chairI’ve been at it for over twenty-five years and am still working on it.

I had to think through the “love or fear” issue in an entirely different manner when I found myself in an academic administrative position for the first time. As the chair of the twenty-two-member philosophy department, knowing that if trying to lead faculty is like herding cats, then trying to lead philosophers is like herding a breed of cats who believe that ideas alone are enough and that simply thinking something makes it so, I worried about how to even begin. At the end of four sometimes exhausting years, I was surprised to look back on my term as chair and conclude that it had largely been a success. We rewrote the department mission statement, entirely revised our major and minor, and hired six tenure-track faculty, all without anyone getting killed or maimed. Not known for my “people skills,” it turned out that I had a knack for what might be called “diplomatic persuasion.” I sometimes described this new-found skill as the ability to “diss someone without their knowing they’ve been dissed until a day later,” or to “convince people that what you want them to do is actually their idea.” diplomatic persuasionAmid tedious solitary hours of paperwork and tedium, the people management thing was sort of fun—and no one hated me (that I’m aware of) at the end of four years.

When I was asked a couple of years later to step into much larger and more challenging administrative role—leading the large interdisciplinary program that is the centerpiece of my college’s core curriculum—I dusted off my “diplomatic persuasion” skills and retooled them for the task of leading and cajoling four times as many faculty down a much more treacherous path than I traveled with the philosophy department in my years as chair. Within the first couple of my first semester as director, I established a few new policies and started some difficult collective conversations that I fully expected to generate significant pushback. Surprisingly, I received almost none—everyone actually started doing what I asked. “Wow!” I thought. “My ‘diplomatic persuasion’ leadership skills really work! I actually know what I’m doing!”

Early one morning shortly before the day’s classes began I mentioned to a colleague who was a teaching veteran in the program my pleasant surprise that no one had (yet) directly complained about the new directions the program was turning toward. “That’s because everyone’s afraid of you,” my colleague suggested. Afraid of ME? Really? Introverted little ole me?? VM Ruane 9Although my colleague is not known for her sense of humor, I assumed she was kidding. “Yeah, right (ha ha ha)” I said. She replied by revealing something about me that I never knew “No, really. You can be very intimidating at times.” Add fifteen years in the program, tenure, full professorship, introversion, a teaching award and a gray ponytail together and apparently the illusion of intimidation is produced. “Fine,” I thought. “If people are under the false impression that I’m scary on some level and it’s causing them to actually pull together in a good direction, then that’s a card worth playing as long as it works.” When I reported a couple of weeks later to my two sons at our annual Thanksgiving gathering that the faculty in my program is afraid of me, the news produced guffaws and laughter of a rolling-on-the-ground-and-gasping-for-air variety.Propero

I was reminded of all of this three years later just the other day as the latest Facebook personality quiz caught my attention. “Which Shakespeare character are you?” Fully expecting the typical bland “You are Hamlet” or “You are Prospero,” another unknown feature of myself was unexpectedly revealed.

http://quizsocial.com/which-shakespeare-character-are-you/

Lady MacbethYou got: Lady Macbeth! Wow, are you ever good at manipulating people into doing what you want! It is a valuable skill, one that could help you secure a job in government one day, but also a dangerous one. Like Lady Macbeth, you have a love of power that could motivate you to do evil things. Don’t let it overtake you.

Well now—that’s very interesting. Am I really channeling one of the most determined and evil manipulators in all of Western literature? The closest contemporary comparison to Lady Macbeth is Claire Underwood, the amoral, calculating, ambitious and uncompromisingly cold wife of Frank Underwood, claire and frankthe Senate majority whip who in two seasons has climbed, manipulated, lied and murdered his way to the Presidency in Netfix’s megahit “House of Cards.” The only person more ruthlessly calculating than Frank in the “House of Cards” universe is Claire—she keeps his manipulative batteries charged when they run low. And I’m not making this up—there’s a whole cottage industry on-line that documents just how indebted “House of Cards” is to Shakespeare, especially to “Richard III” and “Macbeth,” and just how much Claire and Frank’s marriage mirrors the relationship between Lady and King (for a short time) Macbeth. (Spoiler alert)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/21/house-of-cards-shakespeare-_n_4823200.html

So apparently my commitment to “diplomatic persuasion” is actually an expression of my deep-seated commitment to power and manipulation. w to p barMy expressed desire to lead the program I direct effectively into a new and more creative future is a thinly disguised working out of my need to control. Nietzsche was right after all—all living things seek not just to survive but to extend their dominance and influence as far as possible. Administering an academic department or program has unexpectedly turned out to be an effective way for me to get to do what all human beings secretly want to do but often never get a chance to do—boss other people around and make them dance to your tune. I may end up dead with indelible blood on my hands, but the journey will be a lot of fun.

Or not. I’m not buying this, because I’m not buying that leadership necessarily requires a commitment to manipulation and power. leadershipBut I might be wrong. Maybe my sabbatical project should be to establish a new Lady Macbeth School of Leadership on some campus somewhere. It’s a thought. P.S. From Facebook comments generated by the results of the above Shakespeare quiz, I have discovered that friends and colleagues have learned that they are Bottom, Iago, Falstaff or Richard III. But so far I’m the only Lady Macbeth. The “quizsocial” person must have been having a very dark day when he/she put this quiz together.

Naming Our Demons

sheep on its backMy youngest son was a vet tech for a number of years and had many informed opinions about different types of animals. The stupidest animals he ever dealt with were sheep—I always knew that it is not a compliment when human beings are regularly likened to sheep in the Bible. For instance, Justin tells me that all one has to do to get a sheep to behave is to put it on its back. Once feet up, a sheep apparently believes that she or he has been conquered and will not struggle, no matter what is done to it. Just watch the movie “Babe” and you’ll find out how dumb sheep are.babe

“Babe” also lets us know which animal occupies the other end of the intelligence spectrum from sheep. Despite a lot of bad press of various sorts, pigs are incredibly intelligent; Justin says that the some of the pigs he dealt with were smarter than a lot of the humans he knows. Pigs get a bad rap—they have the reputation of being lazy, they are fat, they are dirty, and there is no situation in which being called a “pig” is a good thing. Pigs are animals-non-grata in the Bible—on the unclean and “don’t eat” list along with a number of other beasts.smart pig And pigs were major players in the gospel reading a couple of Sundays ago, one of the strangest episodes to emerge from the stories of Jesus.

In Luke 8 Jesus and his entourage are in the land of the Gerasenes, in what would be modern-day Jordan. There he encounters a man “who had demons,” a man who has been living naked “among the tombs” for many years. The man (or the demons) knows Jesus on sight and begs for mercy. After a brief exchange, Jesus casts the demons out of the man and, agreeing to  their request sends them into a herd of swine minding their own business close by. The pigs rush down a hill into a nearby lake and drown. The swineherds run to town reporting what just happened (and undoubtedly also to file a legal claim against Jesus for ruining their livelihood). into the pigsAlthough somewhat unusual, on one level the story is just another tale of Jesus’ compassion and healing powers; hidden in the narrative, however, are at least a couple of details worth considering.

The man knows Jesus’ name, but Jesus does not know his, nor apparently does he know the identity of the entities possessing the man. Jesus asks “What is your name?” to which the man answers “‘Legion;’ for many demons had entered him.” Contemporary scholars often stress that ailments identified as possession by evil spirits in the ancient world were almost certainly diseases such as epilepsy, psychological disorders, or any medical problem manifesting itself in unusual behavior or appearance. But we need not delve into a discussion of whether Satan and demons are real in order to find value in Jesus’ question to the man. In her Sunday sermon on this text, my good friend Marsue, who is an Episcopal priest, advised her congregation to “Name your demon.” “Have you ever felt that something just isn’t right, that something inside is out of whack but you don’t know what?” Marsue asked. As the saying tells us, your giant goes with you wherever you go. And so do your demons. ThoreauThoreau once wrote that most of us live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave never grappling with the sources of that desperation.

This applies not only on an individual but on a collective level. It is much easier to project our fears and concerns onto the “Other,” whether defined by religious commitment, racial identity, countries of origin, or sexual orientation, than it is to realize that our fears and concerns always are rooted much more closely to home than we choose to accept. Iris Murdoch once suggested that one of the best questions one can ask oneself regularly is “What are you afraid of?” If our consistent answer is “those who are most unlike us,” it is time to consider the possibility that we are turning others into what we are most uncomfortable with and fear about ourselves. The first steps toward naming my demons begin with identifying those persons and situations I am most uncomfortable with and asking “afraid ofwhat am I so afraid of? What is its name?” Just like vampires, our demons cannot survive when we shine light on them.

In the story from Luke, after Jesus casts the demons into the pigs, the news spreads quickly and the community comes to see the healed man “clothed and in his right mind.” Jesus is a rock star because he has made a man who everyone avoided like the plague whole again and the townspeople invite Jesus and the man into their town for a big celebration. Well . . . not so much. Instead, “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” There’s that “f” word again—what were these people afraid of? Their disturbing reaction to the healing of a tormented and troubled neighbor raises another important question. Not only does each of us need to ask “what am I afraid of?” but each of us also needs to ask “do I want to be free of that fear?” For years, the residents of Gerasa were very clear about who this demon-possessed man was and how to handle him. “Stay away from him.” “Don’t let the kids go near the cemetery where he lurks unaccompanied.” “He’s dangerous.” “There’s no hope for him—best to ignore him as much as possible.” healedBut now, all of a sudden, everything has changed.

Dealing with demons is a risky business. Risky because I might be so used to and comfortable with my demons that I cannot imagine life without them. As Jesus asked the man at the pool of Bethsaida, “do you want to be made whole?” Although we might deny it, the immediate answer for many of us is undoubtedly “I’m not so sure.” I can’t imagine myself without my prejudices, my preconceptions, my weaknesses—many of which I did not choose but which have defined me for longer than I can remember. This is also risky for those around me, because now all of their preconceptions are brought to light as well. All of the categories that defined the previously demon-possessed man—someone to be avoided, a dangerous person, insane, and so on—now have to be rethought. the otherMore generally, they have discovered that the “Other” is exactly the same as they are.

Retooling our preconceptions and discovering what is common among us rather than what divides us is very difficult work, work that directly challenges our comfortable categorizations. Do we really want to know that those whom we regularly keep at arm’s length are, regardless of religious commitment, race, or sexual orientation exactly the same as we are in every respect that matters? The citizens of Gerasa knew that what had just happened to the demon-possessed man was a total game changer—and they were not ready or willing to play the new game. We are not told how they responded to the newly healed man over time, but we do know that they asked the man responsible for the healing to leave. Naming our demons requires also taking responsibility for what comes afterward—a radical retooling and rethinking of everything we think, say, and do. That’s a lot of work—it’s a lot easier just to hang on to our demons. Unless we actually want to be made well.

What I inherited from Mad Eagle

On this Father’s Day, I’m remembering my Dad with whom I had a complicated relationship but who I miss very much. He has undoubtedly made more appearances in my blog in its four years of existence than any other family member other than Jeanne. This post–originally titled “Tapestries and Quilts,” was one of the first posts I ever published–it reminds me just how much of who I am is due to Mad Eagle (one of Dad’s many nicknames).

My father was an autodidact, a learned man with little formal education beyond high school. He was a voracious reader of eclectic materials, usually books with God and spirituality at their center of gravity. He often was reading a half-dozen or more books at once, all stuffed into a briefcase that could barely hold the strain. During the times he was home, a regular part of his schedule would be to take off in the dim light before sunrise in the car on his way to a three or four-hour breakfast at one of the many favorite greasy-spoon breakfast establishments within a fifty mile radius. While at breakfast, he would spread his reading materials in a semicircle around the plate containing whatever he was eating, and indulge in the smorgasbord of spiritual delights in front of him. He used colored pencils from a 12-pencil box to mark his books heavily with hieroglyphics and scribblings that were both wondrous and baffling. It was not until I was going through some of his daily notebooks a few weeks after he died that I came across the Rosetta key to his method.

He often would marvel, either to the family or (more often) to his “groupies” listening in rapt attention during a “time of ministry,” at the wonders of watching God take bits and pieces of text, fragments from seemingly unrelated books, and weave them together into an unexpected yet glorious tapestry of brilliance and insight. God, mind you, was doing the weaving—Dad’s role apparently was to spread the books in front of him and simply sit back and see what percolated to the top, in an alchemical or Ouija-board fashion. God, of course, did stuff for Dad all the time. God even told Dad where to go for breakfast and what to order. This, for a son who had never heard God say anything to him directly, was both impressive and intimidating.

From my father I have inherited a voracious appetite for books, which is a good thing. Once several years ago, in the middle of an eye exam my new ophthalmologist asked me “do you read very much?” Laughing, I answered “I read for a living!” Actually, it’s worse than that. I recall that in the early years of our marriage Jeanne said that I don’t need human friends, because books are my friends. At the time she meant it as a criticism; now, twenty-five years later, she would probably say the same thing but just as a descriptive observation, not as a challenge to change. Just in case you’re wondering, over time I have become Jeanne’s book procurer and have turned a vivacious, extroverted people person into someone who, with the right book, can disappear into a cocoon for hours or even days. Score one for the introverts. But Jeanne was right—I take great delight in the written word. I’ve always been shamelessly profligate in what I read. My idea of a good time, extended over several days or weeks, is to read whatever happens to come my way along with what I’m already reading, just for the fun of it. As one of my favorite philosophers wrote, “it’s a matter of reading texts in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.”

I admit that my bibliophilic ways sound a lot like what my father was doing at breakfast. I’ll go even further and admit that, despite the spookiness of Dad’s claim that God wove disparate texts together for him into a tapestry of inspiration and insight, I know something about that tapestry. How to explain the threads with which I connect Simone Weil, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William James through Anne Lamott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and P. D. James to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Annie Dillard, the second Isaiah, and Daniel Dennett? How to explain that an essay by the dedicated and eloquent atheist Richard Rorty provides me with just the right idea to organize a big project about spiritual hunger and searching for God? How to explain that a new novel by an author I never heard of (Muriel Barbery), which Jeanne bought for herself but passed on to me instead (“I think this is your kind of book”), was so full of beautiful characters and passages directly connected to what I’m working on that it brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes? Is God weaving tapestries for me too?

Maybe. But I think a different sort of textile is being made. The process of throwing texts together and seeing what happens is not really like weaving a seamless tapestry at all. It’s more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt in which the pieces and patches can be attached, separated, contrasted, compared, in the expectation that something unusual and exciting just might emerge. Why can’t Freud and Anselm have a conversation with each other? Why can’t Aquinas and Richard Dawkins get into a real debate without knowing ahead of time who is supposed to or has to win? In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” I’ve never liked that, since it sounds as if T. S. can’t think of anything better to do with the pieces of stuff lying around the wasteland than to use them as props shoring up his wobbly whatevers. Try making a quilt.

I suspect that the transcendent makes many demands on us, most of which we have only fuzzy intimations of. This one I’m pretty sure of, though: truth is made, not found. The divine emerges from human creative activities in ways we’ll never recognize if we insist that God must be found as a finished product. As a wise person once wrote, “The world is not given to us ‘on a plate,’ it is given to us as a creative task.”

I am not special, and neither are you

the dunkA regular occurrence at home Providence Friars basketball games is when, during one of the first media timeouts in the first half, the crowd is introduced to an armed forces veteran with local roots. As the veteran’s accomplishments in the military are read over the public address system, he or she is brought onto the court along with family to the increasing cheers of the thousands of fans in the crowd. By the time it’s over virtually everyone is on their feet, many in the student section are chanting U-S-A! U-S-A!, and a little more American exceptionalism steam has been released. usaEvery time this happens, I am reminded of a recent NPR interview with a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which the interviewee expressed an unexpected opinion concerning such patriotic displays. “Ever since 9/11 it has become not only typical but expected for every person in uniform to be called a hero,” the general said. “This is not a good thing. Just putting a uniform on doesn’t make anyone a hero.” His point was that indiscriminately calling every soldier a hero is not patriotic—it’s actually a dangerous mistake. If every soldier is a hero, then the military gets a free pass on everything it does. But, he went on, the military should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior than any other group of citizens. “Every soldier is a hero” is a subset of “America—Love It or Leave It” and “My Country, Right or Wrong.”

In the seven-plus years of his Presidency, President Obama has often annoyed and outraged many of his fellow citizens by his frequent refusal to play the game of American Exceptionalism by the accepted rules. He doesn’t even seem to be able to say the ubiquitous “God bless the United States of America” that ends virtually every American politician’s speech with the proper tone. It sounds more like a request or prayer when he says it than a command or expectations. prayer breakfastSpeaking of prayers, at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, during a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In less than ten minutes, the President managed to throw both American and Christian exceptionalism under the bus. city on a hillAlmost four centuries after John Winthrop told the citizens of his future Massachusetts Bay Colony that they would be the “city on a hill” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Americans still want to believe that they are that shining beacon, a God-blessed fusion of the best people, best opportunities, best religion and best everything. And they don’t enjoy having it pointed out that they seldom, if ever, live up to the hype.

The reaction to the President’s remarks from many quarters was swift and negative. The former governor of Virginia, for instance, said “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. exceptionalismThis goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” And what exactly might those values be? That my faith or my country cannot possibly be wrong? That history doesn’t matter? That regardless of what the history of Christianity or this country is, using it to put people at a prayer breakfast in a thoughtful, introspective, or (God forbid) repentant frame of heart and mind is contrary to important moral values? Or is it simply that it is bad taste to remind anyone that triumphalism and exceptionalism are always reflective of willful ignorance and blindness? I’m just wondering, because I am a believing Christian in the United States and found absolutely nothing offensive in the President’s remarks. Just saying.

Exceptionalism is an example of a basic human way of understanding the world, particularly those parts of the world that directly challenge one’s own comfort zone. In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium seminar a couple of semesters ago, our texts were two late 19th/early 20th century Christian voices responding to the social upheaval that had arisen world-wide from the Industrial Revolution that had imprinted itself in a range of ways on human society. leo xiiiPope Leo XIII and Walter Rauschenbusch agreed that the class divisions and devastating impoverishment arising from unfettered capitalism must be addressed, but disagreed sharply in their proposed prescriptions to their shared diagnosis. Leo begins his influential 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum with a clear and thorough rejection of the socialist alternative to capitalism, claiming that socialism’s proposed elimination of private property is contrary to the right of every human being to own the fruit of her or his labor, a right established by God-designed natural law. After disposing of socialism, Leo proposes a retooling of various features of capitalism while preserving its most foundational features.

In the final chapter of his 1913 book Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch takes a sharply different approach. rauschenbuschAlthough he does not advocate a Communist revolution as Marx and Engels had over a half century earlier, he does believe that socialism is the only possible solution to the ravages of capitalism. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch argues that both Christianity and patriotism lead directly to this conclusion.

Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it puts man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that. . . . If such a solution is even approximately feasible, it should be hailed with joy by every patriot and Christian, for it would put a stop to our industrial war, drain off the miasmatic swamp of undeserved poverty, save our political democracy, and lift the great working class to an altogether different footing of comfort, intelligence, security and moral strength.

To say that my students had a problem with Rauschenbusch here is a serious understatement. I had asked each of my eighteen sophomores to submit a 500-word reflection on the sharp disagreement between the Pope and Rauschenbusch prior to seminar. It came as no surprise that my students—seventy-five percent of whom are business or economics majors—unanimously favored Leo’s position.

But this led to a fascinating seminar discussion, in which several students incrementally realized that their real problem with Rauschenbusch was not so much his insights and arguments (which they frequently resonated with) but rather simply that his conclusion presented a Christianity and patriotism radically different from what they were accustomed to. Upon reminding them that “I disagree with X, therefore X is wrong” is a very poor argument, american sniperwe had the opportunity to evaluate both men’s arguments on their merits and for a short time see just how different the world looks from perspectives other than those we are accustomed to and comfortable with.

As I listened to a packed movie theater erupt into applause at the end of American Sniper not long ago, I wondered why. Was the applause similar to that at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center whenever a veteran is introduced, applause that swells simply because a person in uniform is a hero who needs to be thanked for her/his service and who represents the greatest country in the world? Or did the movie viewers applaud because they resonated with the less-discussed but very clear anti-war message of the movie? It reminded me of something else from Rauschenbusch, written just before the world erupted into a war that kicked off the bloodiest century in human history:

If war is ever to be relegated to the limbo of outgrown barbarism, we must shake off its magic. When we comprehend how few wars have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people; how personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures are the real moving powers; how the governing classes pour out the blood and wealth of nations for private ends and exude patriotic enthusiasm like a squid secreting ink to hide its retreat—then the mythology of war will no longer bring us to our knees, and we shall fail to get drunk with the rest when martial intoxication sweeps the people off their feet.squid

Here Comes This Dreamer

JoelYour old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. This, promises the obscure prophet Joel in the Hebrew Scriptures, will be one of the signs that God has “poured out [his] Spirit upon all flesh.” Exactly what I would expect a prophet to say. Unsaid, however, is that in the meantime “your old women, your young women, and your middle-aged men and women will roll up their sleeves and get shit done.” The tension between visionaries and realists, between dreamers and pragmatists, is a healthy part of the human condition—but only when each side recognizes the equal importance and necessity of the other side.

Some people confuse the dreamer/pragmatist difference with the difference between optimists and pessimists; these two distinctions are not the same. I, as an optimist and a pragmatist, am a case in point. 3 branches of govtI find that a closer parallel to the dreamer/pragmatist distinction actually can be found by remembering the differences between the three branches of government that we learned about in fifth grade civics lessons. The energies that drive the dreamer or visionary differ from those of the pragmatist in the same was that legislative energies are different from those of the executive. Not particularly being a political animal, I did not know about these crucial differences until core curriculum review began on our campus close to a decade ago. Although I participated in many focus groups and debated endlessly on line with my colleagues about the true purposes and value of a liberal arts education, I had no desire to part of the Faculty Senate legislative process that hammered out a new core curriculum that was finally approved by the college president. boots on the groundLegislators, in spite of appearances, primarily are dreamers and visionaries—persons who imagine what a better future might look like and how it might possibly best be organized, then turn the vision over to executive pragmatists to transform this vision into “boots on the ground” reality.

I am by nature one of those pragmatists and have spent the last three years leading the attempt to make a reality the central portion of the new core curriculum fashioned by the legislators, a revitalized and freshly imagined version of the large interdisciplinary program that has been the centerpiece of my college’s core curriculum for four decades. This new program is not exactly the one I would have invented had it been up to me (it isn’t a radical enough change), but as a pragmatist and executive the question is no longercore curriculum “What program would I (we) have invented had it been entirely up to me (us)?” or even “Do I think this new program is a good idea?” Both of these questions are irrelevant—the horse is now out of the barn. The question now is “How are we going to make this visionary product happen?”

I recall an interesting conversation that I had no long ago with a faculty member teaching in the program who also happens have been his department’s senator during the Faculty Senate’s shaping of the new core. My colleague was not entirely in agreement with some of the new policies being developed as the new program went into real-time reality. “Vance,” he said, “These new policies don’t really reflect the vision of those who were debating the legislation a couple of years ago.” “I don’t care, Jack,” I replied (his name has been changed even though he needs no protection and is anything but innocent). “It’s one thing to plan something—it’s another thing entirely to make it happen.” Yet Jack and I are good friends, just as dreamers and pragmatists should be (hear that, politicians in Washington?).

Jacob wrestlingIn Genesis, we find the story of a classic dreamer/pragmatist clash that generated a great deal of conflict. Genesis is full of great stories, including the story of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson and probably my favorite character in the Bible. Smart, manipulative, younger brother, momma’s boy, God-obsessed, believer in love at first sight—I find a lot of myself in Jacob. But then we move to “Jacob—the Next Generation” and are introduced to one of my least favorite guys in the Bible—Joseph. Joseph is son number eleven of Jacob’s twelve sons fathered by his two wives and two concubines (at least those are all Genesis tells us about). But he is the first son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, so it’s not surprising that as the first child of the love of Jacob’s life, Joseph is the favored son of the twelve. The subtext just below the surface of the Genesis account is that Joseph is a spoiled brat. He gets the best clothes, he doesn’t have to work in the fields doing farmer and shepherd stuff as his ten older brothers do, he probably hasn’t done a day of real work in his life—in short, his shit doesn’t stink. jacob lineageAnd he knows this, playing the superior, “special case” card with his older brothers every chance he gets. Furthermore, he has weird dreams that he interprets to support his general conviction that he is superior to his brothers in every way.

Jacob, who for a smart guy is remarkably clueless about family dynamics, sends Joseph off on his own to check up and report on his older brothers who are tending the family flocks some distance away and report back to home base. Upon seeing their “special case” brother approaching without Dad’s protection, the older brothers see an opportunity—“this time we’re going to get this little bastard.” And they do, first throwing him into a deep pit where they plan to abandon him, them deciding instead to sell him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants on their way to Egypt. This is just the beginning of Joseph’s story, carried on through the remaining twelve chapters of Genesis, but as horrific the beginning of the story is, the energies are very human and familiar. JosephThose of you with a brother and sister, be honest. Haven’t there been times in your life when you would have loved to abandon your sibling in a pit?

When the brothers see Joseph approaching, they don’t say “Here comes the spoiled brat,” “Here comes the special case,” or even “Here comes that little shit Joseph spying on us.” Instead they say “Here comes this dreamer.” As they plot throwing him into a pit, they say “We shall see what will become of his dreams!” In other words, “Let’s see how visioning visions, dreaming dreams and thinking great thoughts helps you at the bottom of this pit, you son of a bitch!” Underlying the horribly dysfunctional sibling dynamics in Jacob’s family is a classic case of dreamer vs. pragmatist. When push comes to shove, as it always does, the pragmatist wants to know just how the ethereal perspective of the visionary or dreamer is going to put food on the table, while the dreamer reminds us that, as the author of Proverbs notes, “where there is no vision the people perish.”

As the story unfolds, Joseph will learn how to turn his visionary abilities into a practical commodity, first saving himself from execution then saving his adopted country from famine and starvation. His strong intuitive abilities will manufacture a family reunion that is both just payback and unconditionally loving. grindstoneHis journey from “out there” dreamer to integrated human being is a long one, just as it is for all of us regardless of which direction we are journeying from. Just as the dreamer needs to get her head out of the clouds occasionally and find something to eat, so the pragmatist needs to lift his nose from the grindstone often enough to remember that without regular dream infusions, getting shit done will be just that.

A Liberal’s Worst Nightmare

One of my teaching colleagues and mentors used to love to tell the story of what happened one day after he and a colleague teamed up for a particularly impassioned lecture in the interdisciplinary course they were team-teaching. I no longer remember what he said the text or topic of the class was, but after class a usually silent back-row-sitting student came up from and said “Wow! You guys really take this stuff seriously!” Which raises the question: What would happen if we actually took the things we claim to believe and be committed to seriously enough to do something about them? Seriously enough to completely change our lives?nhs

Katie is a “good person”—doctor for the National Health Service, mother, wife, and socially aware—but is desperately unhappy with her life. Her husband David is angry and cynical; he writes a newspaper column called “The Angriest Man in Holloway” in which he pillories everything from old people who walk too slowly getting off the bus to overrated artists like Sting and The Beatles. Katie and David’s marriage is in trouble, their kids are spoiled and ungrateful, they live in an upper middle class neighborhood but know few of their neighbors, they are comfortable but are surrounded by poverty and homelessness, moral demands are flying at them from all sides. Katie is having an affair, which she blames on her overall unhappiness. She wants a divorce, which David refuses to agree to.hornby

This is the setup for Nick Hornby’s hilarious and insightful novel How to Be Good, which will be included on my General Ethics syllabus in the fall. What makes the novel particularly interesting is that within the first fifty pages, under circumstances better read about than described (you really should read the book!), David undergoes a mysterious moral transformation from a cynical and nasty piece of work to a dedicated moral and social activist. David and Katie have paid lip service to all of the appropriate liberal political and social positions ever since they met at university, but now David is sounding as if he intends to actually act on what they have always lazily claimed to believe. How is Katie to respond? How is she to cope with a husband who is suddenly attentive, pleasant, no longer angry, sharing his portion of the parenting burden without complaint . . . and who intends to turn their lives upside down? Katie is nervous, because “I can’t help but feel that all this sounds very ominous indeed.”

About a third of the way through the book, David lays it all out:

We don’t care enough. We look after ourselves and ignore the weak and the poor. We despise our politicians for doing nothing, and think that this is somehow enough to show we care, and meanwhile we live in centrally heated houses that are too big for us . . .homeless We have a spare bedroom, and a study, and meanwhile people are sleeping outside on pavements. We scrape perfectly edible food into our compost maker, and meanwhile people at the end of our road are begging for the price of a cup of tea and a bag of chips . . . We spend thirteen pounds on compact discs which we already own in a different format . . . We buy films for our children that they’ve already seen at the cinema and never watch again . . .

You get the point . . . and so does Katie. At the end of his diatribe, David sums up succinctly.

I’m a liberal’s worst nightmare . . . I think everything you think. But I’m going to walk it like I talk it.

In short order David gives many of his children’s toys and one of the three house computers away, seeks to recruit families on their street to house homeless teenagers in their spare bedrooms, and generally disrupts house and home in an effort to walkwalk the walk. The problem is that David’s logic is unassailable. If this is what we claim to believe, then this is what we should be doing. Which monumentally frustrates Katie who, after all, has considered herself to be the “good person” in this marriage for years. “I want to destroy David’s whole save-the-world-and-love-everyone campaign, but I want to do it using his logic and philosophy and language, not the language of some moaning, spoiled, smug, couldn’t-care-less, survival-of-the-fittest whiner.”

I share many of Katie and David’s beliefs; while theirs seem to have been established primarily through education, peer pressure, and social class, I often trace most of my liberal moral and social commitments back to my professed Christian faith. Which raises disturbing to a different level, because a person of faith who actually put the fundamental tenets of the faith into daily practice would be a Christian’s worst nightmare. beatitudesI smack headlong into this every time I read or hear the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. For the beauty and familiarity of the language can easily disguise what is most remarkable about the Beatitudes—they are a crystal clear call to radically uproot everything we think we know about value, about what is important, about prestige, about power, and even about God. They are a challenge to fundamentally change the world.

The Roman-dominated world into which the Sermon on the Mount came like a lightning-bolt was not that different from our own. One’s status or rank in the social hierarchy depended on power, birth, economic status, education, gender, race—usually some combination of the above. Those who lacked these qualities, whether through their own fault or because of matters entirely outside their control, had little opportunity to rise above their lowly state. And this, it was assumed then as it often is now, is simply the way of the world, the way things work. In a matter of a few brief, poetic lines Jesus turns it all upside down. In God’s economy, none of our assumptions can be relied upon and none of our common sense arrangements work. God’s values are apparently the very opposite of those produced by our natural human wiring. Throughout virtually everything we have that is attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the point is dwidows and orphansriven home. God is most directly found in the poor, the widows, the orphans, those for whom pretensions of being something or having influence are unavailable. The gospels are clear that the one thing guaranteed to make God angry is to ignore such persons. The infrequent times that Jesus talks about hell is always in the context of people who spend their life ignoring the unfortunate. Because in truth we all are impoverished, we all are abandoned, we all are incapable of taking care of ourselves, let alone anyone else. The poor, widows and orphans simply no longer have the luxury of pretending otherwise.

Every once in a while we hear on the news or read online about a community, usually somewhere in the South, in which a debate has arisen over whether it is permissible to put a plaque or a statue containing the Ten Commandments in a law court, a state house, or a public school. 10 commandmentsBecause of the commitment to separation of church and state established in the United States Constitution, such attempts are invariably rejected as unconstitutional. And this is a good thing—I’m very grateful for the sharp separation of church and state. But imagine a community or a society with governing practices and policies infused with the energy, not of the Ten Commandments, but of the Beatitudes. Imagine a legislative body whose guiding north star was the mercy and compassion of the Beatitudes rather than the cold and clinical justice of the Ten Commandments. How would such a community’s or society’s attitudes and policies concerning the poor, the disenfranchised, those who are struggling, those who have fallen through the cracks, change as it learned to see such “unfortunates” not as a problem, but rather as the very face of God? Our worst nightmare.

A REAL Philosopher

Somebody put a drop of his blood under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses. George Eliot, Middlemarch

My sons have never thought that I look like a philosopher. This has been an issue for more than twenty-five years, ever since the late summer of 1988 when they arrived with Jeanne and me in Milwaukee, where I began my PhD studies at Marquette University. They were nine and six at the time—I’m pretty sure they didn’t know what doctoral studies amounted to, but I told them that when I was done they would forevermore have to call me Dr. Dad“Doctor Dad” and that we would be getting a license plate that read DRDAD. Neither of those things happened, but they gradually got the idea that this was important. After meeting some of my fellow students and some of my professors, they began to form an image of what “Doctor Dad” should look like. And it wasn’t me.

I never was clear about exactly in what ways I failed to live up to my sons’ imaginary philosopher until several years later. I was in my first two or three years of teaching at Providence College, where I will be starting year twenty-three in the fall. The college is set smack in the middle of a well-established residential area, and a number of the faculty (including me) live within a few blocks of campus. One day my youngest son Justin and I were driving down an avenue that forms the whole south border of campus from end to end; many faculty and student dwellings are located on the parallel streets that run away from campus off this avenue. On the opposite sidewalk Justin spotted one of my colleagues from the philosophy department who lived in the area—professorit was a breezy day and my colleague’s almost-shoulder-length hair was blowing wildly, as was his unbuttoned trench coat as he leaned into the wind. Papers were falling out of the briefcase clamped under his right arm, and he was gesticulating with his left arm and hand as he apparently tried to make an important point. To himself. Out loud. My colleague was akin to Voltaire’s God—if the philosophy department didn’t have him, we would have had to invent him. “Now that’s what a REAL philosopher looks like,” Justin commented. So now I knew.

I’ve inhabited the philosophy professor stereotype sufficiently over the succeeding years that no one is particularly surprised to find out that I am a college professor when we meet for the first time; knowing that, they are even less surprised to learn that I teach philosophy. In what other profession could a sixty-year-old guy sport a gray ponytail, dress as I generally do, and not get fired? There is a certain amount of truth at the root of every stereotype, including that academics look, act, and talk in identifiable ways—ways that normal human beings can’t get away with (and wouldn’t want to). middlemarchOver the last couple of weeks, I’ve enjoyed returning to my favorite novel and rediscovering one of the great academics in all of literature—and I’m getting to do it with a bunch of academics.

I have a colleague in the philosophy department who started a reading group a few years ago. I’m not a big fan of reading groups, but gave one of his early ones—War and Peace a few summers ago—a shot. Although I read the whole novel (first time since undergraduate days), I made it through only two reading group meetings—just not my cup of tea. A few years have passed since then; although I receive notice each semester and summer of the new reading group text, I always send it to the e-circular file. Until now. My colleague, who is an occasional reader of my blog, knew from a couple of entries that this summer’s reading group choice is my favorite novel. “Middlemarch, Vance!” he said at the copier the other in a seductive tone. “George Eliot! Middlemarch!” And it worked. I’m still technically on sabbatical, I just finished my current book—why not?

The assignment for the reading group’s first meeting last week was the opening six chapters, around 60-70 pages. In those early pages we meet Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of the novel, and her sister Celia. Both are in their late teens (Dorothea is a year or two older) and are the wards of their uncle due to the death of their parents several years earlier. Dorothea is idealistic, is already inwardly rebelling against the limited opportunities available to an intelligent young woman in 1820s rural England, and is seeking to make a difference in the world (in the Prologue, Eliot likens her to a young Saint Teresa). A young man with money, land, and aristocratic blood is courting Dorothea, but she is so uninterested and oblivious that she assumes the man is courting her sister Celia. CasaubonAnd then one day something extraordinary happens. Mr. Brooke invites Mr. Casaubon to dinner.

Mr. Casaubon is the county intellectual. He is a Church of England minister with money, land, and the best education available, high enough on the clerical pecking order that the only thing he has to do for his parish on a weekly basis is give the sermon. Mr. Casaubon dresses in black from head to toe, has steel gray hair, is at least twenty-five years older than Dorothea, and is the stereotypical academic through and through. Dorothea and Celia agree that Mr. Casaubon is the spitting image of the great seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke—as if that’s a good thing. LockeHis magnum opus is to be titled “The Key to All Mythologies,” in which he intends to show “that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed.” Not a word of this masterpiece-to-be has actually been written, but Casaubon has been researching it for more than twenty years. old libraryHis musty library, indeed his whole musty estate, is filled with papers, books, and dozens of notebooks that he hopes to turn into a finished product that will “fill a small shelf.” Everyone in town and the surrounding county agree that Casaubon’s intellect is god-like and are willing to bemusedly accept his strangeness—because he’s an academic.

Against all odds, Dorothea is smitten by Mr. Casaubon. She has been looking for her life’s purpose—it has been revealed in the form of being the needed partner who will help bring Mr. Casaubon’s life work to fruition. Nobody can believe that Dorothea prefers this guy to other suitors—including Mr. Casaubon. But as the prospect of not spending his remaining years alone grows on him a bit, he opens the door to his long-neglected feelings a crack. The first returns are not encouraging; key to all mythologiesEliot tells us that “he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was.” But hey, give him a chance! This is new territory for an academic.

Once Mr. Casaubon has proposed to Dorothea in one of the most painfully god-awful letters of proposal ever, and Dorothea has accepted his offer, this peculiar match is the talk of the town. Mrs. Cadwallader, the wife of one of the local curates, summarizes everyone’s concerns about the upcoming marriage.

He’s got no good red blood in his body. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses . . . semicolons and parenthesesHe dreams footnotes, and they run away with all his brains. They say, when he was a little boy, he made an abstract of ‘Hop o’ my Thumb,’ and he’s been making abstracts ever since.

They do get married, and as they used to say in ads for sixties and seventies sitcoms, “hijinks ensue.” Hijinks of the sort that only an academic could encounter, that is; the sort of hijinks that only semicolons and parentheses provide access to.

As we went around the seminar table introducing ourselves at the first reading group meeting, my turn came last. I noted that I love Victorian fiction, and that Middlemarch is not only my favorite Victorian novel, but my favorite novel—period. “And I’m particularly looking forward to doing this with other professors,’ I continued, “because each of us knows a Mr. Casaubon.” There are thirteen members in the reading group, faculty from ten different departments ranging from philosophy and history to marketing and chemistry. Everyone nodded knowingly as they envisioned their personal Mr. Casaubon. I understand that some readers of Middlemarch consider Mr. Casaubon to be a somewhat over the top caricature, but those of us sitting around the table knew better. He lives among us—each academic on her or his worst day is Mr. Casaubon. As a former colleague and mentor commented once concerning the life of academe, “it’s a good thing that colleges and universities exist; what else would they do with us?”

Four Things to Remember

sureteMy past several reading weeks have been spent, for the most part, with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the homicide division of the Sûreté du Québec, Québec’s provincial police force. He’s just about my age (maybe four or five years younger), loves solving puzzles, poetry, good food, his wife, and the many inspectors and police officers who work for him. I wish I had met Armand before I spent four years directing a large academic program, since I could have learned a lot from him about how to lead people who don’t always think they need direction. I have only known Armand for a couple of months—the amount of time it took me to read the first ten volumes in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series, set in Three Pines, Québec, just a few dozen miles away from where I grew up in northern Vermont.map

Gamache takes his position as a mentor for younger and less experienced officers very seriously, often imparting wisdom in a deliberate manner more appropriate to a professor than to a policeman. Penny takes her time filling us in on the back stories of her twenty or so repeating characters—Gamache is no exception. In one of the early books we learn of some unsolicited but crucially important advice that he received in almost mythic fashion from an old fisherman in a northern Québec diner early in his career. Each of Gamache’s protégé’s in turn have received this advice—four statements that every aspiring inspector should take to heart. “Get used to saying each of these on a regular basis and meaning it,” the old fisherman said.

I don’t know

I was wrong

I’m sorry

I need help

I suspect that the old fisherman’s advice is applicable to more than inspectors.I don't know

I Don’t Know. Many people believe that college professors think they know everything. I’m here to tell you that there are a few who actually would be surprised to discover that they don’t know everything. But for the most part, the academic life is one guaranteed to let you know on a daily basis just how much you don’t know. Twenty years ago, as a new, untenured assistant professor, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. The format was to begin with two twenty-minute papers—one by a theologian, one by a philosopher—then a discussion of the papers by a panel of four colleagues (two each from philosophy and theology). I got to do the lead twenty-minute philosophy paper. I was mildly (I thought) critical of some aspects of the encyclical, something that did not fly with many of those present, particularly the dozens of parishioners from the Catholic church across the street who were in attendance.q and a

During the question and answer period after the panel discussion, a guy in the front row directed the first question to me. “Dr. Morgan,” the fellow asked, “is there no room in philosophy for humility?” I responded to his question in a way I never had before and never have since—I laughed. “Yes, sir, there is plenty of room for humility in philosophy,” I answered. “The longer I do this, the more I realize on a daily basis how much I don’t know.” For more than twenty-five years, my primary goal in the classroom has been to help my students realize that certainty is highly overrated and that lifetime learning demands a consistent awareness that no one knows everything (or even that much). As Hamlet told his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”the Fonz

I Was Wrong. For someone whose father, like the Fonz from Happy Days, could hardly even pronounce the worlds “I was wrong,” I do okay with this one. I had great fun when my sons were little trying to convince them that I am always right. This, of course, set them on a quest to catch me being wrong about something—I managed to sustain the illusion of God-like rectitude for a few weeks, but only by practicing my obfuscation and logic-bending skills on a regular basis. I wasn’t that good at it—I have some colleagues in my department who are still convinced of their infallibility in their fifties and sixties, in the face of regular and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Makes for interesting department meetings.sorry

I’m Sorry.  I’m not sure how someone who can’t say “I’m sorry” without having a nervous breakdown can survive a marriage, parenthood, the workplace, friendships, a trip to the supermarket, or getting out of bed in the morning.

I Need Help. My dachshund Frieda, who is about fifteen inches long, has slept with Jeanne and me in bed every night we have been home for the past ten years. The going-to-bed routine is always the same. Frieda does not want to simply be picked up and deposited on the queen-sized bed that she cannot jump on herself. She first stands on her hind legs leaning against the bed hopping on her hind feet (each jump clears the floor by about one inch). She wants to do it herself. When a human grabs her around her portly middle to lift her up, I need helpshe makes one final great leap to assist the transfer. I’m sure Frieda is convinced that given enough time she could complete the impossible task of getting into bed by herself. She got that from me.

When I mentioned to Jeanne the topic of this essay (she has also read all of Penny’s Gamache series), I asked her which of the four statements she has the most trouble with. After a bit of thought, she told me; before she could say anything more, I said “my problem statement is ‘I need help.” “Obviously,” she replied. “I deal with your wanting to do everything yourself on a daily basis.” And she does. My general commitment to doing things by myself is not principled in the sense that I go around saying “If you want to get something done right, do it yourself” all the time. I’m not even a big fan of the American individualist stereotype. But somewhere early on, probably from my mother, I developed the habit of accomplishing as many tasks as possible by myself, rather than inviting others to work on the tasks with me.

For this reason, I hated group projects as a student, which is probably why I—in contrast to many of my professor colleagues—assign very few group projects as a teacher. I never wanted to put my grade for any assignment at risk by turning a portion of it over to some random hoi polloi member of my group. The idea of co-writing an article or book is about as attractive to me as root canal without anesthesia. DWCThis resistance to admitting that I can’t do everything myself influenced my day-to-day activities directing a large academic program for four years as well. Several weeks ago I ran into the secretary of the academic program and asked her how things were going with the new director. “Oh, things are fine” she said—“but I had no idea how much you did by yourself when you were director.” Apparently the new director is delegating portions of regular tasks such as scheduling and event planning, tasks that I did by myself when I was director, to the program secretary. Wish I had thought of that.

Incomplete knowledge, imperfect behavior, and a frequent need for the support of others—sounds like a human being to me. Remembering the Chief Inspector’s four statements might help remind us that, above all else, we are human.