Category Archives: books

Revolution

Remembering the Revolution

There is a saying, particularly popular among conservatives, that “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.” I am a liberal, but cannot challenge the alleged truth of this saying since I have never (thankfully) been mugged. Over six decades of experience, however, I have had plenty of opportunity to wonder about an important question that this saying raises for everyone, regardless of political or social commitments—moral hazardWhat happens when ideology runs headlong into real life?

I got to thinking about this question anew while reading Kate Jennings’ Moral Hazard over the past few days. It was actually a reread, since I used her novella in an ethics class a few years ago and am in the process of deciding what texts to use in the ethics classes I’ll be teaching in the fall. Published a year or so after 9/11, Moral Hazard is set in the turbulent Wall Street of the middle and late nineties. The main character, Cath, is a freelance writer with well-defined and consistent liberal positions on moral and political issues. She is in her mid-forties and has been happily married to Bailey, a man fifteen years her senior, for a decade. But Bailey becomes more and more forgetful and absent-minded; a series of medical tests reveals that he has Alzheimer’s. With large medical bills looming on the horizon, Cath uses a connection to get a speech-writing job at a top Wall Street firm. In order to take care of her husband, Cath finds herself in a job that requires her to violate many of her dearest principles on a daily basis.cigarette She hates every minute of it; one of her few daily respites is a stolen cigarette or two with Mike, a fellow sixties refugee who finds himself working for people who represent and do everything that he despises.

As the story progresses, both Cath and Mike find various justifications for their daily betrayal of their values. Cath, for instance, knows that she cannot hope to earn the money it will take to care for Bailey long term without a regular, well-paying job. This does not, however, make her feel any better about her abandoned dreams. After one conversation with Mike late in the book, Cath reveals something.

Okay, a secret. In my wallet, I keep a scrap of disintegrating paper on which is written, “The revolution is magnificent, and everything else is bilge.” Who said this and which revolution I’ve forgotten, but I’ve transferred it from wallet to wallet for more than thirty years to remind myself of a time when I was young and silly, but cared. The idealism was magnificent, not the revolution.

If Cath was a real person, she and I would be roughly the same age. I also am a child of the sixties, but for many reasons was not a real revolutionary—at least in practice. I was a bit too young to take part in many of the protests (my brother, three-and-a-half years older, did); my conservative religious upbringing in rural Vermont also limited opportunities for my internal rebel. But I had my moments. mcgovernFor instance, I was too young to vote in the ’72 presidential election (I was 16), but that didn’t stop me from wearing a McGovern button on my jacket as I loaded groceries into customer cars at the supermarket where I worked after school. Several customers who were not in favor of someone they perceived as a virtual Communist running for President complained to Ted, the store manager, but Ted was a liberal and was wearing a McGovern button on his store apron, so the complaints didn’t get very far.

My best opportunity to be a revolutionary came shortly after President Nixon’s escalation of the War in Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia. I was in my freshman year in high school; my school was a public/private hybrid, serving as the local public high school for our town but also taking in several dozen boarding students—mostly from the NYC area—each year. Each day started with assembly for the five hundred or so students, a gathering that began with the Pledge of Allegiance. LIThere was one morning during my sophomore year when it dawned on me that I was pledging allegiance to a country whose present activities—at least some of them—did not deserve my respect or allegiance. So I didn’t stand up. And I did not pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America or the Republic for which it stands at any subsequent assembly for the rest of my high school career—about two and a half years. Other than causing a few other students over time to join me in my non-pledge of allegiance, my daily statement and protest accomplished nothing tangible, other than a threat from the assistant headmaster to report my activities to my parents (a threat that I dearly wish he had followed through on). But it did something for me, and perhaps that’s enough.

Fast forward more than four decades. My positions on political and social issues are, if anything, more liberal now than they have ever been. RevolutionDuring our current political cycle and presidential campaign there are voices—from both extremes of the political spectrum—calling for a political revolution. I observe with delight and admiration young fellow citizens who, involved for the first time in their lives in the political process, are strongly supportive of a candidate whose policies and positions on just about every issue reflect my own as closely as any national political candidate in my lifetime. Somehow this candidate has managed to sustain his liberal idealism through a lifetime of political engagement, first on the local and then on the national level. I recognize my teen and twenty-something self in the young folks who are this candidate’s most ardent supporters. They are calling for a political revolution.Idealis-Realism

But I resonate more fully with the piece of paper that Cath has transferred from wallet to wallet for more than thirty years. The purest revolutions, historically speaking, have tended to be the ones that created the most havoc and caused the most damage. The revolution—any revolution—is not what is magnificent. What is magnificent is the ongoing struggle to engage the idealism that energizes revolutionary visions with the pragmatism required by real life. How will this beautiful, revolutionary vision be accomplished? Am I willing to cultivate the patience required to shepherd the most praiseworthy ideals through the swamp and muck of reality? To the idealists out there, don’t forget that for ideals to be worth anything, they have to work in the real world. For those suspicious of ideals, I challenge you to name one meaningful change that has ever been accomplished without them.

The Freedom of a Tree

I read once that there are two kinds of living things—they are distinguished by the strategies they have developed in response to perceived threat and danger. survival strategiesOne kind responds to danger by running away from it, developing strategies and evolving tools to sidestep threats in more and more complex and sophisticated ways. We call this kind of living thing Animals. The other kind’s strategy is to hunker down, grow roots along with protective armor, and face danger by refusing to be moved. We call this kind of living thing Plants. We human beings tend to consider our animal capacities to choose between various strategies as one of our most important and wonderful abilities, going so far as defining “freedom” in terms of how many options we have to choose from. three pinesBut the older I get, the more I think that the nature of true freedom is a lot more like the strategy of plants.

In The Cruelest Month, the third of Louise Penney’s Inspector Gamache series that I just finished reading, the good Inspector has a conversation with Gilles Sandon, one of more than a half-dozen suspects in the most recent murder in Three Pines, Quebec. Sandon is a former lumberjack, a hulking brute of a guy with an unexpected sensitive side. Gilles tells Gamache of a day a number of years ago when he walked with his tree-cutting colleagues into the woods for a day of work and heard a whimpering that sounded like a baby animal. LumberjackAs the whimpering became louder and turned into a cry, then a scream, Gilles realized that this wasn’t an animal sound at all. Furthermore, none of his companions could hear it.

Something had changed overnight. I’d changed. I could hear the trees. I think I could always hear their happiness. I think that’s why I felt so happy myself in the forest. But now I could hear their terror too . . . Mostly trees are quiet. Just want to be left alone. Funny how I learned about freedom from creatures that are rooted in place.

Gilles’ life was changed, beginning with his understandably being fired from his lumberjacking job (if a lumberjack won’t cut trees, what’s the point?). Over time he became a woodworking artist, specializing in making chairs out of dead trees that he carefully selects after they have fallen; as Gamache says, Gilles makes his living giving dead trees new life.

“Funny how I learned about freedom from creatures that are rooted in place.”treebeard In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the middle book in his classic trilogy The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits Merry and Pippin learn a similar lesson from Treebeard and the Ents, the oldest creatures in Middle Earth who are, for all intents and purposes, talking trees who have the ability to walk, think, and talk—very, VERY slowly and deliberately. Merry and Pippin, running for their lives from a band of murderous orcs from whom they have just escaped, find themselves in middle of Fangorn Forest where the Ents live. After hearing about the forces gathering for a classic battle between good and evil on the borders of their forest, entmootTreebeard calls for an “Entmoot,” a council of Ents to decide what, if anything, they should do about these disturbing events. It takes days for the Ents to gather, and many more days for the debate to take place at a one-sentence-per-hour pace. Merry and Pippin are driven close to madness with impatience over the snail-like deliberateness of the Ents—but when they finally choose to take a side in the battle, their participation sways the conflict, at least for a while, in the direction of the good guys.

In our American culture, freedom is often thought of as the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it, free from the interference of anyone other than me. Any perceived limitation on what I want to do, even if clearly in my own interest and that of others, is a violation of my “freedom.” But philosophers have argued for centuries that this uninhibited throwing around of my deliberative weight is anything but true freedom. Aristotle conceived of the life of freedom and moral excellence as a life constructed out of the virtues, sovereignty of goodgood habits that, when cultivated, incline a person to do the right thing as a matter of developed character rather than conscious choice. More than two millennia later, Iris Murdoch provides a contemporary spin on Aristotle’s insight in The Sovereignty of Good by suggesting that it is in the small choices concerning what we pay attention to and adopt as centrally important that true freedom is to be found.

But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments.

True freedom, under this description, is acting in attunement with one’s character and conscience—items that are constructed slowly, deliberately, and in accord with one’s best nature. A lot like a tree, in other words.here i stand

A human being can never entirely trade its animal survival strategy for the rootedness of a plant. But we can, as Gilles, Merry, and Pippin did, learn a lot about freedom and how to be in the world from a tree. I used to wonder what Martin Luther meant when, at the Diet of Worms, he concluded his refusal to recant his heretical writings by saying “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Of course he could have done otherwise! I would complain. No one is forcing him not to recant. But Luther’s point was that at this moment in his life, recanting his writings would be the same as ceasing to be Martin Luther. He can do no other because his character has rooted him in place. As Murdoch suggests, if one has paid attention to the incremental tiny choices that shape one’s character and life over time, what to do at “crucial moments of choice” will not only be clear—it will be unavoidable. Be like a tree.

April is the Coolest Month

I am enjoying reading Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mystery series these days; the third book in the series is The Cruelest Month, set during an April Easter season and clearly taking its title from the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s inscrutable poem cruellest month“The Waste Land.” And there are some cruel things about April, starting with taxes being due and the beginning of my allergy season. But this April has been a good one—for several reasons, in no apparent order . . .

Jeanne and I just returned from a week’s vacation in Florida with friends and family—of particular note is that along with my youngest son from Colorado, my brother and sister-in-law joined us from Wyoming at my oldest son and daughter-in-law’s place in Fort Myers. It was the first time that this particular group of humans has been in the same place at the same time in the history of the universe.WIN_20160409_19_39_40_ProWIN_20160409_18_28_15_Pro

 

 

 

How is it possible that I checked Jeanne and myself in for our Southwest flight less than one minute after twenty-four hours before our flight and got lousy B-38 and B-39 boarding passes?

southwest boarding

I just read that Portland, Maine, has been named the best city for microbrewed beer in the world. Jeanne and I are headed there for a wedding in a month. This will be fun.  http://tides.bangordailynews.com/2016/04/15/home/portland-maine-ranked-top-craft-beer-city-in-the-world/microbrewery

I make no secret about the fact that I don’t like Florida much. I don’t like the heat, the humidity, the predominance of geezers, or the infinite number of commercial stretches that all look the same; also, the unhappiest years of my life were spent there a lifetime ago. But I must admit that I have revised my opinion slightly—last week the weather was very nice. No rain, very low humidity, and temperatures in the low to mid-eighties. If they could pull that off for the other fifty-one weeks of the year, I’d be sold.

bourbon street

Vacation ended with a couple of days in New Orleans at a conference. I have discovered that in my estimation, Bourbon Street is as overrated as the Strip in Las Vegas. Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe I’m not attracted to places that encourage me to do things that stay there when I leave.

Why do airlines keep the airplane cabin cold enough to see your breath?cold airplane

I greatly enjoyed getting to know my lovely, sweet sister-in-law better. LavonaI also take great pride in pushing the obnoxiousness envelope sufficiently to get her to give me the finger! (Several others were taking wagers as to what it would take to produce that result)

Speaking of microbrews, my beer tastes have moved strongly toward the dark side, with porters and stouts at the top of the list. I’ve tried dozens over the past few months, including the dark offerings from most of the microbreweries in the Northeast. southern-tier-creme-bruleeMy current favorite: Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée Stout. The lady at the liquor store says that it gets better with age, but I’ll never know. Jeanne and I can’t keep it in the house long enough to find out. Jeanne, btw, is not a beer drinker. She only likes dark brews with more than 10% alcohol content.

If you are looking for an unusual book, I recommend Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I won’t spoil it for you—suffice it to say that the novel includes the oddest and most interesting pair of sisters I’ve encountered in a long time. A couple of favorite passages from Fowler—both of which promise to be jumping-off points for new blog posts in the upcoming weeks.

  • An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.
  • If you believe, as I do, that morality starts with God, then you have to wonder why He simultaneously hardwired us against it.

Who let the reincarnation of my father into my son’s house?WIN_20160412_10_20_21_Pro

I have a good friend who is not a big fan of tattoos. Upon discovering that I now have one, she asked “What would your mother say?” I replied “My mother would have gotten a tattoo that read SON.”son

Upon returning to Providence, it was great to find that spring had been working its magic in our absence. The phlox are busting out all over, the lilac bush promises a record harvest of blossoms, and the little tree we planted last summer is cranking out the flowers for which we purchased it. Six decades in, I still find the spring resurrection of plants, leaves, and flowers to be as miraculous as any emergence from a tomb. Yay April!WIN_20160420_11_07_45_ProWIN_20160420_11_06_55_Pro

JC and family values

Family Values?

I was angry with my father for a lot of reasons over the years, some justified and some not. But I don’t recall any time when I was more pissed at him than when I heard him say on one of his cassette-taped “fireside chats”imagesWCLS816W aimed at his followers and groupies that “a person’s real family is almost never his blood family.” Thanks a lot, Dad—signed, “One of your blood family.” I heard this a few short months after my mother died many years too early of cancer and my father had remarried in record-breaking time. “Of course you feel nothing but positive familial vibes from your groupies,” I thought. “They’ve never experienced your self-centeredness, your moods, your superiority complex or had to put up with your annoying quirks as your blood family has.” To call a bunch of people who are nothing but cheerleaders for everything you say and do a “family” distorts the meaning of the word beyond recognition.

I have learned a number of things over the years, including that many of my problems with my father were mirrors of my own unaddressed problems. Strangely enough, I have also discovered that Dad may not have been as wrong about family dynamics as I thought. imagesGKY3V9C7Taking a close look at what the source (Jesus) said in the Gospels about the possibility of following God and being a good family person is enough to give one pause about a lot of things, including the very familiar “family values” that are trumpeted by political and religious folks from all sorts of angles at the drop of a hat.

Stereotypically, “family values” are conservative values, focusing on respect for authority, hard work, independence, patriotism, faith and so on; often they are largely synonymous with traditional values, which tend to include social positions such as anti-abortion, anti-same sex marriage and lurking suspicions about homosexuality in general. But during every political cycle liberal and progressive voices are heard crying out that true family values are about concern for others, lifting the downtrodden and speaking truth to power. And the never-ending war over who truly defines and owns family values rages on. JC and family valuesMy own moral compass strongly aligns with the progressive perspective, but in this case it is a mistake for either side (or any in the middle) to stake a Jesus claim on family values. Because it is pretty clear from the Gospel stories that Jesus himself didn’t give a damn about family values or families at all.

WJMIn the Forward to his wonderful short book What Jesus Meant, Garry Wills provides an illuminating reflection on the What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD?) meme that has for many years served a host of Christians as their “go to” touchstone for how to live a Christian life. One can find WWJD? coffee cups, posters, key chains, bumper stickers, tee shirts—the idea has been viral for a while. Wills asks, do we really want to do what Jesus did?WWJD For example:

  • Should a person say to his or her mother “Woman, what have I to do with you?” when she asks for a favor?
  • Should we encourage twelve-year-olds to speak to their parents rudely and dismissively as Jesus did to Mary and Joseph during the Temple episode?
  • Should we tell a person mourning the recent death of his or her father to “Let the dead bury their dead” in order to pursue more lofty goals (such as following us)?
  • Should we tell people that hating their parents, siblings, and children is a prerequisite for seeking after God?

deadJesus’ brothers neither understood nor understood his mission (it’s not always clear that Jesus fully understood it himself); when residents of Nazareth started saying that Jesus had lost his mind, his family pursued the first century equivalent of having him committed. Those who did follow Jesus during his itinerant ministry left their homes, their spouses, their children and their jobs behind as they were sucked into this strange man’s disruptive wake.

In other words, if one is concerned about family values, WWJD? is useful only as a guide for what one should not do. All attempts to root one’s own moral code, regardless its content, in the example of Jesus from the Gospel stories are little more than thinly veiled attempts to create Jesus in one’s own image. For every Gospel text congruent with our understanding of family values (and there are many such texts), there is a text in which Jesus promises that following him and seeking God is guaranteed to turn one’s world upside down and to violate almost every traditional moral expectation and norm.

Everyone is aware of families torn apart and destroyed when one of the family members sets out on a mission to “accomplish God’s work.” LombardiThis is not hard to explain, given the above—the stories of Jesus give ample justification for ignoring one’s family obligations and connections if they conflict with the perceived will of God for one’s life. So what’s the takeaway here? The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi used to tell his Green Bay Packers players that their priorities were to be “God, Family, and the Green Bay Packers”—although his players report that frequently he clearly changed the order. Is God a cosmic Vince Lombardi insisting upon being at the pinnacle of a rigid hierarchy, to the detriment of anything else, no matter how important, that might conflict?

That does indeed appear to be the case, assuming that the game of hierarchical “Who’s on top?’ is what the divine has in mind. But what if that isn’t the point at all? What if Jesus’ consistently violating our values and expectations is a call to consider something more radical than our limited imaginations can accommodate? top of heapIf, rather than residing at “the top of the heap,” God is everything and everything is in God, then the lay of the land is no longer a landscape of “either/or.” The answer to the question “which is more important, God or family?” is “yes.” Jesus’ provocative statements concerning the family are intended to demonstrate that when we include God as just another object of important things that need to be placed in proper order we are misconstruing God entirely.

If everything is in God, then God is not ultimately in conflict with anything. If God and family appear to be in conflict, then faith tells me that somewhere, at some level, God and family are in unity regardless of appearances. If I have to regularly choose between paying attention to God and to my job, then my faith-energized assignment is to learn how to find God in my job (since my job is in God, as is everything else). Attempts to fit the life of faith into familiar categories, even if we are willing to significantly adjust those categories, miss the boat. The energy of the Christian life is captured well by the Apostle Paul: I will show you a more excellent way.MEW

Something Under Construction

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. Maria Popova`

In the 1992 Vice Presidential debate, with Al Gore on one side and Dan Quayle on the other, Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, asked two questions that have become part of Presidential politics lore: Who am I? Why am I here?

Stockdale took a great deal of criticism and heat for his performance as well as triggering a lot of laughter from those who supposedly knew better. But the Admiral was asking questions that those of us who have had to suffer through week after week of painful and embarrassing debates during our current political cycle would be happy to hear someone ask of themselves. Sometimes a bit of self-analysis and awareness is appropriate. Furthermore, Stockdale’s questions are two of the most fundamental timeless questions of philosophy. who am IWho exactly are we and what the hell are we doing here?

The “who am I?” issue is often packaged in philosophy classes as “the problem of personal identity.” How does a person stay the same over time? To get things going, I often ask my students how many have ever said something like “I’m not the same person that I was back then.” Every hand goes up, since everyone knows that even those parts of ourselves that we consider to be most important—our attitudes, beliefs, commitments, and so on—can radically change over time. Add that to the fact that scientists tell us that there is no cell in our body that will still be in our body seven years from now, and it becomes a challenge to identify exactly what it is about me that stays the same over time so I can still call myself the same person as I was throughout all of the changes that every person encounters.

Many philosophers and theologians have cheated (in my considered opinion) by saying that it is the “soul” that stays constant in the human person throughout all of the physical and experiential changes that each of us encounters throughout a lifetime. formsPlato insisted that the human being’s tool to engage with the unchanging and eternal Forms was the unchanging and eternal soul, an idea that traditional Christian theology has been more than happy to adapt to our connection with the divine. But press someone concerning what the soul actually is, and you will undoubtedly instead find out what it is not—it isn’t physical, it isn’t subject to change, is impervious to time, and so on. In short, the soul is the “whatever it is” that stays constant throughout a human being’s changes, but don’t ask for its positive characteristics. It is just a necessary placeholder. Unfortunately, one of the most important rules of logic is that one cannot define something negatively. lockeTheological issues aside, the soul hardly works as a standard for personal identity.

One of the most interesting and influential explorations of personal identity comes from John Locke, the great 17th century British philosopher. Locke suggests that one’s personal identity extends as far back as one’s memories extend—my identity, in other words, is the collection of all of those experiences stretched over time that can appropriately be owned as “mine.” “I” am the subject of all of these experiences. As my students point out in short order, there are plenty of problems with this notion.

  • Does this mean that a person with no memories, someone with advanced Alzheimer’s or in a comatose state, is technically not a person? Locke’s definition requires that we say “yes.”
  • Suppose that at (time A) 5 years old I go to disneyDisneyland, at (time B) 45 years old I am promoted to full professor, and at (time C) 90 years old my sons commit me to a nursing home. At 45 I remember going to Disneyland; at 90 I remember getting promoted but no longer remember going to Disneyland. Locke’s analysis requires me to say that Morgan B and Morgan A are identical, as are Morgan C and Morgan B. Morgans C and A, however, are not the same person. That violates the transitive law of mathematics and logic (A=B, B=C, therefore A=C), but who said personal identity is mathematically precise?
  • Human memories are notoriously inaccurate. What impact, if any, does this have on Locke’s proposed standard?

These and other puzzles arising from Locke’s analysis reliably produce great class discussions—but are we any closer to figuring out who we are?

brain pickingsIn a recent conversation with Krista Tippett, Maria Popova provided a 21st century version of Locke’s suggestions.

Identity for all of us is this perpetual process. It’s somewhat like constantly clearing out and rearranging an attic. And it’s as much about throwing out all the furniture and trinkets that no longer serve us as bringing in new ones . . . We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely curated catalog of those.

Popova’s reflections highlight a feature of a Lockean analysis that is easily missed—each of us has both the responsibility and the privilege of creating our own identities. under constructionAs Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “the human being is always something under construction.” We do not control much of what happens to us, but we do get to choose which features will rise to the level of “definitive,” which memories will serve as the foundation of who we are. Each of us, as Popova might say, is a curator of our identity. The more items there are to curate, whether experiences, texts, or other people, the more dynamic and nuanced each identity has the potential to be.

Popova is also willing to nod favorably toward the notion of the soul. It may not be the best choice as an anchor of personal identity, but Popova suggests that whatever the soul is, we have reason to think that it is real.woolf

Virginia Woolf wrote that “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” And she talks about the slipperiness of the soul and the delicacy and complexity of the soul. But I think the fullest people, the people most whole and most alive, are always those unafraid and unashamed of the soul. And the soul is never an assemblage of fragments. And it always is.

Philosophers are likely to complain that there is still no evidence to support believing in the existence of such a thing. But perhaps the best evidence in its favor is that multitudes of human beings seem bound, even hard-wired, to believe in it. Maybe that’s enough.

lots of books

Forty-Seven Books

WIN_20160404_11_32_58_ProLast June as my sabbatical officially began, I decided to keep a running list of books read over the next year. Usually academics head into a sabbatical semester or year with a lengthy list of “must read” texts, tomes directly relevant to their research and the articles or books that are the required product of such semesters. Not me. My primary sabbatical project had over 300,000 words of my own writing from my three-and-a-half-year-old blog to work with. All of that writing was strongly influenced by dozens of books I read over the past several years; over the past nine months I have been in the enviable position of being able to read whatever the hell I wanted to rather than what I had to. As of today my “Read During Sabbatical” list is at forty-seven books and counting. A quick look at the list is very revealing, to me at least.

Mysteries11

I prefer my mysteries in series; over the past few months I have caught up on Anne Cleeves’ series set in Scotland’s Shetland Islands and Jussi Adler-Olsen Department Q series set in Copenhagen. pennyI’m just starting Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books set in southern Quebec, no more than an hour or so from where I grew up in northern Vermont. I’m pleased to see that there are twelve books in the series—that will keep me busy for a few weeks.

Why do I love mysteries so much? And why do I prefer them in series rather than in stand-alone volumes? The growth, maturation, mistakes and inanities of my mystery friends from volume to volume remind me of just how complicated and fascinating the human journey is. They remind me of me. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing exactly twenty years ago today, just as I can’t tell you what murder case Tommy Lynley and Barbara Havers were solving eight or nine Elizabeth George mysteries ago. But I can tell you about how their love/hate partnership and friendship has developed and grown over their virtual years, just as I can tell you about my own wandering path over the past two decades. Alasdair MacIntyre is right—human beings are “story telling animals.” Pick your favorite genre and dive in.

Novels—19

Each summer for the past couple of decades I have chosen a well-regarded novelist whose work I have never read and immerse myself in her or his work. This year I chose Joyce Carol Oates, which turned out to be a mistake. tarttAfter plowing through three of her dozens of novels (selections recommended by my Facebook friends familiar with her stuff), I decided that (1) I am impressed that she is one of the most highly thought of contemporary novelists and, (2), I am not sure why she is so highly regarded.

  • Best novel read: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. Close second: A Big Enough Lie, by my friend and colleague, Eric Bennett.
  • Worst novel read: A tie between Wm. Paul Young, Eve and James Martin, The Abbey

Theology (very broadly conceived)—6

I suppose it says something about my tastes that the two most recent theology books I have read are Pub Theology and Evolutionary Faith. These titles reflect dominant threads in my blog over the past few years. No Barth, Newman or Schillebeeckx for me—I agree with a Benedictine monk friend who was a high school biology teacher before he retired several years ago. In a group discussion he once said that “Darwin has taught us more about God than all of the theologians combined.” And he said it with a beer in his hand.

Philosophy (broadly conceived)—3

A philosophy professor who has read only three philosophy books during the first nine months of sabbatical? My philosophical hunger gets fed from many sources these days; very few of them are professional philosophers narrowly defined. But then, philosophy should never be “narrowly defined”—I tell my students that philosophy, the art of better and better questioning, is a natural human activity that can and should be applied to everything. It can also be stimulated by anything.Robinson

Collections of Essays—3

Two of the three volumes of essays on my list of forty-seven books are from Marilynne Robinson. Her novels, particularly Gilead, are pristine, beautiful, and powerful—her essays reveal the philosophical and theological underpinnings and insights that make such fiction possible. One paragraph of a Marilynne Robinson essay provides anyone with an attuned mind and heart with enough to chew on for days on end. Reading and digesting anything by Robinson requires work—work that is abundantly rewarded.

Memoir—3

Memoir has fascinated me ever since I was told seven or eight years ago at a writer’s workshop that my essays are “philosophical memoir.” The genre is tricky; it is difficult to thread the needle and use one’s own experiences as a pointer to something important instead of delusionally thinking that one’s self is that important thing. Perhaps my favorite book from the past nine months is an example of memoir at its best: meadRebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. It’s a book I wish I had written myself, given that Middlemarch is the greatest novel I’ve ever read. Guess I’ll have to write something else.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells aspiring writers that they should write what they would love to read. After reviewing my list of forty-seven books, I find that the relationship between reading and writing is both two-way and continuous. I do tend to write about themes that I love to read about and ponder, but I regularly gravitate toward new books that shine fresh light on what I’ve been writing and thinking about. I’m sure that a person with the proper training could conclude a number of things about me by studying my list of forty-seven books; my own conclusion is that Jeanne was right many years ago when she observed that I don’t need a lot of human friends, because my books are my friends. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to spend so much uninterrupted time with them.

For those who demand way too much information, here’s my sabbatical reading list as it currently stands, in the order that I read them:lots of books

  • Nesbo, Blood on Snow
  • Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus
  • Klein, Travels with Epicurus
  • Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex
  • Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage
  • Tartt, The Goldfinch
  • Grose, A Good Place to Hide
  • Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem
  • Henry, We Only Know Men
  • Kanon, Leaving Berlin
  • Hawkins, The Language of Gracewatchman
  • Lee, Go Set a Watchman
  • Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
  • Cleeves, Raven Black
  • Cleeves, White Nights
  • Cleeves, Red Bones
  • Bennett, A Big Enough Lie
  • Cleeves, Blue Lightning
  • Oates, them
  • Wallace, Consider the Lobster
  • Ebrahim, The Terrorist’s Son
  • Jeeves, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods
  • Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys
  • Malesic, Secret Faith in the Public Square
  • Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints
  • Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing
  • Young, Eve
  • Martin, The Abbey
  • Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books
  • Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companionironic christian
  • Adler-Olsen, The Purity of Vengeance
  • Mead, My Life in Middlemarch
  • Wiseman, The Plum Tree
  • Gregory, The Taming of the Queen
  • Robinson, The Givenness of Things
  • Hannah, The Nightingale
  • Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene
  • Russell, Dreamers of the Day
  • Cleeves, Dead Water
  • Cleeves, Thin Air
  • Berghoef, Pub Theology
  • Adler-Olsen, A Conspiracy of Faith
  • Gulley, Evolutionary Faith
  • Russell, Doc
  • Russell, Epitaph
  • Adler-Olsen, The Marco Effect
  • Penny, Still Life
hypocrisy

Are Philosophers Hypocrites? (Or are they just normal human beings?)

Last Saturday I said something less than complimentary on social media site about a fellow sports fanatic, a person who made the mistake of talking trash about my Providence College Friars hockey team the morning after they were eliminated from the NCAA hockey tournament in double overtime. After finding out (presumably by looking me up on Facebook) that I am a philosophy professor, he expressed great surprise and mock outrage that a professor would stoop to talking trash about sports. It reminded me of something I wrote a few months ago in response to an article accusing philosophers of being hypocrites . . .

Uatlanticpon returning home the other day I noticed that this month’s copy of The Atlantic had arrived. One of the headlines on the cover was “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” a title I brought to Jeanne’s attention. “Yeah,” she mentioned, “and there’s also an article in there about you philosophers being immoral.” Thinking that this might be the article about being a jerk, I looked it up in the Table of Contents. But no—“Why It Pays to Be a Jerk” is one of the lead articles, while “Philosophers are Hypocrites (and ethicists are less than totally ethical)” gets its own brief three-column spread under a monthly category entitled “Study of Studies.” As both a professional philosopher and an occasional jerk, I was intrigued. I discovered some interesting survey findings about philosophers and academics at large.

  • red meatSixty percent of a couple hundred ethicists interviewed in one study rated eating red meat as “morally bad,” but only 27 percent said they didn’t regularly eat red meat. Not that I was surveyed, but I stopped eating red meat six or seven years ago. As soon as chickens and turkeys are reclassified as plants, I’ll be all set.
  • Ethicists and political philosophers were no more likely to vote than other kinds of professors, nor were ethicists more likely to donate blood or register as organ donors. And your point is? Plato, one of the greatest political philosophers ever, claims that the more one knows, the less likely one is to willingly participate in the political process. And maybe the reluctant ethicists are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • Compared with other philosophy texts, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were roughly 50 percent more likely to be permanently missing. vice and virtueLots of assumptions here. I presume that some of the “contemporary ethics books” under discussion are the sorts of anthologies that applied ethics professors such as I use in their undergraduate courses, anthologies that undergo unnecessary revisions ever two or three years so that the authors can make more money and thoroughly annoy their colleagues who now have to revise the page numbers in their syllabi. And why, I might add, do such authors always find it necessary to remove the one or two articles or stories I find most useful from the previous edition and replace them with a bunch of crap I’ll never use (usually written by the author of the anthology)?
  • Philosophers are vulnerable to biases. One study found that, compared with introverted peers, extroverted experts in philosophy and psychology were more likely to hold certain beliefs about free will. Here my finely honed skills as a critical reader kick in—doesn’t everyone hold “certain beliefs about free will”? Maybe it would be helpful to specify which certain beliefs extroverted philosophers and psychologists are more likely to hold about free will than my fellow introverts and I hold. introvertWhatever those beliefs are, I’ll be they are both offensive and wrong. I find that extroverts often are.
  • People with advanced philosophy degrees answered a pair of ethical questions differently depending on which was posed first. Which, I suspect, means that contrary to all appearances and to popular opinion, people with advanced philosophy degrees are still normal human beings when they are not on the clock.
  • People with damage to their brain’s prefrontal cortex tended to have an abnormally “utilitarian” pattern of judgments on moral dilemmas. I always wondered what was wrong with John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer.
  • Compared with everyone else, philosophers seem to be worse about calling their mothers. call motherMy mother has been gone for twenty-seven years and never lived to see me earn my PhD and embark on my career as a philosophy professor. So I wouldn’t know. Maybe the mothers of philosophers have asked their children not to call so often because they hear enough about Heraclitus and Foucault at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Anyone who thinks that earning an advanced degree of any sort somehow transforms the degree-earner automatically into a clearer thinking and more consistent human being needs to spend ten minutes in a Faculty Senate or academic department meeting on any college or university campus anywhere. PlatoPlato once famously claimed that “to know the good is to do the good”—in other words, that knowledge and moral behavior are intimately connected. Upon hearing this claim for the first time, my undergraduate students quickly identify it as refined bullshit. Just ask how many people in any given room have ever known what the right thing to do is and chose to do something else just because they felt like it and watch every hand go up. Plato’s claim that all evil is energized by a perceived, but mistaken good leads him to argue for the proper education as a firewall against doing the wrong thing.

But no amount of education of any sort is a guarantee against bad and immoral behavior. The PhD wielding ethicist is no more likely to be a moral exemplar than an ordained minister, priest, rabbi or imam is guaranteed to be a model of virtue, just as being a doctor does not guarantee one is likely to live a healthy lifestyle. Nor is a great deal of education even necessary for moral excellence, let alone sufficient. Just think about the persons in your history who were or are both short on formal education and high on moral integrity. akrasiaThe ancient Greeks knew about akrasia, weakness of the will—the tendency not to do the right thing even when you know what it is. Various Christian groups like to call this original sin. Plato denied the existence of akrasia, claiming that “no one goes willingly toward the bad,” but even the smartest people can be wrong on a regular basis.

So if training in philosophy and ethics does not produce better people, what is philosophy good for? Lots of things; in the present context, for instance, a trained ethicist is not hired by a hospital or corporation to provide a model of how to live so much as to identify moral complexities, uncover moral issues where no one even suspected there were any, and to provide insight and guidance on how to walk through the minefields of conflicting interests and goods that each of us finds ourselves in on a daily basis. ethicistThe ethicist, rather than simplifying and clarifying, often will make choices and actions more difficult by digging below the surface of moral platitudes and revealing that life almost never provides us with neat, “yes or no, good or bad, right or wrong” binaries. It’s a lot more interesting and complicated than that. An ethicist should at least be able to do the above as well as provide her students or clients with some tools that will help. If not, you aren’t getting your money’s worth.

I have spent close to three decades studying, thinking about and teaching ethics and find that while all of it helps me think moral issues through more clearly than I would without my training, none of it makes me a better person—that requires commitments and energies that learning does not provide—or even guarantees sharper moral vision. tough nutFor instance, I have probably worked on the capital punishment issue two dozen times with students in classes over the years. It’s a tough philosophical nut to crack, and I’m convinced that the anti-capital punishment and anti-death penalty arguments are the strongest. And yet if someone murdered Jeanne or another member of my family, I very well might not only want that person dead but would be happy to administer the injection or pull the switch myself. Does that make me a hypocrite? No, it makes me a human being seeking to live with integrity in a challenging world. If nothing else, philosophy lets me know just how difficult that is.

Old White Guys

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Looking in the mirror for the first time every morning is always a sobering shock, but the other day it was a bit more disturbing than usual. “Wow, you old white guy,” I thought to myself.” “The success of Donald Trump’s run for president thus far is due to people like you.”owg

A couple of days later, this came up in a locker room conversation. One of my favorite conversation people to talk with is a retired professor from the history department, with whom I had the privilege of team-teaching a course a couple of years ago during his final year in the classroom. J is curmudgeonly, direct, opinionated, and very insightful—all reasons that I enjoy conversing with him. Our most recent conversation took place in the locker room at our on-campus gym; we tend to work out around the same late morning time on weekdays.

Him: History proves that human beings are the worst thing that’s ever happened to our planet. Things would be a lot better if about seventy-five percent of the people now alive were wiped out.

Me: Really?

Him: Yeah—a motorcycle-riding buddy of mine once said that he agreed with me until I reminded him that this included children.dt and owg

Me: You know, the typical Donald Trump supporters are predominantly old white guys. I’d be happy to start by wiping out old white guys, except that’s my demographic.

Him: Mine too. That’s a problem.

During our current Presidential election cycle my sixty-year-old whiteness has come to my attention more frequently than in the past—I hear and read over and over again that certain elements of U. S. citizenry are angry, upset about all sorts of things, an anger that has made outsider candidates such Ben Carson, early on, and Donald Trump attractive in spite of their complete lack of traditional qualifications for the Presidency. And what sorts of people are angriest? Older white people, particularly older white guys. My demographic, in other words. What are older white guys mad about? Just about everything, apparently; the general sense is a gnawing fear that things they have taken for granted their whole lives are changing and that the world they thought they could depend on seems not quite so dependable any more. pogoA world which used to make perfect sense isn’t making sense any more. Perhaps more to the point, older white guys aren’t happy about an emerging world in which whiteness, maleness, and entitlement are no longer synonymous. I refer to these guys as “they” and often rail against their fear and rigidity—but as Pogo once said, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” Like it or not, I’m getting older and I’m a white male. “They” are my people.

I have written about white privilege before, noting that even though older white folks such as I have been the beneficiaries of generations of accumulated and embedded privilege our whole lives—often without our even being aware—it can be jarring to be told forcefully in various ways that what we take for granted has been institutionally denied to those unlike us throughout the history of our country.

White Privilege

But as Bob Dylan observed more than a half century ago, “the times, they are a-changin’.” For those who long for the world they thought had been guaranteed to them and to which they believe they are entitled, the news is not good. Those days are not coming back.still life

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, the first installment in her award-winning Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series that I have just begun reading, the Chief Inspector and Myrna, proprietor of a small bookstore in Three Pines, Quebec, have a conversation about the inevitability of change and the various ways in which human beings deal with it. For twenty-five years Myrna was a psychologist in Montreal, one hour’s drive to the north, before chucking it all, moving to rural Three Pines, and rebooting her life entirely. Why did she do it?

I lost sympathy with many of my patients. After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he’d come with the same complaints, “Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It’s not my fault.” For three years I’d been making suggestions, and for three years he’d done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wasn’t changing because he didn’t want to. nmfHe had no intention of changing. For the next twenty years we would go through this charade. And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him.

This puts a different spin on things. The world around us is what it is, as Jeanne would say, and there is often little or nothing we can do about it. But as the ancient Stoics, Myrna’s point is that what really matters is how I will respond to those things outside my control, how I will process what comes to me on a daily basis, particularly those things that impose themselves on me without my permission or agreement. And the choice of how to respond, react, and process is entirely up to me.

Most of us are great with change, as long as it was our idea. But change imposed from the outside sends most people into a tailspin.  If we can accept that nothing is permanent, and change is inevitable, if we can adapt, then we’re going to be happier people.

I recall clearly my first “old white guy” reaction to change—marquetteit happened over twenty-five years ago, well before I officially entered the old white guy demographic. I was applying to my first college teaching positions with my Ph.D. soon to be in hand; I had terrific recommendations, straight A’s, teaching experience, and even a couple of published articles. And no one was calling me for interviews. After a certain amount of frustration, I managed to put two and two together—and didn’t like the resulting sum. I knew that 85-90% of all the college level university philosophy professors in America at that time were white males. I was aware that I am white and male. But I had not joined these promising facts together with the fact that the world had changed and was continuing to change in ways that did not particularly favor people in my demographic. In short, I was born with two tickets—whiteness and maleness—that in the past were the most useful tickets to have in our country for gaining access to just about everything that matters—jobs, housing, education, and so on.

But during my own lifetime, those tickets not only began to stop giving people like me surefire access to everything—they sometimes even became liabilities. The very characteristics that traditionally would have put me at the top of the list were now more likely to put me at the bottom.white privilege Imagine that—philosophy departments full of people who looked like me were beginning to think that perhaps qualified women and persons of color had not been treated fairly. Furthermore, armed with programs like affirmative action, they were beginning to do something about it. “Well that’s not fair!” I thought. “It’s not my fault that I’m white and male!” No it wasn’t, but neither would it have been fair for me to benefit from a skewed and unjust system that would have favored me in the past for reasons having nothing to do with my own qualifications. Change had come and was continuing to do so without my permission. My only choice was to decide how to respond to and process this development.

As their conversation continues, Myrna and the Chief Inspector draw an important conclusion, one memorably summarized by Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Myrna: Life is change. If you aren’t growing and evolving you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of these people are very immature. They lead “still” lives, waiting. Waiting for someone to save them. Expecting someone to save them or at least protect them from the big, bad world. shakespeareThe thing is no one else can save them because the problem is theirs and so is the solution. Only they can get out of it.

Gamache: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Myrna: That’s it. It’s not fate, not genetics, not bad luck . . . Ultimately it’s us and our choices. The vast majority of troubled people don’t get it. The fault is here, but so is the solution. That’s the grace.

The Hungry Person’s Bread

311878_web_vo.Capitalist-Christian_colI have been known to make extreme statements for effect in the classroom. One of them would be judged by many to be so extreme as to be ludicrous, but I actually believe it is absolutely true: It is not possible to be a good capitalist and a good Christian at the same time. Outside of class, I share this truth only with people who I am virtually sure are of like mind. I was pleased to find out as I prepared for seminar a few weeks ago that the big guy agrees with me.

I have written about my love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas on this blog before—despite my best efforts to avoid his looming presence on campus, he is undoubtedly the most important theologian/philosopher of the medieval world.

The Big Guy and Me

St-Thomas-Aquinas1In addition, I frequently teach in an interdisciplinary course that addresses material from Charlemagne to the seventeenth century, two of the disciplines to be addressed in this course are philosophy and theology; guess what, dude—you’re doing Aquinas! The last time I taught this course we did roughly two weeks on Aquinas, the first on his thought concerning the relationship of faith and reason, the second on the nature of law. My theology colleague chose the appropriate texts from the Summa Theologicasumma-theologica for seminar, and I got to spend a couple of hours of seminar time—twice!—working on the big guy’s work with eighteen second-semester freshmen who were less than thrilled to spend yet another precious 100 minutes of their lives with a dead white guy, especially one who is both a philosopher and a theologian, for God’s sake.

But the “Aquinas on Law” seminar turned out to be one of the liveliest I have had all semester, indeed one of the liveliest in recent memory. That’s because wedged into the middle of several articles on various law-related topics, Aquinas asks a very practical and contemporary-sounding question: “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” His answer caused my young students, most at least marginally Catholic and more-than-marginal budding capitalists, to learn something they should have learned from watching Not like the otherSesame Street—some things just don’t go together.

Summa Theologica 2.2, Question 66, Article 7 is framed within the parameters of Aquinas’ understanding of eternal law, natural law, and human law. “Eternal law” is the Divine rational governance of the universe as a cosmic community, while “Human law” is our human version of the same activity, the project of applying rational governance to our activities as individuals and communities. “Natural law” serves as a bridge between eternal and human law; it is the imprint of the eternal Law in the nature of things. natural lawIn the big guy’s own words, “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” At its best, human law is an objective, enforceable expression of what we know from the natural law em-bedded in our natures to be right and wrong. But, of course, things are never that simple.

Which brings us to “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” If he had been writing several centuries later, Aquinas would have illustrated his discussion with Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables.javert and valjean Valjean steals food to feed his starving niece and nephew, is arrested for theft and sentenced to twenty years in prison according to the applicable law. He escapes from prison and, through years of complications is pursued by an obsessively dedicated policeman, Javert. Using Aquinas’ categories of law, the conflict between Javert and Valjean reflects the tension that can arise between human law and natural law. Which one of them has “right” on his side? Valjean or Javert? After listing some preliminary objections, Aquinas is very clear about “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.” “In cases of need,” he writes, “all things are common property, so there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” Valjean’s taking of food owned by another to save his family members trumps property rights. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law against theft be inexorably applied is misdirected energy.

This in itself made my students uncomfortable; the big guy’s explanation of his position made some of them downright pissed. “Whatever certain persons have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” ambroseIf you have more than you need, that extra literally does not belong to you. And in case you missed that, Aquinas quotes Ambrose:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

“That sounds like communism!” several of my students complained believing, as many in our capitalist world believe, that such an accusation signifies the effective and immediate end of the conversation. “Not really,” I responded, “but you know who it does remind me of? The early Christian communities in the Book of Acts.” Acts-4.34-37These communities were so dedicated to the principle of common ownership of goods and distribution of those goods according to need that people were reportedly struck dead for claiming to be dedicated to the principle and lying about it. If the big guy had been in attendance at my seminar, the ensuing conversation might have gone something like this:

Student 1: My property belongs to me! I worked for it and no one has a right to it other than me!

The Big Guy: I agree—to a point. “Each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” The purpose of property ownership is to facilitate your responsibility to ensure that those in need are taken care of.

Student 2: But I worked hard for what I own! No one has the right to tell me what to do with it!

BG: You’re assuming that you are more important than others, that the purpose of labor is your own enrichment and benefit rather than the community’s.

Student 3: I’m more than happy to consider giving of my surplus to those in need—I’m not heartless, and I usually get a tax deduction when I do. But I’m not obligated to do it.

imagesBG: According to the natural law, you are.

Student 4: But what if the person in need is lazy? Or a drug addict? Or just a loser? What if she doesn’t deserve my help?

BG: None of that matters. Why the person is in need is irrelevant. She is in need. You have the capacity to help her. End of story.

Student 4: This is ridiculous! It’s naive, unrealistic, idealistic, and will never work. Where did you ever get such a dumb idea?

indexBG: I know of a guy who gave an important talk once that’s all about this. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Check it out.

In one very brief article, the big guy challenges our most basic capitalist assumptions—that my property belongs to me, that I may give of my surplus to those in need if I choose but am not obligated to do so, that before I help a person in need I want to know why that person is in need, and so on. But of course Aquinas isn’t making a case for capitalism. He’s making a case for living out the directives of the gospel, directives given so often and so clearly that they can’t be missed. there but for the grace6Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, befriend the friendless, house the homeless—when you do this to the least of these, you have done it to me. I am the last person to claim that I effectively live this out—but I’ve at least become convinced that the way to deal with incompatible beliefs is not to pretend that they fit together.

Dodge City Ethics

Bein’ born is craps. How we live is poker. Doc Holliday

sparrowOf the dozens of novelists whose books I have read over the years, Mary Doria Russell is one of the least likely favorites. I’m not a big science fiction fan (I much prefer mysteries), but her debut novels The Sparrow and Children of God, about a Jesuit missionary expedition in outer space (you can’t beat Catholics in space!) are both beautifully written and thought-provoking. Dreamers of the Day, set in Egypt during the post-World War One partitioning of Palestine, is much better than I expected it would be. And I’ve avoided her most recent novels, Doc and Epitaph, which follow Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers through late nineteenth-century Dodge City and Tombstone, for quite a while since I’ve never been a fan of Wild West fiction. But a recent reread of Dreamers of the Day reminded me of what a wonderful writer Russell is; I was looking for a new novel, so Doc and Epitaph it is. I highly recommend  them.doc

Doc is set in 1878 Dodge City where the genteel and consumptive dentist John Henry “Doc” Holliday finds himself scratching out a living as a card shark by night and a sometimes-dentist for cowboys who have never seen a toothbrush by day. A Northern-educated Southern gentleman who headed west hoping that the dry Plains air might be good for his lungs, Doc finds himself in a violent world where life means little and in which most of his acquaintances can barely read, let alone appreciate his conversational references to Vergil and Dostoevsky. One exception is Morgan Earp, the youngest of three Earp brothers in town, who is a policeman along with his older brother Wyatt. Wyatt can barely read, but Doc happily loans Morgan favorite volumes from the library he brought with him from Georgia, including Crime and Punishment and Oliver Twist.

One morning Morgan is in Doc’s dentist office as Doc extracts several teeth from a chloroformed Wyatt, Doc and Morgan discuss the novels Morgan is reading.holliday

  • Doc: Morgan, how are you and Mr. Dickens getting along?
  • Morgan: I lie him better than Dostoevsky. Oliver Twist reminds me of Wyatt when he was a kid.
  • Doc: You met Mr. Fagin yet?
  • Morgan: Yeah. Ain’t made up my mind about him. He’s good to feed all those boys, but he’s teaching them to be pickpockets too. That don’t seem right.
  • Doc: But that is just what makes Fagin interestin’. Raskolnikoff, too. Fagin does his good deed with a bad purpose in mind, but the boys are still fed. Raskolnikoff kills the old woman, but he wants to use her money to improve society. As Monsieur Balzac asked, May we not do a small evil for the sake of accomplishin’ a great good?
  • Morgan: I don’t know. It’s still an evil.
  • Doc: And yet, that seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.

posterAnd there, in a dentist office in dusty, dirty Dodge City, is the heart of one of the greatest quandaries in ethics. Do the ends ever justify the means? Is it ever morally permissible to act immorally in the attempted achievement of a great moral good?

Philosophers love this stuff. The other day when I tried to get a colleague and friend from the English department to choose whether she would choose to support our Providence Friars basketball team or the University of Virginia Cavaliers (UVA is her beloved alma mater) if they played in the Final Four, she asked “Is this one of those philosophy games where you give someone completely unrealistic hypotheticals and then force them to make a choice?” She undoubtedly had heard philosophy puzzles such as

Suppose an out-of-control train is running down the tracks directly at a bus full of 30 people stalled on the track. You have the opportunity to redirect the train to another track where one person is stalled in a car on the track. trolleyIf you don’t pull the switch to redirect the train, thirty people will die. If you do, one person will die and thirty people’s lives will be saved. Do you pull the switch?

To complicate matters, suppose that the one person on the second track is a brilliant scientist who is on the edge of discovering a cure for cancer. Does that make a difference? What if he or she is a homeless person? You get the point.

Surprisingly, non-philosophers don’t always enjoy playing such hypothetical games (by the way, my colleague said she would cheer for UVA, which almost ended our friendship instantly). But the issues raised by Morgan and Doc’s conversation still hold. c and pWas it morally permissible for Raskolnikov to murder the useless old miserly woman in the interest of distributing the millions of rubles she was hoarding to hungry and needy people? Does Fagin’s feeding of dozens of hungry children lose its positive moral strength when we find out that he is training them to be pickpockets and becoming rich in the process?

Many philosophers and theologians have noted that in an unpredictable world filled with evil, no one’s hands are ever morally pure—regardless of their intentions. Doc and Morgan’s conversation moves in this direction.

  • Doc: We’re none of us born into Eden. World’s plenty evil when we get here. Question is, what’s the best way to play a bad hand?
  • Morgan: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
  • Doc: Infinitely sad, but damnably true. Bein’ born is craps, but how we live is poker. The question is how to play a bad hand well.

The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus could not have said it better: “For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

But on this day after Easter, I would be remiss if I did not return for a moment to Doc’s characterization of the events of Good Friday and Easter: “That seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.” hyacinthMaybe, but something tells me that a utilitarian number-crunching calculus is not the motivating factor behind Easter. At the heart of the story is radical love—God responds to our flawed human condition by becoming one of us, taking on everything that defines us including pain, injustice, suffering, and death. The new life of Easter emerges from the worst that our world can offer, just as the hyacinths are poking their heads out of the seemingly dead grass in my front yard. No matter the hand we’re dealt, that’s the way to play it.