Category Archives: Development of Western Civilization

Berlin

How to Herd a Hedgehog (or a Fox)

Classes begin soon and I am coming slowly to the conclusion that my summer reading needs to shift from the Scandinavian-authored mysteries I have been immersed in since late May (thirteen down and counting) slowly toward books related to upcoming courses. In the spring I will be team-teaching a colloquium with a colleague from the history department entitled “Markets and Morality.” Keynes HayekAs is always the case when teaching with someone from another discipline, I have a ton of books to read for the first time (as does she—just not the same ones). I have started with Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Economics is not only not my strong suit but is also high on my list of boring things, so it has taken several dozen pages to sort out what’s at stake in the early twentieth century debate between the theories of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek. Then I read this morning that “while Keynes, who was not without a large ego himself, was so confident he often changed his mind and admitted his faults, Hayek’s stance was based on absolute certainty that he was right in every particular.” “Aha!” I thought, “Keynes was a fox and Hayek was a hedgehog. That explains a lot.” This revelation will also be helpful going forward because I have learned that one of the most important things to find out about an academic is whether s/he is a hedgehog or a fox.

H and fI wrote a bit over a year ago in this blog about the hedgehog/fox distinction and how it can be a useful tool in both self-knowledge and understanding where others are coming from.

Hedgehogs and Foxes: A Primer

PlatoWhen orienting students for the first time to the important differences between Plato, who is considered by many to be the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition, and his star pupil Aristotle (who gets my own “best ever” vote), I introduce the hedgehog/fox distinction first for orientation purposes. Plato is the quintessential hedgehog, an eloquent constructor of large metaphysical frameworks and scaffolding within which the details of human experience are to be sorted. The FormsAs all hedgehogs, Plato is a “top-down” thinker, obsessed with certainty and Truth with a capital “T”. His realm of the Forms, silent and unchanging in their pristine and solemn beauty, provides a home for the equally beautiful human soul as well as a framework within which the mutable, ever-changing and not-so-beautiful (for Plato, at least) details of our daily experience are to be understood and situated. These details point toward the Forms, just as “truths” point toward the “Truth”—it’s a powerfully attractive model of reality. For hedgehogs, at least.

Aristotle metaphysicsIn his Metaphysics, Aristotle spends the first several chapters providing, in a shot-gun manner, all of the reasons he can think of why Plato’s Theory of Forms is the stupidest theory any one has ever come up with and why no one should believe it. Why? Because Aristotle is a fox, as dedicated to foxiness as Plato is dedicated to hedgehogery, and foxes have little patience for the detached-from-reality otherworldly musings of hedgehogs. Foxes build their understanding of the world from the bottom up; obsessed with details, foxes cobble together frameworks and structures of understanding only after spending a great deal of time collecting experiential data. Theories serve the details for foxes, just as details and facts bow to theoretical constructs for hedgehogs. A simple comparative example might help.

RepublicIn ancient Greek philosophy, the study of how individual human beings should behave (ethics) and the science of how to best form and administrate human communities (politics) were the same activity—both Plato and Aristotle contributed brilliant insights to these foundational investigations. In the Republic, arguably Plato’s greatest work, we encounter Socrates (usually the main character in Plato’s dialogues) and several of his friends and followers discussing “justice” at length. The angle they take on the question “What is justice?” is to consider “What would a just polis look like?” Polis refers to the small Greek city/states of Plato’s world—from this word we get terms like “politics,” “politician,” etc. The strategy is to discuss matters from broad questions such as virtue to detailed ones such what will the class structure of the imaginary perfectly just polis be theoretically without reference to communities that actually exist. When toward the end of the Republic someone asks Socrates “Do you think such a polis will ever exist in reality?” he answers “Probably not. But that’s okay—the model we have created is a valuable touchstone.”

When Aristotle begins investigating similar issues a few decades later, his approach is radically different. The first several chapters of his Politics are a detailed and wide-ranging account of the various ways in which a number of city-states scattered across the Greek peninsula are actually organized politically. PoliticsIn other words, Aristotle starts by gathering facts and making observations rather than with the constructing of organizational frameworks. Academics will recognize Aristotle’s plan immediately—he has sent dozens of grad students from his educational institution “The Lyceum” out into the world to gather relevant data, data that they will bring back to Athens and help Aristotle collate into a comprehensive report on the state of political structures in the Greek polis—a report in which they might get mentioned in a footnote. And it is this report that will be the jumping off point for Aristotle’s informed thinking about how a polis should be organized. Let theory be informed by reality, says the fox, rather than reality shaped by theory as the hedgehogs prefer.

Which strategy is better—the hedgehog’s or the fox’s? It is probably clear from this discussion, and has become crystal clear over the two years of this blog’s existence, to any reader that I am a dedicated fox. But in truth, neither is intrinsically better or worse than the other; rather, they are fundamentally different strategies that human beings use as we try to understand the world and our place in it. And each of us has either a dominant hedgehog or fox lurking inside, often making it difficult to get on the same page with colleagues who have a different animal than mine hanging around.DWc I have found this distinction to be very useful over the past few years. The coming academic year is my last as director of the interdisciplinary program that I have been in charge of since summer 2011; over the past three years, as faculty rotate in and out of the program, I have tried to lead, cajole, seduce and force over one hundred faculty through the early stages of the transition from an old version of the program into a new and quite different version. I’ve found that herding hedgehogs is quite different from herding foxes.

grade distributionTake any issue—grade distribution, for instance. In any given semester, there are 18-20 different teams of three faculty teaching 100 or more students in each section; the program I inherited had no policies (formal or informal) related to grade distribution. In other words, as in other areas of the program, the foxes had been running unsupervised in the den for a long time. As a result the average grades from team to team at the end of each semester varied wildly, giving rise to warranted cries of “UNJUST” from students in the “tough” sections, lack of respect for this core program from faculty and other constituencies on campus, and a general feeling of suspicion and finger-pointing among those teaching in the program trenches. What to do?

The hedgehogs insisted “we need firm and enforceable policies to get the outliers in line!” The foxes countered “any attempt to force grading policies from the top down will be a violation of our academic freedom!”academic freedom As a dedicated fox who has to summon my few hedgehog abilities when trying to get people to do something, I knew that some sort of policies were needed—so how do policies get established without imposition? And the game was on—over several semesters of debate, crabbiness, subcommittees, drafts, and angst, we came tentatively to a document that was successfully sold to the faculty as an “informal guideline” for people to refer to going forward (if they chose). “This needs to be a policy that everyone has to follow!” yelled the hedgehogs. “This violates my academic freedom and desire to do whatever I want without recourse!” shouted the foxes. And so it goes.

Hedgehogs and foxes can learn to live in harmony—but only when they recognize that the world would be a vastly different place without both structure and freedom, both Truth and the little truths we encounter every day. Hedgehogs and foxes can even survive in long-term relationships with each other, but the offspring are a problem. Who knows what you’ll get from a foxhog?foxhog

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 wrestlingLast Sunday’s Old Testament reading tells the story of a classic dreamer/pragmatist clash that generated a great deal of conflict. The readings have been strolling at a leisurely pace through Genesis all summer—for several weeks we have been following 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 on Sunday we moved to “Jacob—the Next Generation” and were 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 things 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?

As the lector read this lesson on Sunday, I heard something I had never taken close notice of before. 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.

gentle drizzle

Gentle Drizzle

IOresteian the interdisciplinary program I teach in and direct, the first semester faculty have to make many tough choices. Iliad or Odyssey? What texts from the Hebrew Scriptures? The New Testament? What to use from Plato and Aristotle–or, God forbid, Plato or Aristotle? And no less challenging—which of the triumvirate of great Greek tragedians? Usually it is a toss-up between the profundity of Sophocles and the brilliance of Euripides, but this fall my teammate and I have opted for the first of the trio, Aeschylus. In a couple of months, we will be spending a week with sixty-five freshmen in The Oresteia, a trilogy with enough violence and dysfunctional family intrigue to hopefully satisfy the most scandal-hungry eighteen year old. Perhaps some of the playwright’s profound insights into the human condition will seep in as well.

RFKOn April 4 a little over twenty-four years ago, early lines from Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ trilogy, were quoted by Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis toward the end of a brief, impromptu eulogy of Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been assassinated in Memphis earlier in the day. Kennedy, who would himself be killed by an assassin’s bullet just two short months later, included these lines from the Chorus’ first speech in the play as a sobering piece of one of the great speeches in American history:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I was reminded of both Bobby Kennedy and these lines from Aeschylus as I was listening to “The Moth Radio Hour” on NPR the other day.

Sala Udin on “The Moth”

Sala UdinOne of the story-tellers at the Moth event was Sala Udin who told of how as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi fifty years ago he came within an inch of losing his life after being stopped and then viciously beaten by the Mississippi State Police. In his jail cell, as he looked at his battered and disfigured face in the mirror, he thought “I don’t know why they didn’t kill me, but they should have. Now I’m committed. I’m clear. I will never stop fighting racism and injustice.Kasisi-Sala-Udin-copy I’m going to be a Freedom Rider for the rest of my life.” Udin and thousands like him were some of those drops upon the heart that Aeschylus wrote of over two millennia ago. Because of persons like Udin, change in the direction of wisdom incrementally but inexorably comes “against our will,” a change that although real is nowhere near complete.

I was born in 1956 and was too young to be directly involved in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, but have often wondered whether I would have wanted to be a Freedom Rider if I had been old enough and had been given the opportunity. I have no reason to believe that I would have, but take a small amount of comfort in the belief that once the habit is developed, courage tends to be available in the amounts needed by present circumstances. I have never been faced directly with the question of what I would be willing to stake my life on and possibly die for, amazing gracebut can at least hope that faced with the decision to act on what things are worth risking or even losing my life for, I would not immediately run away.

Jeanne and I recently watched one of our favorite movies—”Amazing Grace”—with a good friend who had not seen it before. The 2007 movie includes fine acting performances from various rising young actors who now are the hottest performers going—Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Romola Garai—the wonderful Ciaran Hinds (who knew that Julius Caesar was in the House of Commons?), and two of my favorite older actors, Michael Gambon and Albert Finney. images3FS0ITV3“Amazing Grace” is the story of William Wilberforce’s twenty year campaign to end the slave trade in England, finally accomplished in 1807 (the movie is a celebration of the bicentennial of that legislation). I have no idea how historically accurate the movie is, but as my good friend and colleague Rodney used to say, if it isn’t true it should be. It’s a great story.

Although there are certainly “good guys” and “bad guys” in the movie, no one is close to saintly or perfect. Wilberforce’s (played by Gruffudd) dogged attempts to end slavery meet with resistance for reasons that sound unfortunately familiar. Ending the slave trade will be devastating economically, there is “evidence” that the slaves in the colonies live better than the poor in Engwilberforce and newtonland, non-whites in the colonies are “the white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling will write decades later, and so on. As he encounters multiple defeats and disappointments, Wilberforce is on the brink of despair when he has a conversation with his childhood minister, John Newton (played by Finney). Before becoming a member of the clergy years earlier, Newton had been a successful captain of a slave ship; through various powerful and transformative experiences, he recognized the evil underlying his profession, and famously wrote a poem that he set to a familiar and popular tune. The result was “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most beloved song in the hymnal, in which the now-blind Newton wrote “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

In the middle of their conversation, Newton mentions he has heard that Wilberforce is returning to the faith of his youth; Wilberforce confirms the rumor, but says that while he badly needs divine inspiration and help, there have been no inspirational lightning bolts thus far. newton“Ah,” replies Newton, “but God sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms.” It is many more years before Wilberforce and his supporting cohorts from all walks of life land on a strategy that finally works, confirming Newton’s insight. The frontal attacks of previous years, energized by righteous anger, eloquent statesmanship, and the best of moral intentions have failed again and again. It is not until an obscure lawyer in Wilberforce’s entourage of like-minded persons suggests a new strategy—essentially “we cheat”—that success is finally won. Through behind the scenes manipulation and the use of a long neglected, virtually unknown set of maritime regulations, Wilberforce does a brilliant end run on his political opponents and slavery in Great Britain soon crumbles under its own weight. It will take more than another half century and a brutal Civil War for the same to happen in the United States.

gentle drizzleGod sometimes does his work through gentle drizzle rather than storms. Ain’t it the truth? That certainly has been my experience, both in my own life and as I have observed the world around me for close to six decades. In its Latin roots, to “convert” means to “turn around,” but this turning is more often like a sunflowersunflower following the sun in its slow course across the sky than a dynamic and once-for-all event. I am an optimist at heart, something that is often difficult to sustain when I think about how much there is to be accomplished in my own life and in the world around me. But a steady rain, even a gentle drizzle, is better for my plants and grass than an inch-in-a-half-hour downpour. Beneath the layers of violence, hatred, ignorance and despair, something holy is lurking. Let the gentle drizzle and drops upon the heart release it.

introvert cat 2

Auras and Cats

colorblindIn a world of partial color blindness, I have to make do with the colors I can experience clearly, without confusion, and in the same way that normal people apparently do. That rules out lots of different combinations, but leaves most of the primary colors intact. I’ve always said that blue is my favorite color, which indicates that I am more similar to normal human beings than I might think—people most often identify blue as their favorite color. But yellow does something very positive to me. I find it calming and centering; I was very pleased when shades of yellow were chosen for the halls, offices and ruane hallclassrooms in the beautiful new humanities great roombuilding on campus that is the home of the interdisciplinary program I direct, just as I was pleased when a slightly different shade of yellow was chosen several years earlier as the dominant color in the renovated building the philosophy department moved into during my stint as philosophy department chair back in 2006. Somebody must have known that keeping the chair or director centered and focused is step one to avoiding academic squabbling in the ranks.

So I was not surprised when I found out from the “What Color is your Aura?” quiz on Facebook that my aura is yellow. Most of my academic readers are now sniffing in contempt—“Aura?? Now you’ve really gone to the new-agey dark side, Morgan!” reikiNot really, although truth in advertising requires revealing that I just had my first forty-five minute Reiki session a couple of weeks ago from a Reiki master who is a friend of ours from church. I haven’t detected any life-changing results, but the session relaxed me sufficiently that I slept for at least fifteen of the forty-five minutes. Regardless, taking the aura quiz is far more about my obsession with Facebook quizzes than crystals or chakras.

What Color is Your Aura?

Your aura is yellow! You are optimistic and intelligent, with a friendly, creative presence. A yellow aura signifies that you are full of life and energy, an inspiring and playful person. yellow auraYou may be on the brink of a new awakening, close to finding new meaning in your current life.

The description is only partially accurate—I’m happy to own “optimistic,” “intelligent,” “creative,” and “inspiring,” but no one has ever accused me of being “full of life and energy,” “friendly,” or “playful.” Maybe my aura is “dirty yellow,” the color my mother used to say my hair was before it started turning gray in my early twenties.

My natural way of engaging with fellow humans was described quite well when I took the “What Kind of Cat are You?” quiz a while ago. I could not resist. I am a cat person, and have been owned by several cats over the past fifty years: Stokely, Natalie, Rachel, Midnight, Express, Moses, and Spooky, just to name a few—the bookend cats on the list both lived to be eighteen. Cat personalities range as widely as human personalities do, and I was not surprised to find out that

What Kind of Cat Are You?

introvert catYou are a cat who is like, “Nope! Leave me alone.”! Everybody always wants to be all up in your business and you are like, “No thanks! I don’t really like people? Please go away and leave me alone?” But they don’t. They never go away and leave you alone.

The “leave me alone” cat sounds like a lot of my freshman students. He managed to use the word “like” both incorrectly and correctly in just a couple of lines. Let’s be clear: I do not use the word “like” improperly, have never used the phrase “all up in your business” and do not turn statements of fact into questions (that would make me sound like a Valley Girl). That said, the “leave me alone” cat’s general attitude about human beings is quite familiar. MIMAs The World’s Most Interesting Man might say, I don’t always ignore people, but when I do it’s because my available daily minutes for engaging with people have been used up. I am pretty much a leave me alone cat with relatively well-developed social skills.

Back to colors. For some strange reason Jeanne does not demonstrate the same obsession with Facebook personality quizzes that I do, but she was interested enough to take the aura quiz. Hers is blue—unfortunately we neglected to record the description, although it seemed to fit her reasonably well. So I looked elsewhere. After Googling “color moods” and randomly clicking on one of the hundreds of sites instantly available, I learned the following about the psychological properties of blue and yellow:

blueBLUE: Intellectual.

Positive: Intelligence, communication, trust, efficiency, serenity, duty, logic, coolness, reflection, calm. Negative: Coldness, aloofness, lack of emotion, unfriendliness.

Blue is the color of the mind and is essentially soothing; it affects us mentally, rather than the physical reaction we have to red. Strong blues will stimulate clear thought and lighter, soft blues will calm the mind and aid concentration. Consequently it is serene and mentally calming. It is the color of clear communication.

yellowYELLOW: Emotional

Positive: Optimism, confidence, self-esteem, extraversion, emotional strength, friendliness, creativity. Negative: Irrationality, fear, emotional fragility, depression, anxiety, suicide.

The yellow wavelength is relatively long and essentially stimulating. In this case the stimulus is emotional, therefore yellow is the strongest color, psychologically. The right yellow will lift our spirits and our self-esteem; it is the color of confidence and optimism.

Now I’m really confused, since the description of “Blue” sounds very much like me, while “Yellow” sounds a lot like Jeanne (minus the suicide and depression). But perhaps we’ve been together long enough that our colors are beginning to mingle. And we all know what happens when you mix blue and yellow (regardless of which person is which):blue and yellow make green

GREEN: Balance

Positive: Harmony, balance, refreshment, universal love, rest, restoration, reassurance, environmental awareness, equilibrium, peace. Negative: Boredom, blandness, enervation.

Green strikes the eye in such a way as to require no adjustment whatever and is, therefore, restful. Being in the center of the spectrum, it is the color of balance – a more important concept than many people realize.

And I must say that this sounds right. Jeanne has often said that she wants our home to be a place of peace and healing—maybe we are on the way. A certain amount of blandness and boredom is a small price to pay for the privilege of creating a space of harmony, balance, rest and peace in a world that is anything but. When extreme opposites attract and mix, sometimes something cool happens.green house

Is Democracy Overrated?

 

house of cardsJeanne and I just finished binge-watching the second season of Netflix’s House of Cards, an undoubtedly appropriate activity to complete just before our nation’s birthday on the Fourth of July. In one of the early second-season episodes, Vice President Frank Underwood (played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey), fresh off another policy victory energized by skillful manipulation and lying, turns toward the camera for one of his patented asides to the insider audience. “I’m the second most powerful man in the country without a single vote being cast in my favor. Democracy is so overrated!”

senateFrank knows, of course, that technically the United States is not a democracy—it is far too big for that. It is a representative republic, in which eligible voting citizens elect representatives who then cast votes on behalf of those who elected them in legislative bodies from the local to national level. But this doesn’t dilute Frank’s intended point, which is that what matters in politics is power, manipulation, who you know, and money. This is true in any sort of government, since all forms of government are run by human beings, creatures motivated by self-interest and greed more than anything else.

lit.aristotlepolitics.coverRepublicFrank’s point puts him in good company. Plato’s and Aristotle’s Republic and Politics are respectively two of the greatest works of political philosophy in the Western tradition, and even though both Plato and Aristotle were thoroughly familiar with the Athenian experiments in democracy that we look back on favorably, each were highly critical of this form of government. When Plato lists various forms of government from worst to best in the Republic, he ranks democracy as next to worst, only slightly better than tyranny.

Socrates-on-trialThere are many reasons for these great philosophers’ rejection of our favorite form of government, some of which were undoubtedly personal. Plato’s mentor Socrates, remember, was convicted and condemned to death by a jury of 501 of his Athenian peers in a straightforwardly democratic fashion—and Plato never forgave either Athens or its ludicrously misguided form of government. A generation later, when Aristotle found himself on the wrong side of the political landscape in Athens, he left town immediately, reportedly commenting “I do not intend to let Athens sin against philosophy twice.” alexander-aristotle-grangerAristotle ended up going north to Macedonia where he was hired as tutor to a young man who would soon become one of the greatest tyrants the world has even seen—Alexander the Great.

Although their philosophical problems with democracy were many, Plato and Aristotle agreed that democracy’s deepest flaw is that it is built on a serious misreading of human nature. Democracy’s unique calling card is its openness to treating all eligible citizens as if they are all equally qualified to participate in making political decisions, an openness that is rooted in the bizarre assumption that these citizens are fundamentally the same in some important and relevant way that qualifies them for participation. This notion of fundamental human equality is so misguided that it would be laughable, say Plato and Aristotle, were it not that the effects of taking this notion seriously are so problematic.

bbcsmDoes it really make sense to invite the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to choose political leaders along with those far better suited by education, class, and abilities to do so? No more than it would make sense to invite a senator into the bakery or butcher shop to bake pastries or cut up a side of beef. There is an obvious hierarchy of skills and abilities, both physical and mental, among human beings and it makes obvious sense that a working society should identify these strengths and weaknesses efficiently so that each person can do what she or he is best suited for. This is why Plato ranks aristocracy—the rule of the aristos or the “best”—as the best form of government. Democracy is built on the idea that since all human beings are fundamentally the same, each of us can legitimately consider ourselves equally qualified for everything, including choosing our leaders. To which Plato and Aristotle say “BullCarter Fordshit.”

I remember facing these issues clearly in November 1976 as I walked into a polling booth in Santa Fe, New Mexico to cast my vote in my first Presidential election—Carter vs. Ford. As many first-time voters, I was dedicated to being the most informed voter in the country that election cycle. And it was a tough choice, much more difficult than any of the nine Presidential elections in which I have voted since. I had decided, after much thought, to vote for Carter a few days before the election and did so with pride on the first Tuesday of November. elephants and donkeysThe polling place was the elementary school just a couple of blocks down the street from the house we were renting; as I walked home after voting, I started having disturbing thoughts. What if some fool who had not spent one second thinking about or studying up on the issues followed me into the voting booth and voted for Ford rather than Carter because he liked elephants more than donkeys? What if my uncle, jesusvotesrepublican1who always votes straight Republican because he thinks Jesus was a Republican has already cancelled my vote out? This sucks! Why should some uninformed boob’s vote count as much as my vote wrapped in intelligence and insight counts? Whose stupid idea was this “one person, one vote” thing? Exactly what Plato and Aristotle want to know.

Over the succeeding years I have had many opportunities to tell this story to a classroom of students and to share my proposed solution. Voting should be considered as an earned privilege for eligible persons, not as a right. Citizens of an eligible age, if they choose to vote, should be required to pass an eligibility quiz at the polling place—say a 70% on questions based on current issues and events as well as testing for basic knowledge of how government works—before entering the booth. I often tell my students that a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion. This would simply be a real application of that truth. I’m not saying that the quiz should be as demanding as what immigrants are required to pass for citizenship—how many natural-born citizens could pass that—but something between that much knowledge and total ignorance is not too much to ask for.

Do You Have What It Takes to Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test?

My students, by the way, almost always think by a slight margin that this is a good idea. Those who don’t often raise questions like “who is going to construct the quiz?’ to which I reply “I will.”

The only reason to favor democracy in its various forms over other forms of government is the equality thing. If, notwithstanding Aristotle, Plato and the vast majority of political minds historically over the centuries, we truly believe that all persons share a fundamental equality so deep and definitive that it trumps the whole host of differences staring us straight in the face, then democracy is an experiment that deserves our continuing, energetic commitment and support. JeffersonBut simply saying that everyone gets to vote regardless of race, gender, social status, wealth, or other difference-making qualities is not a sufficient expression of our belief in fundamental equality. Not even close.

If we truly believe, in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words, that “all persons are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we dishonor that belief by thinking that everyone getting to vote covers the bases. If we truly believe that all persons possess equal dignity as human beings, we cannot be satisfied with social and political arrangements that deny equal access for vast numbers of our fellow citizens to the various structures intended to facilitate the flourishing of that dignity throughout a human life. It is fine once per year on Independence Day to celebrate our continuing American experiment in democracy with flag waving and parades, but real patriotism requires spending the other 355 days of the year on the hard work of actually trying to make this experiment work.

Passing the Baton

sp-olympics-athl_0498999228[1]A disturbingly common mishap in recent Summer Olympic games has been the failure of U.S. track and field relay teams. Individually, these teams almost always are made up of the best runners, top to bottom, of any nation’s relay contingent. Best times, best individual win-loss records. But great individuals do not a successful relay team make. In a relay race, each runner is required not only to run her or his lap as swiftly as possible, but also to hand the baton to the next runner smoothly and securely within a specified number of meters. As the baton falls to the track during these attempted transfers, time after time, the truth becomes crystal clear.Women%20baton%20drop[1] In the quintessential American spirit, the members of the U.S. relay teams have spent far too much time honing their individual running skills, and far too little time practicing how to be a team (if they’ve practiced at all). Passing a baton while both the passer and passee are running, one decelerating and one accelerating, within a limited amount of space takes practice, practice that is not nearly as sexy or stimulating as running as fast as one can by oneself.

Baton-passing serves as an interesting analogy for many human situations, particularly generational ones that involve passing a virtual baton from the geezers to the young punks. A successful transfer requires the ability and desire to receive and run on the younger generation’s part and a willingness to let go and slow down from the older veterans. Debate about curriculum reform has been swirling around my campusimages[2] for close to a decade now, centering on a large, four semester course, described as the “core of the core” at my college, that is required of all freshmen and sophomores. This course was created, and then established as the heart of the college’s core curriculum in the early 1970s, a course that was groundbreaking and audacious in its day. Many of the faculty who were the “young Turks” of that time, the movers and shakers who invented this course and shepherded it through the faculty senate and administration against all odds, are now senior faculty on the verge of retirement. Others have already retired, some have died. And the course they created, which  defined many of their academic careers both in the classroom and out, became stale and badly in need of fresh vision and creative reconstruction. Despite the good will of many of the next generation of faculty, highly qualified and motivated women and men who willingly seek to carry a revitalized course forward for the next few decades, the reform debate was frequently poisoned by the resistance to any meaningful change by the older generation.resisting_change[1] It has been sad to observe. By accident of age and time served at the college I am positioned, as both one of the youngest of the older generation and one of the most experienced of the new generation, at the very point where the baton transfer should occur. As a veteran of teaching in this program and a long-standing advocate for needed change, I was asked just short of three years ago to direct the new version of this program that emerged from curriculum reform as it transitions from the past into the future. We’ve been doing it with some success over the past three years, in spite of some continuing resistance. As I’ve told several of my senior colleagues over the past few years, “it’s impossible to run a relay race if you won’t let go of the baton.”

Five years ago Ascension Sunday happened to be the seventeenth and last Sunday that I would be worshiping at St. Johns Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota on sabbatical. As I sat in my choir stall seat during seven-o’clock morning prayer, then in the sanctuary later in the morning during mass, there was a certain wistfulness and a bit of emotion, but not as much as I expected. For this Ascension Sunday was an appropriate milestone in my spiritual growth, a marker of the point at which I would tentatively and with fear and trembling take what I had learned and experienced over the previous four months “into all the world.” I was never taught to pay attention to Ascension Sunday in my religious tradition. But even after I was introduced to the liturgical calendar for the first time in my middle twenties, Ascension Sunday was simply the Sunday before Pentecost, after which we would slog through week after week of Ordinary Time boredom in green through the summer and fall until we were rescued by Advent purple right after Thanksgiving. 0181[1]But as I inhabited for the first time the psalms and New Testament texts on that Ascension Sunday, I thought “Wow. Jesus was the ultimately prepared and successful baton passer.”

In one way Ascension Sunday completes the story of the Incarnation that began with Jesus’ birth. Jesus doesn’t ascend out of his human body to heaven—he takes it with him, because the next lap of this story, the “Christ in us” lap, is just about ready to explode. Jesus showed extraordinary patience with his all-too-human followers during his short stay on earth, teaching them basic truths through stories and actions, all preparation for when it would be up to them to receive the baton and run their own incarnational race. The forty days after the Resurrection were all practice for a smooth passing of the baton. Jesus kept telling them “It’s all right. I’m not leaving you alone. It’s better for you that I go, because I’ll be sending you the greatest teammate ever. You can do this, because I’ll still be with you. When I leave, don’t go crazy and start running in every direction out of fear or impatience. Wait. Pray. You’ll know when it’s time to run. And when you do, you’ll turn the world upside down.” And when the clouds closed on Jesus’ heels as he ascended into heaven, for once the men and women who had loved and followed him did what they were told. j0387426-11[1]They went into an upper room in Jerusalem and waited.

I’m told that the receiver of the baton in a relay race should not seek to accelerate until she or he feels the slap of the baton in the palm of the receiving hand they have extended backwards as they begin to run. The receiver never sees the runner coming up behind, but there’s no mistaking the transfer from the unseen runner when it happens. And in the upper room ten days after Jesus left, as we will celebrate next Sunday morning, there was no mistaking that the baton had been successfully transferred. holy_spirit[1]The Incarnation goes on, and we recipients of the Holy Spirit carry it “to the ends of the earth.” In his homily on that Ascension Sunday, the Abbott observed that with Ascension Day, the Easter message of “Glory, Glory, Glory” that has been front and center since Easter changes to “Go!” 4423454959_524f73018a_z[1]The word to me that day and ever since was “Take what you’ve been given, what you’ve found, and go.” As my favorite Psalm says,

Day unto day takes up the story

And night unto night makes known the message.

We are carrying the baton, and are to run as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

Saint Keurig

She is the patron saint of efficiency, streamlined design, good taste and caffeine. Her name languished in obscurity for centuries, but she has recently become everyone’s favorite saint. And she has changed my life.imagesCAXCY4A8

Coffee has been a part of my life since I became conscious, but my mother did not drink coffee. This is surprising, since she was the product of several generations of Swedish farmers; Swedes are famous for the mass quantities of coffee they can consume. Grammie and Grandpa (2)My grandparents were a case in point. Grandpa would leave for the potato warehouse in the still, dark hours of the morning with a thermos of coffee that held eight cups of coffee or so, returning for breakfast with an empty thermos at 7:00. Grandpa and Grandma would share a percolated pot of coffee for breakfast (two or three cups each), then he would head off for the fields with full thermos, to be refilled again at lunch. They drank coffee at dinner—they probably drank coffee in their sleep. And they both lived into their eighties; when I visited the hospital room in which my grandfather eventually died, I was quite sure that the IV contained coffee. They drank real coffee—none of that pussy decaffeinated stuff (which I don’t think had been invented yet). This was coffee that would put hair on your chest (or at least on Grandpa’s—I don’t want to think about hair on Grandma’s chest). Most of my early memories of their house are olfactory—The sistersbread baking, meat frying or roasting, and always coffee percolating.

So no one knew what the hell was up with my mother. Her fellow family members thought of her as some sort of mutant when it came to the coffee issue. My aunts Elaine and Gloria, Mom’s older and younger sister, carried on the coffee inhaling tradition with gusto. I have few memories of either one of them without a coffee mug in her hand. My mother didn’t even drink tea. She drank a lot of water, fruit juice, and was in the vanguard of drinking the first diet sodas as they came out in the sixties. tab“Tab” was the first—if she was avoiding coffee and tea in order to avoid caffeine, she blew it with Tab. She also blew the unwritten law that human beings should not ingest things that are 99% unnatural elements.

I don’t remember when I first started drinking coffee; my Dad drank it (made by my mother, of course), so I’m sure it was during my high school years. I do, however, remember when I started drinking gallons of it, as a good half-Swede should. It was the year after high school, the year before I went away to college. I spent a year at the little Bible school my father was president of, in order to gradually move into the mode of being away from home before going away to college two thousand miles the next fall. Bible school was easy and boring, but it introduced me to the routine of being somewhat on my own and living at least a pseudo-academic life while also working thirty to thirty-five hours per week at the local supermarket where I had worked part-time during my last two years of high school. One day I decided to keep track of my coffee consumption, which I suspected was on the rise—that day from waking to sleeping, I consumed twenty-four Styrofoam cups of coffee. And that was a normal day. Ted, the manager of the supermarket, served as my coffee-consumption role model. In the years that I worked for Ted, I never saw him eat a bite of food—all he did was drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. The Styrofoam cups of coffee cost ten cents each from the machine in the break room—I’ll bet Ted spent three dollars per day at least. Ted was a no-nonsense guy and didn’t have the time to doctor up his black coffee with cream and/or sugar. I behaved similarly and have ever since.

imagesCACEHA7ZOn spring sabbatical five years ago my life was changed forever, because I discovered one of the greatest, nay miraculous, inventions ever conceived by the human mind—the miracle of Keurig. I was in residence at an ecumenical Institute for four months; the common space in the Institute’s central building, just three doors down from my little apartment, as well as the gathering area in the basement of the library just fifteen feet away from my office door had one of these eight wonders of the world. I carried many valuable things out of that sabbatical, but none were more life-changing than the Keurig machine. red keurigI told Jeanne when I returned about the magic of Keurig so many times that she got me a single-cup red one for Christmas.

Jesus said in the gospels that we should not keep our light hidden under a bushel, and I let Keurig light shine all over campus when classes started the next fall. Prior to the first philosophy department meeting of the semester, black and deckerI told the chair that we needed to get rid of the twelve cup Black and Decker coffee maker in the department office and get a Keurig machine. “Sounds like a good idea,” she said. “I’ll bring it up for discussion at the department meeting.” Bad idea—I thought I had taught her better. As the outgoing department chair, it was my duty to provide the new chair with various tricks of the trade I had learned in my four years running the department. The most important of these tricks was that the chair should bring matters to the department for discussion and vote as infrequently as possible. If something can be done without getting department input, do it. WMIMTrying to get twenty plus philosophers to agree on what day it is, let alone on something important, is an exercise in futility. If I had still been chair, I would have said to our administrative assistant Gail “order a Keurig machine and ten different flavors of Keurig cups for the department,” everyone would have Ooohed and Aaahed at it, Gail or I would have given a brief class on Keurig use and etiquette, and everything would have been done. But NO . . . the whole freaking department had to discuss and vote on it.

At the September meeting I made my Keurig machine pitch, half the department thought it was a great idea and wondered why the item hadn’t already been purchased. But then the other half, the folks who want to discuss and debate just to hear the mellifluous tones of their own voices, took over.

“I read online that Keurig cups have carcinogens in them.”

Office spaceShouldn’t we be buying coffee locally to help the Rhode Island economy?”

“I heard that there’s something in the cups that is dangerous for pregnant women.”

That’s when I lost it. Looking around the room of seventeen or eighteen guys and two women, one of whom was in her sixties and the other in her forties, I asked “WHO THE HELL IS GETTING PREGNANT?” But the debate continued until after a half hour I moved to table the motion. Because I knew how to get around this.

The October department meeting was scheduled at the same time as the monthly Faculty Senate meeting. Three members of the philosopher department were members of the Senate and needed to be there for an early discussion and vote, promising to get to the department meeting no more than a half hour late. These three were also Keurig opponents. I talked the chair into delaying the usual announcements and minutes approval, moving directly to taking the Keurig motion off the table. No conversation ensued, we took a vote and unanimously approved the purchase of a Keurig machine and all necessary accoutrements in five minutes. Signed, sealed and delivered before the missing colleagues returned from the Senate. industrialThey have never forgiven me (but they do use the Keurig machine).

When a year later I was asked to direct the Development of Western Civilization, I did things my way. My first executive decision was to retire the ancient industrial four-pot coffee maker and get a Keurig machine for the fifty or so faculty teaching in the program in a given semester. This started a trend—in short order, Keurig machines could be found in the Provost’s office, the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Liberal Arts Honors Program office, and every department worth the name on campus. After two years of using the philosophy department Keurig machine, the theology department upstairs even got their own.

civcoverlogo-588x290I have one year left as program director and occasionally wonder what, if anything, my directorship will be remembered for. Guiding the program through the first years of a new and improved version? Moving into a fabulous new humanities building designed specifically with the needs of this program in mind? My complete disregard for Robert’s Rules of Order when running faculty meetings? My starting every faculty meeting by saying “Here’s what we are not talking about today”? None of the above. Thanks to the wisdom and guidance of her blessedness Saint Keurig, I will be forever remembered as the director who got the Keurig machine.WMIM

A Good Match For Myself

civcoverlogo-588x290Although the spring semester ended less than a week ago, I have been planning for my fall courses for several weeks now. Such is the life of a teacher—we often live at least six months in advance of the date on the calendar. My teammate in the freshman first semester segment of the four-semester interdisciplinary program I direct and have taught in for years and I have already made our book order with wonderful texts ranging from Aeschylus to Boethius in store for the incoming eighteen-year-olds we will meet in September.

Virtually every team teaching the first semester of this course includes one of Homer’s epics on the syllabus—the question always is “which one?” Iliad or Odyssey? This is not quite the academic equivalent of “boxers or briefs” or Red-SoxYankees“Red Sox or Yankees,” but it is close. I have led discussions on each epic multiple times over the years; which is most appropriate often depends both on the interests/tastes of the faculty on the team and the chosen organizing themes for the semester. Two years ago we used the Iliad; last year my team went for the Odyssey. I profess a preference for the latter, but as my Fall 2014 colleague and I discussed the Homer issue during a planning meeting a few weeks ago, she expressed a marked preference for the Iliad for a number of good reasons. i and oI’m senior faculty, she’s in her third year, I did not want to pull rank (imagine an academic choosing not to pull rank), I appreciate the Iliad’s greatness, so I deferred. She’s a classicist after all, has forgotten more about ancient Greek literature than I think I know, and (I suspect) just really likes the overall violence and bloodshed of the Iliad. But over the past few weeks I’ve wistfully thought “I really like the Odyssey better.” A couple of days ago I found out why.

“Which Classical Character Are You?” the latest Facebook quiz asked.

Which Classical Character Are You?

This quiz was from an Oxford Dictionaries blog, so I expected that it might be a bit more erudite and serious than most. But no, it was pretty much at the same level of complexity (about eighth grade) as the others I’ve taken over the past months. It asked first whether I was male or female, and shortly after the first couple of questions I could pretty much tell that the available options were Achilles, Hercules, Orpheus, Aeneas or Odysseus. I was not surprised when I found out thatFWRO

You are Odysseus. You are renowned for your cunning wiles and fantastic plans. You’ve always got a trick up your sleeve. You are also a home-loving type and will do anything to protect your family.

I am more than happy to be Odysseus, although the quiz description hardly does him justice, nor does it sound that much like me. Odysseus was not the strongest soldier in the Greek army at Troy, nor was he the swiftest or the bravest. But he was definitely the smartest. He’s the one who manages to keep Achilles and Agamemnon from fighting to the death at the beginning of the Iliad (a good thing, or it would have been a rather short book). Other than that, he’s a relatively minor character in the Iliad. We find out from the Aeneid that the Trojan horse scheme that ended the 2011_odyssey_map_BTrojan War and sent Aeneas off looking for a new place to live was Odysseus’ brainchild.

In the Odyssey we get to know Odysseus intimately—full of hubris, always thinking and scheming, a good leader (most of the time) although all of his men die by the time he gets home, comfortable in his own skin, an introvert who has no trouble spending lots of time alone, incurably in love with his wife whom he has not seen in twenty years, and intensely focused on his one motivating goal—getting home. Tell me something I don’t know about myself.

Just for the fun of it, I decided to retake the quiz as a female. My options appeared to be Dido, Clytemnestra, Penelope, Medea and perhaps Eurydice.Penelope

You are Penelope. Loyal and patient you tend to avoid conflict. Everyone admires your restraint and elegance but sometimes you can be a bit of a doormat – but you never give up on someone you believe in.

This makes me even happier, because Penelope is my favorite female character in all of classical epic and drama (with the possible exception of Medea, who’s just a total bad ass). Once again, the quiz description does not do Penelope justice. She is undoubtedly loyal, patient and elegant (I am also loyal and patient, although inelegant), but she is anything but a doormat. 4917188777_f31b2c45e5_zShe is a consummate manipulator, putting her long-absent husband to shame in that category as she keeps a crowd of suitors at bay for years by weaving a death shroud for her supposedly dead husband during the day and unraveling it at night. She is a dedicated mother who is struggling with how to let her young adult son Telemachus go so that he can become a man, something every parent can resonate with.

And Penelope is a brilliant match for Odysseus, his complete equal in cunning, intelligence, and insight. He is a man of action, as all Greek heroes are; given the restraints on women in the classical age, her action is limited but highly effective. My favorite passage in the entire Odyssey is in Book 23, after Odysseus has, with a bit of help, slaughtered all of the suitors who have been plaguing Penelope for years in the banquet hall. P and O marriage bedPenelope is not entirely convinced that this is Odysseus—they have not seen each other for twenty years, and she is aware that gods show up in disguise at the drop of a hat in the classical world. Odysseus, grudgingly, agrees to give her all the time she needs to be sure—he’ll sleep on the couch, so to speak, until she’s ready. When Penelope instructs her maid to have the bed from the master bedroom moved into the hall for Odysseus, he goes nuts. “What the fuck are you talking about??” (my free translation). He knows that growing through the center of the house, and hence the center of the bedroom, is an olive tree that at the time of the house’s construction was used as the center post of the bed. In other words, unless the olive tree has been chopped down, this bed cannot be moved—something that only Odysseus would know. “Gotcha!” Penelope says, they embrace and live happily ever after. Not exactly, but close enough.dos-equis-most-interesting-guy-in-the-world-300x300

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite descriptions of The World’s Most Interesting Man: “He would be in touch with his feminine side—if he had one.” Psychologists tell us that everyone—other than The World’s Most Interesting Man, of course—has both a feminine and masculine side. In my case, I am thrilled to learn that my masculine and my feminine side are so well attuned that if they met, they would get married. Talk about integrated! So Robin, if you read this you will now know what a great sacrifice I made when I agreed to do the Iliad instead of the Odyssey with our sixty-four freshmen this fall. The Odyssey is more than just one of the greatest works of Western literature. It is the story of me!

An Avoidable Form of Death

I got involved briefly in a Facebook debate the other day over whether Jane Austen’s novels have any redeeming value—I think they do. jane-austen-portraitSomeone with an opposite opinion quoted the following from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and so narrow . . . Suicide is more respectable.” Strange to say, suicide has been on my mind a lot during this just-ending academic year—and there it is again.

I mentioned toward the end of last Friday’s post that in one of her written assignments this semester, one of my students observed that “suicide is an avoidable form of death.” Applied to Ralph Waldo’s judgment concerning Jane Austin’s novels, avoiding suicide for Emerson simply requires avoiding Jane’s novels. My student’s reflection was focused on Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, where those who commit suicide are eternally condemned to existence as twisted, leafless trees, continuing to feel spiritual, physical and emotional pain, but literally rooted in one place for eternity. Dante takes delight in his imaginative assignment of punishments that fit the crime—in this case, those who deliberately rejected their mortal bodies don’t get them back.della vigne But they also do not escape the torment that caused them to choose suicide during their earthly existences.

After Dante absentmindedly snaps a twig off one of the trees, it begins oozing blood and screaming in pain. This is Pier Della Vigne, who was once Frederick II of Sicily’ chief adviser. Fourteenth-century politics were no less nasty than today—rivals filled with envy spread false rumors of Pier’s treachery, and Frederick clapped him in chains. Pier, distraught and depressed, hung himself. “My mind, moved by scornful satisfaction, / believing death would free me from all scorn, / made me unjust to me, who was all just.”

“What a pussy!” one of my hockey playing students said in response to my asking whether Pier’s suicide was justified or not. Apparently it is not manly to off oneself rather than try to live with the loss of everything one considers important while waiting for execution. “Does everyone agree?” monopoly-go-to-hell2-cardEveryone did, but not for the same reasons. “Suicide is a mortal sin,” some claimed, channeling what they had learned in CCD. “Life is precious and killing yourself is throwing God’s greatest gift back in his face.” “Killing yourself is selfish and is a cop-out. How does he know that things won’t turn around?” the incurably hopeful asked. Pier had lost hope; overwhelmed with the injustice of his predicament and seeing no prospects for a better future, he chose to end his life. And for that choice he gets buried halfway down the circles of Hell, exactly where my students agreed that he belonged.

“Who remembers Boethius from the end of last semester?” I asked. All but one or two of the eighteen hands went up, reminding me of how much I love teaching in the program. How many second-semester freshmen have read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy? 220px-Boethius_imprisoned_Consolation_of_philosophy_1385Upon request, one of the students reminded her colleagues of the predicament in which Boethius found himself seven centuries before Pier Della Vigne and Dante. Boethius was the primary adviser of Theodoric, one of the first barbarian emperors of the Western Roman Empire. Slandered and falsely accused of treason, Theodoric threw Boethius into a prison cell where he awaited certain execution. Just like Pier Della Vigne.

So what did Boethius do? He didn’t kill himself; instead, he invented an imaginary friend—Philosophy in the guise of a very hot woman—and wrote one of the great works of Neo-Platonic philosophy. Written as a conversation between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, Consolation of Philosophy is a classic text that struggles with perennial philosophical themes: free will, the problem of evil, the inscrutability of God, and more. Boethius stands as an alternative to Pier Della Vigne’s choice, demonstrating that suicide is, after all, an avoidable form of death. And oh yeah, Boethius was executed.

Questions like “When is a life not worth living?’ or “What things are worth dying for?” cannot be dismissed easily. I reminded my students of Socrates, whom they had also studied in some detail the previous semester. critoIn Plato’s Crito, Socrates finds himself in prison in the middle of the night, awaiting execution the next morning as the culmination of having been found guilty of a number of serious charges by a jury of his Athenian peers. His friend and follower Crito visits with the apparently great news that money has been collected, the jailer has been bribed, and Socrates is free to escape with Crito.

And he won’t leave. Crito can’t believe it and offers several reasons in succession why Socrates should escape—your family needs you, you can continue being a philosopher pain in the ass somewhere other than Athens, if you die people will think your friends were too cheap to bribe the jailer, Ssocratesocrates’ conviction was a miscarriage of justice—everything but the kitchen sink. Crito’s arguments are convincing—Socrates has taught him well—except to Socrates who responds that “there is a difference between living and living well.” Some things are more important than just staying alive—identifying the ways in which one chooses not to live is one of those things. Choosing the manner and circumstances of one’s demise sometimes trumps staying alive. As someone near and dear to me used to say, sometimes “life is overrated.”

So in a way, Socrates commit suicide by choosing to die in the face of available life. “Yeah, but that’s not suicide. He didn’t kill himself,” my hockey player said, knowing better than to accuse Socrates of being a pussy. “No,” said the guy next to him, “he just refused to escape from jail and avoid being executed when he had the chance. What’s the difference?” Most of the students agreed with the hockey player—if you didn’t actively take your own life, it ain’t suicide. Passively allowing someone else to do it when you could have stayed alive doesn’t count.

Burger King - Have It Your WayMy students had learned over a number of months with me that when philosophers get in trouble, they draw a distinction, precisely what they were doing here. When faced with a choice to die rather than live that was made on principle rather than out of depression or despair, they preserved their a priori rejection of suicide as ever morally justifiable by concluding that “this must not be suicide.” “Fine,” I thought, in a Burger King moment. “Have it your way.” I capped the conversation by briefly telling them the story of Cato the Younger from Plutarch’s Lives (a text we had not read but perhaps would have if this course were four years in length). CatoCato was a Roman senator and one of the great defenders, both in word and deed, of the late Roman Republic.

When civil war erupted after Julius Caesar illegally returned to Rome with his victorious legions, Cato fought as a general on the losing side. Immediately after his victory, Caesar dispatched a messenger to Cato offering clemency and promising an important post in Caesar’s proposed governmental structure, paying at least lip service to Cato’s well-earned reputation for incorruptible honesty and virtue. In response, Cato fell on his sword after saying “I could no longer be Cato under those conditions.” Just as Socrates, Cato imagined a life as an orbiting body around Caesar’s center of gravity and decided that death was preferable. Upon hearing of Cato’s suicide, Caesar commented “Cato, I grudge you your death, as you would have grudged me the preservation of your life.”

In a moment of either weakness or reality Immanuel Kant, who argued vociferously and consistently that suicide is never morally justifiable,  once admitted that perhaps Cato was the only morally justified suicide in human history. But one exception to the rule raises the likelihood of many more. imagesI asked my students to spend the last fifteen minutes of seminar writing in their seminar notebooks on “Was Cato’s suicide justified?” At least half of them, despite having learned from various authorities throughout their young lives that no suicides are morally justifiable, concluded that this one, at least, was. Mission accomplished—a few more small cracks in the wall of absolute certainty have been opened up. That’s why they pay me the big bucks—or should, at least!

What I Have Learned From My Students This Semester

I have often said that the mark of a good class is one in which I learn as much as the students do. At the end of the semester, it is a good time to think back over the many unexpected truths I have learned from my students this semester. Since my colleagues and I frequently compare notes on this topic, I have also included in the selection below various items that I learned second-hand from students not in my classes through their professors. Truth is truth, after all—it doesn’t matter where it comes from. In no particular order, here is a sampling.

Some people are important enough to have followers before they are born. Students have told me for years that ancient persons from Socrates to Julius Caesar, literary characters from Achilles to Clytemnestra (“Clytemnestra did not behave as a good Christian wife should”), Francisand figures from the Hebrew Scriptures from Moses to David managed to be Christians before the birth of Christ, so that’s old hat. But in my latest batch of papers I learned that “Francis believed in living in poverty and taking a lifestyle that the Franciscans before him lived.” I wonder what the Franciscans who lived before Francis called themselves. Proto-Franciscans? Pre-Franciscans? Followers of a Crazy Guy Who Hasn’t Been Born Yet? Really Poor People?

Going to war against oneself is never a good idea: From a student paper submitted to a colleague: Roncevaux pass“[The Battle of Roncevaux Pass] occurred when the Franks intervened in a Muslim conflict between Charles the Great and the great army of Charlemagne,” further explaining that “There is a lot of hate between Charlemagne and King Charles…” Going to war against oneself complicates a number of things. For instance, how are Roland, the hero of this battle at the center of The Song of Roland, and Ganelon, his jealous father-in-law and traitor, supposed to know which side to fight on? Neither? Both? Everyone’s going to need therapy afterwards.

People whose names start with the same letter invariably have similar thoughts: DanteIn response to a question about the differences in world views between Dante and Montaigne, a student wrote that Descartes“Dante was extremely passionate that knowledge has to be 100% certain. And if there is knowledge that is certain it has to have no doubts that it could be corrupt.” I’m going to research this new-found information that Descartes was apparently plagiarizing the work of a fellow D-name who lived several hundred years earlier.

Martin Luther needed to be clearer about what he really meant: serpentFrom one of a colleague’s student papers: “Luther does not say precisely whether or not good works would help one achieve the goal of eternal life, but he does appreciate them.” Then the following from Luther’s “On Christian Liberty,” cited in one of my student papers: “The Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful serpent of all, and subject to everyone.” There obviously is another research project in finding the heretofore hidden influences of Luther’s Christian serpent on Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.

Why use just a few words when a whole bunch of them will suffice? Assigned papers are an opportunity for students to flex their word-using muscles in print. Often a student who has never once opened her mouth in seminar will make sure that her quota of allowed words unused in seminar makes it into a paper. For instance, why write that

Works of literature often focus on the customs of people living in the author’s culture,

when you could write instead that

Throughout history, scholars have been displaying the impacts society has on people’s lives through various forms of expression. Of some of the more famous styles, writings and literature from oral teachings along with reflections on certain times provides future generations with important first-hand accounts of how lifestyles and culture influenced the people.

And why describe Dante’s organization of Hell in this manner:

Dante’s descriptions of the punishments in Hell, as well as the individuals one finds there, tell us much about the attitudes of his time.

when the following description will suffice?

During Dante’s pilgrimage through Hell, the descriptions as well as reasons for placement of particular individuals speaks through society’s influence, deeming Dante’s opinion in accordance with many of his time. Without Dante’s harsh portrayal of specific individuals, the backlash on society would be unknown.

You can only commit suicide once: When a student missed a seminar on Dante’s Inferno in the middle of the semester due to illness, I assigned her a makeup 1000-1200 word reflection on Canto 13Canto XIII, in which one finds the suicides—the “violent against themselves.” The seminar discussion focused on this section of Dante’s poem was fascinating, with my largely Catholic students flip-flopping back and forth between the position that they know they are supposed to hold as good Catholics—no suicide is ever justified—and a more nuanced judgment that permits consideration of individual circumstances.

In her makeup assignment, my student opened her reflection with noting that as

An extremely controversial topic, suicide has been a self-inflicting action from the beginning of time.

followed shortly after by the observation that

Suicide is an avoidable form of death.

As one of my colleagues wrote on Facebook when I put these two gems up for display on my wall, “Holy tautology, Batman!” Other friends and colleagues said that this immediately reminded them of the “Suicide is Painless” theme song from “M.A.S.H.”: “Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please . . .”

But others saw something I did not immediately recognize—possible profundity. “That’s deep,” a colleague from the chemistry department commented; new philosopher“The first comment strikes me as a particularly profound metaphysical point about the (a)temporal status of analytic truths,” a former philosophy major now in graduate school contributed. Then this from a Facebook acquaintance that I have never met in person, but with whom I share the privilege of having earned a Bachelor’s degree in the Great Books program at St. John’s College:

I think the second [student comment] is, indeed, quite discussable. Is death ever avoidable? Is suicide not now recognized as a possible outcome of untreated depression? Can a severely depressed person always be expected to take the steps required for his or her own treatment?

Is suicide always an avoidable form of death, in other words? From the mind of a stressed and possibly confused freshman emerges an apparent “Well, duh!” sort of statement that, as it turns out, might have surprising depth and complexity. I feel an essay coming on!

From my colleague Robin

From my colleague Robin