Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Mortals Die, and are Laid Low

tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]A couple years ago in a course that I was team-teaching with two other colleagues, the final seminar text of the semester was Shakespeare’s King Lear. One of my teaching colleagues, an accomplished Shakespeare scholar, described the play on the syllabus as simply “the greatest play ever.” I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other texts (certainly more insightful than any philosophical tomes I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy in its entirety since I was an undergraduate the age of our current eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen. The play blew me away, disturbed me, and made me wonder whether we perhaps should have sent our students off into the summer with something slightly less dark.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.imagesCAOCS0RP

And have a nice day.

King Lear took me back to a Holy Saturday liturgy a few years ago. At our Episcopal church, our rector Marsue decided for the first time in her many years as a priest to do the Holy Saturday liturgy. Holy-Saturday-e1364654989214[1]It’s a tough sell to get people to church on any Saturday except for a wedding or funeral, particularly during Holy Week when the most dedicated may have already been in church two or three times in the previous few days. I was one of only a few people present; if any of us had possessed the presence of mind to check the prayer book before coming, we probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a very dark liturgy. Jesus is dead in the tomb, the altar is stripped bare, and everything in the rubric is intended to get you notjob[1] to think about what is coming the next day. A central line in one of the prayers that day was “In the midst of life we are in death” Most striking that afternoon, however, was the following from the book of Job:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last . . . For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease . . . But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

These lines would have been appropriate in the mouths of any number of characters in King Lear, but they predate Shakespeare by thousands of years. The earliest text my interdisciplinary class studied this academic year, the gilandenki[1]Epic of Gilgamesh, is infused with similar energies—fear of death, as well as impotence in the face of forces we cannot control.

In the middle of Easter season, it is easy for Christians to immediately address these dark realities with the story of divine suffering and redemption that lies at the heart of Christian belief. And that is the message—God has overcome darkness and death, a victory that we are the beneficiaries of.  Yet it is so easy for this powerful story to become little more than a superficial panacea for all the darkness and loss that surrounds each of us, a truism that can blind us to an otherwise inescapable truth: mortals die, and are laid low. And during its short duration, human life is often filled with nothing but suffering, pain, and meaninglessness.

The great eighteenth-century essayist and philosopher Voltaire once provocatively wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”voltaire_if_god_did_not_exist_necessary_to_invent_postcard-r747d414000d64546b6a280ed3f476a5d_vgbaq_8byvr_210[1] This statement shook up a number of Voltaire’s contemporaries, leading many to imagine that any person who could write such a thing seriously must be an atheist. The statement remains provocative, and it is clear from his body of work that whatever Voltaire might have been, he was not a traditional religious believer in any sense of the word. But with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and reality in view, Voltaire’s famous claim is absolutely true. There is something about the darkest and most sobering parts of human reality that cry out for, actually demand, a response. The human epitaph cannot be “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

All sorts of responses, ranging from religious through philosophical and literary to political, have been offered over the centuries, responses that often conflict with each other and even more frequently fail to take the fundamental problem on squarely. Which of these stories is true? More importantly, how can we know if any of them are true? How can we be sure that these stories are anything more than a collection of tunes human beings have written to whistle in the dark until the night overwhelms them? I submit that we cannot be sure. Yet billions of people have been willing to shape their lives, to stake their very existence at least virtually, sometimes literally, on the truth of one or more of these stories. Simone_Weil-11[1]Why? Because there is something in the human heart that has to believe them, something that has to hope. And it is that very longing and hope that is perhaps most convincing. As Simone Weil reminds us, “if we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone.”

The third and final portion of Handel’s Messiah,handels-messiah[1] immediately following the “Hallelujah Chorus,” begins with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a soaring, spectacularly beautiful soprano solo setting of the following text from Job, with a concluding sentiment from First Corinthians:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

From the depths of despair, literally from the middle of a pile of ashes, Job clings to a hopeful story, that there is a transcendent and triumphant divine response to human incapacity, despair, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderful story. How can I not believe it? I hope and pray that it is true. It had better be.

Watching for an Hour

Some people can sleep anywhere. One of those people was a student in one of my seminars a few semesters ago. Bob (his name has been changed to protect the innocent) is a bright but apparently less-than-motivated student whose verbal work, such as participation in seminar, vastly exceeds his written or objective work, such as reading quizzes and the midterm exam. imagesCA4P0ANMHe’s one of those students who always has something to say that is relevant and insightful, carefully crafted to disguise the fact that he has probably only skimmed the reading, if he looked at it at all. After twenty-five years I recognize this sort of student more easily than he or she might wish. More important, I recognize this sort of student because on rare occasions I was “that guy” as an undergraduate myself (although not as frequently or as successfully as Bob). And he dozes off in class—frequently. The seminar rooms in our wonderful Ruane Center for the Humanities are equipped with circular tables, so it’s not as if anyone can sleep in the back row. There is no back row. But that doesn’t deter Bob—if he needs a catnap he takes one. More power to him, I say; I often would like to do the same.

themerchantofveniceebookdownloadOne week our seminar text was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Following a setup lecture the previous day by my colleague from the English department, I decided to have students volunteer for the nine speaking roles in the dramatic Act Four trial scene and spend the majority of our two hours reading Shakespeare aloud, with pauses for commentary and general discussion as the spirit moved. Bob volunteered to read the part of Portia, the most important role in Act Four other than Shylock. In this act Portia and her sidekick Nerissa are pretending to be young men, a lawyer and his assistant. Since in Shakespeare’s world all female roles were played by guys, Portia and Nerissa in Act Four would have been played by guys playing women who are pretending to be guys. maxresdefaultRight up Bob’s alley, as it turned out—he was excellent in the role.

Until it came time for Portia’s famous “The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” speech, that is. Instead of the opening lines of Portia’s eloquent appeal to Shylock’s mercy, there was an uncomfortable silence. Bob had fallen asleep. The girl playing Antonio sitting next to Bob elbowed him in the ribs, Bob’s head jerked up—“Oh! Sorry!”—and he proceeded to read Portia’s twenty-five line speech beautifully and with feeling. Pretty impressive—and he managed to stay awake for the rest of the act. Bob might suffer from narcolepsy, but my suspicion is that he simply doesn’t get enough sleep—a malady shared by most freshmen in college. So he grabs forty winks in class when he needs to. At least he shows up.

Today is Maundy Thursday, a part of Holy Week so full of drama and intrigue that it is very easy to miss some of the most interesting details in the narrative. After dinner, Jesus heads to the Garden of Gethsemane for some one-on-one conversation with his dad, while the disciples tag along. botticelli_sleeping_apostles_2_smallHe wants to be alone and asks them to stay and wait for him as he walks on a bit further. Jesus’ distress and agony as well as his fear of what is to come are palpable and are understandably the focus of most discussions of this part of the Holy Week drama. A less discussed, but equally important, detail is that the disciples fall asleep. They literally cannot keep their eyes open. On three different occasions, Jesus returns to them and finds them catching some Zs. The gospel account is very “high church” sounding, but Jesus is clearly pissed when he finds them asleep. DUDES! Really?? I’m over here literally sweating drops of blood, I’ve never been so scared and worried, and you’re ASLEEP?? WTF?? Wake the hell up! Can’t you at least do that much?

I’m sure their collective reaction was something like Bob’s when he was caught sleeping as he should have been channeling Portia. “Whaa? Oh! Sorry, man! James! Andrew! I can’t believe you guys fell asleep! It won’t happen again, dude!” But it does—three times.

On the few occasions I have heard this scene discussed, the focus is always on the disciples, so human, so weak, or so disinterested that they fall asleep at the switch. I’m more interested in Jesus’ reaction. He hasn’t asked the disciples to do anything for him; he doesn’t even want them around him. So why is he so upset to find them sleeping? What’s the difference between sitting on one’s ass doing nothing and being asleep? In one of his letters to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison, BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer uses this little scene to illustrate a profound insight.

Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” That is a reversal of what the religious person expects from God. We are summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

We expect God to do stuff, to solve problems, to kick ass and take names, but this God is not any of that. The only way this God can be in the world is to experience everything it has to offer, to suffer the worst it can do. The least that the disciples can do is be there, to pay attention, to be in solidarity with this man whom they love, whom they have followed, and whom they absolutely do not understand. Jesus feels alone and abandoned by everyone and everything; finding the disciples asleep simply confirms that what he is feeling is the truth.

What would it mean to watch and not fall asleep, to share in God’s sufferings? Where exactly is God suffering in our world? Everywhere that a human being has a need of any sort, God is in the middle of it. There is so much suffering that it can be overwhelming. No one of us, not even any one group of us, no matter how well-meaning, can make a significant dent. But Jesus isn’t asking the disciples to do anything other than to be aware, to be attentive, and not to tune out. If the answer to “what can I do to help” is “nothing,” at least the question was asked. Asking someone to bear the weight of the world alone is asking a lot—even of God.photo-1-e524059dbea1cebfe788ab374f45a37680085cdc-s40-c85

It Must Be A Miracle

582184_10102003755170495_50935280_n[1]My youngest son was always the inquisitive sort, the kind of kid who, from the moment he began to speak, fashioned most of his communication into questions starting with the word “Why?” The setting for one of his favorite stories is the beat up car I was driving when he was little; I was running errands and his three-or-four-year-old self was strapped into the car seat next to me on the passenger’s side facing the front. This was, as my good friend Marsue says, “before safety was invented.”

On this particular day, apparently, I had only sufficient tolerance for one thousand “Whys” before noon. As soon as he asked his one thousand and first “Why?” I yelled “STOP ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS!!!” To which, I’m sure, he replied “Why?” I have no recollection of this event, since it makes me look bad.

Here’s what I remember as my usual response when his litany of questions exceeded tolerable levels. After several consecutive “Dad, why . . . . .?” events, I would reply “I don’t know, Justin—it must be a miracle.”6012827422_f194ba4e9c[1]

And for a long time, that was an effective show stopper, because as Simone Weil wrote, “the reports of miracles confuse everything.” We want answers and explanations, and a miracle says “Oh, yeah? Explain THIS!” We can’t, because a miracle by definition lies outside the confines of human explanation. Or at least my explanation, as my son figured out before very long. One day in response to “It must be a miracle,” he shot back “Just because you don’t know the answer, Dad, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one!” True enough.

Consider what was perhaps Jesus’s most famous reported miracle—feeding 5000the feeding of the five thousand men (plus women and children). This miracle is reported in all four of the canonical gospels and, for once, they pretty much agree on the details. As is the case with all miracles, we are presented with a straightforward story of something happening that simply cannot have happened. What are we supposed to do with such a story, when we all know that thousands of people cannot be fed with five loaves of bread and two fish? How are we to think about, to be with, miracles?

I suggest that we begin with humility. Once a number of years ago, while a still untenured member of the philosophy department at my college, I participated in a symposium on the late fides et ratioJohn Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) which had been released the previous year. The symposium was a shared event between the philosophy and theology departments. One member from each department would present a 20 minute paper, and a panel of four philosophers and theologians would present brief comments. Sounds like a lot of fun, huh? The original presenters would have a chance for response, then the whole thing would be turned over to audience questions and interaction.

I was asked to present the longer paper for the philosophy department. In it I did what philosophers do—I raised what I considered to be some critical problems with the encyclical, suggesting that the Pope might even have gotten some important things wrong—for instance his conclusion that reason must always submit to the authority of faith when they are in conflict. I knew from the start, of course, that this might be a bit controversial at a Catholic college—I was right. The audience that evening was impressive in size, exceeding what I’ve seen for any academic event in subsequent years at the college.Pius The larger community, particularly the parishioners of St. Pius V church across the street, had been invited and came in droves, expecting I’m sure to hear a cheerleading love-fest for their beloved Pope. Instead they got me raining on their parade. A colleague reported afterwards that one woman complained during the paper to her neighbor in a stage whisper: “I can’t believe they let people like him teach here!”

Rumblings during my paper exploded into direct challenge during the Q and A. After defending and clarifying my position—pretty well, I thought—for a few minutes, an exasperated older gentlemen in the front row asked “Dr. Morgan, is there no place in philosophy for humility?” I responded, honestly but perhaps a bit uncharitably, with a guffaw of laughter (if introverts ever guffaw). “The longer I do philosophy, the more I realize how much I don’t know!” Now I understood where the man was coming from—a place where honest challenges to pronouncements from authority, especially authority supposedly representing God, are viewed as prideful or worse. Furthermore, philosophy has the reputation for trying to logically explain everything and dismissively rejecting anything that resists such treatment. This reputation, unfortunately, has a good deal of evidence to support it.hamlet_yorick[1]

From its ancient roots, though, real philosophy begins with humility. Hamlet had it right when he said “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And, I would add, your theology, your science, and anything else we use in our attempts to jam our vast, wonderful, and often terrifying reality into manageable boundaries and straitjackets.

Along with humility, the other ancient starting point for philosophy is identified by Aristotle, perhaps the greatest philosopher of all, when he wrote that “philosophy begins with wonder.” Wonder is what a baby shows with her frank and forthright way of gazing about in bewilderment, trying to balance her oversized head on her undersized neck as she wonders “What’s this thing? And what’s that over there? And holy crap what’s THAT??” Wonder and humility. Woven together, they turn philosophy, as well as theology, science, and everything else into foundational, intimately connected human activities. bubble_croman[1]Psalm 8 gets this connection exactly right. “When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and stars which you arranged—What are we that you should keep us in mind, men and women that you care for us?” Wonder turns our minds and imaginations with expectation toward what is greater than us (“When I see the heavens . . .”), while humility continually reminds us of the vast gulf between us and what is greater than us (“What are we . . .?).

I once heard a homily on a different gospel’s version of the feeding of the five thousand. The homilist, a Benedictine priest, struggled mightily with the very notion that so many people could be fed with five loaves and two fishes from a kid’s picnic basket. The homilist set things up eloquently, paid proper attention to Jesus’ compassion for the crowd of hungry people, then hit a wall with the miracle itself. miracles“We modern persons have a difficult time with the stories of Jesus’ miracles,” he said, “since what they describe violates the laws of nature.” Accordingly, he did what most of us do when faced with such an apparent violation—he provided alternative interpretations of the story in which such a violation did not occur.

It’s possible, for instance, unless Jesus was dealing with a crowd of fools that day, that the little boy was not the only person among the thousands in attendance smart enough to have brought along something to eat. The “miracle” is not that a tiny amount of food was increased to feed thousands, but rather that the boy’s innocent generosity sparked similar generosity in others. Those who had intended to hoard their carefully packed lunches for themselves were suddenly motivated, either through inspiration or shame, to share with others around them.

And then perhaps a further “miracle” occurred, in that many realized that they didn’t really need all the food they had brought—five loaves and two fishes are more than one person can eat, right? So as a spirit of generosity spreads through the crowd, gluttony takes a big hit. If each person eats only what they need and shares the remainder, everyone has enough. An impromptu community is built on the spot, everyone learns to share with others as well as to stop eating too much, angenerosityd no laws of nature are violated. Thanks be to God.

Why was the homilist, and why are we, inclined to explain a miracle away, to bring it within the confines of what we believe we know and can explain? This is partly a failure of humility, an insistence that we are the center of the universe and that, as Protagoras infamously claimed, we humans are “the measure of all things.” But we’re not. We are subject to the laws of nature, but they are neither defined by nor limited to our experience and understanding. Remember Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”

But our dogged attempts to explain (or explain away) everything smells more like fear than lack of humility to me. What better way to carve a home out of a reality far beyond our control than to define it in terms of what we can control? And while humility is the antidote for hubris, the cure for fear is wonder. Fear turns us inward; wonder turns us outward, toward the infinitely fascinating reality in which we find ourselves. And ultimately, wonder turns us toward God, who crosses the vast distance between divine and human by infusing everything, including us, with transcendence. This is the miracle of the incarnation, that God inhabits everything, that we are living sacraments, testimony to divine love.imagesCASHIO2A

Thomas Jefferson once published an edition of the Gospels with all the miracles taken out, resulting in a very short book. A daily existence from which miracles have been removed is similarly impoverished. A good friend of mine who recently passed away defined a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever happen and it happens anyways.” And that covers just about everything, from individual acts of generosity, through impromptu human solidarity, to feeding thousands with a kid’s lunch. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” We need only learn to see it with the eyes of wonder and humility.

The Weight of this Sad Time

It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words, but I am this morning. This post from several months ago sort of captures my mood at the moment; as Wittgenstein wrote, “of that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Shakespeare, King Lear

Last week I spent a couple of mornings and part of an afternoon participating in a faculty end-of-the-year workshop held annually for the honors faculty. It is always held the week after Commencement; with sabbatical just around the corner, I considered not attending this year. Cost of DiscipleshipBut the two morning seminars were on King Lear and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, two worthy texts that should be on everyone’s top whatever list. That, along with a reasonable stipend, was enough for me to sign up.

The King Lear seminar, led by a Shakespeare scholar from the English department, was a welcome return to a text that I find both strikingly dark and strangely compelling every time I read it. I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other author (certainly more insightful than any philosopher I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy for a couple of years. tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]As it always does, the play blew me away, disturbed me, and left me wondering whether my colleagues might find some glimmers of hope and redemption that have always escaped me.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. Furthermore, Shakespeare sets the play in an early England that as yet has not been “Christianized”—typical and familiar moralizing and redemptive language is as out of place here as it would have been in Ancient Greece or Rome. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.”imagesCAOCS0RP Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods;

They kill us for their sport.

Lear 2008My colleagues and I ended two morning hours of seminar and another afternoon hour by viewing the final act of the play on screen with the 2008 version starring Ian MacKellan as Lear. It is a stark production with Beckett-like sparse staging toward the end. As character after character dies—Lear’s three daughters, the evil Edmund, and ultimately Lear himself—and the stage is littered with corpses, the play ends with Edgar’s final lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Fade to black. The seminar leader asked us for our feelings, our impressions of what we had just viewed, and for the first time in thirty years in academia I heard something I’ve never before heard when in the presence of twenty scholars: total silence. In obedience to Edward’s directive, no one felt obligated to say anything that “should” be said; at least for a minute or two, we were not professors ready to discuss the next topic to death, Auschwitzbut human beings stunned into silence by Shakespeare’s brilliant and disabling portrayal of a meaningless and hopeless world.

I was reminded of one of the final classes in my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester. My colleague Ray was up front andeyeglasses ended the two-hour session with footage from the liberation of Auschwitz. The students were exposed to a variety of tough material, both in writing and on the screen, throughout the semester, but this particular footage was especially difficult to watch. There was no narration, no voice over, just hundreds of emaciated dead bodies stacked like so much wood, rooms filled to the ceiling with eyeglasses, hair, or shoes. Bulldozers pushing piles of bodies into a pit for burial just as they would push garbage into a pit at a landfill. suvivorsAnd perhaps most horrific of all were the close-ups on the faces of the just-liberated prisoners who were still barely alive. The haunting and empty gazes still float through my memory and probably will never leave. At the end of the several minute montage there was dead silence in the room. Ray wisely made no comment and simply turned off the computer and AV system, then began gathering his books and notes. This was the cue for the rest of us to do the same, and we left the room in silence.

This would have probably been the appropriate conclusion to the King Lear seminar the other day as well. But after what seemed like a very long silence, someone made a comment, then someone else followed up, and pretty soon we were doing what academics do in every context and setting—talking. Several people referenced the silence that preceded the talking and began to analyze what it was about both the play and the film adaptation that caused us not to say anything. speak what we feelBut with Edgar’s final lines in mind, our first reaction was most in keeping with “Speak what we feel”—except that our feelings were, at least for a few moments, deeper than words could express. Once we started putting what we felt into words, it was very easy to shift into “what we ought to say,” and the powerful moment was lost.Greenberg

Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. And, as Irving Greenberg writes in Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire, if we feel that something must be said, we need to be very careful about what it is.

The Holocaust challenges the claims of all the standards that compete for modern man’s loyalties.  Nor does it give simple, clear answers or definitive solutions.  To claim that it does is not to take the burning children seriously…Giotto lamentationLet us offer, then, as a working principle the following: No statement, theological, or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

Horton in a Nutshell

geahDr. Seuss was a regular in our house when my sons were young—my thirty-something sons still occasionally mention how much they both loved Green Eggs and Ham in particular. Theodor Geisel’s creatively madcap work has occasionally made it into this blog over the past four years, from the star-bellied Sneetches in an early essay on heresy

Dr. Seuss and Heresy

to the environmentally-minded Lorax during an on-campus controversy over the demise of a 150-year-old oak this past summer.

I Speak for the Trees

The most recent Dr. Seuss classic to cross my radar screen involves a gentle elephant who believes that “a person’s a person no matter how small,” a couple of kangaroos with bad attitudes, and other jungle animals dedicated to making the elephant’s life difficult. Early last summer someone at a conference Jeanne was attending told her that she should read Horton Hears a Who; by late summer a large orange-covered copy had arrived at our house. I paid no attention to it until a couple of weeks ago.nutshell

As I drove across town headed for minor oral surgery (a phrase that has turned out to be oxymoronic), I listened to an interview on Boston Public Radio with Ian McEwan, one of my favorite contemporary novelists.

Ian McEwan on Boston Public Radio

McEwan was in town on a book tour promoting his new novel, Nutshell. On the basis of the interview, I ordered the book on Amazon as soon as I got home. It is a reworking of Hamlet with a few twists, including that it is narrated by an unborn child hanging upside-down in its mother’s uterus. A la Hamlet, the unborn child knows that his mother is having an affair with its uncle and that they are plotting to kill its father. The fetus is urbane, sophisticated, listens to music and podcasts vicariously through its mother, has developed a connoisseur’s picky tastes in wine, and wonders whether there is life after the uterus. This is going to be fun.

Toward the end of the segment, the two interviewers asked McEwan to read a passage from Nutshell.

Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies to be, in confined spaces. Their narrow subjects may confound or disappoint some: courtship among the 18th century gentry, life beneath a sail, talking rabbits, sculpted hares, fat people in oils, dog portraits, horse portraits, portraits of aristocrats, reclining nudes, nativities by the millions, and crucifixions, assumptions, bowls of fruit, flowers in vases, and Dutch bread and cheese, with or without a knife on the side. Some give themselves in prose merely to the self. In science, too, one dedicates his life to an Albanian snail, another to a virus. Darwin gave eight years to barnacles, and in wise later life, to earthworms. The Higgs Bosun, a tiny thing, perhaps not even a thing, is the lifetime’s pursuit of thousands. To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavor, is just a speck in the universe of possible things? And even this universe may be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes. So, why not be an owl poet?horton

In the wonderfully random way that things often connect together, this passage made me think of the book that had been laying on our coffee table for the last couple of weeks: Horton Hears a Who.

Horton the Elephant, while splashing in a pool, hears a small speck of dust talking to him. He comes to realize that the voice is coming from a small person who lives on the dust speck; indeed, the speck is actually a tiny planet, home to a community called Whoville, the home of microscopic creatures called Whos. the-whosThe Whos know that they are vulnerable and exposed to possible harm in a dangerous world; the mayor of Whoville asks Horton for protection, which Horton happily agrees to provide. He places the Who-planet on a clover that he proceeds to carry in his trunk as carefully as a waiter carrying a tray of crystal champagne glasses. Horton has come to the same realization as the pre-born narrator of Nutshell: Each existing thing is the center of its own universe of interests, desires, and concerns—but each existing thing is “bound in a nutshell,” “just a speck in the universe of possible things.”

The apparent insignificance of human existence prompted seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal to write that The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. Yet in Psalm 139 we are told that

You have formed my inward parts;

You have formed me in my mother’s womb . . .

My frame was not hidden from you,

When I was made in secret

And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

As both Horton and McEwan’s upside-down narrator realize, everything is at the same time both insignificant and unique. The challenge is to keep both of these in mind simultaneously.success

As Horton’s story proceeds, his fellow jungle animals refuse to believe that the Whos exist, believing rather that Horton is nuts. In scenes reminiscent of grade school playgrounds, various animals ridicule Horton, eventually managing to steal his Who-bearing clover and hide it from him in a large field of clovers. After a long search, Horton rescues the frightened and shaken Whos; at his prompting, they finally prove their existence to the still skeptical jungle animals by making as much collective noise as possible until everyone can hear them. Now convinced of the Whos’ existence, all the animals vow to help Horton protect the tiny community.

Each of us is both insignificant and infinitely precious, no matter what current circumstances might indicate. From within the confines of his mother’s womb, McEwan’s narrator gains insights into a world he’s not sure he will ever reach. The Whos, upon discovering just how vulnerable and fragile their world is, are discovered by someone greater than themselves, someone willing to put himself on the line again and again to preserve their special existence. It’s a wonderful retelling of a story that generations have embraced. “A person’s a person no matter how small,” after all.a-persons-a-person

They Will Never Take Our Freedom

Although I read incessantly, I don’t read a lot of magazines. The only magazine I currently subscribe to is The Atlantic—I appreciate the excellent writing and quirky features, but don’t exactly wait by the mailbox for each monthly edition to show up. Instead, they tend to pile up on the little table next to my side of the bed, waiting to be perused when I am between authors in my novel reading. I’m currently in one of those spaces, having just finished my fourth consecutive Arturo Pérez-Reverte mystery a few days ago and not ready to start a new, large reading project just a week before the semester starts. 394-They'll Never Take Our FreedomAccordingly, I started plowing through the three summer editions of The Atlantic that have accumulated on my nightstand since June. Inside the June edition, whose cover includes two-thirds of Donald Trump’s head peeking in from the right side announcing a lead article entitled “The Mind of Donald Trump” (an oxymoron if I ever saw one), I found this: “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will—Here’s why we all may be better off believing in it anyway.”

Stephen Cave: There’s No Such Thing As Free Will

CaveThe article is by Stephen Cave, a philosopher who runs a “Center for the Future of Intelligence” at the University of Cambridge. His article is well-written and engaging—so much so that I suspect he may have had help with it. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. I have spent over twenty-five years learning to write in ways that make core philosophical issues accessible and interesting to non-philosophers—it ain’t easy. First, it’s important to clarify what philosophers usually are referring to when they use terms like “free will” or “freedom.”  Just before the final battle in his 1995 epic “Braveheart,” Mel Gibson’s William Wallace screams to the Scottish army that They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!!

That sort of freedom, the kind enshrined in this country’s founding documents as “rights” that each citizen possesses and that must not be violated or taken away, is not what philosophers mean by freedom.

Instead, “free will” refers to the human ability to choose, for a person to deliberate between options and eventually choose, then act on one of the options, all the time knowing that she or he did not have to choose that option—decisionin other words, she or he could have chosen otherwise. This vaunted human ability to freely choose is, for many (including me), the fundamental and defining feature of what it means to be human. Stephen Cave points out that our legal systems, as well as our general beliefs concerning praise, blame, reward, punishment, and all things moral depend on our basic belief in human free will. And it is under attack—scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and just about everyone “in the know” have been trying to take it away for decades.

The “free will issue” is a go-to problem in all philosophy courses, the philosophical version of the divine foreknowledge/free will problem in theology. Just it is impossible to make room for free choice in a world governed by an omniscient deity, so in a world where everything that occurs is governed in a cause-and-effect manner by the physical laws of matter, there is no room for true human free will. Cave points out that at least since Darwin argued in The of Species that everything about human beings—including our vaunted reasoning abilities where the ability to choose is located—is a result of natural evolutionary processes rather than a mystical, magical, or divine “spark” that lies outside the physical laws of matter, illusionscience has reinforced the conclusion that whatever human consciousness and deliberate choice are, they are to be placed squarely in the material world. Making it impossible, of course, to squeeze out the special place we desire for choice. Our choices may “feel” free, “as if” they are up to us, but Cave pulls no punches in describing the truth about us:

The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.

Experiments by psychologists and neuroscientists have shown that the brain’s neurons fire in new patterns causing a specific action before a person consciously “chooses” to act—indicating that my conscious “choice” is an illusion that actually doesn’t cause anything. nature nurtureDebates rage concerning how much a human’s actions are caused by “nature”—one’s hardwiring—and how much is caused by “nurture”—one’s environment—but there is general agreement that none of them are caused by conscious choice. We are determined through and through.

The ensuing discussion is often amusingly similar to conversations that couples considering a divorce might have: Should we tell the children, and if so, when? In the service of all truth all the time, some argue that non-philosophers and non-scientists should be made aware that free choice is an illusion and they should stop believing in it. Others insist that such a revelation would be damaging to the basic human’s commitment to morality, law, reward, punishment, and all of the other cool things that rely on our apparently mistaken belief that our choices make a difference and that we are responsible for them. My own classroom experiences indicate that it doesn’t matter. I regularly use a very simple thought experiment with my students at the beginning of the “free will” unit on the syllabus:

Suppose that in the near future a super-duper computer can read your brain and physiology sufficiently to predict the rest of your life, from large events to the minutest second-to-second thoughts and feelings, from now until you die. For a nominal fee you can purchase a printout of every event, thought, and feeling that you will experience for the rest of your life. Some printouts will be yards in length, while others will be very short. Do you want to see yours?

In a typical class of twenty-five students, no more than one or two students will say that she or he wants to see it. Why? Because even with direct proof available that the rest of my history is determined down to the minutest level—including my “free” choices—illusionI prefer to believe that my choices make a difference in my life and in the world around me. I prefer to embrace the illusion. It appears, in other words, that human beings are determined to believe that they are not fully determined.

On this particular issue I find myself swimming against the tide. I not only believe that human beings have the ability, at least on occasion, to make choices that are not entirely determined by their biology, history, and environment—I also believe that this ability is not an illusion. It’s real. The free will/determinism issue as contemporary philosophy defines it has its current shape because virtually everyone accepts a starting assumption—everything that exists is material stuff subject to inflexible physical laws. Given that assumption, the claim that human beings have the capacity to jump outside the limitations of matter and make choices that avoid the determinism of cause and effect makes no sense. But as I often tell my students, if the answers one is getting are unacceptable, change the question. If the ability to freely choose is fundamental to what a human being is, and if our current assumptions about how reality is constructed make no room for that ability, then perhaps instead of accepting that choice is an illusion we should challenge the assumptions that forced us to this acceptance. Be watching for “What Freedom Amounts To” next week, where I’ll describe a very different way to think about human choice!Horatio

I Speak for the Trees

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psa 1:3)

Those who have been following this blog for it’s almost four years of existence know that I have an attraction to online personality tests that borders on the obsessive. I’ve learned many interesting things about myself from these tests, including that among the pantheon of Shakespeare’s immortal characters I am most like Lady Macbeth, my aura is yellow, and I would be Bach as a classical composer, Mr. Carson as a Downton Abbey character, and a Guinness if I were a beer.

If I Were a Beer, or What I have learned about myself from Facebook

I haven’t taken one of these in a while—fewer of them seem to come across my Facebook feed these days than in the past—so I was pleased when a Dr. Seuss quiz came along the other day. I was even more pleased with the result.

Which Dr. Seuss character are you?

the loraxYou are The Lorax. You are wise and intelligent. You have strong beliefs but are also able to see both sides of every issue and you understand that not everything is black and white. You are contemplative, kind, and reflective. You never rush into something but first consider it thoughtfully from every angle.

I know, these quizzes are intended to tell the quiz taker nothing but what she or he wants to hear (except my Lady Macbeth result), but I don’t care. I’m happy if any of this description fits me even ten percent of the time. But most importantly, I am happy to be the speak for the treesLorax because according to the text of Dr. Seuss’ classic tale, the Lorax “speaks for the trees.”

The Lorax was Dr. Seuss’ favorite of his multitude of books; he reportedly said that the book “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.” The evil things Dr. Seuss was angry about included corporate greed and the threat of such greed to nature and the environment. The Lorax is full of the outrageous characters one expects from Dr. Seuss. thneedThe Once-Ler tells the story of how he made a fortune crafting an impossibly useful garment, the Thneed, out of the wooly foliage of the Truffula tree—a type of tree that no longer exists. The day the Once-Ler cuts down his first Truffula tree, a creature called the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees” because they have no tongues, emerges from the tree stump and criticizes the Once-Ler for having sacrificed a tree for such a mercenary purpose. truffulaBut the Once-Ler soon finds that there is great consumer demand for Thneeds, a large factory is built, and he becomes fabulously rich. But animals who live in the Truffula forest and eat its nourishing fruit have to leave, and eventually the last Truffula tree is cut down. The Lorax says nothing but with one sad backward glance lifts himself into the air and disappears behind the smoggy clouds. Where he last stood is a small monument engraved with a single word: “UNLESS.”

I like trees. Of the dozens of creatures in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Ents are my favorites. Trees adopt the general plant survival strategy of choosing a location that will provide sufficient food, water, and sunlight, then hunkering down in a permanent installation designed to stand up to all dangers for as long as possible—a very different plan from the animal strategy of being nimble, mobile, and capable of running away from danger. 100_0379A massive red oak outside the front door of my Minnesota sabbatical apartment several years ago became an iconic symbol of internal changes that I was experiencing; the introduction to my book that will be published early next year is focused on that oak, as was a blog post from a few years ago.

Oaks of Righteousness

So it is not surprising that I had a strongly negative reaction to the news earlier this summer from the administration that a beautiful old red oak on the lower part of my college’s campus—as large and spectacular as my Minnesota oak—had been marked as diseased during the annual evaluation of the hundreds of trees on campus and, sadly, would have to come down.

The oak in question is one of two massive oaks located directly in front of the building in which my philosophy department office was located for my first dozen or so years at the college. They stand at the top of a grassy and gradually sloping quad (that was a huge parking lot when I came to the college in the middle nineties)—our impressive performing arts building is at the other end of the quad. Shortly after I arrived on campus, several colleagues told me a story about these oaks. Howley OakThe story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates just how attached people on campus are to these two trees. Several decades ago one or both of the trees was scheduled for removal in order to make room for a parking lot. Faculty, staff, administrators, and students formed a human chain around the threatened trees and successfully forced the decision makers to change their minds about the future of the oaks and design the parking lot around them.human chain If true, I’ll bet it happened in the sixties—people did that sort of thing back then. The trees, which have been estimated to be 150-200 years old, would have been roughly the same size then as they are now.

Not surprisingly, the email announcing that one of the trees was coming down set off a collective WHAT THE FUCK??? reaction across campus. Facebook and Twitter lit up like Christmas trees. Why was this happening in the summer when the campus is relatively empty? What is the real reason this tree is coming down? What are the authorities trying to pull/? Shouldn’t the whole college community be involved in the decision? Push back from various persons (led by a colleague from political science who is our faculty Lorax) and a welcome willingness from the administration to delay the tree’s removal while second and third opinions were sought and discussion was opened up has preserved the tree to date—but what will eventually happen remains to be seen. die is castTwo arborist firms hired by the college recommend the tree’s removal, while the city forester thinks the tree can be saved but won’t insist on it, leaving the choice in the hands of the administrators responsible for making such decisions. An open forum was held earlier this week to allow various constituencies to chime in, but it is clear that, as Julius Caesar said, the die has been cast. Before long there will be a gaping hole where this glorious tree has stood for more than a century. And current efforts to save it will become campus lore.

I am very concerned about the preservation of our environment, but in truth my love of trees is more personal than general. We have two trees in our front yard—Blue and Chuck—who have been part of our family for most of the two decades we have lived in our house.

Blue and Chuck

Blue and Chuck

I love telling the story of how Blue started his life with us as a four-foot living Christmas tree in our living room during the 1996 holiday season. We were warned that there was only a 50% chance that Blue would survive the months he spent in our garage where he moved from the house after the New Year, biding his time until we planted him the next April; twenty years later, he is now a perfectly shaped 30-to-35-foot tree whose bottom branches I have to cut off every other year, lest he overwhelm the sidewalk. ChuckThank goodness I planted him far from any power lines—within a few years some of his upper branches will be touching the upper branches of the oak across the street.

Chuck joined us a year or so after Blue, a flowering miniature weeping cherry whose name comes from his similarity, as a one-branched twig when I planted him, to Charlie Brown’s iconic and sad-looking Christmas tree. I have to give Chuck, who sports lovely pink flowers in the spring, a significant haircut at least twice per summer—he rejects the “miniature” part of his description and would like to be as tall as Blue. I talk to these trees, as I do to all of my outdoor and indoor plants. As with the Ents, Chuck and Blue seldom say anything. But when they do, it is worth remembering.treebeard

My Life as Lady Macbeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

To the Graduating Seniors

For those who read this blog regularly, it will come as no surprise that I believe I have the greatest job in the world. So great, in fact, that I don’t consider it to be a job at all. It is a vocation, a calling, what I was made to do—pick your favorite description. But every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began ten years or so ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Me: Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. One hundred and eighteen years ago,  at an obscure university about fifty miles north of here, books[2]Professor William James gave a talk to the Young Men’s Christian Association at Harvard University. The topic the group asked him to speak on that evening was “Is Life Worth Living?” For the next few minutes I would like to explore that topic—“Is life worth living?”—with you.

I know, I know—you’re thinking “Come on Professor Morgan, that’s really a downer. This is graduation weekend. We are expecting to hear how hard we have worked, that the world is waiting for us with open arms, that we can be anything we want to be if we simply set our minds to it.” I am well aware that this is what you want to hear this weekend, and I guarantee that plenty of people on this dais and the dais at the 013[1]Dunkin’ Donuts Center tomorrow morning will tell you exactly that. But for the moment—let’s get serious. No one in this room, especially those in the center front who are graduating tomorrow, wants to consider tough questions this weekend. But I guarantee that many of you already know, and everyone in the Peterson Center today who is over thirty knows, that someday, sooner or later, you will wake up and find that “Is life worth living?” is a very meaningful and pressing question. So note to self—when that day happens, remember these few minutes we have together today. It may save your life.

To remind you that there is a long tradition in which such questions are taken seriously, let me drop a few names on you from the distant past—your DWC days. Hey, what did you expect, I run the program! For instance, in his History of the Persian Wars, HerodotusWorldMap[1]Herodotus tells the following story about how a certain Thracian tribe welcomed the birth of a new baby. “When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.”

Ready for another story? In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche (never thought you’d hear from him at graduation, did you?) tells a story from Greek mythology. “According to an ancient legend, 67a37eee-699c-40f5-8fae-01aabd563d38[1]King Midas had long hunted the forest for the wise satyr Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into his hands, the king asked him what is the very best and most preferable of all things for man. The stiff and motionless satyr refused to speak; until, forced by the king, he finally burst into shrill laughter and uttered the following words: ‘Miserable ephemeral race, children of chance and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is—to meet an early death.’”

Had enough yet?  How about one more from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the last seminar with my Honors freshmen this semester? Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,”king_lear2_edgar_gloucester[1] living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward: As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.

Over and over again throughout literature, philosophy, theology and more, an important question arises that is as pertinent now, for everyone in this room, as it was several thousand years ago. How am I to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that frequently lacks either one? The world does not come to us wearing meaning and values on its sleeve. The universe does not care that you are graduating with honors and is oblivious to whether your hopes and dreams are realized.220px-Dorothy_Allison_at_the_Brooklyn_Book_Festival[1] In a reality such as this, where are meaning, values and purpose to come from?

Novelist Dorothy Allison provides a clue when she writes that “there is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.” In other words, you are responsible for being bearers of meaning into the world. Is life worth living? It is if you make it so. Truth, goodness, value, hope, all of those things that are central to a life worth living are not the objects of a treasure hunt. They are the products of a continuing creative task that each of you has been assigned as an educated and nurtured human being—to create the world that you want to believe in and live in.

For me, this task is best understood in a framework that includes what is greater than us, that is infused with the divine. Perhaps this framework will work for you as well. Benedictine sister sisterjoan[1]Joan Chittister expresses it this way: “Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.”

In ctintern-abbey[1]losing, let me drop one more DWC name. In his signature poem “Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth describes our world as one that is “half-created, and half-perceived.” There’s not a lot that we human beings can do about the “perceived” part. As my wife would say, the world “is what it is.It-is-what-it-is2[1]” But great moral traditions from the ancient world to the present tell us that it is the “half-created” part that makes all the difference. The question is not “what is going to happen?” but rather “what am I going to do with what happens?”  The power and the privilege of shaping and creating a better world is yours. There will be days when life may not seem worth living—on such days, what will your response be? William James’ closing words to those young men at Harvard over a century ago are my final words to you. James said “These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Believe it.


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.