A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

“…not of the world of me.”

In Adventure, Philosophy, Religion on November 10, 2015 at 6:11 pm

I had coffee with a friend last week, a novelist. I’d just read a draft of a new book he is working on. It’s a historical novel, set in the middle east in the fourth century. It deals with, among other things, the rise of the early Christian church. Although my friend was not aware of it, I know a thing or two about that place and time. I liked the book and was expressing my enthusiasm.

“You know,” I said, “the major world religions, those that were founded, came out of either the hot desert or the frozen mountains.” He looked at me intently. “And we know,” I opined, “that the desert breeds madness, and the mountains, isolation.” He said he’d never thought of it that way. But I had. “Nobody,” said Mohammed, “becomes a prophet who was not a shepherd first.”

There is that old adage that one is either a beach person or a mountain person. (I guess it’s like being either a dog or cat person.) In this context, perhaps one is either a desert believer or a mountain believer. I know my generalization is not entirely correct. The Buddha came out of the Gangetic plain, but his philosophy got the most lasting purchase at altitude. There’s no such thing as beach believers as far as I can tell, other than golden surfers, but that is a different strain of worship.

If pushed, I’d have to declare myself a mountain believer. That will come as no surprise. That is not to say, however, that I discount desert madness as a practice in insight. Not that one would want a steady diet of it–it didn’t turn out so well for John, the Baptist. It is no surprise that William James’s great work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is subtitled, A Study in Human Nature. Give me the mountains and what comes out of them, that is my nature. This is not to say that the desert doesn’t hold appeal. My first trip abroad as a young man found me eating with a family of Bedouins in the Sinai. If the desert was in the offing, I wanted to be on the move like those people.

Three years ago while hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal I came across a holy man living in a cave, attended to by his sister. I paid homage and received a blessing after making a small donation. His cave was filled with iconography and statues. Outside the wind roared; prayer flags flapped. I showed a picture to a friend. “That’s not what I expected,” he said. I think he was expecting something more like a cartoon in the New Yorker.

The isolation of the mountain believer can be dangerous. The Dalai Lama claims that his nation fell to the Chinese because the remoteness of the Tibetan Plateau had made them a backward country, to use his words. Perhaps. It is more likely the Chinese would have invaded regardless of the degree of modernity Tibet had achieved. But dangers persist, regardless, national and human.

Belief without empirical evidence is fundamentally an effort in delusion. I suspect the mystic would not argue with this, the madman wandering the desert with the wild beasts, the recluse scraping by in the mountain enclave. I am envious of such commitment. Go up Cold Mountain and find the great Taoist sage, Li Po: “You asked me what is my reason for lodging in the grey hills: I smiled but made no reply for my thoughts are idling on their own; like the flowers of the peach tree, they had sauntered off to other climes, to other lands that are not of the world of me.” Flowers of the peach tree, indeed.

Da Capo

In Books, Creativity, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Writers on March 20, 2013 at 6:00 am

The  neuro-chemical thing has worn off and all is again right with the world. That said, it’s a good time to take a little break, a few days away from the desk. The reading is falling behind, the reservoir is low, and the battery needs a trickle charge. So, today I’m putting up a previous post (from 2010) and am taking a breather for a few days. You must be getting tired of me, anyway, knowing as I do, how tedious I can (so easily) become. See you soon.


“There is properly no history; only biography” ~ Emerson

My first choice of reading material is often biography. The biography holds everything: entertainment, knowledge, history, story-telling, insight, and possibly even wisdom. As best I can recall, the first biography I ever read was Mark Twain, though now that I think about it, I believe it was his autobiography, the genre-cousin of biography. I was in elementary school and I recall that it took a very long time to complete–I’m a slow reader. It was a big book written for grown-ups. And I wasn’t–grown-up, that is. I remember I had to write a book report and my teacher checked everyday on my progress, the book being thick and me being slow, and the report not coming when due, and the pressure, oh the pressure…

Young's Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

Young’s Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

As an adult I am still a slow reader and still a reader who loves biography. So it was that I saved up my pennies and sprang for the first new book (“new”: not a used book, or a library sale book, or a freebie review book) in quite some time: Friedrich Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. Young is Professor of Philosophy, University of Auckland, and the book is published by Cambridge University Press. I was turned onto it by a glowing review by Francis Fukuyam in the New York Times Book Review.  Fukuyam includes this line:

“Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche. Postmodernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, the “free spirit” scorning bourgeois morality, even New Age festivals like Burning Man can all ultimately be traced to him.”

I have always been fascinated by this enigmatic thinker. Here’s how the biography opens:

“Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!–Once more! Once More! Back to the beginning!–to ‘the whole play and performance’. In perfect health one would ‘crave nothing more fervently’ than the ‘eternal return’ of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.”

This idea stops me cold.

Snow Under Boot

In Nature, Philosophy, Writers on March 18, 2013 at 6:00 am
The Maine Woods

The Maine Woods

We still have snow here in places, especially in the north, and certainly in the woods where the pine-tree canopy  shades the forest floor. I took a little hike yesterday and there is nothing like a crunching late-season snow, blue-bird sky, and scent of pine to fine-tune a person.

Not a lot came of this fine-tuning and maybe that is the best result of all. Maybe a walk in the woods should remain largely and exactly that: a walk in the woods. As Thoreau relates in his essay, Walking, “When a traveller asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, ‘Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.'”

In anther essay–to me, his most important, Life Without Principal–Thoreau writes:

“If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

Two paragraphs above this passage, the sage of Walden, invites us to “consider the way in which we spend our lives.”



Library of America, Thoreau

I brought my copy of Thoreau to my desk this afternoon because I wanted to say something about activism to perhaps refute my comment of last week, “We have mostly rolled over.” I wanted to suggest that perhaps we have not, indeed, rolled over, now that I think more on it. I brought Henry David with me because he usually has guidance when I most need it. I was certain he would point the way in his essay Civil Disobedience. But I never made it there, lost instead in my reverie of a walk in the woods.

And as you can see, I found his guidance, just not the guidance I expected. He would approve, nonetheless, I think.

First Sentences of Philosophy

In Philosophy, Writing on March 12, 2013 at 6:00 am

If you were a book, your opening sentence would be my first impression of you. It is that type-set handshake, that eye contact, the initial body language of our literary relationship, from which I will decide whether we might become friends. I should warn you, I am exacting when it comes to first impressions.

I have on at least two occasions here surveyed first sentences of literature. (First Sentences, and First Sentences II.) I thought it might be of interest to run the same exercise with some classics of philosophy, to see how the thinker begins the engagement. At first glance, it appears that the philosopher is less cordial–less needy?–than the artist-novelist. That is, I guess, to be expected of a writer less interested in drainage and more interested in hydraulics. So, to make it easy, I pull some books off the shelf, from the Philosophy section:

Despite my comment above, Robert Nozick (1938-2002), provides one of the best opening sentences of any genre, From his

The Unreadable Book?

The Unreadable Book?

Philosophical Explanations:

“I too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book, even to bring reading to a stop.”

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), Philosophy (vol 1.):

“Philosophy means to dare penetrate the inaccessible ground of human self-awareness.”

A favorite thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), from Genealogy of Morals:

“We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge–and with good reason.”

And, for grins, Nietzsche, again, in a sentence which shows why he was, arguably, the most literary writer of the thinkers, from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.”

Heidegger begins his magnum opus with a quote from Plato: “For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression you use the expression “being”. We however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.” Then the first sentence of Being and Time:

“Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’?”

From Sartre (1905-1980), Being and Nothingness, the opening chapter titled, The Phenomenon, comes this twist:

“Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.”

And here, the doubt-filled precision of Wittgenstein (1889-1951), from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

“Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it–or at least similar thoughts.”

Wittgenstein, as an aside, lays claim to the most wonderful last words. From his death-bed: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Lovely.


The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

If you’re in the mood for an eminently readable survey of the history of philosophy, I recommend Simon Critchley‘s The Book of Dead Philosophers (2009). It is entertaining, fun (last days of the big thinkers), and when you’re finished, you will have touched all the bases of philosophy.


In Books, Philosophy, Writers on March 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

My drinking buddy, Michel de Montaigne

Let me begin by recommending a book: How to Live, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. Before I go too far afield allow me to delineate Bakewell’s subtitle. The one question is: How to Live? And the twenty attempted answers:

  • Don’t worry about death
  • Pay attention
  • Be born
  • Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
  • Survive love and loss
  • Use little tricks
  • Question everything
  • Keep a private room behind the shop
  • Be convivial; live with others
  • Wake from the sleep of habit
  • Live temperately
  • Guard your humanity
  • Do something no one has done before
  • See the world
  • Do a good job, but not too good a job
  • Philosophize only by accident
  • Reflect on everything; regret nothing
  • Give up control
  • Be ordinary and imperfect
  • Let life be its own answer
How to Live, Sarah Bakewell

How to Live, Sarah Bakewell

In a review of Bakewell’s book (2010) I wrote the following by way of introduction:

I was first introduced to Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) about thirty years ago. I was in graduate school. I don’t remember the class, nor the other required readings. But I remember Montaigne. I eventually dropped out of graduate school, but Montaigne stayed with me. It was, perhaps, and I honestly mean this, the most important contribution to my intellectual development from that period. If not the most important, certainly the most long-standing. In fact, when this book came to my attention, How to Live, and I received the reader’s advance copy, I happened to be reading Montaigne yet again, as I have done off and on since we were introduced.

I say, “since we were introduced” purposely, for that is what it felt like at the time. I read him in that class and recall thinking, Who is this, this kindred spirit, this wise new friend? And the magic of that moment continues to this day. I read him still. I read him this morning. Over and over again, I turn to my old French friend.


We reject the impersonal and the arbitrary here at “…the house…“; so rather than paste a bunch of internet-farmed imgres-3Montaigne quotes on the page, I thought I would share with you some of the passages outlined in my personal copy of The Essays. Here goes:

“If we have not known how to live, it is wrong to teach us how to die, and make the end inconsistent with the whole. If we have known how to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we shall know how to die in the same way….Among the many other duties comprised in this general and principal chapter on knowing how to live is this article on knowing how to die; and it is one of the lightest, if our fear did not give it weight.”

“Those who know me…know whether they have ever seen a man less demanding of others. If I surpass all modern examples in this respect, it is no great wonder, for so many parts of my character contribute to it: a little natural pride, inability to endure refusal, limitation of my desires and designs, incapacity for any kind of business, and my favorite qualities, idleness and freedom.”

“The only thing I aspire to acquire is the reputation of having acquired nothing.”

“The discomforts of old age, which need some support and refreshment, might reasonable make me wish to be a better drinker; for drinking is almost the last pleasure that the years steal from us.”

“If we sometimes spent a little consideration on ourselves, and employed in probing ourselves the time we put into checking up on others and learning about things that are outside us, we would easily sense how much this fabric of ours is built up of feeble and failing pieces.”

“Our appetite is irresolute and uncertain: it does not know how to keep anything or enjoy anything in the right way. Man, thinking that it is the fault of these things, fills and feeds himself on other things that he does not know and does not understand, to which he applies his desires and his hopes….”

“Things are not that painful or difficult of themselves; it is our weakness and cowardice that make them so. To judge of great and lofty things we need a soul of the same caliber; otherwise we attribute to them the vice that is our own. A straight oar looks bent in the water. What matters is not merely that we see the thing, but how we see it.”

It is my hope that, if you’re not familiar with Montaigne, you might be compelled to rectify that. If you already count the man among your literary friends, then you are already fortunate. I’ll leave you with a last quote: “If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.”

Thanks for reading!


Pinsky, Hegel, Nietzsche, Chatwin, & Faulkner

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers on March 5, 2013 at 6:00 am

The poet Robert Pinsky made a comment I noted in my journal: “Will your children’s grandchildren remember your name?” What a plague is this question! It burrows to the core of the most tender insecurity I harbor, being forgotten. It is not death, nor dying, that troubles me so much as this. I am at my most alert to cosmic inconsequence when dealing with darkest concerns. In some twisted logic, this state brings a satisfaction.

* * *

The great philosopher Friedrich Hegel‘s (1770-1831) last words are reported to be: “Only one man has ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me.” It has been debated who Hegel had in mind, but most scholars think he was referring to Karl Marx. It is recorded that Marx contended that he was, indeed, the one person who understood Hegel, claiming that the philosopher did not even understand himself.

* * *

Nietzsche‘s thought experiment of eternal recurrence compels one to ask: If my life is to be lived over and over am I troubled or delighted? If I am troubled then it follows that life has been something other than what I wish it’d been. According to Nietzsche, consequently, I have yet to be that which I should become. This has been instilled deep and uprooting the thought of “becoming” is a challenge. Yet, I am learning to release this notion (of becoming), and settling with the subtle comfort of being. It is, at this stage of life, a big deal.

* * *

Bruce Chatwin, in his essay Anatomy of Restlessness, paraphrases Montaigne: “I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am looking for.” I used to flee. But no longer. I am, however, still looking.

* * *

Faulkner, Library of America Edition

Faulkner, Library of America Edition

What’s on the nightstand: Faulkner.

Backstory: I was visiting with my friend, the poet, Megan Grumbling, recently. We were discussing our literary preferences and confessed, each, that we’d never read Faulkner, at least read no more than The Bear, his famous short story. One of us observed that a reader is either a Hemingway reader or a Faulkner reader, like a person is either a cat person or a dog person. (I say “one of us observed” because I don’t recall who said it. We both like bourbon and were sitting at a well-stocked bar…’nough said.) I came away from that conversation with the need to rectify my literary shortcoming, hence the Faulkner. Such is life for those hell-bent on self-improvement.