Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Transcendentialsim’

My window

In Nature, Philosophy, Thinkers on February 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm

From my kitchen window I look out over the Fore River, or, rather, where the Fore empties into Casco Bay. You wouldn’t know it was a river at this confluence, unless it was brought to your attention. Regardless, there is water and sometimes, morning in particular, I look out over it in wonderment. For instance, just now a loon, who is wintering below my window, surfaced with something–it looked like a little crab–in her bill. She tilted her head, jerking back and forward, and swallowed twice. Then she shook her head, looked over her shoulder, and–flip!–disappeared below the surface, looking for desert, no doubt. Besides the loons, we’ve also had mergansers and exquisite long-tailed ducks as winter guests. My neighbor has spotted golden-eyes and buffleleheads, but I haven’t seen them yet.

I’ve been noticing birds for several years, on land and water. I’m not a birder, truth be told. I aspire to being a birder, but I’m not there yet. Birds, like much of what I enjoy about the outdoors, are a vehicle by which I connect to nature. In nature, I find enriching wonderment. I guess it could be called transcendence, as Emerson and especially Thoreau, found it. But I’m not entirely comfortable with the word transcendence. I’m not sure transcendence is something I long for. Wonderment, yes. Transcendence, not so much. It implies leaving something behind or rising above something, I think, and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Wonderment–like clarity–seems the antithesis of transcendence. It seems more like being in the thick of things. Perhaps the fine philosophical points are lost on me. Regardless, there are water fowl below my window and I nurture the wonder they prompt in me.

There is an important word in ancient Greek thought, that relates to this experience: arete. Arete has for centuries been translated as virtue. But, as I’ve just discovered, that is likely incorrect. In the new book, All Things Shining, the authors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly point out that a better notion of the word arete is human excellence. “Homer’s epic poems brought into focus a notion of arete, or excellence in life,” they write, “that was at the center of the Greek understanding of human being.” Related to birds below my kitchen window: “…excellence in the Homeric world depends crucially on one’s sense of gratitude and wonder.” That rings personally true. It is while in a sense of wonder that I am most reminded of my humanness. I have, among other things, loons to thank for that.

“I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.”

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers on September 4, 2010 at 9:13 pm
The Guru of the Woods, Thoreau

The Guru of the Woods, Thoreau

It was late July, 1846 and Thoreau ran into Sam Staples, the local tax collector. He was in Concord to retrieve a shoe from a cobbler. (He had moved to Walden, two miles from town, July 4th the year before, but frequented Concord for supplies, staples, pies from mom, and Sunday meals at Emerson’s house. His sojourn at Walden, in other words, was not the experience of a recluse, as is often thought.) Thoreau was delinquent six years of poll taxes and Staples had found his man. Thoreau refused to pay the taxes and was taken to jail. The poll taxes were used to underwrite the Mexican-American War as well as the institution of slavery–both anathema to Thoreau. And thus, Civil Disobedience was born.

The experience had an expected and profound effect on Thoreau, and like many of his experiences he studied it and whittled it into insight. In this instance, he wrote, “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government” and delivered lectures at the Concord Lyceum. Bronson Alcott was in the audience and recorded this in his journal for January 26th, 1848:

Heard Thoreau’s lecture before the Lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State– an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government, and an attentive audience. His allusions to the Mexican War, to Mr. Hoar’s expulsion from Carolina, his own imprisonment in Concord Jail for refusal to pay his tax, Mr. Hoar’s payment of mine when taken to prison for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered, and reasoned. I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.

The redeeming lesson here, for me, is the action taken in accordance with an individual ideal made local. Thoreau would agree, I think, that a condition of a worthy life is living in relation to the ideal we hold. This, most importantly, is a matter of living in a present condition to action, not a future condition, nor a hapless recollection of a past condition, but to be present and simultaneously manifest action. Life should hold us to something we love and along with it, appeal to our sense of a superior ideal.