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Well-Being

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Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life
by Neera Kapur Badhwar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well-Being is a deeply admirable book. I feel better for having read it. The philosophical arguments are strong. The writing is engaging. The conclusions are profound and common-sensical, cutting through the bullshit.

I learned virtue theory from Neera, in her graduate seminar twenty years ago. I also served as her TA for an undergraduate ethics class where we read the great classic works. Reading the book I realize how questions and conversations she was having two decades ago were working themselves into this comprehensive view of the good life.

I plan to adopt the book for my ethics class at Creighton University this autumn.

On a side note: reading this book confirms my moral judgments of Donald Trump and further puzzles me as to the moral failure of the electorate.

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Democracy and Social Ethics

Democracy and Social EthicsDemocracy and Social Ethics by Jane Addams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading more about Jane Addams in Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy (see that post here), I was determined to read her writing. She's a good and perceptive writer. I'm puzzled why this work is not more seriously part of the canon.

Though the contemporary issues she grapples with are dated (aren't they in most of the great ethical works?) they contain universal ideas applicable to current problems.

And what I most admired was her vision of democracy requiring a social ethic (instead of an individual one) in which we must honor the perspectives of a diverse people.

A sample line, "As democracy modifies our conception of life, it constantly raises the value and function of each member of the community, however humble he may be."

I also think her work might be crucial in the progressive movement reconnecting with the working class.

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The Norse Myths

The Norse MythsThe Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What struck me most about these Norse myths was their darkness. There is a lightness to the fantasies of the Greeks and Romans and an enjoyable humor in the tales of Native Americans. But these myths contain a heaviness.

For example, in the description of Yggdrasill, the great tree which is the axis of the world. It is constantly being gnawed at by the dragon Nidhogg "trying to loosen what was firm and put an end to the eternal." We are told that "Parts of the huge trunk were peeling, parts were soft and rotten. Yggdrasill whispered and Yggdrasill groaned."

Strange to imagine this corruption and rot in the the very core of one's mythology. Plus, the constantly foreboding of the end of the age and the destruction that would come with it.

How strange that there was a time when these were the tales people told about those they worshiped.

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Lao She's existentialism

I recently read Lao She's classic Chinese novel Rickshaw Boy. Here's my review of the book.  One thing I enjoyed was his description.  Eloquent and beautiful descriptions of the weather and scene, but also vivid psychological detail that conveyed a certain existentialism.  Two samples:

The best he could come up with was self-pity, but even that seemed impossible, since his head was empty; he no sooner had thoughts about himself than he forgot them, like a dying candle that won't light.  Enveloped by darkness, he felt as if he were floating inside a black cloud.  Though he was aware of his existence and that he was walking forward, there was no evidence of where he was headed.  He was like a man tossed about on the open sea, no longer able to believe in himself.  Never in his life had he felt so bewildered, so downhearted, so very alone.

***

He could not shake the feeling that he'd never again be happy.  He swore off thinking, speaking, and losing his temper, and yet there was a heaviness in his chest that went away for a while when he was working but always returned when he had time on his hands--it was soft, but large; it had no definable taste, yet it choked him, like a sponge.  He's keep this suffocating something at bay by working himself half to death so he could fall into an exhausted sleep.  His nights he'd give over to his dreams, his days to his arms and legs.  He'd be like a working zombie: sweeping away snow, buying things, ordering kerosene lanterns, cleaning rickshaws, moving tables and chairs, eating the food Fourth Master supplied, and sleeping, all without knowing what was going on around him, or speaking, or even thinking, yet always dimly aware of the presence of that spongelike thing.


On Liberty

On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other EssaysOn Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays by John Stuart Mill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was reading On Liberty from this collection, the first time I've read this classic work. I'm surprised I didn't read it in high school or college, when it's message about individualism would have been more inspiring. At my current phase in life, I have a more community-based approach to ethics.

Mill's views seem naive in retrospect. His ideal of individual liberty does not address systemic problems of poverty, racism, etc. So many of his ideas, on the left when written, would resonate with some members of the right at the moment.

Mill also possesses the naivete so common in post-Enlightenment liberalism that education would solve most problems by teaching people to be rational and pursue their best interests. He believes that over time as the truth of things is revealed, people will come to more agreement. Clearly this has not happened. He underestimates brute forces and ignorance. He underestimates the power of the majority to undo the progressive politics he advocates. He does not foresee Trump.

I've never been a big fan of Mill. He was clearly influential in his time and is important to the history of liberal democracy, but I believe there are more sophisticated thinkers in that history. I don't care for his book Utilitarianism and chafe whenever I have to teach it. His Metaphysics is a joke, in my opinion. I don't think that Mill's work will remain in the canon long term.

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Rickshaw Boy

Rickshaw BoyRickshaw Boy by Lao She
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

***Spoiler alert***



One man tries to succeed in life using the only skill he has, only to be thwarted at every turn by circumstances or his own poor choices. This could be a despairing, cynical story, yet it isn't. Partially because of the writing--beautiful descriptions of winter scenes and rainstorms, for instance--and partially because you keep hoping that he'll do better.

At the very conclusion the narrator says that this story proves that individualism doesn't work. It felt a little like propaganda, while also revealing a truth.

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Incarnate Spirit of Justice

Niagara_movement_meeting_in_fort_erie_canada_1905

Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois did not immediately part ways after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, in which DuBois was critical of Bookerism.  In fact, DuBois taught at Tuskegee that summer.  But part ways they did in the year after the book came out.  The particular details are complicated, but Gary Dorrien interprets the division broadly as one between DuBois' embrace of "the prophetic ethical religion of Jesus" and Washington's participation in the commercialism of the age.  Dorrien writes,

The age proclaimed that the greatness of the nation was its money; thus, religion, politics, and education became devoted to moneymaking.

Yet DuBois "believed in 'Liberty for all men' to live, vote, and associate 'as they will in a kingdom of beauty and love.'"  While Washington "became preeminent by promising a cheap and docile labor force to New South capitalists."

And so DuBois organized the Niagara movement.

The Niagara Movement demanded full manhood suffrage, "and we want it now, henceforth and forever."  It demanded the abolition of discrimination in public accomodation, the right to social freedom, and the rule of law applied equally to rich and poor, capitalists and laborers, and whites and blacks. 

They declared that black people "have the right to know, to think, to aspire."

Their meeting at Harper's Ferry drew on the legacy of John Brown. They declared, "We do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob, but we do believe in John Brown, in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right."

That year saw rioting and lynching in Texas and Georgia.  DuBois composed "A Litany of Atlanta" in response in which he questioned of God, "Is this Thy justice, O Father?"  Here are the searingly powerful lines:

Surely Thou too are not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing? . . . Forgive the thought! Forgive these wild, blasphemous words.  Thou art still the God of our black fathers, and in Thy soul's soul sit some soft darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.

Beautiful!

This has been my favorite chapter yet in the book The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel. Any student of church history knows that the theology of the early ecumenical councils or of the Protestant Reformation was worked out in a complex mix of discourse and action weighted by politics.  This chapter, which details the difficult and complicated organizational work that led to the NAACP, reads similarly, as the process by which a theology is developed in the midst of real world activity.

"Liberty and Equality" was the previous post in this series.


Adonis

I'm in the midst of reading the selected poems of the Syrian poet Adonis, and they are marvelous. Now I'm very puzzled why he has never won the Nobel, though he seems every year to be on the shortlist of those writers which the bookmakers imagine might win. Even without having read him, I wondered why he hadn't won during the Syrian civil war, given the Nobel's aim to often respond to something in the moment.

So many good poems, here's one I particularly liked, especially the opening lines.

The Fall

I live between fire and plague
with my language, with these mute worlds.
I live in an apple orchard and a sky,
in the first happiness and the drollness
of life with Eve,
master of those cursed trees,
master of fruit.

I live between clouds and sparks,
in a stone that grows, in a book
that knows secrets, and knows the fall.


Afrika's eloquence

I posted my brief review of Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika the other day.  Today I'd like to share a two paragraph excerpt as an example of his eloquent writing.

As in the just-past night, only terror tinged with a dull anger stirs in us as the normally ludicrous takes on a shape of nightmare under even so high and revealing a sun, and no laughter moves in us with its saving grace as we watch the beatings as of beasts of those still struggling to free themselves from the  hobbles of their pants, and the face of our Jerry driver floats out before me like the fragment of a dream already ages old, and I reach out as to a lost and redeeming friend, but the emptiness in me is the emptier for its finding only the Now.

The ground is firm enough under our boots, but there is a hollow ring to it as of water warningly close, and I am reckoning it will be bitter and salt as the crystals strewn like some malignant frost over the curiously ochre earth.  Also, there are shallow depressions of cracking mud that tell of water in some other time, a surging, perhaps, of a capricious tide.  The occasional scrub is twisted and black as though a fire had swept it or an enervating poison gripped its roots, and the even scarcer grass is cancerous and brittle as a dying man's hair, and I am hearing the usual silence that even our frenetic trampling cannot shatter or obscure.