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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.


The Humility Code

Brooks_New-videoLarge

"The humble path to the beautiful life," is what David Brooks summarizes at the conclusion of The Road to Character.  Here are the fifteen points of the Humility Code.

  1. "The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle."
  2. "The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures."
  3. "We are also splendidly endowed."
  4. "Humility is the greatest virtue."
  5. "Pride is the central vice."
  6. "The struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life."
  7. "Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation."
  8. "The things that lead us astray are short term . . . The things we call character endure over the long term."
  9. "Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside."
  10. "We are all ultimately saved by grace."
  11. "Defeating weakness often means quieting the self."
  12. "Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty."
  13. "No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation."
  14. "The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it."
  15. "A mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose."

This section is filled with much rich material, wonderful quotes, and deep allusions to our moral tradition.  I will be mining it for sermons, etc., for years.

I hope this series of blog posts on moral character in the midst of our current national catastrophe has been helpful in grasping what we must do in order to reweave the social fabric and restore the moral order.

"Out of Balance" was the previous post in this blog series.


Out of Balance

Tolstoy-List-Main

David Brooks uses Leo Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich to comment on how the pendulum has swung too far with the change in moral climate.  He writes, "Many of us are in Ivan Ilyich's position, recognizing that the social system we are part of pushes us to live out one sort of insufficient external life. . . .  The answer must be to stand against, at least in part, the prevailing winds of culture."

So, what's wrong with the current moral climate?  He lists some overarching problems and focuses on a few areas of society.  First, the overarching problems.

We have become "less morally articulate."  We are more materialistic.  More individualistic.  Less empathetic.  

We have become "a more competitive meritocracy."  He writes:

You have, like me, spent your life trying to make something of yourself, trying to have an impact, trying to be reasonably successful in this world.  That's meant a lot of competition and a lot of emphasis on individual achievement--doing reasonably well in school, getting into the right college, landing the right job, moving toward success and status.

 What results is a culture of busyness where we fail to take the time to cultivate our moral and spiritual sides.  I thought of Richard Rohr's writing while reading this section.

The meaning of the term character itself has changed, away from an embodiment of the traditional virtues to now "describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity."  

Brooks does not think that social media has ruined us, as the damage was largely already done, but it has had "three effects on the moral ecology."  First, "It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths."  Second, "Social media allow a more self-referential information environment."  And finally, it "encourages a broadcasting personality."

He spends a few pages on changes in parenting that he dislikes, but I thought those arguments were overwrought.

In the final post of this series on his book, we'll look at what he calls "the humble path to the beautiful life."

The previous post in this series discussed self-actualization by looking at Katherine Graham.  And the post before that reviewed this change in moral culture.


No Picnic on Mount Kenya

No Picnic on Mount KenyaNo Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While browsing a book store in Dublin I came across this book and was intrigued.

Three Italians prisoners of war of the British in Kenya during the Second World War are tired of their confinement but do not believe they could escape to a neutral or friendly country. Instead, they decide to escape and climb Mount Kenya, which beckons from above their camp. And, there plan is to return to camp when finished. Just an excursion to spend some time in freedom and to accomplish something.

So, this is a wonderful adventure story about the power of the human spirit. And it's quite fun.

With none of the proper equip or recent training and no weapons to protect them from the wild animals of the jungle and savanna, the group (with the help of others in the camp) spends months fashioning crude implements, hiding them, and readying for the day of escape.

What follows is a daring nighttime run from the camp, days of trekking through the jungle and highlands, working to avoid people and wildlife, bitter cold nights spent on the rocks, hunger from lack of provisions, splendid beauty, and dangerous moments, all well told by one of the prisoner/mountaineers in a book he wrote after the war.

As the author summarizes near the conclusion, "Hadn't we, wretched prisoners that we were, also raised our hands toward the Mountain, to ask her to give us back to ourselves?"

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The Prelude

Wordsworth: The PreludeWordsworth: The Prelude by William Wordsworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My morning poetry reading has not been that consistent since Sebastian's birth, disappearing with most parts of my decades-long morning routine. Oh well.

So, it took me a long time to get through Wordsworth's Prelude. Part of that is because the poem itself bogs down in places. The opening and closing books are the best, filled with his experiences of nature.

I've long known (and even written on) Wordsworth's influence on Whitehead's philosophy of perception. Having now finally read all of the Prelude I believe that Wordsworth may be the most important influence for understanding Whitehead and the development of process philosophy.

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