Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I've been thinking lately about transitions, feeling strongly that I am in one, though just what form it will take is not yet determined. In any case, I have passed through most of the classicalpattern of ages of man, (1) infancy and childhood (2) youth, h.s. to college (3) young adulthood, late college, the army, grad school (4) adulthood, marriage and work (5) late adulthood/maturity, the past decade or so, and am moving into (6) early old age, with (7) retirement and (8) very old age, e.g. in a nursing home still to come.

The idea of basic transitions suggests there may be different arts of living for different stages of life. It is also relevant to the idea of personal self-knowledge: knowing that you are making or need to make the transition to a new way of conceiving yourself. It is certainly true that different categories of value are centrally important in different periods of one's life.

Erik Erikson breaks up the stages of life somewhat differently than I, linking them to specific "identity issues" that need to be resolved before a person can fully move into the next developmental stage in their life: (1) infancy - trust/mistrust (2) toddler - autonomy/shame & doubt (3) preschool - initiative/guilt (4) childhood - industry/inferiority (5) adolescence - identity/role confusion (6) young adulthood - intimacy/isolation (7) adulthood - generativity/stagnation (8) senior - integrity/despair, with the chief part of life falling in adulthood (25-65).

I find those categories useful, but am close to old age by his measure (I'm 63), entered into 'adulthood' later than he suggests, and have sought generativity rather differently in the past decade or so than I did in the earlier two decades of my adulthood, with a stronger emphasis on friendship and relations to others, a deeper sense of my mortality, and a conscious desire to shape my 'art of living.' I also sense the coming years until I retire and probably even beyond that will take significantly different forms, if I live to be as old as many of my ancestors (85-90).

This awareness of transition has pointed me toward the new future I have before me, even if I experience mature life autobiographically as one in which I have made many of the outwardly most basic decisions, even if I know my life by mere quantitative measure is mostly over. It no longer makes the same sense to think of time as enormously open, of the long run of my career and love and friendships, of grand ambitions.

But this has helped me to make each moment, each day more intense, at the same time when I am more relaxed about it. I give myself more fully to the kairos/opportunity with just this other person(s) than I did when I was in my 20's or 30's. Expecting and demanding less of people, in particular myself, I find I achieve more, relate better, even evoke more positive feelings and actions in others. My generativity does not depend on me alone. My integrity is more intact now than ever.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


In the summer of 1975, with my dissertation in philosophy due the next spring and having written exactly nothing, I removed myself to a cabin deep in the northern woods, where the borders of Vermont, New Hampshire and Canada meet. It was my intention to use the time and quiet, away from my girlfriend and our society, to compose myself and my thought, and return to school with a draft in hand.

The cabin belonged to a minister friend named David, who lived with his new wife Emily in the local village; he had invited me to use it and visit them, in the course of my time there. For myself, however, I merely sought isolation and work, and the first week or so, all went well, as I sought to accustom myself to the woods' silence and its odd noises at night. But by the second week things began to go south, as I could not run even a hundred yards without swarms of black flies descending on me, like poor Io stung by Hera's wrath. As for the noises, they turned out to be co-dwelling mice, and when I startled to find one on my chest one night, I lay traps, which now and then would snap, as sharp as any clock's alarm. On the tenth night, I heard a great pawing at the door, which I shouted away, only to hear a bellow and then glimpse through the window, in my fright, a black bear lumbering into the dark. Now I was no longer alone.

My discomfort with nature was not all that drove me back into town, however, for I was lonely, and my work was not going well. What was my thesis, anyway? A thousand books had been written on Aristotle, what could I add to that pile? So I drove each day for a week into town, to David's house, hoping to find him or Emily there, seeking some human companionship. But mostly they were away at their work, so I would return back to my dark cabin unhappy, and to ease and I thought perhaps loosen and inspire my mind, I smoked grass. But smoking in the day or night, I thought again of my hungry friend, and of the mice and the snakes they might attract, and the next day I took my stash to town, to listen to music on David's machine, and eat some cookies, and just relax.

Well, Emily came in and got upset, and she told David and he told me, in a kind but I felt preachy voice--had we not smoked together, back in our undergrad days?--that I could not come in their home on my own any more, and didn't I realize what his parishioners would think? I fled back to the woods, still a little stoned and burning of cheek. I went for a long walk, discovering the flies were not as bad in the late afternoon, and found my way to a pond, which sat nestled by a hill. I stripped, dove in and came up refreshed, sat at the edge and stared into the water. I returned every day it didn't rain from then on, and one afternoon, near the end of the summer, saw a large elk on the opposite shore.

So I had to adjust to my neighbors in the cabin, now my closest friends, and I took up my traps, and lay out small gifts, and watched them and their little children sometimes with my flashlight at night. As for the bear, I decided to cook at a fire outside at night, reasoning she would be put off by the flames, but I was also more careful now not to leave foodstuffs outside and to keep my door shut. I heard the bear once or twice again, but was not afraid. As for the humans, I ordered my day in better balance, devoting at least an hour from then on to letters, and composed an apology to Emily and Dave, which I dropped off one afternoon with a housegift and flowers, thinking I would miss them, but Emily was there, and we made up. Still, I decided to stay mostly by myself in the woods, coming in just weekly for Saturday dinner, and quit smoking weed.

The work took its own course, as I sketched out, in rough form, the respective roles I found in Aristotle's ethics to nature and nurture and personal choice, and developed a chapter on the ethics and virtues of shame and honor, compared to those of freedom. I concluded that Aristotle was compelled, like all of us, to harmonize his theory of political life with his quest for wisdom. The body intruded and set its bounds, we needed to fit to our nature, we were not our minds alone. I got the Ph.D. the following spring.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My Art of Living III


"You are what you eat."

Part of what keeps me from becoming a 'complete philosopher', I admit, is my inveterate love of reading. For example, I just went to the library to get a book on Aristotle, and I found myself picking up four books--Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity, a book on gratitude, another on philosophy and the good life, and a fourth on friendship. I want to read them all. Of course, I won't--taking all four is just an indication of my inability to restrain this desire-to-read appetite--but I'll read parts or all of several over the next few weeks, along with Straight Man by Richard Russo, which I'm getting into on a second attempt. I do that, every once in a while--just surrender my free time, which might more profitably be spent in serious scholarship and professional, publication-oriented writing, even preparing classes, to reading.

My reading tastes have changed quite a bit over the years, and probably will continue to change. I tend to mix the popular and scholarly indifferently, though I've found it more difficult in the last ten years to read avant garde novels, either because they are too long or too formally demanding. So in much of my pleasure reading I slid toward high quality detective novels, American (Hammett, Chandler, Ross McDonald, Michael Connelly, Valin, Mosely, Hamilton) and European (Durrenmatt, Simenot, Sjoewal & Wahlooe, Peter Robinson, Camilieri, Mankel), or non-fiction on golf (Merullo's Passion for Golf, Lee Eisenberg's Breaking Eighty), gardens (like the book by Robert Pogue Harrison I referenced in an earlier blog), or 'more serious' works of history, e.g. Carl Schorske's book on turn of century Vienna, biography (Safranski's Nietzsche and Heidegger, Grodin's Gadamer), classics (Fitzgerald's Odyssey, Arrowsmith's Hercules and Clouds) or poetry, e.g. Yeats, Whitman, Rilke, Heaney. One year I got into Austen. Another year, Thucydides. Another, Vonnegut--you see how casual my choices are. Every few years I return to Shakespeare. I just read them, fast or slow, as I wish, Epicurean style. (Last spring I read several of the comedies, viewed Branaugh's magical As You Like It, and re-read chunks of Bloom's Invention of the Human.) I read McEwen's Saturday, Ishiguro's Never Let Go, Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham. I have tried to read Cormack McCarthy, but I find him horrific.

Part of my problem is "I give at work." I read and re-read serious, demanding literature for my philosophy classes. So I gradually found myself less inclined to read in my 'free time.' It is too bad, because what drew me into reading philosophy was not only the discovery that there was a fascinating world of literature to travel in, but that some authors created works that invited something like an "art" in reading, and that the application of that art was different from the methods used in conventional scholarship. Strauss's gnostic reading of Plato, Klein's treatment of the Meno, studies in the "middle way." Some authors' books can't be judged by their cover. They are more like mines or labyrinths you have to go down into, if you are to get to their core and find your way back home. But I got away from that more original form of reading as I began to publish in professional journals, and to that end reading can become simply an analytic task: you reconstruct the argument in broad and then more specific form, you analyse the steps, you weigh the merit and breadth of the examples, you consider alternative hypotheses. You look beyond the text toward the construction of an argument, from beauty as it were toward truth. Reading gives way in the service of writing, the original pleasure to a labor of mind. (I suspect this happens to many professors throughout the humanities.)

My desire to recapture my naive experience of reading as a way of discovery and imagination is partly why I am always drawn to re-reading Plato, and why in recent years I have also been attracted to Montaigne (and even Machiavelli, though sort of only when I have to). The structure of argument occurs within a narrative of actions involving characters and emotion as well as speech or thought. This gives his works an "open texture" which the reader is invited to reconstruct in full, so that rather than monologues (like, e.g. Aristotle or Kant) they imitate "dialogues" between the reader and Plato or Socrates. There is the aspect of puzzle to Plato's works, even the seemingly most didactic of them, and if this sometimes becomes so complex as to almost defeat you (e.g. the 'rational enterprise' of examining 'knowledge' in the Theaetetus), the reader is invited into the life and process of philosophy, not just its theoretical-systematic outcomes. I find this attraction also in the Essays, the challenge of discerning how the individual essay "tests" and "experiments" with its subject-matter(s), what is going on under as well as on the surface, how the piece fits into his time and manners, and what the conceptual opposites are that he is exploring in the work, and finally who this man Michel de Montaigne is. I'm toying now with the possibility of devoting my next semester's leave to the study of the Essays. Will I have something to contribute? Or is that the wrong way to think about it? Do I have anything better to read and study?

Reading is a solitary pleasure, but it connects you with another's mind. So there is a kind of friendship that can emerge in some reading--I feel it for Shakespeare at times, in some of the characters I love like Falstaff and Rosalind, for Nietzsche in a few works, here and there with other authors. Plato is too great; I'm overawed by him. (Shakespeare is too great, too, of course, but I don't feel the same challenge to think through the structure of ideas in the plays as I do in the Dialogues; often I read them too quickly, too lightly.) Aristotle turns into an intellectual exercise, often complex but somehow impersonal. But Montaigne seems almost just right. On the other hand, I don't have anyone to read Montaigne with; and reading is not complete unless it connects in a human way with friendship. And there is also the fact that Montaigne does annoy me a little. But Socrates does, too.

I know I must abandon my self-indulgent love of reading for its own sake for an art of reading that is creative, productive of speech or writing, that finds and carries home to me and others the truth and beauty of the works I take hold of and shape in my own way. The art of reading points beyond itself to real dialogue, read communication, and to an art of living in which it is a contributing part. We are meant to learn to read in order to re-discover together the "old truths," the verities that transport us beyond ourselves to that which we have in common and remakes us all. But to succeed in this, our great pedagogic goal, we have to learn to tarry along the way, to surrender our time and cares, to ruminate, chew over, think through and even muse on what we read, to let the books speak to us, before we consume them as resources for our art. We have to let them work on us, if we are to work on them. I am what I have done with what I have read, but perhaps even more what has read itself into me. In reading, I must be written on, before I can write of what I've read.

FOOTNOTE: Curiously I forgot to mention the Bible, which I read and studied for years, esp. the first two books of the OT and the first three Gospels, esp. Matthew. I also followed unconventional guides into these strange countries, Caputo and his moderating successor Sarna in relation to Genesis and Exodus, pomo approaches to the NT, e.g. Borg, Crosson. Then one day, after my children had grown up, I left organized religion, and simply stopped reading the Bible, to make my home in what to me was more natural and fertile country to the northwest. No doubt I was written on by these studies, but I am moved less by "transcendental humors" today than in the past, and have no particular desire to go back.