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.

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