Philosophy as Love of Wisdom and in the Public Sphere

Sophia, goddess of wisdom

Sophia, goddess of wisdom

Some years ago, the economic downturn inspired me to put aside my business endeavors and return to school to study philosophy. I had loved philosophy for as long as I can remember, before I even knew what to call it, and later as I understood it in its broadest sense: the love and pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom was pursued through asking questions about everything, from the metaphysical and theological sort of questions that my religious and argumentative family used to debate around the dinner table and family gatherings (I credit these discussions and arguments, more than anything, with inspiring my philosophical curiosity) to all other questions about what’s true and false, just and unjust, good and bad, right and wrong. Wisdom was found through reading and learning as much as possible, then applying this learning to carefully thinking through possible answers to these questions. And wisdom was loved not because it brought understanding and meaning to life, but rather because its pursuit seemed beautiful to me.

Because my love of philosophy was formed prior to any introduction as a school of thought and my formal education was rather piecemeal, my approach was whimsical, idiosyncratic, unsystematic. Any and all subjects that aroused my curiosity and admiration could be brought to bear on what I understood as philosophical inquiry: literature, history, art, love of nature, social activism, law and justice, ethics, travel, architecture, science, in fact, every subject that involves human thought and appreciation…. Continue reading

This piece was written for the American Philosophical Association blog, originally published there on Sept. 22nd, 2016, and edited by Skye Cleary.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

On Plastic Surgery and Other Cosmetic Interventions

I published this essay about a year ago today. Cosmetic medical intervention is a subject of special interest for me, and problems associated with it, especially those performed for non-functional or non-reconstructive purposes, are often brought to mind at the medical practice I work in.

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I work for a dermatologist who focuses his practice on medical dermatology. While all treat many of the same medical conditions, an ever-increasing percentage of dermatologists devote a substantial portion of their time to performing cosmetic procedures, from Botox and filler injections, chemical peels, and laser treatments to surgeries: facelifts, chin implants, eyelid modifications, and so on. The sign on the door of the medical practice I work for, however, reads ‘Diseases of the Skin’.

To me, this is a reassuring message, as if to say to all who enter ‘We are here to try and cure what ails you.’ It contrasts sharply with the message I get from cosmetic dermatology and surgery ads: ‘We agree that you’re ugly and need to be altered.’

Now, of course, this is only what I read into those ads, especially in my more sensitive moods. I don’t for a moment speak for anyone…

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Seneca to Lucilius: On Old Age, by Massimo Pigliucci

portrait-of-seneca-after-the-antique-the-pseudo-seneca-by-lucas-vorsterman-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commonsThis is the 12th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, and it deals with an issue that an increasing number of people in the first world of today have to deal with: old age.

Seneca begins by recalling a recent visit to one of his country houses, during which he complained to one of his employees that too much money was being spent to keep it up. But his bailiff protested that the house was getting old, and the repairs were therefore entirely warranted. So Seneca writes to Lucilius: “And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?” (XII.1)

He then argues that there is much to be cherished in that stage of his life that the bailiff’s unchallengeable argument suddenly made him appreciate:

“Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline.” (XII, 4-5)

Notice the awareness of a coming “abrupt decline,” which Seneca is not foolish enough to argue will make for an enjoyable part of his life, should he live long enough (as it turns out, he didn’t). While not expressly mentioned here, this was the reason why the Stoics — including both Seneca and Epictetus, not to mention Zeno — thought that the wise man should make an exit, take “the open door,” as Epictetus memorably put it, when the appropriate time had come, no a moment sooner, but also not a moment later.

So what should be the wise person’s attitude toward old age? Seneca puts it very vividly to Lucilius:

“Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say: I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me is finished. And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: ‘I have lived!’, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.” (XII.9)

I am often struck by Seneca’s language, and this is one of many instances. “I have lived!, every morning I arise I receive a bonus.” Indeed.

As he frequently does in the early letters, Seneca parts from his friend with a “gift,” a meaningful quotation from another author, which in this case is: “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint” (XII.10), another, more direct, reference to suicide to be chosen under certain circumstances.

The twist is that the above saying is from none other than Epicurus, the chief rival of the Stoic school at the time. Seneca, then, imagines Lucilius protesting: “‘Epicurus,’ you reply, ‘uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?’ Any truth, I maintain, is my own property.” (XII.11)

Again, a beautiful turn of phrase, and an example of real wisdom: it doesn’t matter where the truth comes from, once discovered, it is our collective property.

~ This piece was originally published at How to Be a Stoic on September 15, 2016

~ Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York and member of the faculty at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Massimo has a background in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science. His most recent book, co-edited with Maarten Boudry, is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Xerxes and Demaratus on Tyranny, Liberty, and the Law

Relief of the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 BC) in the doorway of his palace at Persepolis

Relief of the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 BC) in the doorway of his palace at Persepolis, public domain by O. Mustafin via Wikimedia Commons

I’m now reading Book Seven of Herodotus’ Histories which tells the story of Xerxes I of Persia and the second invasion of Greece, which he led to avenge the defeat of his father Darius, who led the first. Darius was defeated at the battle of Marathon when the Athenians and their allies the Plataeans, badly outnumbered, managed to drive away the Persians. In this story, I came across another interesting exchange I’d like to share with you.

After reviewing his massive forces, Xerxes calls for Demaratus, a former king of Lacedaemon (city-state of Sparta) who had defected to Persia after being deposed by a rival. He asks Demaratus if he believes that his fellow Greeks will dare oppose his invasion considering the size and wealth of the new Persian army. After all, Xerxes asks, ‘How could a thousand men, or ten thousand, or even fifty thousand come to that, possibly stand up to an army the size of mine, when all of them enjoy a similar degree of liberty, and have no one man in command?… Just perhaps, were they like us in having one man set in authority over them, they might indeed be prompted by their dread of him to conquer their own instincts, and under the compulsion of the whip to advance against a force much larger than themselves. Left to their own devices, though, there is no way they will do either of those things.’ (Histories 7.103)

Xerxes is speaking here of the land of Athens and Lacedaemon, cradle of democracy, a novel form of government at the time. Many of us moderns who are raised in societies which inherited that spirit of government would respond: ‘But of course! A free people who participate in their own government have a stake in the outcome of public enterprises. Therefore, in war or peace, free people have a reason to care about their outcomes and to be personally motivated to succeed, because the success belongs to each individual as well as the society. Those who are tyrannized and enslaved, however, have no personal stake in the outcome, and fear only motivates one to do the minimum needed for survival. Indeed, fear and resentment of tyranny can motivate the people to undermine the efforts of the tyrant, and to defect to another state at the first opportunity.’ I expected Damaratus to give some such answer.

But Damaratus takes a different tack. Though he begins by citing the courage and martial discipline of the Greeks, he tells Xerxes the main reason he believes the Greeks will stand up to him whatever the size of his army. They’ll resist, he says, because ‘Free as they are, you see, they are not altogether free. Set over them as their master is the law – and of that they are more terrified than ever your men are of you. Certainly, they do what it commands them to do – a command that never alters.’ (7.104)

I think it fascinating that Damaratus uses the expression ‘terrified’ when he describes the Greeks’ attitude to the law. I consulted two other translations and it used the word ‘fear’. I wonder: is this a fear or terror born of deep respect and awe, such as that due to the gods or nature itself? Of fear of their fellow citizens for breaking the social contract or upsetting the natural order of things? Why fear or terror? Then I realize: perhaps he uses this term because he wants Xerxes to understand what he’s saying, and the only thing Xerxes can imagine inspiring obedience is fear and terror. But it’s interesting that he holds on to that idea. After all, Xerxes knows that his father learned otherwise, and the hard way at that. A free

Or, do you think Damaratus means just what he says? That it’s possible that an otherwise free people can actually have a fear of the law itself? It’s not too far of a stretch, after all, that a religious, god-fearing society could fear something else that’s abstract which imposes order and its will on the world.

Or, it could be that Damaratus is talking about the fear of the Greeks betraying their own selves as living embodiments of the law. After all, if adherence to the law is instilled as a sort of sacred duty to the very thing that makes us both free and fully realized as human beings, then the thought of transgressing the law is as terrifying as the thought of destroying our very selves, of becoming something less than human. I suspect Damaratus is talking about something like this.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Cartledge, Paul. ‘The Democratic Experiment‘. From History at BBC.com

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by Tom Holland. New York: Viking, 2013

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by A. D. Godley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920, from Tufts.edu

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by G. C. Macaulay, 1890, from Project Gutenberg.

Happy Birthday, Margaret Sanger!

margaret-sangerMargaret Higgins Sanger was born on September 14, 1879 into a large Catholic family with 11 surviving children. Her mother died at age 50 from tuberculosis. As young Margaret saw it, her mother was worn out from her 18 pregnancies, and would cite this as one of the many reasons she so passionately advocated for the right of women to control their own bodies and their own fertility.

She went on to become a nurse who worked with poor women in New York City in the 19-‘teens and twenties. As she saw poor women struggle with the toll that uncontrolled pregnancies took on their families’ finances and their own health, Sanger became convinced that ‘birth control’, a term she invented, was essential if these women hoped to escape poverty and oppression. She opened America’s first birth control clinic and despite numerous arrests and fines, she continued her fight for reproductive rights. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which became the Birth Control Federation of America in 1939 after merging with another organization, which in turn became Planned Parenthood in 1942. She continued her activism right up to her death in 1966. Sanger was instrumental in the creation of the first birth control pill Enovid, first available to the public in 1957. She also lived to see the Supreme Court validate her beliefs in the basic human rights to openly talk about sex and to control their own fertility in the Griswold v. Connecticut decision of June 7, 1965.

Sanger remains a controversial figure today. An ardent feminist, human rights activist, and advocate of sex-positivity, Sanger was also a eugenicist, believing that birth control was at least as important a tool for limiting the production of ‘the unfit’ (her words) as it was for women’s liberation. Sanger agreed with many leading scientists and progressives of her day in ascribing to so-called Social Darwinism (a problematic term since it doesn’t reflect Darwin’s own views as he expressed them), which applied the principles of natural selection to human social practice.  She did not, however, support any kind of compulsory or coercive forms of birth or population control, such as that practiced by the Nazis and even by the United States government, who forcibly sterilized thousands of so-called ‘feebleminded’ women. Instead, Sanger was an ardent advocate of self-determination, free speech, open discussions of sex and sexuality, and education, education, education. It was up to informed and thoughtful people, Sanger believed, to take responsibility for their own sexual choices and to convince others to do the same.

Unlike many other eugenicists, however, Sanger was not a racist. She worked closely with many leading black civil rights figures, believing, as they did, that birth control would have the same liberating effect on the black community as would for women generally. By limiting the number of children according to how many they could afford to raise and when, parents could more readily pursue an education, start a business, or otherwise devote their time, energy, and health to improving their standard of living which, in turn, they could pass down to their children.

Aside from her human rights activism, I find Sanger’s beliefs about human sexuality and its important role in spiritual and mental health most fascinating. I’ve chosen her as one the topics of an upcoming History of Ideas Travel Series as soon as I can make it happen, stay tuned! In the meantime, please follow the links in this article above and below to learn more about this important, fascinating, and troubling woman, and I highly recommend Jonathon Eig’s The Birth of the Pill, in which he recounts much of her personal history as well as her role in the Pill’s creation.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Margaret Sanger Papers Project ~ Research Annex. Accompanying blog to The Sanger Papers Project by New York University.

The Pill, People & Events: Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)‘. From the American Experience website by PBS.

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version by Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013.

Tong, Ng Suat. Which Margaret Sanger?The Hooded Utilitarian blog, April 14, 2014.

Philosopher’s Way at John McLaren Park, San Francisco

Philosopher's Walk entry path, John McLaren Park, San Francisco

Philosopher’s Way entry trail, John McLaren Park, San Francisco. The plaque contains the trail map and text seen below

Earlier this summer, I walked the Philosopher’s Way in San Francisco. Between wrapping up the main portion of my Frederick Douglass history of ideas travel series (I have more essays in the works about his life and ideas which I’ll finish and publish over time), preparing to resume my formal education, a health issue, and a family trip, I’ve had less time to write other pieces, so I had to put this aside too. But finally, here it is.

The Philosopher’s Way is inspired by a tradition of such philosopher’s walks that are meant to inspire contemplation and an appreciation of the natural world and our place in it. I was reminded of the Hume Walk on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. In 1775, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume helped get a park built here so that the people of Edinburgh had a beautiful and accessible place to get exercise and admire nature.

Philosopher's Way

Philosopher’s Way downloadable trail map and article, by artists Peter Richards and Susan Schwartzenburg. Courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission / Public Utilities Commission

An arrow marker stone marks each fork and turnoff on Philosopher's Way

An arrow marker stone marks each fork and turnoff on Philosopher’s Way

Though the parking lot is full of trash, including the largest pile of discarded whip-it canisters I’ve ever seen, the park is not. It has a wild look, only minimally pruned and landscaped. On the whole, I like it. The grassy hill leads to shady groves, that gold-and-green California look I love. Many of the overlooks of the city and the bay contain too many industrial-looking structures to be considered very beautiful in my view, but the park itself is nice. It’s only June, and already very dry. The drought’s still going strong.

mclaren-park-in-green-and-gold-san-francisco-ca-2014-amy-cools

John McLaren Park in green and gold.

San Bruno Mountain marker

San Bruno Mountain marker

Each overlook and designated view has an etched stone plaque with information about the landscape and history, and a poetic, inspirational, or thought-provoking quote.

I wander, through shade and sun, sometimes seeing only the path and trees ahead and sometimes more open views, sometimes of the surrounding hills and sometimes of the flats and water below.

San Bruno overlook from Philosopher's Way

San Bruno overlook from Philosopher’s Way

Turn in the shady path. Note the helpfully arrowed stone marker.

Turn in the shady path. Note the helpfully arrowed stone marker.

A particularly pretty view from Philosopher's Way. Note one of the arrowed stone markers

A particularly pretty view from Philosopher’s Way.

Eucalyptus, flowers, and greenery on a hillside

Eucalyptus, flowers, and greenery on a hillside

martin-luther-king-marker-at-cow-palace-overlook-philosophers-way-sf-2016-amy-coolsThere’s an overlook with a clear view of the large, sideways half-cylindrical shape of the Cow Palace, a large forum where, it turns out, Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke. An interesting tidbit of local history!

As I’ve explored much of the walk already, I sit here for a little while, then choose another spot more shielded from the sun glaring off the pages of my book. I read, and rest, and exchange messages with a faraway friend, and think a little, but mostly daydream.

After a couple of hours, I explore the rest of the trails. It’s a lovely, quiet way to spend an afternoon.

cow-palace-overlook-with-martin-luther-king-marker-philosophers-way-sf-2016-amy-cools

Cow Palace overlook with Martin Luther King, Jr. photographic marker

A hillside view from Philosopher's Walk

A hillside view from Philosopher’s Walk

A marker which tells about the native San Francisco grasses here in McLaren Park

A marker which tells about the native San Francisco grasses here in McLaren Park

another-view-of-philosophers-way-trail-mclaren-park-sf-2016-amy-cools~ Thanks, Michelle, for telling me about this place!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Philosopher’s Way: McLaren’s Contemplative Jewel‘. From SaveMcLarenPark.org

Richards, Peter and Susan Schwartzenburg. ‘Philosopher’s Way‘ trail map and article, San Francisco Arts Commission / Public Utilities Commission

Todd, Gail. ‘Philosopher’s Way in McLaren Park‘. June 5, 2013, SFChronicle.com

Seventh Day in Paris Following Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

One year ago today: I published my account of my last day in Paris following the lives and ideas of Revolution-era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

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Former site of the Hotel d'Orleans at 17 rue Bonaparte, Paris Front door of 17 rue Bonaparte, Paris, at or near the former site of the Hotel d’Orleans

Seventh day, August 21st, 2015

Today’s tale will be a shorter one, though the places I do make it to are wonderful and full of interest. It’s my last full day in Paris and I’m accompanied by my tired husband, so we take it easy. We visit Serge Gainsbourg’s house in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, enjoy some celebratory Paris-Brest pastries  from La Pâtisserie des Rêves on rue du Bac (considered by many to be the very best), take a boat ride on the Seine (a lovely way to see the city!), and otherwise just stroll around at a very leisurely pace, stopping here and there for a coffee or a cold drink.

On our way to the pastry shop, we swing by 17 rue Bonaparte, where, sometime in early to mid-August of 1784, Thomas Jefferson…

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