Recently, I read a post on Facebook where my cousin’s wife woefully reported that my cousin’s new anti-pornography site had to be taken down due to a huge negative reaction (though he received much support as well). The site is (was?) called ‘Her Name’, and it’s a forum where you assign a name (first name only) to a woman whose dignity had been affronted through pornography: women you know, women you’ve seen but not met, and so on. By naming these women, their humanity, their individual worth is re-affirmed, and all are reminded that each woman a life and a story beyond the simple object of gratification that pornography portrays them as.

That was what I was able to gather from the description of the website and from  my cousin’s wife’s post. But I didn’t find many details of why many objected strongly to the website, in the blog review and discussion of ‘Her Name’ I found on Patheos, nor on Facebook. Nor was I able to discern clear arguments in support of the claim that women are, in fact, dehumanized or injured in other ways by pornography.

Here’s what I gathered about the nature of the angry comments: by providing a forum to name these women, my cousin was (inadvertently, I believe) also creating a handy tool for ideologues to shame women taking part in pornography, or to ‘out’ women who want to keep their porn careers private. And here’s what I gathered from the discussion overall: pornography is bad, especially for women, period.

I’m glad that my cousin feels passionately about the issue insofar as he is concerned with promoting the dignity and freedom of women. And I’m glad that he’s taking part in the public discussion that we should all continue to have about pornography. It’s such a complicated subject, to which the blog reviewer doesn’t do justice: she offers no arguments to support her assertion that porn dehumanizes women. She simply claims that it’s a tool of the devil to destroy souls by denying their existence without explanation as to why or how.

Another thing: the overall characterization of porn, on the site and the blog post, was almost exclusively about the victimization of women, yet both sexes are involved in its production as well as the consumption, to one degree or another. I presume that the assumption is that men are making most or all of the decisions, and the women are all victims and dupes. I have serious doubts about both of these claims, if they really are such. Be that the case, let’s keep in mind that while I offer primarily offer women as examples in the discussion here for consistency’s sake in comparing the arguments, most of the points made apply to all sexes involved.

Based on his replies to the blog review comments, my cousin’s objections also appear to be based primarily on his religious beliefs: lust is sinful, tempting another to lust is sinful, sexual intercourse outside of marriage is sinful, and so on. These claims will have little meaning for those not adherents to particular dogmas. Yet we can infer broader points from what he has to say. For one, the anonymity and secrecy surrounding pornography, of the actors and the viewers, indicate that shame, an instinctive reaction to pornography, indicates there’s something wrong with it. Secondly, porn, by its very nature, dehumanizes the participants by reducing them to a collection of parts that have no purpose other than to gratify sexual desire. And thirdly, supporting the sexual gratification market that is porn, also supports awful practices as sex slavery and rape by validating the general idea that it’s okay to view some women, or all women, as nothing but objects of lust.

Those who subscribe to the ideas of the growing sex-positive movement, however, would not recognize this wholly negative portrayal of pornography. Sexuality, they say, is not only natural, but as valuable a characteristic of the human personality as reason or creativity. It originates from the best parts of human nature: empathy, sympathy, cooperation, our rich emotionality, the urge to create new life. It’s one of the most exciting ways that humans can bring each other joy, and unite in one of the most emotionally intense, intimate ways that we can. In short, sex is beautiful, and the ways in which we enjoy it can be, and should be, as variable as is the range of human personality itself. It’s precisely because of patriarchy and religion, in fact, that human sexuality has been shamed, perverted, twisted, and portrayed as ugly and exploitative in all contexts outside of the confines of male-dominated monogamy. That type of sex-negative religious view, in turn, is a regrettable inheritance from our evolutionary ancestors, who felt the need to exert control of women’s sexuality in the competition to successfully procreate with limited resources. When religion and patriarchy lose their influence, sexuality can again be freely expressed in all its joy and beauty, and the religiously-imposed shame will melt away. After all, as Mark Twain says, ‘Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.’ 

Pornography, then, in this view, is to sexuality as academia and the scientific community are to intelligence, and sculpture and novels are to creativity: an expression of our sexual nature. There’s bad pornography, and good pornography, just as there are harmful scientific theories such as eugenics, and clunky, tacky, poorly written novels such as ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and ‘Naked Came the Stranger’, and lousy art such as Dan Lacey’s pancake and unicorn paintings (though hilarious!)

So why is sex the one part of the human nature whose expression and gratification we consider most taboo even as it’s most alluring? Why single it out this way? We don’t consider gratifying hunger and thirst as shameful, nor other needs and desires such as art, music, or intellectual stimulation. What is it about sex that engaging in it, and portraying it, is considered dehumanizing in all but the very narrow context of marriage, when it’s such a very human thing for all to do and to desire? Why is considered so good and yet so bad? 

Let’s explore the problem of treating sex differently than other aspects of human nature by considering a rather extreme example. I read an opinion piece the other day about Somaly Mam and her apparently now-dubious credentials as an advocate against sex trafficking. The author makes what I think is an excellent point: Mam would ‘liberate’ sex-workers only to place them in what many might call ‘honest’ work: jobs in the apparel industry, where in Cambodia, as in many other places where sex-trafficking is a big problem, it’s a free-for-all. There are few to no human rights protections or regulations, and the women work long, back-breaking hours for little pay in awful conditions. It’s that, or starve, so there’s no real choice for most of these women. So what makes the sweatshop job more ‘dignified’? In both cases, the women have little to no autonomy, and are treated with contempt (perhaps, one might argue, more so in the sweatshop job, since the woman is not even considered a ‘possession’, and therefore of some personal value to the owner!) Is it the only the fact that it’s there’s sex involved that makes the latter condition of miserable servitude somehow better than the former? We would probably hear many on the anti-pornography side of the argument say that, of course, both are examples of terrible behavior of the slavers and of the sweatshop owners, but I would wager that they would not be impassioned advocates of labor unions, minimum wage laws, and regulations as they might be anti-sex-work activists.

The porn industry does not, for the most part, resemble the terrible practice of sex slavery, so considering them side by side is only useful insofar as it helps us recognize our own often inconsistent attitudes about sex and respect for our fellow human beings. So let’s return to a less dramatic example, where autonomy is not in question. Does the dehumanization lie in portraying a woman in such a way as to present only one aspect of her nature for the satisfaction of the audience, in this case her sexuality? How about when she is ‘reduced’ to another aspect of her person, say her physical appearance? Let’s take the example of a model for fine art, or for fashion photography. She is chosen because she is beautiful (or interesting-looking, for fits the chosen profile, or whatever), and is paid to stay still while the artist captures the outward appearance of her body, and is dismissed when the work is complete. Is she dehumanized then? How about any interaction in which a human being is only considered in the light of the narrow role they play in the other’s life in that moment, the waiter, the conversationalist at the bar, the cashier, the barista, the taxi driver, the person who makes the clothes one buys, the arms dealer? They are anonymous, or will be except during that particular transaction, and they will never be seen again. Are they dehumanized too? Why is it that interacting with another person in only their role as a sexual being more dehumanizig than interacting with them only insofar as they play a different role?

One may reply, that sex is deeply intimate and meaningful, where a painting a portrait is not (necessarily, anyway), nor is ordering food or coffee or buying stuff, nor chatting up a stranger at a bar. But why must sex always be intimate and meaningful? Just as conversation can be intimate and meaningful, it can also be casual, or meaningful but not lasting (that fascinating, intelligent fellow traveler on an overnight flight who shared the best stories and ideas you ever heard which stayed for you for life, while you never see them again), or baby talk that the infant will not remember, or part of the larger conversation a committed pair have over their shared lifetime. Yet all of those types of communication are an important part of a full life. So it goes with all other parts and products of human nature. Just because it can be deeply intimate and meaningful and long-lasting, doesn’t mean it has to be; there’s room for simple, easy, non-committed encounters as well, isn’t there?

Again, what’s so special about sex?

For the last half-dozen paragraphs, I’ve offered arguments and counter-examples from the sex-positive perspective against the anti-pornography view I (admittedly briefly) summarized at the outset. (Since I outlined only those arguments I could muster that have a broader-than-religious applicatio, it was necessarily relatively brief). Intellectually, I sympathize with the latter, since they not only harmonize best with a naturalistic philosophy most informed with verifiable evidence, but are more consistent with the values of autonomy and liberty. Yet anti-pornography advocates makes some valuable points, too, as we shall see.  

Thus far, we’ve considered arguments in favor of anti-pornography and pro-pornography (or at least anti-anti-pornography) ideas. But how do they play out in real life? Is pornography really as nasty, destructive, and shameful as some say, or as pro-human, life-affirming, nature-celebrating as others say? What does porn really look like out there, and what is its actual effect?

Here’s where I think the anti-pornographers have a point: much of the actual, mainstream pornography doesn’t seem to celebrate the same degree of respect for autonomy, diversity, and positive-body-image values that the sex-positive community has. Mainstream porn seems to chew women (and men) up and spit them out in the same way as Hollywood and the tabloids do (and these days, even Fox News and CNN!). The only people that are considered sexy enough to be featured are the hard-bodied, perfectly evenly tanned, straight and/or blonde haired, fake-white-teeth, heavily made up, simultaneously tiny-waisted and big-titted (or -cocked) stars of Barbie and Ken’s dreams. If you want to be a porn star and aren’t born with this set of attributes, under the knife and chemicals you go! There is porn made for people with other body types who wish to act in it, but as of yet, it’s generally of the boutique, Good Vibrations variety (G.V. is like Whole Foods, for the socially-conscious and horny). As of now, the body-positive attitudes celebrated in those wonderful You-Tube manifestos have not yet influenced the mainstream porn industry, just as they have not influenced Hollywood or news outlets.

I wish the porn industry overall actually looked more like the sex-positive activists’ vision, I really do! One day it may, when people grow tired of the monotony of seeing people of a only very few body types represented. Real-girl-next-door, all-natural, widows, Wallendorf Venuses, seniors, divorcees with empty nest syndrome, all of these may one day be represented as widely, and more personally, in mainstream porn as they are in people’s actual day to day fantasies and moments of curiosity. But I doubt it will happen anytime soon, if beauty magazine covers and increasing rates of plastic surgery are any indication. When it comes to body-shaming, it seems the narrow conception of beauty that informs mainstream pornography, as in all those other aforementioned public arenas: the only beauty that is celebrated is of such a rare type, and so many slice and paint themselves to artificially achieve it, that most women and girls are left to feel self-conscious and in some way not valued, since most don’t look like that standard. So they binge and purge, cut and paste, and smash themselves into ill-fitting clothing and tottering shoes.

Yet it’s not all bad news with mainstream pornography. When women are supposedly more dehumanized than ever through its unprecedented consumption as well as its extreme appearance standards, it’s also the era of unprecedented levels of legal protection of pornography actors, and of moral attitudes against the their oppression, in all categories of sex work. State by state, country by country, developed nations are instituting health regulations, labor unions, and laws that protect sex workers from the disease, exploitation, coercion, and violence that plagued them as long as sex work as existed (as the ‘oldest profession’, that’s a long time!). Sex workers, from pornography actors to prostitutes, need to worry less and less that they will be further victimized by the police or by the courts when they report crimes done against them, and sex trafficking, sex with minors, pimping, and other crimes of coercion (and patriarchy!) are less and less morally and legally acceptable than the sex-for-pay itself. 

So on the whole, I find must side with the sex-positive community in the matter of pornography. Their arguments, as I interpret them, are not only more logically consistent with what we observe in human nature and behavior, but are better aligned with what we actually see happening when it comes to protecting and caring for women and everyone else in porn. But we must keep in mind the nastier elements that are still very characteristic of the market overall, that I think my cousin and some others in the discussion recognized. There is a significant level of disrespect for our fellow human beings in the industry at large, and we must keep up the good fight against all manner of body-shaming, violence, exploitation, and coercion that are still endemic in porn.

P.S. It may seem odd that, throughout this post, I never refer to my cousin and his wife by their names, though they made their names public in the blog post discussion. My purpose is (somewhat smart-alecky, my apologies if my little joke offends!) to illustrate the point: perhaps it’s best to let people make their names public when and if they want to, when it comes to such a still-delicate subject. While it’s true that many porn actors have published their names, it’s often with the understanding that the only people likely to notice are in the porn-making and porn-watching communities, not likely to be seen by grandmas and co-workers who may not understand or agree with their choices due to the stigma that remains. The choice should be left to the porn actors publish their names more widely; it’s up to the rest of us to make the public sphere a more welcome, less harmful place to do so.


Sources and inspiration:

– Thanks to my cousin and his wife for starting such a fascinating and complex discussion of pornography in the context of naming versus anonymity, which brings to bear so many important and practical issues: human nature, sexuality, morality, the meaning of dignity, autonomy, and so much more

– My husband Bryan, whose intelligent conversation inspired and informed this piece throughout, besides being the most beautiful and sexy man I’ve ever had the pleasure to behold both naked and clothed.

– My sister Therese and my dear buddy Kristin, who also offered valuable insights, and patiently put up with my pestering them with counterexamples and devil’s-advocacy

– Dan Savage

– Greta Christina

– All whose work I linked to throughout the article

Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014

I’m sitting here in James Court, having a pint at the Jolly Judge, under a cozy little overhang, watching the rain fall all around me. It started out as a sunny day, with a brilliant blue sky with scattered big puffy white clouds, probably even a hot spring day by Scottish standards.

I’ve been wandering Edinburgh all day to say goodbye to the city, and started by walking the length of the Water of Leith again, from Murrayfield Stadium to Canonmills this time; I’ll be adding some more pictures to my photojournal of that lovely place.

Then I pop by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, since it’s on my way to the bus stop where I’m to transfer. I had forgotten to take a picture of the sculptures of David Hume and Adam Smith that adorn the southeast tower (which I’ll be adding to my account of that day), and I chat a bit with Sarah at the information desk, such a sweet woman!

I return to Easter Road to a wonderful bakery called The Manna House, a new favorite haunt, where I celebrate with a piece of chocolate pistachio opera cake and a creamy coffee. If you ever come to Edinburgh, be sure to come here, everything they make is as delicious as it is pretty.

Then over to Calton Hill, to say farewell to the mortal remains of the great thinker I came here to discover in his hometown. As anyone would in my place, I feel  deeply moved, my chest tight, my eyes prickly. Is there someone you deeply admire, where you’ve often felt that bittersweet ache that you so wish you could meet them, knowing you never could except through the artifacts, and more importantly, the words and ideas, they left behind?  Then you know how I’m feeling just now.

Then to the Scottish National Gallery (not to be confused with National Portrait Gallery) home to some of the great masterpieces of the world. I discover that one of my very favorite Rembrandt paintings here! That cheers me up quite a bit.

About ten minutes after I go inside, I hear the rain start to pour, and see the lightning flash through the skylight. I decide this would be a good place to linger ’till they close at five. And as soon as I leave, the rain abruptly stops, and I’m greeted to this spectacular sky again:

What a nice place Scotland is in May! The weather is changeable and keeps you on your toes, but it’s exciting in its variety. And I realize I just can’t bring myself to go back to the library and research and write anymore, as much as I intended to. I just have to walk around the city as much as I can in the time I have left, and besides, I’ve gathered a lot of material at this point. More to come on that.

Which brings me again to where I am, the first Hume site I came across when I got here: he lived somewhere in James Court with his sister for a number of years (as I mentioned in my first blog post). I think this was his second house in Edinburgh he lived in as an adult, after his Riddle’s Court sojourn.

Soon, I’ll be having dinner with my kind and friendly hosts, Adam and Krystallenia, and early in the morning getting on a plane to return to my loving husband, my family and friends, and my beautiful California. And as soon as I can, I’ll be back, next time with my Bryan.

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Water of Leith

Among my very favorite discoveries in Edinburgh is the walkway along the Water of Leith, a small river that runs through the city a little south of the center of town. You duck down below the city into a little ravine, and as you walk, you find spectacular series of the prettiest views you’ll ever see, so lush and green and full of the sound of rushing water and birdsong. The mills where they ground the town’s flour used to be here, and now and again you can see the remnants of the old structures; look for them in the stone wheels, waterfalls, and other stone artifacts in and near the water.

On Sunday night, I took the very long way home, and walked the river path, which runs mostly uninterrupted, from Stonebridge to Roseburg Gardens, a walk of a few miles. I had visited the river a few times at this point, but this time I wanted to see the length of it all at once. I went again on Tuesday, my last day in Edinburgh, and stretched the route a little, this time starting at Murrayfield Stadium (where I came across the heron) and ending at Canonmills.

Here’s a series of photos, in no particular order, except for the first few. I first visited the riverside below the Dean Bridge, where there’s a cozy little village that looks like this

And here it is, the Water of Leith

See the heron?


Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3

I enjoy a pint at the Abbotsford pub, traditionally a literary hangout, as I begin this account. Here’s hoping I’ll absorb more of that skill!I’m here at the Abbotsford because it’s near the site where I returned a couple days ago, to see if I could find that invisible plaque marking the site of David Hume’s New Town house. I’ve done some more digging in the meantime, and found that I had formed the wrong impression from my original source. I’ve found some photos of the actual plaque, which is actually just carved into the stone of the building, rather than the embossed brass plate I conceive of from the word ‘plaque’. Another traveler’s article I’ve discovered helpfully remarked it’s higher up than one might expect. Also, it’s at what’s now 21 St David’s St and 8 Rose St, which numbers are on different sides of the same building, not 8 St David’s as the address had been numbered once upon a time.

So here’s the plaque, on this building right by pretty St Andrew’s square, right across the street from Jenner’s. Can you see it?
Look up, way up, above the gray stone part of the building, between the windows.
Up, up, up…..
There it is, up there, near the upper right of this photo. It reads ‘On a house in this site David Hume lived, 1771 – 1776’. This is also where he died.
 I also happen to be waiting for someone right across the street from Hume’s statue on the Royal Mile the other day, and while waiting, I decided to snap some photos of passersby rubbing the statues toe for luck, so that some of Hume’s knowledge would rub off on them. I wrote a little essay about that practice.
I’ve been tentatively planning to go to Chirnside, the place where Hume grew up. The house is no longer there, but the gardens are, and the place where the house was is well marked. The fares turn out to be quite expensive, and since the house isn’t there anymore, it seems a lot to pay since I’m traveling on the cheap. I decide to spend the money instead enjoying my remaining time in Edinburgh, immersed in the place, eating locally made delicious food. So I go and have some marvelous pastries at The Manna House instead, planning to visit Chirnside next time I’m here, hopefully on a bike tour.
 The last of the David Hume-related sites I visit today is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It’s even more beautiful than I expected, inside and out. Sculptures of Hume and his friend Adam Smith, philosopher and economist who wrote The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, adorn the southeast tower.
Photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Allan Ramsey as a young man

Allan Ramsey’s famous portrait of Hume is here, the portrait where’s he’s facing the artist, wearing a gold-lace-trimmed red jacket. Here’s the artist and some info about him. First, the artist as a young man:

Here’s a little more about Allan Ramsey, David Hume, and the Scottish Enlightenment….
And about David Hume and his portrait...

David Hume by Allan Ramsey, 1766, oil on canvas

Definitely a guy I’d like to have dinner and drinks with, and hours of conversation! A genial man who’s seen the world and knows how to eat well, aside from his intellectual achievements.
What I hadn’t been expecting to find, when coming here to see this portrait was the sheer number of portraits I’d find of friends, associates, and other people whose lives intersected with Hume’s.
Here’s a series of portraits of these people, preceded by the plaques identifying the subject and the artist, and/or telling the story of their relation to Hume. I’ll start with Adam Smith, a good friend of Hume’s, who was influenced by him, supported him in the difficulties he faced due to his unorthodox views, and can be credited most with providing us the account of his last days:

The Author of the Wealth of Nations [Adam Smith] by John Kaye

This next guy shares the same name that Hume was born with; Hume changed the spelling of his last name from ‘Home’ because he was writing for an international audience, most of whom would not know from the spelling that the name is pronounced ‘Hume’ in Scotch-English.

And here’s a last little portrait, a miniature in cameo by this guy…

James Tassie, miniaturist who created the cameo portrait of David Hume below

Cameo portrait of David Hume by James Tassie

It’s hard to take a good photo if it because it’s in a glass case high above my head with many other cameo portraits by Tassie. This cameo was completed a few years after Hume’s death.
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery ends up being one of my favorite museums I visit, not only because of the beautiful artwork and fascinating stories I discover, but because the whole building is lovely, the lighting is perfect, and the feel of the place makes you want to linger. I spend much more time here than I planned, the time just flies by….
So I think my Sites and Monuments series will end here; the last couple days I’ll spend researching, writing, and just wandering and admiring. Soon to come: more ponderings on various subjects, inspired by my man Hume.

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The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?

I attended a meeting of the Humanist Society of Scotland the other day, and some of us were chatting about my David Hume project. They recommended sites to see and people and ideas to add to my research, and I was telling them what I had seen and discovered so far. They also regaled me with some Hume anecdotes. Such a friendly group of people, so engaged with important issues of the day, and so welcoming and ready to chat and have a good time!

One thing that came up was the classical statue of Hume on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town. I noticed that the left toe of the statue is polished to a bright brassy shine, from the tradition of students and others rubbing it for luck, so as to absorb some of his wisdom.

Some who I was talking to laughed, as if at a friendly little joke, while others took it a little more seriously. What would Hume, the greatest philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, skeptic, naturalist, and pragmatist, think about this seemingly superstitious practice? Some thought he would very much disapprove, as Richard Wiseman does.

That’s a very good question, I thought. Although he did not approve of superstitious thinking generally, would he consider the toe-rubbing an example of real superstition? Would he take it seriously?

A few days later, standing in the square across from the statue, I watched the crowd go by as I was waiting. Many paused and looked a little wonderingly at the big shiny toe, while others stopped, usually people who were in groups, and rubbed it, laughing and chatting. There was an Asian couple who did this more solemnly and almost ritualistically, rubbing the toe and than their heads, as if to physically rub in the absorbed knowledge like a salve. The scene, to anyone who is not just a little too grouchy for their own good (I think), was a charming and friendly one.

In thinking it over, I recalled another Hume story recounted, for my benefit, at the HSS meeing. One day, Hume was crossing the bog created by the recent draining of the Nor Loch; he was going from his house in Old Town to check on the progress of the house he was having built in New Town. On the way, he slipped in the mud, and partially because it was slippery and partly because he was a fat man, he couldn’t get up. He asked a passing sturdy fishseller for help, but she knew who he was: a reputed atheist. She refused to help, unless he recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. He obliged, she offered him her hand, and they went on their way. For some time afterwards, this was a favorite funny anecdote of Hume’s, and he referred to her as the most astute theologian that he had ever met.

So I was thinking: would Hume, who recognized the humor, even charm, in the story of the fishseller, really disapprove of the toe-rubbing? He was such a sociable person; he thought that the most virtuous people were the charming, friendly,  conversational, generous people. Sharing a happy time and a laugh is among the best things one person can do for another.

My conclusion: Hume himself would look on the toe-rubbers, smile and laugh, and probably join in, getting great satisfaction out of the joke. I think that sometimes, in the pursuit of reason, some of us can forget the role that the little rituals and talismans we create are a sort of game or story that we engage in to facilitate friendly communication, and play. This can go for astrology, tarot cards, knocking on wood, whatever. I’m not talking about those who sell their services, hoodwinking people into believing that if they pay enough money, their fortunes can be changed. I’m talking about how most people actually engage in these practices. They might say sometimes that they believe, maybe a little, in the magic power of these practices and objects.

But if you observe people closely, most carry on as if they didn’t believe in actual magic. They still go to work, study hard, pay for insurance, and go about the business of life as if it’s up to them to take responsibility for as much of their future as they have control over, whether or not they had just read the tarot or rubbed a brass toe.

People need stories and games, rituals and talismans, and some need these things more than others. it’s as ancient a part of our nature as just about anything else. By taking it all too seriously, committed  rational thinkers run the danger of giving so-called magical thinking too much credit, and too much power. All of these things are human creations, and we should use them only insofar as they help our lives, as opportunities for fun and human bonding.

So as long as your life is not hindered by superstition, play with those cards with the mysterious and pretty pictures, splash around the ‘holy’ water, and touch the ‘lucky’ statue! Chill out, and have a good time, people! I believe this philosopher wouldn’t mind a bit.

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The Debate Over Government and Freedom

As I read, do research, and reflect during my philosophy-themed travel to Edinburgh, I come across more or less the same issues as I do in contemporary discussions in the United States. David Hume argued in favor of a greater degree of freedom of commerce than was afforded people in his time, because as he observed, trade and its accompanying flow of information was a sure road to greater prosperity and liberty for the people as a whole.

Yet Hume hadn’t had the opportunity to observe how in a free market, the gradual accumulation of capital and the forming of monopolies could also be used to oppress and even enslave people, and rob individuals of fair opportunity and their share of the fruits of their labor. (His friend Adam Smith, however, predicted some of this.) Both correctly described what, in fact, did happen in the free market: it brought people out of serfdom, and led to greater prosperity for a larger number of people than ever before.

Market considerations also created the slave trade and made slavery last as long as it did; it’s causing the despoilation and ruination of the homes and lives of people around the world who live where they have rich natural resources but no political power; it’s causing the US to head towards a state of oligarchy, where misguided conservatives and libertarians are pushing through legislation that allows the rich to effectively buy the government that was intended to represent others as well; it’s destroying the environment through the reckless overproduction and overconsumption by manufacturers and consumers who usually make shortsighted, imprudent decisions, as behavioral economists observe and predict.

The fact that certain individuals and moneyed interests have and do oppress people as much as governments do, is what’s missing from much of the political discourse today. I have an essay in the works regarding government, the people, and liberty, but this fact seems obvious to me: the whole point of the US system of government (as well of those of other free countries in the world today) was that it’s supposed to be us, in a representative sense.

In that case, it shouldn’t be a matter of ‘making government small enough to drown in a bathtub’, or however that Grover Norquist quote goes. If that were the case, slavery never would have ended, for example: it was we the people, through our government, that forced slaveowners and the entrenched moneyed interests that depended on slavery for their profits, to give up some of their power, and freed millions of people to pursue their own happiness. We, via the government, championed human rights against encroachments on the part of both other individuals and government: suffrage for women and minorities, religious freedom, reproductive rights, you name it. Why on earth would we want to drown ‘we the people’ in that metaphorical bathtub? That would destroy individual liberty as surely as crushing the free market would.

Re-read, then take to heart, the intro to the Constitution, Grover.

My solution: take back the government from the few moneyed interests and individuals that are buying it up bit by bit, and make it ‘we the people’ again. Individual freedom, as well as the public interest and most businesses, would thus be best served. Remember, if plurality of interests disappears, swallowed up in mega business and monopolies that end up controlling the majority of resources, we would end up, effectively, just as much in a state of serfdom as anyone was before the free market was invented.

Cycling Through Edinburgh, First Time

This blog post is going to be a bit different than the others: it’s going to be about cycling!

Hope you don’t mind the departure.

So today I finally had access to a bike, though I don’t think you, Bryan, my dear husband and resident bike mechanic extraordinaire, would approve of it.
It was abandoned at my hosts’ place by a former guest who couldn’t take it with them. And no wonder. The goddamn thing weighs about a hundred pounds. Adam (of the couple I’m renting a room from, nicest guy you’ll ever meet, as is his lady, Krystallenia) did fix it up a bit, but I discovered issues with it while riding. For one thing, the seat was way too low, I felt like I was riding a little clown bike (made of lead), and my knees started to ache fast.

But I was cheered at the prospect of exploring Edinburgh’s awesome hub of dedicated cycling/pedestrian paths (greenways), converted defunct tram lines, so I made the best of it. 


Not too shabby! So I meandered through these bike paths, and while I had a general idea where I was going, a kind man soon disabused me of that notion. He could see my eyes glaze over as he tried to explain how the spiderweb of paths would lead me to where I was eventually headed, so he offered to accompany me. He pointed out (as I had realized) that the downside to the lush greenery that surrounded the paths was that you were completely shielded from seeing any landmark that could indicate where you’re going.His name is Adrian, a family practitioner, and he’s getting back into shape from being off the bike for three years. On his last cycling holiday in the Pyrenees, he fell and broke his neck. He’s okay now, he reassured me. We exchanged travel tips: he’s about to travel to the US with his wife and teenage daughters to see the usual beauty spots, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and so forth.

When we reached the end of the bike maze, we parted, after he showed me where a bike co-op shop was, who might do quick repair. The other major issue I had discovered: the handlebar stem as not firmly bolted down, and would slip off to one side whenever I’d stop, then push off to start again. A sweetheart named Dougie (or Duggie?) raised the seat and tightened down the handlebars for me, after grumbling over the bike a bit (I apologized for asking him to work on such a shitty bike, and he grumbled, kindly, that it came from a ‘car shop, not a bike shop’). He refused to take any payment at all.

I continued on my way, through a maze of little windy, hilly, cobblestone streets. Would have been impossible without the handlebar repair.

When I neared Calton Hill, I turned towards Arthur’s Seat, which I had seen from my explorations on my first day there. Here it is, seen from the hill that day:

And here it is as I start the ascent:

It’s so beautiful, and has a wonderfully wild feel to it, for a place right next to the city

It was hard to stop stopping to take pictures, every bend in the path revealed a scene more enchanting than the last.

So at the summit, I stopped to eat lunch, as it started to sprinkle. There was, like, twenty weathers that day. But I dressed as a San Franciscan in spring, so I was set.

Smoked German cheese and a pear

If you want to keep warm on a ‘driech’ day (thanks for the cool new addition to my vocabulary, Jackie!), ride up Arthur’s Seat on a two-hundred pound bicycle (yes, it got heavier). I don’t think it really was kosher to take my bike up, but the signs didn’t specifically say not too, so I did. You would have been proud of me, Bryan, there was definitely some ‘gnar’. I was roasting by the time I reached the top.

So I went down, and spent the rest of the day half biking, half sightseeing by foot.
On the way back (I couldn’t linger ’till dark cause I had no lights, I went by way of Dean Village, which drops below the Dean Bridge and along Leith Waterway.

And finally, I reached my temporary home, to this sky

It was a good day. David Hume’s birthday! Yet I was the one that got the gift. Adam made scones and tea, and before bed he and I, and eventually Krystallenia when she came home from work, talked about Poland where he’s from, Greece where she’s from, and the US.

Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2

117 (2)Thursday, ‎May ‎08, ‎2014

…or more accurately this time, Hume sites and artifacts.

On Thursday afternoons, the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust holds an open house for Riddle’s Court (a small square enclosed by the buildings that surround it), where David Hume bought his first house in the 1750’s. In his time, the building was called a ‘land’, and a floor or suite of the building that comprised the rooms where the tenant lived was called a ‘house’. So a ‘land’ held several ‘houses’, today’s ‘flats’.

The rooms that are open to the public are on the opposite side of the court from where his house was; records are not clear from the time, but it’s pretty certain he lived in one of the upper houses on the Royal Mile side of the court. I’ll show you where in a moment.134 (2)

This room with the beautiful ceiling was a drawing room for later inhabitants. You can read about it in the center photo below. The closeup of the ceiling shows David Hume’s monogram, to commemorate his living nearby.779


Here (above) are views looking upwards from inside the court; the reddish color of the walls at the right is a natural color that they would have used at the time, and he probably lived in one of these upper houses. The photo on the left is at the left of the reddish wall, and I include it ’cause it’s pretty!

And here’s the view of the building that I’m in, opposite from Hume’s house, from Victoria Street below. Victoria Street was built in the 1830’s, where a steep, narrow footpath used to run through the gardens behind Riddle’s Court and the neighboring houses. My mother-in-law recommended that I visit Victoria Street; coincidentally, I discover that in constructing it, they almost decided to tear down the Riddle’s Court buildings, one of the most important sites I’ve come to visit. Fortunately, someone decided it was best to keep them since the buildings have such a rich history and Patrick Geddes, who was responsible for saving and restoring so many of Edinburgh’s most important historical buildings, turned it into a student center.

Two views in Riddle’s Court, Old City, Edinburgh

Now I turn to the first artifact I find on this trip that David Hume himself touched: a letter written just a few months before his death. It’s on display at the National Museum of Scotland, where I spend some hours this afternoon gazing at wonderful natural specimens and historical artifacts of Scotland. Hume had gone to Bath in hopes that the mineral springs there would help relieve the symptoms of the intestinal or abdominal disorder, probably cancer, that he died from. In the letter, he’s telling a man named Andrew that he’s feeling better at the moment.

A letter from David Hume to ‘Andrew’ dated May 20th 1776, at an exhibit in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh

Jenner’s department store off St Andrew’s Square in Edinburgh’s New Town

Note: The following story has an update.

The next day, I set out to find the commemorative plaque at the site where David Hume’s New Town house (apartment) was at 8 South St. David’s St. at Rose. I can’t find the plaque anywhere, but his house may have stood about where this large department store stands now….

I return to the National Library of Scotland to catch up on my writing and research, and there’s another letter in Hume’s own hand on display just feet away from where I’m writing this post, at an exhibition celebrating the achievements of the Scots people.

David Hume worked for some years in the 1750’s as the librarian for the Advocate’s Library, which eventually became the National Library. Although he had a falling out with the library over their blocking of some ‘undesirable’ books he had ordered, he continued to work for them since he needed access to their collection for the ambitious, multi-volume History of Britain he was working on, for which he was most famous during his lifetime. He donated the small salary that he earned from the Library to a blind poet friend, Thomas Blacklock.

Throughout my trip, I’ve been working intermittently in the Special Collections reading room at the National Library of Scotland, referring to first editions of David Hume’s books, all published in his lifetime, save for a few ‘dangerous’ works that were published shortly after his death. I’m not allowed to take photos of them, but you’ll find them described in my various Hume essays written during and following this trip, in the section that follows each essay, called ‘Sources and Inspiration’ (my informal brand of works cited page that I use for my blog essays). When I’m back home and have more time and my own computer, I’ll look for more information on these books, with links and photos.

Letter from David Hume to James Balfour dated Mar 15, 1753 on exhibit at the National Library of Scotland

The library is closing, so I must go. More on Hume to come!

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The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear

A view of the interior of David Hume's grave monument, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2014 Amy Cools

A view of the interior of David Hume’s grave monument, Edinburgh, Scotland

There is one argument that seldom fails to come up in discussions with religious people who feel the deep need to persuade you to share their beliefs: that religion is the only thing that can bring real consolation, to overcome the fear of death. When I was a child, and through my twenties, I was often seized with that fear; with my grandmother’s death, the first deep grief I’d ever known, it really hit hard for awhile.

Yet it was in those same years that I was religious, or had recently come out of it, that I experienced most of that fear.

I began to wonder: can that association between religion and fear of death be something like smoking? The smoking creates the need to smoke, and then is the only relief for the urge to smoke again. I think there might be something in that idea, at least in the sense that since most religions bring up the subject of death a lot, it’s harder to shake the fear if you’re constantly reminded. But really, people have been afraid of death for at least as long as they’ve been creating art, literature, and religions that express it. The origins of that fear must be a feature of human psychology, or at least a common by-product of it.

The death of Socrates has long been held up as the prime example of a good death, a death faced with composure and courage (if you’ve never read it, I encourage you to discover that moving, fascinating story!) Seneca, Epicurus, and many other great philosophers have shown us, through words and example, how death can be devoid of fear. I turn to a somewhat more modern example: the account I’m reading that Adam Smith wrote, of the death of his close friend David Hume, my favorite philosopher.

Hume was widely considered to be a skeptic and an atheist, and therefore a dangerous person, a corrupting influence. His naturalistic, practical, sensible philosophy revealed the impossibility of miracles and of knowing whether or not imperceptible things exist, and implied the lack of necessity for the existence of god(s). For his own safety and financial stability, Hume’s friends, as well as his own prudence, convinced him not to publish all he actually wrote, including one of his most important works, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, until after his death.

Adam Smith’s account of Hume’s death is one such that any us us could wish for. When Hume discovered he (probably) had intestinal cancer, he resigned himself to enjoying the time he had left, and making the best as well as the most, of it. After all, he said, ‘…a man of sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities…’ Hume continued to entertain and to visit friends, play cards, travel, write and edit, and do as much as his waning strength would let him. When he could finally no longer get out of bed, sit up for long, or leave his home, he passed the time in his favorite way, by reading, and dictating letters to his loved ones.

Here’s what Smith had to say, regarding how both the habits of a lifetime, and terminal illness, highlighted the true character of his friend Hume:

‘His temper, indeed, seemed to be more happily balanced… than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even …the lowest state of his fortune… never hindered him from exercising… acts both of charity and generosity…. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantly was the genuine effusion of good-nature and good humor, tempered with delicacy and modesty… And that gaiety of temper …which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with… the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.’ What a tribute!

David Hume's grave monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2014 Amy Cools

David Hume’s grave monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

The physician who attended his death wrote:

‘He continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness…. [H]e died in such such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.’

So how does a David Hume, a Socrates, a Seneca, or you, or I, live a life full of joy and virtue and free of the fear of death?

I’m not talking about living a perfect life, here. For one thing, I think the idea of ‘perfection’ is weird to apply to human beings, indeed any biological entity. The concept is too abstract, only applicable to such things as mathematics, logic, and geometry, when describing things such as numbers, and either/or distinctions, and the degree of the angles in a Euclidean triangle. Biological things, most especially human beings, are complicated, full of conflicting emotions, needs, desires, interests, and so on.

But there are ways to get though life that help you achieve happiness and goals worth having, and there are ways that don’t. And there are people (and some other animals, of course!) who exemplify ways of living that are so successful, and so admirable, that it’s an excellent idea to observe them, especially given that we are social creatures who depend on one another for edification and support.

So when it comes to living that life full of joy and virtue, relatively free of that fear of death, I think we would all do well not to look to an ideology, like a religion or some utopian ideal, or some such panacea. I’d look, rather, to a person who lived well, and consider how their character, how their general outlook on life, how their habits contributed to it. This would apply to anyone, secular or religious, anyone. 

But especially to lovers of philosophy. Philosophy, that love of wisdom, has been a love of mine for a long time, much longer than I knew what it was, how to identify it. From the time I was little, i was fascinated by the (mostly theological, sometimes political, sometimes otherwise strictly philosophical) discussions that often went on around the dinner table when the adults got together. And I would badger my dad with endless questions on such matters, my poor patient Dad!

By the time I returned to college the second time, I knew what I wanted to spend my time really getting into these fascinating topics, of how and why the world works, and how we should best go about living in it. And here I am, doing the same thing, but now sharing the discussion with all of you who take an interest, because it’s my firm conviction that philosophy is something pretty much all of us engage in, so often that it’s one of the most ordinary things we do.

But making philosophy a more central part of my life has been one of the most happy-making things in it. There’s a wonderfully titled book by a sixth-century thinker, Boethius, called The Consolation of Philosophy, written when he was going through the worst time of his life, imprisoned, facing execution. It’s such an excellent book title that it’s become an ordinary phrase, usually pluralized (I’ve used it for years before I ever found out where it came from). Like Boethius, like Socrates, like Seneca and Hume, I know that even if I had the great misfortune of facing the loss of the most treasured things in my life: my loving and beloved husband, my family and friends, my health and my possessions, I would have a way to keep my best self intact.

Philosophy is among the greatest ways, if not the greatest, to make sense not only out of day to day realities, it puts you closely in touch with the largest and most important things, and helps you realize your connections to them so deeply, that in a very real way you never fully lose your loves, your family, your friends, and it turns out that while some possessions are wonderful and worth having, they’re never worth so much that the loss of them should destroy you.

Living a life with philosophy now a conscious interest and pursuit has enabled me to live a richer and fuller life, and helps me day to day to figure out ways to make it better, and to overcome those difficulties I still have. I have high hopes that will enable me become at least a bit as admirable as these great people I’ve mentioned here, and many many more whom I have not. And not only does this hope rule my life: fear, including that of death, no longer does.

– Written in the Rare Books Reading Room of the Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, on my David Hume travel writing trip, May 2014

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!
Sources and inspiration:
De Botton, Alain. ‘Seneca on Anger’ from the BBC series Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, 2000.
Hume, David. Life of David Hume. (Includes his short autobiography My Own Life, and a letter from Adam Smith to William Strahan. Printed in London, 1777.
Konstun, David. ‘Epicurus’, 2014. The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Marenbon, John, ‘Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’, 2013, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.