‘Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist . . . . no stander above men and women or apart from them . . . . no more modest than immodest.’ Thus Walt Whitman introduces himself to us for the first time in his first self-published 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. Not on the cover or on the title page, mind you, but deep within the body of the untitled poem later called Song of Myself. If this is a dialing-back attempt to inject a little respectable humility or yet another self-aggrandizing affectation on the part of this unapologetic egoist, it’s hard to say definitely, though I strongly suspect it’s the latter. It certainly is so-very-American.
He was confident, earthy, crude, and vibrant, a self-styled natural man whose personas were nonetheless carefully crafted. He did his own thing and ‘lived the free life of a rover’ (an Eric Bogle phrase from his great anti-war ballad And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda), working odd jobs as a printer, journalist, teacher, and clerk, among other things. Moved by horror and compassion at the magnitude of death and suffering he observed, he worked some years as a nurse to the Civil War wounded, and spent much of his somewhat meager earnings on supplies for their comfort and care. He remained single but had many lovers, probably mostly homosexual, though he praises the physical beauty and power of women as lavishly in his poems as he does those of men. All the while, starting at just over age 30, he began to write his highly idiosyncratic, free verse poetry celebrating the authentic and the crafted self, the human body, democracy, equality, work, nature, and companionship. He spent the rest of his somewhat long life revising and republishing several editions of Leaves of Grass, up to several months before his death at age 72 in 1892.
To read more work by, about, and inspired by the great Walt Whitman, here are some links and articles:
My fascination with Joan of Arc, born sometime in 1412 and put to death by fire on May 30th, 1431, is long-standing, beginning in my girlhood. Joan, as you likely know, is the French national heroine who fought to remove medieval France from English rule, whose exploits turned the tide and guaranteed France’s ultimate victory in the Hundred Year’s War.
She was the daughter of prosperous peasants in Domrémy, France. On a self-proclaimed mission from God to restore French rule to the rightful heir of the House of Valois, she convinced the local baron, military leaders, and eventually the crown prince to put her in charge of the dispirited French army, despite the fact that she was illiterate, militarily inexperienced, and a teenage girl…. Read the written version here
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Joan of Arc by Amy Cools, about 1998. My mental image of her then was influenced by popular iconography and films, much of it which, as I did, portrayed her as tall, fair-skinned, and light-haired (think Ingrid Bergman’s 1948 film portrayal). In real life, she was somewhat short, dark-eyed with black hair, and had a sun-tanned, athletic body that, despite their describing it as attractive, aroused no lust in her fellow soldiers. Perhaps this resulted from their idealization of her as too godly for mere mortals to touch. Or perhaps, as I surmise, her indifference to sex with men was too manifest to give rise to that kind of chemistry. My drawing does, I think, manifest my youthful idea of her as a lovely tomboy, as an active, confident girl was then miscalled. Joan’s wearing the white shift which she wore to the stake and holding her cross made of two sticks tied together, which a sympathetic bystander quickly fashioned to comfort her on her way to execution
My fascination with Joan of Arc, born sometime in 1412 and put to death by fire on May 30th, 1431, is long-standing, beginning in my girlhood. Joan, as you likely know, is the French national heroine who fought to remove medieval France from English rule, whose exploits turned the tide and guaranteed France’s ultimate victory in the Hundred Year’s War.
She was the daughter of prosperous peasants in Domrémy, France. On a self-proclaimed mission from God to restore French rule to the rightful heir of the House of Valois, she convinced the local baron, military leaders, and eventually the crown prince to put her in charge of the dispirited French army, despite the fact that she was illiterate, militarily inexperienced, and a teenage girl.
By the time Joan reached the Dauphin, as the French crown prince was called, the French had long been in the habit of losing battles, even when they had the upper hand in numbers and defensive position, often because they were unable to cohere as a unified fighting force. French society was still feudal, highly stratified by class, and the army was no exception. Common soldiers were ill-equipped and underused, mistrusted and despised by aristocratic and wealthy knights jealous of their own superior rank. They could not bring themselves to give common soldiers opportunities for a share in the military glories of conquest. So French armies, fractured by class with everyone out for themselves, lost time after time to the more pragmatic and unified English forces. Troops of English longbowmen, for example, were made of up common soldiers highly valued for their strength and skill, and the English army made full use of them, to the detriment of the French. When Joan came along, a peasant in direct communication with Saint Micheal the Archangel, patron saint of French knights, she served as the much-needed unifier of French sympathies. Knights and commoners alike were united by their love of her and what she represented, and they began to fight as one, an army made holy and therefore equal: the aristocracy and chivalric order may have been respecters of persons, but the God who called Joan to lead them in their sacred quest was not.
Joan also whipped the army into shape, demanding that they train as hard as she did. She banned gambling, swearing, and prostitution from the camps, and required that soldiers attend religious services regularly. These reforms served the double purpose of further unifying soldiers through daily rituals that helped internalize their sense of holy, shared purpose, and of reducing the opportunities for alcoholism, venereal disease, and other ravages of hard living that could weaken her forces. She also prohibited raiding and pillaging which further unified French sympathies, especially of the common people and the countryside who had long suffered the predations of marauding English and French soldiers.
Joan of Arc, ca. 1450-1500, oil on parchment, artist unknown, public domain
Once she had raised the Seige of Orléans, drove the English from fort after fort, and led the Dauphin to be crowned King at Reims, her hawkish mission fell victim to what she considered dithering and intrigue, and what Charles VII considered diplomacy to save lives and capital. As Joan saw it, aristocrats and corrupt clerics, still jealous of their own social standing and opportunities for power either as leaders in the newly strengthened French order or as secret English collaborators, blocked her next great project: to deliver Paris from English control. She relieved her frustration and boredom by leading a series of minor skirmishes against the English, and was finally captured at one of these. She was handed over to an ecclesiastical court, led by French clerics symphathetic to the English cause, so they try her as heretic, ‘proving’ her in league with Satanic fiends, as the great English playwright William Shakespeare portrays her in Henry V. This would discredit her godly mission, her power to unite the French, and her assistance to Charles VII’s cause, thereby undermining his royal legitimacy. She was burned at the stake in Rouen, having accomplished the first part of her mission, the liberation of Orléans and the coronation of her King, and setting in motion the second part, the complete liberation of France from English rule, at only nineteen years old.
But it was clear to both French and English that the ‘holy’ court that condemned Joan was led and manipulated by political actors, not by men of God whose chief concern was to protect the Church from heresy. About twenty years after her death, the victorious French king Charles VII, who owed his crown and the reclamation of his kingdom to Joan, was finally reminded of his debt of gratitude by the realization that his hold on power was threatened if his rule was the result of the machinations of a heretic. A trial of rehabilitation and nullification commenced in the mid-1400’s, which formally vindicated her and proved to their satisfaction her mission came from God. Almost five hundred years after her death, Joan of Arc was proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church.
Joan of Arc statue in Paris, France, photo 2015 by Amy Cools. This stylized depiction of her, in that Art Deco style I so love, makes me think of a green flame: green for the fields in which she roamed as a child shepherd, flame for her passionate intensity. Her attempt to liberate Paris by force from English rule was put to a stop by Charles VII’s diplomatic maneuverings, as well as by a wound she suffered in the failed assault. Paris was recovered by the French only a few years later by a means this inveterate warrior dismissed as a sign of weakness: by treaty. I believe, by the way, the fire she was wont to ignite in the hearts of soldiers also flamed in the breasts of the liberators of Paris five hundred years later in WWII.
I was religious as a child and a teenager, and admired her then as a Catholic saint. By my late teens, I had left religious belief behind, but my admiration for her has only grown and deepened over the years. She became something more to me, more rich, more mysterious, more complex. I think of her now as a native genius, with no other language or context in which to express, to herself and others, her political and military insights than the religion which infused her life and the life of the lives of her fellow countrypeople. And the way she was able to baffle, rebut, and defeat her interrogators at the show trial by those determined to discredit her before burning her at the stake remains a marvel. Her intellect was such that, despite her illiteracy and lack of formal education, she was able to see right through the legal deceptions of her judges and prosecutors, avoiding every verbal trap and pitfall they set for her, turning their attacks and arguments right back on them.
In preparation for this anniversary of her death, I’ve immersed myself in writing and art about Joan. Besides various histories, I’ve recently re-read Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which was recommended to me by my devoutly Catholic grandmother. I’ve read it many times over the last two decades. It was Twain’s own favorite of all his novels; he proudly announced he spent twelve years researching it and two years writing it, which he did for no other novel. While Joan is as full of comical scenes and quips as any of his other works, it’s a tender book, channeling his love for his own wife and daughters, with much less sarcasm and much more earnest, overtly expressed sorrow and compassion than anything else he ever wrote. His Joan is suffused with the sweetness, purity, and honesty he perceived much of in young girls and too little of in the rest of the world. Twain’s ideas about young girls and women are, I think, hyper-sentimental, naive, even dehumanizing to the extent that his ideal of female virtue did not include the full range of human reason and passion. He, like most in his era, in Joan’s time, and in fact, Joan herself, fetishized female virginity. But I love his account of Joan’s brave life and tragic death nonetheless, just as we can be forgivingly fond of the quaint idealizations of our fathers, uncles, and grandfathers of the sweet purity of womanhood while secretly rolling our eyes.
Drawing of Joan of Arc by Clément de Fauquembergue, as a doodle on the margin of the protocol of the parliament of Paris, dated May 10th, 1429. It’s the only contemporary image of her
Unlike Twain’s tender ideal of Victorian-style womanhood and the Church’s monumental Saint, I find the complex, flesh-and-blood Joan, full of marvelous virtues, deep flaws, incredible natural abilities, inexplicable quirks, and ordinary human qualities, much more interesting. I admire her courage, audacity, bravery, energy, savviness, intelligence, trust in her own abilities, and independence of spirit. I’m disturbed and even at times repelled by her single-minded, sometimes bloodthirsty willingness to sacrifice so many human lives for her cause; her insistence that those things going on in her own mind were the absolute truth and must be believed and obeyed or else; her absolute allegiance to the divine right of kings as established by male bloodline (especially given that many of the French preferred the less ruthless, less feudal, more legally scrupulous style of English rule); and her hyper-religiosity which impelled her to write letters calling on others to put Muslims and religious dissenters to the sword.
The real Joan is such a compendium of attributes and mysteries that she’s become an icon and an inspiration to perhaps the diverse set of people I can think of:
Joan of Arc is a working person’s icon. She’s a self-made woman who got her start working with her hands in the fields, and given very little formal education. But with her own common sense, strong sense of self, and enterprising spirit, she pulled herself up by her bootstraps more quickly and to a greater height than nearly anyone else in history. She began as an illiterate peasant in a feudal society and ended up chief of the armies of France before she reached twenty, and after her death reached even greater heights as a Catholic saint, a military legend, and France’s eternal national hero.
Joan of Arc is a religious icon. She claimed an intimate knowledge of the will of God through the voices of his emissaries he sent to her, St Michael the Archangel, St Catherine, and St Margaret. She’s a treasured if difficult icon for Catholicism: she claimed that God spoke to her directly through heavenly messengers, even as the Church considered itself the divinely-appointed sole intercessor between humanity and heaven. Though she presented a challenge to Church hierarchy and to the Pauline conception of women as the silent, submissive inheritors of Eve’s great sin, Joan was re-reconciled to the very Church that had condemned her, for a variety of theological as well as (I think history makes clear) political reasons. (Re-reconciled because her first formal ecclesiastical examination at Poitiers, to establish the truth of her mission before she was allowed to meet the Dauphin, declared that she was devout, orthodox in religion, a true virgin, and free of deceit). Though she remained passionately loyal to the Church and hated religious dissent, she also embodied the independent spirit that inspired the Protestant revolution, centered on the conviction that God can, and does, speak directly to us in our hearts and through Scripture, no earthly intercessors required.
World War I lithograph poster, 1918. It’s rather a strange one, using the image of Joan to encourage women to help the war effort by attending to their domestic concerns; the US military still banned women from fighting. But Joan was all the rage then: Twain’s thoroughly researched novel, together with other renewed scholarly interest in her over the previous fifty years, made the story of her life much more widely known, and the Church had recently beatified her. She was made a saint two years after this poster was published.
Joan of Arc is a military icon. She loved fighting and spurned any diplomacy beyond plans to move the English out of France as quickly as possible. Though she initially wept at the sight of soldiers wounded and dead as a result of her aggressive tactic of direct assault, she continued to lead every charge in her favored, necessarily casualty-heavy way. Her rhetoric in letters and speech, though embellished with appeals to Christian forbearance and mercy, was violent, filled with threats to chop off heads and put to the sword all who did not obey the will of God as she proclaimed it to be. She inspired deep and enthusiastic devotion in her soldiers, even in her most hard-bitten, most skeptical generals, and quickly achieved a mythic stature among her countrypeople that even General Douglas MacArthur could only envy.
Joan of Arc is a queer icon. She was a cross-dresser who disdained sex with men. Her first simple style of male garb was a practical measure for a soldier who needed to move freely and for a woman often surrounded by men in a culture that regarded single women without escort as fair sexual prey. But over time, as she first encountered the delights of elegant and expensive clothing, showered upon her as gifts of admiration and gratitude, she became quite the clothes horse. She saw no problem with this: medieval sensibilities often conflated holiness with material richness just as the Old Testament did, and God, his favorites, saints, and angels were almost invariably portrayed in the richest of finery. But her enemies mocked her adopted style of wearing silken hose and richly embellished garments in fine fabrics as proof she was as vain, conceited, and driven by lust for personal fame and riches as they had always said. Another reputed French visionary, a young shepherd boy being groomed as Joan’s more convenient, less pugnacious replacement as saintly advisor to the king, blamed her capture on her having fallen prey to vanity and luxury. They claim that she was captured because of her finery, pulled off her horse by the fancy little cape she had grown fond of wearing.
Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain
Joan of Arc is an art and fashion icon. Her exploits, her cross-dressing, her independence of spirit, and her short hair inspired centuries of creative people to capture this wondrously unique individual on canvas, in brass and wood, and in textiles. And songs, poems, stories, films, plays, and countless other forms of creative expression emphasize this, that, or the other facet of her varied and mysterious character. And the Joan-style, French-invented bobbed haircut of the 1920’s, the same decade which saw Joan’s canonization and women’s obtaining the full legal right to vote in the United States and Britain (it took France another twenty years), became a potent symbol, a public declaration that each cropped head recognized that:
Joan of Arc is the feminist icon, par excellence. She bested men in daring and stamina on the battlefield, in intellect time after time in the courtroom, in keeping her own counsel and determining her own destiny despite opposition from family, church, and society, in self-preservation from her would-be prison rapists, and in the courage she displayed on the day of her death. And yet, as she charmingly boasted near the beginning of her final trials, she was confident that she a better seamstress and spinner than just about any other woman! She wore armor, pretty dresses, rough men’s clothes, and over-the-top finery as it suited her. She sang, rode horses, adventured, communed with God and angels, told men and other women what to do, and drove thousands of people to distraction wondering what to make of this extraordinary, inspiring, difficult, inexplicable, and unforgettable person.
It’s my dream and my plan, as soon as resources and time allow, to follow the life and ideas of Joan of Arc in France. Stay tuned, though it might be quite a while, and in the meantime, here are some great sources for learning more about this marvelous woman:
Sources and inspiration:
Castor, Helen. Joan of Arc: A History. New York: HarperCollins, 2015
Julia Ward Howe, poet and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.
She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.
Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. Lincoln was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory, continuing to resonate and inspire today in our Protestantism-derived culture. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death last fall. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ becomes ‘…let us die to make things cheap.’ Cohen redirects her line to critique today’s great sin of destroying our environment likewise out of greed, complacency, indifference to the fate we’re creating for our descendants, and slavish adherence to the ‘way it’s always been done.’
Julia Ward Howe postcard dated August 28th, 1903, from the Hutchinson Family Scrapbook in the collection of the Lynn Historical Society in Massachusetts. I was here in spring 2016 following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. The Hutchinson family dedicated their musical skills to the abolition movement and other reform causes and were friends with many prominent activists of their day. The scrapbook doesn’t note which member of the Hutchinson family Howe wrote this card to.
Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:
From The Three Philosophers, attributed to Giorgione, ca. early 1500’s. It likely portrays a young Italian philosopher, Averroes, and Plato
If you were asked to name the most important philosopher of 10th-century Baghdad, you would presumably not hesitate to say ‘al-Farabi’. He’s one of the few thinkers of the Islamic world known to non-specialists, deservedly so given his ambitious reworking of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics and political philosophy. But if you were yourself a resident of 10th-century Baghdad, you might more likely think of Yahya ibn ‘Adi. He is hardly a household name now, but was mentioned by the historian al-Mas‘udi as the only significant teacher of Aristotelian philosophy in his day. But ibn ‘Adi is not just a good example of how fame wanes across the centuries. He is also a fine illustration of the inter-religious nature of philosophy in the Islamic world.
Ibn ‘Adi was a Christian, as were most of the members of the group of philosophers who wrote commentaries on Aristotle at this time in Baghdad. The Muslim al-Farabi, who was apparently ibn ‘Adi’s teacher, was an exception to the rule. Completing the ecumenical picture, ibn ‘Adi was involved in an exchange of letters with a Jewish scholar named Ibn Abi Sa‘id al-Mawsili, who wrote to him with questions about Aristotle’s philosophy that he was hoping to have cleared up. Admittedly, Baghdad was an exceptional place, the capital of empire and thus a melting pot that drew scholars from all over the Islamic world. But philosophy was an interfaith phenomenon in other times and places too. The best example is surely Islamic Spain, celebrated for its culture of convivencia (‘living together’). Two of the greatest medieval thinkers, the Muslim Averroes and the Jew Maimonides, were rough contemporaries who both hailed from al-Andalus. After Toledo fell into the hands of the Christians, the Jew Avendauth collaborated with the Christian Gundisalvi to translate a work by the Muslim thinker Avicenna from Arabic into Latin.
That last example is a revealing one. Philosophy in these times often involved representatives of different faiths because it often presupposed translation. Hardly any philosophers of the Islamic world could read Greek, not even Averroes, the greatest commentator on Aristotle. He and other Muslim enthusiasts for Hellenic wisdom had to rely on translations, which had mostly been executed by Christians in the 8th to 10th centuries. Knowledge of Greek had been maintained by Christian scholars in Byzantine Syria, which explains why Muslim patrons turned to Christians to render works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen and many other ancient thinkers into Arabic. Thus the very existence of Hellenic-inspired philosophy in the Islamic world was a manifestation of inter-religious cooperation.
All of which is not to say that the Islamic world was free of inter-religious dispute. On the contrary, it seems that one reason those Muslim patrons were interested in Aristotle was that his logic would give them the tools to keep up with Christian opponents in theological debate. A vivid example is provided by al-Kindi, the first Muslim thinker to draw on Hellenic sources. He wrote a short refutation of the Trinity in which he used Greek logic to argue that God must be wholly one, not one and three – mentioning that Christian readers should be able to follow the argument, given their familiarity with logical concepts. A nice twist to the story is that we know of this refutation only thanks to the aforementioned ibn ‘Adi, who quoted al-Kindi in order then to rebut his attack on the Christian dogma.
While men such as al-Kindi were appropriating Greek ideas to defend Islam and attack Christianity, others disapproved of the importation of these same ideas into Muslim culture: al-Kindi responded to unnamed critics who deplored the use of pagan philosophy, and the founder of the Christian Baghdad school got into a public dispute with a Muslim grammarian over the usefulness of Aristotle’s logic. The grammarian mocked the pretensions of the Christian Aristotelians, and delighted in pointing out that all this logic had not prevented them from believing that God can somehow be both one and three.
Still, it remains the case that philosophy and the sciences more generally offered a kind of meeting point or neutral ground for intellectuals of different faiths. Muslims, Christians and Jews who shared an interest in Aristotle’s metaphysics or the medical theories of Galen read each others’ commentaries and elaborations on the Hellenic tradition. This is shown even by the disputes that they had with one another: using Greek logic to debate the Trinity implicitly suggested that this was a topic that could be resolved by appeal to reason. And many of the thinkers mentioned above argued that philosophy offered the best resource for the interpretation of sacred texts, whether the Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Quran. So it is no coincidence that in the Muslim al-Kindi, the Christian ibn ‘Adi, and the Jew Maimonides, the One God of Abrahamic tradition bears a striking resemblance to the god of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Their shared enterprise as elite philosophers meant that they had more in common with one another than they did with most of their co-religionists.
Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast. (Bio credit: Aeon)
In his extensive writings, Frederick Douglass revealed little about his private life. His famous autobiographies present him overcoming unimaginable trials to gain his freedom and establish his identity—all in service to his public role as an abolitionist. But in both the public and domestic spheres, Douglass relied on a complicated array of relationships with women: white and black, slave-mistresses and family, political collaborators and intellectual companions, wives and daughters. The great man needed them throughout a turbulent life that was never so linear and self-made as he often wished to portray it.In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass’s varied relationships with white women—including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing—who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women’s movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally. She also considers Douglass’s relationship with his daughter Rosetta, who symbolized her parents’ middle class prominence but was caught navigating between their public and private worlds. Late in life, Douglass remarried to a white woman, Helen Pitts, who preserved his papers, home, and legacy for history.
By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed “woman’s rights man.”
In this well-researched and richly textured book, Leigh Fought gives us a fascinating new view into the life and times of one our most famous and revered figures: Frederick Douglass. As he freely acknowledged, women helped make Douglass the man he became. So we, too, are in debt to the women whose stories come so vividly alive in these pages.”—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family
Ibram X. Kendi: What are the principle findings or arguments of the book? What do you hope readers take away from reading it?
Leigh Fought: Frederick Douglass would not have become one of the greatest black activists of the nineteenth century without the work of women. This was not the cliché “behind every great man is a woman.” Women played a central role in his intellectual development, his independence as a man and activist, his economic well-being, his challenge to racial stereotypes and prohibitions, and the persistence of his place in history.
When I started this project, I was simply interested in finding more about all of these women who seemed as fascinated by Douglass as I was, except that they actually knew him. I also thought that the project would be synthetic. As it turned out, others had expressed little curiosity about most of the women themselves, with the exception of those women who merited their own biographies. Then, as I began to reconstruct the lives of the women from original research in order to explain their interaction with Douglass, I began to see a feminine space around him, much like the concept of a “negative space” in art. That feminine space, like most feminine spaces, was where the real action took place. If you want to know about a life, that is the place you have to investigate.
In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, readers will meet a host of fascinating, resourceful women, some of whom might otherwise remain footnotes. The women featured in this book had the most dramatic influence on Douglass’s life, but they also had their own agendas and contexts that explain the ebb and flow of their relationships with Douglass, as well as his respect for or sympathy with them. The abuse suffered by slave women and the capitulation of white women to the institution of slavery shaped his childhood, laying the foundation for the man he became. In his adulthood, each woman at some point formed a partnership with Douglass to advance a cause against racism that extended beyond abolition and the end of slavery. His relationships with all of these women exposed the variety of ways that gender and race were employed as tools of oppression. At the same time, he and they mobilized their resistance along those very same lines. While the story of women in Douglass’s world does not preclude other actors or influences in his life, by bringing them into focus their biographies add nuance and deeper understanding to his.
John Stuart Mill on writing to make a living versus writing for posterity, from his Autobiography: ‘…The writings by which one can live are not the writings which themselves live, and are never those in which the writer does his best.’
One of my very favorite ideas in political philosophy is John Stuart Mill’s ‘marketplace of ideas’ (though he didn’t phrase it this way himself): that the free, open, and vigorous exchange of ideas in the public square does more to further human knowledge than anything else. But not only has his comprehensive and to my mind, absolutely correct defense of free speech in his great work On Liberty had animmense and beneficial influence on the history and theory of human rights, he was admirable in myriad other ways as well:
‘Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind… all this along with an intelligent acceptance of the free market as an engine of prosperity and a desire to see its excesses and inequalities curbed…. Mill was an enemy of religious bigotry and superstition, and a friend of toleration and free thought, without overdoing either…’ ~ Adam Gopnik, from his article and book review ‘Right Again‘, 2008
‘The son of James Mill, a friend and follower of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was subjected to a rigorous education at home: he mastered English and the classical languages as a child, studied logic and philosophy extensively, read the law with John Austin, and then embarked on a thirty-five career with the British East India Company at the age of seventeen. (He also suffered through a severe bout of depression before turning twenty-one.) Despite such a rich background, Mill credited the bulk of his intellectual and personal development to his long and intimate association with Harriet Hardy Taylor. They were devoted friends for two decades before the death of her husband made it possible for them to marry in 1852; she died in Avignon six years later. Mill continued to write and to participate in political affairs, serving one term in Parliament (1865-68). The best source of information about Mill’s life is his own Autobiography (1873). Mill
Philosophically, Mill was a radical empiricist who held that all human knowledge, including even mathematics and logic, is derived by generalization from sensory experience. In A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843) he explained in great detail the canons for reasoning inductively to conclusions about the causal connections exhibited in the natural world.
Mill’s moral philosophy was a modified version of the utilitarian theory he had learned from his father and Bentham. In the polemical Utilitarianism (1861) Mill developed a systematic statement of utilitarian ethical theory. He modified and defended the general principle that right actions are those that tend to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, being careful to include a distinction in the quality of the pleasures that constitute happiness. There Mill also attempted a proof of the principle of utility, explained its enforcement, and discussed its relation to a principle of justice. Mill
Mill’s greatest contribution to political theory occurs in On Liberty (1859), where he defended the broadest possible freedom of thought and expression and argued that the state can justify interference with the conduct of individual citizens only when it is clear that doing so will prevent a greater harm to others. Mill also addressed matters of social concern in Principles of Political Economy (1848) and Considerations on Representative Government (1861) and eloquently supported the cause of women’s rights in The Subjection of Women (1869).’
~ from The Philosophy Pages by Garth Kemerling, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License
Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously, and thought deeply about the nature of God and our relationship to him.
Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.
One thing I’ve gotten from my research (which, thus far, is only beginning and therefore not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding, and seems to tell us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, even necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, whether through science or religion. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:
‘At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)
‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)
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Sources and Inspiration
Aminrazavi, Mehdi and Van Brummelen, Glen, ‘Umar Khayyam‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Bertrand Russell lived an extraordinarily long life, in which he did an extraordinary number of extraordinary things.
Encyclopedia Britannica introduces him thusly: ‘Bertrand Russell ….born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales- died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, [was a] British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world…’
For myself, he was particularly influential to my younger freethinking self, disenchanted with the religion of my youth and seeking new and more satisfying ways of viewing the world. I read his History of Western Philosophy and Why I Am Not a Christian each several times over. I admire his clear, precise thinking and his principled anti-war stance which came at a significant cost, including jail time and loss of a prestigious job at the University of Chicago, and it’s always so enjoyable to watch him speak (you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube) in his oh-so-aristocratic accent with a pipe often tucked into the corner of his mouth. He was not a perfect man, but he was never a less-than-fascinating one.
The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.
Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.
Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty….