Happy Birthday, Michel de Montaigne!

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, born on February 28, 1533, was a thinker after my own heart.

Montaigne was a deeply philosophical thinker, though he never developed a complete philosophical system or moral theory. He invented, or at least popularized, a revolutionary way of writing: the essay. In his essays, he wrote about anything and everything he found interesting enough to observe and think deeply about which was …well, just about everything, especially his inner life. His Essays are a rich source of wonderful philosophical and moral insights. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “… under the guise of innocuous anecdotes, Montaigne achieved the humanist revolution in philosophy. He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment’. Judgment, in this sense, involves applying both our cultivated moral sense and our reason, enriched with knowledge, to navigating the complexity and variety of situations we face throughout our lives; it also refers to the expansive, tolerant attitude we should display towards each other and towards the whole of reality.

While Montaigne highly valued education, he also recognized that it can be overemphasized to the detriment of learning from our own experiences. In his day, education often consisted largely, even mostly, of rote memorization of a vast quantity of facts. This learning method can stifle our ability to exercise practical judgment and serve to blunt social skills as well, preventing us from learning from and about each other, which is essential for cultivating moral understanding. We should learn as much about the world and each other as possible, Montaigne thought, through interpersonal interaction as well as through more formal types of education.

Montaigne also thought that sometimes, our big, smart brains can even hinder our quest for wisdom. For example, we can become ashamed, insecure, even hateful of our own bodies when we contrast the refinements of education and the arts to the material, often messy, even disgusting reality of caring for the body and satisfying its needs. This distaste for our bodies is ungenerous and ungrateful, said Montaigne, considering how we rely on our bodies for so much. In fact, even to this Catholic Christian man who believed in the soul, we are our bodies in an essential way. Our bodies are much more than just meat that our souls inhabit, they are intimate partners of souls, and together, they comprise whole human beings. As such, our bodies deserve our compassion, gratitude, love, and respect.

Our big brains can make also make us too proud, unable to recognize wisdom in humble or unexpected places. Those of little or no education, Montaigne maintains, sometimes display more wisdom than the most rigorous scholar. This includes animals, who, especially, are sometimes wiser than we are; for example, they live their whole lives with the natural, unembarrassed, proper attitudes towards their own bodies that allows them to unapologetically enjoy the pleasure of being alive. Montaigne believed that we should learn from them and imitate them in these respects. Those who have the most wisdom to teach us, then, can come from all walks of life, and the wisest person will be receptive to the lessons that can be learned anywhere.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t limit our exposure merely to our own cultures, but should learn about as many other cultures and beliefs as possible. Montaigne, like Confucius, believed that before you can be a philosopher or a moral theorist, you must first be an anthropologist. A wide-ranging education and exposure to the world has two major advantages. First, the information you have to work with will be much more vast, your scope much wider, than if you merely stuck to the received wisdom of your own culture. Secondly, you will cultivate in yourself the very virtues that characterize the wise and moral person: tolerance, benevolence, respect, kindness, generosity, understanding, and so forth. Conversely, narrowness of outlook and xenophobia lead to hatred, violence, and so on, as the horrific stories coming back from the conquest of the New World made him all too aware. Montaigne believed we shouldn’t base our attitudes about right and wrong on habit, which is morally lazy and which a narrow education can easily lead us to do; rather, we should temper our moral attitudes with reason, and our reason, in turn, should be informed by an expansive and ever-expanding body of knowledge.

michel-de-montaigneThis can make Montaigne seem like a moral relativist, but I don’t think that this is so. He was a committed Catholic, which seems to rule that out. Yet he did recognize that some things society traditionally recognized as wrong are in fact both bad and good, sometimes one or sometimes the other depending on the circumstances, sometimes both at the same time. For example, consider drunkenness. It can be bad, such as when it gets you fired or leads you to violence. But, it can also be good, such as promoting sociability or artistic disinhibition. Montaigne recognized that if there are universally true moral maxims, they’re likely to be few. Rather, his approach to philosophy is a skeptical one: he recognized that an attitude of uncertainty and doubt is a fruitful one for gaining wisdom. When you don’t easily accept the first easy answers that come along, when you’re always waiting for more information to come in, when you generally accept that there’s a possibility you are wrong, you are practicing a wise skepticism; otherwise, you cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn.

Ethically, Montaigne espoused some behaviors as universally preferable: those that are inspired by tolerance, joyfulness, sociability, generosity, benevolence, curiosity, a good-humored attitude towards other people and their varied ways of living, and so on; he specifically denounced cruelty and narrowness in thinking and feeling. He described his ethical theory not by outlining a rigorous system, however, but by enacting and describing a moral attitude that inspired moral behavior in others. In sum, he may or may not have been a relativist when it comes to a specific theory or set of maxims, but he was definitely not relativistic in the overarching value he placed on the art of being a good, complete human being, and on promoting the same in others.

Montaigne’s Essays demonstrate that the most well-reasoned advanced moral theory may never be quite as convincing, effective, or influential when spelled out as that which is lived out. Montaigne showed us how we can all be philosophers, how we can live ethically, and how we can discover it all for ourselves.

Philosophers, if they’re doing it right, will be the happiest of all people since philosophy can and should be a joyful enterprise, and we should all be philosophers.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ I wrote this essay in 2012 and edited it substantially for Ordinary Philosophy in 2017

Learn more about this great master of introspection here:

Essays ~ by Michel de Montaigne

Me, Myself, and I: What Made Michel de Montaigne the First Modern Man? ~ by Jane Kramer for The New Yorker

Michel de Montaigne ~ by Marc Foglia for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Montaigne’s life and thought with David Wootton, Terence Cave, and Felicity Green (my Intellectual History advisor!) for the BBC’s In Our Time

Michel de Montaigne ~ from The Book of Life

Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592) ~ by Christopher Edelman for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) ~ by Terence Green for Philosophy Now

Michel de Montaigne: French Writer and Philosopher ~ by Tilde A. Sankovitch for Encyclopædia Britannica

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No ~ by Manuel Bermudez

Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness – Montaigne on Self-Esteem ~ by Alain de Botton

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!

Happy Birthday, Angelina Weld Grimké!

angelina-weld-grimke-image-public-domain

Angelina Weld Grimké

El Beso

Twilight—and you
Quiet—the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
Twilight—and you.   (via Poets.org)

Let us celebrate the memory of the wonderful and far-too-unknown author of this gorgeous poem and so many other wonderful works of art and literature on her birthday!

Alix North of Island of Lesbos writes of Grimké:

Angelina Weld Grimké was born [on February 27th, 1880] in Boston, the only child of Archibald Grimké and Sarah Stanley. Angelina had a mixed racial background; her father was the son of a white man and a black slave, and her mother was from a prominent white family. Her parents named her after her great aunt Angelina Grimké Weld, a famous white abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Angelina received a physical education degree at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902. She worked as a gym teacher until 1907, when she became an English teacher, and she continued to teach until her retirement in 1926. During her teaching career, she wrote poetry, fiction, reviews, and biographical sketches. She became best known for her play entitled “Rachel.” The story centers around an African-American woman (Rachel) who rejects marriage and motherhood. Rachel believes that by refusing to reproduce, she declines to provide the white community with black children who can be tormented with racist atrocities. “Rachel” was the only piece of Angelina’s work to be published as a book; only some of her stories and poems were published, primarily in journals, newspapers, and anthologies.

Only her poetry reveals Angelina’s romantic love toward women. The majority of her poems are love poems to women or poems about grief and loss. Some (particularly those published during her lifetime) deal with racial concerns, but the bulk of her poems are about other women, and were unlikely to be published for this reason. Only about a third of her poetry has been published to date…  (The orginal site at http://www.sappho.com/poetry/a_grimke.html is no longer active, please see below to learn more)

angelina-weld-grimke…and learn more about the luminous Angelina Weld Grimké at:

Angelina Weld Grimké – in Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page

Angelina Weld Grimké – by Judith Zvonkin for The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C.

Angelina Weld Grimké – from Encyclopædia Britannica

Grimke, Angelina Weld (1880-1958) – by Claudia E. Sutherland for Blackpast.org

Grimkè’s Life and Career: The Introduction to The Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké – by Carolivia Herron for Modern American Poetry at the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Further reading: Selected Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: A Resource Guide – Angelina Weld Grimké 

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!

Book Review: The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia, by Claude A. Clegg III

Liberian Senate drawn by Robert K. Griffin, Monrovia, Liberia 1856, public domain via the Library of Congress

The Price of Liberty is not a new publication, but I found this book which I read and reviewed for one of my seminars so interesting I thought I’d share it here with you:

In his 2004 book The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia, Claude A. Clegg III examines the history of African-American migration to Liberia, a colony established for free African-Americans, previously enslaved and otherwise. Clegg chooses the experiences of colonists from North Carolina to West Africa as his case study. His examination reveals the complex issues of African-American liberation from slavery and its wider effects. From the struggles of African-Americans nominally repatriated as they formed a colony in an unfamiliar country in the continent of their ancestors’ birth, to the impact of their colonization on African peoples displaced or made neighbours by these foreigners from American shores, Liberia was at once a place of hope, promise, turmoil, and struggle. While the book focuses on three major waves of emigration throughout the nineteenth century, Clegg’s epilogue rounds out the story with a brief history of Liberia in the twentieth century and up to the time the book was written.

The Price of Liberty’s first chapter lays the groundwork with the backstory of the colonization movement in the eighteenth century, centred on American Quakers’ evolving beliefs about the morality of chattel slavery and their attempts to work around laws that prohibited manumission or at least rendered it prohibitively expensive. The colonization movement, though lambasted by abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass as a racist attempt to rid the United States of those Americans who did so much to build it with so little reward, was also considered by many, both black and white, to be a ready if expensive way to resolve interracial conflict. Clegg then describes three major waves of emigration of North Carolinian freepersons to Liberia. The first wave included two main periods. The first, from 1825 – 1830, saw 652 emigrants to Liberia, Haiti, and other places, mostly to the former (Liberty p 75). Negative reports about the dangers of emigration, especially of high rates of mortality from malaria, led the movement to lull. The second period followed white reprisals and repressions sparked by Nat Turner’s slave uprising. The deadliness of white raids and assaults gave new urgency to the movement, so from 1831 – 1833, an additional 203 North Carolinians settled in Liberia, among many hundreds more from other states (Liberty pp 138, 141). The second wave, from 1850 – 1864, was also sparked by crisis: the 1850’s Fugitive Slave Law and subsequent legal attacks on the rights of black Americans such as the 1857 Dred Scott case. These engendered new dangers not only for escaped slaves and those still in thrall, but also for free black Americans, who could be captured and pressed into slavery with few legal remedies left to alleviate their plight. Again, with reports of Liberian struggles with malaria, poverty, and conflict with neighbouring Africans combined with the end of the Civil War and emancipation, the colonization movement again dwindled and virtually disappeared by the end of the 1850’s. The final and longest wave began in 1865 following the institution of repressive Black Codes, attacks by the Ku Klux Klan, and general lack of opportunities for freed African-Americans to lift themselves out of poverty. 1879 saw the last relatively large number of North Carolinian freeperson emigrants to Liberia (Liberty p 267).

Though freeperson colonists suffered poverty, armed and political conflicts with neighbouring West African peoples and those who shared their communities, and difficulties wresting a living from the rocky soil in communities decimated by malaria and other diseases. Liberia continued on and does so today as Africa’s oldest republic (Holsoe). Though emigrating African-American freepeople hoped to find a country in which their ancestry would no longer render them separate and unequal in their new societies, they found themselves separated from the African people they found on it West Coast by a wide gulf created by cultural and religious differences; in fact, many West Africans considered these immigrants whites who just happened to have black skin (Liberty p 97). Clegg’s study of the origins and history of the Amero-Liberian colonization movement offers a compelling example of the difficulties in forming a stable society built on the ideals of equality, liberty, and democracy while resting upon a foundation of colonization and displacement and, in many instances, of the exploitation of native Africans. It also reveals the promise and problems of the Pan-Africanist movement, of building identity on a broad basis of shared ancestry and struggle rather than the cultural and religious affinities and community ties that more commonly bind humanity together.

Bibliography

Clegg, Claude Andrew. The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Holsoe, Svend E. et al. ‘Liberia.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 February, 2018. Accessed 23 February 23, 2018 at www.britannica.com/place/Liberia

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!

Photobook: Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Doorway to the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Doorway to the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh. The Museum is open about one day a month to visitors who are not medical students. I’m excited to finally discover it today!

Anatomy Lecture Hall, view from near the door, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Anatomy Lecture Hall, view from near the door, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Anatomy Lecture Hall, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Anatomy Lecture Hall, view from above, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Downstairs foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Downstairs foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh. It’s full of interesting skeletons, plaster casts, art, and so on, in a lovely vaulted chamber below the the main museum hall.

View in foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

View in foyer of the Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

A collection of life masks from men and women of the world, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

A collection of life masks from men and women of the world, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

A portrait head of Chief Bokani in the Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

A striking portrait head of Chief Bokani in the Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Detail of an illustration repoduced from De Humani Corporis... by Andreas Vesalius, 1543, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Detail of an illustration repoduced from De Humani Corporis… by Andreas Vesalius, 1543, in the hallway to the main display hall. Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh

Image of Benjamin Rush, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

Image of Benjamin Rush hung in the stairwell to the main display hall, Anatomical Museum collection, Old Medical School. Rush attended the University of Edinburgh from 1766 to 1768.

Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School University of Edinburgh, photo credit Scots Magazine. Photography is not allowed without prior arrangement, since there are human specimens and pieces from private collections that do not have permissions granted for general photography scattered among the collection. Among the many, many fascinating objects here, there is a large phrenology display, a discipline now considered pseudoscience but once a cutting edge field of research. In this display, I gaze upon the faces, through their life / death masks, of: Robert Owen, John James Audubon, composers Ernst von Weber and Liszt, Robert the Bruce (skull cast), Sir Walter Scott, Johnathan Swift, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Samuel Johnson, William Pitt, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Jean-Paul Marat, William Herschel, Voltaire, John Ross, George Combe, George Washington, and many others.

Life mask of George Combe, Anatomical Museum, Old Medical School, University of Edinburgh, 2018 Amy Cools

I was naughty only once, and snuck a picture of the life mask of George Combe. Frederick Douglass was a fan of George Combe and wrote glowingly of their meeting. This episode is particularly poignant because phrenology would come to be used to reveal the supposed inferiority of black, Semitic, and other peoples. Evidently, there was no such association to Douglass in 1846. He would have been confident, I think, that Combe’s research would align with what Douglass knew to be true: the rationality and set of capabilities that all humans share.

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!

Happy Birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois!

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

Let us honor the life and legacy of the great American writer, historian, journalist, professor, activist, philosopher, and race theorist W.E.B. Du Bois, born on February 23, 1868.

The NAACP (of which he was a founder) writes of Du Bois:

‘William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He became a naturalized citizen of Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95.

…In 1891 Du Bois got his master of arts and in 1895 his doctorate in history from Harvard. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published as No. 1 in the Harvard Historical Series. This important work has yet to be surpassed. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer, and they had two children. …[A]t the University of Pennsylvania… he conducted the pioneering sociological study of an urban community, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). These first two works assured Du Bois’s place among America’s leading scholars.

Du Bois’s life and work were an inseparable mixture of scholarship, protest activity, and polemics. All of his efforts were geared toward gaining equal treatment for black people in a world dominated by whites and toward marshaling and presenting evidence to refute the myths of racial inferiority’ …

Read his NAACP bio in full here

Donald J. Morse writes of Du Bois for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘W. E. B. Du Bois was an important American thinker: a poet, philosopher, economic historian, sociologist, and social critic. His work resists easy classification. This article focuses exclusively on Du Bois’ contribution to philosophy; but the reader must keep in mind throughout that Du Bois is more than a philosopher; he is, for many, a great social leader. His extensive efforts all bend toward a common goal, the equality of colored people. His philosophy is significant today because it addresses what many would argue is the real world problem of white domination. So long as racist white privilege exists, and suppresses the dreams and the freedoms of human beings, so long will Du Bois be relevant as a thinker, for he, more than almost any other, employed thought in the service of exposing this privilege, and worked to eliminate it in the service of a greater humanity. Du Bois’ pragmatist philosophy, as well as his other work, underlies and supports this larger social aim. Later in life, Du Bois turned to communism as the means to achieve equality. He envisioned communism as a society that promoted the well being of all its members, not simply a few. Du Bois came to believe that the economic condition of Africans and African-Americans was one of the primary modes of their oppression, and that a more equitable distribution of wealth, as advanced by Marx, was the remedy for the situation ….

Read the full IEP bio here

You will find another good short bio and list of Du Bois’ writings at The Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s website

…and click here for pieces about or featuring Du Bois at Ordinary Philosophy

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!

New Podcast Episode: New Salem, in Search of Abraham Lincoln

Statue of Abraham Lincoln as surveyor at New Salem, Illinois

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

New Salem, Sunday, July 31st, 2017

From the Michael J. Howlett building in downtown Springfield (part of which stands on the site of the Ninian Edwards house where Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were married and where Mary died), I head northwest on highway 97 to New Salem Historic Park. This is the site of New Salem, the small frontier commercial village which played no small role in Lincoln’s life as a young man striking out on his own. It’s a pleasant drive through farmland with homes and farm buildings and gas stations and tiny general stores scattered here and there. In a little under half an hour, I reach a wooded area, and soon after that, take the turnout to my left to New Salem. I stop for a snack at the little cafe offering a modest selection of hot dogs, nachos, sandwiches, and other things that take the edge off but don’t suffice as a meal. The park’s visitor center buildings are all closed because the air conditioning system isn’t working. I don’t blame them at all for not opening up: it feels very much like a summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid, and I imagine a full day indoors would get stuffy and miserable. But the park itself is open to roam, so I do… Read the written version here

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!

Happy Birthday, Nicolaus Copernicus!

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń, ca.1580, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń, ca.1580, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Let us remember and salute the visionary Nicolaus Copernicus on his birthday.

Born on February 19th, 1473, Copernicus gave our modern world the heliocentric theory of the solar system. He credited the ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos with originally describing how Earth and her sister planets orbit around the sun and took it upon himself to make the observations and work out the mathematics to prove it. Copernicus reintroduced the heliocentric theory so convincingly that it overcame the dominant earth-centered model preferred by the powerful Christian Church for theological reasons. His rigorous and clear reason simply could not accept the clumsy, assumption-laden model that Claudius Ptolemy had devised in the second century A.D. to explain why the planets did not behave as expected if the earth-centered model was accurate. Copernicus was a religious man, but he did not believe that his faith required him to believe something that his reason and his own eyes demonstrated was untrue.

de-revolutionibus-manuscript-p9b-by-nicolas-copernicus-www-bj-uj-edu-pl-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commons

De Revolutionibus manuscript, page 9b by Nicolaus Copernicus (www.bj.uj.edu.pl) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

For emphasizing the primacy of observation-driven reason over theology when it comes to describing and explaining the natural world, Copernicus is widely credited with starting the Scientific Revolution.

Here’s a short list of excellent resources to learn more about the great Nicolaus Copernicus:

Nicolaus Copernicus – by Sheila Rabin for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Nicolaus Copernicus – by J.J. O’Connor and E.F. Robertson for the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive, School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St. Andrews, Scotland

Nicolaus Copernicus – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Copernicus – episode 2 of the BBC series The Beauty of Diagrams, hosted by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy

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!