Happy Birthday, Audre Lorde!

Audre Lorde, 1980

Audre Lorde, 1980

Poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde was born on February 18, 1934. In remembrance of this powerful and eloquent woman on her birthday, I’ll share the bio I found at the Poetry Foundation:

‘A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her poetry, and “indeed all of her writing,” according to contributor Joan Martin in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “rings with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling.” Concerned with modern society’s tendency to categorize groups of people, Lorde fought the marginalization of such categories as “lesbian” and “black woman,” thereby empowering her readers to react to the prejudice in their own lives. While the widespread critical acclaim bestowed upon Lorde for dealing with lesbian topics made her a target of those opposed to her radical agenda, she continued, undaunted, to express her individuality, refusing to be silenced. As she told interviewer Charles H. Rowell in Callaloo: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… [White, arch-conservative senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity…or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.” Fighting a battle with cancer that she documented in her highly acclaimed Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde died of the illness in 1992…. Read more about Audre Lorde and her poetry here

and the wonderful articles about Lorde by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

New Podcast Episode: Springfield, Illinois, in Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 5

Downstairs hallway in the Lincoln Home with the Lincolns’ original hatstand – but no, not Abe’s original hat

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

Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 30th, 2017

I sleep in then linger over a continental breakfast-of-sorts in my rented room as I catch up on some rest, writing, and research. When I finally bestir myself in earnest, I head over to D’arcy’s Pint to enjoy a local delicacy for lunch. My brother John lived in Springfield for a time some years ago and told me I must eat a horseshoe while I’m in town. The internet tells me that this gastropub is the best place to enjoy this decadent regional take on the open-face sandwich, so here I am. I order a full-size one with the works, spicy, and a pint to wash it down with. They bring me a small mountain on a plate composed of Texas toast, french fries, ground meats, chopped tomatoes and other veggies, and cheese sauce, the spiciness added at the discretion of the diner from the little cup of (mildly) hot sauce on the side. It’s tasty enough, I can’t deny, and the cheese sauce is very good and appears to be homemade, not at all like the waxy bright yellow kind that comes from a can or jar. But it’s not the tastiest thing I’ve ever eaten: it’s really starchy. Potatoes and bread in one dish? Hmmm. Still, it’s plenty good enough to pack up the other half to eat later. The physically-demanding, hiking-heavy portion of my journey is far enough behind me now that I just can’t digest a heavy meal of this size all at once… 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!

The Right to be Poor, Part 2: O.P. Recommends ‘Freedom and Hostile Design’ by Barry Lam

People in a Public Square (cropped), Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via Pixabay

Last year, O.P. shared an excellent article by Peter Adamson called ‘The Right to Be Poor’, which is about an aspect of the property rights debate that we rarely address: the right to own nothing.

Recently, Barry Lam, associate professor of philosophy at Vassar College and creator of the excellent podcast Hi-Phi Nation, considered another aspect of the human rights and ownership problem: do people who own little or nothing have a right to access public places in the course of taking care of their most basic needs? In the episode ‘Freedom and Hostile Design,’ Lam and his guests ‘look at some of the suckiest things that ever sucked in urban design, and the street artists and compassionate vandals who are trying to fight them. We use these stories to investigate how public spaces are becoming less free and more coercive.’

If you enjoy what you hear, don’t stop there! Hi-Phi Nation is one of the best philosophy and indeed, any podcasts out there.

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, Frederick Douglass!

Frederick and Joseph Douglass, from the Library of Congress archives, via Lion of Anacostia b

Frederick Douglass and his grandson Joseph, concert violinist who inherited his love of music from his grandparents, from the Library of Congress archives

Let us remember and salute the great human rights activist Frederick Douglass on the bicentennial anniversary of his birth.

…well, close to it, anyway. The exact day of Douglass’ birth is unknown. We know the year, 1818, from his entry in the slave ledger of his master Aaron Anthony. His likely birth month, February, is an estimate. In his later years, Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14th because, he said, his mother Harriet once called him ‘my Valentine’.

Douglass is among my favorite people that ever inhabited the earth. He was born into slavery in Maryland, was mostly self-educated, escaped to freedom when he was 20, married the loving and strong Anna Murray, and became one of the most eloquent and influential advocates for civil rights in American, and, indeed, world history. He was an author, orator, preacher, activist, statesman, patriarch, musician, and world traveler. I had the joy of following the life and ideas of this motivated, resourceful, brilliant, complicated, and incredibly fascinating person through the United States, and now I’m continuing my research in Scotland, where he spent a relatively brief but very influential part of his life. Stay tuned for my next traveling of ideas series once again starring Douglass!

Here are a few links to some articles and works of art by, about, and inspired by the great Frederick Douglass, including my own work.

7 Haunts of Frederick Douglass in New York City – by Amy Cools for Untapped Cities

Frederick Douglass ~ by Melvyn Bragg and guests Karen Salt, Nicholas Guyatt, and Celeste-Marie Bernier for In Our Time

Frederick Douglass – by Ronald Sundstrom for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Frederick Douglass at In Our Time ~ by BBC Radio 4 with Melvin Bragg and Guests

Frederick Douglass: In Progress ~ by Leigh Fought

Frederick Douglass Papers ~ at the Library of Congress

Frederick Douglass: United States Official and Diplomat~ by the Editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Frederick Douglass and a Valentine, Emily Dickinson and a Snake – by Rob Velella for  The American Literary Blog

Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia – by John Muller

Frederick’s Song– Douglass’ words arranged and set to music by SayReal and Richard Fink

From Oakland to Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts I Go, in Search of Frederick Douglass – History of ideas travel series by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy

Interview with Ken Morris, Anti-Slavery Activist – by Ken Morris and Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy Podcast

Interview with Leigh Fought on Anna and Frederick Douglass – by Leigh Fought and Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy Podcast

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: Edgar Allan Poe at the University of Virginia

Edgar Allan Poe historical marker at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. I took this photo while on the first of my Thomas Jefferson history of ideas tours in 2015. Poe enrolled here 192 years ago on February 14th, 1826. What a thing, to be so famous that a major university would have a historical plaque erected just because you attended for a term before dropping out ’cause daddy wouldn’t pay the bills. It’s a hard life, Mr. Poe. But we really do love your stories…

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, Abraham Lincoln!

Abraham Lincoln statue near Westminster Abbey, London, on a winter day, photo 2018 by Amy Cools

Let’s remember and salute the great Abraham Lincoln, father of our nation painfully reborn through the Civil War, on his birthday.

Born on February 12th, 1809, this child of a poor Kentucky farm family was largely self-educated yet rose to become our most revered President since George Washington. He was a hard-working man, from farm laborer and rail splitter to flatboat operator on the Mississippi River, then shop owner, militia captain, postmaster, lawyer, politician, then President of the United States. A popular man revered for his storytelling, conversation, intelligence, and general reputation for high integrity, Lincoln won his second campaign for political office and entered the House of Representatives in 1834. He was a successful and innovative lawyer and revered for his speechmaking. His series of debates with Democratic senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 thrust him into the national spotlight, and while he lost the race to replace Douglas in the Congress that year, his reputation continued to grow, and he defeated Douglas in the presidential race two years later. He won the Presidency as head of the newly formed anti-slavery Republican party.

Lincoln plaque on Old Main, Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, photo 2017 by Amy Cools

Lincoln’s antipathy to slavery was heightened by a memory from his flatboat trip to New Orleans, where he witnessed its horrors first hand. Over the years, his political antislavery position fluctuated although the institution of slavery disgusted him personally. For most of his political career, he advocated the moderate policy of stopping slavery’s spread to the new territories, leaving it in place where it already existed in the expectation that economic and cultural changes would naturally lead to its demise. But the intransigence of the slave states and the contingencies of the Civil War, combined with his own moral hatred of slavery, caused him to change his mind. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 freed all slaves in those states in rebellion, and nearly 200,000 freed black men fought for the Union Army, helping to ensure its eventual success.

Even given his childhood poverty and lack of education, I find Lincoln’s success even more remarkable in light of the recurrent and severe depression he suffered throughout his life. While it can be crippling, it can also make sufferers that much more attuned to the suffering of fellow human beings, deepening the understanding of human nature and increasing the capacity for sympathy. Lincoln was one of these, and his suffering refined his sensitivities and strengthened him, helping to make him the great man he became.

Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, Feb 5, 1865, National Portrait Gallery in D.C., 2016 Amy Cools

Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, Feb 5, 1865, National Portrait Gallery in D.C., photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Having led the nation through the trauma and horror of the Civil War, Lincoln was assassinated only a month after his re-inauguration to the Presidency in 1964, shot in the head on April 14th by pro-slavery actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Ford’s Theater.

Here some writings and works of art by, about, featuring, and inspired by Abraham Lincoln, including some of my own work.

Abraham Lincoln: audiobooks of speeches and other writingsat Librivox

Abraham Lincoln: speeches, letters, and other writingsdigitized by the Northern Illinois University Libraries

Abraham Lincoln: President of the United States ~ by Richard N. Current for Encyclopædia Britannica

April the 14th, Part I ~ song by Gillian Welch

Lincoln’s Great Depression ~ by Joshua Wolf Shenk for The Atlantic: Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a “character issue”—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation

To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories ~ by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy

Me with Abraham Lincoln’s sculpture near David Wills house where he stayed in Gettysburg, PA, the night before giving his great Address. I visited Gettysburg during my 2016 journey following Frederick Douglass

Abraham Lincoln also features prominently in my traveling history of ideas series about the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. Here are the pieces in that series which feature Lincoln:

Frederick Douglass Lynn Sites, Part 2: Historical Society & Hutchinson Scrapbook
Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY Sites Day 2
Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites
Frederick Douglass Chambersburg and Gettysburg PA Sites
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address Memorial at Soldier's National Cemetery

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address Memorial at Soldier’s National Cemetery, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Hume's and Abraham Lincoln Scottish soldier monuments,

Hume’s grave and Abraham Lincoln sculpture on a monument to Scottish American soldiers, Calton Hill Cemetery, Edinburgh, Scotland, photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Abraham Lincoln with his son and 2 views of his tomb, from Hutchinson scrapbook at Lynn Museum

Abraham Lincoln with his son and two views of his tomb, from the Hutchinson scrapbook at Lynn Museum, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Statue of Abraham Lincoln outside of San Francisco's City Hall, photo 2017 by Amy Cools

Statue of Abraham Lincoln outside of San Francisco’s City Hall, photo 2017 by Amy Cools

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, Charles Darwin!

A Charles Darwin display at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Let’s remember and salute Charles Darwin, the thinker who came to understand the basic mechanism by which we and all other species on earth come to be.

Born on February 12, 1809, Darwin was the grandson of Enlightenment physician, poet, and botanist Erasmus Darwin, who posited his own theory of evolution, as had many others, who observed its effects but had not successfully formulated a theory to explain how it worked. Given that his father was also a physician, it seemed natural that young Charles would take up the family profession. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh (my university!) from the age of 16 to 18. Darwin would have attended classes in the original building on South Bridge, now called the Old College, beautifully designed by Robert Adam (it didn’t yet have the dome it has now). While he loved the excellent science education he received there, Darwin decided being a physician was not for him.

Old College Building on South Bridge, University of Edinburgh, where Darwin attended classes

His father then sent Darwin to Christ’s College, Cambridge, with the idea that he could be a minister instead. Darwin did well at Christ’s College, but it was his pursuits as a naturalist that really captured his imagination and into which he poured his best efforts. After he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1831, he continued his scientific study of animals and geologic formations. When the opportunity arose to travel to South America on the HMS Beagle later that year, Darwin took it, and spent the next five years gathering specimens and making detailed notes of his observations of the natural world. Among the wealth of valuable scientific information he amassed, Darwin’s observations of the appearance of apparently designed adaptations in living things; fossils of known and unknown animals sometimes found in the most unexpected places (remains of ancient sea life embedded in rocks at high elevation?!?); and the incredible amount of waste and suffering throughout the natural world, from wasps who laid their eggs in living caterpillars so that the growing grubs would devour them slowly from within to the genocide and slavery routinely practiced against the native people there, gave him much to think about.

Finches in a Charles Darwin display case at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland. The adaptations of finch beaks to food sources provided Darwin a perfect example of how natural selection works to produce the appearance of design.

With his experience broadened, his understanding deepened, and his body strengthened by the rigors of his expeditions, Darwin returned to England a wiser, stronger, more serious man. The first publications of his findings, together with his friendships with influential scientists such as the geologist Charles Lyell, made him famous. Darwin had found his profession. He began to pull together the evidence of his own eyes with the work of other naturalists and scientists to formulate a theory that would explain it all. What would explain a world of living things replete with beauty and waste, some joy and contentment but far more suffering, animals marvelously wrought but more often than not hidden from the human eye either by remoteness, incredibly tiny size, or time through extinction? It was the work of Edinburgh’s own self-made geologist James Hutton, popularized and developed by Lyell, which gave Darwin one key to the mystery. Since it had become clear that the earth was indeed ancient, not young as popular interpretations of the Bible would have it, species had plenty of time to adapt and change to their environment as needed, just as the earth itself had plenty of time to form as it is.

Hutton’s Section near the foot of Salisbury Crags, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland. On my twice-weekly hikes, I regularly pass by this rock formation. It sparked James Hutton’s realization that the earth must be ancient indeed to give the rocks time to layer, fold, and bend as they do here.

Another key to the mystery was the mass suffering and death Darwin observed. While he mourned it, it was no doubt a comforting realization that it was not designed into the natural world by a divine mind that he was nonetheless bound to worship. Rather, Darwin realized that the living things that could not survive in the environment they found themselves in left those better equipped to do so to reproduce and pass on their adaptations. This realization, this theory of natural selection, Darwin recognized to be explosive as well. It took him about twenty years of careful thought and self-questioning to publish this theory. He knew, for one, that his theory went against people’s natural squeamishness and desire to think of the earth as a friendly home. More than that, Darwin knew perhaps better than anyone what a profound challenge this theory was to orthodox Christianity. But when another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, independently arrived at the same theory, Darwin was galvanized to publish his findings in 1859. His On the Origin of Species went on to become one of the most influential works in the history of thought.

Another Charles Darwin display at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Darwin’s life is a fascinating one in so many more ways outside of the scope of this piece. To learn more about this husband, father, writer, and restless seeker for truth, I recommend the excellent works I’ve linked to below.

Before that, one more thing: I’ve always hated the term ‘Social Darwinism’ because I think it’s terribly misleading. It refers to the idea that societies can be structured so as to direct evolution in some way, for example, by allowing the weakest or least able, as defined by that society, to die off so that the strongest and most able are the most likely to survive and reproduce. But Darwin did not espouse that idea, nor do scientists now understand him to have implied it. For Darwin, as for those who understand the theory of evolution by natural selection as an explanation of a natural process rather than a policy of action, the reason why human beings have become such a successful species is precisely our capacity for empathy and solidarity. It’s the fact that we care about each other as individuals, that we help each other survive and develop our unique capacities that makes us so adaptable, so creative, so able to get by in such a wide variety of environments. Social Darwinism, then, is contrary to Darwin’s own theories about human evolution. Eugenics, ‘survival of the fittest,’ and other such ideas that later thinkers claimed as part of Darwin’s intellectual legacy are not, in fact, his, or ideas that he would endorse given what he actually wrote. The shameful thing about putting Darwin’s name in the term ‘Social Darwinism’ is that it misleads people into thinking that he came up with it, and therefore to think of him as a cruel and heartless thinker, responsible for ideas which have caused much suffering and death. He was nothing of the sort.

Charles Darwin’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey, London, England. I was naughty and snuck in a quick photo, though photography is not allowed in the city’s places of worship.

Charles Darwin placard at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Learn more about this most influential of scientists and thinkers:

Charles Darwin: British Naturalist ~ by Adrian J. Desmond for Encyclopædia Britannica

Charles Darwin: Evolution and the Story of Our Species ~ iWonder at the BBC

Charles Darwin: various articles ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Darwin Correspondence Project ~ at the University of Cambridge website

Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought ~ by Ernst Mayr for Scientific American, November 24 2009

Darwin Online ~ read Charles Darwin’s books, articles, and other publications online

The Evolution of Charles Darwin ~ by Frank J. Sulloway for Smithsonian Magazine, December 2005

The Origin of the Thesis ~ by Claire Pettitt for The Times Literary Supplement

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!