Happy Birthday, Michel de Montaigne!

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Let us remember and honor the great Michel de Montaigne (Feb 28, 1533 – Sep 23, 1592), a thinker after my own heart, on this anniversary of his birth.

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.

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

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!

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 Angelina Weld Grimké (Feb. 27, 1880 – Jun. 10, 1958), the far-too-little-known author of this gorgeous poem and so many other wonderful works of art and literature on the anniversary of her birth!

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)

…and learn more about the luminous Angelina Weld Grimké at:

Angelina Weld Grimké, American journalist and poet, 1880-1958, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Angelina Weld Grimké, American journalist and poet 1880-1958, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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 

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!

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

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!

Happy Birthday, John Rawls!

John Rawls, image via BBC's Will and Testament blog

John Rawls, image via the BBC

Let’s remember and celebrate John Rawls, Feb 21, 1921 – Nov 24, 2002, the great political and moral theorist who thought of justice as fairness, on his birthday.

Among his greatest contributions is the thought experiment called the original position, behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. It’s a beautifully simple tool for picturing what a just society would look like. Imagine you’re to be placed into society with no idea what you would be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed and at what kind of job or not at all; and so on.

Given that you have no idea what your roles in life will be, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Remember, behind that veil of ignorance, you’ll have to decide what kind of society benefits everyone the most since you could end up being anyone. If you were really in that situation, imagine just how fair and circumspect you’d be. Perhaps, as Rawls imagines, we’d all be far better off if that was really how the world works.

Learn more about the great John Rawls:

John Rawls ~ by Leif Wenar for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Rawls ~ by Henry S. Richardson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Rawls: American Philosopher ~ by Brian Duignan for Encyclopædia Britannica

John Rawls and Modern American Liberalism ~ by Garrett Sheldon for Lectures in History

On John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice ~ Nigel Warburton interviews Jonathan Wolff for Philosophy Bites

Philosopher Angie Hobbs on the Veil of Ignorance ~ Angie Hobbs discussion with Leif Wenar, and David Runciman for BBC Radio 4’s A History of Ideas

and my own work featuring Rawls:

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

Communitarianism, Writ Large

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!

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:

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

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: Polish Astronomer ~ by Robert S. Westman for Encyclopædia Britannica

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!

Happy Birthday, Jeremy Bentham!

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon at University College London, 2003 by Michael Reeve, GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon at University College London, photo 2003 by Michael Reeve

Jeremy Bentham, the great English moral and legal philosopher born on February 15, 1748, was a very strange man. A brilliant one, but strange nonetheless. He was a precocious child and advanced in his studies very early, finding Westminster and Queen’s College at Oxford too easy and therefore rather boring. He was trained as a lawyer but decided not to practice law after hearing William Blackstone’s lectures. Blackstone’s treatise Commentaries on the Laws of England is still considered one of the most authoritative and foundational works on English law, so for a guy to consider them so flawed that he’d want to give up his career seems a bit… well, presumptuous. But he demonstrated his own great intellectual capacities through his lifetime of prolific writing, mostly on legal theory, moral philosophy, and social reform. In the end, he earned the right to a certain degree of arrogance.

Bentham is generally considered the father of utilitarianism, the moral philosophy which judges anything that can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, according to how conducive it is to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ Utilitarianism, then, is a type of consequentialism, which holds that a thing is right or wrong based on its consequent harms or benefits. Bentham did not invent the principles of utilitarianism; he discovered them in the writings of Cesare Beccaria (who authored the ‘greatest happiness’ axiom), David Hume, Claude Helvétius, and Joseph Priestley. But he spent a lifetime synthesizing these principles into a cohesive, fleshed-out moral philosophy founded on utility, whether a law or action increases or decreases pleasure or happiness. This principle can seem too subjective to apply to matters of law or public policy; after all, what makes one happy can make another less so, and how can we determine whether the happiness of one is greater, or more important, than the happiness of another? Bentham, careful and systematic in his approach to this as he was to everything else, devised his ‘Felicific Calculus’ to solve this problem. Bentham believed that pleasure, a natural phenomenon like everything else in the world, was likewise quantifiable. He hoped his method of assigning unitary measurements to pleasure, then determining their relative values through mathematics, was a way to make his moral philosophy practicable, conducive to real social reform.

To many, the idea that pleasure and happiness could be reduced to mathematical formulas seems very strange; some think he may have had Asperger’s syndrome or another cognitive feature that caused Bentham to view emotion with such scientific detachment. But as socially awkward as he and his ideas often were, his utilitarian philosophy led to him to some moral conclusions that we now consider extremely progressive and much more caring than those typical of his times. For example, he was an early proponent of racial equality, women’s rights, and animal rights. As to animal rights, just as for all classes of human beings, considering only the pleasure and pain of some sentient beings and not others when it comes to morals is unscientific and therefore unjustifiably biased. After all, animals, like all human beings, have feelings too, and their feelings are just as important to them as ours are to us. So, a moral system based on feelings must consider all equally important, so that one unit of pig happiness, for example, is just as morally significant as one unit of human happiness. The only correct way to balance them out in matters of morals and public policy is to apply the Felicific Calculus to determine how much pleasure or pain each experience in any given situation.

At the end of his long and productive life, the committed naturalist arranged to have his body publicly dissected, both for scientific inquiry and to provide an example to others; he believed that a perfectly good body should never go to waste and that everyone should donate their body to science. He also arranged to have his head and skeleton preserved, dressed in his clothes and stuffed to look as lifelike as possible, to be displayed in some public place. The preservation of Bentham’s head, with its glass eyes he had purchased some years before, left much to be desired; the expression it ended up with creeped people out. So his Auto-Icon, as he called it, sits today in its glass case at University College, London with a nice lifelike wax head in its place. His real head is safely stored away where students, who had stolen it over the years in a series of pranks, can no longer get to it.

Read more about the brilliant and eccentric Bentham at:

Jeremy Bentham – by James E. Crimmins for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Jeremy Bentham – University College London website

Jeremy Bentham on the Suffering of Non-Human AnimalsUtilitarianism.com

~ 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!!

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 and Enlightenment thinker Frederick Douglass, on this near-anniversary of his birth.

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.

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  ~ Melvin Bragg discusses the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass with Karen Salt, Nicholas Guyatt, and Celeste-Marie Bernier for In Our Time

Frederick Douglass: In Progress ~ by Leigh Fought

Frederick Douglass Papers ~ at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

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

Frederick Douglass in the British Isles ~ History of ideas travel series by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy in Scotland, England, and Ireland, 2018-2019

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!