Happy Birthday, Bertrand Russell!

Betrand Russell in 1938, image public domain  via Wikimedia CommonsBertrand 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 great 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 oh man, he was never a less-than-fascinating one.

Read more about Bertrand Russell:

Bertrand Russell‘. In Encyclopedia Britannica

Irvine, Andrew David, “Bertrand Russell“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Review: Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion, by Susan Jacoby

One of my favorite authors, who wrote the great Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, has written another wonderful book that I believe should be foundational to any freethinker’s library, or any historian’s for that matter.

In Strange Gods, Susan Jacoby considers religious and ideological conversions, from those as famous as Augustines’s and Muhammmed Ali’s to the lesser known Margaret Fell’s and Peter Cartwright’s, in the wider context of the political and social circumstances of their times. From Augustine of Hippo, early father of the Christian church and author of Confessions and The City of God who converted from paganism to Manichaeism to Christianity, to Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion and activist who converted from Christianity to the Nation of Islam, to Sunni Islam, to Sufism, her book ranges mostly through the world dominated by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam after the turn of the first millennium CE. Jacoby explores the roles of the personal forces within and the forces of family, community, and the wider cultural, political, and religious shifts without, which led people to adopt new beliefs and in many cases, to spend the rest of their lives proselytizing for them.

What a great idea for a book! Jacoby’s in-depth study shows us how stories of conversion not only offer invaluable insights into the transformative power of newfound belief on individual persons, but how it can affect the lives of those around them and of those who come after them, for good and for ill. She offers us an in-depth exploration of each conversion from a refreshingly secular viewpoint, free of partisanship and complete with associated circumstances, influences, and social dynamics. Since conversion stories are rarely explored outside of the context of the newly adopted belief system, we don’t often get a clear view of the significance of this experience for the converted as well as for the people around them. To those within a religious tradition, converts, especially those who become prominent spokespersons or martyrs, are offered as proofs of the validity and superiority of that particular faith, yet all belief systems have their own and hold them up in this same manner. To those outside of each given tradition, converts can be dismissed as lost or misled, or even considered hoodwinked, brainwashed, or traitorous. Jacoby’s treatment helps to reveal how much larger a story conversion is than the exclusively religious and personal event it’s so often considered, while retaining a sympathetic understanding of its meaningfulness in individual lives. In these pages, each conversion story is not only a rich psychological study, but a valuable history lesson as well.

One of the conversion stories that stood out for me is one I’ve thought about many times over the years. A cultural Catholic myself, I’ve long been familiar with the story of Augustine’s conversion and with his resulting views on topics such as sex, sin, women, the Jews, and so forth. As I grew older and began to consider things more critically, Augustine seemed to me less a repentant sinner and paragon of virtue and more an off-the-deep-end zealot, who went from being a man with a healthy sex life in a loving relationship with a woman and their child to a self-obsessed, Jesus-freak fastidious hater of all that’s natural. His conversion was deeply meaningful to him, but what about the woman he dumped after their long-term relationship, their child whom he cast from his home, the friends he rejected, and the father he turned against? I try now to take a more balanced and sympathetic view of the man and I find Jacoby’s profile of his spiritual and psychological journey helpful in this regard, though I still believe many of his theological views are harmful and have had a long-term negative influence on the way the Christian world has regarded sex and the nature and role of women. Augustine did what he felt he needed to do and what he came to believe was right, and in light of the circumstances of his life and personality, his thoughts and actions are understandable, even if not always admirable. Jacoby does not idolize him by any means, but respects his intelligence and his right to believe freely, and presents a full picture of his life and circumstances with the right mixture of fairness, sympathy, critique, and refreshing touch of humor. (I’m gratified to find that someone else sees his mother Monica as a real ‘piece of work! I’ve long thought of her as manipulative, passive aggressive, and kind of creepy!)

Jacoby’s exploration of the divergence, convergence, and conflict in matters of belief is a masterful one, and goes beyond the study of conversion as a matter of faith: she also offers a deep study of the personal and social effects of forced conversions, a subject not discussed often enough. The imposition or social pressure to conform to religious and ideological orthodoxy is an ancient and effective tool to impose the will of the ruler on the people, or to impose the will of some people on others. But we kid ourselves if we think it’s just something people did in the bad old days; there are still many parts of the world where conversions are still imposed at the end of a gun or with the threat of the lash, or, at least, with knowledge that it’s the only road to social acceptance, ability to get a job and live free from harassment.

In the end, Jacoby’s book is a testament to how the Enlightenment brought about one of the world’s best inventions: the social and political ideal of freedom of conscience. The more it’s realized in the world, the longer, safer, and happier lives we’ll live, with a greater ability to understand and appreciate the true richness of the variety of human thought.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

In honor of Mary Wollstonecraft’s 257th birthday (she was born on April 27, 1759), here’a piece I wrote about her last fall, following my history of ideas travel series following this great feminist and champion of human rights’ time in Paris. Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy

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…

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Remembering Margaret Fell

Margaret Fell, with George Fox before the judges, from a painting by J. Pettie 1663, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Fell with George Fox before the judges, from a painting by J. Pettie, 1663

Margaret Fell was born on some unknown date in 1614, so let’s take this occasion to remember her on the date of her death, April 23rd, 1702.

Fell’s lived a life as passionate as it was long. She was an unconventional thinker for her time, a zealous and progressive religious activist at times imprisoned for her beliefs, a prolific writer, well-traveled, a mother of eight children and a wife twice.

An early adherent and eloquent promoter of Quakerism, Fell is now considered one of its founders. She converted to Quakerism after hearing a sermon by one of its most charismatic preachers, George Fox, and almost immediately launched into a lifetime of hosting Quaker meetings and speaking out on behalf of her new religion. After her husband died some years later, Fell married Fox, probably more as a co-missionary than as a romantic partner since their work, travels, and imprisonments kept them apart for much of their marriage.

As I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the history of human rights, I’ve long admired the Quakers because, along with Unitarians and Deists, so many have been leaders in the struggle to expand, establish, and promote them. That’s because these faiths emphasize the importance of individual conscience, the primacy of the human mind, God’s rational nature, and the moral equality of all human beings.

Fell believed in the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light which God has caused to shine equally in the hearts of all beings; all we need do is heed it. Therefore, one does not need ministers, priests, or any other authorities or intercessors to achieve salvation. And because God has created everyone for the same purpose and gave everyone that light, everyone is spiritually equal and capable of understanding and proclaiming the Truth. We can see how this doctrine, central to Quakerism, readily aligns with human rights movements centered on a belief human spiritual and intellectual equality. The right of women to speak in church and write religious texts, in her time limited to men, was a cause particularly dear to Fell’s heart. While Fell’s belief in the equality of women was limited to their role as spiritual beings, Quakerism tended to encourage ever-more progressive beliefs in its adherents. Over time, Quakers came to be leaders in the abolitionist and pacifist movements, promoting the right of all to receive equal and universal education and for women’s rights in social and political spheres as well.

In light of her achievements as a female religious pioneer, and the human rights advances facilitated by the Quaker faith she helped found, Fell’s contributions should continue to be remembered and celebrated.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration

Broad, Jacqueline, ‘Margaret Fell‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Jacoby, Susan. Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. New York: Pantheon, 2016 (see chapter on Margaret Fell)

On Martyrdom

Memorial at Ben Gurion High school in Afula for students murdered in a suicide bombing in April 1994, by Almog (cropped), public domain via Wikimedia CommonsThe school shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College on October 1st, 2015 ended with nine dead and many more injured. The shootings may have been religiously motivated: according to some reports, the gunman commanded some of the students to stand up, asked if they were Christian, and when they responded ‘yes’, he shot them down.

Some have praised these murder victims as Christian martyrs dying for their faith. In one sense, it’s a plausible, and in any sense, an understandable interpretation of what happened: the gunman shot them down after they responded ‘Yes’ to his question ‘Are you a Christian?’ Other survivors tell the story a little differently. In any case, the martyr interpretation is tricky: if it did happen as described above, the murder victims wouldn’t have known ahead of time whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was the right answer, as at least one survivor pointed out. Though they may have intended to defy death rather than deny their faith, they could instead have thought that the truthful answer of ‘yes’ would save them from death. Sadly, we can never really know.

I’ve found myself discomfited at the way many have used the horrific murders at Umpqua as a vindication of their own world view, often by portraying it as a tale of heroic martyrdom triumphing over evil. The account of the shooting itself is a very important story to tell: it’s one in a series of so many others in our country and around the world where disturbed young men channel their obsessions and their rage through the barrel of a gun and into the bodies of other people. There are so many similarities between the circumstances and motivations of the shooters that we have no choice, if we’re honest, but to acknowledge there’s a serious problem. We’ve seen too many times that maleness, youth, ideological extremism, mental disturbance, social alienation, and obsession with guns are a deadly mix. But when examples of mass killings and terrorism such as the Umpqua shooting are recast as tales of martyrdom, the motivation they should inspire in us, to do all we can to stop the killing, can for others become lost in the romanticism of idealized self-sacrifice.

Detail of a miniature of the burning of the Grand Master of the Templars and another Templar. From the Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsThat’s because we’re still under the influence of a very old, even primal idea: that death is rendered not only glorious but a worthy goal if it’s for a cause. Nearly all ideologies and belief systems still prize their martyrs, and we see, worryingly, the resurgence of this idea in some parts of the world are leading to ever more deadly results. Martyrdom has long been such a potent symbol of belief and an effective recruitment tool that if there aren’t any genuine ones to hold up for emulation, it’s a sure bet some will be created. The Umpqua tragedy may be an example of this, of recasting the horrific murder of innocent people as a romantic tale of holy self-immolation in defiance of evil personified. The memory of the lives of the innocents who died there, and the heroism of those who risked themselves to protect others from harm, can become lost in the ideological rhetoric.

But what of beautiful, inspiring, authentic examples of martyrdom? How about Father Damien of Hawaii’s Molokai Island, who ministered to the leper colony quarantined there until he died from contracting the disease himself? How about Quảng Đức, who immolated himself in protest of the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists? How about Joan of Arc (who’s long been an subject of my admiration and fascination), who was executed for refusing to betray her own beliefs about her mission to deliver the French from English rule? How about countless soldiers who have thrown themselves on mines and grenades and dashed through enemy fire to save innocent civilians and their comrades in arms? There are so many moving accounts of people who suffer and die because they will not compromise or allow themselves to speak or act otherwise than their sense of self and honor will allow. I, too, am deeply moved by the beauty and strength of their courage.

Joan of Arc statue in Paris, France, photo 2015 by Amy CoolsYet I am simultaneously wary of glorifying these cases of martyrdom for martyrdom’s sake, even when the circumstances of deaths such as these appear most moving, most noble, and most beautiful. That’s because I can’t forget, and I believe none of us can afford to forget, that what makes death or suffering count as martyrdom depends entirely on your frame of reference. My martyr may be your heretic; your martyr may be my traitor who deserved death; my martyr may be the holy warrior who attacked your corrupt and sinful country in the name of all that’s holy and your deadly foe it’s your patriotic duty to destroy. Martyrdom of this sort, understood as the ultimate sacrifice of the death-defying, uncompromising champion of the ultimate good, knows no side and every side. Every side claims their own, and every side who has martyrs to claim (creating them if necessary) treats them as their trump card, the ultimate demonstration of the rightness and superiority of their own beliefs. There’s Father Damien, and there are kamikaze pilots. There’s Quảng Đức, and there are suicide bombers. There’s Joan of Arc, and there are Crusaders, jihadists, those who carried out pogroms, and youth who still flock every day to join the ranks of ISIS and fight to deliver sacred territory from the hated infidels.

But surely there’s a distinction between those whose form of martyrdom imposes death and suffering on others, and those who choose suffering and death for themselves alone?

Kamikaze attack left HMS Formidable burning, 1945, by Royal Navy photographer aboard HMS Victorious (cropped), public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBut here’s the problem: if it’s okay to sacrifice one person, even if that person is one’s own self, then it’s more than just a slippery slope to thinking it’s okay to sacrifice others. As we can see in such cases as kamikaze pilots, crusaders, holy warriors, and suicide bombers, the glorification of martyrdom has always had the unfortunate tendency to inspire willingness to sacrifice others along with ourselves. After all, if it’s good to sacrifice one person for the greater good, isn’t it at least as good or even better to sacrifice more people? But self-inflicted martyrdom which simultaneously kills others is generally not driven by this sort of calculation, of each side just upping the ante. When we consider martyrdom, we must also consider the ideologies and belief systems that inspire or at least allow for it. And nearly all not only involve a belief in an afterlife, they believe this world is merely a proving ground for that afterlife, so death counts for little in comparison to eternity. Furthermore, most ideologies and faiths who glorify martyrdom base their beliefs on sacred books in which holy war and violent destruction of the nonbeliever, the godless, the idolator, and the infidel is celebrated as much or even more than personal martyrdom. In the end, we end up with the same old world full of mutually hostile martyr/holy warrior belief systems that have led to centuries of violent religious and ideological conflict and ethnic cleansing.

Martyrdom of Four Crowned Martyrs by Mario Minniti, San Pietro dal Carmine, at Siracusa, Sicily, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsAnd who’s to say who’s right? Which religion, which ideology has the correct view of martyrdom? Which, if any, can be demonstrated to inspire true martyrdom, to the exclusion of others? Bertrand Russell, philosopher and ardent pacifist, is often quoted as saying ‘I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong’. Many have described this as cynical or revealing a weakness of character, an inability to form convictions. I think a more fair and charitable interpretation is that Russell believed everyone should practice proper epistemic humility. Especially when it comes to such a momentous question as preserving human life, our own and others: we should do so whenever possible, since whatever our other beliefs, we can all readily demonstrate, whatever our other beliefs, that other human beings suffer grief when we die and that we can surely help others when we’re around to do so. It’s far more difficult to demonstrate, for example, that God likes it even better when we die in his name or that we can help those on earth from beyond the grave, as believers in intercessory prayer or spiritualists hold. Better all around, when it comes to our safety as well as our chances of not believing in things that are terribly wrong, when we’re accountable to one another for the larger consequences of our beliefs.

But how if we take religion and ideology out of it, and consider only those cases where the martyr’s entire cause is the well-being of others? Even in these cases, the problem is a simple matter of justice: it’s difficult to see how one can truly believe that all persons have equal rights and dignity and are therefore deserving of care, and still believe it’s okay to sacrifice one’s own well-being when that sacrifice can be avoided. There are times in which it can’t be: the example of heroic soldiers throwing themselves on grenades to save others comes to mind as a paradigm example of justifiable self-sacrifice, since equal concern for all logically allows for sacrificing one’s self to save many. Others are not so clear: Father Damien was clearly motivated by a noble desire to help his fellow human beings as he ministered to the exiled lepers at Molokai. He made it a point to embrace and kiss the lesions of patients to show a Christlike love, but the ideology of martyrdom that also drove him may have robbed him of an even better opportunity, the opportunity to show that love to more of his fellow human beings by keeping himself alive to serve them. If he had taken reasonable precautions to care for his own well-being and avoid contracting the disease, known in his time to be contagious, he likely would have lived much longer to serve the people who loved and counted on him; kissing of lesions and other reckless exposure to contagion is not an unavoidable requirement for showing our deep concern for others. Martyrdom, though it may not be apparent, involves at least to some degree the inequitable valuing of the lives of persons, at the very least our own.

And this leads us to consider whether martyrdom is really the ultimate altruistic, selfless act it’s so often characterized to be. It’s hard to see how there can be such a thing as truly selfless martyrdom in a world in which human lives are so intertwined. Through death, parents are deprived of a child, children of a parent, siblings of a sibling, friends of a friend, citizens of a fellow citizen, the needy of a benefactor, the world of a unique life that has something to offer. It seems to me, then, our lives are not fully our own: they are given to us by others, are largely sustained by the efforts of others, and provide emotional support for others, and vice versa. There is no human being that doesn’t rely on the support and contributions of others to sustain it and make it secure and happy. As in the case of Father Damien, when we choose death over life, we remove ourselves from the human community of inter-reliance we all belong to. I’m speaking here in the worldly sense; according to many religions, we can help others after death by interceding with God or by providing personal supernatural guidance, such as in spiritualist beliefs. But as we’ve already considered, this view of martyrdom as a holy thing is hard to justify consistently, and even worse, it necessarily values supernatural concerns over worldly ones, allowing for the same disdain for life that underlies all forms of martyrdom, from the self-sacrificer to the jihadist. So even when it appears that a martyr is sacrificing nothing but their own life and happiness, this is rarely if ever the case. And if this is so, our right to sacrifice our own life and well-being appears very tenuous in all but those very special circumstances, such as the case of those grenade-blocking soldiers who can’t help others unless they risk themselves.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Human Rights Declaration, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn a world where religiously-, politically-, and ideologically-motivated terrorism and mass shootings are again on the rise, we need to let go of our old cherished ideal of martyrdom as the ultimate holy and noble act. If we want to instill in ourselves and others the value that all lives matter, the glorification of any kind of martyrdom appears as toxic to this as the old belief in the curative powers of bleeding and purging was to health. This seems like a call for rejecting our long-loved heroes, our Joans and Quảngs and Damiens, but I don’t believe it is. We have a robust capacity for understanding that context matters, and just as we can believe George Washington’s doctors did their best to cure him the only (turns out wrong) way they knew how, we can simultaneously revere the courage and conviction of martyrs of the past while believing that in the age of universal human rights and ethics of care, martyrdom is the wrong way to go and should not be glorified, praised, or used as evidence of the superiority of our own beliefs over others.

*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

The Death of George Washington‘, The George Washington Digital Encyclopedia

Father Damien‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Sidner, Sara and Kyung Lah, Steve Almasy and Ralph Ellis. ‘Oregon Shooting: Gunman was Student in Class Where He Killed 9’. CNN (online), October 2, 2015. 

‘The “Werther-effect”: Legend or Reality?’ (abstract). Neuropsychiatr. 2007;21(4):284-90. Source: PubMed.gov http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18082110

Turkewitz, Julie. ‘Oregon Gunman Smiled, Then Fired, Student Says’
The New York Times (0nline), Oct. 9, 2015

Vanderhart, Dirk and Kirk Johnson and Julie Turkewitz. ‘Oregon Shooting at Umpqua College Kills 10, Sheriff Says’, The New York Times (0nline), Oct. 1, 2015.

In Memory of Hypatia of Alexandria

Detail of the death portrait of a wealthy woman, c. 160-170 AD near modern-day Er-Rubayat in the Fayum, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsHypatia’s birthday is somewhere between 350 and 370 AD; a range of dates indicating great uncertainty, to be sure, but clear original sources this old are hard to come by, especially from a city as turbulent and violence-torn as the Alexandria of her day. The day of her death is better known, sometime in March of 415 AD. Since the latter date is more precise, we’ll break with our tradition here and remember Hypatia in the month of her tragic and violent death instead of on the date of her birth.

She’s a mathematician, astronomer, teacher, and philosopher, who writes commentaries on important works in geometry and astronomy with her father Theon, likely contributing original work of her own. Hypatia is a Neoplatonist, a philosophy with mystical overtones which posits that everything derives its being from the One, an ultimately conscious yet nonmaterial, non-spacial entity which is the pure ideal of everything that is. She is a scholar and teacher in a field and in a world that’s male-dominated, and historians from her day to ours emphasize her extraordinary talents and her femininity with a nearly equal mix of awe and bemusement.

So let us remember and honor Hypatia for her great contributions to human knowledge and to the history of women’s liberation, living proof that women are equals in intellect and courage.

And let us also remember her sad death as a cautionary tale against those who inflame popular sentiment to seize power for themselves. Hypatia meets her death at the hands of a Christian mob caught up in the anti-pagan hysteria of the day; Alexandria itself was caught up in a power struggle between civic and religious authority. The mob of extremists who drag Hypatia from her carriage, torture and kill her with roofing tiles, and defile her body are inspired by their partisanship with theocratic bishop Cyril to kill this pagan philosopher, this mathematician and astronomer (then often equated with sorcerer), this woman who dared teach men, this friend of Cyril’s rival Orestes, civic leader of Alexandria. As Hypatia scholar Micheal Deakin quotes: “Cyril was no party to this hideous deed, but it was the work of men whose passions he had originally called out. Had there been no [earlier such episodes], there would doubtless have been no murder of Hypatia.”

From the current presidential primary race, in which a certain millionaire is whipping up populist support* with extremist racial and religious rhetoric, back to Hypatia’s time and beyond, power-hungry opportunists plead innocence from the very violence they inspire. Yet it appears hard to justify that plea when reason and the lessons of history plainly reveal the nearly inevitable results of fomenting sectarian strife. Extremism in the defense of liberty or anything else is a vice** because of the way it drives away reason and sympathy, and after all, nothing is as liberty-destroying as mob violence and death.

Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Read more about Hypatia:

Deakin, Michael.’Hypatia of Alexandria‘ from Ockham’s Razor radio program of Radio National of Australia (transcript), Sun August 3rd 1997. (click ‘Show’ across from ‘Transcript’)

O’Connor, J J and E F Robertson. ‘Hypatia of Alexandria‘, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland website.

‘O’Neill, Tim. ‘“Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again‘. Armarium Magnum blog, Wed May 20, 2009

Zielinski, Sarah. ‘Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar‘. Smithsonianmag.com, Mar 14, 2010.

…and about Neoplatonism

Wildberg, Christian, “Neoplatonism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

* ‘What If Trump Wins?’ by Jeet Heer in New Republic, Nov 24, 2015

** in reference to the quote ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’ from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential nomination acceptance speech 

What Ordinary Philosophy’s All About: Clarifying the Vision

People in a Public Square, Image Creative Commons via PixabayIt’s been an especially busy few weeks for me: studying, researching, writing, planning for my upcoming traveling philosophy journey and for the expanded future of Ordinary Philosophy. This year so far, I’ve had the great good fortune to meet some inspiring new people: passionate, thinking, active, and creative. I’ve also gotten to know others better as well, and am opening new doors and making new contacts every day. Our conversations have been inspiring me to think more clearly and deeply about my vision for Ordinary Philosophy, about my hopes, dreams, and goals, and about the wonderful people who will work with me to accomplish them in the future.

So I’ve just been looking over my introductory statement about Ordinary Philosophy, and thought it needed some clarifying and expanding. Here’s my vision as it stands now, best as I can describe it, and it’s beautiful to me. I hope it is to you too!


Ordinary Philosophy is founded on the belief that philosophy is an eminently useful endeavor as well as a fascinating and beautiful one, and that citizen philosophers and academic philosophers alike share in making it so.

So why the name Ordinary Philosophy?

The ‘Ordinary’ in Ordinary Philosophy means: Philosophy is not only pursued behind the walls of academia.

It’s an ordinary activity, something we can do regularly whatever our education, background, or profession, from our homes, workplaces, studies, public spaces, and universities. It’s applicable to ordinary life, since it’s about solving the problems we all encounter in the quest to pursue a good, happy, and meaningful one.

It’s about seeking answers to the ‘big questions’ we ask ourselves all the time: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ‘What’s a meaningful life, and how can I make mine so?’ ‘What’s the truth of the matter, what does truth mean anyway, and how do I know when I’ve found it?’ ‘What does it mean to have rights?’ ‘How did reality come to be as it is?’, and so on.

It’s also just as much about the ordinary, day-to-day questions: ‘Should I take this job, and will it help fulfill my highest aspirations?’ ‘It is wrong to put my interests first this time, even if it will harm someone else?’ ‘What’s the difference between just talking about other people and malicious gossip?’ ‘Why should I go out of my way to vote?’

And in the end, it’s about living philosophy, about philosophy in the public square, and the stories and histories of philosophy as it is realized, personified, lived out by activists, artists, scholars, educators, communicators, leaders, engaged citizens, and everyone else who loves what’s just, what’s beautiful, and what’s true.

All of this is philosophy.

~ Amy Cools, founder and editor of Ordinary Philosophy

It’s Hard to be Anti-Muslim When You’re Stuck with the Old Testament

Poussin Nicolas - The Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites, copy, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsThere’s a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country and in many other parts of the world these days: if you don’t look too deeply into history, or at how denominations of Islam differ from each other, or what the political situations are the Muslim world right now, it’s not hard to see why. The bare fact is: the majority of ideologically driven terrorists in the world today are Muslim.

As many are quick to point out, that’s not always been the case: Christians have targeted Jews, heretics, and dissenters for centuries, burning books, homes, entire towns, and people at the stake. Christians defended slavery and racism, and the Klu Klux Klan and the White League’s belief in Jesus did nothing to stop them from beating and lynching; in fact, they may have felt themselves holy warriors of their race, avenging angels of sorts.

But wait a minute! comes the protest. Christians don’t do that anymore: they’ve seen the light and mended their ways. They’ve pondered, learned from their mistakes, and have reformed, which is the whole point of religion, isn’t it?

Well, this is true: not many terrorists are Christian anymore, and the few who are left, such as abortion protesters gone off the deep end, are generally not defended by their coreligionists. And yes, reflection and self-correction are laudable features of religion. As is the effort to realize the love of God in the world, for those who worship the God of love.

But Christians have a problem: the legitimacy of Christ as the Messiah, foretold by the prophets according to the New Testament, is derived from the Old. And the God of the Old Testament is not a God of love, but a God of jealousy and vengeance. At least, for everyone who already worshiped other Gods, or liked to keep their genitals intact thank-you-very-much, or people other than the Israelites if they just so happened to already live where God subsequently decided the Israelites should settle instead.

So as you may expect, as it has always been when adherents of a new religion convinced of their own uniqueness and infallibility sweep in and take over, slash-burn-rape-kill was the order of the day. The Old Testament, other than a few lovely poetic and wisdom-y books and chapters (Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes) is really chock-full of the most God-awful violence and cruelty you can imagine, inspired, condoned, and expressly ordered by the same God Christians worship today.

While his son Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, and his teachings are relatively peaceful (though not entirely), the legacy he inherited of the Father was made plain in the centuries of religious wars and persecutions carried out in his name. But slowly, slowly, sloooooowwwwly, Christianity was reformed, and rejected many of its nastier and more violent aspects, keeping the friendly parts and interpreting away the rest. Or, I think rather, it was forced to do so by the Enlightenment and other humanistic movements in order to stay relevant. Today’s Christians do generally behave very well, and are charitable, peaceful, and tolerant for the most part.

Only thing is, there’s that pesky Old Testament, that Tarantino-like gorefest without the redeeming quality of being tongue-in-cheek. And the Old Testament is so very full of all that awful stuff that’s nearly identical, if not worse, than the most violent stuff found in the Q’uran that inspires and ‘justifies’ Islamist terrorism.

So now that Christianity has undergone that reformation crucial for a future of peaceful enlightenment, what of that Old Testament? Can any of us, of any belief, believe in a future where even those committed to peace can’t let go of the violent relics of the past because they’re foundational myths? Perhaps, perhaps not; we can’t even give up the gun-nut interpretation of the Second Amendment. But until the Christians can give up their violent scriptures, they can’t be taken totally seriously when they demand Muslims give up theirs. And their kids, like me with my Christian upbringing, will continue to think the adults are crazy for telling us to be good while believing in the Old Testament, though sadly some of them will get all too used to those bloody ideas, and learn to believe in them too.

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!


Frederick Douglass on Faith and Doubt

Frederick Douglass c. 1855, image Public Domain

In his lifetime and to this day, Frederick Douglass is a hero to the religious and non-religious,to believers and skeptics alike, each claiming him as a champion and exemplar of their values. Why the discrepancy? In his speeches, letters, and published work, Douglass reveals himself as both believer and doubter, a man of deep Christian faith who experiences a great deal of religious skepticism throughout his life.

Douglass is a self-professed believer in God and a Christian, yet he’s a vocal critic of most Christian denominations of his day, especially those of the United States. As a young man, Douglass struggles with religious doubts as he observes, time after time, that the most pious slaveowners are the most cruel. His master Thomas Auld, Edward Covey the slave-breaker, Reverend Daniel Weedon and the neighboring Hamiltons in Baltimore, among others, routinely and mercilessly whipped and abused their slaves, often to the point of great injury and near death, all justifying their behavior through Bible passages. In his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass writes: ‘…The religion of the south…is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes…. Were I again to be reduced to the condition of a slave, next to that calamity, I should regard …being the slave of a religious slaveholder, the greatest that could befall me’ (159). In fact, he discovers to his surprise that the most decent master he ever had, William Freeman, was the only one without religion.

In his early days as an abolitionist activist and speaker, his accounts of his youthful doubts occasioned by his bad experiences with religious people cause many to accuse him of irreligion. But over time, he makes it clear that’s not religion itself he hates, it’s what he considers ‘false religion’. And no religion is as false as that which endorses slavery, which, first and foremost in Douglass’s time, was the Christian denominations of the American south.

But Douglass’s condemnation of American Christianity only begins with the southern churches; it by no means ends there. He calls on his fellow black people to leave any church, shaking the dust off their feet as they go, if their pastors or fellow parishioners subject them to indignity or unequal treatment. If anyone is segregated into balconies or back rows, or required to wait to receive communion after other colors or classes of parishioners, or their pastors preach against resistance to slavery, or the church in any other way indicates that black people are not deserving of the exact same respect, in degree and kind, as fellow children of God, then their church is revealed as just another peddler of false, corrupted religion. And all of these betrayals of the true Christianity, as Douglass perceives it, were as nearly pervasive in the northern churches as in the south.

Douglass believes that these practices, disrespectful of certain of God’s children, are not only unjust; they’re blasphemous because they’re direct attacks on the goodness and true nature of God. That’s because Douglass perceives the true God as not only ‘the God of Israel, Isaac, and Jacob’, but more broadly, the God of the oppressed. He sees this theme, this common thread, linking the plundered and oppressed desert tribes of Biblical Canaan (not mentioning that they did some plundering of their own) to those in his day who are suffering, reviled, and denied their natural rights: black people, women, the Irish, the abolitionists. Time and time again, Douglass relies on his interpretation of God as the God of the oppressed to show how the fugitive, the disenfranchised, the famine-starved left to die by their own governments, the righteous, reviled, and steadfast opposer of slavery and defender of the downtrodden, are actually those closest to him, are those who understand and share in his true nature.

But Douglass’s faith also appears at least as naturally derived as it is scripturally revealed. That’s because Douglass uses nature as a litmus test to reveal the truth and integrity of religion. Since by nature all people need and take joy in food and drink, physical and spiritual comfort, love, and beauty whatever their color, sex, or place of origin, and all people suffer alike from cold, hunger, thirst, cruelty, and neglect, and all people are just as capable of improvement through education and moral edification, then all people share the same nature, possess the same dignity, and have the same rights. Scripture may appear to allow for bigotry, unequal treatment, and bad behavior and even require it, but nature is observable and incontestable. So, if an interpretation of scripture seems to allow or require one to treat any of their fellow human beings as less than equally beloved, equally valuable children of the one God, that interpretation is certainly wrong since it violates the natural God-authored order of things.

In the end, Douglass relies on Jesus himself to tell us how to recognize true faith in true religion: ‘Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them’ (Matthew 7:20). It’s not whether or not one professes belief in a religion, or can quote passages of scripture or the work of theologians, that reveals the worth and nature of faith. Douglass believes that true religion (which for Douglass, is true Christianity), always reveals itself by how well its adherents defend and promote justice and the equal dignity of all human persons. Conversely, if a religion commands or even permits injustice, it must be false. Where you find kindness and justice, there you find faith, and nowhere else.

It’s not the outward form or classification which indicates the true tree of religion to Douglass, it’s the sweetness and wholesomeness revealed in the fruit of true faith.

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*Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition. Eds Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, and John McKivigan. Hew Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction.. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Welcome to the new Ordinary Philosophy!

Ordinary Philosophy, Writing a letter *oil on panel *39 x 29.5 cm *signed b.c.: GTB *ca. 1655, assemblage by Amy Cools 2015Greetings to all,

On this New Year’s Day, which also happens to be my birthday and therefore, personally, doubly a day of new beginnings, I’m looking forward to a more expansive, more energetic future for Ordinary Philosophy!

What is Ordinary Philosophy?

It’s a series of explorations founded on the belief that philosophy is an eminently useful endeavor as well as a fascinating and beautiful one, and that citizen philosophers and academic philosophers alike share in making it so. A citizen philosopher myself, I found that my experiences as an avid reader, an artist, a working person, an entrepreneur, a student, and a writer filled my mind constantly with questions and new ideas, spurring me ever on in the search for answers. As I’ve always been a restless and hungry thinker, I fell in love with philosophy, especially, practical philosophy and the history of ideas.

What is Ordinary Philosophy’s mission?

It’s always been to share this love of philosophy and the history of ideas with you. In my explorations, I’ve encountered the most fascinating, innovative, and beautiful ideas from the curious, thoughtful, questing, and inventive world out there, from academic philosophy to science to history to current events to politics to the arts and so, so much more; so much more, in fact, that I can’t possibly process it all on my own.

So here at O.P.’s new home, I’ve broadened the mission.

While there have been occasional guest posts, there will be much more of an emphasis on providing a forum for many more voices at O.P., representing views from all walks of life. O.P. will also publish many more reviews, recommendations, and links directing readers to the great ideas proliferating out there that may be of special interest to O.P.’s audience.

The Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series will also expand. Each series will become more in-depth, with more detailed explorations of the life and ideas of each subject and more resources for further exploration and study. The podcast will expand in tandem: new audio recordings of longer pieces published in O.P. for those of you on the go who enjoy the ideas found here but don’t always have the time to sit down and read. As time goes by, I plan to expand the podcast as well to include interviews and a series of downloadable travel guides to accompany the History of Ideas series.

To better accomplish this expanded mission, I’ve moved O.P. here to its new platform: easier to read, use, and share. So if you love great ideas and the pieces you encounter here, please support O.P.’s expanded mission by sharing as widely as you can.

Lastly, dear readers, I appeal to you: Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love, and depends entirely on your support. I’m determined to keep O.P. ad-free, but can’t do it without you. All financial contributions will be credited by name (unless anonymity is expressly preferred, of course!) on each project funded by their donations, and welcomed with deepest gratitude. Please support Ordinary Philosophy today!


Amy Cools, founder and editor of Ordinary Philosophy

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes