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Hypatia’s birthday is somewhere between 350 and 370 AD; a range of dates indicating great uncertainty, to be sure, but original sources that 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 birthday remembrance tradition here and celebrate the memory of Hypatia in the month of her tragic and violent death instead of on the date of her birth.
She was a mathematician, astronomer, teacher, and philosopher who wrote commentaries on important works in geometry and astronomy with her father Theon, likely contributing original work of her own. Hypatia was 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 was a scholar and teacher in a field and in a male-dominated world, 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 met her death at the hands of a mob caught up in the anti-pagan hysteria of the day, an at least partly political religious hysteria shared by Christians, Jews, and pagans alike; Alexandria itself was caught up in a power struggle between political and religious factions. The mob of extremists who dragged Hypatia from her carriage, stripped and then tortured and killed her by tearing off her skin with broken roof tiles, and then defiled her body were inspired by their partisanship with theocratic bishop Cyril to kill this pagan philosopher also admired by many Christians, 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. According to Hypatia scholar Micheal Deakin, “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.”*
Learn more about the great Hypatia of Alexandria:
Hypatia: Mathematician and Astronomer – by Michael Deakin for Encyclopædia Britannica
‘Hypatia of Alexandria‘ – by Michael Deakin for Ockham’s Razor radio program of Radio National of Australia (transcript), Sun August 3rd 1997. (click ‘Show’ across from ‘Transcript’)
‘Hypatia of Alexandria‘ – by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider for The History Chicks podcast
‘Hypatia of Alexandria‘ – by J J O’Connor and E F Robertson for the School of Mathematics and Statistics of thr University of St Andrews in Scotland website.
“Agora” and Hypatia – Hollywood Strikes Again – by Tim O’Neill for Armarium Magnum blog, Wed May 20, 2009
Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar – Zielinski, Sarah. ‘Smithsonianmag.com, Mar 14, 2010.
…and about Neoplatonism
Wildberg, Christian, “Neoplatonism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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* Versions of this piece were originally published here at Ordinary Philosophy one and two years ago. As you can see from past comments, some took issue with my characterization of Hypatia’s murder as, at least in part, inspired by anti-pagan and anti-science religious extremism which in turn, could make her appear as an ideological martyr. One of the most impassioned critics of this piece accused me of perpetuating a partisan and ideologically-motivated distortion created by the anti-clerical John Toland in 1753. This critic insisted that Hypatia’s death was entirely the result of politics, not religion, and therefore any retelling of her death that even hints at religious persecution is likewise just more myth-making. I respond, in brief, that one: the circumstances surrounding her death are still the subject of much scholarly debate given the paucity of contemporary sources and two: that it seems ahistorical to separate out the political from the religious. In Hypatia’s time and indeed, throughout much of history, the religious and political were intertwined and thus, impossible to consider as fully separate issues. I do agree, however, that modern accounts of Hypatia’s murder tend to emphasize the religious and anti-science persecution elements without enough consideration of the political aspects, which is why I include a variety of resources and articles for the reader to consider. I’ve also edited it lightly for clarity, and removed a section in which I drew a parallel between the circumstances which led to Hypatia’s violent death and a timely political news story.
Despite reflecting on the good life for more than 2,500 years, philosophers have not had much to say about middle age. For me, approaching 40 was a time of stereotypical crisis. Having jumped the hurdles of the academic career track, I knew I was lucky to be a tenured professor of philosophy. Yet stepping back from the busyness of life, the rush of things to do, I found myself wondering, what now? I felt a sense of repetition and futility, of projects completed just to be replaced by more. I would finish this article, teach this class, and then I would do it all again. It was not that everything seemed worthless. Even at my lowest ebb, I didn’t feel there was no point in what I was doing. Yet somehow the succession of activities, each one rational in itself, fell short.
I am not alone. Perhaps you have felt, too, an emptiness in the pursuit of worthy goals. This is one form of midlife crisis, at once familiar and philosophically puzzling. The paradox is that success can seem like failure. Like any paradox, it calls for philosophical treatment. What is the emptiness of the midlife crisis if not the unqualified emptiness in which one sees no value in anything? What was wrong with my life?
In search of an answer, I turned to the 19th-century pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is notorious for preaching the futility of desire. That getting what you want could fail to make you happy would not have surprised him at all. On the other hand, not having it is just as bad. For Schopenhauer, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you get what you want, your pursuit is over. You are aimless, flooded with a ‘fearful emptiness and boredom’, as he put it in The World as Will and Representation (1818). Life needs direction: desires, projects, goals that are so far unachieved. And yet this, too, is fatal. Because wanting what you do not have is suffering. In staving off the void by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery. Life ‘swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents’.
Schopenhauer’s picture of human life might seem unduly bleak. Often enough, midlife brings with it failure or success in cherished projects: you have the job you worked for many years to get, the partner you hoped to meet, the family you meant to start – or else you don’t. Either way, you look for new directions. But the answer to achieving your goals, or giving them up, feels obvious: you simply make new ones. Nor is the pursuit of what you want pure agony. Revamping your ambitions can be fun.
Still, I think there is something right in Schopenhauer’s dismal conception of our relationship with our ends, and that it can illuminate the darkness of midlife. Taking up new projects, after all, simply obscures the problem. When you aim at a future goal, satisfaction is deferred: success has yet to come. But the moment you succeed, your achievement is in the past. Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life. No doubt you can formulate other plans. The problem is not that you will run out of projects (the aimless state of Schopenhauer’s boredom), it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye.
Hence one common figure of the midlife crisis: the striving high-achiever, obsessed with getting things done, who is haunted by the hollowness of everyday life. When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed. In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.
The question is what to do about this. For Schopenhauer, there is no way out: what I am calling a midlife crisis is simply the human condition. But Schopenhauer was wrong. In order to see his mistake, we need to draw distinctions among the activities we value: between ones that aim at completion, and ones that don’t.
Adapting terminology from linguistics, we can say that ‘telic’ activities – from ‘telos’, the Greek work for purpose – are ones that aim at terminal states of completion and exhaustion. You teach a class, get married, start a family, earn a raise. Not all activities are like this, however. Others are ‘atelic’: there is no point of termination at which they aim, or final state in which they have been achieved and there is no more to do. Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.
If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfilment is always in the future or the past.
We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process. It is no accident that the young and the old are generally more satisfied with life than those in middle age. Young adults have not embarked on life-defining projects; the aged have such accomplishments behind them. That makes it more natural for them to live in the present: to find value in atelic activities that are not exhausted by engagement or deferred to the future, but realised here and now. It is hard to resist the tyranny of projects in midlife, to find a balance between the telic and atelic. But if we hope to overcome the midlife crisis, to escape the gloom of emptiness and self-defeat, that is what we have to do.
~ Kieran Setiya is a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest book is Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017). He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Bio credit: Aeon)
The topic of character is one of the oldest in both Western and Eastern thought, and has enjoyed a renaissance in philosophy since at least the 1970s with the revival of virtue ethics. Yet, even today, character remains largely a mystery. We know very little about what most peoples’ character looks like. Important virtues are surprisingly neglected. There are almost no strategies advanced by philosophers today for improving character. We have a long way to go.
We do know, though, that matters of character are vitally important. Consider the news these days, dominated by people like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. Or consider the behavior of our heroes, like Lincoln and King, or our villains, like Hitler and Stalin. Or consider the latest scandals in the entertainment world, professional sports, or politics. So much of what has happened can be traced back to the character of the people involved. And to take it one step further, thanks to the latest psychological research, character traits have been linked to all kinds of things that we care about in life: optimism, academic achievement, mood, health, meaning, life satisfaction…the list goes on and on.
To say that philosophers—who have been studying character extensively for thousands of years—are mostly in the dark about the topic, surely sounds like I am exaggerating, right? Maybe that’s true, but let me offer two concrete illustrations.
1. Neglected Virtues. The moral virtues are good character traits like justice, temperance, and fortitude. Here are two questions (among many others) you can ask about these virtues. First, conceptually, what do they involve? How, for instance, would you characterize a temperate person? Or a heroic one? Secondly, on empirical grounds, do people actually have the virtues (and if so, how many people and which virtues)? For instance, are there actually any temperate people today?
To help with the empirical question, there has been a recent flurry of interest among philosophers in consulting studies in psychology, and thinking about whether the behavior displayed in those studies is virtuous or not. For a virtue like compassion, real progress has been made in reading the relevant studies carefully, with the conclusion being that most people are not in fact compassionate. Unfortunately, philosophers don’t have much of an idea about what is going on empirically with most of the other virtues (and I’m not sure anyone else does either, for that matter). Part of the reason why is that for some moral virtues there just isn’t the wealth of existing studies to analyze, in the way that there is for compassion. Stealing is a good example—as you might imagine, it is hard to do helpful experimental studies of theft.
But part of the reason is also that some virtues have simply not been on our philosophical radar screens. The attention of philosophers has been elsewhere.
Take the virtue of honesty, for instance. If any virtue is on most people’s top five list, it is that one. Yet it has had no traction at all in the philosophy literature. In fact, there has not been a single paper in a mainstream philosophy journal on the moral virtue of honesty in over fifty years.
Or take the virtue of generosity—just three papers in the past forty years (by way of comparison, there are over two dozen papers on the virtue of modesty—who would have expected that to happen!).
So the upshot is that compassion is likely to be a rare virtue. But at this point it is not at all clear how we are doing with the rest of them. Indeed, in some cases we are not even clear what the virtues look like in the first place.
2. Virtue Development. The natural suspicion, of course, is that across the board we are not doing very well when it comes to being people of good moral character. History, current events, the local news, and social media all seem to confirm this. Hence it seems apparent that there is a sizable character gap:
There are moral exemplars, people like Abraham Lincoln and Sojourner Truth, whose character is morally virtuous in many respects.
Examining their lives ends up reflecting badly on most of us, myself included, since it illustrates in vivid terms just how much of a character gap there really is.
To try to at least reduce this gap, it would be helpful to have some strategies which can, if followed properly, help us to make slow and gradual progress in the right direction. Naturally philosophers needn’t be the only ones who can come up with these strategies, but it would be nice if we had something to say that is practically relevant, empirically informed, and actually efficacious if carried out properly.
By and large, we haven’t had much to say. But there are signs that this is beginning to change, thanks to the work of Nancy Snow, Julia Annas, Jonathan Webber, and a few others. In fact, the development of character improvement strategies strikes me as one of the most promising areas of philosophy in the coming decade. Many good and innovative dissertations are there for interested graduate students to tackle.
My hope is that this groundswell of interest in how to cultivate the virtues will continue to expand in the coming years. These are indeed early days in the philosophical study of character. And exciting days too, full of so many worthwhile possibilities to explore.
~ Christian B. Miller is the A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and author or editor of eight books including The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (Bio credit: OUPBlog)
Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work. Then slowly, almost imperceptibly, anything else – the games once played, the songs hitherto sung, the loves fulfilled, the festivals celebrated – would come to resemble, and ultimately become, work. And then there would come a time, itself largely unobserved, when the many worlds that had once existed before work took over the world would vanish completely from the cultural record, having fallen into oblivion.
And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act? Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep. Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content-providers, knowledge-brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth.
In this world, eating, excreting, resting, having sex, exercising, meditating and commuting – closely monitored and ever-optimised – would all be conducive to good health, which would, in turn, be put in the service of being more and more productive. No one would drink too much, some would microdose on psychedelics to enhance their work performance, and everyone would live indefinitely long. Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice. In all corners of the world, therefore, people would act in order to complete total work’s deepest longing: to see itself fully manifest.
This world, it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.
‘Total work’, a term coined by the German philosopher Josef Pieper just after the Second World War in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers and nothing else. By this means, work will ultimately become total, I argue, when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.
We are on the verge of total work’s realisation. Each day I speak with people for whom work has come to control their lives, making their world into a task, their thoughts an unspoken burden.
For unlike someone devoted to the life of contemplation, a total worker takes herself to be primordially an agent standing before the world, which is construed as an endless set of tasks extending into the indeterminate future. Following this taskification of the world, she sees time as a scarce resource to be used prudently, is always concerned with what is to be done, and is often anxious both about whether this is the right thing to do now and about there always being more to do. Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity: a figure, whose main affliction is a deep existential restlessness fixated on producing the useful.
What is so disturbing about total work is not just that it causes needless human suffering but also that it eradicates the forms of playful contemplation concerned with our asking, pondering and answering the most basic questions of existence. To see how it causes needless human suffering, consider the illuminating phenomenology of total work as it shows up in the daily awareness of two imaginary conversation partners. There is, to begin with, constant tension, an overarching sense of pressure associated with the thought that there’s something that needs to be done, always something I’m supposed to be doing right now. As the second conversation partner puts it, there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time? Time, an enemy, a scarcity, reveals the agent’s limited powers of action, the pain of harrying, unanswerable opportunity costs.
Together, thoughts of the not yet but supposed to be done, the should have been done already, the could be something more productive I should be doing, and the ever-awaiting next thing to do conspire as enemies to harass the agent who is, by default, always behind in the incomplete now. Secondly, one feels guilt whenever he is not as productive as possible. Guilt, in this case, is an expression of a failure to keep up or keep on top of things, with tasks overflowing because of presumed neglect or relative idleness. Finally, the constant, haranguing impulse to get things done implies that it’s empirically impossible, from within this mode of being, to experience things completely. ‘My being,’ the first man concludes, ‘is an onus,’ which is to say an endless cycle of unsatisfactoriness.
The burden character of total work, then, is defined by ceaseless, restless, agitated activity, anxiety about the future, a sense of life being overwhelming, nagging thoughts about missed opportunities, and guilt connected to the possibility of laziness. Hence, the taskification of the world is correlated with the burden character of total work. In short, total work necessarily causes dukkha, a Buddhist term referring to the unsatisfactory nature of a life filled with suffering.
In addition to causing dukkha, total work bars access to higher levels of reality. For what is lost in the world of total work is art’s revelation of the beautiful, religion’s glimpse of eternity, love’s unalloyed joy, and philosophy’s sense of wonderment. All of these require silence, stillness, a wholehearted willingness to simply apprehend. If meaning, understood as the ludic interaction of finitude and infinity, is precisely what transcends, here and now, the ken of our preoccupations and mundane tasks, enabling us to have a direct experience with what is greater than ourselves, then what is lost in a world of total work is the very possibility of our experiencing meaning. What is lost is seeking why we’re here.
~ Andrew Taggart is a practical philosopher and entrepreneur. He is a faculty member at the Banff Centre in Canada, where he trains creative leaders, and at Kaospilot in Denmark, where he trains social entrepreneurs. His latest book is The Good Life and Sustaining Life (2014). He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Bio credit: Aeon)
Chirnside, Scottish Borders, Friday, December 29th, 2017
I arise early this morning and take a 40-minute train ride east from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station to Berwick-upon-Tweed at the mouth of the River Tweed, in the northeast corner of England. From there, I take the 60 bus east to Chirnside, a twenty-minute ride to a small village of just under 1,500 people. As I leave Berwick-upon-Tweed, a few flurries of snow are gently sprinkling down; when I exit the bus at Chirnside, the snowflakes are larger and fall much more frequently. The bus drops me right across the street from my first destination of the day: the Chirnside Community Center.
Located at the southeast corner of Main and Crosshill, a buttress of the community center sports a plaque for its most famous and accomplished former inhabitant: the great empiricist philosopher and historian David Hume. It was placed here to celebrate the tricentennial of his birth, May 7th, 1711. While Hume was not born here at Chirnside (he was born in Edinburgh), his family returned to Ninewells, the Home family home a little ways southwest of the village, when David was very small. (The family name was spelled H-o-m-e at the time but pronounced ‘Hume’; David changed the spelling so that those outside of Scotland would know how to pronounce his name.) Little David grew up here until he returned to Edinburgh at age eleven to study at the University. Ninewells, on the north bank of the Whiteadder River, later became his summer residence. It was David Hume who first inspired me to visit Edinburgh, upon which I fell in love with that incomparable city. So when I discovered that the University of Edinburgh, Hume’s alma mater, had a master’s program in intellectual history, I applied and they accepted. Now, I live here in beautiful Scotland!
I’ve been planning to take this trip to Chirnside since my 2014 trip to Edinburgh, but I didn’t make it out here then. I’m so excited to be here today, and the snowfall is heightening my sense of adventure. After all, I grew up and lived in California nearly all of my life, and falling snow was not something you see much of there unless you live in the mountains or way up north, neither of which was true for me. So falling snow still never fails to give me a little thrill, a feeling of being in a new and unexpected, even magical place. As I head south on Crosshill, the snowfall is rapidly growing thicker, now falling in big, fluffy flakes. As I continue down the hill, Crosshill becomes Kirkgate where the road veers to the right where it meets the path that leads to the bright white primary school, at the bottom of the slope a little off to the left. The name of the road, Kirkgate, indicates my next destination but one.
On my way to the old kirk (Scots for ‘church’), I keep watch for the structure I’m looking for, which I should find somewhere near here on my left. I spot a sign on the corner of a house: ‘Dovecote Cottage’. Ah hah! A dovecote is just the thing I’m looking for! Though the gate to the property is open, I’m loathe to enter the garden without a by-your-leave. So I walk slowly past, looking for someone I can talk to or perhaps a public path that will give me a good look into the garden. I find the gate open to a much wider drive just past Dovecote Cottage; the name on the gate, ‘White House,’ describes the large structure I pass as I enter. It appears to be a more public place than the cozy little cottage enclosure, so I don’t feel as if I’m trespassing or infringing on anyone’s privacy. Just a little ways in, I clearly see what I’m looking for off to my left over the garden wall, just where my sources said I would find it: in a garden near the church.
The dovecote looks something like a giant hive built by a race of bees much larger and more skilled at masonry than any found on Earth. It’s had a new roof put on sometime since 1913, the date of a photograph I consulted during my research for identification. According to ‘Heritage Sites Around Chirnside,’ published by the Scottish Borders Council, it was built by a member of the Hume (again, variously spelled H-o-m-e) family in the 16th century on land won in a wager with a neighbor. This would explain why it’s at such a distance from the Ninewells grounds. A dovecote is a structure for raising doves and pigeons, a traditional and popular practice. I don’t know what the purpose was other than the enjoyment of their beauty and variety and of hearing their clucks and coos; I know people eat doves and pigeons (squab) but I believe that wasn’t then, and isn’t now, the primary purpose of pigeon-keeping.
I continue south on Kirkgate and before long, I see the old parish church on a rise to my left. The kirk is reached through a grand stone gateway: the Tweedmouth Gateway, named for Baron and Baroness Tweedmouth, erected in their honor by their son after the former’s death in 1909. Lady Tweedmouth was buried here in 1904, and in 1907, Lord Tweedmouth made extensive repairs and upgrades to the old church in her memory.
The building retains a few sections of the original Norman structure, including the south doorway under the portico (which I kick myself for neglecting to take a picture of!). The original church, a rectangular structure much smaller than what stands here today, was originally built in the 1100’s; the church was formally consecrated in 1242. It was largely rebuilt in 1572, repaired in 1705, enlarged in 1837, and repaired again and embellished during the early 1900’s.
A relation of Hume, it seems, was made parson of the church in 1573; at least, John Home shared the family name. David’s uncle George was the minister here when David was a boy. This church was the Presbyterian Church when Hume lived here and for long before. Hume’s mother Katherine was a devout Presbyterian and this was the Presbyterian church, so Hume likely attended services here regularly throughout his youth. Given his later lack of religious belief, it’s less certain that Hume would have done so as regularly when he spent summers and vacations here when he was an adult. Yet Hume was a sociable fellow and like any British village, its kirk would have been a center of social life; so, I think he would have attended sometimes at least.
Given the religiosity of Hume’s family, I wonder what they thought of his religious skepticism. Being a very affable fellow, I think it unlikely he would have made a point of it with his family. In a 1745 letter, he writes with affection of his recently deceased mother and of mutual love and concern between himself and other members of his family, with no hint of rift or strain that may have been caused by religious strife. Hume was widely reputed to be an atheist and was notorious for it, but I think his equally well-known kindness and friendliness softened the effect that it may otherwise have had on public opinion. Because of his fascination with philosophy, I suspect his mother Katherine may have viewed any skepticism she spotted in him as the result of philosophical exploration, not wickedness or pride. She recognized early her David’s lively and precocious intelligence and saw to it that he had an excellent education. As I mentioned earlier, he attended the University of Edinburgh when he was just barely eleven. He never did graduate because he grew bored there; in 1735, he wrote of that university experience ‘there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books.’ So, he dropped out at age 15 and continued his studies on his own, rejecting the study of law his family expected him to pursue (after his father, who was an advocate, as a lawyer’s called here, and who died when David was only two) in favor of his beloved philosophy. From all accounts, however, the University improved greatly not long after Hume attended. His nephew, also named David Hume, attended the University as well, becoming a distinguished advocate and the University’s Professor of Scottish Law.
I circle the church slowly, both to see the details and to avoid slipping on the icy, snowy walkways. I try every door and tah-dah! I find a side door that was left unlocked. It opens with difficulty, appearing rarely used, the wood swelled so that it scrapes reluctantly along the ground as I slowly, carefully edge it open just enough to enter. I find myself in a very cobwebby stairwell. I ascend and find myself in a little choir loft, thick with white dust, an old fabric banner tossed over one of the pews. I step gingerly at first but the old wood floor is clearly very thick and sturdy.
The church, even with the lights out, looks festive with its red carpet, its three appliqued holiday banners hanging from the large central choir loft, and its Christmas decorations including, I’m charmed to see, a plastic baby doll in a rustic crib to represent the infant Christ. Though there’s a small pipe organ above and a piano below, I also see a boombox on a table. It’s low church, solid, practical, plain but not severe, with no imagery save a large plain cross over the raised, heavy wood pulpit.
I take a good look around and many photos but don’t stay long: not sure I’m exactly trespassing since this is a place of public worship and the door was unlocked, but since this is a gray area, I don’t overstay any welcome I may have had. I close the door tightly behind me as I leave.
I continue south on Kirkgate, which turns to B4637 after it crosses A6105, the main thoroughfare east across this part of the Borders from Berwick-upon-Tweed. I’m looking to see how much of the old Ninewells estate I can see from the east side. I continue south as far as the Chirnside Sawmill, about a third of a mile south of the church. This takes me north and east of where the old Ninewells estate was, but based on the maps I consulted earlier, the best access is from the main road to the north of here. I retrace my steps, enjoying the ever-snowier landscape and the new views of the village from each bend.
When I reach A6105, I turn left. After about a quarter of a mile, I turn right on Whiteadder Way, a road leading into a new-looking housing development. The sign tells me that I’ll access the next place I’m headed, a street named David Hume View. There’s nothing of historical interest that I know of relating to this street other than the name and the fact that you can see part of the old Ninewells estate grounds when you look south from the south end of the street. I look, but the view is blurred by the fresh snow that simultaneously beautifies it in its soft, pristine way.
‘In all that idyllic countryside of the Merse, there is no lovelier situation than the estate of Ninewells. The house itself stands on a bluff some 80 feet above the rushing waters of the Whiteadder. Down the bluff a few yards, and to the south-east of the house, an overhanging rock forms a shallow cave. Here, David Hume probably played as a boy, or read a book in solitary majesty; and here, according to the inevitable local legend, he indulged in profound philosophical meditation.’ – Mossner’s Life of David Hume, p 20
I retrace my steps to the foot of Whiteadder Way and turn right. On the south side of A6105, just as it veers north, there’s a pretty gabled house with its name prominently displayed on its stone wall, just to the right of the gate: ‘Ninewells House.’ I know I can reach the old Ninewells grounds from this direction from my maps, but this appears to be a private drive. I have only a moment to consider my next step when a man appears. He greets me, and in response to my inquiry, he directs me to the entry of the path that runs parallel to the drive heading towards the Whiteadder River, which will then continue all the way to and along the riverbank. I thank him and find the head of the path a short distance away to the east. It’s prominently marked by a large historical placard about David Hume, though I find it nearly entirely covered with snow. I take pictures of it to refer to later; I have to do so quickly since the snow is determined to obscure it nearly as fast as I sweep it away.
I tromp through the accumulating snow and find that I have to step ever more carefully. I’m wearing my good sturdy leather boots but I discover that the rubber surface I had installed on the soles is not as grippy in the ice and snow as I would wish. At one point, the path leads me to the foot of the same unpaved drive that passes through the Ninewells House gate. I continue on where it veers right, then pause when I arrive at another curve to the left which enters the gate to a large, handsome, modern classic-style stone house. This house, I know from my sources, was built just north of the site of the house Hume grew up in. I also know, from my maps and the confirmation of the man at Ninewells House, that the path to the river will allow me to approach that site from below the house. So I continue past the house and onto the river path. As I walk, I join up and chat with three people also taking this walk, accompanied by their two dogs, joyful and frolicking in the snow.
The path curves along the rise then leads to a set of wooden steps that leads down to the riverside. There’s a post here that identifies the path, which turns off to the right along the river, as the David Hume Walk. The site of Ninewells should be to my left here, on the north bank of the bend of the river from west to south. My sources tell me that southeast of the house there was a shallow riverside cave and other hollows and overhangs where young David would retreat and play or think. He and his brother also loved to fish in this river. So I decide to turn right first, to explore the river where it curves down to the southwest to see if I can spot any caves, overhangs, and likely fishing spots.
I need to pick my steps ever more carefully as I go along, the path growing ever slippier, and approaching so close to the Whiteadder in some spots that I’m in real danger of sliding right in. I walk in the branchy leaf-litter to the right of the path as often as I can, where my shoes find a better grip. In some places, I hold to the naked branches of the nearby trees and shrubs. Luckily, the sets of wooden steps at the steep rises and descents are each equipped with a rough but sturdy handrail. No doubt, the steps are often rendered slippery by Scotland’s abundant precipitation.
During this glorious, wintry riverside walk, I see pheasant, ducks, and many small birds; at one point, off to my right, I see a very large hare bounding across a field. I also hear occasional shooting, presumably for pheasant, which reminds me not to leave the paths or hop fences to explore any private field or wood. Scotland’s laws permit free passage even through private property, but I’m not entirely confident that my bright red coat can guarantee against a hunting accident.
At a high clearing overlooking the river, I reach a wooden bench. It’s a good place, I think, to enjoy the little thermos of hot coffee I obtained at the little grocery store in the village shortly after I arrived this morning. I was a little surprised to discover, from the instructions posted on the wall behind the counter, that orders of fresh milk, bread, and eggs must be placed ahead of time; they don’t stock them otherwise. Hot water and instant coffee, however, are available on demand. Though nothing fancy, the coffee is warming and bracing, and I enjoy it thoroughly.
After I finish my coffee, I brush as much snow off of myself as I can and bundle more firmly into my clothing: at this point, my coat is damp in places and my boots and two pairs of wool socks have allowed some of the cold and wet to reach my feet. I turn back and retrace my steps, walking more slowly this time and looking for the rocky overhangs I may find here. I don’t find much, but there is a small one with a tree that’s grown over the top of it. Perhaps the riverbank is higher here than it used to be, filling in the bottom of it. I think I’ll return in the summer when the river is lower and the banks are more accessible and not obscured by snow. When I reach the place where the wooden steps ascend the rise to the main path, I continue north this time, toward the site of Ninewells.
As I walk, I see a raised wooden walkway rotting away under moss and leaf litter. Shortly after, my boots step off frozen ground and sink into mud. A few yards along, there’s another, even wetter patch. This is just what I hoped to find! It’s confirmation that I’m in the right place: Ninewells was named for the nine springs on the estate, which bubbled up from the slope down to the river. I’ve just passed two of them. These will have to do in lieu of any historical markers I fail to find here.
I imagine the old house and the three children, John, Katherine, and David, returning from their play along the river, wet and cold, ready for mother Katherine to bundle them up with books by the fireside. My mental picture of the old house is hazy, though, since I’ve found no images that reveal just what the house looked like during Hume’s time here. There’s an old drawing of the house, made no later than 1840, that I’ve seen here and there in my resources. It’s also reproduced on the David Hume historical placard at the head of the path to the river, which you can see below. Two successive fires damaged and then largely destroyed the original house, so David’s only brother John, his senior by two years and hence the family heir, had it rebuilt, likely in a very similar style to the original.
The house at Ninewells changed many times over the years, sometimes restored and expanded, sometimes torn down and replaced altogether. Its last incarnation, in World War II, saw its use as a hostel for displaced people and a prisoner of war camp. Its ruins were finally torn down in January of 1964. (I also find a photo of Ninewells’ ruins from the southwest, which would be my view from the path if it were still standing, in a Historic Environment Scotland website, but I’m still waiting to receive permission to publish it here.)
I return to the main road, A6105, just to the east of the Ninewells house. A6105 veers sharply to the north where the driveway of Ninewells House meets the road, then a quarter mile on, makes a perpendicular meeting with Chirnside’s Main Street. Turning right would take you back into the village, but I’m not headed there yet. I turn left towards the river and the bridge.
The snow is still falling and my footing on the sidewalks ever more treacherous. As I walk along, there’s a truck salting the roads, so the snow on the asphalt turns quickly to muddy, icy brine. On my way to the bridge, I’m offered a ride by a kindly elderly couple. Then a little further on, I’m liberally splashed with that salty, slushy road water by the driver of a car paying no heed to the puddles or my proximity to them. I’ve spotted the danger and step as far off the road as I can when I see a car approaching, and most drivers see it too, thoughtfully veering over to avoid spraying me. But that one speedy driver just didn’t notice or care. Oh well, I’m wearing a secondhand coat anyway. From the head of the path to Ninewells to the bridge, it’s a little over a mile.
The David Hume Bridge over the Whiteadder Water is a modern span. I’m not sure just when it was built since its record in Historic Environment Scotland’s website doesn’t say. Not only is this bridge significant because it passes over the beautiful, rushing Whiteadder River, but because it parallels the old Chirnside Bridge. Hume left the sum of 100 pounds and instructions for its repair in his will. The bridge likely looks very much as it did then. Just beyond the bridge is the paper mill, a handsome Italianate structure built about a hundred years after the old bridge.
I turn and head back towards Chirnside, but pause to double back on the narrow little path that leads to the old bridge. I find I’m prevented from walking onto it by a high gate and warning signs to keep off, enforced via a CCTV camera. At this point, my gloves and much of my pants are soaked through and my toes are very cold, dampening any naughty urge I might have to climb over or go off path to find a way around the gate. Looking is enough for me for now. Maybe I’ll cross it if I get a chance to return this summer.
I return to Chirnside via the A6105, with another car splashing me even more liberally than the first one. I’m warmed somewhat by walking briskly up the hill, but still, I’m even wetter than I was on my way to the bridge, and my coat is looking rather disreputable. After a very chilly mile, my heart is gladdened when I see that the pub at the Red Lion Inn, just steps away from my bus stop across from the Chirnside Community Center, is open.
I find myself in a cozy, cheery room lined with gloriously warm radiators. The bartender nods his permission for me to strip off my coat and gloves and drape them on one of the radiators to dry. I plop on a barstool and promptly order a pint. My American accent, as it so often does here, sparks almost immediate conversation. I’m inclined to keep it for that reason.
I chat with the bartender and its one other patron as I hungrily devour my picnic lunch of cheese, oatcakes, biscuits, and a clementine I hadn’t found a good place to stop and eat earlier. It tastes that much better here in the warmth, washed down with my pint, accompanied by jolly conversation. We talk about the weather, where we’re all from originally, about how Russell, my barstool neighbor, was a geneticist, at one time doing research work at UCSF, and how he and his wife came to settle in this village upon retirement.
Once I’ve eaten, I move to the other side of the room to drape myself over the radiator along with my coat and gloves, mostly to warm my legs, chilly in my sodden jeans. The room is narrow here, placing little distance between us, and the conversation continues easily. When asked about what brings me here, I tell them, and we discuss my adventures of the day. Not long into that conversation, Russell says that there are just a few listed historical structures in Chirnside. He mentions the church and another place or two, and in answer to his expectant look, I say ‘…and the dovecote!’ I’ve evidently said the right thing since Russell’s face lights up. ‘I live at Dovecote Cottage!’ he tells me. I’m delighted to hear this, and Russell proceeds to tell me all about the pedigree of the structure and how dovecotes are used to ‘home’ pigeons.
I tell them of my visit to Ninewells, describing the location in relation to the river bend and landscape, and of finding the springs. They confirm that I was at the right place. At one point, Russell stops me. It’s ‘Nine-ulls,’ he says. Oh, I say apologetically, I often pronounce place names wrong here, I’m still learning. No, says the bartender, it’s ‘Ninewells’, just as you say, it’s named for the nine wells, and pointedly, to Russell, it has a ‘W’ in it. You English don’t say words right. We share a laugh over this. Our conversation continues, animated and a great deal of fun. It lasts for nearly an hour, until the time comes when I need, mentally as well as practically, to prepare myself to emerge into the cold and head for the bus stop.
At one point, Russell and Teddy, the bartender (I think I remember your name rightly, Teddy; if not and you’re reading this, please let me know!) mention one site I know nothing about: an old primary school which they claim David Hume attended as a child. This surprises me since it’s my understanding that young David and his siblings were taught at home by Katherine and tutors until the boys attended University. Perhaps I’m missing something? Russell and Teddy have an amusing little back-and-forth about the decision to place the plaque on the community center instead of the old primary school building, and how that decision was characteristic of a particular local official.
Russell volunteers to show me the old school, now a house, which they assure me is very nearby. When the clock advances enough to tell me we should leave to make that little excursion before I catch my bus, I rise. We laugh at the steam rising from my pant legs, well heated by the radiator I’ve been resting them against. My gloves at least are now well warmed and half dry, my coat now only damp in the places it had been sodden. I’m glad to see the muddy look has faded enough to be scarcely noticeable.
We walk past the last two buildings on Main Street before Dominies Loan and stop at the next building, on the northeast corner of Main and Dominies. It’s a very ordinary-looking, with pebbledash front and sides and a very steep roof. I comment that it looks very modern to me, and Russell agrees. But, he says, it’s been much altered since that time, as have many of the old buildings. In fact, the building was originally much smaller, and with all the additions and new siding, it’s unrecognizable. We walk up to where we can see the back of the house, and Russell points out the old stonework.
I’m intrigued. I don’t find this in any of the materials I found in my research for this day’s trip, and can’t confirm this tidbit of oral history in the resources I consult afterward. Perhaps I’ll find it in my research over time, or a helpful reader of my account of this day will guide me to some record of it. I do find an old Chirnside primary school as a listed historical building, but it’s at the other end of the village, the west end of Main Street. That one was built many decades after Hume’s death, and its only relation to him is that one of his two nieces, Katherine or Agnes, established it. My sources, Mossner’s Life of David Hume and the historical listing for the building in Historic Environment Scotland, don’t help me ascertain which.
We look at the building, discussing the history of the town a little more. Then, I regretfully tell Russell it’s time for me to get to the bus stop. I give him my thanks and a hug and tell him I hope to see him if I make it back and to hear from him sometime, especially if the account I write of my day’s adventure here contains any mistakes or is missing some important information.
I catch my bus, after a mercifully short wait, and return to Berwick-upon-Tweed. As I descend the steps which take me to the rail station platform and waiting room, I discover a sign which contains an interesting historical tidbit about both local and Scottish national history:
In the waiting room, I find a comfy spot, drape my things over the radiators again, review my photos, jot down notes, and doze off a little: I was up early after a late night of research, and it’s been a somewhat taxing day. I have about an hour wait before my train arrives, but this is a nice cozy place to wait and dry off. I look forward to a hot dinner back in Edinburgh in a cozy little Sudanese restaurant near my place with some friends who are in town.
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Sources and Inspiration:
Barton, Jim. ‘Plaque to David Hume, Chirnside‘, geograph.org.uk
Cairns, John W. ‘Hume, David (bap. 1757, d. 1838)‘, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
‘Chirnside,’ Borders Family History Society website
‘Chirnside,‘ in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
‘Chirnsidebridge, David Hume Bridge,‘ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment, Historic Environment Scotland
Chirnside, in Scottish Borders (Scotland), citypopulationinfo.org
‘Chirnside, Kirkgate, The Old Church,’ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment, Historic Environment Scotland
‘Chirnside, Kirkgate, Chirnside Parish Church (Church of Scotland) including Graveyard, Mort-House, War Memorial, Boundary Walls, Gatepiers, Quadrant Walls, Memorial Gateway and Gates.‘ Historic Environment Scotland website
‘Chirnside, Kirkgate, Dovecot,’ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment, Historic Environment Scotland
‘Chirnside, Main Street West End, Elm Bank (Former Ninewells School and School House) including Ancillary Structure, Boundary Wall, Gatepiers and Gate.‘ Historic Environment Scotland website
‘David Hume,’ Melvin Bragg talks with Peter Millican, Helen Beebee, and James Harris for BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, Oct 6, 2011
‘David Hume Anniversary Marked in Chirnside,’ BBC News, April 30, 2011
‘Heritage Sites Around Chirnside,’ Scottish Borders Council
Hillman’s Hyperlinked and Searchable Chambers’ Book of Days (original version published in 1869)
Hume, David. New Letters of David Hume. Ed. by Raymond Klibansky and Ernest C. Mossner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954, 2011
Jefferson-Davies, Carol. ‘World’s Scholars at Chirnside,’ The Berwickshire News, July 30, 2011, republished at the Hume Society website
‘Jim Clark OBE (1936 – 1968),’ Unique Cars & Parts website
Morris, William Edward and Brown, Charlotte R., ‘David Hume‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Mossner, Ernest C. The Life of David Hume. Austin, TX, 2001.
Mossner, Ernest C. ‘Hume at La Flèche, 1735: An Unpublished Letter.‘ Texas Studies in English, vol. 37, 1958, pp. 30–33. JSTOR
‘Ninewells House,’ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment, Historic Environment Scotland
Ritchie, Thomas Edward. An Account of the Life and Writings of David Hume, Esq. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1807
Scott, Hew; Macdonald, Donald Farquhar. Fasti Ecclesiæ Scoticanæ; Succession of Ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1915
Sutherland, Stewart. ‘David Hume and Civil Society,’ Gifford Lecture, October 25, 2011. University of Edinburgh College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences website
Thursfield, J.R., revised by H. C. G. Matthew. ‘Marjoribanks, Edward, second Baron Tweedmouth (1849–1909)‘, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Metaphysics is the attempt to understand how existence works by examining the building blocks of reality, the distinctions between mental and physical entities, and the fundamental questions of being and reality. But metaphysics is not only an arcane branch of philosophy: human beings use metaphysical assumptions to navigate the world. Assumptions about what exists and what is fundamental exert a powerful influence on our lives. Indeed, the less aware we are of our metaphysical assumptions, the more we are subject to them.
Western metaphysics tends to rely on the paradigm of substances. We often see the world as a world of things, composed of atomic molecules, natural kinds, galaxies. Objects are the paradigmatic mode of existence, the basic building blocks of the Universe. What exists exists as an object. That is to say, things are of a certain kind, they have some specific qualities and well-defined spatial and temporal limits. For instance: Fido is my dog, he is grey, and was born one year ago. (It’s worth noting that such a simple statement will give rise to a litany of metaphysical disputes within substance metaphysics: realists believe that universals, such as the natural kind ‘dogs’, exist while nominalists believe them to be only intellectual abstractions.)
Though substance metaphysics seems to undergird Western ‘common sense’, I think it is wrong. To see this, consider the cliché about the glass of water: is it half-empty or half-full? The question assumes a static arrangement of things serving as a basis for either an optimistic or a pessimistic interpretation. One can engage in interminable disputes about the correct description of the physical set-up, or about the legitimacy of the psychological evaluations. But what if the isolated frame ‘a glass of water’ fails to give the relevant information? Anyone would prefer an emptier glass that is getting full to a fuller one getting empty. Any analysis lacking information about change misses the point, which is just what substance metaphysics is missing. Process philosophers, meanwhile, think we should go beyond looking at the world as a set of static unrelated items, and instead examine the processes that make up the world. Processes, not objects, are fundamental.
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus provides the most famous image of process metaphysics. ‘It is not possible,’ he says, ‘to step twice into the same river’ – because existence depends on change; the river you step into a second time is changed from the river you stepped into originally (and you have changed in the interval, too). And while substance philosophers will tend to search for the smallest constituent objects in order to locate reality’s most fundamental building blocks, process philosophers think this is insufficient. So do modern physicists. Electrons are now understood as bundles of energy in a field, and quantum vacuum fluctuations prove that there are fields without bundles but no bundles without fields. Things seem to be reducible to processes – and not the reverse. (As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, we should think about ‘occurrences’ instead of ‘things’.)
Change poses a recurring problem for substance metaphysics. Universals have traditionally been a popular way to circumvent it. These static entities are difficult to define precisely, but can be thought of as ‘hyper-things’ that are instantiated in many different particular things. A universal is the thing that particulars have in common, such as types, kinds and relations. Universals are essentially different from particulars: Aristotle, for instance, argued that particulars – such as Fido my dog – are subject to generation and corruption, while species – the universal – are eternal. This particular example provides another instance in which science seems to favour process metaphysics. Thanks to the theory of evolution, the Aristotelian view that species are unchanging and eternal was proven wrong. Species evolve. They change. Dogs, after all, evolved from wolves to constitute a whole different kind. Once again, we’re better off using the paradigm of change rather than substance.
Process metaphysics leads to a re-evaluation of other important philosophical notions. Consider identity. To explain why things change without losing their identity, substance philosophers need to posit some underlying core – an essence –that remains the same throughout change. It is not easy to pin down what this core might be, as the paradox of Theseus’ ship illustrates. A ship goes on a long voyage and requires significant repairs: new planks to replace the old, fresh oars to replace the decayed, and so on, until, by the time the ship returns to port, there is not one single piece that belonged to the ship when it departed. Is this the same ship, even though materially it is completely different? For substance philosophers, this is something of a paradox; for process philosophers, this is a necessary part of identity. Of course it is the same ship. Identity ceases to be a static equivalence of a thing with itself. After all, without the repairs, the ship would have lost its functionality. Instead, as the German philosopher Nicholas Rescher argues in Ideas in Process (2009), identity just is a programmatic development. That is, the identity of a process is the structural identity of its programme. Other things being equal, every puppy will turn out to be a dog. (This programme need not be thought of as deterministic. The interactions between processes, Rescher argues, open room for variations.)
Processes are not the mere intervals between two different states of affairs or two objects, as the paradox of the heap exemplifies: take a heap of sand and remove one grain. It remains a heap; one grain doesn’t make a difference. But if you repeat the subtraction enough times, eventually there will be just one grain. Clearly, this isn’t a heap. Where did it become a non-heap? By looking at the process, and not the end-states of affairs, you’ll realise the impossibility of pinpointing the boundary between heap and non-heap. (Similarly, no individual was the exact turning point between wolves and dogs.) At the very least, this gives us a warning about the unnoticed abstraction operating on our division of natural kinds. Process philosophers such as Henri Bergson stop at this negative conclusion, believing that processes cannot be known but only experienced. Regardless, as the Danish philosopher Johanna Seibt notes, it might just be the case that focusing on the process requires a whole new perspective.
Looking at the world as a manifold of interconnected processes has scientific and philosophical advantages, but there are more prosaic benefits too. Process philosophy invites us to look at longer stretches of time, blurred boundaries and connected relations. Identity as a programmatic – but not deterministic – process welcomes innovation through small, recurring changes. Under these metaphysical assumptions, a meaningful life is less about finding your ‘real’ self than expanding its boundaries.
~ Celso Vieira has a PhD in philosophy from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. He lives in Belo Horizonte where he started the first Brazilian chapter of the effective altruist group The Life You Can Save. (Bio credit: Aeon)
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