Happy Birthday, Simone Weil!

Simone Weil via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Simone Weil, born on February 3, 1909, lived only thirty-four years. She died as an unintentional martyr to her ideals on August 24th, 1943; she contracted tuberculosis when her overworked, underfed, exhausted body, working for the French Resistance in England, could not fight off disease. As she had done before, Weil refused to eat more than wartime rationing allowed to others, or to accept extra medical help. In a sense, allowing herself to become so run-down that she collapsed and died soon thereafter seems inconsistent with one of her central beliefs: that morality is centered on obligations to one another. When she debilitated herself through overwork and malnourishment, she rendered herself unable to fulfill those obligations she believed in. Yet in working for the benefit of others among those doing the same work, and demanding of herself that she do so under the same hard conditions that many others had to struggle in, Weil continued her long practice of putting her ideals in practice and in the process, testing them. The idealist, deeply spiritual Weil, in this way, often acted as a sort of empirical ethicist.

Weil was born to well-to-do, agnostic Jewish parents who provided her a very comfortable, secure childhood. Her high level of intelligence was evident from a very early age, and she received an excellent education. She surpassed the brilliant Simone de Bouviour in her École Normale Supérieure postgraduate exams. Yet Weil resisted employment as a full-time academic; she was intensely interested in common human concerns such as labor rights and politics. While teaching philosophy, Weil took time to travel to Germany to help her determine why Nazism took such hold there, and donated much of her time and skills to groups who supported working people. She left teaching in 1934 to work in a factory for some months, to observe conditions for unskilled working women. Weil then followed her activist instincts into joining Spain’s Republican efforts against the far-right, authoritarian Francisco Franco’s revolt in the Spanish Civil War, but an injury rendered her unable to complete her combat training, so she lent her support through her primary skill, writing. After she and her parents fled the Nazis first from Paris (she worked for a time as a farm laborer in rural France during this period), then from France, Weil joined Charles De Gaulle’s Free France movement from their London center of operations. Weil’s practice of observing work conditions and political movements first-hand undoubtedly contributed greatly to the force of the ideas she drew from such experiences.

Throughout all of this, Weil had many mystical experiences and converted to Christianity, with many of her beliefs overlapping Catholic doctrines, However, she refused to be baptized or ally herself with any one sect, prioritizing personal spiritual transformation over ritual. Weil wrote creatively and deeply on spirituality and theology; among her most original ideas was that the silence of God was necessary for creation to happen; he wasn’t dead, despite all appearances, he was just absent from the places where creation happens.

Weil had also long thought deeply about the liberal philosophy of human rights, and came to the conclusion that it was an ultimately empty concept on its own. Since it was not centered on a robust concept of human obligations, it was ultimately unworkable: rights, so conceived, could be and often were bought and sold, and while non-interference can mean rights are not violated, this means little when we need support that human rights theory doesn’t necessarily entail that we give to one another. It was only a commitment to fulfilling one’s obligations to others that well-being, bodily integrity, and every other aspect of each person’s humanity can be respected and protected. Weil put this idea to the test by working at that auto factory, as described above, where she observed the effects of the mechanical process of mass assembly on herself and other workers; to her, it appeared dehumanizing, harmful to the moral and spiritual self, instilling docility. In this and other institutions of a rights-based, private-property-centric society, Weil saw that aspects of humanity were rendered into something tradable in the marketplace, and interpersonal relations were reduced to contractual agreements, real or implied. Such a system allows for justice to be dispensed differently, or for differential access to basic human needs, according to one’s ability to pay. While I believe it’s true that liberal societies’ commitments to universal human rights have brought about a level of peace, prosperity, and individual liberty unparalleled in all other types of society throughout history, Weil’s ideas provide important insights into how a liberal system based on individual human rights might not consistently promote human well-being and personal fulfillment unless it is balanced by a robust ethic of interpersonal obligations.

Learn more about the spiritual philosopher and activist Simone Weil, who Susan Sontag called ‘one of the most uncompromising and troubling witnesses to the modern travail of the spirit,’ at:

‘God Isn’t Dead, He’s Silent’: Simone Weil Dies, Very Young ~ by Nettanel Slyomovics for Haaretz

Gravity and Grace ~ by Simone Weil

Should We Still Read Simone Weil? ~ by Heather McRobie for The Guardian

Simone Weil ~ by A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Benjamin P. Davis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Simone Weil ~ by Susan Sontag for The New York Review of Books

Simone Weil articles, assorted ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Simone Weil: French Philosopher ~ at Encyclopaedia Britannica

What We Owe to Others: Simone Weil’s Radical Reminder ~ by Robert Zaretsky for The New York Times‘ Stone blog

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

Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine!

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Let’s remember and salute the great Thomas Paine, father of our American identity, on his birthday. Born on January 29th, 1737, this British-American expatriate, a former entrepreneur and corset-maker, became one of the pre-eminent political and humanist writers in the Enlightenment tradition. He wrote brilliantly in language readily understood by readers from all walks of life yet long studied by and widely influential to scholars and other authors, from wildly popular pamphlets which the case for American independence from Britain, to books and short works centered on his John Locke-inspired conception of human rights. He argued for the primacy of reason in epistemology, politics, science, and theology. Paine is a primary influence in my own concept of America as ever a work-in-progress bastion of liberty, of reason, of freedom of conscience, of the idea that the establishment of property rights entails the obligation to share the wealth with those who lack what they need to live.

Here are a few links to some articles and works of art by, about, and inspired by Thomas Paine, including some of my own work:

Common Sense – Thomas Paine (1776)

The American Crisis – Thomas Paine (1776-83)

The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine (1791)

The Age of Reason – Thomas Paine (1794)

Agrarian Justice – Thomas Paine (1795-96)

Thomas Paine – from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson – history of ideas travel series in which I follow Thomas Paine’s life and ideas in the era of the French Revolution

Thomas Paine on Basic Income, and Why Welfare is Compatible with an Individualist Theory of Human Rights – my essay on how Paine’s ideas about property rights led him to advocate the unconditional allocation of public funds for the support of the young, the old, and the disabled

Pretty Pink Rose – David Bowie and Adrian Belew (1990) – ‘She tore down Paris on the tail of Tom Paine, but the left wing’s broken, the right’s insane’

As I Went Out One Morning – Bob Dylan (1968) ‘As I went out one morning to breathe the air around Tom Paine’s, I spied the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains’

Tom Paine’s Bones – Graham Moore (1995) Recorded by Dick Gaughan in 2001. ‘Well they say I preached revolution but let me say in my defence, all I did wherever I went was to talk a lot of Common Sense’

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

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

Mark Twain, Joan of Arc, and a Letter to H.H. Rogers, Sunday, Apr. 29, 1895

Mark Twain on the USS Mohican in the Seattle Harbor, about to embark for Europe, 1895

Excerpt from a letter from Mark Twain to H.H. Rogers in New York City: Sunday, Apr. 29, ’95:

…At 6 minutes past 7, yesterday evening, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

With the long strain gone, I am in a sort of physical collapse today, but it will be gone tomorrow. I judged that this end of the book would be hard work, and it turned out to be so. I have never done any work before that caused so much thinking and weighing and measuring and planning and cramming, or so much cautious and painstaking execution. For I wanted the whole Rouen trial in, if it could be got in in such a way that the reader’s interest would not flag—in fact I wanted the reader’s interest to increase; and so I stuck to it with that determination in view—with the result that I have left nothing out but unimportant repetitions. Although it is mere history—history pure and simple—history stripped naked of flowers, embroideries, colorings, exaggerations, inventions—the family agree that I have succeeded. It was a perilous thing to try in a tale, but I never believed it a doubtful one—provided I stuck strictly to business and didn’t weaken and give up: or didn’t get lazy and skimp the work. The first two-thirds of the book were easy; for I only needed to keep my historical record straight; therefore I used for reference only one French history [Michelet] and one English one [Tuckey]—and shoveled in as much fancy work and invention on both sides of the historical road as I pleased. But on this last third I have constantly used five French sources and five English ones and I think no telling historical nugget in any of them that has escaped me.

Possibly the book may not sell, but that is nothing—it was written for love.

There—I’m called to see company. The family seldom requires this of me, but they know I am not working today.

Yours sincerely,

S.L. Clemens

When reading a book of Mark Twain‘s letters to select one for an intellectual history seminar presentation last year (this is a lightly edited version of that very presentation) this letter to H.H. Rogers jumped right out at me. As many of my long-time readers may know, I’ve long had a fascination with Joan of Arc and with Mark Twain’s book about her. 1896’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was, and still is, a mystery to many. Why did this hard-bitten cultural critic, cynic and skeptic write a tender and hagiographic historical novel about a medieval French Catholic warrior-saint? From his own comments over the decades, he wasn’t especially fond of the French; he thought the medieval period was an age of superstition and ignorance; he mocked patriotism as just another brand of thoughtless provincialism; and he certainly was no fan or defender of organized religion. And why did this novelist and humorist decide to write a history …well, again, a historical novel, but heavy on the history nonetheless? And why did he insist it was the best thing he’d ever written?

First Edition of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, 1896, cover

In some ways, Twain’s fascination with and tenderness for Joan of Arc isn’t hard to explain. His biographer Dixon Wecter writes that ‘the heroine of his inmost heart is Joan of Arc, a virgin of unapproachable purity’ (Wecter 172). He was noted, even then, as a writer with unusually sentimental ideas about women and girls, convinced that by nature they were tender and pure, of some plane higher than that of rough, vulgar, venal, lustful men. If we set aside the bloodshed and partisanship, it’s not too much of a stretch to characterize Joan as a model of virtuous womanhood, above the ordinary concerns and desires and accomplishments of men. And Joan appears in Twain’s book as just such a woman, with a ready wit and a strong sense of humor (Twain’s Joan laughs and pals around a lot) to redeem her from being a ‘tinsel saint,’ as he complained that the Catholic Church was about to make her with her canonization proceedings.

And when Twain wrote that his Joan book was ‘was written for love,’ he’s likely thinking not only about his love of Joan, he’s thinking of Susy. With the exception of his wife Livy, Susy was the dearest person in the world to Twain’s heart, and he made no secret of it. His daughter was vivacious, sentimental, affectionate, and the year after he finished Joan, dead. She died on August 15th, 1896, at age 24, in the same year Joan was published in book form (it was originally published as a serial in Harper’s Weekly). But throughout the first years he was writing Joan, Susy was as big a fan as he was, and had high praise, like Twain himself, for the work. It’s commonly accepted that Susy was a major inspiration for his characterization and idealization of Joan. It seems that he was in many ways unable, in fact, to put Susy aside so he could really consider Joan herself, on her own terms.

Although Twain wrote that he was recounting ‘mere history …stripped naked of flowers [and] embroideries,’ Joan’s story could not have been more fascinating on its own merits and Twain, inventor of fantastic tales and prolific creator of clever lines, could not have surpassed it in either. The fact that a seventeen-year-old illiterate peasant girl could run away from home; convince Church authorities that the voices in her head telling her to deliver France from England came from God and not the devil; convince war leaders and the King to give her troops and arms; lead the French army to a series of victories delivered by cunning military strategy as well as a new sense of united, sacred purpose; and once she was captured by the English and handed over to an ecclesiastical court in hopes they could discredit her as a sorceress and heretic, conduct her own case so skillfully that we still wonder at her prudent and adroit responses.

In early 1895, Twain wrote in his notebook that it was ‘across [France’s] firmament that those two prodigies swept, astonishing the world, Napoleon and Joan of Arc—that wonderful man and that sublime girl who dwarf all the rest of the human race.’ (Notebook 241) A little while after I read this passage and as I was looking for more references to Joan of Arc in his letters, I came across another to H.H. Rogers, written on Sunday, Sept 9th, 1894. Twain wrote: ‘..In those two days I reached and passed—successfully—a point which I was solicitous about before I ever began that book: viz., the battle of Patay.’ (Notebook p 616) The Battle of Patay, I remembered, was perhaps the most decisively victorious as well as an especially bloody battle from Joan’s campaign—which was so bloody overall that during her trial she was accused of ‘cruelly thirsting for human blood and encouraging its shedding’ (Trial 124)—and to refresh my memory of Twain’s account of it, I flipped through his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. On page 250, chapter XXX begins ‘When the morning broke at last on that forever memorable 18th of June’; I did a quick Google search of the date to see if this was the Patay account, since it’s not in the chapter title and there’s no index, and instead, I came up with a list of results for the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon met his defeat.

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

I wonder: is this link between these two French objects of his admiration a coincidence? Twain often told an anecdote about the first time he encountered Joan of Arc: in 1849, when he was still a printer’s apprentice, a loose page from a biography of Joan blew right off the sidewalk and into his face (Harrington and Jenn 64). But I wonder how much of this is thanks to the romance our imagination often drapes our memories in, and how much are the links between ideas and events we inevitably find when we pursue our interests diligently enough. Perhaps he encountered the historic Battle of Patay when researching the military history of Napoleon, a more likely secular hero, and thereby found Joan again.

‘For I wanted the whole Rouen trial in, if it could be got in in such a way that the reader’s interest would not flag—in fact I wanted the reader’s interest to increase; and so I stuck to it with that determination in view—with the result that I have left nothing out but unimportant repetitions. Although it is mere history—history pure and simple—history stripped naked.’ To return to Twain’s ‘mere history’ of Joan, he’s referring to the account of her trial at Rouen that lasted from January 9th, 1431 until she was burned at the stake on May 30th of the same year. Originally, Twain was going to tell the story of her childhood through her military career, ending with the Bloodless March, in which English stronghold after stronghold, hearing of Joan’s victories, surrendered without a shot, and the King’s coronation at Rheims, where his now sole reign over his French kingdom was confirmed. But I, for one, am glad he didn’t end there, because I agree with her biographer Jules Quicherat and not Jules Michelet in that Joan’s trial is as important a part of her legacy as any of her accomplishments. I don’t really agree with Twain that his account of the trial is ‘history pure and simple’ without ‘embroideries’, but he does stick closely to the many sources he refers to for this part of the books for the essential facts. The embroideries consist of his extremely negative characterization of Pierre Cauchon, the English-sympathizing bishop who led her trial; and the thoughts, reactions, and emotions of Louis de Comte, the fictionalized recorder of the trial and Joan’s lifelong friend, and channeler of Twain’s own sympathies.

Twain was wise in his ‘cautious and painstaking execution’ of the trial scenes, I think: instead of sprinkling his Joan account with amusing tales about the colorful characters, invented or historically-based, who surround her, he focuses closely on the exchanges between Joan and her inquisitors. There’s rich material here for pathos and drama, too much to bring into this brief presentation in any detail. Twain stays true both to his own idealization of women and to Joan’s native cleverness when he highlights her seemingly artless, direct answers, which, though simple, were so spot-on that she deftly avoided the legal traps set for her. Her smarts, then, were showcased without her appearing haughty or show-offy in the slightest.

If I were to write a new biography of Joan of Arc, I’d hope to pursue her through the archives and written histories as carefully and as prolonged as Twain did—in fact, his intense and detailed research for the book made him important in the scholarly discussions about her life, times, character, and legacy—but I’d try to write it with less idealization, though I am at least half as enamoured of her as Twain is. Twain’s Joan is beautiful and compelling, but not quite real. I’d like to see for myself how closely I can approach her across the span of nearly six hundred years.

Here are some examples of questions I’d ask that Twain did not, or at least, left unanswered:

– Is Joan as unlikely a product of her time as so many of her biographers, her early ones especially, seem to believe? From Helen Castor’s history of Joan of Arc, I know that France was riddled at the time with visionaries, prophets, holy maids, seers, and the like. While none of them led the army of France, it’s true, perhaps people were not entirely surprised to hear someone like her making the claims she did, and so were more ready to listen to her. I think many of these would have ended up in ecclesiastical courts as well, so I’ll look for records of these, and examine them to see what kind of religious ideas these people shared. Could Joan have been inspired by any of them?

– Does her adroit handling of her own case in her trial really reveal simplicity and naiveté, where she was lucky to avoid legal traps only because her answers were short and to the point, or an exceptional intelligence at work? Are their patterns in the style and substance of her answers that reveal a tactical approach? She would have had plenty of time to work on this while imprisoned. I’d like to look at other court records of people from Joan’s social class to see how these court cases were generally conducted, if Joan had to face a degree of questioning any more intensive, severe, complex, etc then did others.

– The court made much of her adopting men’s dress and haircuts and wearing weapons as an affront both to religion and to modesty, while Joan herself dismissed these concerns. Was the wearing of men’s clothes so unusual for a woman in Joan’s circumstances? Joan was a peasant and did a lot of work with animals and keeping of the property, which may have allowed for women to adopt dress at time more like men’s. However, her family was actually well-do-do for people of her social class, so there may have been a stricter dress code for her than for the poorest workers. I’d like to see if there were other examples from her time of people adopting the dress of the other gender, of other social classes, etc and see what kind of controversy this did or did not arouse.

Perhaps when I get the chance to follow in the footsteps of Joan of Arc throughout France, as I’ve long planned to do, I’ll be able to answer these questions and many more.

Sources and Inspiration:

Castor, Helen. Joan of Arc: A History. London: Faber & Faber, 2014

Harrington, Paula and Ronald Jenn. Mark Twain & France: The Making of a New American Identity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017

Hobbins, Daniel. The Trial of Joan of Arc. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Michelet, Jules. Joan of Arc: Or, The Maid of Orleans. From Michelet’s History of France. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1858.

Quicherat, Jules. Procès de Condamnation et de Réhabilitation de Jeanne d’Arc, Dite La Pucelle. Paris: J. Renouard et Cie, 1841

Twain, Mark, and Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain’s Letters (Definitive ed., Writings of Mark Twain, v.34-35). New York: G. Wells, 1923

Twain, Mark. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (Oxford Mark Twain). New York, [N.Y.] ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996

Twain, Mark, and Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain’s Notebook (Second ed.). New York: Harper and Brothers, 1935

Wecter, Dixon. Sam Clemens of Hannibal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952

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

Happy Birthday, Baruch Spinoza!

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Baruch Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He was the son of Michael and Hannah Spinoza, Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, then imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition, then fled to relatively tolerant Amsterdam. The Spinozas became successful and respected members of Amsterdam’s Jewish community.

Their son Baruch (also called by his Latinized name Benedicto, also meaning ‘blessed’), was a precocious and brilliant boy who became an intellectually rigorous, curious, and free-thinking man. He wrote prodigiously, profoundly, and often obscurely while earning a humble living as a scientific instrument lens-grinder. He was excommunicated for his unorthodox beliefs (rather surprising still given the relative broad-mindedness of that synagogue), shunned and condemned by his fellow Jews and by Christians alike, and lived the rest of his too-short life in near-solitude, though in rich correspondence with a wide circle of friends and intellectuals.

His idea of God as a unified substance which, in some sense, can be understood as being the same as Nature or the Universe itself, is still widely beloved (the great physicist Albert Einstein and eloquent, outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, for example, were among his biggest fans), hated, and debated widely, especially insofar as it can be difficult to grasp the exact nature of Spinoza’s metaphysical and ethical ideas. Spinoza refused to repudiate his ideas despite the intense social pressure he had to deal with for the rest of his life. But however much his correspondents argued, cajoled, threatened with hellfire, or otherwise tried to convince him to abandon his beliefs, Spinoza responded with firmness, constancy, thoroughness, and courtesy.

Learn more about the integrious Baruch Spinoza at:

Baruch Spinoza ~ by Steven Nadler for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) ~ in the Jewish Virtual Library

Benedict De Spinoza (1632—1677) ~ by Blake D. Dutton for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Betraying Spinoza ~ Rebecca Goldstein on her book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

Benedict de Spinoza: Dutch-Jewish Philosopher ~ by Richard H. Popkin for the Encyclopædia Britannica

From Baruch to Benedicto! (Spinoza pt. 1) and Spinoza Part 2 ~ by Stephen West for Philosophize This! podcast

God Intoxicated Man – The Life and Times of Benedict Spinoza ~ by Michael Goldfarb for the BBC’s Sunday Feature

Spinoza ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Spinoza’s life and thought with Jonathan Rée, Sarah Hutton, and John Cottingham for In Our Time

The Heretic Jew ~ by Harold Bloom, book review of Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity for The New York Times

The Writings of Spinoza ~ at Internet Sacred Text Archive

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

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

Happy Birthday, Erasmus!

Erasmus, from page 32 of The Century of Sir Thomas More by Benjamin Orange Flower, 1896, public domain via the British Library

Desiderius Erasmus (October 27, 1469 – July 12, 1536) was, by his own account, born in Rotterdam, Holland. His father was a priest and his mother the daughter of a physician, who, unsurprisingly, were not married. As a child of an illicit union, he had no apparent prospects for a successful worldly career, so he was initially educated for the life of a cleric. However, he was very unhappy during these early years of his education and training, feeling that the strict, narrowly constrained life didn’t suit him. Though he was ordained a priest, Erasmus later insisted he was pressured into doing so, likely because by that time he had long been an orphan of no means to speak of and so had no apparent alternative means of support.

Erasmus was, however, a very pious man, but in his own way. The Catholic Church, at this time, was seen by Erasmus and others of like mind as a decadent, corrupt, licentious institution in deep need of reform, as it had largely cast aside the pure, simple Christianity of its humble founder. Nevertheless, Erasmus’ reformist instincts did not ally him with those who wished to do away with the Catholic Church altogether: like his friend and protégé Thomas More, he saw the Church as a unified spiritual body that must be preserved. While he was sympathetic to Martin Luther’s impassioned and wholehearted rejection of ecclesiastical corruption, Erasmus rejected his views on the hopelessly sinful nature of humanity, so corrupt that goodness and redemption were dependent entirely on God’s grace. Erasmus contended that human beings had God-given free will, and thus were capable of goodness by exercising that will to choose good and reject evil. Erasmus also rejected Luther’s radical and wholesale rejection of the Church. Erasmus believed, rather, that reform would be achieved within its institutions by its conscientious members and through individual inner spiritual renewal, characterized by a life of love and humility in conjunction with a simple piety unconcerned with convoluted doctrines and earthly show.

Moriæ Encomium, or, In Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus, page from J. Woodward’s 1709 English translation

The Church, Erasmus believed, would also hugely benefit from a greater focus on secular and classical learning. After all, the human mind was one of God’s greatest creations, so the products of human intelligence deserved attention and reverence second only to sacred writ. Besides, secular scholarship could act as a valuable corrective to theologians’ tendencies to get so wrapped up in fine points of doctrine that their convoluted wranglings served only to confuse and confound the faithful. These convictions, and his long and successful career as a scholar and writer inspired by them, made Erasmus the godfather and patron saint, so to speak, of humanism. Erasmus did not invent that school of thought, but he created so many seminal works in that genre that his name has come to be nearly synonymous with humanism. A brilliant and deeply read scholar, Erasmus’ incredible body of work included annotated translations of classical Greek and Roman works; theological treatises; collections of proverbs and adages; works on aesthetics, style, and writing; voluminous correspondence with the most learned scholars of his time; and much, much more. Erasmus’ most widely known and popular work, however, remains his In Praise of Folly. However brilliant Erasmus was otherwise, he was unsurpassed as a satirist, and he used his cutting wit as a reformist tool, arguably more effective and memorable than his erudition and most eloquent argument.

Despite Erasmus’ disadvantageous start in life in other ways, he made the most of the education he was fortunate to receive. Over the course of his long life, his dissatisfaction with monastic and court life and restless curiosity drove him to create a career as a man of letters on his own terms, seeking patrons that allowed him a career of as much intellectual freedom as the times would allow. Erasmus is often a slippery character, and his motivations and true convictions are hard to pin down, by design. He was least as pragmatic as he was idealistic, and however sharp and potentially dangerous his religious and political satire, he deftly avoided getting himself in trouble in the turbulent and dangerous era he lived in. Not so Erasmus’ friend and protégé More, whose similarly sharp wit and lawyerly skill did not sufficiently counteract his religiosity enough to avoid the chopping block.

Learn more about the brilliant and witty Erasmus by following the links below. I’ve included selections about Erasmus from a variety of religious publication as well which illustrate the mixed admiration and vexation that Erasmus’ idiosyncratic intellect and religiosity still inspire:

Desiderius Erasmus ~ by Erika Rummel for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Desiderius Erasmus ~ in New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia

Desiderius Erasmus ~ in Reformation500

Desiderius Erasmus (1468?—1536) ~ by Eric MacPhail for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Desiderius Erasmus: Dutch Humanist and Scholar ~ by James D. Tracy for Encyclopædia Britannica

Erasmus ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Erasmus with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Eamon Duffy, and Jill Kraye for In Our Time

In Praise of Folly ~ by Desiderius Erasmus, with an introductory biography, Erasmus’ ‘Epistle to Sir Thomas More’, and illustrations by Hans Holbein at Project Gutenberg

The Praise of Folly ~ Nathan Gilmour, David Grubbs, and Michial Farmer discuss this work for The Christian Humanist Podcast

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

O.P. Recommends: Patrick Deneen and Ezra Klein Discuss the Failures (and Successes?) of Liberalism

‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith

I have not yet read the book and it may be some time before I get the opportunity, but as is the case so often these days as I work towards my doctorate degree, I rely on discussions with authors to keep up with what’s happening out there in the world of ideas. This little review is, therefore, of the ideas expressed in the context of this discussion only, not of those discussed in the context of the book.

Yesterday morning, as I walked to a class, I listened to this particularly fascinating discussion on Ezra Klein’s podcast: Patrick Deneen says liberalism has failed. Is he right?

Klein and Deneen base their discussion, in part, around the origins of classical liberal thinking, which include John Locke’s thought experiment regarding humankind ‘in the state of nature.’ This is the state of being prior to or outside civil government, and is a way to puzzle out which rights, if any, human beings have according to nature rather than according to civil law. Deneen points out, rightly I think, that this thought experiment is so artificial, so divorced from the actual reality of human nature, that it might lead to misleading results. Human nature, in fact, is bound up in ties to family, friends, society, the political sphere, and so on. To derive rights from the nature of the rootless individual is to derive them from a nature that is, well, not fully human. Liberalism, as Deneen defines it, is the prioritization of the rights and interests of the individual above all else, and points out that this is the central project of both the liberal and conservative parties of the United States. For the former, the personal and expressive life of the individual should suffer little interference from the state, and for the latter, the economic choices of the individual should suffer little such interference. Of course, this is a very rough characterization of the left-and-right political divide, and I suspect that Deneen would agree with my own observation that many on both sides of the political divide no longer seem to adhere very closely to these general principles.

As Klein points out, though there’s much to critique in Deneen’s views, his discussion of why so many people in liberal societies suffer loneliness, depression, alienation, addiction, suicide, and other ills, is often insightful and timely throughout. Deneen sees these as inevitable results of societal values that promote the rights and interests of the individual without sufficient, healthy checks on the single-minded pursuit of individual satisfaction and fulfillment. Human beings intimate ties to others to be happy and healthy, and it appears that without the corrective of social and spiritual concerns, the thoroughly liberal person (again, as Deneen defines it) may very well end up enslaved to the whims and vagaries of appetites, often unhealthy ones, unmoored from personal values or love and loyalty to others.

I consider myself more of a political liberal in many respects, and I felt myself recognizing that some of my reasons echo Deneen’s sentiments. For one, I believe that inherent to the ethos of personal responsibility, often cited as a core value of western conservatism, is taking individual responsibility for behaviors that contribute to larger problems. Further, if individuals continue to behave in a way that significantly erodes the healthy functioning of individuals, families, and societies, then people might have the right to demand that others change their behavior. For example, the degradation of ecosystems that sustain life, health, and happiness through thoughtless over-consumption is, then, it seems to me as it does to Deneen, at least as important a social issue as it is a moral and spiritual one. This is only one of the many matters on which Deneen, in this discussion, offers a timely and well-considered critique of many of the mores and practices the western world takes for granted.

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Following Frederick Douglass in the British Isles

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my ninth philosophical-historical themed adventure following in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass throughout the British Isles. This series continues from and builds on my first Douglass series in the United States.

Frederick Douglass’s life story is inspiring and humbling in the strength, character, and dazzling intellect he reveals, rising to such greatness in the midst of such adversity. Born a slave on the eastern shore of Maryland in the early 1800’s, he was an autodidact, having overheard his master say that learning to read leads to learning to think, rendering a slave too independent-minded to submit to domination by another. Hearing this, young Frederick knew what he had to do. Attaining literacy and learning a skilled trade gave him the wherewithal to escape to New York City in 1838 at about 20 years of age. A few years later, as a result of an impromptu but impassioned and eloquent speech about the hardships of a life enslaved, he was recruited as a public speaker for the abolitionist cause. Douglass spent the rest of his life as an activist for all manner of human rights causes, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to women’s rights and beyond.

Douglass is an especially compelling subject for a student of history and philosophy; observing the true nature and ramifications of slavery led him to think deeply about the most essential questions in human life, which, in turn, spurred him on to a life of thought and action on behalf of oppressed peoples. In these roles, Douglass had a heavy influence on American thought and on the course of American history. He asked, and answered: What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to be a person of conviction and of faith? What are rights, and why are we entitled to them? What is dignity, and does possessing it entail certain obligations to ourselves and others? Given the frailties and strengths of human nature, how can we best live together and form just societies? What do the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence really say about slavery, equality, and other human rights issues?

Following Douglass’ life and thought led me on a journey that took me much further than I could have imagined. I first came to Edinburgh as a student of philosophy following David Hume; now I live here, pursuing my higher education at the University of Edinburgh with Douglass as one of my primary subjects of inquiry. So I’ll continue my journey, which began in Oakland, CA and took me on a broad tour of the East Coast of the United States, then here to the British Isles. As I follow Douglass, I’ll visit landmarks associated with his life, places where he lived and died, worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested, to see for myself how the places informed the man, and vice versa.

Frederick Douglass in Newcastle upon Tyne, England

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