Happy Birthday, Julia Ward Howe!

Julia Ward Howe, ca. 1855

Julia Ward Howe, poet and activist, was born on May 27, 1819, and lived a long life ever dedicated to social reform.

She’s best known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stirring Civil War anthem still sung at military events and in churches today; I remember singing it at Mass growing up. Filled with Biblical imagery, it reminds me of the Old Testament-inspired Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In it, he addresses the terrible costs of the war in lives and property, surmising that God’s justice may demand that ‘all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk., and …every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’ in recompense for the terrible sin of slavery.

Howe wrote her Hymn in 1861, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was delivered in 1865. Lincoln is known to have heard the Battle Hymn and reported to have wept when he did. Lincoln was well versed in Scripture and references it liberally in his writings and speeches; nevertheless, he may also have had Howe’s Hymn in mind when he wrote his Address. In any case, both remain prominent in American historical memory, continuing to resonate and inspire today in our Protestantism-derived culture. John Steinbeck uses her Book of Revelation-derived phrase The Grapes of Wrath as the title of his great novel about the suffering of Dust Bowl refugees fleeing to California. The great Leonard Cohen references her Hymn in ‘Steer Your Way’ from You Want It Darker, his final album released shortly before his death last fall. Howe’s lyric ‘As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free’ becomes ‘…let us die to make things cheap.’ Cohen redirects her line to critique today’s great sin of destroying our environment likewise out of greed, complacency, indifference to the fate we’re creating for our descendants, and slavish adherence to the ‘way it’s always been done.’

Julia Ward Howe postcard dated August 28th, 1903, from the Hutchinson Family Scrapbook in the collection of the Lynn Historical Society in Massachusetts. I was here in spring 2016 following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. The Hutchinson family dedicated their musical skills to the abolition movement and other reform causes and were friends with many prominent activists of their day. The scrapbook doesn’t note which member of the Hutchinson family Howe wrote this card to.

Read more about this great abolitionist, feminist, and author:

Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910: BiographyPoetry Foundation

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) – by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum

‘The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,’ by Elaine Showalter – by Jill Lepore for The New York Times

Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1 – by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall, 1915

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Happy Birthday, Omar Khayyám!

By Adelaide Hanscom, from Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1905, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Since Edward FitzGerald published his translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1859, Omar Khayyám has been known, especially in the western world, first and foremost as a great poet, eloquently expressing the joy and beauty of life and our own struggles to live it with a sense of love and meaning. It’s a humanist work, with Khayyám writing much as an Epicurean or Skeptic here and a Stoic there, freely doubting and wondering at everything, unshackled from the orthodoxy one might expect from a famed teacher and writer of his time and place. Yet Khayyám, a devotee of Avicenna, took his Islamic faith very seriously, and thought deeply about the nature of God and our relationship to him.

Khayyám, born in Persia in 1048, was most famed in his own time as a mathematician, astronomer, and scientist. He wrote some of the most important medieval works in geometry and algebra, and helped reform the calendar, an even more accurate one than the Gregorian calendar we use today. But he was also an accomplished philosopher, and scholars are working on resolving the apparent contradictions between this work and his poetry.

One thing I’ve gotten from my research (which, thus far, is only beginning and therefore not nearly enough): for all his prodigious learning and accomplishments, Khayyám honestly acknowledges the limits of human understanding, and seems to tell us that while the great work of discerning the truths of the universe is a great, noble, even necessary endeavor, we do well to keep in mind that we can never know everything, whether through science or religion. So, Khayyám seems tells us, we do well to work, to wonder, to seek, to do right, but also to live for today:

‘At first they brought me perplexed in this way
Amazement still enhances day by day
We all alike are tasked to go but Oh!
Why are we brought and sent? This none can say’. (Rubā‘iyyāt, Tirtha 1941, 18, from IEP)

‘As Spring and Fall make their appointed turn,
The leaves of life one aft another turn;
Drink wine and brood not—as the Sage has said:
“Life’s cares are poison, wine the cure in turn.” (Sa‘idī 1994, 58, from IEP)

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

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Sources and Inspiration

Aminrazavi, Mehdi and Van Brummelen, Glen, ‘Umar Khayyam‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Omar Khayaam, 1048–1131‘. The Poetry Foundation

Omar Khayyam‘. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Omar Khayyam‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Rizvi, Sajjad H. ‘Avicenna (Ibn Sina)‘. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

‘Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam)‘. Muslim Heritage

Happy Birthday, Bertrand Russell!

Betrand Russell in 1938, image public domain via Wikimedia CommonsBertrand Russell lived an extraordinarily long life, in which he did an extraordinary number of extraordinary things.

Encyclopedia Britannica introduces him thusly: ‘Bertrand Russell ….born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales- died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, [was a] British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world…’

For myself, he was particularly influential to my younger freethinking self, disenchanted with the religion of my youth and seeking new and more satisfying ways of viewing the world. I read his History of Western Philosophy and Why I Am Not a Christian each several times over. I admire his clear, precise thinking and his principled anti-war stance which came at a significant cost, including jail time and loss of a prestigious job at the University of Chicago, and it’s always so enjoyable to watch him speak (you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube) in his oh-so-aristocratic accent with a pipe often tucked into the corner of his mouth. He was not a perfect man, but he was never a less-than-fascinating one.

Read more about Bertrand Russell:

Bertrand Russell – in Encyclopedia Britannica

Bertrand Russell – by Andrew David Irvine for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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

New Podcast Episode: Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

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

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty….

Read the written version here

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

Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Trail and Monument at Mount Saint Helena, CA

Stevenson Memorial Trail to the summit of Mount Saint Helena. The trailhead is about nine miles north of Calistoga, CA

My sister Therese and I hiked the lovely trail to the summit of Mount Saint Helena on April 22nd, 2017. This hike was Therese’s idea, as are so many of the best ones; thanks, dear sister!

The Stevenson Memorial Trail winds five miles to the summit (one way), about 1,800 feet of climbing all told to the 4,343-foot peak. The entrance to the trail led into dreamy forest, with branches highlighted here and there with fluttering pink plastic ribbons to guide the trail runners in an organized event held here that day. There was a table set up in the parking lot off Highway 29, with drinks, treats, and cheers available for the tired athletes.

On our way up, we discovered the monument mentioned in the sign at the foot of the trail, a handsome little tribute to the memory of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife placed here exactly 94 years ago on May 7th, 1911 by the Napa Club. Stevenson and his new wife Fanny Van de Grift stayed here for an adventurous honeymoon on the cheap, living for two months in an abandoned miners’ cabin. Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses, was seeking adventure, new fodder for his writing which he feared was lagging due to his chronic poor health, and a climate in which his congested lungs could do their best. And he was here for Fanny: he had met her years earlier and fell in love. They had to wait to join their lives together until the divorce from her abusive husband came through, and when it did, he left his native Scotland to join her in her home country.

Monument at the site of the miners’-turned-honeymooners’ cabin on Stevenson Memorial Trail, Mount Saint Helena, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, CA

The engraved marble tablet on the stone monument reads:

‘This tablet placed by the Club Women of Napa County
Marks the site of the cabin occupied in 1880 by Robert Lewis Stevenson
And bride, while he wrote The Silverado Squatters.

“Doomed to know not winter only spring,
A being trod the flowery April blithely for awhile,
Took his fill of music, joy of thought
And seeing and stayed and went
Nor ever ceased to smile.” – R.L.S.

It was a beautiful hike, the first mile or so lovely and shaded on the narrow switchback trail, the last four mostly fire roads, though we found a couple of steep little shortcuts. The view from the top was spectacular, though not as far as it might have been on a less cloudy day. The wildflowers were lovely too, and the pine and madrone forests (and plentiful poison oak) very much as Stevenson describes them in The Silverado Squatters. It’s the story of his travels to California and his time here in Napa County with Fanny, which is available to read in full online. It’s an amusing and charming story, though the way he describes some Jewish acquaintances is disconcerting unless you keep in mind the prejudices of the time.

Enjoy!

Engraved stone book on the monument at the site of the old cabin on Stevenson Memorial Trail up Mount Saint Helena

Stream near the monument on Stevenson Memorial Trail. Stevenson describes a stream near the old bunkhouse in The Silverado Squatters

Panorama of the view from the peak of Mount Saint Helena, CA, 2017 by Amy Cools

The flat rocks at the peak make a perfect place for a picnic on Mount Saint Helena, CA, 2017 Amy Cools.jpg

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

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Sources and inspiration

Bazzoli, Kathy. ‘The Legend of Mount St. Helena,’ The Weekly Calistogan, May 19, 2015

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)‘ – The Poetry Foundation website

Robert Louis Stevenson – Marriage‘, from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

Robert Louis Stevenson / Mt St. Helena State Park,’ Sonoma Hiking Trails website

Robert Louis Stevenson State Park,’ Napa Valley State Parks Association website

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Silverado Squatters, 1883

Trading In

Some of my treasures… Art Deco glass horse heads and handpainted bowl, chest of drawers, lamp glass…

I’m preparing for my big move to Scotland and my subsequent years pursuing my PhD …where, I don’t know.

So I’m selling off my business, which I created and built up for well over a decade, and most of my belongings. At first, I’ve felt no pangs. I’ve been yearning for a big change and the freedom to move where my interests, passions, and opportunities take me, and owning a home based business with inventory makes that very difficult. Though I’ve enjoyed the work, it’s time for all that stuff to go. But as I dig deeper, I’m uncovering the treasures and mementos I’ve packed away from my whole life thus far, and my heart feels little stabs now and again, sometimes of joy, sometimes of nostalgia, sometimes of parting-pains.

There are some things that will remain packed away and stored at my sister’s house (thanks, Bonnie and Jasen!) for me to retrieve when I’ve settled down again. My inked and quilted artworks, mementos, photos, most beloved fabrics, my first and favorite clothing designs, my sewing machines, and so on. But most of my belongings other than my clothes, shoes, and personal needs will all go.

But then I think of what I’ll gain from shedding all this stuff: the public goods the world has to offer. For this first year alone, the treasures in Edinburgh’s wonderful museums and great libraries (all free to the public!), the architecture, the rich history, the beautiful views on the old streets and beautiful parks, will all belong to me too. And so on throughout all of the places my endeavors and travels will take me in the upcoming years, as I’ll be light, mobile, freed from the burdens of ownership.

And when I think of what I’m trading in all my little treasures for, I think I’m getting the far better part of the deal.

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

Happy Birthday, David Hume!

In honor of David Hume’s birthday, May 7, 1711, let me share anew my history of ideas travel series I created in honor of my favorite philosopher in his home city of Edinburgh, Scotland. I’ll soon be in Edinburgh again, this time for at least one year, to pursue a Master’s Degree in Intellectual History at the University of Edinburgh. I can hardly express how thrilled I am at the prospect! I’ll be expanding this Hume series while I’m there.

To Edinburgh I Go, In Search of David Hume

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy! I’m pleased and excited to announce my upcoming adventure: my first philosophical-historical themed adventure, and my first trip to Edinburgh, Scotland!

Here’s my plan:

I’m taking a series of trips to places around the world, where I explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. I’ll 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’ve decided to start with the philosopher I most admire as a person as well as a thinker, the great David Hume. He was not only revered for the brilliance of his ideas and his honesty in presenting them, but also as a premier example of a genial, generous, great-hearted person; so much so, in fact, that one of his closest friends nicknamed him ‘Saint David’.

Hume is often described as the greatest philosopher to write in English and among the greatest philosophers of all time, period. He was a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, and a profoundly influential empiricist and moral philosopher

So off to beautiful Edinburgh I go! There, I’ll visit the places where he worked, thought, wrote, studied, and rested. I’ll be traveling there in the first two weeks of May, and will be writing throughout the trip. I’ll be writing in this blog not only about his ideas, but about what I can discover about his everyday life, and whatever feeling of his time and place I manage to uncover in my time there.

If you have any questions for me to answer while I’m there, or pictures you’d like me to take for you, or any information you have that could help me with this project, I’d love to hear from you!

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Here are my essays on Hume as I discover him in my travels, in (roughly) chronological order:

First Day in Old Edinburgh: Hume Sites and Monuments
Hume’s New Scene of Thought, and, It’s Good to Be Able to Say ‘I Don’t Know’
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 2
The Consolations of Philosophy, and A Death Free from Fear
Scotticisms
Happy 303rd Birthday, David Hume!
Cycling Through Edinburgh, First Time
The Debate Over Government and Freedom
The Tale of the Magic Toe – Superstition? Or What?
Hume Sites and Monuments, Part 3
Water of Leith
Last Day in Edinburgh, May 13th, 2014
Hume, Aristotle, and Guns
and a memory quilt I created for my Edinburgh trip:
A Hill and a Wall in Edinburgh, 2015, 102″ x 69″

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