Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

A Charles Darwin display at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Let’s remember and salute Charles Darwin, the thinker who came to understand the basic mechanism by which we and all other species on earth come to be.

Born on February 12, 1809, Darwin was the grandson of Enlightenment physician, poet, and botanist Erasmus Darwin, who posited his own theory of evolution, as had many others, who observed its effects but had not successfully formulated a theory to explain how it worked. Given that his father was also a physician, it seemed natural that young Charles would take up the family profession. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh (my university!) from the age of 16 to 18. Darwin would have attended classes in the original building on South Bridge, now called the Old College, beautifully designed by Robert Adams (it didn’t yet have the dome it has now). While he loved the excellent science education he received there, Darwin decided being a physician was not for him.

Old College Building on South Bridge, University of Edinburgh, where Darwin would hae attended classes

His father then sent Darwin to Christ’s College, Cambridge, with the idea that he could be a minister instead. Darwin did well at Christ’s College, but it was his pursuits as a naturalist that really captured his imagination and into which he poured his best efforts. After he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1831, he continued his scientific study of animals and geologic formations. When the opportunity arose to travel to South America on the HMS Beagle later that year, Darwin took it, and spent the next five years gathering specimens and making detailed notes of his observations of the natural world. Among the wealth of valuable scientific information he amassed, Darwin’s observations of the appearance of apparently designed adaptations in living things; fossils of known and unknown animals sometimes found in the most unexpected places (remains of ancient sea life embedded in rocks at high elevation?!?); and the incredible amount of waste and suffering throughout the natural world, from wasps who laid their eggs in living caterpillars so that the growing grubs would devour them slowly from within to the genocide and slavery routinely practiced against the native people there, gave him much to think about.

Finches in a Charles Darwin display case at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland. The adaptations of finch beaks to food sources provided Darwin a perfect example of how natural selection works to produce the appearance of design.

With his experience broadened, his understanding deepened, and his body strengthened by the rigors of his expeditions, Darwin returned to England a wiser, stronger, more serious man. The first publications of his findings, together with his friendships with influential scientists such as the geologist Charles Lyell, made him famous. Darwin had found his profession. He began to pull together the evidence of his own eyes with the work of other naturalists and scientists to formulate a theory that would explain it all. What would explain a world of living things replete with beauty and waste, some joy and contentment but far more suffering, animals marvelously wrought but more often than not hidden from the human eye either by remoteness, incredibly tiny size, or time through extinction? It was the work of Edinburgh’s own self-made geologist James Hutton, popularized and developed by Lyell, which gave Darwin one key to the mystery. Since it had become clear that the earth was indeed ancient, not young as popular interpretations of the Bible would have it, species had plenty of time to adapt and change to their environment as needed, just as the earth itself had plenty of time to form as it is.

Hutton’s Section near the foot of Salisbury Crags, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, Scotland. On my twice-weekly hikes, I regularly pass by this rock formation. It sparked James Hutton’s realization that the earth must be ancient indeed to give the rocks time to layer, fold, and bend as they do here.

Another key to the mystery was the mass suffering and death Darwin observed. While he mourned it, it was no doubt a comforting realization that it was not designed into the natural world by a divine mind that he was nonetheless bound to worship. Rather, Darwin realized that the living things that could not survive in the environment they found themselves in left those better equipped to do so to reproduce and pass on their adaptations. This realization, this theory of natural selection, Darwin recognized to be explosive as well. It took him about twenty years of careful thought and self-questioning to publish this theory. He knew, for one, that his theory went against people’s natural squeamishness and desire to think of the earth as a friendly home. More than that, Darwin knew perhaps better than anyone what a profound challenge this theory was to orthodox Christianity. But when another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, independently arrived at the same theory, Darwin was galvanized to publish his findings in 1859. His On the Origin of Species went on to become one of the most influential works in the history of thought.

Another Charles Darwin display at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Darwin’s life is a fascinating one in so many more ways outside of the scope of this piece. To learn more about this husband, father, writer, and restless seeker for truth, I recommend the excellent works I’ve linked to below.

Before that, one more thing: I’ve always hated the term ‘Social Darwinism’ because I think it’s terribly misleading. It refers to the idea that societies can be structured so as to direct evolution in some way, for example, by allowing the weakest or least able, as defined by that society, to die off so that the strongest and most able are the most likely to survive and reproduce. But Darwin did not espouse that idea, nor do scientists now understand him to have implied it. For Darwin, as for those who understand the theory of evolution by natural selection as an explanation of a natural process rather than a policy of action, the reason why human beings have become such a successful species is precisely our capacity for empathy and solidarity. It’s the fact that we care about each other as individuals, that we help each other survive and develop our unique capacities that makes us so adaptable, so creative, so able to get by in such a wide variety of environments. Social Darwinism, then, is contrary to Darwin’s own theories about human evolution. Eugenics, ‘survival of the fittest,’ and other such ideas that later thinkers claimed as part of Darwin’s intellectual legacy are not, in fact, his, or ideas that he would endorse given what he actually wrote. The shameful thing about putting Darwin’s name in the term ‘Social Darwinism’ is that it misleads people into thinking that he came up with it, and therefore to think of him as a cruel and heartless thinker, responsible for ideas which have caused much suffering and death. He was nothing of the sort.

Charles Darwin’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey, London, England. I was naughty and snuck in a quick photo, though photography is not allowed in the city’s places of worship.

Charles Darwin placard at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Learn more about this most influential of scientists and thinkers:

Charles Darwin: British Naturalist ~ by Adrian J. Desmond for Encyclopædia Britannica

Charles Darwin: Evolution and the Story of Our Species ~ iWonder at the BBC

Charles Darwin: various articles ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Darwin Correspondence Project ~ at the University of Cambridge website

Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought ~ by Ernst Mayr for Scientific American, November 24 2009

Darwin Online ~ read Charles Darwin’s books, articles, and other publications online

The Evolution of Charles Darwin ~ by Frank J. Sulloway for Smithsonian Magazine, December 2005

The Origin of the Thesis ~ by Claire Pettitt for The Times Literary Supplement

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!

Enlightenment Scotland: Edinburgh’s Select Society

Allan Ramsay, by William Aikman 1722, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

In 1754, the portrait painter and antiquarian Allan Ramsay had an idea. He took it to his friends David Hume, philosopher and historian, and Adam Smith, moral and political philosopher, and they liked it. Together, they founded the Select Society, first a discussion club then shortly thereafter a debating club for the intellectual elite of Edinburgh. Besides these three eminent figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, other members who attended that first meeting in the Advocates’ Library on November 12th, 1754 were gentry, clergy, advocates (lawyers), eminent physicians and lawyers, professors, and distinguished well-known men of letters. Yes, men, they were all men, as was customary in eighteenth-century Scotland. Later on, as the Society grew, it welcomed bankers, merchants, and other men of diverse talents who had gained prominence in their fields.

The purpose of the club, according to Rev. Alexander Carlyle, was ‘philosophical inquiry and the improvement of the members in the art of publick speaking.’ The latter, especially, was an important skill for these men, all leaders in academia, religion, business, professional bodies, or public life. Rosalind Carr writes in Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,

In March 1755, ‘An Account of the Select Socieit [sic] of Edinburgh’ was published in The Scots Magazine, informing the public that: ‘The intention of the gentlemen was, by practice to improve themselves in reasoning and eloquence, and by the freedom of debate, to discover the most effectual methods of promoting the good of the country.’

As the Society grew, it gained renown, though with each growth phase they kept it small enough to remain exclusive. While it never lost its requirement that all members be from the upper crust of society, especially by 1755 they could afford to be very choosy. Being a member of the Select Society gave you instant cachet, and men building a career and establishing a place in society were keen to join. So having a title, money, or an important post wasn’t enough: prospective members had to demonstrate that they were talented and better yet, adept at public speaking and interesting conversation.

David Hume, by Allan Ramsay, 1766, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

To make the Society seem extra-Select, I suppose, the rules were very formal; historian  Roger L. Emerson describes them as ‘cumbersome.’ Young up-and-comer James Boswell, who joined in the late 1750’s, approved of the ‘politeness’ in such systems of rules, but Hume preferred the ‘plain roughness’ of the Poker Club, another of the gentlemen’s societies he belonged to. Over time, it seems that many of the Society’s members leaned towards Hume’s view. Attendance began to slip considerably throughout the later 1750’s, and by the end of 1758 the Society had dwindled to a very low and not nearly so distinguished membership. Only the most dedicated members, it seems, were willing to travel to meetings and put up with the old formalities.

By the time of decline and last recorded meeting in early 1764, the Select Society had helped many men build their social and professional circles and establish their reputations as learned and able men. Other clubs and societies directly branched off from this club or were formed by some of its members separately or after this Society ended as well. One was the aforementioned Poker Club, a political group dedicated to establishing a Scottish militia. Others had similar structures and aims as the Select Society but were more dedicated to the arts, the sciences, or general improvement of Scottish life.

Laigh Hall under Parliament Hall, which served as the Advocates Library in the 18th century, Edinburgh, Scotland.

‘Devils May Sit Here’ in Laigh Hall, now an extension of the Advocates Library under Parliament Hall. A ‘devil’ is a trainee. For example, Mark Twain refers to himself during his time as a newspaper office apprentice as a ‘printer’s devil’

As I am wont to do, I decide to follow the Select Society to their meeting places in Edinburgh. All opportunities to poke my nose into interesting buildings, closes (narrow lanes or passageways between buildings), and archives are worth creating, I think, especially those related to the Scottish Enlightenment! So I begin with the Advocates Library in the old Parliament House, their first meeting place. I’ve been to the current Advocates Library, designed by William Henry Playfair in 1830 and completed with Robert Matheson’s alterations in 1856. (Playfair was one of Edinburgh’s most important architects, and his name and image are to be found all over this city). In response to my inquiries, Senior Librarian Andrea Longson met me at the current Advocates Library door and escorted me under Parliament Hall to Laigh Hall. She told me that this was the home of the Advocates Library during the period I’m looking into, which is when Ramsay, Hume, Smith, and the other members of the newly formed Select Society first met in 1754. Hume was the keeper of the Library at the time, so no doubt it was on his suggestion that the Society meet here, at least at first. The Advocates Library was founded in 1689 and housed in a rented house near Parliament Hall, but as it was with the United States’ Library of Congress and its original collection, the original library building burned down, reducing some of the collection to ashes and leaving some of the surviving books scorched. ‘Laigh,’ Andrea informs me, is Scots for ‘low.’

Northwest corner of Parliament Hall, with communicating door to the Signet Library

Signet Library, the main first-floor hall called the Colonnades

After she shows me around the old hall and its stacks, I ask Andrea about two neighboring sites I’m looking for. She’s able to help me most with one of them, doing so by introducing me to a neighbor, James Hamilton, Research Principal at the Signet Library next door. This is perfect: seven of the advocates which belonged to the Select Society were ‘writers to the signet.’ Then, they were senior members of the Court of Session. According to The Society of Writers to the Signet’s website,

Today, most Writers to the Signet are solicitors in law firms or in-house within the public or private sector. Writers to the Signet take a special oath before an officer of state, the Keeper of the Signet, signifying a personal commitment to the exceptional standards of competence and integrity expected of those associated with the historic seal of Scotland’s kings and queens, known as the Signet. Writers to the Signet belong to Scotland’s College of Justice along with the nation’s senior judges, known as Senators, and its advocates, the equivalent of barristers.

The Signet Library’s lobby is reached by a communicating door at the northwest corner of Parliament Hall, which opens to a receptionist desk. Once a lady at the desk confirms that Mr. Hamilton has an opening in his schedule to see me, I’m taken through a handsome, very large and grand hall that now appears to be used as a daytime tea room, and dining and meeting area. Turns out, it’s now called the Colonnades and can be rented as a venue for special occasions; weddings are often held here.

An upstairs research room and office at Signet Library, Parliament Square, Edinburgh. It’s not over the lobby so it’s not at the site of old St Giles’ Hall, but it is at the same upper level near it.

The William Playfair-designed grand staircase at the Signet Library, across from the lobby and reception desk over where the old Laigh Council House once stood.

The receptionist takes me to an upstairs office lined with books and filled with worktables and desks, where I meet Mr. Hamilton. I tell him of my quest and I’m glad to see he’s interested. In fact, I spend nearly two hours with him. He speaks enthusiastically of the history of Edinburgh and of the library, its architecture and collection. Hamilton finds old maps and records for me, takes me on a tour of the Signet Library rooms upstairs and down, discusses the history of the buildings and closes in and around Parliament Square, helps me find online resources, and even makes me a cup of hot white coffee. What a gracious host!

The handsome Signet Library was built in 1810. Its lobby, into which I first entered from Parliament Hall, rests on the site of the old Laigh Council House. The Select Society held meetings in a room over Laigh Council House after that initial meeting in the Advocates Library, leading to more than a little confusion when I first asked around in the course of my search. Remember, the Select Society held its first meetings in the old Advocates’ Library which is now called Laigh Hall. The room over Laigh Council House where the Select Society met was called St Giles’ Hall, the meeting hall of a Freemasons’ Lodge.

Plan of buildings from an early-mid 1800’s session book in the Signet Library archives, catalog number SP 300.10. ‘Libraries’ shows the site of the Signet Library.

Bookshelves among the colonnades and balconies of the ground floor of the Signet Library

The Signet Library holds at least tens of thousands of volumes and documents, I’ve forgotten exactly how many. In the lower archive rooms, there are session books by the hundreds, among which we find a plan for a proposed new close in Parliament Square, and rows upon rows of other old books of every description. I wish I had hours to dig through them.

Later, as we tour the library, Mr. Hamilton points out that where the colonnaded central hall of the Signet Library had to be redesigned in parts because of an early design flaw: its upper windows, which let in plenty of necessary light, also didn’t allow much space there for books! Above the interior balconies, I can see the somewhat awkwardly, partially obscured upper windows by the re-designed book alcoves and shelves around them. However, seeing it all with a non-architect’s eye, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. The room looks graceful to me.

Upper hall of the Signet Library. The windows on the north side are covered over with bookshelves to hold more of the Library’s massive collection, leaving only one side well-lit enough to see the volumes them by day.

‘The Heart of Midlothian, Restored from Original Drawings, Models, etc, After the Print Published in 1852 by Mssrs W. & A. K. Johnston’, from Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh. The Old Tolbooth is in the center, St Giles with its crowned spire just beyond to the right.

At the time that the Select Society met here over the old Laigh Council House, Parliament Square was much more densely built up than it is today. The Old Tolbooth prison and place of torture, once an early meeting place of Parliament, narrowed the Royal Mile where it passed near St Giles and Parliament Square. Today, you can see the outline of the horrible Old Tolbooth marked out in the cobblestones in metal squares, and a heart outlined in stone indicates the spot where criminals were executed first by guillotine, then by hanging. Tenements crowded the winding closes, and little wooden booths and makeshift shops were built right up against the sides of old St Giles.

Detail of an early eighteenth-century(?) drawing of the old Parliament House, St Giles, the Tolbooth, and the surrounding area hanging on a corridor wall of the Signet Library. The Laigh Council House, which would have stood near the northwest end of Parliament House, does not appear to have been built yet when this drawing was created.

1854 plan featuring Parliament Square and St Giles, with annotations in pen and pencil, courtesy of Dawn Webster. You can see that scores of surrounding tenements have been cleared away, the Old Tolbooth torn down (1817), and the square opened up.

Royal Exchange and John’s Coffee House, Edinburgh, by Green ca. 19th c., Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC), free to use CC BY-NC-ND. This was not the same location as the original one where committee meetings of the Select Society met decades earlier. The Royal Exchange location is shown in a plan printed in Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh.

We also discuss the likely location of John’s Coffeehouse at Parliament Square, a favorite haunt of many of the Select Society’s members and meeting place for the committee devising and discussing its aforementioned ‘cumbersome’ bylaws. I have not yet been able to nail down its exact site. I’ve found many, many references to it, including in primary sources from that time and not long afterward. Without exception, however, these sources refer to the coffeehouse as if everyone already knows where it is. According to Robert Chamber’s Traditions of Edinburgh page 112, it was ‘situated in the north-east corner of Parliament Close,’ which would place it somewhere across from the east end of St Giles. According to my sources, it was not only a popular social hangout, it was also a meeting place for advocates to discuss cases and arrange for the public sales of estates lost to debt. John’s Coffeehouse may have moved to the Royal Exchange, now the City Chambers, which was completed in 1760; some sources list a John’s Coffeehouse at that nearby location just across the High Street after the time the Select Society committee would have met there. I suspect that many of its later and former members would have continued to hang out at John’s if it did indeed move to the new location.

Signet Library at Parliament Square in the evening light

Niddry’s Street rising to the north from Cowgate, with the modern St Cecelia’s Hall extension to the right

St Cecilia’s Hall original front on Niddry Street, just up the hill from the Cowgate.

The next morning, I go to one more Select Society meeting place, which Emerson identifies in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article as the ‘Mason’s Hall (Mary’s Chapel) in Niddry Wynd.’ I find that Niddry Wynd is no longer there, but Niddry Street is, which follows the line of the old Wynd a little to the east. The overpass of the South Bridge, built 1785-1788, made it necessary to move it over that way, which explains why St Cecilia’s Hall crowds the narrow street on its east side.

Most of the information I find about Mary’s Chapel and Mason’s Hall is in entries about St Cecilia’s Hall. It was built as a concert hall for a musical society who met in one of the rooms adjoining Mary’s Chapel. Joe Rock, consult historian for Scottish material culture, writes in his ‘Analysis of the Timeline for St Cecilia’s Hall,’

St Cecilia’s Hall was built from 1760 for a group of wealthy gentlemen and aristocrats, members of the Edinburgh Musical Society. The Society dates officially from 1728 but research for this article has shown that they met in Mary’s Chapel, a building a few yards north of the Hall owned by the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons, from April 1725.

When I initially read Emerson’s article stating the Select Society met in Mason’s Hall, I immediately thought, ‘Oh, Freemasons!’ since they met in the Freemasons’ room over Laigh Council House. But as we see here, this was a room where builders in stone met.

Looking north on Niddry’s Street. Mary’s Chapel stood to the right, about where the pale midcentury building stands now

City of Edinburgh map showing Niddry’s Wynd with Mary’s Chapel and St Cecelia’s Hall, Edinburgh

A bookshelf in the lower archives of the Signet Library

Thus ends my hunt for the Select Society’s haunts in the mid-eighteenth century, at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment. For more about the Select Society and other Scottish clubs and societies, I especially recommend Carr’s book. You’ll find this and other excellent resources listed below. In all, they contain a wealth of detail about the history, the beauties and rich culture of this ancient city from its birth on a rocky hill. Enjoy!

~ Special thanks to Dawn Webster at the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service; Andrea Longson, Senior Librarian of the Advocates Library at Parliament House; and James Hamilton, Research Principal of Signet Library,  for your time and assistance with my site research!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Barker, Robert. Panorama of Edinburgh from St Giles (exact title unknown) late 1700’s-early 1800’s

Campbell, Donald. Edinburgh: A Cultural and Literary History, Signal Books, 2003

Carr, Rosalind. Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland. 2014.

Chambers, Robert. Traditions of Edinburgh. New ed. Edinburgh; London: W. & R. Chambers, 1955.

Edinburgh, 315 High Street, Writers’ Court.‘ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment by Historic Environment Scotland

Edinburgh, High Street, Tolbooth.’ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment by Historic Environment Scotland

Emerson, Roger L. ‘Select Society (act. 1754-1764)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Fleischacker, Samuel, ‘Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Grant. James. Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places. London: Cassel, Petter, Galpin, & Co. 1880’s.

Hannay, R. K. and G.P.H. Watson. ‘The Building of the Parliament House.’ Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, 1924, 13

Ingamells, J. ‘Ramsay, Allan, of Kinkell (1713–1784), Portrait Painter.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Longson, Andrea. ‘The Advocates Library.Legal Information Management, 9(1), 2009, 35-37

Masson, Rosaline, and John Fulleylove. Edinburgh. New Edition, Revised and Entirely Reset.. ed. London: A. & C. Black, 1931.

Palmer, Claire. ‘Edinburgh Vaults‘, The History Magazine by Historic UK (online)

Parliament Square, Advocates’ Library, Including Wall and Railings.‘ Historic Environment Scotland website

Parliament Square, Signet Library, Including Railings.‘ Historic Environment Scotland website

Rock, Joe. ‘Analysis of the Timeline for St Cecilia’s Hall‘ and ‘St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh – Chronology of the Building History‘, Joe Rock’s Research Pages (online)

Saint Cecilia’s Hall in the Niddry Wynd, Chapter I: The Locality’ and ‘Saint Cecilia’s Hall in the Niddry Wynd: Chapter II The Building, and the Name.’ ElectricScotland.com

Sher, R. ‘Poker Club (act. 1762–1784).Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Who We Are,’ The WS Society website by The Signet Library

William Henry Playfair.Dictionary of Scottish Architects (online)

O.P. Recommends: Frederick Douglass at In Our Time by BBC Radio 4 with Melvin Bragg and Guests

Two portraits of Frederick Douglass from the Hutchinson Family scrapbook at the Lynn Historical Society & Museum, photo by Amy Cools

I’m particularly excited to share this new episode of In Our Time because it’s on a subject particularly dear to my heart and stimulating to my mind: the life and ideas of the great human rights advocate Frederick Douglass. Born a slave in Maryland in 1818, his story as a self-made man starts with refusal: refusal of enforced ignorance; refusal to be cowed and beaten; refusal to stay in a situation where anyone claimed a right to own his person; refusal to stay silent about abuses against his fellow black humanity and against women, immigrants, and the poor; refusal to allow white abolitionists to tell him what to believe and how to present himself. In sum, Douglass refused to be anything other than or less than what he believed he could and should be.

Douglass went on to have one of the most impressive, distinguished, thoughtful, and dogged careers fighting for the rights of everyone that he perceived suffering under the worst excesses of human greed, bigotry, and moral passivity. He did so with passion and exceptional oratorial skill. All in all, I find Douglass to be one of the most memorable and inspiring human beings to ever have lived.

In their discussion on Douglass, Melvyn Bragg and his guests Karen Salt,  Nicholas Guyatt, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, the University of Edinburgh’s own Professor of Black Studies in the English Department with fill you in on many fascinating details about his life, work, and thought. I’m pleased and excited to say that Professor Bernier has recently invited me to join her in-progress project Our Bondage and Our Freedom in celebration of the bicentennial of Douglass’ birth.

Interior of the Theological School Library at the University of Edinburgh’s New College

Enjoy!

An update on my own work on Douglass: my Master’s degree studies are keeping me so occupied at the moment that I barely have time for my other research, let alone time to write it all up. At the moment, my Douglass research is taking me to the Special Collections of the Theological School Library, at the New College of the University of Edinburgh. I’m reading through Thomas Chalmers’ papers and other documents pertaining to the ‘Send Back the Money!’ campaign and the Scottish abolitionist movement. So fascinating, and I look forward very much to sharing what I find with you!

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!

O.P. Recommends: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Discovering America, from The New Yorker’s Politics and More Podcast

Summer 2014 issue of Ms. featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by Ms. magazine, CC BY-SA 4.0

In this fascinating podcast episode, the brilliant and eloquent Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses her American experience, the absurdity of racism, the increasing orthodoxy and silencing of dissent on the political left, and much more with The New Yorker’s David Remnick. I find Adichie one of the most mesmerizing speakers and conversationalists around today.

Enjoy, and if this podcast episode happens to be your introduction to Adichie’s insightfulness and complex set of perspectives, an internet search of her name will reveal a wealth of talks, interviews, and more… you’re in for one intellectual treat after another!

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: Springfield, Illinois, in Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 4

Site of Stuart & Lincoln law office at Hoffman’s Row, Springfield, Illinois

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

Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017, continued

I leave the Myers Building at the former site of Joshua Fry Speed’s store and Abraham Lincoln’s last law office on S 5th Street, and head north, crossing E Washington St, and continue halfway up the block. On my left (west), at 109 N 5th St / NW Old State Capitol Plaza, is a historical marker for the Stuart & Lincoln Law Office. John Todd Stuart was Lincoln’s first law partner, the man from whom he borrowed the law books he needed for his legal training, and his future wife Mary Todd’s first cousin. Lincoln received his license to practice law two years after he began his studies, and joined Stuart’s law practice as a junior partner in April of 1837. He was living over Speed’s store, having moved here to Springfield to embark on his legal career, so he walked more or less the same route to get to work as I walk today from the Myers Building… 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!

O.P. Recommends – The Good Wife: Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages, by Peter Adamson

Young Lady Writing in an Hymnal by Giacomo Pacchiarotto, turn of 16th c, Siena, Italy

One of Peter Adamson’s most recent podcast episodes for his History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps particularly delighted me, in the surprises sprinkled richly throughout and its thoughtful yet lively and sometimes humorous exploration of a wide range of religious, social, and literary topics. The history of sexuality and gender attitudes in the medieval Western world was more varied than we might realize, both in sacred and secular contexts.

And don’t stop with this one, by any means: every episode I’ve ever heard of Peter’s multitudinous podcasts are fantastic! Enjoy!

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!

Thomas Hobbes on Reason and the Nature of Evil

Panthéon, Temple of Reason, Paris, France

‘[T]he passions [affectus animi] which arise from animal nature are not themselves evil, though the actions that proceed from them sometimes are, namely, when they are harmful and contrary to duty. Unless you give infants everything they want, they cry and get angry, they even beat their own parents, and nature prompts them to do so. But they are not to blame, and are not evil, first, because they cannot do any harm, and then because, not having the use of reason, they are totally exempt from duties. If they continue to do the same things when they are grown up and have acquired the strength to do harm, then they begin to be evil and to be called so. Thus an evil man is rather like a sturdy boy, or a man of childish mind, and evil is simply want of reason at an age when it normally accrues to men by nature governed by discipline and experience of harm.’

~ Thomas Hobbes, from On the Citizen: ‘Preface to the readers’, 1642

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!