Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 1

Waverly Pl and University at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY

Waverly and University Places at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY, northeast corner

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

I take the E train north from where I’m staying in NYC’s Soho neighborhood of Manhattan to Washington Square. It’s a lovely, warm, and soft day, the sky blue and thickly scattered with puffy, small, wispy clouds like spilled cheap cotton balls.

On March 1, 1926, Margaret Sanger delivered a lecture titled ‘The Need for Birth Control in America’ to New York University’s Liberal Club. It takes a bit of digging to find out where the Liberal Club met at this time, but I finally discover it in a letter written to Sanger’s supporter and sometimes collaborator W.E.B. DuBois. In this letter, dated Nov. 22nd, 1926, the secretary of the Liberal Club, Mary Broger, invited him to address the Club’s open forum on Monday, Dec 6th of that same year. The letter also specified that the Club met at New York University’s Washington Square College ‘at University and Waverly Places’, which is at the northeast corner of Washington Square Park. (Pokorski’s ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger’ Google map has it a little wrong, marking the location of this event near the southeast corner of the park).

NYU's Silver Center at Washington Square Park, at the southeast corner of Waverly and University at the northeast corner of the park

NYU’s Silver Center at Washington Square Park, at the southeast corner of Waverly and University Places at the northeast corner of the park

It’s still unclear exactly where the Club met since there are buildings at the northwest, northeast, and southeast corner of this intersection, and my sources, including the DuBois letter, don’t specify an address. I think it most likely that the Club met in what’s now the New York University Silver Center for Arts and Sciences at the southeast corner of University and Waverly, called American Book Company of the Law Department of New York University in G.W. Bromley & Co’s city atlas of 1923. The buildings that stand at the other corners of this intersection appear to have been all residential, based on that same atlas, just as they appear now. At the southwest corner of this intersection, Washington Square Park pre-dates the 1926 meeting of the Liberal Club by about a century. The Silver Center building was built in 1892.

1926 was a hard year for Sanger. She was long subject to periodic depressions, and some legal setbacks in the birth control movement and the deaths of her sister Mary and her father that year all helped to start the cycles again. But she continued to think, and speak, and write, and plan, and that summer she decided she would present her case for birth control in the context of an international conference. Hoping to make her case to a world audience and influence delegates to the League of Nations, she began planning and organizing a World Population Conference in Geneva which would take place the next fall. It was a great success, and Rockefeller and many other benefactors helped fund the project. Its attendees and speakers included experts from a wide array of scientific fields from around the world, and this would be the first of many more such gatherings where problems of population growth would be studied and addressed.

The soft coolness of the morning has given way to a warm, somewhat humid day.

Webster Hall in October, festooned with pumpkin decorations, New York City

Webster Hall festooned with pumpkin decorations in October, New York City

Two views of Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Above, a Costume Ball probably in the nineteen-teens or early twenties. Below, an orchestra prepares to record 'How to Succeed Without Really Trying' in 1961, public domain via Library of Congress

Two views of Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom. Above, one of their popular costume balls, probably in the nineteen-teens or early twenties. Below, an orchestra prepares to record ‘How to Succeed Without Really Trying’ in 1961

I continue north (after a little wild goose chase several blocks to the east which turns out to be an out of date or incorrect address), and turn left on E 11th. My destination is Webster Hall at 125 E 11th St between 3rd and 4th Aves. It’s a red brick and brownstone structure, built in 1886-1887, and there’s a deco era small marquee added to the main entryway. The Hall has been restored and rebuilt many times after several major fires, and though its original brickwork, brownstone trim, and terracotta decorations survive, its beautiful old mansard roof is gone. It’s now a nightclub and concert venue. The doors are locked and there’s no one around to let me inside to see its famous Grand Ballroom with its reputed great acoustics. For a time, it was used as a recording studio, which leads to the second accidental Bob Dylan connection I make on this trip. His iconic harmonica backs Harry Belafonte’s 1962 recording of Midnight Special and is Dylan’s first published album recording.

In 1912, Sanger led a march of 119 child refugees from the Lawrence Mills textile strike, from Grand Central Terminal to Webster Hall. It was a difficult and violent strike, and this children’s march was to raise awareness of the plight of the striking families as much as it was to obtain proper shelter, food, and medical care for them. Sanger wrote in her autobiography that these children were underfed and inadequately dressed for the winter weather, and though many were sick, they had still been required to work. When they arrived at Webster Hall, however, they found a banquet all ready and families ready to give these children a caring home until better arrangements could be made for them.

Garment workers, Webster Hall. Bain News Service, P. (ca. 1915) [between and Ca. 1920] [Image] Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Garment workers, Webster Hall, ca. 1915-1920. By Bain News Service. Library of Congress

We think of Sanger today primarily as a feminist and birth control activist, yet she was an ardent Socialist and labor rights activist first. She increasingly distanced herself from her radicalist roots over the years because she believed it necessary to court the middle-class and wealthy for the long term success of her cause. Scientific research and development of effective means of birth control cost a lot of money. It also required influence in high places, to attract doctors and scientists willing to take the risk of working in this field as well as lawmakers, litigators, and politicians to push through legal reforms. Nevertheless, what Sanger observed in her early years as a nurse and activist among poor working families horrified, galvanized, and drove her in her cause for ready access to affordable and reliable birth control, especially essential for the health and safety of working class women and children.

The main entrance of The Brevoort

The main entrance of The Brevoort

I zigzag back east to The Brevoort, once Hotel Brevoort at 11 Fifth Avenue at 8th St. The doorman invites me inside when I tell of that I’m on a historical writing tour, and politely inquires about my subject. He utters a noncommittal ‘hmmm’ when I tell him who it’s about. This building dates to the 1950’s but he confirms that it stands on the original hotel site. There’s a photograph of the original hotel in a glass covered niche in the entryway.

Sanger gave many lectures and speeches at the Hotel Brevoort over the decades. The one I’ll focus on here was held the night before her obscenity trial for distributing The Woman Rebel through the mail. In this speech of January 17th, 1916, Sanger reminded her audience that birth control was not a new thing: it had been widely practiced since antiquity. Even the great philosopher Aristotle, arguably also the first scientist, had advocated it. She wrote more extensively about the history of birth control and its methods in her book Woman and the New Race.

Photo of the original Hotel Brevoort in a glass case in The Brevort lobby

Photo of the original Hotel Brevoort in a glass case in The Brevoort lobby

She also stressed her conviction that there was nothing anti-life about birth control. In fact, birth control prevented death: it prevented the death of mothers in childbirth, much more dangerous then than it is today, especially if you were poor. It prevented the suffering and death of infants and children born into deprivation and disease. It prevented the death of mothers who resorted to abortion, illegal then but widely available in back alleys if they could scrape together five dollars to pay for it. If they couldn’t, they did it themselves, often rupturing the uterus and causing deadly infections. But even this risk was acceptable to women who found themselves pregnant in circumstances so dire that they couldn’t face the thought of raising another child that way. When it came to abortion, in fact, Sanger opposed Aristotle, who promoted it especially in the early stages of pregnancy to prevent social ills such as poverty, overcrowding, and political unrest. In her Hotel Brevoort speech, as in her book, Sanger also reminded her audience that birth control prevented infanticide, another last but not uncommon resort of desperate women, and another acceptable form of population control to Aristotle in certain circumstances.

In other words, contrary to the opinion of her opponents then and now, Sanger considered herself and her movement radically pro-life, as we’ll recognize from her own words in a moment.

Today's incarnation of The Brevoort

Today’s incarnation of The Brevoort

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC

My next destinations, just a little ways up Fifth Ave between 10th and 11th Streets, are two buildings which stand shoulder to shoulder, both tall and handsome in their red brick. I especially like the second one, with its beautiful painted terracotta loggia-style embellishments. I’m unable to gain entry to either since they’re now residential buildings not open to the public. These two buildings turn out to have interesting histories.

The first is 35 Fifth Ave, formerly the Grosvenor Hotel, now Rubin Residence Hall of NYU. This 1925 building replaced the earlier 6-story Grosvenor, the first residential hotel in New York City, completed in 1876. Mark Twain lived in the original Grosvenor in 1904 while his new home at 21 Park Ave was being renovated. Another of my favorite novelists, Willa Cather, lived in the building that stands here today, from 1927 to 1932. Sanger stayed here a year earlier, from April to September of 1926, when the new Grosvenor was only a year old. She stayed here again for one month in 1928.

Sanger also lived next door at 39 Fifth Ave for a short time in mid-1923, when this building was also only a year old. It was designed by Emory Roth, whose firm designed many of New York City’s most iconic structures, and built in 1922.

1923 was a significant year for the progress of birth control for many reasons, one of which I’ll cover in the next installment of this story of my Sanger journey. Sanger wrote an article for the journal The Thinker in 1924 in which she summarized the trials and successes of the movement of the year before. In ‘The Birth Control Movement in 1923‘, Sanger restates and reaffirms the basic tenets of her movement:

‘…[W]e witness [an] appalling waste of women’s health and women’s lives by too frequent pregnancies. These unwanted pregnancies often provoke the crime of abortion, or alternatively multiply the number of child workers and lower the standard of living.

To create a race of well-born children it is essential that the function of motherhood should be elevated to a position of dignity, and this is impossible as long as conception remains a matter of chance.

We hold that children should be

1. Conceived in love;

2. Born of the mother’s conscious desire;

3. And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.

Every mother must realize her basic position in human society. She must be conscious of her responsibility to the race in bringing children into the world.

Instead of being a blind and haphazard consequence of uncontrolled instinct, motherhood must be made the responsible and self-directed means of human expression and regeneration.’

Entryways of 35 and 39 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, NYC

Entryways of 35 and 39 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, NYC

I visit many more sites on this long and adventurous day and will return soon to pick up the tale. To be continued….

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!

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

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

Sources and Inspiration:

10th Street.’ From New York Songlines: Virtual Walking Tours of Manhattan Streets

35 Fifth Avenue, 1926‘. What Was There website

39 Fifth Avenue, Between East 10th Street & East 11th Street, Greenwich Village‘, CityRealty website

About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 31. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

From Geneva to Cairo: Margaret Sanger and the First World Population Conference‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #8 (Spring 1994)

Garrett, Y. ‘Jan. 2, 1923 First Legal Birth Control Clinic Opens in U.S.‘ From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Greenhouse, Steven. ‘New York, Cradle Of Labor History‘, Aug 30th, 1996. The New York Times

Kaplan, Fred. The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Anchor, 2005

The Lost Grosvenor Hotel — 35 Fifth Avenue‘. From Daytonian in Manhattan blog

New York University. Liberal Club. ‘Letter from New York University Liberal Club to W. E. B. Du Bois, November 22, 1926‘. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Birth Control Movement in 1923‘, Apr 1924. Source: The Thinker, Apr. 1924, pp. 49-51. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Hotel Brevoort Speech,” Jan 17, 1916. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyZorea Ph.D., Birth Control

Webster Hall‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Webster Hall and Annex, 119-125 East 11th Street, Manhattan‘. Landmarks Preservation Commission
March 18, 2008, Designation List 402, LP-2273

New Podcast Episode: The Little Way of Goodness

therese-of-lisieuxListen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Growing up Catholic, my siblings and I were taught many stories of saints and their heroic exploits in their quest to attain union with God. One of these was Thérèse of Lisieux, a young Frenchwoman who became a nun at 16 and died of tuberculosis at the early age of 24. She was an especially beloved saint of my family; one of my sisters is named after her.

Thérèse was a romantic and an idealist, and as a young girl, admired the glorious deaths of Christian martyrs and wished to emulate them. Realizing that she was unlikely to find herself in a situation where she could likewise be killed for the sake of her religion, she devised her own system for attaining heaven. She called it her “Little Way”, in which she would regularly perform acts of holiness in day-to-day life. The trials and tribulations of ordinary life would be elevated and be made important by virtue of their being endured with patience and good grace, and opportunities for sacrificing oneself for the good of others would be seized and fulfilled to their utmost… Read the written piece 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!

Philosophie Sans Frontières, by Graham Priest

Wood Bodhisattva, Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 AD), by Mountain at Shanghai Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0 US via Wikimedia Commons“East is East and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet.”

Well, no. Kipling got it wrong.

The East and the West have been meeting for a long time. For most of the last few hundred years, the traffic has been mainly one way. The West has had a major impact on the East. India felt the full force of British imperialism with the British East India Company and the British Raj. Japan fell in love with German culture — especially military culture — after the Meiji restoration. The French colonization of Vietnam drew it inexorably into the Vietnam War.

In the last 40 years, however, a lot of the trade has been going the other way. The post-war developments in Japanese electronics and motorbikes came to dominate the West. Many global IT developments — not to mention call-centers — are now firmly based in India. And it is impossible for Westerners to miss all the garments now bearing the label “Made in China.”

Economy moves at the speed of money. Philosophy moves at the speed of ideas, which is somewhat slower. But the story is similar. In the last 150 years, Western philosophy has made a major impact on the East. The British Raj brought German Idealism — or at least the British take on it — to 19th and early 20th century Indian philosophy. The Japanese Kyoto school absorbed influences from Bergson, James, and — above all — Heidegger. And the influence of Marx on Chinese thinkers hardly needs emphasis.

The influence in the reverse direction is still nascent, but it is now gathering pace. As little as 30 years ago, there was hardly a course on an Eastern philosophical tradition in any Western philosophy department. In fact, it was common to hear Western philosophers claim that the Eastern traditions were merely religion, mysticism, or simply oracular pronouncements. That view was held by philosophers who had never taken the trouble to engage with any of the texts. Had they read them, with care, they would have realized that the philosophy behind them is clear, once one has learned to see beyond the cultural and stylistic differences.

Now, however, many good Western philosophy departments teach at least one course on some Eastern philosophical traditions (at least in the English-speaking world). Good translations of Asian texts are being made by Western philosophers with the appropriate linguistic skills (in the past, translation was firmly in the domain of philologists and scholars of religion). Articles which draw on Eastern ideas are starting to appear in Western philosophy journals. PhD theses are being written comparing Confucius and Aristotle, Buddhist ethics and Stoic ethics, Nyāya and contemporary metaphysical categories. Introductory text books are appearing.

There is still a long way to go until the institution of Western philosophy understands that it is just that — Western philosophy. But at least the movement is under way, though it will certainly take time to overcome the current marginalization of the other half.

What will happen to Western philosophy when full realization sets in? Of course, if we knew what philosophy was going to emerge, it would already have done so. And predictions in this area are worth little. However, I will venture a theory.

We are in the situation that arises when different cultures meet. This has happened before in philosophy. It happened when Greek philosophy met the ideas of the Jewish break-away sect based on the life and death of Yeshua Bar-Yosef. The result was the remarkable development of Christian philosophy. It happened when the ideas of Indian Buddhism came to infuse Chinese thought in the early years of the Common Era. The result was the remarkably distinctive forms of Chinese Buddhisms, such as Chan (Zen). It happened when the new scientific culture which developed in Europe around the Scientific Revolution impacted late Medieval Philosophy, to give us the wealth of Modern Philosophy. I predict that we will witness a similar progressive moment in the present context.

Why do these meetings of culture deliver such progress? It is hard to answer this question without talking about what progress in philosophy amounts to. I can only gesture at an answer here. Progress in philosophy is not like progress in science — whatever that is: as philosophers of science know, this is not an easy question either. One way to see this is to note that philosophers still read Plato, Augustine, Hume. No scientist, qua scientist, reads Newton, Darwin, or even Einstein. Nor is this because the philosophers are simply doing the history of philosophy. They read because the texts contain ideas from which one can still learn.

Cynics might say that what this shows is that there is no progress in philosophy. I demur. Progress in philosophy certainly arises when we become aware of new problems and new arguments. But old problems of importance rarely go away. Yet even here there is still progress in the depth of our understanding. We see new ways to articulate ideas, new aspects of problems, new possible solutions to them.

Now, there are at least two reasons why the impact of a new culture promotes such progress. First, it is a truism that the best way to understand your native tongue is to learn another; and the best way to understand your culture is to become familiar with a radically different one. The contrast throws into prominence things so obvious as to have been invisible. So it is in philosophy. And when these assumptions become visible, they can be scrutinized in the cold hard light of day, to expose any shortcomings.

Secondly, there is genuine innovation in philosophy, but it does not arise ex nihilo. Philosophers draw on their philosophical background for ideas, problems, solutions. The more they have to draw on, the greater the scope for creation and innovation. In the same way, when good Western chefs learn about Eastern cuisine (ingredients, preparations, dishes), they do not simply reproduce them — though of course they can do this, and they do. The most creative draw on the Eastern and Western traditions is to produce entirely new dishes. Call this “fusion cuisine” if you like, but the name is not a great one, since what emerges is not simply merging two cuisines, but creating genuinely novel fare. So it is with philosophy. An understanding of Eastern traditions, when added to an understanding of Western traditions will allow creative philosophers to come up with philosophical ideas, questions, problems, which we cannot, as yet, even imagine.

Over the last couple of decades, it has been my privilege — and that of a small band of other Western-trained philosophers — to help bring the Asian philosophical traditions to the awareness of Western philosophers. For all of us, I think it is true to say, our own philosophical thinking has been enriched by an understanding of Eastern philosophical traditions. If we can enrich the thinking of our Western philosophical colleagues in the same way, our time will have been well spent.

Graham Priest is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Boyce Gibson Professor Emeritus at the University of Melbourne. (Bio credit: OUPblog)

~ This piece was originally published at OUPblog

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

Aristotle’s Tomb Found?

27f5e-69729_aristotle_lgSo there’s been all this buzz the last couple of days about the possible discovery of Aristotle’s tomb. Here’s the New York Times on the story:

‘A Greek archaeologist who has been leading a 20-year excavation in northern Greece said on Thursday that he believed he had unearthed the tomb of Aristotle.

In an address at a conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, commemorating the 2,400th anniversary of Aristotle’s birth, the archaeologist, Konstantinos Sismanidis, said he had “no proof but strong indications, as certain as one can be,” to support his claim.

The tomb was in a structure unearthed in the ancient village of Stagira, where Aristotle was born, about 40 miles east of Thessaloniki. According to Mr. Sismanidis, the structure was a monument erected in Aristotle’s honor after his death in 322 B.C….’

I really hope it’s true!

In case you haven’t encountered Aristotle much, here’s a good introduction to his life and thought at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘Aristotle is a towering figure in ancient Greek philosophy, making contributions to logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, biology, botany, ethics, politics, agriculture, medicine, dance and theatre. He was a student of Plato who in turn studied under Socrates. He was more empirically-minded than Plato or Socrates and is famous for rejecting Plato’s theory of forms.

As a prolific writer and polymath, Aristotle radically transformed most, if not all, areas of knowledge he touched. It is no wonder that Aquinas referred to him simply as “The Philosopher.”…’

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

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

Sources and Inspiration:

Aristotle‘, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Kitsantonismay, Niki. ‘Greek Archaeologist Says He Has Found Aristotle’s Tomb‘. The New York Times (online), May 26, 2016

The Little Way of Goodness

Growing up Catholic, my siblings and I were taught many stories of saints and their heroic exploits in their quest to attain union with God. One of these was Thérèse of Lisieux, a young Frenchwoman who became a nun at 16 and died of tuberculosis at the early age of 24. She was an especially beloved saint of my family; one of my sisters is named after her.

Thérèse was a romantic and an idealist, and as a young girl, admired the glorious deaths of Christian martyrs and wished to emulate them. Realizing that she was unlikely to find herself in a situation where she could likewise be killed for the sake of her religion, she devised her own system for attaining heaven. She called it her “Little Way”, in which she would regularly perform acts of holiness in day-to-day life. The trials and tribulations of ordinary life would be elevated and be made important by virtue of their being endured with patience and good grace, and opportunities for sacrificing oneself for the good of others would be seized and fulfilled to their utmost, in imitation of the life of Christ.

am a philosophical naturalist, and as such, I don’t share Thérèse’s enthusiasm for martyrdom, nor do I consider self-denialism a virtue in the way that she did. I believe that the natural world is all that exists and that the wonder of it consists in the fact that everything that does exist operates according to the same laws of nature everywhere throughout the universe. My sense of awe lies the realization that all of existence is intertwined in the complex interconnectedness of all of its parts, in one great cosmic ‘dance’. When I learn about some new amazing discovery or a wonderfully explanatory new philosophical or scientific theory, or spend time outdoors among the plants and animals or under the stars, I am transported as I never was in any religious service or activity I partook in when I was younger. In short, I find Spinoza’s God, unlike the God of Thérèse, the only admirable and wondrous one that has ever been proposed.

And as a member of an intelligent, hyper-social species, I also believe daily acts of generosity and kindness are not truly instances of self-denial but are a natural product of our psychology. Not only are we are at our best and happiest when we are good to one another, but our very survival is enhanced and more assured. Since we depend for our well-being and our very lives on the cooperation and respect of our fellow humans, kindness and generosity end up, naturally, being self-directed acts as well as acts performed for the sake of others, and vice-versa. I also believe that is wrong to throw away one’s life for the sake of an ideal: not only is life the most wonderful and precious ‘gift’ of the universe to be preserved and treasured, but it doesn’t belong only to oneself. One’s life also belongs to friends, family, and colleagues, and to a lesser but very important extent, to the rest of humanity and other living things. Our lives are not really our own to give, but to live, and I believe there are only very few circumstances in which it is best, or right, to self-immolate. The longer we live, the more opportunity we have to do good in this amazing universe we find ourselves in. That’s my ideal.

Yet I also think that Thérèse hit on something vital. Like Aristotle before her, she realized that habit is essential to the practice of virtue. The more we do good, the more likely we are to do more good. 

In this way, virtue or goodness-as-habit is analogous to the essential role of exercise and nutrition in sculpting and maintaining a strong, healthy body. While we are born with the ability to process food into tissue, to build muscle, to increase endurance, to prolong our lives (some of us with greater genetically-given potential for these than others), these abilities are only expressed and persist based on our daily practices. If they are not maintained, they are lost, and if they are not built up, they languish. For our bodies to perform well, we must exercise, eat nutritious food and not too much of it, drink enough water, moderate our intake of potentially toxic substances, and so on. Without these good health-building and health-sustaining habits, our bodies weaken and gradually wither away; if we have not maintained regular healthy habits, we find ourselves hard-pressed, if at all able, to perform acts of vigor and strength when suddenly called upon to do so. Likewise, a person who is not habitually generous, kind, patient, amiable, companionable, and so forth, will more likely react to daily circumstances much more poorly than if they had made it a habit to act well. 

So I propose that we take the best wisdom of Thérèse, combine it with that of Aristotle and the findings of modern evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and human psychology, and devise a new Little Way. Here, we can substitute ‘goodness’, with our focus on the flourishing and happiness of ourselves and those around us, for ‘holiness’, which is God-centered. We can consciously make goodness a habit, by doing our best to go through daily life choosing to do each thing the best way we can, to be kind, patient, and generous with one another in all the opportunities that daily life presents to us, and to take care of this beautiful world we find ourselves in.

Like Thérèse and I’m sure like many of you, dear readers, I often have idealistic longings to perform admirable, heroic exploits. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to play an essential role in finding the cure for cancer or malaria, or to solve the problems of child poverty, domestic violence, or world hunger, or to liberate women in societies that still subjugate and oppress them? Most of us, sadly, don’t have the money, time, or prodigious talent to accomplish these great tasks. We have the responsibility to earn money for ourselves and for our families, to keep ourselves mentally and physically healthy according to our needs, and to protect, nourish, and support the communities we find ourselves in. So for the most part, we must be content with living more or less ordinary lives.

But our lives can be meaningful and impactful, all the same. We can make one another that much happier and healthier by doing all those little things that all too often we neglect to do when we forget that each choice we make, each action we perform, can really have a big effect. We can make it our habit give a friendly smile to those who catch our eye as we pass them on the sidewalk. When we go out to eat, we can smile and greet our waiter politely, wait patiently when they’re busy and our food arrives a little late, and tip generously, always dining out according to the maxim that if we can’t afford to tip well, then we can’t afford to eat out (especially since in the United States, at least, people in the restaurant industry are poorly paid and depend on us tippers for decent wages). We can thank the salesperson in the store for trying to help us find what we are looking for, and avoid acting ‘entitled’ by taking our disappointment out on them when we think the price is too high or what we wanted is not in stock or available immediately, and we can avoid making a mess when looking through the racks and shelves. We can forgo frittering away quite so much money on luxuries and trifles (while remembering that treating ourselves sometimes is important to self-care), donating some of that money instead to worthy causes. We can do our best to tear ourselves away from Facebook clickbait or watching too much TV or other less important projects to give our loved one a call or drop them a line a little more often (I beg your forgiveness, by own loved ones, this sort of neglect is one of my besetting sins!). We can get to work a little earlier each day (lateness is another one of my besetting sins) and take some of the burden off our colleagues, and try to be as helpful and patient as we can when things get stressful and hectic. As my poor husband can attest, we can all help with the dishes a little more often (one of my most hated chores, so my beleaguered spouse all too often picks up on my slack in this regard). We can be less ‘trashy’ inhabitants of this beautiful world by bringing our own bags and travel cups when going out, buying less packaged goods, and picking up litter we find while out on a walk, hiking, or camping. We can neuter our pets, feed stray ones when appropriate, and always be kind and respectful to animals, as our fellow inhabitant of this rich and fascinating planet we are so lucky to find ourselves on.

By making goodness a habit in our daily lives, even in the little things, we can end up doing more good throughout our lives than we otherwise might have by focusing just on heroic and exciting exploits. And if we do find ourselves in a situation where more heroic action is needed, we will be ready, willing, and able to meet it, with our moral muscles strengthened, our patience of greater endurance, our energy increased and up to the task. The Little Way of Goodness, turns out, in the end, to be really not so little after all.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

– Dedicated to my sister Therese, our own little flower

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!

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

Sources and inspiration:

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by W. D. Ross. 

Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle’s Ethics“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Martin, Marie-Françoise-Thérèse. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Nadler, Steven, “Baruch Spinoza“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 



Hume, Aristotle, and Guns

Photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Antique firearms at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh

I’ve been mulling over the issue of ‘gun rights’ for some time now. It’s a pressing issue here in the United States, since more people are injured and killed by citizens wielding guns than in any other state with a stable government and a thriving economy.

It’s also a divisive issue, as it’s generally argued in terms of liberty, a core value in our culture and politics. One side emphasizes the right to self-defense, the other the right to freedom from fear and from the pressure to join the arms race. And whether or not people chose to arm themselves, their fellow citizens feel that they are placed under some kind of obligation or burden as a result.

From the anti-gun perspective: if at least some of your fellow citizens are armed, then you are forced into a position where you must arm yourself too whether you’d like to or not, or remain at their mercy. After all, in a moment of greed, anger, zeal, fear, mental illness, hate, or accident, one person with a gun can permanently remove all freedoms that another could ever enjoy, within seconds, with the simple squeeze of a trigger. When another is armed, they have the potential power to wield complete control as to whether you live or die, and to force you to act according to their will, and against your own.

From the pro-gun perspective: if your fellow citizens choose not to arm themselves, you leave all the work of crime deterrence up to gun owners. Not only that: since a gun is the most effective weapon which can be wielded by a person of nearly any degree of strength, it’s the only available method for many who feel the need to defend themselves and others. In other words, it’s the one real equalizer: anyone with a gun has as much power as any other, so long as they know how and when to use it.

What would help us decide how to settle this, since the freedom to live the life we want, and the freedom to live at all, are in direct conflict here? We’re still figuring it out here in the US. Some nations have chosen in favor of individual gun rights, and others have disarmed their citizens, with varying results. While, generally speaking, nations and states with low gun ownership rates have much lower rates of gun violence, there are some exceptions. The gun rights dilemma, therefore, is not simply and immediately solved through legislation designed in favor of one set of rights issues over another.

Putting the conflicting liberty and rights issues aside for the moment, perhaps it would help to consider the relevant moral issues. Here, we can look beyond local, cultural considerations to a broader source of guidance as to what we should do about guns. What does it mean to be a good person, a virtuous person, and how do we cultivate that in ourselves and in each other? How does a society cultivate that in its citizens? Can these and other considerations help us decide what’s right, morally, when it comes to the rights and responsibilities of owning a gun? What should we do about it? Is it right or good for people to hold so much power over life and death? Permissive gun laws, which make it easy for responsible gun owners to trade in guns, also make it easier for members of drug cartels and other criminals to get their hands on them, too; that being known, are those laws right?

I think two of the greatest thinkers on morality and virtue, David Hume and Aristotle, can do much to help us discover some answers to these questions. Let’s explore their ideas, look for some answers there, and see how they fit with modern discoveries in behavioral science, psychology, and neuroscience.

According to David Hume, morality originates in the ‘passions’, or feelings. We can see ourselves as naturally moral creatures, since we come equipped with those emotions, those motivations, that make morality possible. We demonstrate altruistic, ‘pro-social’ (not Hume’s term, a more modern one), even as children, though we develop our moral character as we grow, through life experience, conversation with other moral beings, and by acquiring and developing the use of reason. For example, from the earliest age, we approve of kindness and disapprove of cruelty. We desire happiness, love, and generosity, and detest pain and avoid selfish people; we crave learning, and enrichment, and the approval of others. Those ‘sentiments’ ennoble us, and are responsible for that which is best in our characters. Yet the emotions we come equipped with are not sufficient, in themselves, for a morally developed person. Reason also plays a key role, enabling us to universalize and expand morals, and to apply these needed in any given situation.

Yet morality cannot be founded on reason alone: as Hume points out, reason is the means to means to link one true proposition with another, but cannot, on its own, show us what to value, or make us care about each other or anything else. It’s moral feeling, the passions, that provide the motivations, and provide reason the materials to work with to develop our morality. So as we grow up, we learn to develop our moral instincts, to ‘expand our moral circle‘ through conversation and the use of reason. By spending time with others, by being exposed to diverse ways of thinking and being, we learn that others have emotions and interests just like we do, that are just as important to them as ours are to us. Emotionally, we empathize with others; rationally, we know that what we expect of others is no more or less than what we must demand of ourselves. A very young person has the instincts for morality, but prior to experience of the world and the use of reason, it’s a very limited morality, or can even be considered a sort of proto-morality. Experience of other moral agents, through discourse with them, reveals there are others whose feelings and interests matter just as much to them as ours do to us, and finally reason shows that there is not particular reason to favor oneself over another when determining moral rules and guides of behavior. A morally good person, then, will seek to be pleasant and generous, to make others happy and improve their well-being, to respect and protect their interests as much as possible, just as we desire and expect they will do for us.

Hume’s account of how morality works, combined with the body of knowledge we’ve discovered since his time, reveals that it’s as much a natural part of the makeup of the human personality as any other, as are creativity, romantic passion, mother love, curiosity, and hunger, as well as (sadly!) rapacity and cruelty. A natural explanation of morality does not require a complex suite of arguments to found its origins in logic and reason, nor does it require some cause outside of ourselves, as traditional explanations claimed. To find out what morality is and how it works, we observe human beings, how they act and how they desire themselves and each other to act; we explain how and why morality developed as a natural adaptation for human beings; and we apply reason to determine what kinds of mindsets, rules, and behaviors lead to their flourishing.

Behavioral, biological, and evolutionary sciences have, over the years, lent support to Hume’s explanation of morality. Rebecca Saxe and Alison Gopnik, among others, has closely observed the behavior of infants and very young children over time, and has gathered a large body of evidence that people demonstrate moral instincts from the very earliest age, recognize that others are moral beings with their own interests and emotions just like us, and make moral judgments accordingly. Evolutionary psychology (Darwin considered Hume one of his great influences), in which morality is considered as much an adaptation as our opposable thumbs and long limbs, inherit much from Hume’s account. In fact, Hume is widely considered a founder of naturalistic moral theory, and a father to modern cognitive science.

Aristotle’s grounds the origin of morality more on reason, though his theory is founded, like Hume’s, from his observation of the world and how people behave. His elegant ‘function argument’ is the centerpiece of his moral theory. When you consider what something is for, and observe what it does and how it functions, you’ll know where to start. The quality of goodness in material things is closely related to the quality of goodness when it comes to actions and moral feelings. A musical instrument is for making music; therefore, an excellent, or good, musical instrument is that which produces the best music. Further, if we consider a case in which we’re deciding who the musical instrument should belong to, it would be the right thing to do to give it to the best musician. Not to the nicest person, or the one who can pay the most for it, or even to the person who made it; those considerations are irrelevant since none of those have anything to do with the proper function of the instrument.

To Aristotle, reason is the one definitive human trait that no other creature on earth possesses. That’s what we do uniquely, and what we’re best at, or at least, that’s what we do when we’re at our best. So what we should do, the moral thing to do, is what’s most reasonable, what’s most in keeping with our nature as reasonable beings. What helps us recognize that, in turn, is called the ‘Golden Mean’: consider all those traits we have, see how they fall on a spectrum, and we will see that the virtue consists of the happy medium between extremes. For example, bravery would be the virtuous golden mean between cowardice and recklessness, love between disdain and fawning or obsession, and so on. (Fun fact: Hume himself placed great importance on moderation, temperance, and fairness, eschewing divisive party politics, for example, as if it was part of his mission to live out the ideal of the Golden Mean!)

Making the leap from the function of a thing which is an artifact of intentional human creation, to the function of a human being itself, is quite a leap. Aristotle recognized this and sought to address it, but did not yet have the modern knowledge of the theory of evolution, and of evolutionary psychology, and how well they account for the origin and development of moral virtues such as kindness, sympathy, generosity, bravery, and so forth. Nor did Hume, but he did not consider it justified to form conclusions by building a logical case as far removed from original observations as many who followed Aristotle later. Hume saw human beings as much a product of the natural world as any other, and their nature as fully explicable in those terms. So leaving the function argument aside for the time being, let’s consider another important contribution of Aristotle’s to moral philosophy: the importance of habit.To Aristotle, habit is essential to the practice of virtue. By emulating virtue, we habituate ourselves to it. Over time, morality, the practice of virtue, becomes second nature. Here, Aristotle proves himself a keen observer of human psychology, and his emphasis on habit as a central driving force behind human thought and behavior, as well as something which can be deliberately instilled through practice, is confirmed by the findings of modern psychologists and neuroscientists. A recent article in Scientific American outlines some of the ways in which habits are formed, and how necessary they are if we wish to improve our behaviors systematically. Cognitive behavioral therapy, now widely considered among the most effective ways to overcome addiction and anxiety-depression, among other disorders, is also founded on these scientific discoveries.

Here’s where I find a link between these two moral theories: Aristotle’s emphasis on habit works hand in hand with Hume’s account of how moral sentiments arise from human psychology. Whether it be from habit or other mental processes we are naturally equipped with when we achieve consciousness, moral behavior is largely a spontaneous reaction to the situation at hand. Early in our development, as Saxe and Gopnik describe, a basic set of moral instincts are included in human consciousness in its earliest stages. As Hume observes, experience and reason help us expand, develop, and perfect our moral characters over time; the moral character, as Aristotle recognizes, is the set of, and relationships between, the virtuous habits we’ve cultivated through practice.

This also consistent with other findings of modern neuroscience and psychology. The way we tend to act in any given situation, the emotions and motivations that arise in us as we respond to stimuli, are formed as we react to circumstances, and by engaging in patterns of action, reactions, thoughts, behavior, we create mental channels, so to speak, or ‘paths of least resistance’, which predict our reactions, our thoughts and behavior, given similar circumstances. We usually act and think in accordance with how we’ve been given to act and think before, and only change when some new consideration(s) arises that makes us stop and consider whether to do something else this time. These considerations, the combination of reason and emotion (how do I act that will make me feel good about it, given the consequences of my actions for myself and others? How did the decisions I made last time the sort of thing came effect me and the world around me? How do others act in these situations, and what are the effects then?) inform how we habituate ourselves to new and improved moral actions and reactions.

Let’s pause for a moment. So far, we have these two thinkers’ descriptions of morality and virtue, supported by the findings of modern psychology and neuroscience.  Hume and Aristotle show us where they think we should look for virtue, how to recognize it, how to describe and explain it, and where it originates. In other words, they are engaged in metaethics. But as you may have noticed, this tells us only how people actually do think and behave; what about telling us what we should do? What are the criteria for deciding what’s right and what’s wrong?

Arete (Virtue)

I think Hume and Aristotle point us in this direction: human beings not only do, but should habituate themselves to those practices which form in us the best moral character. While both men don’t explicitly tell how we can definitely say what’s right and wrong, they go to great lengths to show us what an admirable character looks like, and how they think and behave. I think they do so in order to reveal to us not only how we could be, but how we should be. In his writings as well as by example (he was widely known to have a particularly admiral character), Hume emphasizes such virtuous sentiments as sympathy, sociability, amiability, beneficence, generosity, and so on, and advocates the cultivation of these traits, especially through conversation and spending time in the company of others, especially those who can broaden your understanding of the world, and by avid reading and study of philosophy, literature, and history. Aristotle emphasizes the virtue of moderation in all things, of wisdom, self-control, courage, and nobility. Both men emphasize, to the highest degree, the use of reason, and the value of its careful and consistent application in all matters of life. It appears that they go through all this trouble not only to show us what a good person looks like, but to offer us something to aspire to: the formation of an excellent, moral character, which leads to the best life a person can achieve.

So, finally, we return to the gun issue. What does all this have to do with owning them, and using them? What does this have to do with what we observe in human behavior when people own guns? How about when people value, or even glorify, guns?

Let’s return to the consideration of the evidence, which can reveal how attitudes and practices relating to guns manifest themselves in human behavior; in other words, what habit or habits does a gun-owning society promote?

There are conflicting statistics to when it comes to gun-related behavior. For example, people in the United States own almost twice as many guns per-capita as Canadians and Germans. Canada and Germany, in turn, have a much higher rate of gun ownership compared to most other developed nations. Yet among these three nations, the United States has a far higher gun-related death rate, about four times that of Canada, and about 8 times that of Germany, though the three share many key cultural and political traits: they are democratic, capitalistic, and culturally and historically Christian. There are also examples where lower gun-related death rates correlate with higher per-capita gun ownership. This is the case for some states in the U.S, and for Switzerland, a country that, interestingly, imposes a requirement on all households to own a gun.Yet given such outliers, most states in the US, and most countries in the world, see a strong correlation between lower rates of gun-related death and injury and lower rates of gun ownership. The U.S. ranks near the top in gun-violence rates, just under Mexico’s, a country overrun with trigger-happy drug cartels, and outranked almost entirely by countries with weak, unstable governments, poor human-rights records, and high rates of poverty and income inequality. The very lowest rates of all, by contrast, are enjoyed by those countries who possess a high degree of personal liberty and human-rights protections while at the same time restrictive gun-ownership privileges, or none at all. Even in Switzerland, often cited by gun-rights advocates as an example of how high rates of gun ownership can correlate with low levels of violence, there are 16 times as many gun deaths as in the U.K, and 64 times as many as Japan. The rates are low in Switzerland only as compared with the most violent countries, but not in comparison with the least violent.

Photo 2014 by Amy Cools

Antique long guns at the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh

Returning to the liberty issue for a moment, it seems that overall, since you must be alive to enjoy any liberty at all, liberty is best served when there aren’t many guns around. When a fight ensues, or the home is broken into, or a child has figured out how to get into a locked cabinet, or a person goes on a violent rampage due to mental illness, few, if any, people actually end up dying or disabled when there’s no guns nearby to reach for. It’s relatively difficult and messy to kill someone with a knife and other non-gun weapons, and the planning that goes into other kinds of homicide, like poisoning, gives people more time to consider the consequences of their action, decreasing the chance they’ll go through with it, or decreasing the chances of success at homicide.

As we’ve seen, however, the liberty issue can’t be the only determining factor in deciding the gun issue, since liberty considerations conflict so sharply when one’s liberty interests run counter to another’s. There are still compelling arguments to be made that individual liberty requires the right for each person to make their own decision in the matter, from the right to self-protection and self-determination. There’s also the fact that there are some states and countries where higher rates of gun ownership do correlate with low gun violence, especially in places where the population is more homogeneous, ethnically, religiously, racially, economically, and so on, even if they are relatively few. Conversely, there’s the liberty considerations of those who wish to be free from the fear of coercion and bodily harm, ever-present dangers that usually result from a heavily armed population, as the statistics reveal.

This is where the law comes in. One main purpose of the law is to defend the rights and liberties of the citizenry at large, and this involves protecting citizens from each other. A population is always composed of people who have conflicting interests, needs and desires, so to keep a society functioning, prosperous, and harmonious as possible, the law (ideally) is crafted to balance the rights, responsibilities, and interests of each citizen, impartially, with the other.Another purpose of the law is to codify, universalize, and enforce the mores of a given society, or at least those that harmonize with the principles of justice, equality, liberty, and so on that are central to the political system of that society.And last but not least, the law encodes a system of rights, responsibilities, and prohibitions, the practice of which is requisite to being a good citizen. In other words, the law is a society’s (in a democracy, the people’s) way to habituate its citizens to those practices which form a virtuous, a good citizen.

Gun law is no exception. Prior to passing laws relating to gun ownership, there are societal attitudes towards guns that people possess, cultivate, and enforce not only through custom and discourse, but eventually through law. Famously, in the 1990’s, the Australian government, with widespread support from its citizens, collected and destroyed a large proportion of the country’s firearms, and imposed restrictive gun laws. These laws were a direct result of the public’s horrified reaction to a series of gun-related mass murders that had happened in the decade prior. The public’s new attitude towards guns was made manifest in the law. It’s still in debate whether the sharp decline in gun violence that followed the new laws were a result of the laws, or vice-versa. It appears most likely that it’s some combination of the two: after all, as we’ve observed throughout history, there’s a feedback loop between the law and a society’s moral progress.

Consider the history of civil rights legislation in the United States: desegregation and other civil rights protections happened gradually, with each disenfranchised group demanding the full rights of citizenship, despite the current will of the majority to keep those groups subjugated and oppressed. Over time, the use of reason (in these cases, legal reasoning) and consideration of the values underpinning the foundational political philosophy and documents (in this case, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) led to new laws which not only enforced better practices, but habituated citizens to more virtuous thought and behavior, often in spite of themselves. We see this time and time again in American history: the disenfranchisement and oppression of black people, religious minorities, the poor and non-landowners, women, Jews, gay people, and so on, once common practice, came to be looked upon with righteous distaste, worthy of contempt. In so many of these cases, it was the law that changed commonly held attitudes, more than the other way around, and the change in attitudes and behavior often happened far more quickly than it would have otherwise if the practice of virtue wasn’t inculcated through law.

In sum: Considering the lessons of history, the evidence of the current states of affairs in which high gun-ownership rates correlate strongly with destructive attitudes and behavior when the entirety of the evidence is considered, and how the wisdom of two of the greatest moral thinkers is confirmed by the findings of modern science, I think that laws restricting, even eliminating, gun ownership by most individuals help lead to a wiser, more prudent, more beneficent, more amiable, more free society.

What do you think?

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

– I’d especially like to thank Guy Fletcher, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, who kindly gave me some of his valuable time (despite it’s being finals week), invaluable insights, and excellent pointers regarding the subjects covered in this essay, especially in reminding me to make clearer the distinctions between meta-ethics, morality, and ethics.

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

Sources and inspiration:

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. About 350 BC. 

Boseley, Sarah. ‘High gun ownership makes countries less safe, US study finds‘. The Guardian, Sep 18, 2013.

De Waal, Francis. The Bonobo and the Atheist : In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2013.

Gopnik, Alison. The Philosophical Baby, 1998.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind, 2013.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, Volume III – Of Morals. Printed for Thomas Longman in London, England, in 1740. (I had a glorious time referring to versions published in Hume’s own lifetime during my trip to Edinburgh!) Online version: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4705/4705-h/4705-h.htm

David B. and Stephen D’Andrilli. “What America can learn from Switzerland is that the best way to reduce gun misuse is to promote responsible gun ownership.” American Rifleman, Feb 1990

Kraut, Richard, ‘Aristotle’s Ethics‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014 

Morris, William Edward. ‘David Hume‘. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009.

Saxe, Rebecca. ‘How We Read Each Other’s Minds‘. TED talk, 2009

Tucker, Abigail. ‘Are Babies Born Good?’ Smithsonian Magazine, Jan 2013.