Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Bird King, 1836, after Gilbert Stuart, at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Photo 2016 by Amy Cools

As I rest after completing my term papers, exploring the highlands and islands of Scotland with my dear friends, I find I have little time to write and even less time with good internet connection. So let me share some old things with you, friends, until I can write and record for O.P. again.

In remembrance of Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) on his birthday, here are my tributes to his memory, his life, and his ideas from over the years:

To Washington DC, Virginia, and Philadelphia I Go, In Search of Thomas Jefferson

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

and my thrilling interview with Clay Jenkinson, Jefferson scholar, of just over two years ago

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson

I hope you enjoy following me as I followed in the footsteps of Jefferson!

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

O.P. Recommends: M.M. Owen on Martin Buber’s I and Thou

‘A Father and Child’ by Andrei Osipovich Karelin, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In this excellent essay, M. M. Owen explores Martin Buber‘s idea that ‘when we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.’:

I and Thou argues that within this elementally networked reality there are two basic modes of existence: the I-It, and the I-Thou. These two stances make up our basic ‘twofold attitude’. In the I-It mode, an ‘Ego’ approaches another as an object separate from itself. This type of engagement is driven by a sort of instrumentalism; the object is engaged primarily as something to be known or used, and its nature is always mediated through the subject’s own self-regard. From the I-It stance, we don’t engage with things in their entirety. Instead, we engage with a web of distinct and isolated qualities notable for how they are useful to us. Buber regarded this kind of self-centred outlook – typified, in his view, by proto-existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – as a grave error.

By contrast, in the I-Thou relationship, rather than simply experiencing another, we encounter them. A subject encounters a fellow subject’s whole being, and that being is not filtered through our mediated consciousness, with its litter of preconceptions and projections. ‘No purpose intervenes,’ as Buber put it. The I-Thou stance has a purity and an intimacy, and is inherently reciprocal. In relation to others, he argued, we can step into an intersubjective space where two people coexist in (and co-contribute to) what he called the Between. In this Between lurks the vital, nourishing experience of human life, the real sacred stuff of existence. As he put it: ‘All real living is meeting.’

Read the full essay here

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Happy Birthday, Michel de Montaigne!

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, born on February 28, 1533, was a thinker after my own heart.

Montaigne was a deeply philosophical thinker, though he never developed a complete philosophical system or moral theory. He invented, or at least popularized, a revolutionary way of writing: the essay. In his essays, he wrote about anything and everything he found interesting enough to observe and think deeply about which was …well, just about everything, especially his inner life. His Essays are a rich source of wonderful philosophical and moral insights. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “… under the guise of innocuous anecdotes, Montaigne achieved the humanist revolution in philosophy. He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment’. Judgment, in this sense, involves applying both our cultivated moral sense and our reason, enriched with knowledge, to navigating the complexity and variety of situations we face throughout our lives; it also refers to the expansive, tolerant attitude we should display towards each other and towards the whole of reality.

While Montaigne highly valued education, he also recognized that it can be overemphasized to the detriment of learning from our own experiences. In his day, education often consisted largely, even mostly, of rote memorization of a vast quantity of facts. This learning method can stifle our ability to exercise practical judgment and serve to blunt social skills as well, preventing us from learning from and about each other, which is essential for cultivating moral understanding. We should learn as much about the world and each other as possible, Montaigne thought, through interpersonal interaction as well as through more formal types of education.

Montaigne also thought that sometimes, our big, smart brains can even hinder our quest for wisdom. For example, we can become ashamed, insecure, even hateful of our own bodies when we contrast the refinements of education and the arts to the material, often messy, even disgusting reality of caring for the body and satisfying its needs. This distaste for our bodies is ungenerous and ungrateful, said Montaigne, considering how we rely on our bodies for so much. In fact, even to this Catholic Christian man who believed in the soul, we are our bodies in an essential way. Our bodies are much more than just meat that our souls inhabit, they are intimate partners of souls, and together, they comprise whole human beings. As such, our bodies deserve our compassion, gratitude, love, and respect.

Our big brains can make also make us too proud, unable to recognize wisdom in humble or unexpected places. Those of little or no education, Montaigne maintains, sometimes display more wisdom than the most rigorous scholar. This includes animals, who, especially, are sometimes wiser than we are; for example, they live their whole lives with the natural, unembarrassed, proper attitudes towards their own bodies that allows them to unapologetically enjoy the pleasure of being alive. Montaigne believed that we should learn from them and imitate them in these respects. Those who have the most wisdom to teach us, then, can come from all walks of life, and the wisest person will be receptive to the lessons that can be learned anywhere.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t limit our exposure merely to our own cultures, but should learn about as many other cultures and beliefs as possible. Montaigne, like Confucius, believed that before you can be a philosopher or a moral theorist, you must first be an anthropologist. A wide-ranging education and exposure to the world has two major advantages. First, the information you have to work with will be much more vast, your scope much wider, than if you merely stuck to the received wisdom of your own culture. Secondly, you will cultivate in yourself the very virtues that characterize the wise and moral person: tolerance, benevolence, respect, kindness, generosity, understanding, and so forth. Conversely, narrowness of outlook and xenophobia lead to hatred, violence, and so on, as the horrific stories coming back from the conquest of the New World made him all too aware. Montaigne believed we shouldn’t base our attitudes about right and wrong on habit, which is morally lazy and which a narrow education can easily lead us to do; rather, we should temper our moral attitudes with reason, and our reason, in turn, should be informed by an expansive and ever-expanding body of knowledge.

michel-de-montaigneThis can make Montaigne seem like a moral relativist, but I don’t think that this is so. He was a committed Catholic, which seems to rule that out. Yet he did recognize that some things society traditionally recognized as wrong are in fact both bad and good, sometimes one or sometimes the other depending on the circumstances, sometimes both at the same time. For example, consider drunkenness. It can be bad, such as when it gets you fired or leads you to violence. But, it can also be good, such as promoting sociability or artistic disinhibition. Montaigne recognized that if there are universally true moral maxims, they’re likely to be few. Rather, his approach to philosophy is a skeptical one: he recognized that an attitude of uncertainty and doubt is a fruitful one for gaining wisdom. When you don’t easily accept the first easy answers that come along, when you’re always waiting for more information to come in, when you generally accept that there’s a possibility you are wrong, you are practicing a wise skepticism; otherwise, you cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn.

Ethically, Montaigne espoused some behaviors as universally preferable: those that are inspired by tolerance, joyfulness, sociability, generosity, benevolence, curiosity, a good-humored attitude towards other people and their varied ways of living, and so on; he specifically denounced cruelty and narrowness in thinking and feeling. He described his ethical theory not by outlining a rigorous system, however, but by enacting and describing a moral attitude that inspired moral behavior in others. In sum, he may or may not have been a relativist when it comes to a specific theory or set of maxims, but he was definitely not relativistic in the overarching value he placed on the art of being a good, complete human being, and on promoting the same in others.

Montaigne’s Essays demonstrate that the most well-reasoned advanced moral theory may never be quite as convincing, effective, or influential when spelled out as that which is lived out. Montaigne showed us how we can all be philosophers, how we can live ethically, and how we can discover it all for ourselves.

Philosophers, if they’re doing it right, will be the happiest of all people since philosophy can and should be a joyful enterprise, and we should all be philosophers.

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

~ I wrote this essay in 2012 and edited it substantially for Ordinary Philosophy in 2017

Learn more about this great master of introspection here:

Essays ~ by Michel de Montaigne

Me, Myself, and I: What Made Michel de Montaigne the First Modern Man? ~ by Jane Kramer for The New Yorker

Michel de Montaigne ~ by Marc Foglia for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Montaigne’s life and thought with David Wootton, Terence Cave, and Felicity Green (my Intellectual History advisor!) for the BBC’s In Our Time

Michel de Montaigne ~ from The Book of Life

Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592) ~ by Christopher Edelman for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) ~ by Terence Green for Philosophy Now

Michel de Montaigne: French Writer and Philosopher ~ by Tilde A. Sankovitch for Encyclopædia Britannica

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No ~ by Manuel Bermudez

Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness – Montaigne on Self-Esteem ~ by Alain de Botton

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

Happy Birthday, Audre Lorde!

Audre Lorde, 1980

Audre Lorde, 1980

Poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde was born on February 18, 1934. In remembrance of this powerful and eloquent woman on her birthday, I’ll share the bio I found at the Poetry Foundation:

‘A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Her poetry, and “indeed all of her writing,” according to contributor Joan Martin in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “rings with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling.” Concerned with modern society’s tendency to categorize groups of people, Lorde fought the marginalization of such categories as “lesbian” and “black woman,” thereby empowering her readers to react to the prejudice in their own lives. While the widespread critical acclaim bestowed upon Lorde for dealing with lesbian topics made her a target of those opposed to her radical agenda, she continued, undaunted, to express her individuality, refusing to be silenced. As she told interviewer Charles H. Rowell in Callaloo: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds… [White, arch-conservative senator] Jesse Helms’s objection to my work is not about obscenity…or even about sex. It is about revolution and change.” Fighting a battle with cancer that she documented in her highly acclaimed Cancer Journals (1980), Lorde died of the illness in 1992…. Read more about Audre Lorde and her poetry here

and the wonderful articles about Lorde by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

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

Happy Birthday, 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 Adam (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 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!

O.P. Recommends: Five Approaches to Intellectual History, by Chris Cameron

I came across this excellently clear and succinct piece by Chris Cameron on intellectual history, which discipline I’m currently studying at the University of Edinburgh:

‘My view of what intellectual history, as I noted in the chat, is that it is the sub-discipline of history that deals with the ideas and symbols that people use to make sense of the world. A guiding assumption of this sub-discipline is that human beings depend upon the use of language, which gives meaning to individual lives. Another assumption of intellectual historians is that human beings cannot live in the world without theories about what they are doing. These theories may be explicit or implicit, but they are always present and make up our cultural construction of reality, which again, depends upon symbols and language. So intellectual history is not about what people did, necessarily, but more about what they thought they were doing.

By nature, intellectual history is an interdisciplinary field, and there are many approaches that scholars take to studying the history of ideas. I would like to outline five of the most prominent of these approaches…’

Read the full essay here at the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog Black Perspectives

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

 

Happy Birthday, Margaret Sanger!

margaret-sangerMargaret Higgins Sanger was born on September 14, 1879 into a large family with 11 surviving children, to a Catholic mother and an atheist father. Her mother died at about age 50 from tuberculosis. As young Margaret saw it, her tubercular mother died too early because she was worn out from her 18 pregnancies, and would cite this as one of the many reasons she so passionately advocated for the right of women to control their own bodies.

She went on to become a nurse who worked with poor women in New York City in the 19-‘teens and twenties. As she saw these women struggle with the toll that uncontrolled pregnancies took on their families’ finances and their own health, Sanger became convinced that ‘birth control’, a term she invented, was essential if these women hoped to escape poverty and oppression. She opened America’s first birth control clinic and despite numerous arrests and fines, she continued her fight for reproductive rights. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which became the Birth Control Federation of America in 1939 after merging with another organization, which in turn became Planned Parenthood in 1942. She continued her activism right up to her death in 1966. Sanger was instrumental in the creation of the first birth control pill Enovid, first available to the public in 1957. She also lived to see the Supreme Court validate her beliefs in the basic human rights to openly talk about sex and to control their own fertility in the Griswold v. Connecticut decision of June 7, 1965.

Sanger remains a controversial figure today. An ardent feminist, human rights activist, and advocate of sex-positivity, Sanger was also a eugenicist, believing that birth control was at least as important a tool for limiting the production of ‘the unfit’ (her words) as it was for women’s liberation. Sanger agreed with many leading scientists and progressives of her day in ascribing to so-called Social Darwinism (a problematic term since it doesn’t reflect Darwin’s own views as he expressed them), which applied the principles of natural selection to human social practice.  She did not, however, support most compulsory or coercive forms of birth or population control, such as that practiced by the Nazis or even by the United States government, who forcibly sterilized thousands of so-called ‘feebleminded’ women. Unfortunately, she did initially advocate forced sterilization of criminals and of those she believed could not make rational choices for themselves, such as the insane. Except in this awful instance of very poor judgment, Sanger was an ardent advocate of self-determination, free speech, open discussions of sex and sexuality, and education, education, education. It was up to informed and thoughtful people, Sanger believed, to take responsibility for their own sexual choices and to convince others to do the same.

Unlike many other eugenicists, however, Sanger was not a racist. She did her nursing and much of her social justice work in poor immigrant communities, and worked closely with many leading black civil rights figures, believing, as they did, that birth control would have the same liberating effect on the black community as would for women generally. By limiting the number of children according to how many they could afford to raise and when, parents could more readily pursue an education, start a business, or otherwise devote their time, energy, and health to improving their standard of living which, in turn, they could pass down to their children.

Aside from her human rights activism, I find Sanger’s beliefs about human sexuality and its important role in spiritual and mental health most fascinating. To discover more about this complex and fascinating woman, please see my History of Ideas Travel Series following Sanger in the places she lived and worked in New York City.

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

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Sources and Inspiration:

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

Margaret Sanger Papers Project ~ Research Annex. Accompanying blog to The Sanger Papers Project by New York University.

The Pill, People & Events: Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)‘. From the American Experience website by PBS.

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

Tong, Ng Suat. Which Margaret Sanger?The Hooded Utilitarian blog, April 14, 2014.