October 17 2015

Stoicism and the Detroit Lions

Here is a little piece I wrote for the Chicago Tribune about how being a Detroit Lions fan (currently 0-5) is good practice for Stoicism.  (You might have to register to read the piece, but the registration is free.) It appears in print on Sunday, October 18th.  

October 17 2015

PBK Interview

Here is a recent interview with me in Phi Beta Kappa's Key Reporter.  Thanks to Theodore Nollert for the good questions.  An excerpt:

The Deepest Human Life is written in a more popular style than a scholarly monograph. Do you think that the American academy can do more to develop students who are lifelong learners and readers of less accessible texts?

I’ve always liked that aphorism of Lichtenberg’s, “It requires no especially great talent to write in such a way that another will be hard put to understand what you have written.” I hope that my book encourages people to read what you’re calling “less accessible texts.” But I don’t think of books primarily in terms of accessibility. I want people to read really good books, some of which stretch our reading abilities but some of which happen to be pretty accessible. For instance, I’ve found that many of Plato’s dialogues are more accessible to my students than most New Yorker articles.

I’m very concerned about the fate of reading. From kindergarten on, students are given the impression that reading is primarily about the extraction of information, which is only one very small part of the imaginative, critical, challenging, enjoyable engagement that is reading.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is that teachers should assign fewer textbooks, which are generally boring and give a bad impression of what reading is all about, and more really good books, especially classics. Then we should teach those books in ways that shows why we love them so much.

August 25 2015

Deliberate Living: A Few Notes on Taste

Tuesday, August 25, 2015. Taste.

It was my second cup of coffee before I remembered I was supposed to be conscious of tasting today.

Taste is the most critical sense. Unlike vision, hearing, smell, and feel, the sense of taste is rarely being used. On my walk to work I tried—stupidly—to taste the air. Nothing. I realized I was going to have only a few opportunities throughout the day to taste. When we’re tasting things, we’re at least somewhat aware and critical of what we’re tasting. We like or don’t like. From there, it’s a short step to judging. There’s a reason that we use “taste” as a word for judgment.

I had some sparkling water and thought about its taste. Unsurprisingly, it had practically no taste. But I love sparkling water, and—obviously—it has to do with its texture on the tongue. Are taste and touch the closest of senses? (Or is it taste and smell? Actually, taste is related closely with all the senses. We take our first bite with our eyes. Even music puts one in the mood for certain tastes.) At least with intimate touch, we choose it (except in the case of rape). With practically all taste, we choose what goes into our mouth. In both cases, we like or dislike immediately (in the overwhelming majority of cases). Taste, however, potentially involves more thoughtfulness in our discrimination. But there’s a reason that cooks think so much about the texture of the foods they serve.

After I poured myself a glass of very cheap white table wine (it flowed from a box), I turned my attention to cooking. When I went to drink, I noticed two very little fruit flies had drowned in the wine. As different as we are in size and structure, we share something.

I made Spaghetti all’Amatriciana—basically fresh peeled tomatoes simmered with bacon, then topped with grated Romano and Parmigiano and red pepper flakes. Having thought about taste and texture, I decided to add some fresh tomatoes on top, so that the sauce would have a memory of its origins.

August 24 2015

Deliberate Living: Looking

I’m trying an experiment. I want to do more with my days. I want to feel good about saying “I lived” when I go to bed. I don’t want to squander—at least not totally—the miraculous gift of consciousness. So I’ve been thinking about the essential verbs, the fundamental human activities. To love. To think. To work. To make. To do. To play. To labor. To want.

Also: to look. To listen. To taste. To touch. To smell. I’m of course grateful that the five senses guide me around without my giving them much thought, but isn’t it nice to give them some attention? There’s that useful expression “stop and smell the roses.” I don’t think I have it in me to go so far as a Stoic sage—or God!—and regard all things as roses. But there are definitely roses strewn far and wide, many of which I overlook—and overtaste, overlisten, oversmell, and overtouch—on a regular basis.

So my experiment is to work on doing the various human activities over the course of every week, giving myself a Sabbath where I can veg out and do nothing worthwhile unless the Spirit moves me, so that I can return with vigor to my workaday days. I thought that it might be a good exercise if I forced myself to write about the results for the first week—at least with regard to the deliberate turning-on of the senses . . . just to get the ball rolling.

Monday, August 24, 2015. Looking.

On my walk to work, through a nature preserve and under the railroad tracks, I watched a few bees flitting from brown-eyed susan to brown-eyed susan. The bees were blonde with streaks of brownish-black . . . and furry-fuzzy—so fuzzy I felt like I was giving them a squeeze with my eyes. They didn’t spend more than ten seconds, and often just a few seconds, on any flower. Watching them, I understood the old adage “busy as a bee,” for they were all business, flitting from task to task, trudging with dutiful gusto through the filaments at the center of the flower petals. On my walk back I spied a moth or butterfly doing the same work, only with less intensity and a flimsier sense of purpose.

The sky on my walk to work was cloudless and a shallow-ocean blue. On my walk home, it was windy, and there were clouds throughout the sky. In the West, constructed atop a geometrical plane, a row of puffy clouds with mostly flat bottoms. Overhead, scattered and wispy—white, with just a few gray hairs. They were moving slowly, unhurriedly—at least they appeared to be moving slowly. The wind was gusting. I had to grab my hat as it nearly blew off my head.

The busyness of the bee, the leisureliness of the clouds.

I looked at other things too. For instance, the pictures on my walls. Miracle of all miracles. Generally speaking, hanging a picture on a wall is a good way of never looking at it ever again.

June 18 2015

Ecology and an Adequate Anthropology

This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings. But one cannot prescind from humanity. There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”. A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”, for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued.

- Pope Francis

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