Friday, April 30, 2021

The Sublimity of Humanity


Man the Creator

Nature attains perfection, but man never does. There is a perfect ant, a perfect bee, but man is perpetually unfinished. He is both an unfinished animal and an unfinished man. It is this incurable unfinishedness which sets man apart from other living things. For, in the attempt to finish himself, man becomes a creator. Moreover, the incurable unfinishedness keeps man perpetually immature, perpetually capable of learning and growing.

Reflections on the Human Condition by Eric Hoffer. Harper & Row, New York, 1973. p 3

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Stoic Advice from Seneca

Selected Dialogues and Consolations (De Constantia Sapientis, Ad Marciam De consolatione, De Vita Beata, De Otio, De Tranquillitate Animi, De Brevitate Vitæ, Ad Helviam matrem De consolatione, De Consolatione ad Polybium)
Selected Dialogues and Consolations 

This discussion of mine is aimed at incomplete, ordinary, unhealthy people, not the wise man. He must not walk fearfully or cautiously. You see, the wise man is so confident of himself that he doesn't hestitate to stand in Fortune's path and will never yield his place to her." (p 124)

The Roman thinker, Seneca, as one of the members of our Online Great Books discussion group noted, provides advice for living your life rather than the more academic discussions of many of the Greek and Roman philosophers. It is this advice and his positive tone that impressed me the most while reading this collection of some of his essays that present the essentials of the Roman view of stoicism.

Some of the key ideas that I took away from this reading included commentary that leading a happy life means conforming to your nature as a human being. In the essay "On the Happy Life" he states that a healthy mind, one that is courageous, forceful, and filled with endurance, will be necessary for a happy life. Being true to your nature includes being true to Nature itself and one with it. 

Seneca also stresses the importance of virtue for leading a happy life, and in this respect reminded me of Cicero whose writings embodied, at least in part, a stoical view of the world. His idea of virtue including valuing the truth above all which for him included "correct and precise judgement". 

In addition to the views on the happy life Seneca wrote about the need for and ways to attain a life of serenity. One key point about the serene life, that along with other of his comments seems very modern, was that your problems are not solved by moving about, leaving where you have been living; rather your problems are within you and if you do not deal with them directly they will follow you wherever you go.

Included in this collection are three essays called "Consolations". These emphasized the notion that death is not a bad thing, that it is within the nature of the mortal soul to die, that grief, while natural, has appropriate limits, and that if grief is excessive it can inhibit one's natural relationships and duties to the living. One of the consolations was written to his mother, Helvetia, while Seneca was in exile and in it he compared death to a sort of exile.

Most importantly for the average reader, both then and now, Seneca claims that his advice is intended for the "ordinary man". And it is not only about abstaining or working hard spending time improving yourself, although that is important; but, equally if not more important is having fun in your life. Seneca would definitely advise going outside, taking your mask off, and enjoying nature and the fresh air.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Proust on Reading


Reading States of Mind

"And wasn't my mind also like another crib in the depths of which I remained ensconced, even in order to watch what was happening outside? When I saw an external object, my awareness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, lining it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever directly touching its substance; it would volatize in some way before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body brought near a wet object never touches its moisture because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation. In the sort of screen dappled with different states of mind which my consciousness would simultaneously unfold while I read, and which ranged from the aspirations hidden deepest within me to the completely exterior vision of the horizon which I had, at the bottom of the garden, before my eyes, what was first in me, innermost, the constantly moving handle that controlled the rest, was my belief in the philosophical richness and the beauty of the book I was reading, and my desire to appropriate them for myself, whatever that book might be."

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust, trans. by Lydia Davis. Penguin Books, New York, 2003 (1913), pp 85-6.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Emancipation as Termination

The Night Watchman

The Night Watchman 

“Lastly, if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.”   ― Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman

Five years ago I was introduced to the writing of Louise Erdrich by reading The Master Butchers Singing Club. This historical novel of Germans in America won me over and while it has been too long since, I now have returned to Louise Erdrich with her historical novel about the battle of her indigenous people for their rights.

In this story we find Thomas Wazhashk, the the night watchman of the title, working at the jewel bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. Thomas is also a Chippewa Council member who is trying to understand the consequences of a new "emancipation" bill on its way to the floor of the United States Congress. It is 1953 and he and the other council members know the bill isn't about freedom; Congress is fed up with Indians. The bill is a "termination" that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. He wonders, how can the government abandon treaties made in good faith with Native Americans "for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run"? While anyone who has read about the history of the relations between the indigenous tribes and the steady encroachment of American settlers will not be surprised by these events, it is disturbing that they are happening in post WWII America.

Since graduating high school, Pixie Paranteau has insisted that everyone call her Patrice. Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Patrice, the class valedictorian, has no desire to wear herself down with a husband and kids. She makes jewel bearings at the plant, a job that barely pays her enough to support her mother and brother. Patrice's shameful alcoholic father returns home sporadically to terrorize his wife and children and bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to follow her beloved older sister, Vera, who moved to the big city of Minneapolis. Vera may have disappeared; she hasn't been in touch in months, and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence, and endangers her life.

Thomas and Patrice live in this impoverished reservation community along with young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain and his mother Juggie Blue, her niece and Patrice's best friend Valentine, and Stack Barnes, the white high school math teacher and boxing coach who is hopelessly in love with Patrice.

In The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Her very real characters speak simple, but truthful words, all the while fighting a Federal Government whose words are duplicitous. 

Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a moving work of both personal and historical fiction whose story has both sadness and a positive spirit that finds its source in family and community.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

The Divine Force in Painting

On Painting

 "Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter. Plutarch says that Cassander, one of the captains of Alexander, trembled through all his body because he saw a portrait of his King.  Agesilaos, the Lacedaimonian, never permitted anyone to paint him or to represent him in sculpture; his own form so displeased him that he avoided being known by those who would come after him. Thus the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting. Some think that painting shaped the gods who were adored by the nations. It certainly was their greatest gift to mortals, for painting is most useful to that piety which joins us to the gods and keeps our souls full of religion. They say that Phidias made in Aulis a god Jove so beautiful that it considerably strengthened the religion then current."

On Painting by Leon Battista Alberti, trans. by John R. Spencer. Yale University Press, 1966 (1436). p. 63.