How Do We Really Deal with the World’s Problems?

In the face of the world’s problems, it can seem like a waste of time to spend a lot of effort understanding philosophy and old books. What do all these old books mean in the face of problems like climate change, the rise of the Islamic State, and what looks like the renewal of the Cold War with Russia?

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was discussion of a “clash of civilizations” echoing ideas presented by Samuel Huntington several years earlier. This idea occasionally resurfaces, but it is easier to talk about violence and military solutions.

The problem with this is that it only goes so far. As the recent events in Iraq have shown, we can win the battle, but the battles, there needs to be an alternative to an endless war between ideologies. Despite beating enemies in Iraq, the chaos that resulted and equipment left behind have helped create a new, terrible enemy in the Islamic State.

It is worth noting that the unraveling of the Soviet empire came about in large part because of ideas and tools to spread them. Smuggling fax machines into Poland and showing Gorbachev the grocery stores had a lot to do with the outcome of the Cold War.

People follow leaders because they believe in the ideology that leader is selling. It is easy to convince people to follow if they have no other frame of reference and no ability to think outside of their immediate context.

Understanding philosophy, religion, literature, and science are all going to be important to solve the problems that face us. We need to give people new options of thinking or every military victory will be temporary. The only way that we can offer people new options of thinking is by knowing them ourselves, by being able to think in new ways, and by understanding others. The set at the core of this blog is not complete, but it is a start to understanding where we come from, and that is way to begin understanding others. Being able to bring a convincing argument about why people deserve rights, why beheadings are wrong, and how a new way of thinking will lead to a better life for everyone.

Reading is fundamental. So is having the great conversation with people who think differently than us.

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Can Old Books Teach Us Anything?

One of the questions that repeatedly comes up when it comes to ‘Great Books’ and ‘Classic Works’ is whether or not we can actually learn anything from these old books. Has the digital age changed everything to such an extent that we are better off learning Python and Java rather than Latin and Ancient Greek? Does the existence of the Internet and Smart Phones putting all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips mean that we are fundamentally different?

We can store our memories outside of our brains. We can navigate anywhere we can get a satellite signal. We can track and quantify nearly every aspect of our lives. We can connect with people in ways never imagined by our ancestors. Does that fundamentally change the way humans interact? Does it change the way we fundamentally are? If it does, then does that make all the ancient philosophy and literature historical artifacts rather than something that can help us live our lives today?

When it comes to philosophical matters, the only method for evaluating it is living our lives and experimenting. Human relations are a complex topic, but I have recently stumbled across an interesting comparison that I think proves we have something to learn from the writings of the past.

I stumbled across a blog written by a former police officer and self-defense writer named Loren W. Christensen that discussed how an average person should behave in places where there are a lot of street people and the potential for crime. It reminded me of an old book by a Lt. Col. Baron De Berenger in Britain who wrote a book of advice called Helps and Hints on how to Protect Life and Property. After reading it and thinking about the two writings, it seems the two pieces show both how things change and how they stay the same.

When it comes to self-defense, people like to talk about the old masters and secrets handed down through generations. In addition, there has been a revival in people studying European sword fighting and other combat arts. Of course, the growth of Mixed Martial Arts competition has led to people questioning the value of traditional martial arts. This is a microcosm of how, as new things, or old things repackaged as new, come on the scene, people begin to question the value of what has come before.

But there is a lot more to self-defense than just technique. What I want to compare is advice given to people about self-defense from 1835 and 2013.

In advising people about how to conduct themselves on the street where there might be bad people hanging around, there are some similarities between the two time periods. First, let’s look at a bit of technical advice on where to walk.

From 2013:

“Where to Walk
The old advice was to walk along the curb to avoid being grabbed by someone next to a building. The new advice, based on crime studies, suggest it’s a better to walk down the middle of the sidewalk to avoid anyone hiding between parked cars or reaching out from a building doorway. If you see street people loitering at the curb, walk next to the building but be cognizant of doorway insets and corners. If you can see street people on the sidewalk a ways in front of you, cross the street.”

From 1835:

“Avoid at all times, (but in such a case especially,) to pass too closely to gateways, mews, or lanes, or recesses in either; keep plenty of space between you and such places, and between gaps in hedge-rows, lonely barns, outbuildings, or other places from whence assailants, be it singly or in connection with others in the roads, may rush at you. Take the carriage-road, if circumstances will permit, in all hazardous or suspicious situations, and, if compelled to use the causeway, walk as close as possible to the edge nearest the road or gutter; even then it is useful to occasionally cross to the other side of the road to ascertain whether the suspect person will do the same….”

The interesting thing about these two passages is that they show how the technical advice changes to some degree because in 1835, there were not cars parked on the edge of the street. What is interesting, though is the discussion of how to deal with people. Both writers are talking about street people who might be interested in mugging someone.

From 2013:

“Eye Contact
“It was once sage advice not to look an unsavory type in the eye. But we now know that predators look for people who appear lost in their own world, oblivious to their surroundings. It’s simply amazing how some soon-to-be-victims can’t see five, filthy, freaky-looking street people gathered on a corner. But it happens all the time.
“Don’t deliberately avoid eye contact because they just might think you aren’t aware of them. If you notice one or more looking at you, make brief eye contact with one or all of them. Some street people tend to avoid someone who looks like they might make a scene or respond assertively. They prefer someone who has the victim look: eyes downcast, slumped shoulders, and a shuffling gate. Don’t stare back and don’t assume a defiant attitude. Just give them a quick look, one that communicates that you know they are there and you won’t be taken by surprise.”

From 1835:

“Make it a rule to look firmly, searchingly, and even sternly at the faces of all suspicious characters, especially if you have reason to suspect that their approaching or passing you is under the contemplation of robbery. After this test, the pickpocket, and most of the swell mob, will quit you speedily; but if a fellow on the highway hangs down his head, as if to baulk your scrutiny still to continue about you, prepare yourself instantly to make the most desperate resistance possible, for he not only has determined on attacking you, but he will conclude his robbery with ill-treatment, to continue it perhaps as long as symptoms of life appear…”

There is an earlier part of the same chapter that coincides with Christsen’s advice.

“To keep your antagonist at arm’s length is good, but to keep him at your stick’s length is infinitely better: the middle of the road facilitates both; always taking care to draw a suspected person away from the causweway, in order to prevent his securing what usually is the higher, and therefore the ‘vantage ground.’”

The technical advice is similar, but again for different technical reasons, since most people do not carry walking sticks anymore. But the examples show that even though technical adjustments may need to be made as technology advances, there are things about human nature that remain the same, which means that there is some value in the old philosophy and literature to understanding two of life’s biggest questions: why are we here, and how do we live here.

The blog mentioned can be found here: http://paladin-pressblog.com/2013/08/29/street-people-how-dangerous-are-they/

The book is available on google books and can be found here: http://books.google.com/books?id=jSiQEVNLMMoC&pg=PR3&dq=Helps+and+Hints+Berenger&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Eq2fU6q1Lre-sQSKz4CYAw&ved=0CCcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Helps%20and%20Hints%20Berenger&f=false

Montaigne Was a Feminist

In his essay “On Some Versus of Virgil” Montaigne seems to be ahead of his times when it comes to the rights of women. While he remains a product of his times, he writes that the difference between men and women, especially in regards to love and lust, is mostly a product of society. He turns to some old, dead men to back up his assertions.

“I say that males and females are cast in the same mold; except for education and custom, the difference is not great. Plato invited both without discrimination to the fellowship of all studies, exercises, functions warlike and peaceful occupations, in his commonwealth. And the philosopher Antisthenes eliminated any distinction between their virtue and ours. It is much easier to accuse one sex than to excuse the other. It is the old saying: The pot calls the kettle black.”

Montaigne is thinking about love and sex in this essay and how people, mostly men, should manage their lives in regards to both. He is writing from the perspective of an old man, but does not advocate that people do not fall in love or avoid amorous affairs. He does counsel caution, however.

“Philosophy does not strive against natural pleases, provided that measure goes with them; she preaches moderation in them, not flight. The power of her resistance is employed against alien and bastard pleasures. She says that the appetites of the body are not to be augmented by the mind, and warns us ingeniously no to try to arouse our hunger by satiety, not to stuff instead of filling the bells, to avoid all enjoyment that brings us want and all meat and drink that makes us thirsty and hungry; as, in the service of love, she orders us to take an object that simply satisfies the body’s need, that doe snot stir the soul, which should not make this its business, but simply follow and assist the body.”

If that advice were followed, probably half the sites on the Internet would disappear, but I digress.

Montaigne gives additional evidence that men and women are alike in this area, but at the same time very different in their capacities.

“[Women] can allege, as we can, the inclination to variety and novelty which is common to us both; and allege, secondly, as we cannot, that they buy a cat in a bag (Joanna, queen of Naples, had Andreasso, her first husband, strangled at the bars of her window with a gold and silk cord woven by her own hand, when in matrimonial duties she found that neither his parts nor his efforts corresponded well enough with the expectations she had formed of them on seeing his build, his beauty, his youth, and agility, whereby she had bee caught and deceived); that action involved more effort than submission; and that consequently they are always able to satisfy out needs, whereas it may be otherwise when it is up to us to satisfy theirs.”

Montaigne does counsel modesty and and discretion to people, at the very least. Again, his guide is that things should be handled with measure. Despite his willingness to admit that both sexes are the same, he does acknowledge multiple differences. This one may be my favorite.

Here Montaigne is talking about how people teach their children things and how morality and good behavior gets taught. This passage refers to a lesson his daughter is being given.

“She was reading a French book in my presence. The word fouteau occurred, the name of a familiar tree [beech]. The woman she has to train her stopped her short somewhat roughly and made her skip over that perilous passage. I let her go ahead in order not to disturb their rules, for I do not involve myself at all in directing her: the government of women has a mysterious way of proceeding; we must leave it to them. But if I am not mistaken, the company of twenty lackeys could not have imprinted in her imagination in six months the understand and use and all the consequences of the sound of those wicked syllables as did this good old woman by her reprimand and interdict…”

This reminds me of two stories I have heard in my own life. One was from a friend who was at a party where a young child asked her parents if someone needed to be married to have a baby. The mother apparently froze, trying to figure out how to handle this question. The father said, “No, but it is usually better if babies have both a mommy and daddy around.” The child said okay and went back to play. It was a simple answer that didn’t over comp0licate things or open up a discussion that the little girl wasn’t really interested in and would not have answered her question. And the parents got to give a truthful answer and share their values on the whole thing, so all worked out well.

The second thing this reminds me of is the idea that “the government of women has a mysterious way of proceeding.” More than once in my life, I have seen interactions between women that make no sense to me. Social media makes it all the more puzzling because you can see the “government” proceeding and it looks all the more mysterious. Montaigne at least lets me know that that I am not alone in my occasional befuddlement. And really, isn’t that the point of a great book?

The Habit of Reading

Recently, I have discovered that it is easy to fall out of the habit of reading much like any other good habit. It is like exercise, you need to make time for it in your life and stick with it.

Most of my reading has been done on planes lately. I have read some interesting modern stuff and tried to keep up with the Great Books reading, albeit with less success. But after another hiatus, I am back and will be posting more in the future.

The questions of The Classics and the great conversation that continues on throughout the ages among all people is too important to ignore. We need to find ways to continue working on these questions for ourselves and each other, because these are the ways that we learn to live in this world.

There will be more to come, and I welcome any comments that you may have.

Modern Works: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate LifeTwelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My karate dojo is reading this book as a group to learn about compassion and to expand out training beyond punching and kicking. We plan to tackle a chapter a month, though I have read the whole book in keeping with the author’s suggestion and will go through each step along with the rest of the dojo.

It is a thought-provoking book that has led me to try to look at people and events in my world in a different way. I try to think about approaching situations from a position of compassion rather than aggression or dispassion.

The author of the book, Karen Armstrong, perhaps by design raises more questions than she answers. Compassion is never strictly defined. So, there are points in the book where compassion seems to be identical to politeness or doing a good deed. I don’t think this is exactly compassion. I think that there needs to be an element of commitment of one’s personal power, or resource to be in compassion.

There are aspects to the book that I think are interesting from a philosophical point of view, though I don’t know that they matter to the overall message.

First, she talks about Socratic dialogue being a compassionate tool and says that Socrates was compassionate with those he spoke with. Yet, Socrates was put to death as a result of how he treated others when speaking with them and dismantling their arguments. Anytus in “Meno” unlikely found Socrates compassionate.

Second, I don’t think that Armstrong gives Western civilization enough credit for Compassion. Compassionate organizations such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and hundreds of others grew from the Western notion of the importance of the individual. I understand Armstrong’s desire to promote cross-cultural understanding, but I think she misses some important examples of compassion in that emphasis.

I have a few other quibbles (for instance, I think she takes an unjustified swipe at E.O. Wilson), but overall I think this is a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in living a life that includes concern for other people across the planet and for those trying to develop a broader sense of the interconnectedness of people.

View all my reviews

Earl Shorris Made The Great Books Relevant To Modern Life

Earl Shorris was an author and social critic who died last month. In addition to his writing, he created the Clemente Course at  Bard College that was designed to teach low-income people about philosophy, art, and literature. The aim of his work was to show that the way out of poverty was not just skill training or financial literacy education, but was instead an education that helped people think about their world in a broad context and to understand that there is more to life than just survival.

I was fortunate to hear him speak once, and to have participated in the Odyssey Project which was the Chicago extension of the Clemente Course. I was a writing tutor and helped facilitate the classroom discussions. I enjoyed it because I learned as much as the students.

When you are working on helping someone understand philosophy or literature, it is necessary to both meet them half way and pull them into new, and sometimes uncomfortable, territory. For many of the students I worked with, their only exposure to these kinds of topics, to challenging books at all, was the bible. To get them to step into another author’s world required me to be a diplomat — respectful, yet committed to an agenda that was perhaps different from theirs.

You can’t work with people without studying them as well. There were several tutors and teachers in the course, and seeing how different personalities and students responded to the different styles taught me a lot about teaching and learning.  Sometimes you need to give people the question and the answer so they can debate it and make it their own. Sometimes you need to give people clues to what you want them to learn. Sometimes you put something out there and see what they teach you.

Discussion Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling with a man who has lost a son is a different experience than sitting in an undergraduate course with a bunch of kids who have no real world context that compares.

At the same time, talking about whether or not saving a drowning child is a good act if part of the reason you do it is because you know it will help you get dates with the girls on the beach can show you how much students can adopt the thinking of the things they read. (For the record, I think it would be a good act, even if you might get a date out of it. The students in the class, not so much.)

There was another reason that I felt it was critical to participate in the Odyssey project. I felt like the more educated people we could produce, the less chance there would be for demagogues and tyrants and bullies to do damage. The more people who could call shenanigans on the lies and vitriol that come at us from so many directions each day, the more likely we are to survive as a civilization. I realize this sounds a little melodramatic, but it is people who understand the humanities who prevent massacres.

Earl Shorris and Robert Maynard Hutchins both said that the education for the best — meaning the leaders of society and the upper classes — is the best education for all. That is not a very Platonic idea. That said, it is one I happen to agree with as someone who has made the journey from relative poverty into a comfortable middle class life.  I hope that in some small way, I helped make a difference and contributed to his vision.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/us/earl-shorris-who-fought-poverty-with-knowledge-dies-at-75.html?_r=1&smid=fb-share

 

Read That Again

Here is a brief post from The New Yorker about why it can be important to re-read your favorite books. As I mentioned in an earlier post about homework, the meaning and value of books changes with time. The experience of rediscovering a book can add a whole new dimenions to our reading.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/05/rereading-salinger-maile-meloy.html