Tag Archives: Great Conversation

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.

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

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

Happy Birthday Henry David Thoreau

Today (July 12) is Thoreau’s birthday. I ride past Walden Pond every day on my way to and from work and try to keep in mind the things he wrote, though I admit I often forget. I should re-read Walden sometime soon.

The Christian Science Monitor ran an article with 12  quotes from Thoreau. It can be found here:

http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/2012/0712/Henry-David-Thoreau-12-quotes-on-his-birthday/Aim-high

This list does not contain my favorite quote from Thoreau:

“If I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.
What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”

But as I think about this quote, I am reminded of another from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer:

“Christians talk about the horror of sin, but they have overlooked something. They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays, one is hardly up to it.”

It is not always easy to misbehave. I think that is something to think about.

 

The Pragmatics of Philosophy

It has been awhile since I published my last post, but I have not stopped thinking about the ideas we talk about in the blog. The daily grind has prevented me from reading and writing as much as I want to, and that has gotten me thinking about the practical side of all of this.

Does Montaigne, or Plato, or even the Bible have anything useful for us as we go through our daily lives? On one level, I acknowledge that this is all an academic exercise, but I value the reading, writing, and conversations that happen here. Of course, the thinking is the most important part of it.

On another level, though, these works and this conversation make us better people and gives us something to use in the rest of our lives. That is the faith that underlies this entire blog. Still, I am left with the thought that it is incomplete.

These books tend to give us the ‘why’ of our lives, but not necessarily the ‘how.’ Over Memorial Day weekend, there were a lot of war movies on television, many focusing on World War II. As I watched scenes of Nazi’s and imperial Japan occupying other nations, I wondered what good understanding philosophy would be in the face of invasion. You have the philosophy that what is happening is wrong, but what can you do about it?

That is an extreme case. What good is philosophy in the face of an earthquake, hurricane, or wild fires like those in Colorado? What will it do in a drought?

Even in daily life, what does all of this do when we are thinking about how to conduct our professional and personal lives?

I’d like to think that this knowledge helps me make better decisions at all of these times. It will help me act as a better person. I would know what side to join in a war, what to prioritize in a disaster, and when to tell a boss or friend that something is wrong.

Still, the how sometimes bothers me. I sometimes think that something like the Popular Mechanic’s top 100 skills (http://www.popularmechanics.com/home/skills/4281414) ought to be part of the curriculum for people in the humanities. That way, when the time comes to act, there is at least the beginnings of making something meaningful and right happen.

Still, I am open to suggestion, what skills should we all have if we hope to make our lives better and make the world a better place?

 

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