Why is Liberal Education Relevant Today?
by Andy Gilman
This question is a great example of the soul-searching individuals and institutions have been doing for some time. Other closely-related questions are “What is the right kind of education?”, and “Given a finite amount of time and money, what should be studied and what should be omitted?” These are important considerations not just for an individual’s edification, but also for our society and our world.
An initial response to the question must include a definition of liberal education. A common approach to a definition includes an integration of learning across curriculum and between academic and experiential modes, usually with a variety of options for the student to choose from. But within the deeper context of the opening question, a more pointed rendering might be the appropriate education to cultivate a free human being or an education every free person (that is to write, all people) should have.
With these later definitions, choice becomes an interesting dimension. Will anything suffice to cultivate a free person? Almost certainly not. But if you don’t specifically read this or that book are you excluded from the realm of the free? Probably not. So, perhaps the focus is not specifically on authors, rather on disciplines or areas of thought and societal development. Of course developments are achieved by human beings, and there are some individual authors who, if they were to be omitted from the conversation (e.g. Aristotle and philosophy, or Newton and physics) one could reasonably argue that the studied subject is lacking. Still, if we were to focus on areas of study, perhaps the following would be a natural starting point:
What is the best way to live a life?
How do we know what we know?
What is the best political system to encourage human flourishing?
What is the nature of reality and of human kind?
What is the nature of matter?
Is there a God and what might God’s nature be?
How can we recognize the good, the just, and the moral?
What is happiness?
From the farthest antiquity to the present day, these are among the questions of liberal education.
The most business-driven student has the above questions as central cares, even if they are not at the foreground of consideration. If this is true, then an education that addresses these areas would be one that is serving a great purpose. If the business- or practically-focused education does not address these cares, at least in part, then perhaps this is an education that will need to be amended at some point. But the reverse is also true... as a part of living a good life, people need to support themselves financially, and that means having skills not just of value but hopefully of enjoyment. A proper education, within a school or outside of it, would seem to need to address these practical concerns as well.
A further dimension to consider is development over time and place. A criticism of liberal education, specifically within the accepted great books variety, is that the vast majority of the included authors are European males, which may miss a wide variety of experiences and understandings. The criticism is worth careful consideration on at least three points. First, the West has set the primary pattern for the larger world in politics, science, technology, mathematics, logic, and economics (there are many reasons for this, but that is the subject of another paper). It is true that part of the West’s dominance came through colonization and violence. It is also true that this dominance came from discovered truths (at least in the hard sciences and mathematics, if not further). It follows that a deep understanding of these discovered truths and Western development in general would begin with Greece and move forward where developments occurred. It also follows that Western citizen men were allowed and encouraged to explore and develop these ideas where others were not, hence the disproportional representation. Second, when women and people of color are allowed and encouraged to develop exploration, thought, and creativity, we see production completely on par with Western men. Therefore, there is nothing particular about Western men that can produce these works, rather this work is the imperative of any interested and dedicated human, within and beyond the West. Third, if we are to focus on areas of study instead of authors, the liberal education cannon vastly opens to keep Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and everyone else in the great books conversation, but can also include the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, Confucius, Murasaki Shikibu, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Richard Feynman, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and too many others to mention. The preliminary work for teachers and leaders is to strive to understand this expanded thinking, to incorporate these developments into the full response to the central cares mentioned above, and to modify, augment, redefine, and re-evaluate how knowledge, progress, and flourishing are accomplished. This is the task that belongs to everyone, to all people... naturally and self-evidently free. So...
Liberal education will only become irrelevant when human nature changes to such an extent that we are no longer human.
“The riddle of existence is the college curriculum that was laid before the Pharaohs, that was taught in the groves of Plato, that formed the trivium and the quadrivium, and is to-day laid before the freedmen’s sons by Atlanta University. And this course of study will not change; its methods will grow more deft and effectual, its contents richer by toil of scholar and sight of seer; but the true college will ever have one goal, — not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”
— W.E.B. Du Bois - The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter Five
What Makes a Classic Work a Classic?
by Andy Gilman
This question seems to be obvious to answer, but is actually curiously difficult. It’s pretty easy to write that Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Virgil are classic authors (as writers of works from the ancient Greek and Roman periods). But what about the Greek and Roman works that are extant but not engaging and rarely read? Further, when one includes books such as Moby Dick, War and Peace, and Emma into the classic category, the question of what makes a classic work becomes not just time-bound, rather it encourages other dimensions to the definition of classic. Finally, when one exclaims that the ‘69 Chevy Camaro is a classic car, what could possibly be meant by that expression?
Classic must mean more than objectively or relatively old. Classic must mean an art object that also speaks of the human response to the most important inquiries that have spanned over millenia, but which also spark a specific inspiration in the present day... hence, “this modern work is destined to become a classic.” We could suppose this last statement means that the contemporary work will be in the classical cannon someday in the future. How is this possible? It must mean that the work is speaking within the classical conversation of the deepest questions which have only an accidental or cursory interest in ancient or passing time. The obvious implications are that human nature and human experience are generally constants.
But classic, besides implying a launch of the Great Conversation, also involves aesthetic considerations. We speak of classic architecture, painting, sculpture, and engineering. We describe art that references past art as classical, or we encapsulate a period of time or a mode as classical, such as classical music. To further complicate definitions, we call contemporary music that is written for ensembles or orchestras as contemporary classical music. Even if we don’t particularly like a piece of ancient or modern orchestral music, we tend to think the activity and the artifact is worthy, and in at least some sense we think it is good. Classic seems to also imply good.
The Greek, Roman, Hindu, and Chinese ancients speak in ways that is surprisingly current. The problems, wonderings, and beautiful expressions they produced are among the same considerations, worries, and impulses we have today. If it is true that the human condition is a constant, then classic might mean that which is speaking intelligently and beautifully to these perennial considerations. If that is true, classic is possible now.
Conscience from Consciousness
by Andy Gilman
It's normal for texts in the great books cannons of the east and west to have a lot in common. These writings are all a part of The Great Conversation, addressing the perennial questions of humanity over millennia. A thread emerged recently among our recently scheduled great books seminars that was not intended, but which was surprising and thought provoking. The seminars were:
June 1, 2019
The Theory of the Leisure Class - Part One
by Thorstein Veblen
May 19, 2019
Responsibility and Judgement (selections)
by Hannah Arendt
January 26, 2019
Structural Anthropology - Part One
by Claude Levi-Strauss
Beginning with Structural Anthropology, we see Levi-Strauss take a systematic approach to the subject, following the recent advances realized in linguistics, centered around the concept of the phoneme... a simple unit whereupon a structure could be understood. What became very surprising was Levi-Strauss' first simple unit - the relationship between the maternal uncle and his nephew. Adjacent to this relationship was the dynamic between the mother and her brother, and also between the husband and wife. But behind these structures there was an imperative of the incest taboo. To avoid incest there are a myriad of structures, rituals, and traditions of women exchange among social groups.
When a scientific line of inquiry reduces a phenomenon (like a hot bowl of your favorite soup) to a collection of bound molecules in motion, we sometimes find the account lacking the essence of the thing being studied, even if the reduction produces new knowledge. In the case of the imperative of the incest taboo, the seminar participants' reaction was not that the essence of the thing (i.e. the marriage) was missing, rather that the origin of the structure has an ugly beginning, and that perhaps all of the extrapolation and ceremony give a false impression of what is actually essential. Namely, are we fooling ourselves about what things mean?
On June 1, we read and discussed the first half of The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. As with Structural Anthropology, there were several surprises waiting for the group. Veblen posits that the origin of property stems from men's capture of women as spoils of conquest, which also extends to men's capture of other men as slaves. This text is concerned with society's development of a leisure class stemming from this warrior class, and to the showing of wealth to establish class differentiation, but the overlap with Lev-Strauss was striking both in terms of the transfer of women but also in describing the origins of daily life as violent, barbaric, and, again, ugly.
Even if Veblen's and Levi-Strauss' accounts are not completely accurate, most agreed that the descriptions rang generally true, and at very least the investigations were highly thought provoking. But we were a little sickened. When we think of marriage, parenthood, business building, property ownership, societal gathering, and so on, we understand that there are veiled origins, and we also expect that our earliest beginnings must have been similar to what we see in the animal kingdom today. But we paused at barbarism. One avenue of thought then emerged which gave us some hope: we have evolved beyond our origins, and we didn't just upgrade the facade.
Conscience from Consciousness. In May, we read and discussed selections from Responsibility and Judgement by Hannah Arendt. She offered the following proposal: Conscience grows out of consciousness, just as judgement grows out of thinking. Arendt describes the trails of Nazi leaders, as well as examples of racism in our country, and she concludes that every one of us must examine our lives, and that in our actions we must be prepared to live with ourselves. We must be able to look ourselves in the mirror and face the ever-present judge that is there. We have awareness (consciousness) and interact with our environment, but beyond that a sense of goodness has evolved in us, even if its origins were merely practical (such as avoiding incest). Life is self-preserving and posits a self-value. Goodness is how life best thrives, much more so than through barbarism. If this is not true, then Nazism is only wrong because they lost the war.
While incest taboo may have evolved due to inviable offspring, the taboo now is much more informed by the damage a sexual relationship would cause in a familiar relationship that flourishes not just without this dynamic, but also because of its absence (e.g. a father and daughter), and this is good. Finally, while there may be a love, hate, and eventual armistice in self knowledge, or in origin knowledge, there is real cause for interest in how our nature has soared above our messy beginnings.
Who's Talking? Film and Text Pairings
by Andy Gilman
The Agora Foundation has four main offerings for those wishing to further their education:
One-, two-, and four-day public great books seminars;
Free ongoing community seminar series, with one-hour sessions taking place twice per month;
The Teachers for Lifelong Learning Program, training education professionals in this engaging approach to learning and civil discourse; and
The Ojai Chautauqua community panels promoting civil discourse on complicated and highly charged subjects for large audiences.
For many years Agora has taken advantage of the vibrant theater resources both in Ojai and in Los Angeles, by reading and discussing plays and then watching the play performances. These great books seminars and theater pairings have proven to be both popular and engaging for the participants and provide a window into the varying roles of direction and stage craft in manifesting a playwright’s vision.
On November 18th, 2018, The Agora Foundation added to this mode of juxtaposition by grouping a short story and film. The text was The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov, and the 1960 Russian film adaptation by the same name, directed by Iosif Kheifits was shown. Prior to the one-day event, registrants received and carefully read the short story. The event began with a continental breakfast and then the film showing. After lunch, the group reassembled to discuss the question: Did the film give you a greater understanding of the short story, or worse? Download the story in PDF format below, watch the film (broken into two parts), and listen to the seminar conversation.
Besides the general discussion and civil disagreement about a character’s virtue, motivation, and possible redemption, some large issues with a pairing of this kind emerged:
When the narrator writes in the story, how is that text voiced in the film? In this particular case, the narrator’s comments in the text about either the internal, unvoiced thoughts of a character, or the general, perhaps omniscient, assertions were spoken by a character. Other films handle this with voice overs, etc.
The film director made decisions about how much emotion or warmth a character would have, or in this case, also how much the dog would be present among the main characters. The is something seen in every theater performance or film from a written text… decisions will have to be made about everything, and those decisions shape how we think about the story. We have all seen examples where the performance varied, for good or ill, from the written work. And it must!
In general, Who is Speaking? Became a key question during the conversation of The Lady with the Dog. When a character in the film voiced the written text from the narrator, we agreed that the thought became mixed with the character’s own flaws, perspectives, and desires, and therefore made the reading more complicated.
The director can accomplish goals with the movie that the text did not suggest, such as in this case making comments about the contemporary society.
Download the story
The Lady with the Dog
by Anton Chekhov.
Listen to Part One of The Lady with the Dog seminar - November 18, 2018
Listen to Part Two of The Lady with the Dog seminar - November 18, 2018
The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov.
View the trailer for the 1960 film directed by Iosif Kheifits.
The second film and text event took place on Saturday, March 2, 2019
The Dead by James Joyce, paired with the 1987 film directed by John Huston
Listen to Part One - of The Dead by James Joyce - Film and text pairing - March 2, 2019
Listen to Part Two - of The Dead by James Joyce - Film and text pairing - March 2, 2019
Listen to Part Three - of The Dead by James Joyce - Film and text pairing - March 2, 2019
Download the story The Dead
by James Joyce.
View the last ten minutes of
1987 directed by John Huston.
Concluding Lecture for Humanity's Place in the Natural World
August 3, 2018
by Jeff Welsh
The farm boy.
Look at this village boy,
His head is stuffed with all the nests he knows
His pockets with flowers, snail shells and bits of glass,
The fruit of hours spent in the field by thorn and thistle tuft.
Look at his eyes, see the hairbell hiding there,
Mark how the sun has freckled his smooth face, like a finches egg
Under that bush of hair that dares the wind
And in the mixen ( manure pile) now,
Notice his poise.
From such unconscious grace,
Earth breeds and beckons to the stubborn plough.
And so Andy wants me to tell a story.
A story telling a story.
Something about a connection with nature. About someone climbing a mountain maybe, or falling whilst climbing and the struggle to get back to the ‘safety’ of civilization. Or of being attacked by a bear, pulling a thorn out of the paw of a mountain lion and living to tell the tale (with the concurrent poetic licenses of course). I thought of telling the true story of being in a forest fire as nature tried to recycle our home, us, and all around us - mentioning how wonderful it felt to feel the exciting raw energy of life coursing through the veins, and later how my life was changed in some mysterious way. All experience – whether remembered accurately or not – will add to the story of a fictional “me”, sitting here right now, which will act out, together with all my other stories, defining whom i think I am, even including the stories involved in so- called self-knowledge, which again is another story telling a story. Finally what came through is this story about all of our stories since as I see it, little can be done to help the world, or ourselves actually, from such a disconnected place with such a limited vision.
The metaphorical Adam of course had no stories to tell until he partook of this apple of knowledge, after which he apparently became the first actor on the planet, setting him apart from the other animals and attracting to him the thoughts of dominion and domination which separated him, raising him up above all of creation in both his eyes, and later in the colluding eyes of others. This sowed the seeds that would ensure his own destruction as he began to destroy himself by destroying the other; oblivious to the connection and its obvious conclusion in armageddon. And maybe it happens this way in the grand scheme of things.
Adam and Eve, then would use their new-found knowledge to pass on this dominant heritage for their kids to act out. And they begat and begat as I recall. Then mankind soon pined for that which had been lost; a connection terribly missed, and they would invent ways to fill in this void with the so - called spiritual search to find their individual place and meaning in this great scheme of things. And if not the spiritual search, then the material one or a myriad of variations on the theme, all of which would come back to bite them in the ass or the asses of the next generation. Pun intended. They had scooped out a bucket of water from the stream of life, which they had named the self and tried to understand life’s vast energy by exploring a tiny bucket. They thought that by changing the water in the bucket through self-knowledge, they would somehow be able to affect the whole and fix any and all problems that would arise due to their myopia. They also looked for ways to escape from the new inner sorrow and alienation and how to escape the associated pain with drugs and diversions. And how is that going so far?
So this is our story, one of separation and longing to get back to an imagined paradise. The very thing that thinks that it is above the animals and the mountains wants also to partake in the beauty of their world, as long as it remains in control, and there is the paradox, that is not possible. We forget that before knowledge, there is no comparison, no higher, no lower, no right or wrong, no morality. Anger was anger, tears just tears and joy, joy' and we had no reason to be acting, no need to impress others. Our story can be followed in the passing of one lifetime, from the embryo until the taking on of a separate self, a self-conscious entity very early in childhood and after which time we have to act out a part with which to ''strut and fret our hour upon the stage', always pining for that distant time when all was as it should be, but mostly only when the chips are down and we wonder to our purpose. Generally we reinforce the mistaken belief that the earth was something created for man. Now that we have finally discovered that there are probably billions of planets like ours, we are faced with the irrationality of that premise.
As actors then we ask the questions, like "Now that we have taken over control, what is our responsibility?" But this kind of question is coming from an actor, from our story of whom we think we are, and we cannot tell or trust where his or her lines are coming from. I too have no way of knowing where these lines came from. It is the same dichotomy of 'the mind that created the problem is not the mind that can solve it.' It is coming from a premise that knowledge can solve everything whereas in reality, it might be a question, 'asked by an idiot, signifying nothing'. Even this story cannot be fully understood, let alone expressed accurately in words since it comes from the bucket that we call ourselves and to understand it would be to pour the bucket back into the stream, and to end the self. And who would do that?
Without a story or agenda, when we walk through a meadow, or other pathless area, we meander – much like Emily Dickenson reports doing in her poems. To a bystander, steeped in the reins of time it might seem purposeless, wasteful or whatever, but in the relaxed state of wandering other senses can emerge. Instinctive sense will flow through and we might or might not avoid treading on the flowers. However, it won't be because we 'should; or should not. We might - or not - smell the flowers, or the fresh bear poop as we wander, neither more important than the other and both capable of giving instruction, even insight. As we ramble, completely connected to the world around us, our story quiet, our bodies relaxed, not contracted, we may become a channel for life to sense everything so that we may see and do what it wants us to do. Will it direct our energies to change the world? There is no answer from knowledge, but my guess is, do what you may from that energy, you can do no harm.
And now, bringing us to the present, here in this room, am i wandering or am i contracted. It’s probably the latter because MY story will be playing out and i'll want you to like me, I’ll want to be safe, just as you – for your own sake – might want me to be. This is the reason that i wrote these lines down rather than trusting that they would come through easily and in so doing i separate myself from you all by wearing my mask, my story, so that we may all be comfortable, without those embarrassing moments of silence. And is there a happy ending to my story? Is there a way to connect? Something that I can do right now that will help repair the damage we see daily all around us and on our screens? Will artificial intelligence be able to help us, or is that an even further separation and more complicated, even sinister, illusion?
Each of us will have their own answer to these questions, coming from their particular and surely different story, and therein lies both the rub and the possibility of much needed amazing grace.
Read by Jeff Welsh
Read by Andy Gilman
Opening Lecture - Learning What Our Place in the Natural World Might Be
by Andy Gilman - July 31, 2018
Delivered at the Humanity's Place in the Natural World summer intensive
What is nature? What does natural mean? Or, more specifically, what is natural for humans to do and to be in the world, and what is our relationship to the world? Do we belong to the world, are we wholly made of the world, or are we a part of it and also alien to it? What is our responsibility to the world? To investigate these questions we will explore examples from mythology, biology, physics, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and the arts.
There are origin stories from around the world that describe our situation as partly of the world and partly not of the world. Here are just three stories, and they are amazingly congruent:
From Greece - Prometheus and Epimetheus were spared imprisonment in Tartarus because they had not fought with their fellow Titans during the war with the Olympians. They were given the task of creating humanity. Prometheus shaped man out of mud, and Athena breathed life into his clay figure. Prometheus had assigned Epimetheus the task of giving the creatures of the earth their various qualities, such as swiftness, cunning, strength, fur, and wings. Unfortunately, by the time he got to humans Epimetheus had given all the good qualities out and there were none left for man. So Prometheus decided to make man stand upright as the gods did and to give him fire.
Native American - In the beginning there was no land, no light, only darkness and the vast waters of Outer Ocean where Earth-Maker and Great-Grandfather were afloat in their canoe... Earth-Maker took soft clay and formed the figure of a man and of a woman, then many men and women, which he dried in the sun and into which he breathed life: they were the First People.
Old Testament - Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”…
Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
The simple way to read these accounts is that our bodies are made from the same stuff as every other natural thing, such as clay, and the breath of our life comes from supernatural forces that created and govern the world. Even in comparison to the animals, of which at least our bodies have so much in common, humans are particularly situated not just with life but also with a god-like fashioning. Other aspects of these peculiarities include morality, language, abstraction, timing, calculation, imagination, understanding… in short, what reason produces.
Differing Abilities and Their Consequences
Even if we want to criticize these origin stories for uniquely raising the status of humanity to divine proportions (or at least divine instigation), it’s difficult to deny that our experience in the world appears to be distinct from other life. Let’s consider a few examples:
You can watch a nature program and see a group of lions single out a juvenile antelope, cut it off from the herd, tackle it, keep a firm bite on the antelope’s neck until it falls, and then the lions begin to tear the flesh away while the antelope dies. It’s gruesome. We understand that this is the way of nature, and the entire living world only survives with the death of other living things. Even plants require the nutrients that soil provides, and the difference between soil and sand is dead plants and animals. Even floating sea plants metabolize the soil-like nutrients found in the water, the product of former living things. The disturbance here is that we know this is how life works and if we want to be alive we have to cause the death and potential suffering of other living things, but we can’t ignore the pain and presumed terror of the antelope, nor the suffering of the hungry lion. But of course the lion is not being cruel. The whole system seems cruel to us because we can imagine what it’s like to be all of the creatures. Not only that, we also find life and living things profoundly beautiful and rare in, at least so far, an otherwise lifeless universe. By nature, it seems, we are fundamentally driven to want to continue to survive while we abhor (when we deeply think about it) the method of our continuance. When we don’t think about it we just enjoy our burger. It does seem strange that nature would have an offspring so ill-disposed to the process, but hold that thought for now.
If we try to define music, we typically come up with something like the following:
the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity. Or more simply: vocal, instrumental, or mechanical sounds having rhythm, melody, and harmony. So, by these definitions, when wind chimes are blown and making sound are they also making music? And when birds are singing in the forest are they making music? Let’s take each question in turn.
A stove in action is only hot for beings that have nerves. For a rock, the stove is not hot, better said the stove is in greater molecular motion which will influence the molecular motion of the rock if the rock is close enough. That is a way of understanding what temperature means, and we are lucky to be able to sense it in order to avoid injury. Similarly, when the wind chime is in motion, we hear the sounds it produces and find it to be beautiful and even musical, but the chime does not hear or understand what it is producing, nor did it compose the sounds. The maker of the chime intended those sounds, and that maker is also a potential maker of music, just as we listeners are. So, the chime does make music, for us.
The singing bird in the forest is intending to make the sounds it’s making, unlike the blowing chimes. Again, we may find the sounds to be beautiful and musical. All of our observations of birds singing seem to involve communication of territory and mating readiness, although we should always be cautious about defining the intention of animal behaviors with absolute confidence. Still, we would not call all bird “communication songs” harmonious. Kingfishers rattle, owls hoot, and woodpeckers seem to use hammering to communicate as well as to find food. Contrast these bird examples with a woman alone at home, learning to play a song on her guitar. Why might she be learning to play a song? If the song has lyrics we could say that the music is speaking to her experience or emotionally moving her. Let’s say this is a song without lyrics… the song is not about anything, it is just melody. Why learn the song now? Maybe she plans to perform the song in a crowd, in the hopes of attracting a mate. Let’s say she is shy and never intends to perform the song in front of others. Why now? What’s the point of learning the song?
Music has the distinct honor of being the most muse-like of all of the art forms, hence the name. In its non-representational melodic and rhythmic forms, music seems to have the potential to elicit fantastically rich responses: excitement, sadness, melancholy, joy, wonder, peace, etc. Of course the addition of lyrics can make music be about something particular, and that is just another dimension of the form. Consider what more is within the practice of music – ratios. When we hear a C, and a C’, they are stacked, they belong to each other. Then we learn that the C’ vibrates at double the frequency of C. Then consider the perfect 4th and its ratio of 2:3, and the perfect 5th at 3:4. Were we simply interested in making maps we would say that it makes sense that the 4th or 5th work with the root, because there is a proportion that appeals to our cognitive sensibility. Luckily we are not just mapmakers… these notes together also sound beautiful.
The name music suggests that this art is a gift from the gods, and therefore not originating from the natural world… another example of our peculiarity. Learning a song certainly does not feel artificial or unnatural to us, but it does seem to be a unique activity in the world.
As some thinkers have questioned, if we were to visit another world and look for a sign of intelligence there, what might we look for? An easy and demonstrable sign would be a made image. Why? Consider what goes into the making of an image, such as a prehistoric painting of a bison on a cave wall. The producer of this work must be able to do the following things:
a) Hold a mental image from the past and reproduce it in the present,
b) Have the ability to discern essential qualities of a many instances of the
same general kind of thing, and reproduce that essence,
c) Both a) and b) suggest the ability to experience time outside of the
present awareness and abstraction outside of the present sense
d) If the bison happened to be present and modeled for the artwork, the
imagemaker is still deciding what is essential to reproduce from the
model, since some truncation must occur.
Beings who can make images also time and abstract in a manner non-image-making beings do not seem to be doing, and this might be the beginning of symbolic, abstract language. In the animal kingdom we do find signs, such as urine marking territory or location, but these signs seem to lack the dimensionality and depth of definition we see in human image making.
In the animal kingdom apart from humans, suicide is extremely rare and, when it does occur, seems to generally take three manifestations:
a) self-destruction to defend the colony – as in the case of carpenter ants,
b) suicide-inducing parasites – such as worms that control crickets from
early age and then, in adulthood, get them to die in water so the
worms can reproduce and find new crickets to zombify,
c) animals such as dogs and ducks that appear to be depressed about the
death of the human master or the life-long mate, and then
abstaining from food until the animal dies.
Approximately 0.5% to 1.4% (varying by country) of people die by suicide, a mortality rate of 11.6 per 100,000 persons per year. Suicide resulted in 842,000 deaths in 2013 up from 712,000 deaths in 1990. Rates of suicide have increased by 60% from the 1960s to 2012, with these increases seen primarily in the developing world. (Wikipedia). In the U.S, firearms account for 51% of all suicides in 2016 (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). This highlights a difference between human and the rare animal suicide: we use tools. According to Psychology Today, there are five main reasons people attempt suicide:
a) They're depressed,
b) They're psychotic,
c) They're impulsive,
d) They're crying out for help,
e) They have a philosophical desire to die.
The last cause offers the most to consider for our purpose here. Our peculiarity gives us a distorted view, or a view that exposes too much, and makes some of us to prefer unconsciousness over continued consciousness. Healthcare professionals will say that some thoughts of suicide are normal… So whatever happened that triggered our long ago ancestors to be able to see and do more came at a price. Jeff, our storyteller on Friday morning, will touch on this.
Sometimes a bright young person will ask: “I know in English we call that thing over there a dog, and in Spanish we call it a perro… but what does the dog call itself?” The answer: “We’re not sure if it calls itself anything, or even if it calls anything anything.” What avalanche of cognitive implications does (simply) giving something a name suggest, and how does that indication separate the named thing from all other named things? So much has been said of human language and we need not reiterate it here, we can just point out that while we continue to learn more about animal communication and different species’ abilities at recall and limited abstraction, the spectrum of animal abilities (humans included) does not seem incremental… rather exponential or at least with enormous qualitative gaps. We will certainly learn more about animal’s abilities in the future.
There is a lack of consensus on the difference between humans and our close animal cousins (in nature, without being trained). In general, the following list summarizes what many say are the observable divergent attributes, while omitting more obscure abilities such as self-reflection:
Symbolic, recursive language
Fashioning permanent tools
Image making (abstraction)
Making art (visual, musical, etc.)
and, Burying our dead
Perhaps we can take this list as a tentative group of examples to suggest why, in the area of abilities, we sometimes feel alien to the world.
The World as a Testing Ground
In religions and philosophies that involve an afterlife, the world is often considered a testing ground, and humanity’s performance during the test will determine what will happen in the next phase. Sometimes the next phase is coming back to the world to be tested again, an example of this system being the karmic cycles in Hinduism or in Buddhism. But just as in the final-resting-place type of afterlife, the karmic cycle can end in a final destination of non-existence when all goes well (Nirvana). So, within this framework of losing the self or maintaining the self in something like heaven, the world is not our true home… it’s our temporary home, just as our body would be our temporary suit. Within these beliefs, the breath of life (or the spark of human consciousness) given by the creating powers is our real self, or at least the self or essence or quality that will endure for the next or final phase.
There are at least three ways we can respond to the world-as-testing-ground proposals:
The afterlife accounts are right, or perhaps one of the accounts is right. We don’t really belong to the world and whatever kinship we feel to other life or non-life ends at the body. Our essence, which manifests in abilities we don’t share with other life, is evidence of our difference in kind. The reason we might feel alienated or expatriated is because we are longing to go to our final home, which is God, Nirvana, etc.
If one does not subscribe to a traditional religious or philosophical belief that advocates for an afterlife system, one could propose that the afterlife accounts are a consequence or an attempted soothing reaction to the differing abilities we described above. More explicitly, when we first encounter the death of a beloved, we say “what was the most her or him is not there now… the body is still there but the main thing is not… the animating thing is not.” And since we have the ability to time in a way that can hold both the past and the future, including the past before us and the future after us, we quite naturally ask where the departed beloveds are now? Where were they before their birth? Where will I be after my death? It’s comforting to think of the beloved or ourselves as continuing after death, but perhaps the richer question for our task now is to ask How can we imagine eternity and glimpse universals and seemingly be at least somewhat free from the mechanical constraints we see in matter, and yet be finite, clunky, self-delusional flashes of ephemera? How can both be true?
The mechanical or reductive view that is sometimes posited is that human life and human abilities solely reside on a spectrum that includes animals and plants, and extends further to non-living matter, since that is what everything is made out of. The Enlightenment view of matter is that it is predictable, extended, measurable, governed, and can be useful when viewed through these mechanical laws. By extension, this paradigm can be applied to complicated things (e.g. the heart is like a pump), which too must be guided by material laws. Finally, even the most complex things we can find would also fall within these material structures, and living organisms are by far the most complex phenomenon we have encountered.
Animal life seems to will and want things, and more complex creatures seem to have an inner lives (e.g. dogs dreaming). Human life also has a sense of free will and all of the abilities we described before. But within the mechanical view, some have argued, the human abilities mentioned above are not the essential forces or attributes that define and motivate human kind. Instead, the forces that govern humanity are the same forces that motivate all life: the drives to survive and reproduce. Consider the following quotes:
“We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.” ― Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
“Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever.” ― Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Sometimes the human abilities above our animal kin are called epiphenomenal, generally meaning that the abilities are there but are not the main thrust of our being. They are more like attribute such as hair color… they are real but not essential. Some thinkers believe these abilities are actually illusions, the most common culprit being the feeling of having a free will which seems to be at odds with determined matter. Others would argue that our ability to reason is an aid to survival and reproduction, but also causes us to do things that don’t seem evolutionarily beneficial, such as voluntary celibacy or committing suicide. Or sometimes the argument is that the origin of something like music comes from ancestors such as bird songs… useful origins that have abstracted and don’t have their original function.
So, in this view, we are lying to ourselves when we say the world is a testing ground. It is the only ground. The faculties we possess allow us to hold the past and the future within the present thought, and makes the non-existence of the beloved or the self unbearable, so we make up a story that we will meet again some day. This might be the kind of thinking Francis Bacon is critical of in The New Organon, whom we are discussing tomorrow. Whatever alienation we feel from the natural world is caused in part by the stories we tell ourselves, exemplifying that we are different from the rest of the world in the most essential ways. If we do feel alienation from the natural world because we are different, an alternative response could be that our accidentally enhanced awakenness is just allowing us to see the world more of the way it actually is. Sometimes the way it is is harsh and perhaps meaningless, and our final resting place, our “home state or homeostasis”, is non-consciousness and material dissipation. This should sound like a bummer.
Imagine a vertical line, where on the top you have the following:
a) The body, wholly made of matter, following all physical laws,
b) The soul (animating principle or force), which is not made of matter,
and therefore not subject to physical determinism. The substance of
the soul is what the gods breathed into the clay
Now, on the bottom of the line, you have the following:
a) Everything about a human, and all life, is made wholly of matter and
subject to all physical laws and biological imperatives. If the human
does something out of the determined ordinary, it’s a quirky,
inessential byproduct. The mind is a feature of the brain and is
strictly a physical phenomenon.
Of course this is just another way of describing options 1) and 2) above, and is also the famous mind/body problem. The mind or soul does not seem to be the same thing as the body, but all of the work and scientific discovery since the Renaissance has been in the realm of matter, with the incorporeal substance of the mind or soul nowhere to be found. Our third way of responding to the world as our natural home versus a testing ground is to take the bottom of our vertical line and circle it to the top, connecting the ends to become one thing. It will be a cautious approach, step by step. (Much of this portion is elaborated by Hans Jonas in The Phenomenon of Life, whom we will be discussing on Thursday).
Let’s start from what is closest to us, and that is our inner life. We should be more convinced that we have inner lives than that each other actually exists. An inner life is our first fact. We also have a strong sense that we get to make choices. We have a sense of beauty, even if it’s hard to exhaustively define. We have some moral sense, even if the origins of that morality are debatable or obscure. We can calculate, imagine, perceive, create, and emote. These qualities and their relatives are the exact opposite of epiphenomenal, in fact most of us prize these characteristics above many others that seem more basic. A life without these rich abilities is no life we would want. So, we will posit step one: Attributes that are dearest to us are most essentially us.
Next, when we study non-human living things we see incredible similarity in body structures and many behaviors. As we mentioned above, if our natural abilities are on a spectrum with other animals, there are some huge qualitative gaps. But, the evidence of our senses indicate that we have much more in common with our animal kin than we have differences between us. If we are to take that evidence as true, it’s not a big leap to say that animals too must have some form of inner lives (the dreaming dog), even if that inner life is the faint irritation in the single-celled creature. All metabolizing beings have inner and outer dimensions, and it could be argued that this makes us related not just in body but in essence, at least foundationally.
If, just for the moment, we are to set aside incorporeal soul-stuff, simply because we can’t find it, and say that matter is the sole source of life and nature, then we need to rethink what matter is capable of, because here we are. In the 20th and 21st centuries, much work has been done in the fields of Complexity, Chaos, Emergent Properties, investigations into dark matter and dark energy, and the instances of Quantum strangeness continue to amaze and puzzle us. Without detailing all of these theories here, we can simply say that there is a lot happening with matter that we cannot predict, especially when structures get complicated. The vision of Enlightenment material predictability does not categorically pan out upon further scrutiny. Even cause and effect relationships betray our own limitations in understanding and our use of overly simple categories. Can’t we take this last step and wonder… since we can do all of the wonderful things we are naturally able to do, and if we are made solely of matter, than matter is capable of making beings who can do these wonderful things. Therefore matter is much richer than it appears.
If we stick with our senses, what appears to be the norm after the death of an organism is for the material and energy to dissipate into other life forms. In this view individuality does seem to be a dance of moving parts. But since storytelling is something the natural world has fostered in us, it will be our privilege and duty to carry on the story of the world.
Conclusion - Rethinking what Natural Means
Is a beaver’s dam natural? Everyone says yes to that. Is a building natural? Put another way, is it natural for people to make buildings? If it is not natural for people to make buildings, what do we mean by natural? A dichotomy many make is that there is the natural world and the human-made world, which is another way of saying that we are not a part of the natural world… or perhaps we used to be a part of it but when we ate the apple we were exiled from nature. In this scheme the building is unnatural to the world. However, if we ask: Are people natural to the world or unnatural, and if we answer that people are natural to the world, then we belong to the world and our buildings do too. If we change what natural means to: What frequently and regularly occurs then buildings are natural to people, just as dams are to beavers and nests to birds. But conversely, we see that if people spend insufficient time in non-civilization (what is typically called nature), they can become fragmented, anxious, and depressed. Our “at-homeness” in the world seems to require some time away from the stuff we made in order to plunge into what made us.
We will conclude that if humans are natural to the world then what we naturally do is also a product of world. The list of natural activities include reasoning, music making, abstraction, laughter, appreciation of beauty, mathematics, emotion, having a sense of time, morality, storytelling, image making, curiosity, kindness, and so much more. Instead of these abilities setting humankind apart from the world, by re-understanding the natural world and what the world has actually made in us, we can potentially recognize a richer home here. If we see that the world made creatures who are kind and artistic, then the world must at least have the potential of these qualities within it in order to generate these traits in its offspring. The so-called dumb matter swirling in a meaningless void has, in the right configuration and complexity, the potential to make creatures who can see the world, embrace the world, and make meaning in and of the world. Again, if our senses and essences are any guides, our job is not simply to reproduce, it is to love what is most precious to us… to recognize the cosmos because we participate and partake of that same cosmos.
I would like to conclude with a poem by Mary Oliver, whom we will read on Friday:
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
An Evening with Dan Schnur and Warren Olney
by Misty Hall - October 20, 2017
For the 10th Ojai Chautauqua, organizers decided to do something a little different. Rather than host a full panel to explore one topic, the Oct. 20 event featured just two people on stage: Dan Schnur and Warren Olney.
Schnur and Olney’s wide-ranging, open-ended discussion touched on many things, but the overarching theme centered around the current political climate in America — how we got to this point, and where we go from here.
The pair are uniquely qualified for such an evening. Schnur, familiar to Chautauqua fans as a moderator for several past events, is a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. He has also consulted for numerous political campaigns, and is a regular news commentator both locally and nationally.
Olney, meanwhile, brought more than 50 years of journalism experience from his time as a television, radio and print journalist. Southern California NPR listeners immediately recognized Olney’s distinctive voice from his time hosting KCRW’s To the Point and Olney in L.A. His long-running public radio programs were broadcast across the West Coast. Ever the Renaissance man, Olney is now making the transition to the new medium of Podcasting.
In front of a packed Matilija Auditorium, Schnur and Olney began by explaining the inspiration behind Olney in L.A. After the Los Angeles riots, Olney said, he felt he needed to sponsor and encourage discussion and conversation between opposing sides. He’d covered the 1968 D.C. riots and the Newark riots, but this was something different. What began as a few interviews on KCRW expanded into a national news program. After all, he pointed out, “National and international news ARE local news in L.A!”
Schnur asked Olney why he feels we have “such a difficult time listening to one another” — to which Olney sagely responded, “Because we’re reporting on politics and government as if it were entertainment … which is somewhat damaging.”
This opened the door to what would become the theme of the evening. Politicians have become performers, Schnur and Olney agreed. They’re going for the soundbites that will be played over and over.
As a veteran consultant for campaigns, Schnur acknowledged that there’s a clear cost-benefit analysis for politicians, and getting noticed in the media is everything. One can go on a television show and calmly lay out one’s platform, and go virtually unnoticed. But offer an abrasive response, Schnur added, and your “true believers” will cheer you on. “It’s intoxicating,” he said. Inflammatory comments generate buzz, and buzz keeps you relevant. This is vital to politicians seeking to advance their careers. These days, “to attract that approval .. you must be THE most confrontational.”
This eventually, and inevitably, created an environment where there was more dishonesty than honesty in campaigns, Olney said. “And that paved the way for Donald Trump.” Trump is an expert in keeping the focus on himself, Olney added.
Schnur and Olney then considered the ways in which the media aided Trump — whether intentionally or not. Olney brought up the example of CNN, which would broadcast Trump rallies uninterrupted for long stretches. “And CNN’s ratings went up!” he said.
Schnur wryly offered a quote from Dennis Rodman: “the only bad news in an obituary.” Essentially, it’s better to be an “object of controversy and unfavorable attention than to receive no attention … if you’re ignored, you don’t exist.”
Olney heartily agreed. Politicians are often far too busy playing to the cameras to do much governing. And the media eats it up. Take televised debates, Olney said. The media decides where to place the politicians on the dais, and they do so with ratings in mind. Those at the front and center — Trump and Marco Rubio, for example — had been the loudest, so into the center of the dais they went. We’ve really moved as far away from “substantive conversation on government as it’s possible to get,” Olney lamented. And the impact we as a country are making on other countries is eroding. “We have no coherent policy … That’s a dangerous situation to find ourselves in.”
Schnur then posed a provocative question: In terms of communication, is Trump and outlier, or is her at the forefront of a new era? Olney responded by saying he’d been asked similar questions, as well as an even more ominous one: “What is going to happen to journalism?’ And the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’”
Schnur concurred. In classes, Schnur often teaches with a qualifier, he said. “I will say, ‘Except for Trump,’ because I don’t know if this is an abberation.”
Hillary Clinton, the so-called policy wonk, also got roped into the game. She eventually began doing what Trump was doing — attacking, making inflammatory statements, etc. — “Because it worked!” Olney said. And Diane Feinstein is now being attacked for not attacking Trump enough, he added.
Schnur added poignantly, ‘We live in our own echo chamber … compromise is defeat.” He then asked Olney, “Are we too polarized to get anything done?” Possibly, they both agreed. There are a few promising hints of bipartisanship, but they are few and far between. Gone are the days when Ronald Reagan could meet with Tip O’Neill could meet privately to negotiate; “That can’t happen in the ‘Twitterverse’ of today,” Schnur said.
He also spoke of the times in history when this kind of polarizing environment, these isolationist tendencies between political parties, popped up: usually during war or economic downturns. But we’re in neither now — so what gives? Olney’s response: with more and more wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, more folks are feeling left behind. This, he said, leads to a mentality of, “If I’m not doing well, I will have antipathy toward others.” Deprivation leads to hostility. Immigrants, for example, tend to be good for the country historically, he pointed out; but look at the sentiments toward them right now. And it’s not just an American phenomenon. “Look at Brexit.”
So what’s to be done? Again, Schnur and Olney admitted they didn’t know. “It it were easy, it would be done,” Schnur said. There’s nothing wrong with nationalism, if done properly.
This brought up a new topic: confident nationalism vs. fear-based nationalism. Americans love challenges, but to be successful, the solution must not be a zero sum game. Moving forward in a way that is better for all is the right path forward. And again — easier said than done, nowadays.
Shifting gears a bit, Schnur and Olney then delved into what’s coming next: midterm elections. We are, Schnur reminded the audience, just 10 weeks away from being in a midterm election year. What should we be looking for? Battles — in both parties — between the party establishment and its insurgencies. “More and more Democrats are looking to storm the gates, too,” Schnur noted.
And uniting — as political parties, let alone as a country — depends, in part, on everyone agreeing to certain facts. But in today’s world, there are countless media outlets. And everyone has their own Facebook, their own YouTube; essentially, their own media channels. That makes determining actual facts from opinions (or “fake news”) exceedingly difficult. “If we don’t have the same standards,” Olney asked, “how can we come to any common conclusion?”
Schnur took it one step further, asking if we are being polarized more and more, or if the polarizing voices are simply getting louder?
Again, neither expert could give a solid answer.
So what, then, is the definition of “healthy patriotism?” Well, said Olney, it’s not being behind one’s country, right or wrong; rather it is, my country, doing as best as possible for as many as possible, for a better world.
Shifting to another audience-submitted question, Schnur asked Olney, “Was Hillary Clinton not talking about the issues, or was it just not covered in the media?” Olney said, “Both.” Reporters, he went on, have become stenographers, rather than making politicians be accountable for themselves. Clinton wasn’t able to provide enough of a platform for herself to carry out her issues; she wasn’t able to open herself up to demonstrate her qualities.
And with a voting population that tends to go to the ballot box with a single issue in mind, the most votes often go to those who speak the loudest. Trump figured out how to lock in the voters to follow him down any road in this manner. They’ll follow him into anti-NFL territory because they resonate with his anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic statements.
Fear, Olney pointed out, “is a great political weapon.”
Another audience-generated question turned to voter turnout; how do we get more people to vote? After some discussion, Schnur and Olney agreed that two things — convenience and motivation — are key.
Key, but not easy to achieve. One way to get there may be to hold elections on weekends, when fewer people are forced to take off work to vote.
Another key? Educating the public. But this is also exceedingly difficult, Schur noted, particularly in a country where civics isn’t required to be taught until high school. And even then, he added, it’s not required to be a full year class. Essentially, Schnur said, we’re telling youngsters that civics “is SO unimportant, we’re not going to bother teaching it to you for your first 10 years (of school).” Olney received cheers from the audience when suggesting media literacy be taught in elementary school.
Think back to 10 years ago, Schnur noted, when the iPhone came out. If we would’ve known then that every vote, every bit of information would be sitting in our pocket, we might’ve thought, “‘Wow! We will be so informed!’ But, no.”
Though there was much doom-and-gloom to ponder from the conversation, Olney and Schnur both heartily agreed to something positive at the end of their discussion: Yes, it IS possible to get back to substantive discussion.
It won’t be easy. But radio program’s like Olney’s — and events like the Ojai Chautauqua — hold some promise in turning us back in the right direction.
Watch the October 20, 2017 event
An Evening with Dan Schnur and Warren Olney