January 4, 2000

Happy new year! Happy new century!! Happy new millennium!!!

This issue of Phlit should have been released on January 1, but was delayed by the Millennium Bug, who is clever, tireless and malicious.

1. Zen

On a recent Sunday morning, I decided to go for a jog. A few years ago, I jogged about twice a week, but as one gets older, one seems to have less time for things like jogging and reading. I now jog only once or twice a month. As I jog, I often catch myself pursuing a train of thought — lecturing to myself, making a speech inside my own head. Zen has taught me to be aware of what’s happening in my head, to notice that I’m making a speech, and to bring my mind back to quiet, peace, emptiness, back to the Here and Now, back to my body and the road.

Someone once said to me, “I can’t stand jogging because it’s so boring.” If one becomes acquainted with meditation, with Zen, one is never bored, one enjoys an empty mind. In fact, one prefers an empty mind to a full mind. Reverse the Cartesian syllogism “I think therefore I am,” and turn it into “I don’t think, therefore I am.” Meditating is like swallowing a little spoon of boredom that prevents one from feeling real boredom, like a person who swallows a little snake poison in order to inoculate himself against real snake poison.

I sometimes lament the fact that I think too much, that I’m not fully aware of the Here and Now. I lament the fact that I see the world through the medium of reflection, through the medium of thought, instead of perceiving things directly and immediately. For example, if I’m looking at the sky and the clouds, I’m not fully present, my mind is occupied with things other than sky and clouds. Long years of reading and thinking have pulled me away from Immediate Reality, but I hope that in the future I can re-establish a direct connection with Reality. Now I see the world “through a glass, darkly,” but someday “face to face.”

2. Philosophy

On a recent Sunday morning, I decided to go for a jog. As usual, my mind went back and forth between awareness of the Present, and wandering away from the Present onto distant thoughts. During one of these wanderings, I imagined myself giving a talk on philosophy at the local library:

“As many of you know, the word ‘philosophy’ is of Greek origin, and it means ‘love of wisdom,’ or ‘love of knowledge.’ The first Western philosophers were Greeks who had a passion to know. They wanted to know about the sun, the moon, the stars, they wanted to know everything — including practical things like how to make clothes, how to make jewelry, etc. These early Greek philosophers were in contact with reality, they wanted to understand reality. Socrates, who is sometimes called the Father of Philosophy, brought philosophy down from the heavens and put it in the marketplace. Socrates focused on ethics rather than astronomy and physics. But Socrates remained in contact with reality. The Stoic and Epicurean schools continued the Socratic tradition: they were preoccupied with ethics, with practical questions about everyday life, and they were in contact with reality.

“During the Middle Ages, however, philosophy lost contact with reality. Religion guided people through life, and philosophy was relegated to abstract topics such as logic. These topics provide exercise for the brain, but don’t touch the soul, and don’t guide one through life. Unlike ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy was located within the walls of academia. Medieval philosophy is suited to academia: it’s abstract, it fits onto a blackboard, the teacher can say, ‘this answer is right, this answer is wrong.’ Contemporary philosophy resembles medieval philosophy insofar as it lives within academia, and it likes to pursue abstract questions (logic, linguistics, etc.), questions that fit onto a blackboard.

“During the Renaissance, philosophy rediscovered its roots, and re-connected with reality. Montaigne revived the Socratic tradition; Montaigne was preoccupied with practical, ethical questions. Machiavelli was preoccupied with practical, political questions. Bacon and Leonardo were preoccupied with physical science and technology. The Renaissance had the same passion to know that we noticed earlier in ancient Greece. As in ancient times, this passion to know extended to all sorts of subjects; one Renaissance man, Alberti, cross-examined ‘artists, scholars, and artisans of all descriptions, down to the cobblers, about the secrets and peculiarities of their craft.’1

“After the Renaissance, the tradition of French aphoristic philosophy — represented by La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyére, etc. — was concerned with psychological questions, and tried to describe human nature. Here’s a sentence from La Rochefoucauld: ‘We praise in others what we find in ourselves; true friendship grows when self-esteem is flattered by mutual agreement in tastes and pleasures.’2 This penchant for psychology is also found in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The psychological approach to philosophy makes contact with reality by exploring human nature, by exploring the unconscious.

“I’d like to conclude this talk by mentioning a New England philosopher who carried on the tradition of Socrates through his deep concern with ethics: Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s philosophy is akin to Zen, and is thus by no means obsolete, but rather on the cutting edge of Western thought. Thoreau’s writings will enchant readers for centuries to come. Thoreau lived the simple life, the close-to-nature life, the life that many today dream about, but few experience.

“I’ve tried to show in this talk how the history of Western philosophy is a history of slipping into abstract questions, and then re-connecting with reality. When one surveys the history of Western philosophy, one comes away with the impression that much has been accomplished, but much remains to be accomplished. The last word has certainly not been spoken, we have not plumbed the depths of reality, the pursuit of the Good Life never ends.” (Enthusiastic applause.)

3. Seekonk

I recently moved from Providence, Rhode Island to Seekonk, Massachusetts. For the first time in my life, I’m a homeowner. My wife and I bought our house without much shopping or deliberating. I sometimes make big purchases fast because I don’t want to spend time shopping. After the purchase decision, I began to ask myself, “was it the right decision? Should we have stayed in our old apartment? Should we have moved farther into the country, or stayed in the city?” I fell victim to The Kierkegaard Complex, that is, I acted boldly, then began to question my action. Kierkegaard became engaged to a young girl named Regina, then immediately regretted his action and broke off the engagement. Action makes one feel free and strong, but living with the consequences of one’s action makes one feel weak, imprisoned.

In addition to suffering from The Kierkegaard Complex, I also suffered from The Proust Complex, that is, I suffered from the difficulty of adjusting to new surroundings. “The twittering of the birds at daybreak sounded insipid to Françoise .... In other words, we had moved.” Thus Proust begins his novel, Guermantes Way. Proust said that he was one who “found it as hard to assimilate new as I found it easy to abandon old conditions.” Weeks passed before The Kierkegaard Complex and The Proust Complex began to wear off, and I could sleep soundly at night.

Now I’m starting to feel at home in Seekonk. I read the local newspaper and keep abreast of local politics. Recently there was a vote in Seekonk about whether to spend $18,000,000 to repair and upgrade local schools. Since American schools are funded largely on the local level, schools are the biggest expense of most American towns, and the question of school funding is the chief political question in American towns. American towns are divided between those who favor more school spending, and those who favor less. Those who favor more spending portray their opponents as hostile to education, indifferent to children, apathetic about the future of their community, etc. Those who favor less spending talk about the high salaries and juicy perks enjoyed by teachers and school administrators, and they talk about the plight of senior citizens and other needy townspeople, who can’t afford to pay high taxes.

It was a close vote; the pro-spending forces won a narrow victory. Only about 25% of Seekonk residents went to the polls. Most people probably felt that the issue didn’t affect them much, and that their vote wouldn’t matter anyway.

Republicans generally favor less spending, while Democrats favor more spending. Republicans are skeptical of the public sector. They think that government spends money inefficiently; they would like to see a small government and a robust private sector. They advocate government support of private schools through a voucher system; such a system would give a tax reduction to people whose children attend private schools. They want competition in the area of education, they don’t want a public school monopoly. They believe that the weakest area of American education is public schools, and the strongest area of American education is private colleges.

I believe that democracies are often too generous. In the U.S., teachers are paid generously, postal workers are paid generously, government bureaucrats are paid generously, retired people are paid generously (by Social Security), etc., etc. As a result, government spending has run wild, and the government has fallen deeply into debt. Politicians win votes by generosity toward sections of society, but the cost of that generosity must be borne by the rest of society. The public sector prospers, while the private sector must bear an ever-larger burden.

In the U.S., there are two alternatives to public schools: private schools and parochial schools. Private schools are popular with the most affluent people, and they’re popular in cities (New York, Providence, etc.), where public schools are perceived to be poor in quality. Though most private schools are expensive, and appeal to wealthy families, there are a few private schools that are inexpensive and appeal to working-class families. These working-class private schools are generally found in cities where public education has utterly failed.

On the whole, American private schools have a significant impact on society, despite the fact that the vast majority of American students attend public schools. Many of the country’s economic and intellectual elite attended private schools. I went to public schools; if I had attended private school, perhaps the chief benefit to my education would have been in the area of foreign language. Public schools do a poor job with foreign language. Most branches of the humanities can be studied on one’s own, so school isn’t very important, but a foreign language is difficult to learn on one’s own, so I think I missed something by not learning a foreign language in school.

Parochial schools are generally run by the Catholic Church, and are generally found in urban areas. They have a reputation for discipline and frugality. There are also some Jewish private schools, which appeal especially to conservative, orthodox Jews. Some fundamentalist Christians (non-Catholics) have also opened private schools, especially in the South.

If public schools are a hot topic in American towns, another hot topic is the distribution of the tax burden between residents and businesses. Here again, the small group (business owners) often triumphs over the large group (residents). One of the paradoxes of democracy is that small groups seem to have more power than large groups; we suffer not from the “tyranny of the majority,” but rather from the “tyranny of the minority.” Ten or twenty business owners seem to have more clout than two hundred residents because the business owners have more motivation, more passion, and they persuade politicians to pursue policies favorable to them. Here in Seekonk, the taxes of residents recently increased by 11%, while business taxes increased only 1%.

Another topic that has been discussed in Seekonk recently is open space. Should the town purchase parcels of land and preserve them as open space? Most American towns don’t spend much on open space; the lobby for open space seems much weaker than the public school lobby. Open space is dwindling, as more and more land is developed for human use (business or residential). There’s a widespread feeling that open space is desirable, but few towns are willing to translate that widespread feeling into spending on open space. (An exception is Lincoln, Massachusetts, which has been purchasing open space for many years, perhaps under the influence of the writings of Thoreau, who lived in nearby Concord.) Open space lasts indefinitely, and benefits posterity, but posterity has no voice in a democracy.

I hope these remarks on local affairs have been of interest, especially to foreign readers, who constitute a majority of Phlit subscribers. If you haven’t found them interesting, well, I promise to return to more literary topics in the February issue. Hope to see you then.

Notes on Seekonk history

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, II, 2 back
2. Maxims back