Friends Divided: John Adams And Thomas Jefferson

9780735224711_p0_v1_s600x595I got fairly excited when I read about this book because it was described as being more an intellectual biography of Adams and Jefferson. As a child, visits to Monticello happened probably twice every three years, so I always felt a closer connection to Jefferson, a sense that was only partially relieved by reading McCullough’s biography from 2001. Continue reading


Adopting Older Children

I do not have any great wisdom to impart in dealing with the particular issues parents face when they adopt an older child, because I haven’t been such a parent for very long. But I would like to make a pitch on behalf of older children needing parents.

First, ‘older children’ can be a bit of a misnomer. The sad truth is, if a child is not matched with a prospective couple by the time he or she is two or three… that child will probably never be adopted. Never. They’re done. Sure, it can happen, but so can winning the powerball lottery. Have you won forty million dollars lately? I didn’t think so.

There are a lot of (justified) complaints about how a woman over forty is no longer valued, but this is a class of people who are no longer valued when they might still need potty training.

It was easy for us to choose to adopt our child. She was five when we first saw her picture (and almost seven when we were finally able to adopt her), and we were in love instantly; we didn’t have any interest in any other children after that – younger, older, whatever… we knew who our daughter was.

But the circumstances that led us to her – to that photograph, at just the right time when it was available to be seen – were convoluted and unlikely. A butterfly sneezes in Latvia in 1989 and maybe everything transpires differently and we never see her.

And if we we hadn’t, the sad and terrible truth is, our beautiful, intelligent, loving child would almost certainly never be placed with adoptive parents. It feels shocking to say. Who would not want her?

Most prospective parents only want babies or toddlers. And I can understand that, but now I can also understand how terrible a bias that is. That an adopted child is not a replacement for a hypothetical biological child is one of the first lessons you learn, but by adopting mewling little one who still needs diapers changed, it is easier to pretend that he or she is a replacement. We cannot pretend that. It’s okay – because she is wonderful for who she is (and she is quickly and weirdly beginning to resemble both her parents). But we did have to shed an illusion that many adoptive parents would rather cling to.

Beyond how wonderful our child is, there is a moral calculus. Ultimately, adopting is a moral decision. A parent has already taken the first step to decide to take into their home, a child who needs a family.

So take an additional step and consider an older child. Most people won’t do that, so babies will always be more ‘valuable’ than other children. But adopting a child who is six year old is a more moral act than adopting a baby. People who adopt children over ten are saints.

You will miss out on things, but the child was in danger of missing out on nearly everything. You have to accept that it is not about you. But that is part of what being a parent is, I guess. I guess because I do not know anything yet.

But while I may not know much about parenting. But while I may turn out to be a really bad dad who messes everything up. For all that, I do know that some actions are better than others.

‘American Philosophy: A Love Story’ By John Kaag

Within this relatively brief book (less than 250 pages) is a beautiful meditation on the evolution of American philosophy as a unique branch of thought, from Ralph Waldo Emerson through the 1920s, more or less. The conceit holding it together is the private library William Ernest Hocking, a once prominent philosopher who was deeply influenced by William James (the dominant figure in American philosophy, as this book sees it). The books in his library, discovered in a poorly climate controlled and slight dilapidated house in rural New Hampshire, cover almost the entire history of philosophy, but also religion and poetry, and illustrate how great American philosophers, like James, Hocking, and Emerson, and also others, like Josiah Royce and Charles Peirce, are both part of and outside of the main stream of western and world philosophy.

Wrapped around that excellent book is a depressing sort of autobiography about the author’s failing marriage and probable drinking problem (the former is sort of resolved – though he’s clearly a terrible husband; the latter feels like it’s sitting there, like a drunken turd in the corner of Hocking’s library). Kaag does not come across as very likable, but does come across as anxiously self- justifying. I have resolved to read more James and to read the copy of Hocking’s The Meaning of God in Human Experience that has been sitting in my library for far too long. I might also resolve to read some more academic books by Kaag, but not until the bad taste has faded.

Empedocles On Etna

I’m going to admit that I am liking Matthew Arnold’s poetry better than I would have thought. I still have no desire to go back and re-read Dover Beach again, ever, for any reason, but if you’re willing to adjust yourself to the rhythms of nineteenth century verse (and Arnold, a traditionalist), then you can definitely enjoy him.

Empedocles on Etna, especially, I enjoyed.

While I won’t question Arnold’s knowledge of the classics, you still shouldn’t read him for a detailed and accurate understanding of Empedocles’ philosophy.

But, the worried friend (Pausanias) and the musician-cum-pastoral poet, Callicles following the melancholy Empedocles on part of his journey makes for a nice philosophical narrative.

Even after the suicidal Empedocles asks for quiet, he can still hear snatches of Callicles’ carefree poetry and music as he contemplates his own theories and the lack of job in his life. Arnold makes the philosopher’s decision a little bit political (exile having made him depressed), though he shifts back to the idea of someone maybe too smart for his own happiness (one can imagine Arnold thinking there’s a little Empedocles in himself, too).

If you like poetry, if you have immersed yourself in poetry, so that the style of Matthew Arnold isn’t foreign or anathema to you, you might enjoy it, too.

No, thou art come too late, Empedocles!
And the world hath the day, and must break thee,
Not thou the world. With men thou canst not live,
Their thoughts, their ways, their wishes, are not thine;
And being lonely thou art miserable,
For something has impair’d thy spirit’s strength,
And dried its self-sufficing fount of joy.
Thou canst not live with men nor with thyself—
Oh sage! oh sage!—Take then the one way left;
And turn thee to the elements, thy friends,
Thy well-tried friends, thy willing ministers,
And say:—Ye servants, hear Empedocles,
Who asks this final service at your hands!
Before the sophist brood hath overlaid
The last spark of man’s consciousness with words—
Ere quite the being of man, ere quite the world
Be disarray’d of their divinity—
Before the soul lose all her solemn joys,
And awe be dead, and hope impossible,
And the soul’s deep eternal night come on,
Receive me, hide me, quench me, take me home!

‘Essays Towards A Theory Of Knowledge’ By Alexander Philip

While a respected public intellectual in his day (the early twentieth century), he’s certainly not someone anyone would recognize today as being a top tier epistemologist, metaphysician, nor thinker. Which would probably come as a surprise to Mr. Philip, who clearly felt that he had hit upon some excellent truths, whose veracity was easy to see once he’d made his thinly supported assertions clear.

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‘The Analects’ By Confucius

So what is the thread? Because that would be his ‘philosophy’

I had started to jot down some pithy phrase from The Analects: not the one in the picture, but something about a scholar or reader not being inflexible. It felt like a retort to Trump World.

But surely the point of the teachings of Confucius is not that he can be reduced to isolated lines and momentarily useful quotations?

If he is a philosopher, there must be more than that and to settle for solitary fragments is to fall into a pernicious orientalism (taking yoga instruction from a twenty-something white girl while musing over some fortune cookie version of ‘Buddha said’).

So what is it, then?

Having read a biography (of sorts) of Confucius and a primer on Chinese philosophy within the last year (I think), I feel I have a small leg up, but not much.

Little things matter.

But that’s also an orientalizing version of it.

More detailed, then. The emphasis on rites and quotidian duties and courtesies adds up into a worldview, if enacted in one’s life. Rites are also important, even when viewed separately from god and religion (which is precisely how he writes about them – as almost entirely separate from their mytho-religious context).

It is also an elitist philosophy. Like Plato or Nietzsche, he is not writing for anybody, but for a superman or a philosopher king. Even when poor, the man to whom Confucius is addressing (it could now be a woman, equally as well as man; but at the time, I think we can be reasonably sure that he was talking to men) is above the ‘masses.’ You could also think of him as being like the target audience of Roman philosophers.

But is this philosophy, in my sense? In a western sense? Is that even a valid question?

He instructs people to lead by example, especially in the small things. But what about larger issues? It is no criticism not to have a metaphysics, nor even to say that metaphysics doesn’t matter and maybe doesn’t even exist. His ideal society is guided by a meritocratic elite, though still ruled by more or less hereditary aristocracies.

When is is most explicit, which isn’t often, he speak of Confuciansim (though not, of course, using that term) as a moral philosophy, but I hesitate to classify it as ethics. It is ethical philosophy in the service of a more or less utopian political philosophy.

‘A Guide To Stoicism’ By St George William Stock

A surprisingly amusing primer on the Stoics by a man about whom little appears to be known (check out this page about trying to learn about him).

It is not in the least part amusing because Stock appears be slightly contemptuous of Stoicism. He speaks of it as a Tory might speak about the Labour platform. Which isn’t a bad metaphor because it is similar to his excellent metaphor on the schools of classical philosophy in the centuries after Plato. Classical philosophy generally accreted into four schools: the Peripatetics (after Aristotle); the Academicians or Skeptics (after Plato’s Academy, but not after Plato’s thought, generally); the Stoics; and the Epicureans. You had your Cyrenaics and your Pythagoreans, but that list of four is pretty good short hand, at least by the time of Cicero. Anyway, the point Stock makes is that adopting a philosophy was less like staking a philosophical position in a modern sense, than it was like becoming a political party activist. One rarely switches parties and one’s loyalty to a particular school of philosophy is expected to be surprisingly absolute (you can almost hear the tears falling when Cicero writes his son, who has not taken up his father’s Skepticism, but has chosen to study with the Peripatetics in Athens, and asks that he still think kindly on his old man’s philosophical convictions).

He also spends some time on Stoic logic. There’s not much there, in terms of primary sources, but in the ancient world, the Stoics were renowned logicians. Arguably that, and not the self-help koans that is all most people know today, was the claim to fame if we go back a couple of millennia.

When discussing their ‘Physic,’ he name drops Empedocles, which is only interesting to me because I just read Matthew Arnold’s long poem, Empedocles at Etna, about that Greek’s sad and somewhat embarrassing suicide in the volcano.

But again, he is pleasantly less interested in what today would be called a stoic attitude than in the actual positions of the school, which covered far more than a bit of imperturbability.