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Aztec Philosophy

Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in MotionAztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion by James Maffie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Life on earth is slippery because order and being are always sliding into disorder and nonbeing. The existence and well-orderedness of the things upon which humans depend slip away from under their feet, causing them to lose their balance and suffer pain, hunger, thirst, sorrow, disease, and death."

An at time dense and other time exciting (for example, the philosophical importance of sweeping with a broom) survey of Aztec metaphysics. Since reading an article by Maffie some years ago, I've wanted to understand Aztec thought better, because of this core idea that the world is constantly changing and that to live well is to develop balance. That seems more useful than the centrality of certain foundations and unchanging ideas in much Western thought.

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How to Be Perfect

How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral QuestionHow to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My former nextdoor neighbor sent this to me thinking I would like it. And I did. Which isn't always the case when a professional read a book by an amateur writing for a general audience. But Schur is a wonderful writer who grasps this subject matter well and arranges it in a way that I don't think an academic philosopher would have been able to do. This, then, is a most helpful book for introducing philosophical moral reasoning. I heartily recommend it.

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Initial thoughts on Bentham

I've begun reading Jeremy Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation for the first time.  What an opening paragraph!

A few chapters in, my pre-existing opinions of Bentham are being affirmed.  

The theory has deep flaws because of a na├»ve understanding of human psychology and a complete obtuseness to some topics (he actually writes that no society ever created a plan to oppress and plunder).  But . . .

What he was trying to do in his time was so liberative and so ahead of its time.  When teaching him I often write on the board a list of views he held and how they'd locate him on the progressive left in 21st century America, much less 18th century Britain.

His basic intention was spot on--let's clear away all the clutter and free people up to live happy lives.  Can we all leaves such a legacy?

One more thing.  As far as a principle of legislation, as opposed to an ethical theory, it's difficult to argue for any better approach than the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest period of time.

The New Negro

The New Negro: The Life of Alain LockeThe New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"A spirit lurks in the shadows of America that, if summoned, can launch a renaissance of our shared humanity. That is his most profound gift to us."

So glad to finally read this major, award-winning book. I spent most of my sabbatical summer, and then some, getting through it.

While there is much to commend this biography, it really feels too long, going too in depth into minutiae at times. And was at times repetitive, I think because of the challenge of a text so long. It needed serious editing.

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While Hiking, Reflecting on Preaching, and the Aztecs

"This was no stable world of immutable beliefs but instead a shifting, constantly altering world."  So writes Camilla Townsend in her marvelous Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.  Why, you might ask, am I reading a history of the Aztecs as part of my sabbatical reading? Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs: 9780190673062: Townsend,  Camilla: Books

Well, last time I was on sabbatical I used part of that time to better acquaint myself with some theological traditions I had not focused on before.  The key one that sabbatical was Orthodoxy.  I read John Zizioulas and Sergius Bulgakov and really enjoyed and learned from them.  Since then I've been reading more in the Orthodox tradition and have had a better understanding of it.

A few years ago I read an online article about Aztec philosophy and how a central tenet of it is the idea in the quote above--that the world is ever shifting and we have to be nimble in how we respond to it.  So, I've been wanting to explore Aztec philosophy more, and intend to do that this summer when I read James Maffie's Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion.  But before I did that I wanted to be better acquainted with Aztec history than I am ,and this recent book by Townsend won awards and was well-reviewed and has also been on my to-read list.  I'm almost finished with the book and will have more to say about it.

She writes in her intro, "Most of all, they were flexible.  As situations altered, they repeatedly proved themselves capable of adapting.  They were adept at surviving."  So another reason for reading and learning from the Aztecs relates to my larger reading and study project for this sabbatical--our response to climate change and our changing world.  It seems to me that we can learn something from their example.  An idea strengthened as I read this marvelously well-written history.


Today I was hiking at Chalco Hills and thinking about all of these things.  I've mentioned before that the simplest goal of this sabbatical is to take a break.  And one thing I'm appreciating the break from is preaching. 

Now, I love preaching.  It is my artform.  I work hard at every aspect of it, from study to writing to spirituality to delivery to pastoral care.  It engages my intellectual creativity.  It allows me a space to work through my ideas on topics big and small, personal and public.  It is one of the ways I care for people.

Preaching, though, has become more challenging in the last seven years.  Politics, social unrest, racial injustice, gun violence, #MeToo, climate change, the pandemic, the war have all piled on top of one another, making preaching more important, more fraught, more stressful.  As Edie Godfrey said to me years ago, "You are the one who has to have something to say."  And there are so many things to have something to say about.  And there's an expectation to say something about them, but because of heightened tensions and social conflict that gets trickier.  For example, at the Festival of Homiletics in 2017 I remember discussing with colleagues how once sermons that weren't viewed as specifically partisan, such as welcoming refugees, suddenly were being viewed as such, as what the two parties stand for had undergone such shifts and polarization.

On the one hand you have to address the issues of the day, but the sermon can't become a weekly response to the news.  There is a balance that has to be found, and that balance isn't obvious or easy.  

I really enjoy that challenge.  But it is a challenge.  And only in the last few weeks of not doing it have I realized exactly how challenging and tiring it has become.  

So, maybe I'll learn a little from the Aztecs.  Townsend writes, "Like so many people in other times and places, they had to learn to make peace with their new reality so they would not go mad."

Modern Wisdom: On Consolation, Part 3

Michel de Montaigne rejected the consolations of philosophy.  He thought empathy and human solidarity had their limits.  We often "spoiled our lives with joyless moralizing and self-regarding high-mindedness."  What Montaigne taught us instead was "the passionate vindication of life itself."  And not some fantasy of "living your best life," but all the ordinary routines of human existence.  If you were going to enjoy life, you had to enjoy ordinary human life itself.  And so the lesson from Montaigne is to find solace "in the pleasures, rhythms, and resilience of the human body itself.  In doing so, he moved the search for consolation away from the mind to the feeling . . . that life was worth living simply because you could feel its rhythms coursing through your veins."

Designed by Allan Ramsey

Montaigne stayed aloof from society in his later life, but David Hume did not.  Ignatieff portrays how for the young Hume, the intellectual development of his skepticism of reason was "an anguished process of self-discovery."  Note: I've long wanted to write a book about how new philosophical ideas arose from personal crises, and by this chapter I realized that Ignatieff has done something similar with this book.  He writes of Hume's sociability as consolation:

In seeking diversion in the company of others, Hume was acknowledging how much he needed others to escape the maze of his own mind and how little reason actually contributed to consolation of any kind.  We need human society in order to escape ourselves, to see ourselves as others do, to compare our understanding with theirs, to share a common world of feeling. . . . he realized that he could not make sense of life or bear it except in company with others.

Earlier this year I read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he talks about social connection as the antidote for depression.  It seems a little trite when one reads it, but as Ignatieff points out, for Hume it was learned from actual experience, as he struggled to overcome his depression and that's what helped him.  

What explains the different forms of consolation--Montaigne's private reflection or Hume's being social?  I imagine something of individual temperament?  Or maybe different things work for different people at different times?  I know when I've been struggling I've needed both--time for personal reflection and time to get away from it by the society of others.  What about you?

Hume provides yet another lesson.  He was one of the first Western intellectuals to die publicly rejecting any belief in God, and thus without the consolations of religion.  Many of his contemporaries found that unfathomable.  But Ignatieff writes that Hume then pioneered a new way to die, in that one could die well and content without religious faith.  And in doing so, Ignatieff writes, Hume had modeled that "the test of a good life" was "whether you had been true to your ambitions and fashioned a path for yourself."  In doing so, Hume "had crafted a new form of consolation: autobiography as a narrative of self-realization."

Escaping Despair: On Consolation Part 2

El Greco - The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.JPGCicero had been a paradigm of Roman Republican virtue.  Michael Ignatieff describes this as "to be public-spirited, to sacrifice one's life, if need be, for the defense of the republic, and to be stoic in the endurance of pain."  Yet, when his own daughter died Cicero became inconsolable.  His former friends and associates found this disgraceful and dishonorable.  Yet, what Ignatieff concludes is that during this episode of suffering, Cicero did not permanently change his mind about consolation.  Instead, he eventually returned to public life and the republican and stoic virtues.  And so his chapter on Cicero ends by this statement, "Of all the legacies that this particular father bequeathed to the story of consolation, the one that remains most enduring is in the way men learned to repress their emotions."

Stoicism is in a resurgence of popularity, and the philosophy does have some important lessons when it comes to handling our emotions.  An overly emotive society can learn from it.  Finding the proper balance between good, open, and authentic emotional discussion and overly emoting and creating unnecessary and unhealthy drama is not as easy as it initially appears.  This spring I taught a class on the emotions at church, and we discussed how most of us middle aged and older had never been taught to talk well about our emotions, but mostly to repress them.  Good to know I can blame Cicero for some of that.

But there is a lesson Ignatieff finds buried in the period of Cicero's life when he is inconsolable, a clear reminder that this is a typical and important human experience.  We can find solidarity in our experiences across space and time.

Ignatieff next turns to Marcus Aurelius who he describes as "striving to master fear and loneliness in the solitude of darkness, found consolation in confession."  Marcus's Meditations (which I highly recommend reading) were initially for himself, and Ignatieff writes that these are the best parts.   In later parts of the book it becomes clear that Marcus is now aware that others will read him, and so he begins to write more for an audience.  But in those moments of private confession, Marcus is "reckoning with himself," a key practice for any of needing consolation in dark times.  

Of course Boethius wrote the book on consolation, which I also recommend as a good read.  Boethius was a prominent official in the late Roman empire, on the outs with his emperor, he is exiled awaiting execution.  In that season he imagines a visit from Philosophia, come to console him of his doubts and his suffering, but he engages her in conversation.   Part of Boethius's value, which Ignatieff draws attention to, is that in him flow together the Roman-Stoic and the Christian traditions and their very different approaches to suffering.  Ignatieff writes that for Boethius the consolation came in the act of writing, which allowed him to explore and gain "some sovereignty over his inner world."  But he does not imagine Boethius was completely consoled, the work contains too much doubt and comedy at the misfortunes of life.  What Boethius represents for us is someone struggling to make sense of his world, when it no longer make sense to him.

In El Greco's painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Ignatieff finds a treatment of the relationship between time and suffering.  The painting layering of images invites a sense that "the faithful can inhabit a moment where past, present, and future are experienced as simultaneous."  According to our author, this then helps us to understand "that the recurring subject of consolation is time itself."  He continues:

the fact that it goes one way and cannot be stopped, cannot be slowed down, cannot be reversed; that our losses cannot be made good; that the future is unknowable, the past is irrecoverable, and time for us ends in death, while it goes on for others as if we never existed.  The painter's deeper intention was to depict consolation as the dream of an escape together from the downward funnel of time.  The painting's ecstatic feeling is just the other side of despair, in its recognition that this escape from time can be imagined only through art but cannot be lived or experienced.

To Console: On Consolation Part 1

On ConsolationMichael Ignatieff defines consolation as "what we do, or try to do, when we share each other's suffering or seek to bear our own."  He describes it as an act of solidarity in both space and time, drawing attention to the fact that we can find consolation by connecting with a person from the past in their writings, music, art, etc.  In fact, that's what this book will be about, an attempt to see how some great figures in our history have found consolation in their trying times, in order for us to find help for ours.  And the study of the past also helps us because when we do we don't "feel that we are . . . marooned in the present."

This sentence resonated with a way I've felt for some years now.  A decade ago I began re-reading or reading for the first time key texts in the philosophical canon in chronological order (I recently reread Kant with the plan to move on to Bentham soon).  So when American politics became particularly toxic and shitty before and after the 2016 election, I was reading early modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, and Montaigne.  I felt lifted out of the fierce urgency of the now and into the great political issues of the past, which gave some perspective and lowered the temperature on the current moment.  Reading old plague literature was equally helpful in this way in 2020.

For Ignatieff, consolation is more than comfort, which he describes as fleeting.  Consolation he believes is enduring, and is found when we reconcile ourselves to life, when we can once again hope for the future.

Now, for many people, consolation is provided by religious faith and practice.  Ignatieff is himself not a religious believer, but he still mines religious texts and traditions for the themes that can be consoling even in a more secular present.  Thus he begins with Job, Psalms, and the letters of Paul. 

From Job he learns that we cannot resign ourselves to despair, even in the midst of irrational suffering.  Instead, we must "have the courage to demand recognition . . . for the reality of our suffering."  This long quote beautifully encapsulates the lessons of Job:

Job's story tells us we are fated to endure sorrow and suffering that have no apparent meaning, moments when existence is a torment, when we know what it is to be truly inconsolable.  But like Job, we must learn to endure, we must hold on to the truth of what we have lived and refuse false consolations, like believing that we deserve to suffer.  We should refuse the burden of guilt and struggle as best we can to understand the meaning of our lives.  We are not condemned to eternal silence, to meaninglessness.  There is an answer to be found in the whirlwind, in human beings' unendingly troubled encounter with our fate, but to find the answer that is true for us we will have to be as courageous as the man in rags who dared raise his fist to the sky.

"Reading the Psalms is like walking among ruins," he writes.  Here is artistry that expresses the range of human emotion and experience, giving honest expression to how we feel.  And making it beautiful.

Ignatieff understands Paul as someone who experienced mental anguish and a complete breakdown whose mental world collapsed and then had to be reconstructed.  Paul's great insight is that "a human being was not chained forever by habits, compulsion, addictions, and needs.  A person could be reborn anew, redeemed and granted a better life."

The next three chapters of the book discuss Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Boethius.  To those I will turn in the next blogpost about this book.

On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times

On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark TimesOn Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times by Michael Ignatieff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"To be reconciled we must first make peace with our losses, defeats, and failures. To be consoled is to accept these losses, to accept what they have done to us and to believe, despite everything, that they need not haunt our future or blight our remaining possibilities."

I got a head start on my sabbatical reading with Michael Ignatieff's latest book. I felt after two years of pandemic and divorce that this would be a good place to start as I begin this season. Months ago I had read an excerpt of the book and was impressed, plus I really liked his previous book, Ordinary Virtue, which I read near the beginning of the pandemic.

Ignatieff is not a religious believer, so he searches the intellectual and literary tradition for consolation, sharing the stories of key individuals who coped with the various crises of their lives. People like Paul, Cicero, Montaigne, Lincoln, etc. One goal of these stories is to realize that we are not alone in our distress, that our suffering is part of the human condition.

The book is a rich exploration of the theme with profound and helpful thoughts drawn from each story (I'll have more to write about individual chapters and ideas when the sabbatical free time truly kicks in next week). Plus, Ignatieff is a very engaging, eloquent writer.

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