Philosophy Feed

Essay on the Freedom of the Will

Essay on the Freedom of the WillEssay on the Freedom of the Will by Arthur Schopenhauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though I disagree with Schopenhauer's position on the freedom of the will (basically, that there isn't any), I recommend this essay as a model of fine philosophical writing. Well structured, clearly written, with cogent arguments, and reflecting an incredible breadth of scholarship and reading.

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Love: A New Understanding of an Ancient Emotion

Love: A New Understanding of an Ancient EmotionLove: A New Understanding of an Ancient Emotion by Simon May
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love is "the joy inspired by whomever or whatever we experience as rooting, or as promising to root, our life."

May has numerous goals in this book. He reviews the traditional accounts of love in Western culture and finds them to be incoherent or inadequate to our time. He also shows how the modern development of romantic love tried to turn that love into a secularized version of divine love in a way that is impossible for humans and could only lead to disappointment.

He then develops his own rich account of love, as this idea of someone who roots us in life. 21 short chapters develop this idea fully. He then demonstrates how he arises in foundational texts of the Western tradition--Genesis and the Odyssey.

He also describes how Western culture has shifted to the child being the supreme object of love (instead of beauty, God, or our romantic partner). He argues that this is the first truly modern love and that parental love as developing seems free of the expectations of divine love, and thus has the chance to truly transform human loving in good ways.

There is so much in this book that one could spend years pondering and exploring it all.

On personal note: I did not read it for self-help purposes, but I found that the book was deeply revelatory, helping me to better understand myself, my former marriage, how it ended, developments in my divorce, experiences and emotions I've grappled with the last few years, including resentment, and also how I was able to finally let go and begin moving in directions. These theories gave new perspectives and language to my experiences.

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The Vocation of Man

The Vocation of ManThe Vocation of Man by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So, twenty years ago when I read this I really admired it and had previously given it four stars here on Goodreads.

This time I only felt it was okay and mediocre.

When I read it in 2001 I had recently finished my dissertation in a philosophy department that was predominately Analytical. I set about some free reading in Continental philosophy that I had not previously read, this book being the one I enjoyed the most. The writing felt fresh and vital and very different from what I had been working on.

Maybe in 2023 I'm more broadly and deeply read in philosophy than I was twenty years ago and the book doesn't then strike me as fresh and vital?

I also took some time to peruse the copy I own of his Addresses to the German Nation, but wasn't interested in actually reading it thoroughly.

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The Therapy of Desire

The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic EthicsThe Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics by Martha C. Nussbaum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I have read a number of Nussbaum's books over the last twenty years, I have in the last couple made sure to go back and work through her major texts that I hadn't yet read. This one is yet another excellent book. What a clear thinker, who writes with precision and elegance.

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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."