Philosophy, the Queen, is at the center of the circle, surrounded by the seven liberal arts — grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy — in “Philosophia et septem artes liberales,” Latin for “Philosophy and the seven liberal arts.” The artwork is from the illuminated encyclopedia, “Hortus deliciarum,” meaning “Garden of Delights,” compiled by Herrad of Landsberg, 12th-Century abbess of Hohenburg Abbey in the French region of Alsace. The encyclopedia was used by young novices at the abbey and is thought to be the first written by a woman.
I would like to make a case for the study of the liberal arts in higher education but the deck is stacked against me.
The Internet is full of sites warning against academic money-losers and the arts and their literary entourage sit atop the list. Championing the liberal arts to bottom-line thinkers is like waving a red flag in front of a bull or more correctly watching the bull walk away with disinterest.
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce issued a report this year, “The Economic Value of College Majors,” and among the disciplines resting safely in the food-stamp bin are: drama and theatrical arts; art and music; theology; studio arts, human services; language and drama education; and social work — never mind Greek and Latin (they died with Caesar) — in short, all the disciplines that feed the soul and help aspiring students frame a holistic vision of life.
Ranked at the top of the big-ticket diplomas in the report are: petroleum engineering ($135,000); pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences ($112,519); metallurgical engineering ($97,743); mining and mineral engineering ($97,372); chemical engineering ($96,156); and electrical engineering ($93,215).
It’s a riff on the old “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” joke and the answer is: engineering, engineering, engineering, and making the pills to dull the aches that living in a drum breeds.
The Georgetown report says early-childhood education majors — prepped to guide (not “lead” as their professional protocol asserts) kids 2 to 5 with the Piaget or alternate instructional methods — average $39,000 a year, which is little more than the presently-suggested upgrade in the minimum wage of $15 per hour.
This is not to say that early-childhood education is a liberal arts discipline but it can be when education is studied historically and in context where questions are asked like: How would Socrates handle a classroom in the city of Albany’s high school today? Would he reach for the hemlock once the kids saw his toga?
The majors that continue to remain popular among students are: business management and administration; accounting; general business; and nursing which means, QED, that Truth and Beauty, to cite Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect much less Truth and Beauty’s love child, Justice.
Is it not a sad irony that gold mined in the soil of the Earth is more highly prized than the gold sitting in classroom seats, never mind that seated behind the desk, those who guide or direct or teach or prime — pick your term — the kiddos for adolescence and adulthood.
The politically conservative columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks, has spoken with fervor in favor of the liberal arts — of self-reflective study that nourishes the soul — but a conflicted Brooks seems unable to shake himself free from a political-economic ideology that refuses to give the liberal arts equal footing in the marketplace.
He says he admires the saintliness of the modern social justice gadfly Dorothy Day — the pacifist anarchist who started the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 — but refuses to accept, no, will not acknowledge, Day’s political economic stance on justice that caused civil and religious authorities much consternation. He stacks the deck against a holistic view of thinking (and living) that his beloved liberal arts are said to foster.
When the earnest student peruses Aeschylus, Arthur Miller, Dante, James Joyce, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, or experiences the music compositions of John Cage and the dance sequences of Merce Cunningham, she sees the dangers of living a schizoid life and how such a life grates on well-being — though the liberal arts have never been guarantors of happiness.
And yet the liberal arts remain as contemporary as any course of study even when reflected in the lives of the ancients. The insights of sages east and west serve as a sword for cutting through the insulating jibber-jabber of any age. The aforementioned Socrates said that: No person desires evil; and no person errs or does wrong willingly or knowingly. Very intriguing postulates.
Whether one agrees with their assumptions or not, they can serve as an analytical sword for piercing the motives of, say, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump when he says that women are “slobs,” “dogs,” “pigs,” “bimbos” and then avers “I cherish women.”
This is a different kind of divide from which Brooks suffers but it shows a person in conflict over the value of Truth. The curse of the House of Atreus shows there is a price to be paid for trying to inhabit two worlds simultaneously and making believe you’re whole.
And this curse can be seen spilling over into the modern family as an exasperated, despairing Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) tells his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) in “On The Waterfront” that it was he, Charlie, his brother — not some ruthless mobster — who destroyed his career, indicating that familial death-like treachery persists among us.
How does a brother respond to: “You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley [my brother, who destroyed me].”
The art of cinema as well as dance and music and literature exposes the student to Truth, Beauty, and Justice with bold and ineluctable lessons and helps the true aspirant develop a well-thought-out and meaningful “philosophy of life,” which is more essential these days than ever.
Since 1966, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles has asked in its survey of first-year college students about the importance of school in developing a sound philosophy of life.
As Fareed Zakaria points out in his recent “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” in 1967, eighty-six percent of the first-year students said college was important for “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” but a year ago, in 2014, only 45 percent of students thought it was.
Has the “American mind” officially closed down as Allan Bloom asserted in his controversial 1987 best-seller, “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.” It has (but not for the reasons Bloom asserted).
Wellesley College, one of the bastions of liberal arts education since its inception in 1875, has not backed off of but doubled-down on its commitment to the liberal arts in the 21st Century.
Its website says Wellesley is addressing the current challenge to the liberal arts “not by abandoning its belief in a liberal arts curriculum, but by working to ensure that students themselves understand — in the course of every learning challenge — that the disciplined thinking, refined judgment, creative synthesis, and collaborative dynamic [of the liberal arts]...are not only crucial to developing their leadership abilities, but are habits of mind that will serve them well throughout their lives, and be primary contributors to their success.”
Though such a commitment one can become Secretary of State, a screenwriter, president of a college, indeed a nationally-recognized editor of an award-winning newspaper — even its publisher some day — prying back open the American mind, weekly edition after weekly edition.
— Photo by Elinor Wiltshire
The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh in 1963 visiting the stony grey soil of the family farm in Inniskeen, County Monaghan. He died four years later at 63. His often-quoted poem “Stony Grey Soil” has been read for many decades by every child attending elementary schools in Ireland.
Anyone who’s Irish or Irish-American or has an interest in the Irish soul, and even those who don a T-shirt on St. Paddy’s Day beaming “Kiss me, I’m Irish” while chanting, “The Wild Colonial Boy” over endless jars of porter, will want to include on this summer’s reading list Anthony Cronin’s nonfiction “Dead as Doornails” published by Dublin’s Dolmen Press in 1976.
In “Dead as Doornails,” the Irish poet, biographer, novelist Cronin has produced a literary page-turner that reads like a murder mystery. The mystery is the reader wonders how long the cream of Dublin’s literary crop — who hung out at McDaid’s, that famous public house at 3 Harry Street, for purposes of stout, whiskey, and conversation — can keep a step ahead of the Grim Reaper of drink.
Cronin chronicles seven writers and painters whom he knew and “hung with,” even living with some, and who were an integral part of the social and literary fabric of Dublin during the decades following World War II.
He shows the greatest affinity for the great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh; the great Irish poet, short story writer, novelist, and playwright, Brendan Behan; and the great Irish post-modern (a forerunner) novelist, Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien, aka Myles na gGopaleen, when he wrote his column “Cruiskeen Lawn” for the Irish Times from 1940 until his death in ’66).
In the claustrophobic literary culture of Dublin, shaped by a scarcity of accolades and the ha’pennies needed to pay the rent, Kavanagh, Behan, and O’Brien went at each other with bladed tongues.
They acknowledged each other’s genius but rarely to each other’s face; their idiosyncratic suffering did not allow for convivial graciousness. Kavanagh, worst of all, could not stand a competitor of any ilk.
He eventually sold his friendship with an admiring and unconditionally supportive Cronin, for 30 pieces of ego. It’s painful to hear Cronin rue the loss of what could have been but there was a part of Kavanagh filled with bilious envy.
That the three refused to let each other up for air is evident in Myles’s column on Kavanagh’s “Spraying the Potatoes,” a poem published a short time before in the Times. Myles says, “I am no judge of poetry — the only poem I ever wrote was produced when I was body and soul in the gilded harness of Dame Laudanum — but I think Mr Kavanaugh [sic] is on the right track here. Perhaps the Irish Times, timeless champion of our peasantry, will oblige us with a series in this strain covering such rural complexities as inflamed goat-udders, warble-pocked shorthorn, contagious abortion, non-ovoid oviducts and nervous disorders among the gentlemen who pay the rent.”
Kavanagh, who came to the city from the family farm in Monaghan where he started writing rustic poems as a young man, knew that, when Dublin’s literary elite saw these words, many of whom graduated from Trinity or University College Dublin and considered themselves sophisticates, would relish Myles’s keeping a bumpkin in his place. The city smart-aleck Behan called Kavanagh a “culchie.”
But Kavanagh was able to escape the tag through a whole new order of poems that appeared in the mid-’50s typified by “Canal Bank Walk.” And his earlier rustic takes, such as “Stony Grey Soil,” “Shankoduff,” and “A Christmas Childhood,” have been part of every Irish child’s formation for decades. Every student from Dublin to Bantry has read his work and, should you meet one such in a pub some night, he will stand and recite with pride the full “Stony Grey Soil.”
Brendan Behan, openly gay and not bashful to talk about his exploits, came upon sudden fame when his play “Quare Fellow” was produced in Dublin’s Pike Theatre in 1954 though “quare” then did not have the pith it has today.
Originally called “The Twisting of Another Rope,” the drama chronicles the ignominies of prison life culminating in the execution of “the quare fellow,” a character never seen on stage. With respect to the demeaning insult of prison, Behan was writing from experience (see infra).
Born into a staunch republican family — his uncle was Peadar Kearney who wrote the “Irish National Anthem” — Behan left school at 13 to work in the family house-painting business.
At 16, he joined the Irish Republican Army and on a whacked-out whim conducted an unauthorized mission to blow up the Liverpool docks but the plot was thwarted. When the police found him heeled with explosives, he was sentenced to a borstal in the UK for three years. He wrote about his bid in “Borstal Boy,” which, when it appeared in 1958, became a sensation.
But, long before the book, a year after he got out of the borstal, in 1942, he was sentenced to 14 years for being involved in the killing of two detectives of the Garda Síochána. He was released after three years through a general amnesty that had been declared.
At McDaid’s and elsewhere Behan was always on, performing extended parlor pieces for the gathered crowd and even an audience of one when there was only one to be had, so great was his undiminished thirst for admiration.
He was so vicious in his sallies against Kavanagh that, when the Monahan poet alone in McDaid’s or elsewhere saw him coming, he hid or left the premises altogether. Cronin witnessed these encounters, which he treats with alternating doses of mirth and sadness.
Brian O’Nolan, who had his own covey of friends in McDaid’s and nearby pieds-à-terre, was no less a part of the goings-on. For years, he paid the rent working as a civil servant while writing for the Times. When he was “forced” to retire and a scant government pension did not allow ends to meet — the daily slog of drink a major drain — he sought a job as a clerical worker at Trinity but was denied.
Fate is crueler than anyone knows because decades later O’Nolan’s works were taught at the university, principally “At-Swin-Two-Birds,” published in 1939, the novel some say was the first postmodern piece written and a classic still. The Guardian ranks it 64 of the 100 best of all time.
O’Nolan was not around to see the kudos. Drink took him at 54; Behan it got at 41; and Kavanagh, the ancient of them, at 63, his belching stomach rarely tamed by the box of bicarb he carried on his person.
Cronin’s high-Irish Ciceronian sentences in “Dead as Doornails” are a delight to engage at every subordinate clause. He tells a riveting story.
There’s time to get a copy and sit beneath an umbrella on the beach refusing to talk to anyone until you’ve seen how the flames of these bright lights of Ireland’s soul flicker and expire.
φαίνεταί μοι. If that’s Greek to you, you’re correct, it is. And if you detected they are the first two words of the great Seventh-Century, Lesbos-born, Greek poet Sappho’s Poem 31, you are correct as well. It translates “He seems to me . . .”
It is Sappho’s most famous poem, an epithalamium, a wedding poem sung for a bride on the way to the marriage chamber.
The poem — or more correctly song because Sappho plucked a lyre (barbitos) while she recited — is quintessential Sappho and deserves the attention of not only poets but every living soul since Adam and Eve because it touches the feelings of a heart experiencing loss of a beloved.
In Poem 31 the singer, poet, lyricist — it could be Sappho or a projected other — is expressing feelings of jealousy because a woman she loves has gone off and married someone else, a man. The loss is so great, the poet says, she’s broken out in a cold sweat and shaking, her symptoms so acute she feels dead.
This ancient torch song contrasts greatly with the same theme country music stations play every day of the year but Sappho sings with more authenticity, immediacy, and accuracy of feeling. The listener cannot escape experiencing the pathos of the singer, thus the poem becomes a mirror for the listener’s soul.
And while our lesbian poet reveals she is in the throes of death, she tells her story “slant,” as Emily Dickinson commanded, so the reader does not feel Sappho — or whoever the projected singer is — is one of those 19th-Century repressed “hysterics” who came to Sigmund Freud in hopes of jettisoning sorrow.
Sappho was among the first Western literary ancients to address the world in the first-person, and the first to do so with such outright candor, without shame or malice, which is what every human being beset by loss desires, especially when laced with jealousy.
Because of her depth of insight, the ancients adored Sappho. They said she was as great as Homer, calling Homer “the poet” and her “the poetess.” Plato called her the “10th Muse.”
Her image was engraved on coins in Lesbos; a beautiful statue honoring her was erected in the town hall at Syracuse; elegant vases depicting her plucking a lyre were cast only two generations after her time for which cultured, well-to-do Greeks paid good money to display in their homes. It may not be too much to say she was an ancient rock star.
When the Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet Solon heard his nephew sing a song of hers at a drinking party, so enchanted was he, legend says, he asked the boy to teach it to him. He said, once he learned it, he would be able to die.
Long-time fans of Sappho are elated these days because the bard is back in the news. Last year, Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist at the University of Oxford, revealed he had been the recipient — secretly from a private collector — of two previously unknown poems of hers: one about her brothers, the other about unrequited love.
The finding of the “Brothers” poem was especially lauded because it makes only the second complete poem we have of Sappho; the other is called “fragment 1,” a hymn to Aphrodite, where the singer beseeches the Greek goddess to aid her in her pursuit of a woman she’s after (religion as an aid to libido-satisfaction).
Scholars are indeed grateful for anything “Sappho” that comes along because 97 percent of what she did is gone; her extant work consists of little more than 200 fragments of poems, a considerable number of which amount to no more than a line or two. It’s maddening. The greatest shame is that cataloguers in the ancient library of Alexandria said Sappho had nine books of poems to her credit amounting to more than 13,000 lines!
Whatever happened? You will find it written all over the Internet that those verses vanished because Roman Catholic officialdom burned her in disgust. The Byzantine archbishop Gregory of Nazianzen and Pope Gregory VII are always mentioned as the sanctioning culprits, but there is no evidence to support condemning them.
It is known, however, that the Second-Century ascetic and Christian theologian Tatian in his address to the Greeks (Oratio ad Graecos) called Sappho "a whore,” a whore “who sang about her own licentiousness.” But that fellow must be relegated to nutdom because he said that marriage was the institution of the devil.
The reality seems to be that Sappho’s work fell on rocky soil in large part because she wrote in a difficult vernacular Lesbian-Aeolic dialect that differed from the lingua franca of Athens at the time, so later copyists selecting books to transcribe triaged her to the trash in the interest of time and limited translation skills.
A new translation of Sappho appearing last year by Grand Valley State University (Michigan) Professor Diane J. Rayor (with introduction by André Lardinois) titled “Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works” helps to assuage the ignominy of such (idiotic) shortsightedness.
Rayor’s efforts have been lauded in all the scholarly mags (Lardinois’s introduction as well) but the nuances of her translation keep being compared to those of the laser-minded Greek scholar and poet Anne Carson in “If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho,” which appeared a dozen years ago. Vis-à-vis Carson, Rayor always seems to finish second.
Sappho said a poet can sing about wars and all that tough-guy stuff but what matters most is where a person’s heart is. In Poem (fragment) 16 she says (Carson’s translation):
Some men say an army of horses
and some men say an army on foot/
and some men say an army of ships
is the most beautiful thing/
on the black earth. But I say it is/
what you love.
Because she came from Lesbos and had an abiding affection for women — though she was married and had a daughter — during the latter part of the 19th Century women whose feelings of love were directed toward other women began to call themselves “lesbian.” The Greek verb lesbiazein (to act like the women of Lesbos) has highly erotic connotations and those interested in divining them can check their Liddell and Scott rather than expect explication in a family newspaper.
Sappho was exiled during her twenties or early thirties — depending on her actual birth year, which ranges from 630 to 612 B.C.E. — at a time when Lesbos was undergoing great political turmoil but no evidence exists to suggest she was politically involved.
And the erotic themes she sang about were not outlandish in any way. That judgment came during the Hellenistic period (third/second centuries B. C. E.) when what she said was regarded as disgraceful for a woman.
For those interested in exploring the mansions of the human heart, Sappho is cherished all the more because her few remaining texts keep out of reach like the apple she sang about in Fragment 105A (Carson translation):
as the sweetapple reddens on the high branch
high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot —
no, not forgot: were unable to reach.
But there is hope. Each unearthed papyrus, in which her words were sealed for over 2,000 years, enables the yearning heart to tiptoe a bit higher and just reach the sweet red apple of sapphic love.
Just as there’s a difference between baseball players and people who play baseball, so there’s a difference between gardeners and those who garden.
Those who say, “I think I’ll throw a few tomato plants in this year” are not “baseball players,” telling us in code they’re not interested in watching things grow. And, though differing at the genus-level, growing a plant is no different from raising a child.
Therefore I have rules and views about gardening. The first is: The way a person’s garden looks is the way that person’s inner landscape is, in shape and content.
When a garden is helter-skelter, that person’s mind is helter-skelter. Gardeners might be forever catching up on things that need to be done, but are never slipshod about what sits before the eyes.
Which means that, since each plant has its own growing needs to enjoy its stay on Earth, before growing a plant, the gardener finds out about it, especially wanting to know what other gardeners have said about it.
Growing kale is not growing potatoes or laying an asparagus bed and growing any sort of thing does not mean dousing it with Miracle-Gro. The gardener is, as the person who grows things is not, interested in fostering conditions that insure diversity.
And let me add that people who say they hate weeding are not gardeners. I am amazed at the number of weed-whiners, people who act as if they’ve been besieged by an unhealing rash on a sensitive part of their body.
First of all, weeding is healthful for gardener and plant alike. For the gardener, it’s meditative, restful, and contemplative. It slows the city in us down and curbs the ADHD in everyone.
When Cicero was defending the Roman poet Archias in 62 (BCE), he told the prosecutor Gratius why Archias was so important to Rome: “You ask us, O Gratius, why we take such great delight in this man. Because he supplies us with a place where our souls might be refreshed from the din of the marketplace, and our ears weary from its clatter find some peace of mind.”
Cicero could have been talking about weeding and gardening generally. Weeding refreshes the mind by allowing the ears to breathe freely; the process of thoughts-arising as we move from bed to bed instructs us in a hundred different ways.
And because the gardener is attentive to the livability-quotient of each plant he is ready to do battle with any being that diminishes it.
I’m not saying pull every weed as if you’re intimate with it — there may be large sections to clear — but that “killing a weed,” “taking it out,” “neutralizing it” with precision requires attentiveness to its demographics.
Some weeds burrow deep into the ground and taking off their heads breeds gorgonesque effects. They threaten like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator”: “I’ll be back.” The gardener’s bible says: Know thy weeds; they will be back; be prepared.
The meditative aspect of weeding ought not be minimized. It induces endorphins. When the mind sees the cultivated plant more relaxed, freed from invading hordes, the gardener relaxes too, feeling that something has been done to promote livability (the plant’s and ours from its fruition).
Mutatis mutandis, in a day or two the freed plant will be less constrained and the vigilant gardener — a redundancy of course — will record that transition, if not in a book, mentally — in gardening terms indelibly.
A good training ground for learning this vigilance is starting plants from seed, maybe upstairs in your room after winter’s done. And not to decry the efforts of those who do “the windowsill thing,” lights are essential. It’s strange but plants are more accepting of our diversity than we of theirs.
Starting life from seed, the gardener learns how to make a home, how to hydrate, how to feed a being trying to get a leg up on life.
The great tomato aficionado Craig LeHoullier says in his just-released “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time” (Storey Publishing) he feeds his seedlings nothing — contrary to the wit of most — because today’s potting soils are fully fit.
It’s a great book; if you are a tomato fan, get it, study it; I have problems with aspects of its design but the content is far beyond a 100-percent solid. He and Carolyn J. Male are the best there are, though she talks about tomatoes in a way that enraptures me.
The last thing I’ll say about method has to do with successive plantings. If green beans are a favorite (bush, say), you’ll need to plant a row every 10 days. I’m surprised at how many people treat growing as a one-shot deal.
And, in terms of planting lettuce, we have nearby greenhouses such as Gade’s and Pigliavento’s to get us an early start, so there’s no reason to buy lettuce from late May to late October — and infinitely better tasting than any store-bought.
And because the gardener refuses to let winter have the final say, toward the end of summer he counts back from the first frost and plants accordingly what the family likes, well aware that peas planted in early August present a different set of rules from those set out in April.
My father knew this; he was a gardener. He cut grass for rich people on weekends and took care of their flower beds but in our backyard, the size of a postage-stamp, he had fruit trees from upstate nurseries producing five kinds of apples on a single stem.
Once when I was a kid he asked me to go to the library with him at night; he had a horticultural question to review. I saw him in the reference room wrapped in silence seated before tomes on a large oak table in another world. He had an aura.
That day (night) I fell in love with gardening. I had my own when I was 18 and living in a monastery, a whole other world under a whole other set of circumstances, but his other-world devotion stayed with me.
Each day when I go to weed and support the conditions of life, in some way my father is with me and I keep in mind my first garden when my soul was freed from the din of the marketplace and my mind from the clamor of its death.
Oh, and for the record, any gardener I know is beyond happy to hear anyone say at any time, “I think I’ll throw a few tomato plants in this year.”
Anyone anywhere who has an interest in attending to living things we’ll take. That is the nature of us gardeners.
“Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it,” according to George Holyoake, the 18th-Century British writer who coined the term. “Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”
It’s referred to as the “American secular movement.” What it refers to is the deep dissatisfaction of a fast-growing number of Americans with official religious values and the institutions that oversee their observance.
Identified among this disaffected horde of non-traditional believers — let us call them that for now — are atheists, humanists, freethinkers, agnostics, Unitarian Universalists, pagans, and other categories of not-formally-religious and non-theistic Americans.
A report published by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in October 2012 said one-third of adults under 30 call themselves “religiously unaffiliated” and in the five years prior to the publication of that report the so-called “Nones” increased by a percentage point a year.
It’s a phenomenon that has not gone unnoticed or without concern and comment by a wide range of interested parties, and for a diverse set of reasons.
During the spring semester of this year, Douglas Knight, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, is teaching a course called “Secularism” in which 29 of his colleagues are involved as guest lecturers to explore what’s occurring in the United States with respect to the shifting axis of moral values.
Four years ago, California’s Pitzer College established a once-inconceivable Department of Secular Studies where students can major in different aspects of “secular studies” under the direction of Professor Phil Zuckerman and his departmental colleagues.
In his 2014 “Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions,” Zuckerman set out to explore the parameters of the movement as well as divine how “believers of another sort,” defined as atheists or agnostics by traditional believers, can be as giving, and “self-sacrificing,” and committed to community as the most traditionally religious devotee. And without pietistic rigmarole.
Zuckerman makes clear that many people who have adopted humanist values and ethics do not have an ax to grind with (formal) religion. They are more interested in understanding the fact-based foundations of their own beliefs and how those beliefs continue providing support in meeting life’s challenges with propriety and dignity.
Founded in August 1896 by George Holyoake, The Secular Review: A Journal of Agnosticism, cost twopence. This Jan. 9, 1886 edition began with a couplet from Tennyson: “And truth is this to me, and that to thee;/And truth, or clothed and naked, let it be.” The last issue was published in June 1907.
Paul Kurtz, the late professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who is recognized as “the father of secular humanism” long ago warned that, when formal religious beliefs and practices no longer hold meaning for a person, that person’s aim ought not to be bashing them and the people who live traditional religious lives but rather to find out how to proceed with his or her own life with meaning.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2010, Kurtz said, “Most of my colleagues are concerned with critiquing the concept of God. That is important, but equally important is, where do you turn?”
In 2009, Kurtz resigned from the board of the Center for Inquiry, a group he founded, because he felt its derisive tone toward others was too contentious a path to follow.
When “the movement” is discussed, it needs to be pointed out that invidious comparisons are made at the outset by the way we speak about its diverse aggregate. It’s fruitless to talk about a-theists, a-gnostics, secularists, pagans and related nomina because they are inherently pejorative. With the use of the alpha privative in a-theist and a-gnostic, for example, the assumption is already made these “infidels” are second-class knockoffs of their real-deal theo-believing counterparts.
You will see articles such as: “Is goodness without God good enough?” and “Why Americans Hate Atheists.” Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas still retain articles in their constitutions that prohibit atheists from holding public office. Maryland’s requires a belief in God to serve as juror or witness. And it seems the long-standing shibboleth that no atheist will ever be elected President of the United States remains true to this day.
In his 175-page “Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism,” published last year, Philip Kitcher provides a systematic and somewhat convincing argument for how a person can lead a moral life without God and formal religious beliefs and institutions.
I keep saying “formal” as in institutional because humanists do have beliefs based in religious values. And they are religious because “religion” comes from the Latin religare, which means to bind, to connect to the world around you.
And, even if we accept Cicero’s derivation that religion comes from relegere (to treat carefully) — the religiosi were those who took seriously all things pertaining to the gods — the aforementioned derivation holds true because we treat with care those to whom we’re bound. That is the nature of pietas.
But the issue of whether a person who lives a fact-based as opposed to faith-based life can live a moral life remains the wishbone of contention, so it is not surprising that Charles Darwin is turned to because through his work he reminded us that the basis of moral values is found in our social natures. He did say his “theory will lead to a new philosophy.”
I’m not here to provide an apologia for “secular humanism,” no, scratch the secular part, only to point out that our “social instincts” — a 19th-Century phrase that still retains legitimacy — allow us, as Darwin said, “to take pleasure in the society of [our] fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.”
And sympathy here does not mean the now-commonly-accepted feelings of pity and sorrow for someone suffering loss but more feeling bound to others in meaningful relationships that require care and, at the most basic level, reciprocity. Let’s call it an economic-based empathy.
And the tool that enables empathetic-bound-to-other-persons to proceed firmly on moral ground is the imagination. When I see your suffering, I imagine myself to be similarly situated, to be you, and I am moved to action.
I am also moved to envision new ways of being, of creating social institutions and societies in which suffering is eliminated. But, since pain and suffering are part and parcel of the human situation, that envisioning manifests itself through a society in which pain and suffering are responded to with loving care, in which structures are set up to meet human needs at all levels.
The great 20th-Century American poet Wallace Stevens in his poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” comes up with the astounding “God and the imagination are one.”
That is what the humanists are saying, that they have in their power the tool to imagine all as one, and that that connectedness is the basis of all moral values (and subsequent remorse when harm is done), and that a Supreme Being of any sort seems if not inconsequential highly superfluous.