early poems

Matthew Arnold

1840-1849

(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)

MunchMelancholyCrop of Melancholy (1894), by Edvard Munch.  This painting is in The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The Bergen Art Museum (now part of the KODE museum group in Bergen, Norway).

 

“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”.  What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age!  And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson.  The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith.  This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor.  Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration.  Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor.  Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, spiritual, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once.  If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.

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“On Taste”

Edmund Burke

1759

(What does it really mean for an opinion to be “a matter of taste”?)

WhatisArtJacksonPollockpaintingAn art museum visitor observing a Jackson Pollock painting; from the blog Art Now and Then, by Jim Lane.

 

When we say “it’s just a matter of taste”, a bold and negative message lies behind the word “just”.  Whether intended or not, the word creates a whiff of denigration.  We discredit the thing we’re describing, reducing it such that it does not require much attention or respect.  It’s a surefire conversation-ender.  We are in effect saying that the question of whether the food is good, the music inspiring, or the sight beautiful, is not really worthy of discussion.  We are also espousing a momentous philosophical position: that the matter at hand is subjective, in the sense that two individuals considering it may come to contradictory conclusions about it and neither could possibly be justified in criticizing the other.  Probably not very many of us, when we make such a statement, are actually prepared to defend our implicit position, or the accompanying subliminal evaluation.  More likely, we are simply incorporating into our daily language certain assumptions about the world, about truth, about goodness and beauty and love and appreciation and worthiness.  Sometimes we can use quippy phrases because they come easily, whether or not we realize that we are taking a side on something.  In time a fallacious circle is likely to complete itself: someday when we actually consider the matter, we will find ourselves thinking our assumption very likely to be true, simply because our manner of thinking has been shaped by our (and our community’s) manner of speaking.  If we are trained long enough to talk as if something is so, we will tend to think it is so unless we examine our ideas deliberately.

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Apology of Socrates

(Απολογια  Σωκρατους)

Plato

4th century BC

(An innocent man delivers an inspiring speech to the court before he is executed.)

David_DeathOfSocratesJacques Louis David’s neoclassical masterpiece The Death of Socrates (1787), which can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Socrates is a bit of a mystery, if you insist on being a real evidentiary hardliner.  He wrote nothing himself, so we have to rely on others’ characterizations of him.  Xenophon paints him as the conventional wise man of the day.  Aristophanes deems his philosophizing empty and ridiculous.  Plato’s conception, the fullest and most detailed, is of a man worthy of admiration, even awe, both for his intellect and his noble spirit.  Plato’s Socrates seeks truth despite fashion or convention; he is imaginative, reverent, humble, perceptive, eloquent, and sharp as a razor.  I’ll go with Plato, not just because his picture is most complimentary, but because Xenophon’s is simplistic (in fact it suggests that Xenophon—with all due respect—knew Socrates only casually, but wished to write as though he knew him well); and Aristophanes did nothing more than exploit a famous name, attaching it to a caricature for effect.  In fact there were many philosophers in Athens who were very much like those “Sophists” Aristophanes pillories in his play The Clouds.  Socrates was the most famous philosopher around at the time, and he certainly would have associated and debated with the general run of them.  His was probably a household name, to be thrown about as representative of the lot of lounging jabberers even though– to one who actually listened to him– he towered above the rest.

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A Sand County Almanac

 Aldo Leopold

1948

(An ecologist contemplates and celebrates the land, and recommends an expansion of our moral world.)

 LeopoldArcherAldo Leopold in Mexico, 1938.  Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Archives at the University of Wisconsin

Today it is routine in courses on ecology, forestry, conservation, environmental philosophy or land use, to introduce three personalities as the fathers of modern concern for nature, the three voices that first and most strongly urged us to enlarge our conception of what in this world is a proper object of moral consideration:  Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.  Contemporary American (and to some extent world) culture has been impacted by A Sand County Almanac, as by Thoreau’s Walden, to such an extent that we cannot yet begin to assess it.  Nevertheless, I would argue that we as a culture have still not attended to the two main lessons A Sand County Almanac would teach us.

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Discourse on Method

(Discours de la méthode)

René Descartes

1637

(A scientist-philosopher wishes that all the deep questions of life could be as certain as his mathematical results—so he decides to start from scratch and make them that way.)

Fig32-33_L'HommeFigures 32 and 33 in L’Homme (Man), Descartes’ 1633 work, illustrating the accordance of the operation of the human body with mathematical principles.

 

The influence this little book has had over the past few centuries is (to make a ridiculous understatement) vastly out of proportion to its size.  It is manageable in a single evening sitting, or (as Descartes is kind enough to inform us) in six roughly equal short sittings.  My recent reading of it was over breakfast.  It is strange to think that one can read a book so illustrious and philosophical over breakfast, but such is Descartes’ charm.  He is of course a philosopher of the highest rank: the cogiter of that most famous phrase in the history of thought, cogito ergo sum.  He is one of the chief inspirations for the modern movement in philosophy in which we still are steeped today, which emphasizes, among other things, a systematic and reasoned approach to all matters of inquiry in an effort to gain a scientific understanding of everything there is to know.  Yet, again, the charm of Descartes is that he gives us this little journal, this series of ideas, as if he were chatting to us in front of a fire.  He tells us how he came to think the way he does about things, rather than giving us “the way things are” in an authoritative or textbook manner.  By this strategy he draws us in, perhaps unawares.  This is an important quality to recognize in Descartes today, or at least it was for me.  For I, like most students over the last fifty years or so, was warned about Descartes in college, as a naughty modernist, a reductionist, a disenchanter, a rationalist.  What dry and impersonal words these are, and yet how personal is the Discourse compared with most philosophical writings!  The criticisms may very well be true of his system, but there is more to this book than just a set of statements—we get to meet an author, a person.  We should meet someone before we criticize him too harshly; often knowing the person tempers our antagonism.

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Walden

Henry David Thoreau

1854

(A philosopher and naturalist returns from the woods to deliver a message: Wake Up! Think! Live Meaningfully!)

Courtesy of Walden Pond State ReservationWalden Pond (Photo courtesy of Walden Pond State Reservation)
 

The account of Thoreau’s temporary retreat from civilization and the philosophy he developed and tested during that time, is perhaps the greatest single work in American literature.  I say this not so much because he was right, not because he got the nature of the cosmos straighter than this or that thinker.  Rather, this work is great—I say perhaps the greatest our country has produced—primarily because in it we see a man who is awake.  It is not what he gets right that is earthshattering here, but rather the fact that he sees that there is a right to be gotten, so to speak, and that he bursts the strictures of convention to strive for it, and that he so eloquently exhorts us to do the same.  Thoreau here is a Crusader for examining our lives, for living well, for life itself!  In a world of so many petty tensions, so many lures into complexity and distraction which decompose any central vision or purpose in our lives, Thoreau opens his eyes, looks about him, and realizes the great harm we are slipping into unaware.  He sees the “quiet desperation” of people about him, and the empty catalog of assumptions and dry truths they (we!) harbor in place of a real, living, mission statement.  He, as if by a sudden revelation, is horrified at the masses of humans like lemmings who are content to follow the path over the cliff into the sea of meaningless existence simply because the way is worn clean and so is the easiest to tread.

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