Have you heard about courts endowing nature entities like rivers, wetlands, and even rice as “persons” with inherent rights? I am fascinated by this concept from an ecological point of view. Isn’t it anthropomorphism to accord humanity to beings who are utterly different from humans? Doesn’t this natural beings-as-persons approach value human beings over nature, which is how we got out of balance with nature in the first place?
The tight little Snowdrop buds poking on stalwart green stems through the hard-packed snow tell me that spring is arriving, the whole earth regenerating itself after the long, long months of snow and sleet and freezing temperatures of an especially hard winter. It is a yearly miracle, but a miracle nonetheless, reminding us of nature’s fiercely self-redemptive powers despite degenerations wrought by our tragic propensity for making bad decisions.
With new warnings about how close we have come to the destruction of a climate that can sustain human life, there are those who feel that only large-scale inter-national, national and corporate actions can save us, while others insist that if we cooperate with nature in personal and local acts of restoration, we still have a chance.
As lots of us are doing during this latest Covid lock-down, I was having a big sort-out of old papers when I came across a pile of “Dear Socratians” meeting reminders. During these homebound days and long winter evenings, it might be fun for you to discuss some of our philosophical ideas around your supper tables or, if you live alone like me, inside of your own head.
Most people are alarmed at the idea of philosophical discussions because they sound so academic and “intellectual,” but Christopher Phillips holds his lively conversations at every kind of venue – school classrooms, prisons, senior centers, and right out in the street – where ordinary people get caught up in issues they have always wanted to discuss. As Ward Farnsworth notes in The Socratic Method, Socrates “was the first to show that life affords scope for philosophy in every moment, in every detail, in every feeling and circumstance whatsoever.”
As a facilitator using Christopher Phillips’ methods, my first task is to get people to stop expressing opinions instead of thoughts:
At our last meeting we decided not to express what we have already made up our minds about (opinions) but reframe our ideas as philosophical questions (thoughts). We had a good start discussing the limits of human choice, but, when abortion came up, things got a lot less rational.
When our emotions are roused, the neo-cortex can be overwhelmed by the mammalian brain – all fright and flight. Thus an issue that we are already angry about or personally shaken by is going to subvert the rational tone of our discourse.
Let’s work on proposing questions that we haven’t already made up our minds about. That way, we can develop our little oasis of reason in this contentious world.
We avoid political and religious questions because these are so contentious. If we really need to ask them, how can we find calmer ways to approach them? In a Socrates Café, almost any question can be fine-tuned so it can be examined in a philosophical way.
Example 1: When Timothy McVeigh was put to death, a person who wanted to discuss why this happened framed the question as “who owns human life?” In that way the group could look not only at the particular issue, but also at a wide range of o philosophically import ideas that were related.
Example 2: Soon after we went to war in Iraq, people wanted to talk about whether this was the appropriate course of action. To do so in a philosophical way, they framed the question as “What is a just war?”
Example 3: A group of Socrates Café members wanted to examine the “gay marriage” issue in a philosophical way. “What is an excellent marriage” let them discuss it in the broader context of the institution of marriage as a whole.
Thanks for your questions! I wish we could discuss them all, but we will take a vote on just one for Sunday:
1. What brings you joy any time of the year?
2. What is intelligence, specifically defined? Is it part of a larger area of understanding? Is it broad or narrow like engineering?
3. What is courage?
4. We know about physical illness. We know about mental illness. Is it possible to have soul sickness? How would you describe it?
5. Do words mean different things depending on who says them?
Everyone seems to think that human beings invented mathematics. But how do you account for the “Golden Ratio,” the fact that in the spiral of a nautilus shell or the ratio between rows on a sunflower head display identical formulas?
The sea snail and the sunflower evolved before we did, didn’t they? What do you make of the fact that they contained discernable mathematical algorithms before human beings evolved? Is the universe mathematical?
Sometimes in the dark hours of the night, or in the middle of yet another chaotic day, most of us have asked ourselves “what is this all about? Is Covid 19 entirely random? Is everything on earth just whirling about every which way, with no rhyme or reason?”
I have been thinking about Stoicism lately. This ancient Greek way of life takes the things we can’t control – our health, random catastrophes, the contradictions and setbacks of economies and careers – and separates them from what we can control, which is our attitude and our choice of action.
Is Stoicism too strenuously selfless for you? You might consider Cynicism, also a classical philosophy, but this one is based on the idea that people only pursue their individual self-interest and that social norms are ridiculous. Nor will your life as a Cynic be entirely taken up with sneering – the name derives from “dog” and it’s a dog’s life you will live doing your own thing, like chasing your tail and lazing around in the sun all day long.
In the school of philosophy called cynicism you get to be skeptical about everything and to live all careless of outcomes, like a dog.
I thought you cat lovers might like to know that there is a feline school of philosophy as well.
“Rather than groping for meaning in a universe that offers none, we sure try to be more like cats, creatures that are congenitally happy being themselves…(fostering) contemplation-a mode of perception that fosters equanimity – and offers a scheme for emulating the catlike qualities that might permit us to thrive without anxiously inquiring how to live.”
The question is, aren’t these just as canine as feline qualities, or are cats more “contemplative” than dogs?
There is a kind of philosophizing you could call “short-term” in that it takes place inside a single figure of speech. For example, look at antitheses, which are words expressing an idea one way in one phrase and another (usually opposite) in the second:
“The United States Right long ago rejected evidence-based policy in favor of policy-based evidence.”
“Intelligence isn’t knowing everything. It’s the ability to challenge everything you know.”
“We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”
Try writing one – they are fun (like eating peanuts).
Thanks for your questions! I am looking forward to seeing which one you vote for on Sunday:
1. What makes us human?
2. What does it mean to have a conscience?
3. When does freedom turn into license to do any and all things?
4. If we can process the death of cats, dogs, and elephants, why do we have such a hard time defining and coping with human death?
5. Why is there something rather than nothing?
Would you like to attend one of our meetings? They are the third Sunday of the month at 2PM, currently on Zoom. Just email me to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a Dear Socratian reminder.
Do you have trouble making decisions? Have you tried a Pro and Con list? Tossed a Coin? Loaded your Evidence into a Decision Intelligence Model? Here is my latest Impakter.com column (which I had a lot of fun putting together with my daughter Lorien) to help you out.
After the gatherings and feasting and general jollity of Christmastime, it is traditional to prepare for the stark winter months by making resolutions. We usually do this on an individual basis, with a list of things we want to change in our lives. Everyone knows how dispiriting this can turn out to be three or four months later, when we have “broken” them all.
A “resolution” is something you resolve to do, with a flavor of fixity of purpose, a tight-lipped determination. When we make a New Year’s resolution we are resolute about something. There are negative items on our lists – to interrupt people less for example ; and positive wishes as well -such as to listen more closely to what other people are saying.
Would you believe that the idea goes back 4000 years to a New Year celebration in ancient Babylonia called Akitu, when promises were made to various gods and debts were paid off?
The Jewish New Year at Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays leading up to Yom Kippur may derive from that ancient Middle Eastern celebration; in Judaism, people list the wrongs they have done, and not only repent for them in their hearts but make atonement with anyone they have harmed.
We can learn from these traditional practices because a problem with the kind of New Year’s resolutions we list is that we make them as individuals rather than in groups. Though this has the advantage of making us solely responsible for carrying them out, it is much easier to break them with impunity.
Would making resolutions with other people work out better? I am not thinking so much about getting together with a friend to carry out a diet or exercise regime as finding a group that is resolute about the same thing that I am and strengthening our resolve (and effectiveness) by joining in their actions.
Yes, evil stalks the world, fire and flood are upon us, the media tells us that we are failing to solve our problems, plague and pestilence assail us in relentless urges – it is no wonder many of my friends feel hopeless about the future and helpless about being able to change it.
A couple of years ago I had a wonderful long winter’s read in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. No mere shallow bromide about positive thinking, the book is full of data and charts proving that things are going exponentially better for the human race than they ever have before. Nevertheless, the media – including liberal print news and progressive tv news analysis – keeps right on bombarding us with the misguided idea that nothing we can do will change things and that we are all going to hell in a handbasket. SoI am delighted that Steven Pinker has come out with a new book, Englightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, and Human Progress.
Pinker notes that we are “more galvanized by negative thoughts than those of optimism and hopefulness,” (which is why the media favors bad news) and that the crucial thing about making resolutions lies in “our assessment of how our actions can affect the world. That is, if you are optimistic in the sense that good things will happen no matter what you do, then there’s no need to do anything. But if you have an attitude of what Hans Rosling called ‘possibilism’ and what Paul Romer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, called ‘constructive optimism,’ that attitude can lead to action. Again, with that variety of optimism, it’s not that good things will happen; it’s an if-then statement—namely, if we perform the following actions, then positive results could ensue.” (See Steven Pinker on the Past, Present, and Future of Optimism | by Darryn King | OneZero (medium.com).
My proposal for our New Year’s resolutions this year is that, with a problem-solving adjustment in our attitudes and a spirit of constructive optimism in our hearts, we find groups that share our goals and then join them in their actions. Your resolution doesn’t have to swallow up any more of your time than you want: one call, one email a week in concert with the tactically brilliant folks in the groups suggested below can be very effectively lead to concrete results:
I resolve to do something about the attacks on our democracy. Robert Hubbell suggests you join Sister District, “which is actively recruiting volunteers to help with all phases of the 2022 election.” A reader (of Hubbell’s dailynewsletter sent the following note:
Our flagship electoral program works to get Democrats elected to strategic state legislative seats by supporting campaigns with grassroots action. We “sister” volunteers from deep blue districts with carefully targeted races in swing districts, where flipping control of the state legislature will advance progressive policy. Our volunteers canvass, phonebank, write postcards, text bank, and fundraise for candidates. We welcome volunteers and candidates of all genders! Defend Democracy is another effective group that lists specific actions.
I resolve to help get out the 2022 vote. Jessica Craven has a practical, action-focused newsletter called Chop Wood, Carry Water, keeping you up to date on all sorts of ways to keep democracy going – see, especially, her link to Voters Not Politicians.
I resolve to do something to mitigate global warming. There are all sorts of groups bringing useful information and effective action to the aid of our Beloved Planet. My two favorites are www.citizensclimatelobby.org and www.sierraclub.org. Or, to combine your interest in Democracy and the Environment, you can work with the Environmental Voter Project www.environmentalvoter.org or the League of Conservation Voters www.lcv.org.
Making New Year’s Resolutions like these isn’t naively optimistic. Nobody I know has any doubts about the vast reach and power of the evil (which I understand as the product of bad human choices) rampaging through our times; rather, we are determined (as Emily Dickinson puts it) to “dwell in possibility” while resolutely face up to the reality of evil and refusing to be cowed by it.
Have you ever been knocked off your feet by joy? I don’t mean the moment when you spot your long-absent sweet heart rushing toward you in the airport with arms open to give you a bear hug, or the kind when your boss emails you that you’ve got the promotion you’ve spent years longing for. This kind of joy that knocks you off of your feet is never anticipated, totally unexpected -a sudden surge of happiness that jolts you from the top of your head to your curled up toes.
For that moment, you know that the universe is existentially good, and that, for you, all manner of things are inexplicably well.
These days we are accosted by cascades of bad news. Bad news is stronger “click bait,” more emotionally galvanizing, than good news; it is thrown at us to get our attention. In the journalistic bromide, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Even news channels whose basic political bent is as progressive as I am do this: “there is much bad news to report,” Robert Hubbell explains, “but it is overwhelmed by orders of magnitude by good news that goes unreported. Good news is not reported precisely because it is ubiquitous. It is all around us.”
Plenty of philosophers consider “the good” to be the ground of reality. Plato and Socrates assumed that a moral good underlay all social arrangements, as did Adam Smith and America’s founders. Like them (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”) Immanuel Kant insists that reason dictates a moral imperative. Christianity assumes that the universe rests in God’s hands, and that God is good. Human error can always be corrected by attention to divine justice. When the Reverend Martin Luther King said that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he meant (as did the Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker whom he was paraphrasing) that that the presence of God behind all things calls us to seek justice.
Here is how Parker put it in his 1853 sermon: “We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know that it bends toward justice.” To this 19th century Unitarian, the universe contains moral directives which we must first discern and then enact. Universalism, a denomination which merged with Unitarianism in 1961, goes even further in its assertion that the universe is intrinsically good and that every one of us is endowed from birth with goodness, dignity, and worth.
One of Hubbell’s respondents worries that when we are bombarded by bad news we experience “moral injury”:
“It is a moral injury to see wrong being done, legally, in an ongoing way. And to not see enough being done to stop it. Moral injuries unbalance our sense that the world we live in is basically good. They bruise our trust that we will continue as a ‘good enough; nation.”
“The the reader has put her finger on the answer,” responds Hubbell: “We do live in a world that is basically good—a truth that is difficult to see at times. Our perception of reality is skewed to the extent that it is informed by the relative proportion of good news versus bad reported by the news media.”
These days, everything we read and hear suggests an ever-increasing power of a profoundly malignant evil. So where to these sudden moments of joy, of inexplicable happiness pouring all through our beings like warm butter, come from?
As I am waking up I like to listen to the radio. A few mornings ago, I lay there being accosted by news of a gigantic tornado tearing whole towns apart and burying everyone in the rubble, the world-wide proliferation of the omicron covid variation, cascading Antarctic icebergs raising sea levels by ten feet, school shootings and species depletion – all of that – when my dread and my terror suddenly melted away and the world became inexplicably lovely, inexplicably good. It was one of those warm-butter-all-through-me breakthroughs when all manner of things were well in every direction and I found myself reveling in a world of total joy, of total goodness.
Where did that come from? If it was a breakthrough, where did it breakthrough from? Do we live in more than one world, all at the same time? Is there a space we within us, buried beneath all the bad stuff, that we inhabit unwittingly? Is it as real as the real world? Is it the real world?
Wishing you all happiness and joy, as often and as jolting as possible.
It grows darker and darker now, for longer and longer. The sun sets as early as 5 in the afternoon, and the dawn often brings only a narrow golden band that is all too soon absorbed by the grey overhang. When we have sunshine, it is so fleeting that we rush to put our coats on and go for a walk before it vanishes. More often, the sun is a mere pewter disc, briefly glimpsed and, apparently, ephemeral.
Even if we don’t observe the liturgical season of Advent, we experience advent as a sense of something coming into being, an undisclosed incipience. This time of year, we sink into a sense of waiting and of longing, an ancient yearning for the end of so much darkness. Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen sees it as a “time for deepening” when an odd mixture of joy and despair shapes our moods and feelings – joy if we are nurtured by a loving community and despair if we find ourselves alone.
Happiness, we are told, springs from attachment – to community, to family, to friends we are fond of or to someone deeply loved. When people nurture children or fall in love,” writes Maia Szalavitz in an article about why people take opioids, “hormones like oxytocin are released, infusing memories of being together with endorphin-mediated feelings of calm, contentment and satisfaction. This is one way that social contact relieves stress, making bonding a fundamental protector of both mental and physical health.” Conversely, “when we are far from our loved ones or sense that our relationships are threatened, we feel an anxiety that is not unlike withdrawal from drug.”
In countries like Finland and Denmark, where there are as little as six hours of daylight, Scandinavians seek to ward off winter gloom by producing an atmosphere of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-gah), a mood of cozy, warm comfort. This can be a cup of coffee or tea or cocoa and a good book in your most comfortable chair, or it can be a gathering of friends or family for long winter talks and hilarious games.
To set the mood you need something baking in your oven, fire your fireplace and candles on the mantle, as well as evergreens and glittering ornaments fetched out from (dark) attics and basements.
“He seems very nice,” my mother would say when I brought a suitor home for her inspection, “but is he good for forty years of long winter evenings?” (Reader, he was)
The principal holiday of the season antedates Christian Christmas as the Winter Solstice, when our primitive fears that it will get darker and darker forever are alleviated by the observation that – very gradually and at first barely discernably -the year has turned and our days will get lighter and lighter from now on. And that is why candles are lit everywhere to welcome the returning light and urge it on its way; and why, in Celtic traditions, we “open wide the guesting door” to family and friends and to all those in need of the solace of company.
When I was growing up, we attended midnight service on Christmas eve. Full of every kind of expectation, we sat silently in the pitch dark sanctuary until an old chorister named Chauncey appeared at the door to sing, in a deep a capella voice,” Oh come, oh come Emmanuel” as he made his way up the aisle, swinging a dimly lit kerosene lantern. When he reached the chancel, candles sprang into light all over the church.
I used that memory in my novel Fly Out of the Darkness, so here is that take on Advent, with my wishes for your joyous advent, profound hygge, merry Christmas, and strength for the new year.
“We may not have wings or leaves” like our fellow created beings, writes Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braided Sweetgrass, ” but we humans do have words. Language is our gift and our responsibility. I’ve come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land.”
This is a great motto for me when I wonder about my purpose in life since I morphed from a writer of Eco Fiction to a political/environmental columnist for a world-wide publication and a contributor to a newspaper out of Frankfort. Michigan.
So, here we go! For those of you interested in a collection of my columns on the Trump Horrors, the Rise of Republican Fascism, the Nitty-Gritty of Political Organizing, How to Handle Climate Grief, and some of the alternative ways to redeem our good green world that we yearn for in these troubled times, check out my updates to The Worlds We Long For . Then, to cheer yourself up, you can see what my zany family and I have been up to at our Betsie River cabin now that, after long pandemic absence, we are together again!
I have long been a foe of either/or thinking, a logic that takes binaries as inevitably oppositional, with no compromise possible. I much prefer both/and solutions whereby opposites merge to form brand new syntheses.
We have begun to hear talk about the inherent rights of other-than-human beings in nature, including the lands’ right to sue humans for our abuses and depletions. While this is sometimes taken as a new concept it is actually a very old one, basic not only in the animism of all of our ancient ancestors who saw nature as ensouled or animated in-and-of-itself, but in present-day Native Americans’ traditional principles setting forth the duty of human beings to the natural beings that sustain us.
My sit-out-by-the-river-and-read-slowly book this summer was Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I found myself right at home with her synthesis of science and animism as complementary tools for approaching the seemingly intractable problems we are experiencing as we try to achieve sustainability on our threatened, beloved planet. Home in autumn, here is my article just published in Impakter.com: