Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

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Making it Relevant: Engaging Emerson

July 17, 2009

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

Whether I like it or not, the classics have no value just because we consider them classics. Sure, they deal with timeless questions that we’re still asking today, but why not just ask what people today are thinking? Ralph Waldo Emerson was a man who was fed up with the dogma of the time. People in his day just read the classics, considered them authoritative, and derided everything else.

Well, Emerson thought that was totally lame. He thought people shouldn’t be so obsessed with the classics that they forgot to come up with their own answers to the great questions. So he took a break from hanging out in nature to deliver a totally awesome speech called The American Scholar.

In this profound challenge to the intellectual establishment of our country, Emerson reminded us that the real answers to our greatest questions lie within our own experience. It does no good, he held, to idealize the experience of others for its own sake. We must rely on our own intuition and our own minds to make meaning and find the answers we need.

Emerson wasn’t telling us not to read or to study the classical texts, but to be wary of the kind of thinking that stunts our minds when we they should continue to grow. The American Scholar has stood the test of time because it rouses us out of complacency and encourages us to take a good, hard look at the food we’ve been nourishing our minds on.

All the same, it looks like the joke’s on you, Ralph. You’ve become a classic! You spent all that time urging people to get over the old tomes, and now you are one. Looks like you were so wise and well-respected, people just had to preserve you instead of looking boldly into the future.

This weekly series (by Joshua Eskew, a senior at Marian College studying English and communication, and an intern with the Indiana Humanities Council) will help expose the relevance of studying the classics.

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Making it Relevant – Confucius: Colossal Bore or Sexiest Thinker Ever?

July 10, 2009

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” – Confucius 

We’ve never seen a picture of him, but Confucius probably had more women hanging off his arms than a billionaire at the Playboy mansion. That’s because in ancient China, contemplating the enduring questions of the universe was one of the surest ways to get lucky when you out for a “night on the province”. Many people complain that the classics just aren’t “sexy enough” for today’s sensibilities. Those priggish prudes just needed to let loose and have fun, some would say. Well, I don’t know about you, but The Analects of Confucius holds the number one spot on my top ten list of “super sexy ancient Chinese philosophical texts.”

It’s not just because he made a long, pointed beard (which I can’t duplicate) the epitome of fashion, but because Confucius was a man who meant business. Confucius loved learning for its own sake, but he knew that most people were looking for practical ways for every day living, not a system of metaphysics or a hierarchy of the universe. Most people just want to make the best of what they have, and Confucius understood that. His philosophy was not an all-encompassing system, but short sayings that you could apply to life right now. You can pick up The Analects, turn to any page, and find something profound faster than a teenage girl can text her friends that omg confucius iz like de best ever LOL.

Consider these sayings:

“The gentleman cherishes virtue; the small man cherishes land. The gentleman cherishes institutions; the small man cherishes favors.”

“Acting solely in pursuit of profit will incur much resentment.”

“A man with clever words and an ingratiating appearance is seldom a man of humanity.”

That last one reminds of a certain first-African-American-President-of-the-United-States, but you probably haven’t heard of him. I could go on, but it would be better for you to just pick up The Analects and start reading yourself. Imagine: a virtuous life in twenty minutes a day, three times a week (or perhaps that was six pack abs). Long scholar’s robes and pointy beards may be sooooo fifth-century Orient, but The Analects of Confucius will always be in style.

This weekly series (by Joshua Eskew, a senior at Marian College studying English and communication, and an intern with the Indiana Humanities Council) will help expose the relevance of studying the classics.

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Making it Relevant: Discovering Darwin

June 19, 2009

This Friday series (by Joshua Eskew, a senior at Marian College studying English and communication, and an intern with the Indiana Humanities Council), will help expose the relevance of studying the classics.

Charles Darwin’s relevance should be obvious. Ever since he published his theory of evolution by natural selection, people from all sides have butted heads harder than a pair of drunken ibeks. Yet I would be willing to gamble that most people still haven’t read The Origin of Species or any of Darwin’s subsequent work.

Unfortunately, Darwin falls victim to the most common of accusations poised at the classics: he can be awfully boring. Needless to say, you do not need to agonize over every specific detail he lists in order to get the gist of his observations, or to appreciate the profound impact his findings have had on the humanities. While Darwin catalogues pigeons as specifically as most rap artists catalogue their gold, guns, and girls, we need not bother with every genetic variation to know that when we consider the origins of life in any capacity, we are entering into a yet uncharted realm of the humanities.

Darwin also falls victim to the misconception that one needs to be a scientist to appreciate him – but you need simply to be a human being. Darwin never fully details whether or not evolution is simply the means or the end in itself. And we don’t even need to buy into evolution to understand how important it is to ask where we came from. What is the relationship between science and how we live our lives? Where did we come from, after all? If we evolved by some purely natural, unintelligent process, how do we create meaning in our lives? Can such a theory be reconciled to the notions of the divine we all sometimes feel?

Darwin’s work should not be read in the same way as the polemic bile of some radical proponents of evolution. We must consider him the same way we consider ourselves – as curious explorers of the world. We can ask the same questions he asked and avoid the controversy surrounding evolution because the questions Darwin asks are valuable in and of themselves. It seems strange that so vicious a public debate should continue to rage over a work that many simply have not read, and do not appreciate. We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to engage the ideas that continue to shape our lives and our future.

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What-are-you-reading-Wednesday: All the King’s Men

June 10, 2009

By Kristen Fuhs Wells, communications director at Indiana Humanities Council

Somehow, I escaped college and high school without reading many of the classics—a feat I thoroughly enjoyed at the time, but one that I now regret. So, I am constantly trying to weave in a few of those with my ever-expanding list of “new” novels. My current classic is the Pulitzer Prize-winning “All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren.

Set in the South during the 1930s, the story follows the rise and fall of Willie Stark—a farm boy turned governor, narrated by Jack Burden, Willie’s right-hand man. What I love most about this book is not it’s overarching themes—original sin, responsibility, love, hatred, etc.,–it’s that each sentence Warren writes is ripe with imagery—whether it’s Willie’s stump speech, an apartment building or his mother’s demeanor towards men.

Willie Stark is bigger than life–so big, in fact, he has to be fiction. Or is he? Some say he’s patterned after politician Huey Long, and we can all pull a few traits out of ol’ Willie that have infected even our favorite politicians. But what about Jack Burden? Anne Stanton? Like any good novel, the characters are bursting with fictional and non-fictional experiences, choices and thoughts.

There are many classics that I avoid reading, some for sheer length, but this should not be one of them. “All the King’s Men,” is a great, timeless novel that offers a one-of-a-kind glimpse into 1920s and 1930s politics in the South. History? Check. Poetry? Literature? Check, check. Politics and law? Check, check. Entertainment? CHECK.

Does Warren present an accurate portrayal of what you think  politics were like in the South during the 20s and 30s? Why should we continue to read about fictional politics from the past?

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What-Are-You-Reading-Wednesday

June 3, 2009

In this weekly series, we’ll touch base with Council staff members, board members and friends to discover what book is on their nightstand. This week, intern Christian Hines catches up with Orwell.

As a student of the English language and literary tradition, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m just now getting around to 1984. I’ve read my Bradbury, I’ve read my Huxley, and I even made it through Ayn Rand’s tirade at the end of Anthem. But not having read 1984 is akin to being on the outside of an inside joke. So much of Orwell’s phraseology like “Newspeak” or “Doublethink,” and even the adjective “Orwellian,” have assimilated into the English vernacular. Even a scant familiarity with figures like Big Brother functions as a sort of cultural currency in American society. 

Though I’ve only completed roughly 70 percent of the novel, Orwell’s frightening vision strikes me not so much for its political, but for its historic import. It is not necessarily the story’s plot, but the story’s mood, that has left an indelible impression upon the literary world. The book was published only four years after the close of World War II, right as the Cold War embers were beginning to glow. And though Orwell creates a terrifying villain in the government of Oceania, there is still an element of satire and humor to the work.  The Capitalists, according to the government’s history textbooks, were barbaric industrialists who created monopolies, suppressed the poor, and always wore top-hats. Like all humor, there is truth in such a depiction, and Orwell recognized that one need not abstain from poking fun at the propaganda of radical politics even as it destroys a society. 

Despite Orwell’s subtle humor, 1984’s influence has persisted because of its prophetic critique of radicalism and authoritarian intervention. Perhaps I’m too young to really be frightened by his vision, but I still recognize the biting accusation against the pattern of political and societal revolution which, in this case, led to the dystopian world of 1984. The paradox, of course, is that it takes a revolution to undo a revolution.  “If there is hope,” Winston mutters, “it is in the proles” (short for Proletariat). Though society produced a monster in its discontent, it is discontent, once again, which must overturn the beast. Orwell’s most prominent work, therefore, is not only an admonition against a certain type of government, but against the excess, folly, and capricious passion of the masses.

Have you read 1984? If so, what book should I check out next? And, if you haven’t, what’s stopping you from pulling the book off the shelf?